Born: February 28, 1928
San Francisco, California
Died: August 9, 1984
New York, New York
Crime writer and literary critic James Sallis wrote in the Boston Globethat Walter Tevis’ The Man Who Fell to Earthwas “among the finest science fiction novels.” He labeled it as a Christian parable and a portrait of the artist, describing it as one of the most heartbreaking books he had encountered. He called it “a threnody on great ambition and terrible failure, and an evocation of man’s absolute, unabridgaeble [sic] aloneness.”
Walter Tevis lived in San Francisco for the first 10 years of his life. He developed a rheumatic heart condition, so his parents placed him in the Stanford Children’s Convalescent home for a year during which time they returned to Kentucky, where the Tevis family had been given an early land grant in Madison County.
Walter traveled across country alone by train at age 11 to rejoin his family in Kentucky. He made friends with Toby Kavanaugh, a fellow high school student, and learned to shoot pool in the Kavanaugh mansion in Lawrenceburg. In the library there, he read science fiction for the first time. They remained lifelong friends. Kavanaugh later became the owner of a pool room in Lexington, which would have an impact on Tevis’ writing.
At age 17, Tevis became a carpenter’s mate in the Navy, serving on board the USS Hamil in Okinawa, Japan. After his discharge, Tevis attended the University of Kentucky, where he studied with the Pulitzer Prize winner A. B. Guthrie, author of The Big Sky, and received B.A. (1949) and M.A. (1954) degrees in English literature. While a student, Tevis worked in his friend’s pool hall, wrote his first “pool hall” story “The Big Hustle” in Guthrie’s class, and had it published in the August 5, 1955 issue of Collier’s magazine.
Upon graduation, Tevis taught everything from the sciences and English to physical education in small-town Kentucky high schools, including Science Hill, Hawesville, Irvine, and Carlisle. He also taught at Northern Kentucky University, the University of Kentucky, and Southern Connecticut State University. He later attended the Iowa Writers’ Workshop at the University of Iowa, where he received a M.F.A. in creative writing in 1960.
Tevis published his first science fiction short story, “The Ifth of Oofth,” in Galaxy Science Fiction in 1957. He also married Jamie Griggs the same year and they remained together for 27 years. They had a son, William Thomas, and a daughter, Julia Ann. He continued to publish, placing short stories in The Saturday Evening Post, Esquire, Redbook, Cosmopolitan,and Playboy magazines.
His first novel, The Hustler, was published in 1959, followed by The Man Who Fell to Earthin 1963. He taught English literature and creative writing at Ohio University in Athens, Ohio, for 14 years, but he published very little while there. He left in 1978 to go to New York and resume writing.
His popular works were translated into nearly 20 languages. The Man Who Fell to Earthwas named the best science fiction novel of 1963. Three of Tevis’ six novels were the basis for major motion pictures. The Hustler(1961) and The Color of Money(1984) followed the escapades of fictional pool hustler “Fast Eddie” Felson. The Man Who Fell to Earthwas released in 1976 and subsequently re-made in 1987 as a TV film. Tevis spent his last years in New York City where he died of lung cancer in 1984. He is buried in the Richmond Cemetery at Richmond, Kentucky.
The Hustler. New York: Harper & Row, 1959.
The Man Who Fell to Earth. New York: Gold Medal Books, 1963.
Mockingbird, New York: Doubleday, 1980.
Far from Home, collected short stories. New York: Doubleday, 1981.
The Steps of the Sun. New York: Doubleday, 1983.
The Queen’s Gambit, New York: Random House, 1983.
The Color of Money, New York: Warner Books, 1984.