Ellison had just read "A Pocketful of Dharma," and he proceeded to critique the story in excruciating detail, line by line. Evidently he'd been impressed by it, but he also saw room for improvement. And he wanted Bacigalupi (whose name, he remarked, sounded like a pseudonym or a joke) to avoid getting pigeonholed in the genre. "Don't get stuck in it like I got stuck in it," he said, and hung up.
After the many rejections of his first novel, Bacigalupi was inclined to take the advice to heart. If he couldn't be a science-fiction novelist, maybe he should try another approach. Over the next four years, between working various jobs and living off savings, he wrote three more novels.
One was historical fiction set in China. One was a highbrow "love of landscape" kind of book about Paonia. The third was a mystery with action that moved from Hong Kong to Colorado. All three made the rounds of publishing houses and were politely declined.
"I think he was trying to find his voice," says Rob Ziegler, a Paonia writer who's known Bacigalupi since they were both fourteen. "Everybody who read his stuff knew he had talent."
Ziegler remembers the mystery well. "It was clever, sharp, acerbic — and full of heart," he says. "On a line-by-line level, Paolo's very quick and can grab those precise details that make it all work. But nobody knew what it was or what to do with it. His agent shopped it, and it met with silence."
By 2002, Bacigalupi was ready to abandon his dream of publishing a novel. "When I didn't sell any of those, I kind of gave up," he says. "I was stuck with this feeling that I was just an absolute failure as a novelist."
Most mornings of the week, Bacigalupi leaves his house on the mesa and heads into Paonia, where he rents a small office above a bookstore, a block from the main drag. The room is spartan: a few books and posters and a high, small table in the corner for his laptop. Bacigalupi puts in long hours in the room. Most of the time he writes standing up.
Ziegler, his former schoolmate, keeps an office across the hall, where he, too, writes science fiction. (A story of Ziegler's won first place in a Rocky Mountain News contest a few years ago; he plans to have a novel ready for market by the end of the summer.) The two friends take walks together, discussing story problems and breaking up the isolation of the day. Occasionally Ziegler sneaks into Bacigalupi's office to rearrange things, just to get a rise out of him.
"I've always been impressed by how dedicated he is," Ziegler says. "It's a rare weekend when he doesn't go down to the office. He's there when I show up, and he's there until five o'clock. He puts in a full day. He's always been like that."
Bacigalupi moved back to Paonia ten years ago, in the midst of his series of novels that didn't sell. It was supposed to be a brief period of respite for him and Anjula; instead, she found a decent teaching job and Bacigalupi became the webmaster at High Country News, where he'd worked briefly years earlier. And he began to tinker with short stories again.
"Writing was a bone he just couldn't put down," Ziegler says. "I think he figured out that he belonged in science fiction and, in a very methodical fashion, he went about creating a name for himself through short stories."
Bacigalupi says there was no grand plan, just a need to do something. "The conclusion I came to was that even if I couldn't sell books, I still liked the process of writing," he says. "I'm less crazy and unhappy when I'm writing. And the one spot where I'd had any success at all was that short story."
Yet the stories that Bacigalupi began to produce now were more elaborate, more trenchant and certainly more bizarre than "A Pocketful of Dharma." Each one was a quantum leap in his maturity as a writer, the work of a Swiftian who'd finally found the right outlet for his savage social criticism. The first one published, "The Fluted Girl," presented sisters whose young bodies have been transformed into musical instruments, required to perform for the pleasure of an insufferably cruel and pretentious oligarchy — on one level, a satiric attack on the yuppification of Paonia.
Subsequent stories had a strong relationship to the work of environmental journalists in the area. "He was soaking up what was going on at High Country News and across the West," says Nijhuis. "I would be talking about invasive species or the effect of climate change on the water supply, and that would plant a seed. Paolo has a fierce imagination, and it never seems to stop working. He'd take that seed and he'd nurture it, and it would grow into this scary plant."