In Memoriam: Breakfast with Jim

Breakfast with Jim

It started many years ago: Chris McKitterick and I would meet James Gunn for breakfast each Saturday, at a Hy-Vee just west of Lawrence, Kansas. At the beginning, he would drive there himself, in a spunky little red Honda. The restaurant seemed to change mission and fanciness every few months, but it was a pleasant bright space with tall windows that looked out on a tree-studded lawn, and a seasonal robin's nest on top of a security light. Regardless of season or menu, Jim usually had the same breakfast, an omelet with onions, sausage, and gouda cheese, with lots of coffee.

The conversations ranged widely, but they always came back to science fiction and writing. His memory was staggering even in his nineties, and sometimes Chris or I would ask a leading question–”What was that C. L. Moore story. . . ?” or “Why did van Vogt. . . ?”–just to get him talking. He contextualized everything, because he seemed to know everything. No SF story existed except in a dense matrix of other similar or different stories, all of which he could reference by publication history, themes, and tropes. He remembered character names. He quoted dialogue. Chris and I sat drinking cup after cup of Hy-Vee’s, delighted. It was like watching sleight of hand.

We talked a lot about the Center for the Study of Science Fiction, as well. He had founded the Center in the 1980s as an umbrella for all the things he did–school-year classes, summer workshops, lectures, the summer Gunn Center Conference, two awards, an affiliated Gunn Center in India. Even after he stepped out of the directorship, he remained deeply involved, making plans and offering advice right up until the end.

The best part, though, was talking about writing. Jim was always working on multiple things at once. Introductions, essays, and articles seemed to drip from his fingers: one Saturday he would tell us he had agreed to write something for a publisher; a week later, he would tell us how it was going; a week after that, he would have sent it off to its new home. I honestly couldn’t keep up with all his nonfiction; maybe Mike Page, a friend of Jim’s and Gunn scholar at the University of Nebraska, has a complete bibliography, but I surely do not.

And there was always a story. He liked to write novelettes that combined into longer works (“Sell it twice” was a classic Gunnism, as his writing students called his advice). There had been breakfasts in the years before 2012, when I moved to Lawrence, but they became weekly then. He was working on Transcendental at the time. Week after week, we would hear how his writing was going–and he would hear about ours. It was a unique privilege to hear him thinking through the current scene, the next story–and an honor that I still feel as a flutter in my chest whenever he asked what I thought. Every time he finished one of the series of short works that collected themselves into a novel, he would say, “I don’t know what I want to write next. Maybe I don’t have any ideas.” Chris and I would suggest things. If he took them, he always did something uniquely Jim with them. It went both ways: he always asked how we were doing, as well. He was generous and kind, offering suggestions if we asked for them, ideas for stories if we were blocked.

Over the last few years, Jim had been slowing down: no more appearances, except a reading in Lawrence whenever a new book came out, and the Gunn Center Conference each summer. When he gave up his car, Chris or I would pick him up and drive him to Saturday breakfast, then wait afterward while he did his weekly grocery shopping before taking him home. In the wintertime, he didn’t want to go out at all, so we would pick up his omelet and our own breakfasts, and meet at Jim’s house, a big wood-paneled rambler filled with books.

After the pandemic started, things had to change, but I still saw him every Saturday. He was my one-person Covid bubble. I made fresh cinnamon rolls and a thermos of coffee and showed up every Saturday at nine. Sometimes I made him an omelet–onion, sausage, and gouda–and brought it over cupped between two plates, wrapped in a towel. We sat in his dark-paneled living room, in matching high-backed pseudo-Mediterranean chairs upholstered in old-gold velveteen, clear products of the 1970s. Chris couldn’t join us regularly; when he could, we sat outside on Jim’s screened-in back deck. In either case, we talked for hours–still about science fiction, still about writing–but also memories from his childhood and early marriage.

He did most of his work on “Singular Days” after the pandemic started. His eyesight was failing, so he could only write a little each day. Sometimes he had issues of one sort of another, and sometimes one of us offered suggestions. By the next week, he was another few hundred words along. He just kept marching forward, word after word, paragraph after paragraph. He couldn’t see the screen well enough to change things like indents and italics, so I would fix them for him, so I saw the AI stories (as he called them) getting longer, little by little, week by week.

This was his very last story. He didn't start another after this. He finished an article on religion and SF in the same period, but I don't think there was anything else—but, with Jim, who knows? It's been four months. He would be two novelettes into a new book by now. Every Saturday morning, I imagine Jim spinning up to the Hy-Vee in his little red Honda with a progress report on the latest story, the latest nonfiction pubs; full of plans and curious about ours. It's so vivid to me that it's hard not to think it's happening somehow, somewhere.

—Kij Johnson

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