A brief introduction to Walter Tevis

David Pollock 8 December 2020

Everything you need to know about the dark and troubled author who penned The Queen's Gambit 

Netflix’ recent sleeper hit series The Queen’s Gambit has proven to be one of the onscreen talking points of the year, making the complex workings of the game of chess fashionable. It’s Mad Men with tournament-hosting school gymnasiums and hotel lobbies, rather than glamorous ad agencies in Madison Avenue office blocks, and Anya Taylor-Joy’s compelling, star-making performance is at its core.

Yet many of The Queen’s Gambit’s reported 62 million viewers across the world might be unaware that this story is part of a wider late-20th century legacy, which connects it to icons of the era including David Bowie, Paul Newman and Martin Scorsese. The series is based on the 1983 novel of the same name by Kentucky-raised novelist Walter Tevis, who died of lung cancer at the age of 56 the year after it was published.


Walter Tevis and his wife Jamie 

During his lifetime Tevis was moderately successful, yet the cultural legacy of his most famous works has endured. Also a prolific science fiction short story writer, he only published six novels in total—yet he hit the ground running with the twin successes of his debut The Hustler (1959) and its follow-up The Man Who Fell to Earth (1963).

Two years after its publication, The Hustler—a gritty look at the desperate life of the professional pool hall gambler—was filmed with Paul Newman in the starring role of “Fast” Eddie Felson, winning two from its eight Academy Award nominations and inspiring a US-wide resurgence in pool on a par with the current vogue for chess.

The Man Who Fell to Earth was a different proposition, which saw Tevis—who studied English Literature and then taught high school English during the 1950s—creating a sci-fi tale of alien visitor Thomas Jerome Newton, who is trying to ferry his dying people across the stars to our world, but who becomes waylaid by earthly pleasures along the way.

“Essentially that book is a very disguised autobiography,” said Tevis in 1981, in an interview republished in the literary journal Brick in 2019. “It’s based upon my own feelings from time to time that I’m from another planet. Feelings which… I’ve tried to negate within myself with booze over a large number of years.”

Tevis wasn’t entirely enamored with director Nicholas Roeg’s hallucinatory 1976 film adaptation of The Man Who Fell to Earth, but he was over the moon with the casting of the lead role. Bowie’s performance as Newton was so otherworldly and memorable that it remains one of his definitive visual personae for many die-hard fans.

Born in San Francisco in 1928, Tevis developed a rheumatic heart condition as a child and was hospitalised and given an ongoing course of drugs—his partial inspiration for the sedative drug habit Beth Harmon picks up as a child in care—while his family relocated to Kentucky. When he was discharged at the age of 11, he travelled cross-country by train on his own to join them.

The major influences upon Tevis’ writing are easy to pick up from his youthful fascinations. On the street corner, he played chess with his friends; as a teen, he shot pool at the local hall; at the library, he read science fiction; after joining the US Navy at the age of 17 and being posted to the Pacific with USS Hamilton during the Second World War, games of poker with his shipmates taught him how to gamble.

Between The Man Who… in 1963 and Tevis’ acclaimed third novel Mockingbird in 1980 (about a dystopian future where reading is outlawed), he spent his time in a personal wilderness. He later described each of these books as marking his path into and out of alcoholism, while his respectable job as professor of English literature and creative writing at Ohio University ultimately distracted from his own stories.

In 1978 he quit his job, sobered up and moved to an apartment in New York to become a full-time writer. Mockingbird was followed by the sci-fi short story collection Far from Home (1981), the prescient sci-fi thriller The Steps of the Sun (in which the world is wracked by an energy crisis and China is the dominant superpower) and The Queen’s Gambit (both 1983), and the Hustler sequel The Color of Money (1984).

Sadly, Tevis’ premature death meant he wasn’t able to see Martin Scorsese’s loose 1986 film adaptation of the latter, which brought back Newman and paired him with young pretender Tom Cruise. Nor was he able to expand on his slim canon of novels, even as their influence has extended far beyond his life.


The Color of Money 

“I write about losers and loners—if there’s a common theme in my work, that’s it,” he told the New York Times in 1983, noting that there was little difference between pool and chess, at least the way he played it. “In one way or another, I’m obsessed with the struggle between winning and losing.”

 

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