Ramblin’ Rhodes: Award-winning sci-fi writer Bishop turns eye to stories about Georgians

Just a few days ago on July 26, the Washington Post published by an article by Michael Dirda about new books of short stories to read this summer.

 

The first book that Dirda reviewed was none other than Other Arms Reach Out to Me: Georgia Stories (Kudzu Planet/Fairwood Press) by Michael Bishop, who lives across the state in Pine Mountain near Columbus, Ga.

Dirda observed, “Michael Bishop is well known as a science fiction writer – don’t miss his best-of collection, The Door-Gunner and Other Perilous Flights of Fancy – but this new book collects his equally fine stories about contemporary Southern life.”

Bishop, who sent yours truly a copy of his new book a few weeks ago, emailed me over this past weekend, “It’s something of a disappointment to me, however, that not one major Georgia newspaper has yet run a notice of this book, even though its author is a dyed-in-the-peach Georgian himself and the stories are all about Georgians.”

Well, let me remedy that situation with this long overdue column about Bishop that must begin with the confession that I’ve known him for 53 years this coming September.

By happenstance, Bishop and his roommate, Ray Cavender of Newnan, Ga., the fall of 1964 were assigned the room next to mine on the second floor of Joe Brown Dormitory for our sophomore year at the University of Georgia.

It didn’t take long before Bishop, Cavender and another friend, Nelson Austin, and I became sort of the four Mouseketeers; doing lots of fun things together including taking a trip to Jacksonville, Fla., to see new football coach Vince Dooley lead his team in a bowl game (they lost) and to see concerts in Athens and Atlanta.

It was Bishop who introduced me to Bob Dylan in his acoustic album-making days. My initial thought was wondering how anyone could like that shrill, nasal voice. But, before long, I became another Dylan convert.

By chance, I had come to know Ralph Bridges, an Atlanta promoter, who was bringing Dylan to Atlanta’s old Municipal Auditorium in October of 1965. I scored front row, center seats for Bishop, Cavender and myself (Austin couldn’t go for some reason).

And a few months later when Bishop’s birthday (Nov. 12) was coming up, I got all four members of the Mamas & Papas (California Dreaming and Monday, Monday) backstage at an Atlanta show to sign their vinyl album cover for him with Mama Cass writing “Happy Birthday” on it.

College graduations sent our foursome in different directions. Bishop would spend four years in the U.S. Air Force teaching English at the Air Force Academy, while I spent three years in the Army. When I was stationed for a year and a half with the Army Signal Corps at Fort Huachuca, Ariz., after a year in Vietnam, I got to take a trip to Colorado Springs, Colo., and visit with Bishop and his wife, Jeri. They took me to the Garden of the Gods red rocks recreation area, tubing down the South Platte River and seeing other local sights, including the futuristic Air Force Academy building. We continued to stay in touch by letters, Christmas cards and phone calls and, eventually, by emails.

I watched Bishop become a world-renown science fiction novelist; winning major honors like the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America’s Nebula Award, having his articles published in fan-favorite magazines and having his more than 30 books praised by critics and fans.

As a career writer, I have been envious of how my friend from college can create such complicated plots and colorful characters fueled by his brilliant imagination and super-large vocabulary that often sent me to the dictionary.

Like our friend, Georgia author Paul Hemphill, Bishop began incorporating into his writings his personal past and hobbies, such as following the Atlanta Braves. His 1994 novel Brittle Endings was about 17-year-old rookie, Oklahoma baseball player Danny Boles, heading for a farm club in Georgia.

His 2016 “novel for young people whatever their age,” Joel-Brock the Brave and the Valorous Smalls (also Kudzu Planet/Fairwood Press), is about 10-year-old Joel-Brock Lollis who returns home from a baseball game to discover that his parents and sister have been kidnapped. He recruits two employees of the “local big-box department store” in his quest to rescue his family.

When Bishop several years ago came to talk at Augusta University, I arranged with Beverly Ford, owner of Ty Cobb’s former home on Williams Street, to let Bishop have an inside tour of the hallowed grounds. He, in turn, gave autographed copies of his then latest book to Ford and her son when they came to hear his talk that night.

I always thought Bishop and his wife had “the perfect life,” with their private lives involving their church, charitable projects and raising their son, Jamie, and daughter, Stepanie, in small town Pine Mountain within bicycling distance of Callaway Gardens resort.

Bishop’s Christmas card in December of 2006 was its usual newsy updating of the Bishops’ lives. Mike told me about a recent trip the family had taken to Blacksburg, Va., to visit their son and his wife, Stefanie Hofer.

Part of that trip was Jamie showing off the campus of Virginia Tech University, where a year before he had begun teaching introductory German language and literature.

Ah, the charmed, idyllic, perfect family life of the Bishops continues to make me envious, I thought.

Yes, I thought that until four months later on an April morning when I turned on the TV set and learned that among the 27 students and five faculty members slaughtered by a killer on the Virginia Tech campus was 35-year-old German language instructor Jamie Bishop. And as many of you also know, another victim was 22-year-old Ryan Clark of Martinez, Ga., who was a senior at the college, a resident assistant and a musician in the Marching Virginians college band.

I don’t have to tell you how tough it has been for the Bishops over the past decade and how their hearts have broken.

Bishop’s website michaelbishop-writer.com still has posted, “Jamie’s mother and I would like to thank the hundreds of you who have sent cards, letters, or condoling e-mails. Virtually all of you note that it’s next to impossible to express your heartbreak in words (although some come eloquently close) and that mere words are not likely to assuage our pain.

“However, we would like those who have written, or telephoned, to know that your grieving with us and for us does in fact offer some comfort. We will never fully escape the ache that we now feel, but if we did, we would no longer qualify as fully human.”

Bishop’s new book, Other Arms Reach Out to Me: Georgia Stories, concludes with a story titled “Rattlesnakes and Men,” which Bishop told the Columbus Ledger-Enquirer newspaper is “a controversially satirical take on gun politics in Georgia set in an alternate time line.”

He further told the newspaper that the story “grows out of our lifelong desire to see the United States adopt sensible nationwide gun legislation that mandates background checks in every setting” and banning the sales to private citizens of military-style weapons “totally unnecessary for protecting one’s home and hunting.”

Most of the stories in Bishop’s new book are of a lighter nature, including Doggedly Wooing Madonna about a teenage boy who writes such eloquent, marriage proposal letters to pop singer Madonna that she makes a surprise visit to the suitor.

So if you have some summer reading time left or are making a list of books to read, give Bishop’s new release a try. And through the stories you, too, will come to know my friend who 50 years ago told me that all he wanted to do in life was write books.

 

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