A Casual Rambling Bio
I was born in Kansas City, Missouri, a fact that often confounds those who expect Americans of Asian descent to come only from the coasts. In fact Kansas City has had a continuous Chinese American population since the 1870s, but my parents had only arrived there less than a year before I did. Until I was three years old, we lived in a modest apartment near The Plaza.
Many years later, I described to my mother what I believe to be my earliest memory, of sitting in the apartment at a small table with stuffed animals in the other chairs and a plate with cake and ice cream in front of each of us. My mother informed me that it had been my second birthday. She had planned a party with other two-year-olds, but I had come down with chicken pox and so my guests were a stuffed bear, elephant, and a critter I can no longer picture clearly. When I described the layout of the apartment, my mother confirmed that I remembered it right. I have several other memories of living in the apartment, but none as distinctive as the birthday party with stuffed animals.
I recall that my mother would push me in a stroller up the street to a small market that had live chickens in stacked metal cages. She would have me pick one. The man behind the counter would take it to the back and come out a few minutes later with something that looked entirely different, which she would take home and cook. I knew it was the same thing, and yet I didn't understand what he had done that made it inanimate and caused it to look so different.
My late father was a successful neurosurgeon, but at that time his career was just picking up after a long, delayed start for a variety of reasons, including his service in the U.S. Army during World War II, on campaign in Burma, for which he received a Bronze Star for treating wounded under fire. He was the first nonwhite doctor to break the color line in the previously segregated medical society in Kansas City, Missouri. I did not know until many years later how risky and tenuous a start he had faced with his career.
We moved to a suburb in Kansas called Prairie Village. The area had a few other families of Asian descent, though their kids never attended the same schools I did. I read somewhere the Jewish population was substantial and that was true of our neighborhood and schools. At that time, at least one of the nearby suburbs legally and blatantly refused to sell houses to a long list of racial groups and certain European ethnic groups; I suspect it was no accident that many of us wound up clumped together in an area that did not have that list.
I spent my earliest years visually distinct from all the other kids around me except for my brother, listening to parents and teachers asking me where I was from and where I was born. Young children, of course, don't think of such questions; as I got older, my contemporaries began asking, too. Somewhere in all of this, my own interest in my family heritages began.
Of course I liked having stories read to me and I began creating stories before I could read and write. I dictated tales of about five sentences to my mother, who wrote them down with a ballpoint pen, each sentence on a small piece of paper. I drew a picture illustrating each line and bound the pages together with brads. Most of them were lost long ago, but I still have one in a file drawer.
My brother, Chris, came along six years after I did. When he was three, our family went bowling and I watched him knock down every pin with one ball. It was technically a spare rather than a strike, since he had just rolled a gutter ball -- but he's now a professional bowler as well as a lawyer.
Bill Moss is my oldest friend; we met when I was three and he was two. He still lives down the street in the house where he grew up.
Another childhood friend was Bobby Greenlee, who introduced me to comic books, Mad magazine, and science fiction through Astounding/Analog magazine and the names Isaac Asimov, Robert A. Heinlein, and Arthur C. Clarke. I doubt anyone calls him Bobby now; he's a retired Air Force colonel.
Future Air Force Colonel
James Robert Greenlee
and future author
William F. Wu
prepare to walk to
Prairie Elementary School
in Prairie Village, Kansas.
Photo restoration by
Around the age of eight, I met Henry Robertson. We had much in common, including a tendency to be loners and a fascination with history, legend, and mythology. At recess, while other boys played kickball, we were re-enacting the First Crusade, the Trojan War, and Gettysburg -- no wonder the other kids had no idea what to say to us. Away from school, we also wrote stories and poems, at the same time but not in collaboration. Our third-grade teacher, Miss Hughes, told my mother we were lucky to have found each other to play with.
In sheer number of hours, however, I spent the most time with Bill Moss, doing what most boys do -- playing board games or with toys inside, playing out in the yard with other neighborhood kids, riding our bikes farther and farther from home as we got older. We teamed up, argued with each other, and got into routine, childhood trouble together.
My earliest memory of writing poetry was in the third grade. My mother was a poet all my life and had a collection of her work published, titled From Ink and Sandalwood; I worked at poetry off and on until my early twenties, when I finally figured out I was not a poet.
