ANDREA SEABROOK, host:
From NPR News, this is WEEKEND EDITION. I'm Andrea Seabrook.
Science fiction author James Tiptree, Jr. wrote a story 34 years ago in which a woman and a man meet aliens on earth. The man tries to protect the woman. But in the end, the woman decides she doesn't want his protection and prefers to live with the aliens, hoping for a less male-dominated life. That kind of short story earned Tiptree a reputation as a man who really understood women. But there was a secret. James Tiptree was in reality a woman named Alice B. Sheldon.
There's a new biography of the writer called James Tiptree, Jr.: The Double Life of Alice B. Sheldon. The book is by Julie Phillips, who joins us from our Chicago bureau.
Welcome to the program.
Ms. JULIE PHILLIPS (James Tiptree, Jr. Biographer): Thank you.
SEABROOK: First, tell us a little bit about Tiptree/Sheldon's writing.
Ms. PHILLIPS: She loved messing with stereotypes. And she liked using male perspectives but then undermining them. In the story that you described, The Women Men Don't See, the story is told from the point of view of this man who's trying to figure out what these women are doing and misunderstands them at every turn in ways that are really revealing about him, while remaining basically sympathetic. I mean, I think in some ways he's an alter ego for Tiptree himself, who was Alice Sheldon's writing persona.
SEABROOK: You say that she was doing this writing in the early '70s at a time when feminism was taking off. Why then didn't she write as a woman?
Ms. PHILLIPS: She was older. She started writing when she was in her early 50s, in the late 1960s. But she was born in 1915 and she had grown up with more ideas than later generations about what women could and couldn't say. And she was very feminist and very independent-minded, but still I think she needed to become somebody else. And she took the name as a joke. It wasn't a calculated thing. She chose the pseudonym from a jar of jam in the supermarket. She thought, oh, just for fun.
She was an academic at that point. She'd just gotten her degree in experimental psychology. And she wanted to send off some science fiction stories that she had written for fun. And it got away from her. It became a persona who could say things that she couldn't. I don't think she expected that to happen.
SEABROOK: How did Alice B. Sheldon pull off being James Tiptree, Jr. for more than a decade?
Ms. PHILLIPS: Well, she'd had a lot of experience that was more typically male than female. Starting in early childhood, her parents were African explorers who took her with them on their travels when she was a small child in the 1920s. And so she knew things about hunting elephants, let's say. And then she joined the Army in World War II and people would say, oh, you know, this must be a man because she was in the Army. And she was in the CIA and hung around with men and was married and picked up some of her language from her husband and his friends.
And if you can - if it's fair to talk about that, I think you can say she had a very male mindset. But at the same time, as she was getting more feminist in the 1970s, people really wanted to believe that there were men who could be feminists. And she played right into that. Of course, everybody wanted to believe that Tiptree was a man because everybody wanted this sensitive man to exist.
SEABROOK: How was her cover blown?
Ms. PHILLIPS: She had - she - this guy Tiptree, one of the ways in which he seemed to be a sensitive man was that he was always talking about having to make trips to Chicago. He lived in the Washington, D.C. area. And so...
SEABROOK: And when you say always talking about having to make - what do you mean?
Ms. PHILLIPS: I should say, nobody ever saw him in person. Nobody ever spoke to him on the phone. But he sent letters. He corresponded with his agent. He corresponded with his editors. He corresponded prolifically with other writers. He really enjoyed having these colleagues and friendships by mail, with all kinds of people: Philip K. Dick and Ursula Le Guin and Joanna Russ and Harlan Ellison, all of whom thought they were getting letters from a man. But this man would say, you know, oh, I have to got Chicago and visit my mother; she's old, she's not well.
And so when Tiptree finally reported that his mother died, a friend of his decided to look up the obituary in the Chicago papers, because he knew that Tiptree's parents had been explorers and that his mother had been a writer, and found the obituary and it said survived by one daughter, Alice Bradley Sheldon.
SEABROOK: She committed suicide about a decade after her identity was discovered. Was that part of why? Was her discovered identity why she committed suicide?
Ms. PHILLIPS: Her second husband was much older than she was, and so when she was 71 and he was 84, and blind and bedridden, she shot him and then she called her lawyer and she called her stepson, and then she shot herself.
SEABROOK: Wow, wow. What did she say to her lawyer and her stepson?
Ms. PHILLIPS: She said to her lawyer that she had done this thing and please don't call the police, just give me time to do what I have to do. And she talked to her stepson about how important she felt it was to go at that moment because even though she was an atheist, she felt like they needed to go together in order to be together in the afterlife.
SEABROOK: Did you come to see your own gender differently, writing this biography of her?
Ms. PHILLIPS: Hmm. I guess what I was most interested in was how becoming somebody else allowed her to write. A lot of writers talk about having another self who does their writing for them or a voice that seems to speak to them, and Tiptree made it literal, and I was fascinated by that as a writing strategy.
When I was a kid, I used to read stories about girls dressing up as a boy and running away from home, and I thought that was fabulous, and I wanted to do something like that. And it's incredibly impractical in your daily life, of course. But that idea of self-transformation was so liberating to me.
SEABROOK: Julie Phillips joins us from our Chicago bureau. She's doing a reading of her book in Chicago this weekend. The book is James Tiptree, Jr.: The Double Life of Alice B. Sheldon. It's published by St. Martin's Press. Thank you so much.
Ms. PHILLIPS: Thank you.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.