Bill and Joe are a couple of old army buddies who run a barbershop together in Harlem. They’re good guys who genuinely care about their neighborhood (even if Joe drinks too much); their best customer is Frank, a cop who used to patrol the area and still comes by to get his hair cut. Their attention is caught by a Chevy Celebrity (the “Celeb” of the title) that’s been abandoned in front of the shop with the keys in the ignition. Odd things begin to happen, apparently when the car is tampered with, and our three heroes are left to puzzle it out–and just when they think they have, a new wrinkle is introduced, and the logical and moral conclusions they’ve reached are suddenly called into question. (I’m being deliberately vague here; I’d hate to spoil it too much for those who still haven’t read it.)
This is my debut with F&SF, and is also the longest work of fiction I’ve published so far.
I have an unusually specific answer to this question: an old New York Times human interest piece by William E. Geist (which I ran across in Geist’s 1987 collection City Slickers) in which he recounts the tale of a car abandoned on the street with the keys inside, and the awe and near-reverence it inspires in the neighborhood’s residents–largely because it’s gone so long without being stolen. That’s all well and good for New York, I suppose, but where I come from it takes more than ordinary human decency to rise to the level of the miraculous. I got to wondering just how much more, and my imagination was off and running.
Quite. The setting is Manhattan (Harlem, to be specific), and while I’ve had the good fortune to visit New York several times and explore it a great deal, I can’t claim any legitimate expertise (when I specify an urban setting in a story, it’s usually Cleveland–see 2010’s “Fields” or 2009’s “On a Clear Day You Can See All the Way to Conspiracy”). The exact street or neighborhood weren’t vital to the story, so I felt free to keep it vague. As a result, most of my research involved incidental details of New York life: the command structure of the NYPD, the specifics of trash collection and street-cleaning, the number of a particular bus route that might pass near the barbershop. Fortunately, these days such information is a mouse-click away; I can only imagine writing this story twenty years ago, and the lengths to which I’d have had to go to ensure accuracy. In any case, I think I got it right, and the only way anyone would know otherwise is if they lived in New York (hopefully not many people do…).
On characters: this is indeed a character-oriented story (a thing many editors claim to want, until they receive one), but it’s only on rereading the tale in the finished magazine that I realize to what an enormous degree this is so. I was struck not only by how many of the key events take place completely offstage, but by how much of the story is simply people standing around talking. I enjoy this sort of thing when it’s done well: see Dial M for Murder, for instance, which contains only one scene in which anything actually happens and is all the more effective for it; or see some of the strongest (in my opinion) Twilight Zone episodes–“Will the Real Martian Please Stand Up?”, “The Obsolete Man”, “A Game of Pool”, “Death’s-Head Revisited”, “The Masks”–which consist mainly of conversation.
In “The Blue Celeb”, Bill, Joe, and Frank bear all of the narrative weight; there’s very little we know that isn’t directly told to us by those three, which was why I strove to make them likeable characters–people with whom I myself would enjoy spending time. That sort of thing isn’t necessarily fashionable these days, but in my opinion, that was the least I owed the reader; who wants to be trapped for thirty-three pages with a jerk? There’s a time and place for protagonists with no redeeming qualities–and that time and place is the 1970s (after a decade of Death Wish, Dog Day Afternoon, and Taxi Driver, is it any wonder Star Wars caught on the way it did?).
I can’t really say why I chose Harlem in particular, except that in a tonier neighborhood, an unauthorized car might have been towed right away and I wouldn’t have had a story. The main corollary to this decision is that most of the characters are black. I didn’t set out for this to be the case, but it’s a natural consequence of the setting, and I figured I could pull it off. I’ve yet to hear of any complaints. You never know, though; there’s a small but vocal cadre of professional takers-of-offense whose ire one risks drawing when one writes characters outside one’s own broad racial category. There’s no beating them–they’ve a complaint for every occasion–but, trading as they do in the unfalsifiable, there’s no need to take them seriously. With all the real troubles in the world, who needs such tsouris over a simple little story? In any case, my aim was to write a couple of nice guys who readers will like and remember, and if the reviews thus far are any indication, I’ve mostly succeeded. It’s quite gratifying.
As I’ve noted, the actual plot, setting, and so forth are outside my direct experience, but a few of the tiny details are drawn from life. Often, when I need to flesh out a character and make him seem more alive, I’ll give him a memory or characteristic of my own. For instance, late in the story, Bill mentions having tinnitus; his affliction is my affliction, exactly as written–it’s like a continuous smoke alarm going off in my ear, but I’m so accustomed to it that I only notice it when I’m reminded of it (like right now). I have to parcel out such tidbits sparingly, as my life isn’t that interesting. Likewise, I’ll have to remember that I’ve already used tinnitus so I don’t repeat it in a future story.
