Eating Authors: Michael Swanwick

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Michael Swanwick

Welcome to the first Monday in October. It’s a particularly exciting Monday because tonight is also the SFWA Annual Reception for Industry Professionals, an evening where authors, agents, editors, and publishers gather in Manhattan to mingle, chat, and do a bit of business while drinking booze and eating canapés that someone else has paid for.

But meanwhile, let’s go back to focusing on this week’s guest, Philadelhia’s own Michael Swanwick. Michael writes both short stories and novels, as well as commentary on the science fiction field itself. My personal favorite is his novel, Vacuum Flowers, which I consider to be one of the most compelling treatments of traditional cyberpunk tropes. He’s won the Nebula Award for Stations of the Tide, five Hugo Awards for short fiction (including “Scherzo with Tyrannosaur,” arguably the best SF dinosaur story ever), the World Fantasy Award, and the Sturgeon Award. And that’s not mentioning the titles of his many other works nominated for these and other awards in the field.

He writes fantasy novels with elves in Armani suits, rollicking adventures set in post-Utopia Russia, post-meltdown tales about Philadelphia and how the city’s Mummers naturally move in to fill the resulting power vacuum. And don’t get me started on his amazing short story collections, some of which feel like he wrote them on a dare or as exercises in performance art, as in The Periodic Table of Science Fiction or Puck Aleshire’s Abecedary.

I’ve had the great pleasure to hang with Michael at conventions, both on panels (in fact, we’re together on one this coming weekend) and more casually at the bar. I highly recommend both.

LMS: Welcome, Michael. It’s a delight to have you here. Can you tell us about your most memorable meal?

MS: I have never been a trencherman – save once. The exception occurred long ago when I was invited to some friends’ annual Crabfest. Back then, once a year, Patty and Bill would buy several bushels of crabs, steam them, dump Old Bay seasoning on them, and then invite all their friends over to a feast of crabs and Rolling Rock beer. They held it in their finished basement which they filled with folding chairs, spread-out newspapers, and the requisite food and drink.

Along with everyone else, I began eating. We were given little wooden mallets to crack the shells with, but after the first beer, most of us switched to an empty bottle. Time passed, and people began dropping out.

I kept on eating.

The Best of Michael Swanwick
Dancing with Bears
Stations of the Tide

Finally, there were only two people still going. I was one. The other was Jim Couza, one of the most famous hammered dulcimer players in the world. He was a tremendous man, easily twice my weight. Nobody was surprised that he could keep eating longer than almost everybody else. Nobody was more astonished than me that I could keep up with him, matching him crab for crab, beer for beer.

Crack. Pick. Eat.

Crack. Pick. Eat.

How many crabs died to feed me that night? I have no idea. Bushels, perhaps. An impossible number for sure. Jim and I grinned at one another and kept going. The others made remarks that were half-horrified, half-fascinated. Somewhere overhead the stars wheeled giddily through the sky. Hours passed. On we ate. I don’t think either of us won the competition. In fact, I’m not entirely sure we ever stopped. Somewhere, perhaps, we’re still eating and drinking, bottomless, insatiable, gluttonish, and happy.

A third of a century has passed since then. The hosts moved out of state not long after; I have no idea whether they still hold an annual crabfest. Jim Couza died a few years ago. I’ve fallen out of touch with most of the people who were there. But the memory is fresh and sacrosanct: For one night I was an honest-to-god trencherman.

That’s enough for one lifetime.

Michael, I think there’s just something about those mallets… It’s what keeps pulling me back to Baltimore in the Spring.

Next Monday: Another author and another meal!

Author Photo by Beth Gwinn

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