My parents, unlike the families of many writers I know, were consistently supportive of my writing. My maternal grandmother, Mae Franking, wrote a novel called My Chinese Marriage, based on her experience as a white woman married to my Chinese grandfather, that was published in 1921. My father, who was fluent in a number of languages, wrote articles that appeared in medical journals, travel articles that appeared in the newspaper, and later his autobiography, published as a book, Monsoon Season. His father, who had been one of the last imperial scholars of the Qing Dynasty before it was overthrown, had poetry and essays published in Chinese. Whether an interest and facility in writing are hereditary or environmental, I had the advantage of both.
I also had encouragement at school, from my sixth-grade teacher, Mr. Whitson, and in creative writing clubs in junior high, especially Sharon Hamil's eighth-grade club. Through my teen years, I wrote a great deal, both stories and poetry, taking time away from both school work and sleep. I showed a little of it to my mother and father and more of it to a very few friends, but I kept most of it to myself.
Before I reached high school, Bobby and Henry moved away. My closest friend became Mike Schwab, with whom I shared classes in American history and Latin, where we read Caesar, Cicero, Vergil, and Ovid. Against a backdrop of swirling social change in the wider world, we talked a great deal about concepts from those two classes.
I always had a taste for the outdoors, probably imparted to me because my mother grew up in Ann Arbor, Michigan, when it was still a small midwestern town, and my father spent his early childhood in a Chinese peasant village. In my childhood, we took vacations at the Lake of the Ozarks and visited relatives at Lake Meddybemps, Maine. My parents purchased a farm outside Kansas City, Missouri, and when the government decided to damn up a stream that ran through it, we got a free lake where we fished, canoed, and sailed small boats.
In my teens, I went on camping and canoe trips down the Current and Jacks Fork rivers in the Missouri Ozarks. While I enjoyed being a Cub Scout, I did not like the Boy Scouts, and quit in my second year. At nineteen, I spent a month at the Minnesota Outward Bound School, canoeing, camping, rapelling, and rock climbing. I was a poor rock climber, but enjoyed the thrill of rapelling -- maybe it's just that going down is always easier. The solo portion of the experience was too much for me, but I enjoyed the experience overall and gained a great deal of skill, self-knowledge, and self-confidence.
I enjoyed and hated high school. While I was a good student, I was not as good as most people thought; I took honors classes in everything but math, in which -- despite a common American stereotype -- I was no better than average and probably worse. I dated, was no athlete, and most of all kept writing. Most of what I wrote during high school was poetry.
One summer during high school I attended a six-week program for Chinese American young people. For the first time, I made close friends of the same ethnicity, born and raised in this country, including Art Soong from New York, and Dave Young and Clara Yen from Southern California. At about the same time, I became better acquainted with Chinese Americans in the Kansas City area, in particular Newton Chun and his family and also two girls my age in other families. They were all important to my developing sense of self.
I went to college at the University of Michigan, where my parents had met and which my maternal grandparents had attended. My brother Chris later attended Michigan Law School. While an undergraduate, I did less creative writing than in any other period. During that time, I wrote poetry only and not very much. I read widely, as always, for enjoyment as well as for classes, but I did not focus on any particular sort of fiction. Looking back, I suppose when I was not studying, I was experiencing life and learning about myself and others, important prerequisites for writing fiction. In fact, if I have regrets about my college years, I think I should have studied less and enjoyed myself more.
The summer I was nineteen felt like one long adventure. I took a trip by car with Mike to the East Coast and back, went to Outward Bound in Minnesota, then traveled with my family and Henry to Maine. In August, a friend from Outward Bound named Fred Jones and I hitchhiked from Kansas City to Los Angeles. I got back to Michigan just in time for the new semester. While I did some other hitchhiking, when that activity shows up in my fiction, I'm usually drawing in some way on the experience of that trip. I lost track of Fred for many years, finding too many people with his name whenever I tried to look for him. In 2013, he happened to look for me online and found me through an earlier version of this account. We had a great reunion that fall.
I had carried the idea of writing professionally in the back of my mind since I was eight, though at that time I thought I would be a poet. When I graduated from college at twenty-two, I decided to be a professional writer, though I was aware that I might never make a living at it. I had never mentioned this to my college friends and when I did, two of them ridiculed the idea -- the only two people in my life who ever did.
