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Another Word:
In the Home of Anthony Burgess' Harpsichord

I stood on stage at the International Anthony Burgess Foundation in Manchester, England. It was October of this year, and I was finishing a five-month (yes, you read that right, five-month) tour supporting my latest book, Strange Stars: David Bowie, Pop Music, and the Decades Sci-Fi Exploded. This was the biggest audience I’d had so far on a trek that had taken me across the US then to the UK.

As I wrapped up my hour-long talk about science fiction’s impact on popular music in the ’70s—centering on David Bowie—I thanked the dozens of people in attendance. But when I stepped off the stage to sign copies of my book, a chilling realization hit me: During my entire talk, I’d forgotten to breathe even a word about Bowie’s debt to Anthony Burgess.

Bowie loved Burgess. When the late singer compiled a list of his hundred favorite books in 2013, three years before his death from liver cancer, he included two Burgess novels: Earthly Powers and A Clockwork Orange. It’s the latter book that factored into my narrative in Strange Stars. Burgess’ 1962 novel about a violent, dystopian future—and its 1971 film adaptation by Stanley Kubrick—influenced Bowie heavily during his creation of his science-fiction concept albums The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars in 1972 and Diamond Dogs in 1974. Burgess’ themes of social collapse, decadent sadism, youth culture gone mad, and individualism versus moral conformity made A Clockwork Orange an irresistible wellspring of ideas and imagery for Bowie during his most fertile period as a science-fiction rocker.

I failed, however, to mention any of this to the crowd at the International Anthony Burgess Foundation. The Foundation was set up in 2003 through an endowment from Liana Burgess, the author’s widow. It’s housed in a lovely, brick-walled space in downtown Manchester. And in addition offering a performance area to handpicked artists and authors like me (I couldn’t have been more flattered or honored), the Foundation keeps a library of Burgess’ work as well as artifacts from his life. On your way to the restroom, you can gaze at—but not touch, a sign politely warned—Burgess’ beloved harpsichord. In other words, there would have been no better setting for a disquisition on Bowie’s profound Burgess fandom.

In my defense, it had been my intention to deliver exactly such a disquisition. During my Strange Stars tour, I spoke about many subjects that I covered in the book, from Bowie to Star Wars to Arthur C. Clarke to Parliament-Funkadelic to Philip K. Dick to Devo. But I made a note to myself in my calendar, one that may seem hilariously obvious: “Remember to mention Anthony Burgess while speaking at the International Anthony Burgess Foundation.”

I didn’t remember. Also, I was fine with that.

I’ve had a fear of public speaking almost since I was old enough to speak. To this day, my mom likes to tell the story of how I was a chatty, outgoing little boy—that is, until my first day of school, after which I came home and, according to her, “didn’t talk for ten years.” My family moved around a lot growing up, which made me the perpetual new kid. On top of that, I was very evidently poor. Not only did I not want to draw attention—almost always in the form of ridicule or bullying—to myself, I knew that any friends I made would be left behind in a matter of months. Subsequently, it made sense to keep my mouth shut, to do everything I could to be invisible as well as inaudible. Books and music became my best friends: Frank Herbert’s Dune, Anne McCaffrey’s Dragonriders of Pern, Michael Jackson’s Thriller, David Bowie’s The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust.

But even after I got out of high school, I was a quiet person. It was more than just habit. I knew the word “introvert,” but it always had a negative connotation, as if an introvert was a form of pervert. Society, I observed early on in life, was made for and by extroverts: those talkative, friendly, assertive people who didn’t seem to have any of the anxieties I had when I was around others. I liked talking with people one-on-one in a private setting. But being around groups of people was exhausting, confusing, and turned me into either a grumpy grunter or a babbling, overcompensating weirdo. I felt judged. I could barely hold it together when trying to keep up with a conversation among three or four friends at a party; nothing was more petrifying than the idea of standing up alone in front of a crowd to talk.

That changed, in a way, when I started my first band. My love of pop had shifted toward a love of punk, and emboldened by punk’s anyone-can-do-it credo, I learned a few notes on the bass guitar and got on stage as quickly as I could. I found that I had zero fear of standing up in public when I had a bass strapped to me, a singer to handle the microphone, and a wall of noise to insulate me from the audience. It was exhibitionist and aloof at the same time, and the thrill was addictive. I’d finally found a way to be social, kind of. The thing is, as soon as my band finished and climbed off stage, I was back to my usual self: acutely uncomfortable talking to people, even the ones who wanted to tell me they liked my band. Especially the ones who wanted to tell me they liked my band. After a lifetime of being bullied and ridiculed, taking compliments—even for my crappy punk band—made me squeamish.

It wasn’t until I was in my 30s, and transitioning into a career as a writer, that I began to learn what introversion and social anxiety really were. And that they weren’t interchangeable, but entirely distinct things that can be experienced either together or separately. Lucky me, I experienced both. Not only was I naturally introverted—that is, given to a rich inner life and the need for lots of solitude to recharge my social energy—I suffered from social anxiety, which magnified the smallest fear about being inadequate or less than eloquent into a panic that fulfilled its own prophecy. Social anxiety is a mental illness; introversion is not. But in my mind, they were tied together into a nerve-racking, soul-crushing, and often debilitating whole.

Then I became an author. My first book, the alt-history novel Taft 2012, was published in its titular year, and suddenly I was faced with one of the biggest challenges of my life: the expectation to speak in public. I made it through the book’s launch party in my hometown of Denver on a wing and a prayer, having faked my way through a reading and discussion of the book that left me rattled and drained. A year later, I was part of the editing team here at Clarkesworld that won the Hugo Award for Best Semiprozine, and I found myself on stage with my compatriots Neil Clarke, Kate Baker, and Sean Wallace at WorldCon 71 in San Antonio—in front of hundreds of heroes and peers, giving a few mumbled words of appreciation that probably made me sound like someone who had just accidentally stumbled on stage and grabbed a stray statuette.

