The Confessions of Thorarinn Gunnarson

Context by Walter Jon Williams

Thorarinn Gunnarson was a friend of mine.

He was also fictional. And that's where the story gets interesting.

I first met Thorarinn at an autographing in the mid-eighties. I made as if to buy his book, and hesaid, "Don't buy that one, buy the next. When I wrote that one, I hadn't yet learned to write inEnglish."

Well, that was unusual. We chatted, and he revealed that he had been born in Iceland, but hadlived in the U.S. since he was a teenager. He had published a great deal of juvenilia in Iceland--oh, scads of books, whole shelves of science fiction and fantasy-- but was only now making theshift to the English language.

As my acquaintance with the World's Greatest Living Icelandic Fantasy Writer broadened, herevealed more of his background. His legal father was a fisherman on a remote island. Hismother was a Scandinavian film star, now deceased. His real father, however, was a Norwegianfilm director. His grandfather had once shot a U-Boat with a harpoon, mistaking it in the fog fora killer whale. He had sung opera in Europe before losing his voice and settling permanently inthe U.S. (He would sing plausible bits of Wagner now and again.) He had been lured to NewMexico on the promise of being artistic director for the Las Cruces Civic Opera Company, but theoutfit folded just after he'd bought his house, and before he could cash his first paycheck.

Thorarinn had played Sherlock Holmes on Danish television, working for friends of his mother. He had dubbed American films into Norwegian, and sung the role of Jiminy Cricket. (Whenpressed, he would sing a few stanzas of "When You Wish Upon a Star" in Norwegian.)

" . . . and on Tuesday I won
the Decathalon, and then . . . "

And then there was his sister, Halla. A novel could, and probably should, have been written aboutHalla. Halla was tall, brave, red-haired, crazy. A plastic surgeon with a successful practice inDallas, she gave up medicine to become a rock star. She was successful in Europe. In personalityshe seemed a cross between Bjork and the Creature from the Id.

As it turned out, she was the creature from Thorarinn's Id. As were all the others.

It should be clear that, from the very first, there were doubts concerning exactly how much of thisto believe. It's not as if the writers' community is exactly immune to myth-making. There waspolite skepticism concerning whether Thorarinn's grandfather had actually shot a U-Boat, thoughthere was agreement that, very likely, someone's grandfather had. Attempts to locate aNorwegian tape of Pinocchio failed. The Dallas phone book failed to reveal the existence of aHalla Gunnarsdottir, M.D. A friend of mine once found him in an outright lie concerning his filmcredits. "I caught you!" she proclaimed triumphantly. Thorarinn blinked back at her in fuddleddignity.

In the end, the consensus seemed to be that the exact truth did not matter. The stories were toogood. Nobody was getting hurt, and everyone was being amused.

And Thorarinn didn't seem to want anything. If we'd been asked to invest in a fish canning plantin Iceland, or to back one of Thorarinn's film projects, suspicion would have come to a head. Butall Thorarinn seemed to desire was to entertain us, and this he did very well. He told the mostoutrageous stories, but he told them with a self-deprecating charm, as if he were embarrassed tohave to admit that such events had ever occurred. He wasn't boasting, particularly. Many of thestories were told against himself. He had cannier ways of creating a legend than merely makinghimself a hero.

And so the swashbuckling career of Thorarinn Gunnarson careened on. He became an actor-director in England, making several TV films. One was shot in Antarctica, and he brought backgenuine Antarctic beach rocks as gifts for his friends, along with vials of melted glacier water. The rocks came complete with penguin shit. An odd gift, we thought, but then what do you bringback from Antarctica?

His online posts about his foreign adventures were, as always, entertaining, amusing, self-deprecating. There was enough detail about the day-to-day tasks of being a television director toconvince. (We wondered, though, as time went on, why no one we knew, even in Britain, hadever seen these television series.)

But then Thorarinn's film career came complete with documentation. There were notices in filmmagazines, letters from groupies. He produced occasional reviews, reluctantly, from his pocket. One of them mentioned Thorarinn's apparent discomfort in a nude scene. Since Thorarinnseemed uncomfortable even when clothed, we could credit this.

It was only after he'd been surgically fitted to the humblejet that Lars realized it was less than advertised

We wanted Thorarinn's film career to prosper. (We had read his books by then, and concluded toour regret that they were unlikely to make his fortune.)

Thorarinn also seemed to be suffering from an extraordinary number of physical maladies.Cracked ribs, busted head, back injuries, a broken hand, encroaching deafness accompanied bypain. He broke more bones than Evel Knievel. The deafness was supposed to be an inheritedcondition among the genetically-isolated Icelandic population, and an M.D. friend of ours madeherself nuts trying to find reference to it in the medical literature. Thorarinn's online posts wereeloquent in denunciation of the deaf advocates, who needed the deaf to remain isolated anddependent in order to provide themselves a living.

