A Talk about Don McGregor’s 1981 novel,
The Variable Syndrome
The following conversation is excerpted from Don McGregor and
in the Don McGregor E-mail Forum, 2008
Don, we were talking over on your MySpace page not long ago about
"The Variable Syndrome", and specifically Elena, the character at the
heart of that story. I took out my old and much-thumbed copy from
1981, and read through the story again. It left deep impressions, just
as it did the first time I read it 27 years ago. For those of your fans and
readers here, I thought I might share those impressions (for those
who've never read the book, hunt it down on Amazon or e-bay! It is
one of those special treasures that come along all too infrequently -- it
also includes the fascinating, touching, disturbing and uplifting
"Investigating Detectives Inc.").
I was just beginning my own career as a poet in '81, and working hard
to try and come to understandings about the emotions, obsessions,
drives and desires of men and women. One thing I had almost never
seen done with a feeling of veracity, with an immediacy and intimacy,
was a literary depiction of a woman's sensuality, from a woman's
viewpoint, and written by a man. This, naturally, led me to the youthful
conclusion that it couldn't be done. The needs and desires of men and
women were impossible for the opposite gender to grasp, except
through the warped mirror of their own gender perceptions. Then I
read "The Variable Syndrome". In it are some of the most intimate,
passionate and powerful depictions of sexual love I have read. Elena,
from whose viewpoint they are presented, is hard-edged, distanced
from her husband by breakdowns in communication; she is hungry for
touch, both physical and spiritual, but has raised powerful emotional
walls between herself and intimacy with her partner (which his own
behavior has significantly contributed to). What the story presents is a
nuanced awakening of intense
sexuality, told without an instant of cliche. At age 23, I could not fully
understand all of those nuances (how such a distancing between
lovers can happen, and how incredibly difficult it can be to find the
way back to one another. At 50, I can look back and see just how
precisely you hit that nail on the head, Don).
The upshot of reading "The Variable Syndrome" was an awareness
that men COULD understand the depth and complexity of a woman's
sensual life, and that became something I could strive for, both in
writing, and more significantly, in living. Reading the book again this
weekend, I felt that affirmation just as strongly as I did in '81.
It is just another one of the gifts your writing has given to your
readers, Don, and I wanted you to know about it. I hope that I haven't
gone on too long here in this forum, but it seemed an appropriate
place to share that sense of appreciation with you, your friends, and
your readers here in this circle.
Elena walked out into a field of serpents in the end, ready to accept
the judgment of the night. I've walked into that very same field, with
mind and body both. Thanks for illuminating the pathway a bit.
Well, if anything will get me to re-read "The Variable Syndrome", it
will be,in the words of Jim Salicrup, your eloquently emotionally
charged response to the book after all these years.
Unlike Jim, I'll probably have a little fear about re-reading the book.
Most of the time, unless I am going back to write a character, I seldom
read the books after their initial printing. I read them then, sometimes
more than once, to get used to the reality of what they are, and my
impressions of them. I’m a little reluctant to tamper with time, and let
the impression remain unviolated. Originally, "The Variable
Syndrome" was scheduled to be one of the stories in "Dragonflame
and Other Bedtime Nightmares."
It was written while I still lived in the state of Rhode Island. The story
was 31 pages long. Why can I recall that, and not why I walked into a
room today and what I needed there? I have no answer for that.
I became concerned about the "Dragonflame" book because it had
two stories that dealt with relationships, all from a male point of view. I
had done little rewriting on the stories included in that anthology.
Quite possibly I had juggled some of the flashbacks in the "Bernie
Chojnacki" piece because that came from a larger novel, and the
Bernie section was merely one chapter. But for the most part, if
memory serves, there weren't any major rewrites in the stories, that
had been written during different time periods of my life. I
decided that I needed a story in that collection that WOULD be from a
woman's point of view, not a man's, and I started out to rewrite "The
Variable Syndrome" after everything else was done in
I changed the point of view to Elena's.
I did not add a single scene to that story.
But when 31 pages began to run over a hundred pages in text, Dave
Kraft wisely said, in words more or less like this:"I recognize a novel
when I see it, and this needs to be a book by itself."
I don't exactly recall where I was living when I wrote this new version
of THE VARIABLE SYNDROME, but I'm pretty sure it must have been
on the Bowery. I recall fondly to this day working with Dave Kraft in
the Green Kitchen restaurant in the upper 70s . East Side Manhattan in
the early morn hours, from 2 am to 5 am or
later. We would go over the transcripts, with Dave's notes and
suggestions. Sometimes there would be a
change Dave would want, and I would shake my head. No, that was
the way I wanted it.
And Dave would shrug, and say, "Okay, it's your book. If you want it
to be wrong."
Ten minutes later, I'd probably tell him to pull that page back out and
explain to me again, "So, give me that again, what makes this wrong?"
I am moved that the story affected you in writing, and in your own
That's what telling stories is about, in many ways.
Thank you Don, for the insights and memories about the writing of
"The Variable Syndrome". Only you, I think, would be conscientious
enough to harbor the thought that a book (in this case the original
"Dragonflame" ) would feel out of balance by having stories about
relationships written purely from a male point of view. Some male
writers (most?) go whole careers full of books without even
considering attempting to see a story or a concept, in depth, from a
woman's point of view. But that is the kind of caring that still makes
these stories vital and alive 25, 30 years later, and I am sure will make
them timelessly so.
One other aspect of the story that I think blew right over my head the
first time I read the book, was how deftly you balanced the science
fiction elements of the story with the deep exploration of a character
(Elena) and a relationship. The concept that relationships carry within
them their own "variable syndromes" -- elements of change and
growth that make it impossible to move backward (symbolized
beautifully by the inability of their time traveling device to do just that)
-- is fascinating, and very true indeed.
Take the best care always,