Of Hectograph Maintenance and Mormon Trivia: Patrick and Teresa Nielsen Hayden

by Cory Doctorow

The thing you need to understand about Teresa and Patrick Nielsen Hayden is that they come as a firm: the partnership of Nielsen and Hayden. Lots of married couples rely on one another, but there are days when it feels to me like Patrick and Teresa store parts of their brains in each other’s skull. I’ve stayed on their sofa, taught with them, been edited by them, worked alongside of them, and I’m here to tell you, the extent to which they operate as a unit boggles even the science fictional imagination.

To know the NHs is to be part of a perpetual, ongoing salon about the things that matter to fans–that is, everything. Snag Patrick and get him to hold forth on urban planning, US Civil War history, hectograph maintenance, and trade publishing economics. Get Teresa to tell you about fossils, meteors, Yiddish jokes, Mormon trivia, principled religious excommunication, online moderation, and the use and abuse of language. Or get both of them together and introduce practically any other subject of interest and watch them go at it with the tenacity of terriers and the imaginative freedom of uninhibited kids.

I met Patrick and Teresa on a dial-up BBS in the late 1980s and showed Patrick his first e-book–a Gutenberg text on my Palm Pilot–in the mid-90s at an Ad Astra in Toronto. The following Christmas, we all went out for lunch in New York, and Patrick told me he was going to take Tor into this e-publishing stuff, and by the way, did I have any novels I could send to him? He bought the book I was working on then, Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom, and greenlighted my distributing it as the first-ever, free, CreativeCommons licensed download, ever. Quoth the ever-quotable PNH: “E-books had the worst ratio of dollars earned to hours in meetings of any venture in the history of the business. It was time to try some experiments.”

This is why I love having Patrick as my editor: He combines intellectual rigour with hackerish sensibilities. He knows copying’s not going to get harder, understands that a certain amount of free online distribution will always take place, and rather than stamping his foot and demanding that the universe rearrange itself to suit his prejudices, he goes out looking for ways of doing business in the world in media res.

Of course, the other reason Patrick is a great editor is that he is a great editor. Without fail, Patrick has read my draft novels, looked upon them, and told me the single one important thing that I needed to do to make them vastly better books. Patrick’s got a hard-won, fine-tuned sense of what it takes to make the two worlds of any SF novel–the big story of the world the author has constructed and the small story of the people who travel it and illuminate it–mesh like the small front gear of a bicycle and the big, high-torque gear it couples to on the back wheel.

Teresa is the detail person. The small details of language, of people, of relationships, of type and production and aesthetics: Teresa pincers them up with keen fingers, threads them together on an invisible twine of attention and meaning, and puts them somewhere where the world can see–and benefit–from them.

Things you should know about the NHs: I have stayed in three of their places. Each one was homey: an obstacle course of books, manuscripts, rocks, and computers of varying vintages. All have had somewhere for a guest to stay, even it was just a sofa, and all have had frequent guests staying on it. There is an archive they schlep around with them: an enormous collection of odd-sized boxes of fanzines and fan history, saved because someone has to save them. There are always gardens, and they are always adorned with sweet oddments, such as pieces of cornice from the fabled Flatiron Building, home to Tor and the rest of the Macmillan USA empire. Teresa puts up strange and wonderful comestibles, such as booze infused with citrus zest that has been separated from the peel by means of a rasp intended for fine carpentry. Patrick uses two cups and a timer to make his tea. If you all go for dinner and Teresa picks the restaurant, there will be bugs–giant, butter-drippy lobsters.

Another thing you should know about them: I’ve been with Patrick and Teresa in situations as varied as high-powered corporate meetings with their boss’s boss’s boss, salons with Nobel laureates, con suites at small regional cons, classrooms, roadside oyster shacks, and coffee shops of every variety and description. And no matter what or where we are, they are Patrick and Teresa: exactly the same, without a shred of pretension or pandering. What you see is what you get with them, and it’s always the genuine article.

Lucky us!

Reprinted from the SFContario 1 Souvenir Book