Reaching for the Stars A Lot of Careers and a Lot of Years Have Gone by, but Brunswick's Jack McDevitt Knew, Someday, Science Fiction Would Take Him Where He Wanted to Go

By Hyman, Ann | The Florida Times Union, May 29, 1997 | Go to article overview
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Reaching for the Stars A Lot of Careers and a Lot of Years Have Gone by, but Brunswick's Jack McDevitt Knew, Someday, Science Fiction Would Take Him Where He Wanted to Go


Hyman, Ann, The Florida Times Union


BRUNSWICK, Ga. -- Jack McDevitt, 62, got hooked on science

fiction early.

When he was a kid growing up in Philadelphia, and couldn't

even read yet, his dad took him to the movies to see the Flash

Gordon serials -- primitive cinema, special effects from a

movie-maker's basement workbench.

But, McDevitt was wide-eyed at the rocket ships, even if some

could see the wires.

"I remember we came out of the theater one night, there was a

full moon over the rooftops of South Philly that night, and I

asked my dad if we would ever go to the moon. 'Not going to

happen, kid,' he told me. 'Lemme tell you why. Rockets don't work

in outer space, you can't steer the ships.' "

That was the conventional wisdom of the day. It was revised.

The little boy grew up to be a novelist, an award-winning

science fiction novelist. He's written five novels, dozens of

short stories and novellas. His novella, Time Travelers Never

Die, has been nominated for the prestigious Hugo award, to be

announced in August.

It began with Flash Gorden and the hours McDevitt spent

reading H.G. Welles, Jules Verne, Edgar Rice Burroughs, and the

pulp adventures in outer space from the garish sci-fi magazines

of the day.

"I read science fiction up until I was about 17, up until the

time I went to college," he said.

After college, there were five years in the Navy as a

communications specialist, 10 years as a high school English

teacher, a brief stint as a journalist and finally a 20-year

career with the U.S. Customs Service.

For years, the McDevitts -- Jack, his wife, Maureen, and three

children were stationed at the Canadian border at Pembina, N.D.,

on the Red River.

"It's a town of 600," he said. "Winters, it's 40 degrees below

zero, the wind 50 miles per hour, the wind chill 100 below zero."

The McDevitts thrived in the deep freeze.

"What I really liked about it, it was a fair amount of

solitude. It was just a nice place where the snow fell and you

could read. There was no television to speak of, and three channels,

one of which was French. There was a much better social life than

anything I've seen anywhere else. People spent time together. It

was a great place to raise kids," he said.

From Pembina, the McDevitts moved to Chicago. Finally, 12

years ago, they came to Brunswick, where McDevitt worked as a

motivational trainer for 10 years at the Federal Law Enforcement

Training Center.

All those years, McDevitt had a hungry feeling that he wanted

to write. But, he didn't write because he didn't think he could

write.

Wrong.

It was Maureen McDevitt who finally got him going. She told

him, "Do it or quit talking about it."

He wrote a short story called The Emerson Effect, the title

drawn from Ralph Waldo Emerson's notion that you can do anything,

if you set your mind to it.

He sent it out twice, and it was returned twice. Third time

was the charm. The Emerson Effect was published in December, 1981

in Twilight Zone magazine.

It was a breakthrough, but McDevitt kept his day job.

The new author was in very respectable literary company as a

customs inspector by day and a writer of fiction by night --

Nathaniel Hawthorne and Herman Melville blazed that trail in the

19th century.

McDevitt retired from the Customs Service two years ago.

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