Remembering Kate Wilhelm
March 8, 2018
It is with great sadness that we announce the passing of Kate Wilhelm, the widely influential writer of science fiction and mystery, and one of the co-founders of the Clarion Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers’ Workshop, held annually at UC San Diego. Wilhelm died on March 8, 2018, after a brief illness. She was 89.
Wilhelm’s writing career, which began in 1956 with the publication of her story, “The Pint-Sized Genie” in Fantastic, spanned genres and styles, including science fiction, mystery, poetry, nonfiction and edited anthologies, and has been recognized for its complexity, depth, and prescience. Wilhelm was a 2003 inductee in the Science Fiction and Fantasy Hall of Fame and winner of several Nebula, Hugo and Locus awards, which honor the highest accomplishments in the field in a given year. The Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America’s Solstice Award, renamed the Kate Wilhelm Solstice Award in 2016, was awarded to Wilhelm in 2009, recognizing her “significant impact on the science fiction or fantasy landscape.”
Born June 8, 1928 in Toledo, Ohio, Katie Gertrude Meredith worked in many fields before she became a writer. In 1947, she married Joseph Wilhelm, with whom she had two sons. They divorced in 1962, and she married notable science fiction writer, editor and critic Damon Knight in 1963.
With Knight and Robin Scott Wilson, Wilhelm founded the Clarion Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers’ Workshop in 1968 at Clarion State College (now Clarion University), Pennsylvania. These annual workshops, along with the Milford Writer’s Conference, which she also co-organized in the mid-1950s, are responsible for fostering some of the best and brightest talents in the field, creating a vibrant literary community around speculative fiction. The Clarion Workshop has impacted hundreds of writers of science fiction, fantasy and every form of speculative fiction in the 50 years since its founding. Through many of those years, Wilhelm played an active role, either in co-teaching the workshop's final two weeks with Knight, or in later years keeping a watchful eye on the program and its students.
When the workshop’s funding at Michigan State University (MSU) was discontinued in 2006, Wilhelm founded the Clarion Foundation with Clarion graduates and teachers. She shepherded its move from MSU to UC San Diego ensuring the workshop's survival and success for future generations of writers.
“Whatever impact you may think Kate Wilhelm had on science fiction, double it,” said Karen Joy Fowler, current board president of the Clarion Foundation and author of We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves. “When she called on a few writers to help her save the Clarion Workshop, we responded largely out of the personal goodwill and gratitude we felt for her. And we represent legions.”
Shelley Streeby, Clarion faculty director and professor of literature and ethnic studies at UC San Diego, said, “I am so grateful for the powerful work Kate Wilhelm did in co-creating and sustaining the Clarion Workshop almost 50 years ago, so that today at UC San Diego emerging science fiction and fantasy writers from around the world still benefit from it.”
Streeby, author of the recent Imagining the Future of Climate Change: World-Making through Science Fiction and Activism (University of California Press), and Fowler are co-editing an anthology in honor of Clarion’s 50th anniversary, highlighting the diverse talents the workshop has incubated. “I always recommend to young writers Kate Wilhelm’s wonderful book Storyteller,which provides the best account of Clarion’s origins and early history,” said Streetby. “The large body of stories and novels she left behind are also a gift to all of us who care about the field.”
During the Clarion Workshop, held each summer for six weeks at the university, leading established authors descend on La Jolla to provide guidance and feedback to 18 students, selected from hundreds of applicants for their promise. These students have gone on to win numerous Nebula and Hugo awards, among other honors. Notable workshop alumni include Kelly Link, Kim Stanley Robinson, Octavia Butler, Fowler, Robert Crais, Cory Doctorow, Nalo Hopkinson, Bruce Sterling and Carmen Maria Machado—many of whom, in the spirit of Wilhelm herself, selflessly give back to the writing program and community that gave them their start.
“Kate was a crucial figure in my life," said Robinson, a UC San Diego alumnus, Clarion graduate/board member and author of New York 2140. “For several years after we met at Clarion, I drove up to the monthly workshops she and Damon Knight held at their house in Eugene, where they gave me and many others a literary home.”
Since 2007, the Clarion Workshop has been hosted at UC San Diego, which itself boasts a record of producing more speculative fiction authors than almost any other university, among them Kim Stanley Robinson, Catherynne Valente, David Brin, Amy Bender, Vernor Vinge, Luis Alberto Urrea, Gregory Benford and Cindy Pon. Clarion-affiliated writers often visit with UC San Diego students and collaborate with faculty through the Arthur C. Clarke Center for Human Imagination, which administers the Clarion Workshop on campus, including recent visits by George R.R. Martin, Cory Doctorow, Kim Stanley Robinson, Karen Joy Fowler, and Bruce Sterling, among others.
A celebration of Kate Wilhelm’s life will be held in Eugene, Oregon, on Friday, June 8, 2018. Details will be announced through Infinity Box Press (infinityboxpress.com).