“This is my editor.”

The man who called me an optimist: remembering writer Tom Purdom

7 minute read
Close-up of Tom, an elderly white man, with glasses, a tan cap, white goatee, and calm smile.

On March 16, 2020, Tom Purdom wrote me an email that I remember as an example of his characteristic good-hearted intelligence, plus the acute prescience of a science-fiction writer who’s been doing the homework for decades:

“I read some things that convinced me people my age should take extra precautions. The personal risk is still small but a flood of seniors with severe cases could overwhelm the medical system.”

He told me he’d decided he had an “obligation” to stay away from restaurants, coffee shops, and the concerts he loved writing about. (By this point, he and I had been working together at BSR for several years.) “The music season may start again in May or late April,” he wrote that day, “but I suspect it won’t.”

He already knew what a lot of us weren’t even able to process.

Tom also probably knew more about mRNA in the 1960s than most of us knew when we started to get our first Covid-19 shots in 2021. In his 2005 memoir, he rails against a mid-century glut of stories about telepathy and telekinesis, calling it “one of the worst things that had ever happened to science fiction.” He thought the best stories had roots in plausible science and made a point of studying the field as a young man: “I had worked my way through articles that buzzed with unfamiliar terms like nucleotide and mRNA and acquired a fuzzy understanding of the developments taking place in molecular biology,” he wrote of that time (mRNA was discovered in 1961). “Anybody could see that we were standing on the brink of revolutionary developments in the life sciences.”

A study of data from 185 countries published in 2022 estimated that Covid-19 vaccines saved almost 20 million lives in the first year they became available.

When the words wouldn’t come

A few weeks after Tom died in January at the age of 87, I got an email from one of his longtime friends, wondering why we hadn’t published anything about him. It was a fair question. Almost as soon as I got the news that he had passed after a short stint in hospice at home (I was able to send him a final message of appreciation via our mutual friend and fellow writer Camille Bacon-Smith), I knew I wanted to write a tribute to him. Within a few days, once my emotions had settled enough to do it, I opened a new document.

For more than a month, it held nothing but my jumbled notes. Tom just wasn’t a person I could write about quickly. I cannot easily describe the working relationship we had. And every time I tried, I felt too sad. Instead of drafting, I began to read When I Was Writing: A Literary Memoir, Tom’s absorbing 10-part reflection on his life and work, which is still available on his website.

The man who called me an optimist

I knew Tom for a little more than a decade. He had been reviewing music since 1988, which is the year I turned five. “This is my editor,” he would impishly intone when he introduced me to people at concerts or industry events.

In the years before the pandemic, I ran a multigenerational group for local writers, which Tom joined, and we met for lunch or dinner once a month in Center City. He also came out regularly for BSR events, whatever the venue, and I looked forward to seeing his tall, stooped figure, usually in a tan trenchcoat and a newsboy cap, carrying a cushion wherever he went. When he had a long stint in the hospital after a near-fatal bike accident, I visited him and once had the benefit of hearing a cellist who played for him (one among many local musicians he had reviewed over the years who showed up).

Our conversations, often over the sliders he enjoyed ordering for dinner, were always a refreshing mix of inquiry and respect. Tom never disregarded me, my ideas, or my expertise just because I was a young woman—a quality I wish more men had. We often disagreed and railed over our beer, and he had a way of challenging my assumptions that made me feel honored to be taken so seriously. Five years ago, I wrote about one such conversation in which we argued about the meaning of optimism and why he said my ongoing work as a journalist, despite my dour emotional tendencies, defines me as an optimist.

Intelligent questions

While most of his memoir focuses on science-fiction writing, Tom nails many truths about being a journalist. “You’re not a true expert, but you can talk to experts. You can ask intelligent questions and put the answers into context,” he says. When he began to write professionally about music, he remembers a reader appreciating the way he “knew what people didn’t know.”

“Real experts often lose touch with the audience they’re writing for,” he continues. “I could still remember all the things that had puzzled me when I had been an untutored member of the audience.”

To me, his whole memoir is the story of an education: a quest of the mind in a century when you had to show up at the library if you really wanted to understand something. Giddy flares of psychology, physics, mathematics, biology, and history became the fabric of stories that delighted readers for decades. It was always the learning, not touting what he knew.

Whose glorious days?

On the one hand, reading Tom’s memoir pushed my sadness away: that voice I enjoyed so much isn’t gone at all. I kept his website open in a tab on my computer for weeks, dipping into it again and again when I was supposed to be editing. On the other hand, I’m sad all over again because now I can’t debate any of it with him over a burger or a glass of wine.

He writes about “the glorious days of the typewriter era—the days when writers had to have stamina and character and iron-willed determination.” I wish we had another chance to compare and contrast the life of a 20th-century writer with my 21st-century career. Drafting my book on a laptop must’ve been a piece of cake compared to working on a typewriter (Tom describes meeting an editor’s demand to cut 15,000 words from a novel by tallying each word he struck by hand on a sheet of scratch paper).

But what about the stamina and character and iron-willed determination of writers—especially cultural writers—in a world where outlets are firing us en masse? Every day, we fight a digital hydra of memes, flourishing propaganda, and dewy-eyed “content creators” for each iota of our subscribers’ mental real estate. Not to mention the AI slurping and scraping our every word in a race to replace us entirely.

Honestly, I might take the typewriter.

How to see the future

Recently, I was guest-teaching a class of journalism undergrads, and their professor, a veteran journalist a few decades older than I am, opined that they do not yet have a voice as writers. I instantly disagreed. Just because it’s developing doesn’t mean you can’t hear it. I had a voice at age 20, even though it’s not the voice I have now at age 40. And my voice will evolve over the next 40-plus years, should I be so lucky. As a lifelong learner himself, Tom knew that. And as I start to teach and mentor other writers, I want to remember how easily he embraced a relative youngster, a woman, in the editor’s chair. That’s who he was: a fine, open-minded person with a canny eye on the future.

There will be a memorial service for Tom Purdom later this month. In lieu of flowers, friends can donate to local music groups Piffaro: The Renaissance Band and Dolce Suono.

At top: Tom Purdom. (Photo copyright 2023 by Sally Wiener Grotta.)

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