I recently completed a sword-and-sorcery novel, loosely based on an older short story of mine, with hopes that it eventually sees the light of day in one way or another. Since then, I’ve been completing some stories that for one reason or another have gone unfinished. This has two benefits: it quiets the part of my mind that bristles at leaving things undone, and it buys me time and keeps me busy while I work up the nerve to begin another novel (which doesn’t seem to be any easier the second time).
Like “The Blue Celeb,” my other recent stories are also in a slightly-dark, slightly-fantastic vein, and I’d be denying my true nature if I didn’t take the opportunity to call attention to the anthologies Love and Darker Passions (Double Dragon Publishing) and Blood Rites (Blood Bound Books), and my work therein.
On a less commercial note, I’d like to thank those people (both professional reviewers and casual readers) who have read and liked the story and have taken the time to say so. (A particular thrill was receiving the much-sought-after imprimatur of “Recommended” from Lois Tilton of Locus Online. She also deemed me “a newer writer to watch.” Is everyone watching? All right, then. See that you do.) Thanks also to Gordon Van Gelder and his assorted cohorts, associates, and underlings for buying thirteen thousand words from a guy nobody’s ever heard of and sandwiching them in among some of the finest writers working today. Appearing in F&SF–the home of Roland the gunslinger, Harrison Bergeron, and Algernon–means a great deal to me, and I’m elated to have made it to the show.
“The Blue Celeb” appears in the Jan./Feb. 2013 issue of F&SF.
Tell us a bit about “Ten Lights and Darks.”
The story is told from the POV of a fortyish reporter, Mike Ward, who is assigned to do a feature story about pet communicators. He hates the assignment, considers the subject preposterous, but can’t wiggle out of it. His workaround is to turn the feature into an exposé. During the research process he meets a woman called Charlie, whom he’s very attracted to, but whose take on the subject of pet communication is more open-minded than Mike’s. Besides these two characters we also have Hortensia Feely, the local pet psychic Mike picks out to interview, and Charlie’s scaredy-cat Labradoodle, Raven. The treatment is lighter than is usual for me, but the subject seemed to demand to be treated humorously (mostly).
What was the inspiration for this story, or what prompted you to write it?
In 2010 my younger standard poodle, Feste, was diagnosed with immune mediated hemolytic anemia. After three months of treatment, during nearly all of which it was unclear whether he would survive or succumb, he finally died. He was a delightful dog, and only seven, and I took it very hard. So did my surviving older poodle, Fleece. They were very bonded. At first she had seemed all right, but she gradually slipped into depression, virtually stopped eating, lost weight, and appeared to take pleasure in nothing. While I was worrying about her to my massage therapist one day, she mentioned that there was a pet communicator right in town–we’re talking about a small town here, a wide place in the road–and she didn’t know whether I was open to this but would I want to consider calling her?
I didn’t know whether I was open to it either, but I was worried and stressed enough that I went to the communicator’s website to see what I could see. What I read there was far from encouraging, and if I’d had to go to any trouble I wouldn’t have pursued it, but the woman was right there in town, didn’t cost that much, and made house calls. So I phoned her and she came out.
The details in my story of how Mike’s pet communicator behaves and what she says about Raven’s problems are lifted directly from the notes I took after my communicator left. (Nobody could make that stuff up!) I won’t mention her name here, for fear that Google might alert her if I do, but trust me, it’s every bit as weird and outlandish a name as Hortensia Feely.
What kind of research, if any, did you do for this story?
Beside my true-life adventure into the field (see answer to previous question), I did what Mike did: looked at websites and perused Amazon’s list of books on the subject of pet communication. For later in the story I revisited my CD of Jane Goodall’s When Animals Talk, to refresh my memory of what Goodall actually says there. I also consulted Rupert Sheldrake’s website, where there’s a lot of relevant information.
What are you working on now?
For this coming spring and summer I’ll be wearing a different literary hat to revise my book-length memoir-in-manuscript of the poet James Merrill, who died in 1995. If I finish in good time I have an idea for an alternate-history story set on my hundred-acre recovering farm in Kentucky.
Anything else you’d like to add?
Only that without planning or anticipating this, I seem to be writing hybrid stories that are essentially science fiction but with elements of fantasy woven in, as in “Space Ballet” (forthcoming from Tor.com) and my 2008 novel The Bird Shaman, or in the present case a fantasy story with elements of sf worked into it. I know this weakening of genre boundaries is disapproved of in some quarters; but, as with most authors, the story is driving the bus when I’m writing it, and that seems to be where the bus has usually wanted to go in recent times.
Incidentally, Rupert Sheldrake is a dream source for this kind of hybrid science/fantasy fiction. He turns up in “Space Ballet” too, a very different sort of tale.
