One way to get a notion of what Thomas Disch is up to as a writer is to
recite, Polonius-like, the genres and sub-genres in which he works: lyric poetry, light
poetry, dramatic poetry. Science fiction, realist fiction, children's fiction, historical fiction,
computer-interactive fiction. Criticism (book-length and short, cultural and literary).
Reviews and overviews (of fiction, of poetry, of drama; for TLS, The Washington Post,
The Nation). Autobiography. Editorial projects (including several sci-fi anthologies).
Opera libretti (two produced operas). Drama (two produced plays). Magazine
Along with this proliferation of literary forms, there also comes a proliferation and
mixing-and-matching of personae: Tom Disch, the poet, becomes Thomas M. Disch, the
fiction writer, who becomes (pseudonymously) Leonie Hargrave, also the fiction writer,
who branches into collaborative joint-pseudonyms, Cassandra Knye and Thom
The whole mixture of literary forms and personal identities is on its way to William
and Mary in the singular shape of this year's Class of 1939 Artist-in-Residence, called, for
simplicity's sake, Tom Disch. This spring term, the College's recently established rotating
artist-in-residence position goes for the first time to the English Department. The selection
of Disch for the job will provide student writers the opportunity to work with the man
The Washington Post Book World straightforwardly calls "one of the most
remarkably talented writers around." Such uncommon praise is echoed in the many
reviews of his work in Time, Newsweek, The New York Times, and the like,
which call attention to Disch's range, virtuosity, intelligence, and style, and compare him
favorably to writers as different from one another as Stephen King and Lewis
Tom Disch came to writing via some unusual paths. There seems to exist a rather
well-mapped road to professional writing that winds with a certain predictability through
a college education, through graduate training in an MFA writing program, and
frequently comes to a life-long stop in the parking garage of a university. Disch's journey
has been radically otherwise, as he tells us in a recently published autobiographical
account from which I quote below--full of dead-ends, back-roads, breakdowns, detours.
Born in Des Moines, Iowa at the beginning of World War II, Disch moved with his
family to Minneapolis a few years later. His father was a door-to-door traveling salesman,
"an almost extinct species" peddling magazines, later, encyclopedias, later still (with less
traveling), building insulation and Quonset houses. It's worth considering his father's
salesmanship, for although Disch left home early and did not look back, seeing "the past
[as] something to escape from, not take an interest in," he too started as a salesman, a
teenager going door to door with a succession of offerings--first, greeting cards; later,
knife sharpeners, magnetic potholders and other kitchen baubles. He outgrew this
occupation early, but the resourcefulness, the initiative of it has carried over into other
things: "Part of me has always remained a salesman . . . even now as a free lance writer, a
certain amount of my work involves salesmanship."
High school was divided between the (now also "almost extinct") strictness of a
Catholic military school and a Minneapolis public high: "I always liked being in school . . .
the classes and learning things I didn't know . . . I could become fascinated by almost any
subject." High school for Disch was in large part the discovery of poetry, his stepping-
stone to literature as a whole. He took to poetry with enormous enthusiasm, memorizing
ten times the 100 lines of verse one Miss Jeannette Cochran required; and, as his more
than 500 published poems suggest, he's still taking to it.
Within a few months of finishing high school he was in New York: "I knew that
Manhattan was where I belonged. A hundred movies told me so, and I believed them."
For him, as for other young men and women with aspirations in the arts, New York was
a medley of identities and opportunities that far outweighed the predictable setbacks of
being a nobody with no money. There was theater in its many manifestations--dance,
opera, Broadway, and off-Broadway. Working as checkroom attendant at the Majestic
Theater and trading off with other attendants in other theaters brought Disch into
firsthand contact with theater itself. He worked as a supernumerary at the Metropolitan
Opera, carrying the obligatory spear in Swan Lake (on stage with Margot
Fonteyne, no less), and playing a blackamoor servant in Don Giovanni. Years
later, this close-up experience became a sudden bonus when he was asked to be the
theater critic for The Nation.
But, again as for many others, New York was improvisational to the point of
exhaustion for Disch. He worked in offices and bookstores, worked nightshifts on a
newspaper. He started architecture school, took a full-time job with a life insurance
company, attended NYU. He wore himself out to the point of collapse, to the point where
he dropped it all, retreated to his little apartment on Thompson Street, and wrote what
was to be his first published story. It was a sci-fi piece called "The Double Timer" and was
bought for $112.50 by the editor of Fantastic Stories. Something had taken
It would still be some time before Disch cleared his way to becoming a full-time
professional writer--time spent as a bank teller, a claims adjuster, a mortuary attendant, a
copy-writer in an advertising agency. All these exigencies served the same purpose: cash
to support his new addiction, his "nocturnal writing habit." He likens his discovery of
writing and his serious committment to it to becoming a "grown-up": "someone who
knows what he wants to do and is so busy doing it that he doesn't have much time for
Busy indeed. Tom Disch's output is prodigious for a writer still in mid-career: twelve
novels (the most recent called The Priest: A Gothic Romance), five collections of
short stories, seven volumes of poetry, essays and reviews and incidental pieces too
numerous to count, and, most recently, a no-nonsense overview of contemporary poetry,
The Castle of Indolence. His publishers are the best: Knopf, Doubleday, St.
Martins, Harper, Scribner, Bantam, Johns Hopkins, Putnam, as well as Poetry,
Playboy, and Harpers magazines. His honors are prestigious: two O. Henry
Prizes for short stories, the W. Campbell Memorial Award, the British Science Fiction
Award. All this with the sure prospect of more to come, of new things ever in the
His ideas about writing are refreshingly straightforward. For him, writing is a "history
of pretendings" which began as a child round the radio, listening to a Saturday morning
program called "Let's Pretend." According to Disch, games of pretending are an essential
for the future novelist; not sufficient in and of themselves, of course, since everyone
pretends, but the sine qua non of literary fabrication--as Freud also saw it--and
the connection between the child and the imaginative adult. The other essential is craft.
The craft of the writer is a complex and much discussed topic. For Disch, at some basic
level craft is connected to "grammar," the knowledgeable and logical deployment of
words, the framework from which style evolves: "Grammar still matters to me enough
that I have just finished a whole book of poems called A Child's Garden of
Grammar, which is intended to rescue [parts of speech and our knowledge of them]
from the undeserved neglect into which they have fallen."
"I've already begun moving my fantasy life to Williamsburg," Disch said on the phone
recently while discussing his coming here for next term. Although he has taught briefly at
other colleges, he has not actually lived at one, and the newness of the experience attracts
him. He is eager to give and attend lectures, to learn more about computers, to work with
students, to make friends, to have dinner parties, and to be a close part of a life he has not
yet quite lived.
If all this sounds rather encyclopedic (or like the book-club president's out-of-breath
introduction of the speaker squirming in the front row), blame mostly Disch himself, his
plenitude, his gusto, his near-Renaissance energies, his insistence of turning over so many
stones . . . . "And to conclude: "William and Mary, meet Tom Disch."