The illnesses, we reasoned later, were more than just a plea for sympathy. They were a means ofestablishing control. "I can't deal with this issue right now," the broken bones warned. "I'mcoping with a medical situation. I can't take any more pressure." And we wondered, eventually,if the painful hearing was not a metaphor for something else, if Thorarinn was incapacitated bypains in his ears when he was hearing things he didn't want to have to listen to.

At this point Thorarinn acquired a fiancée, a very nice lady who seemed to believe every elementof the legend. It was strange, though, that he always visited her, that she never saw his house. We wanted to ask her, "Do you really believe all of Thorarinn's stories? Do you really?"

At this point it was no longer of academic interest whether the stories were true. Actual humanhearts had become involved. A number of us greeted the news of his engagement with unease. There began to be a sense that something was out of control.

It was when Thorarinn started training as a Formula One race driver that skepticism began to bevoiced more openly. Though Thorarinn's online posts were, as usual, astonishingly full of convincing detail, there was the sense that this, on top of everything else, was simply too much. Fisherman, actor, director, author, opera singer, race driver . . . ? It didn't add up-- or rather, itadded up to too much.

Besides, it could be checked. Thorarinn's racing team did not seem to be mentioned in any of thejournals devoted to the sport.

Eventually it was all checked. A friend of Thorarinn's fiancée became suspicious, made somecalls, wrote some letters. And the whole legend, from beginning to end, came to pieces withremarkable ease.

From Thorarinn's first appearance, the question that had been asked was, "How much of this dowe believe?" It was possible to pick and choose from any number of plausible elements. Thorarinn's personality and background had become something that we could assemble, as wedesired, like a jigsaw puzzle.

What none of us ever imagined was that none of it was true. Thorarinn was not born in Iceland,he had not sung opera, he had not recorded his music. He had not worked in television or film inEurope-- in fact, he didn't even hold a passport. He had not driven race cars, he did not have acrazy sister named Halla. His name was not Thorarinn Gunnarson. He did not own the house helived in, but lived with a sister and brother-in-law. People turned up who remembered him as ateenage Texas fanboy. (Where were they five years ago? we wondered.)

The only thing he seems actually to have done was to write the books credited to ThorarinnGunnarson-- or at least, no one else has stepped forward to claim credit.

His friends' reactions to these revelations have been varied. A number of us bear Thorarinn noparticular ill will-- after all, we were not hurt-- but I have felt awkward on those occasions onwhich I've met Thorarinn since. I have found myself with little to say. Every subject ofconversation turns out to have been based on a fiction. I can't ask, "How is Halla?" I can't askabout Antarctica. I can't ask about his adventures behind the camera. There doesn't seem muchleft to talk about.

Those who knew him are left with a large number of entertaining stories that seem to have comeadrift from their moorings. Everything I know about Iceland was told to me by someone whoturned out to be fictional: can I trust any of the knowledge? At a social gathering, when I aminclined to start an anecdote with, "A friend of mine once had a swimming pool installed withouthis knowledge," I remember, sometimes too late, that the incident almost certainly did nothappen. The tale of the harpooned U-Boat is too good not to be told, but it has moved into therealm of legend, like the Flying Dutchman.

Which is where the issue of waste comes up. However you look at it, there seems to have been alot of entertainment directed toward the wrong audience-- not that we weren't appreciative atthe time. We can only conclude that if Thorarinn had taken the exact same anecdotes, arrangedthem in novel form, and brought them out as The Adventures of Thorarinn Gunnarson, BoyTenor, he probably would have made a greater success than he ever did with his fantasy novels.

But it isn't as if we aren't resourceful, and can't turn the whole business to some tawdry personaladvantage. One day, as we were sitting in Hardwired's luxury office atop Santa Fe's El SegundoMoreno Building, tossing around concepts for our next edition, the subject of Thorarinn's Icarus-like trail through the creative firmament came up, and it occurred to us . . . why not go to thesource? Why not contact Thorarinn himself, and ask him to comment on his own brief life andunhappy demise?

Somewhat to our surprise, Thorarinn agreed. He even met his deadline, which is more than wecan say for the rest of us.

So here it is. Fantasy's own Great Imposter comments on The Career That Wasn't His Own. Thorarinn's own story, from Thorarinn's own brain. Call it what you will-- honest confession orself-serving history-- at least you have to call it

Authentically Thorarinn.

Pen Names and Personalities

by Thorarrin Gunnersson

The practical reasons for taking a pen name are usually obvious enough. One common reason is that it establishes a persona who can stand between the writer and the rest of the world in cases when the writer chooses to or must for practical reasons avoid direct association with his work. When I first put on a pen name, I thought it was to help shield me from a world that had always seemed hostile and disapproving of everything I tried to do. In fact, the shield I created turned out to be something I tried to create to hide me from myself.

Of course, I realize now that I over-reacted rather extremely to the events of my childhood. I did take a lot of emotional abuse, some of it deliberate - I was big and clumsy for my age, and I sported a 50's haircut (not by choice) well into the 60's - but a lot that was unintentional and I realize now that many of the hurts and rejects I experienced existed nowhere but in my increasingly firm belief that I would be rejected or fail at anything I attempted. It was a vulnerable age, and I was more sensitive than most.

