When young writers ask my advice, I always tell them, “Marry an engineer. They’re not only funny, creative, rational people, they get benefits at work and there’s been been a good job market for them since the Renaissance.”
I’m not kidding about that.
My husband is a software engineer. Don has not been unemployed for a single day since the Nixon Administration. If you’ve enjoyed my novels, thank him. For the past 45 years, he has made it possible for me to do financially stupid things like get a Ph.D. in anthropology, and teach anatomy for a lousy $11 grand a year, and stay home to raise our kid while I wrote stories about Jesuits in Space — all that, while continuing to eat and live under a roof.
Like George Edwards in The Sparrow, Don started his engineering career using a wooden slide rule to help with computations. He wrote his first computer program in 1968, feeding pale green punch cards into an IBM 360 that couldn’t run a cellphone app today. He started with assembly language and Fortran, but before long, his resume simply said, “All machines. All languages.”
That’s not true anymore — the industry has changed — but he is still a master of his trade. For almost half a century, he’s surfed the crest of a great technological wave. Now he is about to reach the beach and step off the board, neat as you please. July 2nd will be his last day at work.
For both of us, work has been a lifelong source of fascination and satisfaction. We’ve rarely gone on genuine vacations. Every four years or so, we drive down to South Carolina and rent a house on the ocean, but we’ve never yet stayed for the entire week. After five days of listening to the waves while drinking gin and tonic, we’re ready to pack up and go back to real life.
Don began to ease into retirement last year, just to see if he could stand it. He started taking Fridays off about the same time that Epitaph went into production and the pressure on me eased off. We’ve truly enjoyed three-day weekends together and now we’re thinking hard about what it would mean to have a weekend that goes on forever.
I’ll be 65 this summer. Why not quit while I’m ahead? With six novels already out there, I’ve had no trouble filling my days. I get email from readers every morning. I answer questions, and respond to interview requests, and fart around on Facebook. The Epitaph tour took up March. Pertussis took up April. I haven’t even tried to do background reading for next novel. I’ve been perfectly happy as the months passed and in all honesty, I’ve wondered if I’ve still got the drive and concentration necessary to write another novel.
A new book is another four-year gamble, with new history to learn, new characters to develop, a new structure to build. I’ll be closing in on 70 next time I’m on tour, and that’s assuming anybody will want to publish a novel about the 1913 copper strike in Calumet, Michigan. I don’t have to do this. I could garden. Cook. Practice piano. Become a crazy dachshund lady with a horde of fat little sausage dogs squirming around my ankles. Watch baseball and do needlepoint. Visit the kids out in Los Angeles…
Finally, last Monday, I took the advice I usually give other people who wonder about whether or not they can write a book. “Put your hands on the keyboard and make some prose happen. You can’t fix what doesn’t exist. Write something new today and make it better tomorrow. Then do it again and again.”
This week, I pushed past the place were the story has been stalled since last November. Maybe it’s just that I’ve finally recovered from that bout of pertussis. Maybe it’s because the long gray Cleveland winter is over and sunshine makes a difference. Whatever the reason, the energy is back. Don is retiring with a long list of new things he wants to try, starting with a robotics project he’s been thinking about for years. And I’ve got a book to write.