On July 11, 1988, our editor of six years, Tim McGinnis, died of lymphatic cancer at the age of thirty-one. To call it a blow and a shock would be a severe understatement. Most people outside his family and close friends had no idea how sick he was; he wasn't one to complain.
He was a good buddy; we shared a few hair-raising adventures above and beyond our business relationship. Some of these were merely phone conversations, but Tim could make a long-distance discussion into an adventure. He was a truly funny guy, in a quirky way entirely his own, which luckily for us was big enough to also encompass the SubGenius style. Even if he'd had nothing to do with publishing our books, he'd have been "SubGenius Hierarchy" through and through.
It took months for the fact of his death to sink in, for me to realize what had been lost to so many -- including hundreds of people he never met, but who were part of dozens of SubGenius projects and spinoffs, from books to stage productions to radio and films. And I'm not so sure it ever really can sink in fully; I doubt I'm doing justice to his memory here. How could I? I probably owe him my career, without which even my marriage and therefore my life might well have been jeopardized. And all friends of the SubGenius Church certainly owe him for its visibility and commercial success.
More than a hundred publishers had rejected the proposals for The Book of the SubGenius before Tim suddenly, in our darkest days, appeared as if by magic and ramrodded it into print against all odds. He never saw the pamphlet/proposal I'd originally sent to his then-employer, McGraw-Hill; it'd been trashcanned by some secretary. Instead, during a picnic, my friend Leslie Gaspar showed him a beat-up copy she'd found lying in the back seat of my sister-in-law's car. Alone among those hundred-plus editors, he saw the potential and made us an offer the very next day. (In publishing, an offer leads to an agent, which leads to other offers, which leads to a track record. It isn't what you know, but who; we were very lucky to know Tim McGinnis.)
Once news got around, via our agent Jane Jordan Browne, that Tim was working with us, editors who'd previously shunned SubGenius started bidding on it themselves. Rather ironic, but illustrative of Tim's originality and willingness to go out on limbs.
I knew by then that Tim, alone aong the rival editors, understood "Bob" and what we were really trying to do. Whereas the others had all manner of Mickey Mouse ideas about how we should water down the Dobbsword to make it more palatable to idiots (retitling it "The Book of Bob" was the most frequent tell-tale suggestion), Tim intended to bring it to press with its purity intact. Today I cringe to think how insipidly cutesy the book would have become in any other hands. It might have sold better, but all SubGenii would have felt dirty and tainted forever. "Bob" himself must have brought Tim to us. He never censored a word. He guided, he collaborated, he advised, and he somehow managed to make his superiors think they understood it. He practically risked his job sticking up for us when the p.r. department thought he was nuts. He stuck to his guns throughout what became a public relations nightmare. There were McGraw-Hill employees who repeatedly denied (even to book chains with money in hand) that our trouble-making tome had ever been printed by their Great Father Company. SubGenius was, in fact, something of a publishing legend simply because Tim had conned such a strait-laced outfit as McGraw-Hill into distributing it in the first place.
When he changed jobs over to Rolling Stone's book publishing branch, he continued to look out for us, and after becoming an editor at Simon and Schuster's Fireside Books he miraculously convinced the powers-that-be that SubGenius could do well with better p.r. (It did; The Book of the SubGenius is still in stores, and getting plenty of attention despite its uncanny propensity for frightening timid media moguls.) So great was his concern for artistic integrity that when all twenty-thousand new copies were accidentally printed with an appendix page missing, he managed to have the entire run reprinted correctly!
Tim then sold Fireside on High Weirdness by Mail, although nothing like it had existed before. It did much better than expected. At that point, any other editor would've said, "Do another High Weirdness!" Instead, Tim encouraged us to compile Three Fisted Tales of "Bob".
He got us the contract, phoned occasionally to advise us, and then suddenly died in his sleep when the chemotherapy and megavitamin therapies failed. We had talked two weeks before his death; that was the first time I'd had any inkling that the illness he'd fought through the years was mortally serious. But his main comment was, "I'm getting better, though... don't worry."
Speaking for myself alone, were it not for Tim I'd probably, at best, be slaving away in some Conspiracy job instead of enjoying the luxury of working on my true calling at home, with the sounds of my children playing in the next room. At worst, I'd be be dead of hopelessness.
He left a real legacy. We aren't the only ones Tim McGinnis helped, or saved, not by a long shot. He had that rare talent for spotting unknown but worthwhile artists, and then selling corporate entities on their oddball projects even when they bore no earthly resemblance to current bestsellers. He stuck his neck out for dozens of struggling authors whose work met resistance elsewhere, but who went on to find critical and/or commercial success -- thanks in large part to Tim's vision, tenacity, and skill at smooth-talking sales executives. That combination of artistic savvy, pure soul, and mastery of corporate doubletalk occurs all too infrequently in modern publishing.
He gave many us our crucial first publications -- putting his own foot in the door so that we could sneak in. Tim was one of those very few behind-the-scenes giants who do so much of the dirty work for none of the glory. And he did it at the expense of his own work; he was an excellent, funny, biting, gutsy, humane writer, but he tended to put off finishing his novels in order to insure that his friends' works made it to the marketplace.
If any SubG sits at the right hand of "Bob", it's Tim McGinnis. Lest you think that a joke in poor taste, believe me when I say Tim would've appreciated it. He really was a "SubGenius", in the least jokesy sense of the word. He worked hard to see that the truth might be present between the lines, which is usually the best place to stash the truth. Unlike many of us, though, I never heard him say a mean or jealous word about anyone. He was capable of being as cynical as any of us, but could just as quickly drop that facade and become a real person, a nice young man with a wife and parents and dreams. And more guts than I can quite understand.
I'm sure Tim wouldn't mind my saying that he practiced what most religious people only preach. He didn't waste any of his limited and very valuable time paying lip-service to anything; he lived and did. He didn't worship "Bob" -- he laughed with "Bob", and gave thousands of others the chance to do so as well. He truly did unto others, etc., not for brownie points from any particular god, but simple because it made good sense to him.
And he hung in there to the bitter end, despite the physical agony and the debilitating weakness. Even after becoming bedridden (as I later discovered), as long as he could lift a telephone he continued doing his job, giving those last few deserving but unknown writers their big chance while he still could.
One of my most profound, if selfish, regrets is that he never got to finish his own "Bob" Tale for this book. When I was informed of his death, before the realness and sadness of it had quite sunk in, one of my first reactions was, "Damn! -- now he'll never get to read these stories!" I must reluctantly admit that I also had the mercenary thought, "But -- now who's going to support us in the commercial publishing world?" But I realized he'd already taken care of that. His hard work, stubborn encouragement and advice gained us just enough of a track record to survive and then prosper. It's terribly ironic that he's not here to enjoy it with us. Or is he?
The Church of the SubGenius has had many "saints," but Tim McGinnis is the first real one.
The Iowa Review has established a literary humor award to honor Tim's memory and spirit. All inquiries or contributions to the award should be sent to David Hamilton, c/o Iowa Review, 308 EPB, University of Iowa, Iowa City, Iowa 52242. ?
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