Coming into college and the time when I was supposed to be ready to start a career, I had already set myself up for failure. I loved opera, and I did study some voice, but the prospect of performing in front of people was simply too terrifying.

But there was always writing; I had an unquestioning belief that I could be a writer, in that nearly submerged portion of myself that had always clung to the belief that I was really an intelligent and talented person. The problem was that I had almost no confidence in my ability to convince anyone else that I could write. The absolute terror of rejection I had built up was so great that I was afraid to try, or even to seek advice.

And then someone suggested I use a pen name. It seemed like an ideal solution.

As it happened, the perfect persona was ready-made. I am a tall, Nordic-looking Viking type (and Viking aren't supposed to be good-looking in the first place), and my interest in history had led me to teach myself a lot of Scandinavian history and even a fair amount of the Icelandic and Norwegian languages when I was in college. I didn't even know about conventions or fandom at that time and computer networks were still years away, so I imagined that most writers lived very isolated lives, both from other writers and from their readers. There certainly didn't seem to be a problem.

What do you know
of sorrow?

But I quickly discovered, if by accident, that the persona of my pen name was like a suit of armor, and a very comfortable one, against all of my fears and self-doubts. That person had the confidence to do the things that I could not bring myself to do on my own, talking to agents and editors and appearing at conventions. Honestly, I used to view to prospect of sitting on a panel or giving a reading with the same terror that most people would have only when facing something like major surgery. It was nice, even rewarding, to be able to do things that I had once believed that I could never do, and that in itself was addictive in a way.

Like so many new SF and Fantasy writers I was convinced that I needed to attend every convention I could to promote myself, and I've always hated conventions. It was a grueling, to say the least, and my own insecurity drove me to rely more and more upon the protection of my persona. The more I played the part, the more I needed to.

I began to feel the pressure of making myself available on-line. It was a repetition of that same professional pressure behind the need to attend conventions, the implication being that you have to be on-line if you are going anywhere as a writer.

Of course, I am describing everything in retrospect; at the time I told myself that I was simply choosing to 'go with the flow', since my self-defense mechanism was allowing me to do things I would never had tried before. That same effort would have been better-placed in building real self-confidence but I had no idea how to do that. I was trapped in my belief that without the persona I was still a dull and inadequate person.

The time came when I had to face the situation, when I had to admit that it had gotten out of my control.

My physical and intellectual condition seemed to be deteriorating. For years I had made a habit of reading at least fifty pages a night, every night. Not only was I losing interest in reading, but I was finding it increasingly hard to concentrate enough to read. Lack of both concentration and inspiration was also becoming a serious problem in my own writing; the last three novels I wrote were a daily painful struggle and still compared poorly to the quality of work I had done in the past. Even my outside interests seemed to fade away and I no longer wanted to leave the house as I became consumed in a desperate need to recapture my old delight and creativity in writing.

I'd considered the possibility of depression as a factor - but it was only by chance this last September, while I was being treated for a respiratory illness, that I learned that I have been subject to chemical depression for a long time, a type of depression that results from chemical imbalances in the brain rather than to an emotional cause.

The missing pieces fell into place. Chemical depression (smack head), of course! It made sense now. I had found the real monster that had been lurking in my subconscious for most of my life, a large part of the real reason why I had been so terrified of failure and rejection since such a young age. Why I had always been so self-destructive.

A surprisingly small amount of medication has helped to bring that monster under control, so that much of the alertness and ability to concentrate I had lost has since started to return. I'm not putting this out as an excuse I still made some wrong choices - refused to face my fears, both real and imagined. I let them get the better of me.

. . . just 50 calories
per page, plus an ounce
for good measure . . .

Recently, I've come to recognize a related problem that had interfered with my ability to write, more than just a simple inability of concentrate. When I was younger, I had worked out exactly what worked best for me as a writer, and I was always very confident in my abilities as a writer within that understanding. But the moment I began going to the conventions, reading the magazines and hanging out on-line, I was continually surrounded by the opinions and beliefs of many other writers, and this field has no shortage of writers willing to pontificate on the subject of what they know or believe should be. Unfortunately, I didn't have the confidence to hold on to my own beliefs in what was best for me. Now I will grant that many people, smarter and more confident than myself, could thrive in such an environment, fusing the experience of others with their own knowledge into a greater whole. All I got from the experience was a mass of confusion in the effort to be creative in ways that were at odds with what worked best for me. I lost my talent as a writer, all the tricks and patterns that makes the words go together in the right way. I produced volumes of work in the year leading up until last fall, but it was all just masses of shallow drivel that would never come together.

This is not some Reader's Digest story where everything ends happy and wonderful. My ability to concentrate has been coming back, and I've recently done a lot of fairly good and inventive work on a non-fiction title, but I don't yet know whether or not I'll ever be able to or even want to write SF or Fantasy again. I still have to struggle from time to time with self-doubt and it seems unlikely that I can ever be completely at peace with myself. Right now I just need time to myself to see if I can rediscover the writer that I was ten years ago.

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