At long last Julie Phillips‘ superlatively brilliant biography of Alice Hastings Bradley Davies Sheldon/James Tiptree, Jr./Raccoona Sheldon is out. Alli (as Alice was known) was endlessly fascinating. She was the child of adventurers who waltzed her around Africa and India as a child. She grew up to be an artist (before quitting cause she didn’t think she was good enough), joined the military during World War 2, worked for the CIA, ran a chicken farm, became a Ph.d in psychology, as well as two different science fiction writers: James Tiptree, Jr. and Raccoona Sheldon. Quite the cv.
Julie’s biography more than does justice to Alli Sheldon. It’s beautifully written and exhaustively researched. There’s not a false note anywhere. Julie’s written the book I wanted to write. Literally.
Back in 1996 I’d almost finished my Ph.D. thesis (The Battle of the Sexes in Science Fiction). I’d also already figured out what my next project would be: a bio of Tiptree. I had the seed for it in the chapter on Tiptree from Battle. I wrote to my friend, Gordon Van Gelder, who was then an editor at St Martin’s Press, and asked if he thought there’d be any interest. He replied instantly to say not only was there interest but he’d just signed up such a book that very week. A journalist named Julie Phillips was going to write it.
And then I weasled info about Julie out of Gordon. He sent me her Tiptree article from the Village Voice. It was excellent, which was a relief (Alli’s in good hands), and a bit of a bummer (she’s not going to drop the ball so that I can step in and take over). We started corresponding and wound up sending each other all the Tiptree material the other one didn’t have. My chapter on Tiptree got a whole lot better; Julie went on to spend a total of ten years researching and writing the Tiptree biography. And we became friends.
I could not have produced the book that Julie did. For starters I don’t have that kind of stamina: ten years exclusively on the one book! I’d die. Nor do I have her awesome research skills. (I’m good at archival material, not so good at getting reluctant folks to agree to interviews, let alone drawing them out.) Plus it turns out that I’m much happier writing fiction than non-fiction. (Making things up is so much easier than researching them.)
Julie’s also a gorgeous writer who knows how to stand back from her material. Julie lets Alli speak for herself. Her commentary about Alli’s life are more musings than conclusions. She gives the reader space to draw their own. (I can think of several biographers I wish would do the same!)
I’ve read The Double Life through various different drafts, each better than the last. The final version is one of the best biographies I’ve ever read. Do yourself and favour and get hold of a copy immediately.