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The Cranky Old Man of Tulsa

(Editor's note: The following tribute to Ray Lafferty was presented by Brad Sinor on March 4, 1995 in Oklahoma City. Brad was there to accept Ray's 1995 Arrell Gibson Lifetime Achievement Award.)

While I had seen Ray Lafferty's byline in a number of magazines and on the covers of several books I didn't read anything of his until I was a student a the University of Oklahoma. A good friend of mine, who happened to be from Tulsa, where I soon discovered Ray also lived, frequently waxed eloquently about how great this fellow Lafferty's stories were. Okay, I got curious after a while.

After reading Lafferty's Arrive at Easterwine, a novel written from the first person viewpoint of a computer, along with a couple of his short stories is to say that I was surprised to put it mildly.

Here was not the toe-the-line every bit science lore is accurate of say a Larry Niven or a Hal Clement, nor was it the larger than life tales of Robert Heinlein or even the epic fantasy of J.R.R. Tolkien. Instead I found myself immersed in phantasmagorical stories that told of people dealing with perceptions of history that may or may not be the truth and of worlds over on their hinges. All of it mixed in with a wry sense of humor that made the reader laugh but also showed him things about himself and the universe. I could almost see the gleam in Ray Lafferty's eye as he pounded them out on his old Mexican manual typewriter.

Humor has always been an important part of Ray's fiction, sometimes subtle, sometimes overt. Arthur C. Clarke, Fellow, King's College, London, Chancellor of the University of Mortuwa and author of an obscure book called 2001: A Space Odyssey, admits that Lafferty is "one of the few writers who has made me laugh aloud!"

Michael Swanwick, currently contender for the Science Fiction Writer's of America's Nebula Award, describes Lafferty's humor as broad and hilarious, but with "a rock-hard seriousness under the laughter."

According to the old saying "imitation is the sincerest form of flattery," many other writers have tried to write stories in the manner of Ray Lafferty. Bestselling author Alan Dean Foster admitted to being one of those who had tried "only to end up snarling my syntax so badly it threatened to strangle me."

They say you should never actually meet the author of any piece of fiction that you really like because they will never be anywhere near what you expected. Alan Foster once said that when he first discovered Lafferty's work he was "convinced I had stumbled across the chromatic, scintillating prose of some whacked-out twenty-five year-old with an IQ of 210 and perpetually dilated pupils who dwelt in the bowels of Haight-Ashbury, emerging only to occasional deliver himself of wry comments on the state of the cosmos at assorted memorable university lectures and poorly lit coffee houses." NOT!

Instead when Foster and Lafferty's paths finally crossed he found Lafferty was a balding, heavyset, retired electrical engineer. Though there is a theory that Ray may also be a refugee from the courts of Dionne Sidhe or in another lifetime was chief bard to the court of the High King of Ireland himself.

This is the self-professed "Cranky Old Man of Tulsa," who also happens to be one of the nicest people around.

As much as the science fiction genre would like to claim all of Ray's output for our area of literature, that can't be because he has not limited himself. He has produced some of the wildest historical novels to be seen in a long time. One of the most important is Okla Hannali. A tale of the removal of the Choctaw tribe to Oklahoma territory. It has been called by Terry Bisson "one of the most significant American novels of the mid-century" with "a deep love for the region, understanding of Native Americans and a vivid depiction of the past."

While Ray's work has not propelled him onto the bestseller lists, it has earned him many critical accolades and awards. Among them was the Hugo Award for best short story of 1972, presented by the readers of science fiction through the World Science Fiction Convention, for his short story "Eurema's Dam."

Dan Knight, owner of United Mythologies Press, has been Lafferty's publisher seven years, and has seen Ray's work "continually being compared to that of James Joyce by people who do not make such comparisons lightly."

Knight also edits a small-press magazine devoted to Ray's work. His mailing list includes "many of the most influential people working in the field today, namely Harlan Ellison, Gene Wolf (who the Washington Post recently called "the most important writer working in America today"), James Blaylock, and Andrew M. Greely."

Because of ill health, Ray put down the pen in the mid-80's. That has not prevented him from reaching out and helping younger writers. Simon McCaffery, president of the Oklahoma Science Fiction Writers, observed that, "During the years in which he was able to attend monthly meetings of the O.S.F.W., Ray Lafferty taught many of us --by way of example-- that the most important thing a writer must do is develop his individual voice. Ray's stories and novels are utterly unique, and they inspire us to follow his example."

When Oklahoma's other Hugo award-winning science fiction writer, C.J. Cherryh, first joined the professional association, he sent her a note that said simply, "Now there are two of us Oklahomans. We can take on the world."

"His image of a writer's life as 'dropping rose petals down the Grand Canyon and listening for the landing,' certainly counseled this writer to patience with the process of publishing," said Cherryh.

After he had announced his retirement form writing, an interviewer in the award winning fanzine Lans Lantern asked Ray what his biggest thrill had been as a writer."

"When a baseball player retires he is usually asked what his biggest thrill was. But most of them are uncomfortable with the question, unless they won the seventh game of a world series with a homer, and I've never done that.

"I'm reasonably happy with what I've written and with the reception it has had. But I can't think of any work or event that makes it to the 'greatest thrill' category, It's a little like asking a man who has loved his breakfast eggs for sixty years to name the most thrilling egg he ever ate. He might hesitate a bit and come out with something no better, Oh, there was a really superior egg on June 9, 1932 and another on February 8, 1947. And in 1951 (it was either April 4 or April 5) I had two absolutely perfect eggs. But no, it would be presumptuous of me to name the most thrilling egg I ever ate. They were all so good!"

That is a typical Ray Lafferty observation.

©1995 Brad Sinor. Reprinted with permission of author.

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Updated on Januuary 13, 1997 1