The end of the endless weekend

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.



21 thoughts on “The end of the endless weekend”

  1. Whew! I was afraid you were about to write that you’re retiring from writing. I’m not ready not to have one of your novels to await with anticipation. Please, Mary, I’d like some more. At least one more.

  2. Interesting. I started out in engineering with a wooden slide rule (still have it), programming Fortran with ibm cards to run an IBM 360. Crashed and burned with intro to circuits, and landed in anthropology. Was gainfully employed teaching for 40 years and something like a 125 publications; only unpublished fiction (about a professor who can fly). Just keep writing. . .

  3. I’ll buy your book about the 1913 copper strike in Calumet, Michigan. I’ll also find out how I can nominate it for Michigan’s annual most notable book award, or I’ll at least find out how to bring it to their attention.

    As for engineering, when I was considering different majors before I began my freshman year in college, my father stressed engineering, citing all the reasons you note.

    I chose, instead, to major in what I was best at, English and journalism. It wasn’t a poor choice, although I did spend a lot of times unemployed. I should have married an engineer, I guess, like you did. I was fine, though, as long as I saved money while I was working to get me through the times when I wasn’t.

  4. What a wonderful image, robots spilling out of the garage! I’m happy for you and Don, to reach retirement in stable happiness, and for you for following your bliss!

  5. Bravo! I am interested in a 1913 copper strike in Calumet, Michigan, especially if you write about it. To me, a non writer, it must take so much discipline to research and write about a little known about topic so I’m glad you’ve got your groove back!! Best to your husband as he enters Adventure Land! I love your Blog! Thanks.

  6. Don sounds like one in million. You certainly picked a winner, and a very nice guy to boot. Very glad to hear you are starting the process of writing a next book.

  7. Congratulations, Don, on a long and successful career. I can honestly use the cliche that “From the moment I met you 43 years ago, I knew that you were a great guy with special talent.” It was great being your friends back in those early days of our careers, and I hope to see both of you next time you come to the Bay Area.

    Mary, it sounds like he’s finally going to resign!

  8. Dear Mary:

    This is my second time attempting to retire. I envy anyone who can handle it. My main issue is attempting to stay useful doing what I do: steelmaking, heat treating, failure analysis, and spectrometric chemical analysis.

    Maybe one of these days I’ll follow Bill Rostoker’s example and look for evidence of chalcolithic societies: Summarians, Austrian Celts, and whatever societies occupied the west coat of India a few millennia ago. The best news is that Science has finally developed the tools needed for analyzing early metal-working artifacts.

    That’s right up my alley.

  9. Yes, continue to write if it brings you joy – even if the joy is mixed in with a bit of frustration. I think if you had been toiling in the corporate world, with all the silly office politics, dull PowerPoint presentations, soul-sucking silly rules, interminable meetings, (and, yes, age discrimination), etc., I’d say retire and quit the rat race. But, in your case, I hope you carry on (but continue to love those dachshunds).
    And your husband is proof that engineers can be amazingly creative, as well as pragmatic. Sounds like he will have a very fulfilling retirement.

  10. Would you consider a genre shift that might lessen the research burden? You’ve already made such a shift once in your career (science fiction to history). Why not take a break from the heavy research, and write a novel that only requires you to write, or that involves minimal research? Thanks for your terrific writing blogs.

  11. “that’s assuming anybody will wants to publish a novel about the 1913 copper strike in Calumet, Michigan.”

    If they do, I’ll read it.

    Woody Guthrie:

    Take a trip with me in 1913,
    To Calumet, Michigan, in the copper country.
    I will take you to a place called Italian Hall,
    Where the miners are having their big Christmas ball.

  12. Normon, I won’t rule it out, but I don’t seem to be drawn to topics I can deal with off the top of my head. It’s being surprised by something and wanting to learn more about it that draws me into a novel.

  13. Oh, Mary! I am SO THANKFUL that the energy is back and you are continuing with the new book! I Googled that subject and became intrigued and saddened by it – and I know, without a sliver of a doubt, that YOU will do it justice! Give my best wishes to Don, and I am keeping you all in my prayers. God bless you!!!

  14. You MUST keep writing. I just today heard your comment on a UTube video, today, where you were saying how do you discribe the book, “The Sparrow” to someone? See, that is just it! Those TWO books are so uniquely different and unusual, that I just say I cannot describe them. You read them then give ME your description! My husband, devout “shoulda been a priest” Catholic, read then & said to me: “Im at a loss for words!” THAT never happens! You have an awesome gift, you cant just set it aside!

  15. Now Don can bring you cups of coffee or tea while you write! I don’t suppose the beach house in South Carolina is on Folly Beach? It’s not as quirky as it used to be, but it’s a pretty fun little town (too busy in the summer). I wrote a local history book on Folly. And I must confess, I’m analyzing your work to try to write historical fiction. I love your work! You can still garden AND write the book, right? Please do.

  16. Traveling with the two new dachshunds isn’t as easy as it was when we had Annie and the golden retriever, but I have very fond memories of Folly Beach.

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