When Bill Patterson died on April 21, the sf field lost its best-known Heinlein biographer and fandom lost one of its most interesting raconteurs.
Bill’s health problems dominated his Facebook page in his final days – he complained about a painful hiatal hernia on April 19, struck an ominous note about needing to “catch up enough oxygen” on April 20, and made a thoroughly alarming post on April 21: “Reaching some kind of transition — too little o2 in brain to function.” Later that day he passed away.
Bill’s sister, D. Rhonda Wallace, commented online: “He lived his life to the fullest and the way he wanted. That is all anyone could ask for! (He did it his way).”
Patterson was born in St. Louis in 1951 but grew up in Phoenix, where his family relocated in 1956. As a young man he attended Arizona State University for two years, majoring in history.
In 1969 he joined a local science fiction club at the Phoenix Public Library. Before long he was also involved with the Phoenix chapter of the Tolkien Society where a very young Patrick Nielsen Hayden met him in 1971 – “Being twelve, I was mostly ignored by all, save for a large fellow named Bill Patterson who talked to me almost as if I were human…. When I showed up for the next meeting, I found they’d changed the location and not bothered to tell me. Well, I was twelve.”
Within five years Patterson was one of many Phoenix fans working on a successful bid to bring the Worldcon to town – but only after their ambition to host the Westercon had been frustrated by an LA committee co-chaired by yours truly. Everyone was impressed with Bill’s publications for the bid and the 1978 Worldcon. They looked super professional, the text prepared with a IBM compositor at a time when the rest of us were using typewriters.
Partly inspired by the collision between these two committees of college-age fans, Patterson wrote an 80,000-word history of Phoenix fandom titled The Little Fandom That Could in which I was not held up as a good example. However, nearly all of us reconciled sooner or later. Bill agreed to participate in the 2010 Loscon program which I organized. And at the 2011 Hugo nominees’ reception I made sure to tell Bill how much I admired his work on Robert A. Heinlein: In Dialogue with His Century, Volume 1 (1907-1948): Learning Curve. I thought it was highly readable and a first-rate work of historianship. I respected his consistent decision to confine the narrative to things that could be established by documentation and testimony — bypassing the very many juicy opportunities for speculation and opinion-mongering, all of which were relegated to endnotes. (And they are fascinating endnotes!)
Because Patterson was Virginia Heinlein’s choice for her husband’s biographer some expected him to deliver a hagiography. He did not. Besides, even a hagiography would have annoyed Heinlein. Those familiar with the Dean of SF know he would have been irate to see all of his personal activities publicly analyzed, no matter the tone. Patterson was as frank as he could possibly be with the sources available. And they were quite extensive. He said there were 75 million words of Heinlein material in the repository.
In the 1980s Bill moved to San Francisco and developed into a Heinlein scholar. He founded the Heinlein Journal in 1997 and co-founded the Heinlein Society with Virginia Heinlein in 1998. After she died in 2003, the newly-formed Heinlein Prize Trust asked Patterson to consult with the Robert A. Heinlein Archive of the University of California, Santa Cruz’s McHenry Library to integrate new material she had donated. He was designated The Heinlein Scholar of the Heinlein Prize Trust.
Bill did a vast amount of work on the Trust’s Virginia Edition of the Collected Works of Robert A. Heinlein, locating manuscripts and writing extensive endnotes for the books.
He also helped organize the Heinlein Centennial which took place in Kansas City in 2007.
Robert A. Heinlein: In Dialogue with His Century Volume 2: The Man Who Learned Better by William Patterson, Jr. is scheduled for publication June 2014. Readying the second volume for publication was not as straightforward as Bill had expected. Time was spent expanding the text and dividing the manuscript to make two volumes instead of one, an idea ultimately abandoned:
In the spring of this year , midway into David [Hartwell]’s first set of edits for this volume, he brought up the possibility of splitting this volume into two books, giving a three volume biography in all. There was some back and forth; ultimately David decided not to go forward with a third volume, and since he gave me the word late in August, I’ve been working ever since to cut the manuscript back to the same size as volume 1. Possibly with the idea of a third volume in mind, David had asked for an expansion of the text that ultimately accounted for about 400 pages of new manuscript. The expansion itself was not particularly demanding, as I had cut much more than that out of the manuscript in 2005 and 2006 — but it was neither possible nor desirable simply to restore the old version; the expansion incorporated all of Hartwell’s edit.
Cutting a 1400+ page manuscript back to about 1000 pages is a time-consuming and finicky process involving several passes through the entire thing.
Almost 15 years after Bill started work on the biography, with the final volume on the verge of appearing, Bill died unexpectedly. I’m so sorry he will miss the accolades he deserved for finishing this epic task.
[Thanks to Michael J. Walsh and Joseph T. Major for the story.]