The more books I had published, the more I vowed to get my fear of public speaking under control. It wasn’t easy, and it wasn’t quick. First, I quit drinking. Alcohol, which I had been using as self-medication for my social anxiety for a number of years, had become much more of a hindrance than a help. Second, I took a huge step that I had been avoiding for decades: getting treatment for my anxiety, which had become far more pervasive than simply social. That’s one of the worst things about anxiety: It can even render you prohibitively anxious about the prospect of getting treated for anxiety itself, to the point where you’re more or less paralyzed and resigned to your fate. I finally made it to a doctor, though, and on her advice, I started taking a number of steps—dietarily, pharmaceutically, and exercise-wise—to curb my social anxiety.

I also began trying to understand my introversion better. Susan Cain’s bestselling book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking came out in 2013, and it overhauled my entire view of myself. After a lifetime of being told, implicitly and explicitly, that wanting to stay home and read books and keep my own company was abnormal or even pathological, Cain’s championship of the introvert was eye-opening and exhilarating. For the first time in my life, I felt understood—by both someone else and myself.

When Strange Stars was about to be published in June of this year, I proposed something ambitious. In an age where book publishers don’t have the resources to send authors on the road, and where most authors don’t have the time or desire to do so anyway, I wanted to go on a major book tour. And by major, I meant for months. My publisher, Melville House, is distributed by Random House, and they’re extremely well-regarded in the industry. Still, they needed to be persuaded that it was worth their time, money, and effort to set up and promote a long string of bookstore appearances for Strange Stars. Once convinced, however, Melville House threw their full weight and enthusiasm behind my crazy trip, and I hit the airways and roadways in June, bursting with excitement and no small amount of dread. I’d bluffed my way into a major book tour. But could my introversion and social anxiety even handle it?

Glossophobia is the name for the fear of public speaking. It takes many forms, from physical ailments like sweating, stuttering, heart palpitations, and even incontinence, to full-on panic attacks that can be much more serious. For many of us who suffer from glossophobia, the primary treatment is simply avoidance: We find every excuse we can to stay out of the oratory spotlight. By going on a big book tour, I was throwing myself in the deep end. There was no way out, at least, not without disappointing and hurting my professional standing with publishers, publicists, distributors, booksellers, and, of course, readers.

In the past, my anxiety had driven me to over-prepare for any public speaking engagement I couldn’t worm my way out of. But when I started my book tour for Strange Stars, I tried a radical approach: not preparing at all. I’d just spent two years researching and writing this book about science fiction’s influence on ’70s music, including the work of David Bowie, one of my heroes since childhood. Why not wing it? I was getting treatment for my social anxiety, and I was making some happy gains. And while my introversion was as much a part of me as ever, I was finally understanding and, most importantly, accepting it. I was learning my limitations, how to communicate them to people without embarrassment, and how to cope when things went wrong.

The strangest thing happened: It worked. I launched my tour in Portland, Oregon, in June, and as I wound my way up and down both coasts and throughout the middle of the country, I learned to enjoy the spontaneity of getting up in front of people and—believe it or not—just chatting about my book. I didn’t dread the Q&A sessions every night. I looked forward to them. One thing I’ve said often during interviews about Strange Stars is that this book is the one I feel I was born to write. It combines my two greatest loves in life, science fiction and music. My events on tour weren’t about delivering a lecture or checking off bullet points or, horror of horrors, trying to be a salesperson. It was about sharing my enthusiasm, my sense of awestruck discovery that I’d felt while putting together Strange Stars.

That ultimately led to Manchester and the stage of the International Anthony Burgess Foundation. After my talk, I signed books and made small talk with a few lingering audience members and thanked the organizers for such a well-attended and beautifully-run event. As I walked out the door on the way back to my hotel room, everyone was all smiles. If they were at all disappointed about my failure to actually mention Anthony Burgess during my talk, they either didn’t express it or had already forgotten about it. No one expects public speakers to be perfect—sometimes it’s only the speakers themselves who expect perfection, and therein lies the source of so much anxiety. At last I’d learned to stop seeing an audience as a jury and start seeing them as fellow enthusiasts. And even friends.

I still have social anxiety. I’m still an introvert. And I can’t say that I’ll never again feel fear or panic at the prospect of speaking in public. But if I can forgive and accept myself after forgetting to talk about Anthony Burgess in the home of his own harpsichord, maybe I’ve come far enough.

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ISSUE 147, December 2018

locus-magazine
 

Not One of Us
 

Best Science Fiction of the Year

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Jason Heller

Jason Heller is the author of the nonfiction book Strange Stars: David Bowie, Pop Music, and the Decade Sci-Fi Exploded (Melville House). He's also a former nonfiction editor of Clarkesworld; as part of the magazine's 2012 editorial team, he received a Hugo Award. He wrote the alt-history novel Taft 2012 (Quirk Books), and his fiction has appeared in Apex Magazine, Farrago's Wainscot, Swords v. Cthulhu, and others; his nonfiction has appeared in The New Yorker, The Atlantic, Rolling Stone, Pitchfork, Entertainment Weekly, Weird Tales, Tor.com, and Ann and Jeff VanderMeer's The Time Traveler's Almanac. He regularly reviews science fiction and fantasy novels for NPR.org, and he's the co-editor of the fiction anthologies Cyber World (with Josh Viola) and Mechanical Animals (with Selena Chambers), both for Hex Publishers. Jason lives in Denver with his wife Angie and plays in the post-punk band Weathered Statues, and he can be found on Twitter: @jason_m_heller.

WEBSITE

jasonmheller.blogspot.com

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