I WAS WEANED ON ANOTHER PLANET: How My Father’s Love of Science Fiction Made Me A Writer
BY APRIL SMITH
AUTHOR OF A STAR FOR MRS. BLAKE
I wish you could have met my dad, Philip H. Smith, M.D.. A New Yorker to the soul, he was the kind of guy who could talk to anyone. He grew up in the Bronx when it was just empty lots where neighborhood kids roasted potatoes over an open fire. He attended Clinton High School and NYU — and although he didn’t believe in God and practiced no religion, he suffered discrimination due to the quota system against Jews applying to medical schools. He persevered, and began a general practice on the Grand Concourse when he was still too young to have a moustache. (He borrowed my mother’s mascara to fill his in.) He served as a Captain in the Army medical corps during WWII and was one of the first to use the new drug, penicillin . . . and he taught me to write.
Dad had published in student newspapers and little magazines, and his poems were anthologized in The Yearbook for Modern Poetry 1939, but the breakthrough was publishing a short story in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, the citadel of speculative fiction, which was always his first love.
He was a natural storyteller, and my fondest memories are of my father coming home for an afternoon break from the office when my mother was still at work, and share them with me. He’d fix himself a snack of herring and crackers with a cup of Lipton tea, which he’d enjoy while reading a book tenuously propped up against whatever was handy. I would be doing my homework, which he would pleasantly interrupt by lying on my bed and spontaneously improvising science fiction stories.
My parents had a substantial library which included shelves of Ballantine paperbacks and no doubt these were riffs on stuff he’d read – A.E. Van Vogt, Isaac Asimov, Frederik Pohl, Philip K. Dick, Poul Anderson and the rest of the canon. I was entranced by the jacket art as much the plots – those haunting abstract surreal images of globules becoming faces while doomed rocket ships fell from scarlet skies took me to the ‘outer limits’ of imagination, which my father thought was a perfectly appropriate place for a nine year-old mind.
My first literary efforts were imitations of Ray Bradbury, whose books I discovered in the tiny public library perched above a dry cleaners on Kingsbridge Road in the Bronx. I’d hole up in my pink and white room, carefully typing on my beloved Olympus, emerging with pages I’d show to my dad. He was a sharp and intuitive editor. He taught me to write lean sentences. He hated “padding” in fiction and expertly revised my short stories in hasty blue ink – then – and this is pretty whacky – encouraged me to send them to The New Yorker. I was barely out of elementary school, but already initiated into the world of grown-up writers, who knew how to properly submit a manuscript with an SASE and their name on every page, although I doubt many kissed their envelopes for good luck before dropping them into dark maw of the corner post box. Soon I had a cookie tin full of rejection slips. But the lasting effect of working with my father was powerful. He never criticized or judged. He took me into his world, and took mine seriously.
Meanwhile Dad was pounding away at his own originals on the Royal, which he’d set up on the kitchen table on Sundays. One of these was about a doctor who discovers he can cure people just by touching them – a talent which quickly takes a very nasty turn. The editors of Fantasy and Science Fiction suggested that he collaborate with the prolific Alan E. Nourse, also a physician, and “A Miracle Too Many,” appeared in the September, 1964 issue. It was anthologized in the 10th Annual Edition of The Year’s Best S-F edited by Judith Merrill, along with work by Isaac Bashevis Singer, Arthur C. Clark, and John D. MacDonald. The original issue, which sold for forty cents, became in icon of success for me and my brother, Ronald L. Smith, also a writer.
“When it first began, Dr. Stephen Olie’s curious gift appeared in the manner of most true miracles, insidiously and without fanfare . . . “
Dad soldiered on with his practice along with solitary hours at the Royal. In 1979 he published a memoir, Doctor! about ministering to the immigrants in our old neighborhood. When the Grand Concourse went downhill and doctors were being robbed by drug addicts, he closed his office and took a job at the Veterans Administration Hospital in Montrose, New York, which provided material for his second nonfiction book, All Patients Sick and Crazy. According to the jacket copy (written by my brother), “This makes One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest look tame. One lovesick patient gives the nurse the eye – taking his glass eye right out of the socket!”
Philip H. Smith, M.D. died at the age of 94 on December 6, 2011 but his love and encouragement are present for me every day. Always the sweetest moment of publication was giving Dad a copy of a new book that I’d written, and watching him marvel at the printed pages. He knew what went into every word, but he was far from sentimental. Once I told him about a particularly generous advance and he said, “You know you’ll have to pay taxes on that.” No matter, he was proud, and then came the words I lived to hear: “Honey, that’s terrific!”