After writing all my life, the difference was in making the effort a new priority and in researching the business side of a writing career. Following a year out of school, when I lived back in the Kansas City area, I attended the Clarion writers workshop, where I met professional writers including Robin Scott Wilson, Gordon R. Dickson, Harlan Ellison, Thomas M. Disch, Damon Knight, and Kate Wilhelm. I also met one of the graduates from the previous year, Michael D. Toman, who became a close friend and, some years later, a fellow adventurer when we packed stuff into my car and moved from Michigan to California.
Michael was the first good friend I made who was also a science fiction and fantasy writer. We also had a shared interest in collecting books and comics, and in movies and popular culture in general. I started going to science fiction conventions, where I met other writers, both new and established, and the readers and fans who have a special affection for the field. When Michael and I visited Clarion the following summer to see some of our former instructors, we met among others Robert Crais, who was a student at the workshop that year. In California, Michael introduced me to Alan Brennert, who had attended Clarion the same year as Michael.
Between attending Clarion and moving to California, however, I returned to Michigan for graduate school. By this time writing was my first priority and in my first year of grad school, I wrote the short stories that became my earliest professional sales. More important than my classes was East Wind, an Asian American student group that had formed a year before I started grad school.
For only the second period in my life, I had a large number of Asian American friends and acquaintances. Among them were some very good friends and, over time, several girlfriends. East Wind was very inclusive, having among its members both an engineer with Ford Motor Company and self-identified Marxists. Its focus was campus activism and one year we joined other nonwhite student groups in occupying the university administration building for several days.
Bill and Garrett K. Hongo, now a noted poet and author, relax at a party during their time in graduate school at the University of Michigan. At that time, they had both sold professionally, but were just beginning their careers as writers. Bill recalls they spent that summer double dating, playing pickup softball, and drinking more beer than usual, all the while discussing writing.
I attended graduate school with the idea that I might become a college professor somewhere and write on the side. By the time I had finished, however, I had lost interest in academics. The only career I wished to pursue was writing; to support myself, I scrounged for money and found jobs of little consequence.
Michael D. Toman and I moved to the Los Angeles area in 1980, driving from Michigan in my big, old, gas-guzzling car with lots of boxes.
Bill and Michael D. Toman stop at Bill's parents' home on their way west in 1980.
"I have no idea where the hats came from," Bill says. "This was during the one year after I was nineteen that I did not have my mustache. After near-total negative opinions, I let it grow back and kept it."
Michael remained there, while I moved to Florida less than a year later to live with my now ex-wife. A year after that, we moved to the Kansas City area, where we became involved with the local science fiction club and met a surprisingly large number of local science fiction writers. One of them was Rob Chilson, whose name I remembered from some of his short fiction in Analog magazine and a novel called The Shores of Kansas.
My friendship with Rob remains something of a mystery to both of us. While I share some basic socio-economic, educational, or popular culture background with all my other close friends, Rob and I have virtually nothing in common on the surface: Not our economic or educational background, not a racial heritage, not even shared movies, music, and television in our youth. An interest in science fiction and fantasy? Sure, but I share that with lots of people I know.
In any case, our rapport led to ten collaborations in Analog, countless trips to science fiction conventions, and a great deal of fun along the way.
I was involved with Diana G. Gallagher for most of the 1980s, and we were married for a time. We were divorced in 1990.
In late 1997 I finally had to get a full-time job because my writing income had dropped. I became a copy editor at the Antelope Valley Press in Palmdale, California. I had followed the news closely all my life and found that while I had never wanted to work at a newspaper, I enjoyed the work and made many friends. After a number of promotions over the years, I left the newspaper in 2017.
I continued writing, of course, on three novels starting in 1998. None of the three found a publisher. For financial reasons, I had to cut back on going to s.f. conventions and seemed to disappear from the field, I later found, though I never intended to do so. My short fiction career picked up again after an absence of way too many years.
In 2007, I married Fulian Tan. We now live in Lakewood, California.
My career, for both good or otherwise, can be found in my bibliography. I have left out only two major subjects in this review -- I've chosen not to mention women with whom I've been involved, except for my two marriages, nor the kids in those marriages. With the exception of those subjects, the summary above touches on the influences that in some way molded me and my work.
Last Modified: Aug. 19, 2020
Copyright William F. Wu 2020. All Rights Reserved.