Chuck McKenzie was one of the very first friends I made in SF. We met at a Convention in 2002, and basically, have been pretty much taking the piss out of each other ever since. He’s also the author of a novel and a number of finely crafted short stories, may of which were assembled in his collection Confessions of a Pod Person.
Chuck has worked as a reviewer, editor, judge for both the Aurealis and Australian Shadows Awards, and owner of an SF/comic bookshop. He claims he was born in 1970, and still spends much of his time there. He’s a fan of the Goodies, so he’s not all bad, and enjoys a nice Merlot, so he’s not all sane.
He also understands greatness, as will become more than apparent as he reveals his precious literary treasure.
Precious Things: Chuck McKenzie
The book that had the greatest impact upon me as a writer – and possibly as a person – is one that, oddly, I no longer own. In fact, it’s not even a book I’m particularly keen to own, or re-read. And yet…
November 1977: My mother took me to see Star Wars in the city. The movie had been screening in Australia for over a month, and everyone was talking about it. And the endless array of merchandise in the shops had been building my expectations to a point where I felt I was going to die if I didn’t see it. So we saw it. And while I’ve not remained a die-hard fan of Star Wars as an adult, that movie was The Most Amazing Thing I’d Ever Seen.
My mother, on the other hand – utterly exhausted from the effort of organising the outing, and probably from wrangling an overly-hyped junior SF fan – fell asleep before Luke and Obi-Wan even hit the Mos Eisley Cantina.
Afterwards, possibly guilted by my highly vocal incredulity that she could have fallen asleep during The Greatest Movie in the History of Forever, my mum took me to a book shop. At that stage, I was already what my teachers termed ‘an advanced reader’, enjoying authors such as H. G. Wells, Jules Verne and Nicholas Fisk, where my schoolmates were reading the inanely childish readers provided by school. Indeed, I had already stated my desire to be A Writer when I grew up, despite being warned by many grown-ups that writing wasn’t a Real Job. Thus, I gravitated immediately towards the SF display rather than the kids’ section…and that’s where I saw it:
Doctor Who And the Abominable Snowmen. By Terrence Dicks.
It’s no exaggeration to say that, in that moment, Star Wars was completely forgotten.
Like many kids of the 1970s, I’d been raised on a heady mix of ABC programming that consisted of The Goodies at 6pm, followed by a music video or short cartoon, then Doctor Who at 6.30, four nights a week. My parents were mistrustful of science fiction in general, but figured Doctor Who must be fine, because surely the ABC wouldn’t screen anything that wasn’t artistic and laudable.
I stared at the book. The words DOCTOR WHO looked exactly like they did on the opening credits on TV, and I knew that Terrence Dicks was one of the principal writers for the show. But the person depicted on the cover, whom I surmised was supposed to be the Doctor, was not either of the actors I associated with the role (that is, Jon Pertwee and Tom Baker), although I did recall seeing him in a story called The Three Doctors, where he was playing a sort of alternate version of the Doctor. I looked at the back of the cover, and saw that the book was something called a ‘novelisation’, based upon a story that had screened on TV. IN 1967!!!!
At that moment, a couple of epiphanies smacked me over the back of the head.
One: that my favourite TV show had indeed been around a great deal longer than I had, which, in my mind, immediately raised it from being merely cool to being awesome, mysterious, and worth deeper investigation. And the man on the cover of The Abominable Snowman was an actor who had played the Doctor before Pertwee and Baker!
Two: That science-fiction was something Other People were interested in, too! In direct contrast to my mum’s assertion that I must one day ‘grow up’ and stop living in my ‘own little fantasy world’, science fiction was obviously a popular thing with grown-ups too – otherwise, why would they produce movies like Star Wars, or books based upon Doctor Who?
Three: if people like Terrence Dicks had the job of writing scripts for Doctor Who on TV, then writing DW books must also be a job – which meant that I could so be a writer as a job! IN YOUR FACE, GROWN UPS!!
To make a long story longer, I went home and read all of Doctor Who and the Abominable Snowmen in one sitting, by torchlight, under my doona. And it was brilliant. And the epiphanies of that day, plus the simple but successful structuring of the many Target Doctor Who novelisations I would read over the next decade or so, left me with lessons in theme, plotting and prose that I would not fully appreciate until I began selling my own speculative fiction some 22 years later.
So: A Long Time Ago, In A Bookshop Reasonably Far Away, that’s how it all kicked off for me.