A final note. The main question I wanted to put to my pet communicator was: Did Fleece want us to get her another dog? The answer, predictably, was yes. Feste, said the PC, had already taken care of that from heaven and we would find the dog he had picked out for us when the time was right. She described this dog: he would be older, 7 or 8, and silver-gray. She also recounted what Fleece was telling her about how Fleece herself would die (none of that dragged-out shit for Fleece, she would be fine one day and gone the next, after having taught the new dog how to take care of me). Not one word of what’s verifiable in all this turned out to be true. Getting another dog was the cure for Fleece’s depression–she did a 180 almost as soon as we got him–but I shouldn’t have needed a psychic to tell me that. She died of cancer this past December, aged 13 years 5 months, seemingly without having taught Corbie thing one about how to take care of me. What she did, and she did a great job of it, was teach me how to take care of Corbie and herself. We miss her terribly.
“Ten Lights and Darks” appears in the Jan/Feb 2013 issue of F&SF.
– Tell us a bit about “Night Train to Paris.”
Whenever I travel, I take a laptop so I can keep up with important email. But I’ve also found that when I travel, I also get energized with story ideas, so I open the laptop and start typing.
About ten years ago, I drove back roads from Los Angeles to Canada to visit Spider and Jeanne Robinson. The result was “The Strange Disappearance Of David Gerrold” (also published in F&SF). The story was inspired by a sign I saw on a private hunting reserve, and I started wondering what they were hunting. While staying with Spider and Jeanne, I wrote the story, finishing it in three or four days.
“Night Train To Paris”was the same kind of lucky accident. I was in Italy for a Star Trek convention. Italy is a country that has so much great art and architecture and history that you could spend a lifetime there and still not see it all. The best you can ever do is take a lick of icing off the side of this deliciously beautiful cake. After the convention, I planned to stay in Europe for another three weeks, just soaking up as much as I could.
One of the things I love about Europe is the convenience of the train systems. I love trains and Europe has some of the best train rides in the world. But this time, I miscalculated. As described in the story, there’s no convenient train from Milan to anywhere in the south of France. I could only catch the night train to Paris if I wanted to go on. So the descriptions of the Milan train station (and the beggars) are taken from what I experienced.
– What was the inspiration for this story, or what prompted you to write it?
There have been some great horror stories set on trains. It’s a kind of ‘locked room’ on wheels, this great dark tube rattling through the night, with unknown mysteries inside and out. What’s really lurking in the darkness?
I don’t remember the exact moment when I started thinking that there might be something stalking the train, but I remember that I started the story in my hotel room in Paris.
I was exhausted from the long train ride without proper sleep, so I slept half the morning after arriving, woke up bleary-eyed, went out for some food and cold medicine, walked around a dark moody part of Paris I’d never seen before, came back to my hotel eventually, and not yet tired enough to sleep, sat down and started writing. I had a vaguely-formed idea of the train ride, a character named Claudio, and the mystery of people disappearing from the train. And I had a sense of a scary ending.
I worked on the story a little bit every day, but I didn’t finish it until I got to England. When I got to the very last paragraph, the very last line—I typed a very different punch line than the one I had been imagining. In fact, I don’t even remember the original intention anymore.
– “Night Train to Paris” seems to have an autobiographical feel to it. Is writing yourself into your work something you do often?
A lot of my writing is autobiographical. “The Martian Child” in particular is 95% based on actual events. “The Kennedy Enterprise” is a satirical narrative of my life set in an alternate time line. “The Strange Disappearance…” (mentioned above) happened because of a sign I saw on a California backwoods road. “Chester” and “A Shaggy Dog Story” were both about dogs who’ve shared my life. I can point to a lot of other moments in various stories that came out of various moments in my life.
When I started writing professionally and began meeting other science fiction writers, I was delighted at the smorgasbord of ideas that writers talk about —but disappointed that these same people didn’t also have the time machines and starships and robots that they wrote about so believably. That’s how much I wanted to believe that all these marvelous worlds were real and that the authors were really just reporters. Because that’s the kind of writer I want to be.
When I write a story, I want to climb into it, wrap it all around myself, live inside it so completely that when I’m writing, I’m reporting what it feels like from the inside. The way the train clatters and rocks, the flickering of light and shadow on the windows, the smell of diesel and old sweat, the bottle of cheap wine. When I write like that, the story feels real to me. It feels alive. And ultimately, I think that’s the real job of the storyteller—to create these vivid little moments that come alive for the reader as a way of illuminating another small piece of the universe.
– Is horror a genre that you write in regularly?
I’ve only written two stories that I consider horror. One is “Chester”, the other is “Night Train To Paris.” Both published in F&SF. “Chester” is a very deceptive story. The last line is a joke — only until you start thinking about the implications. Not what the little girl says, but why she says it.
To me, a horror story is about something unknown and possibly unknowable. Because as soon as you know it and understand it, it’s not horrific anymore. I’ve written some monster stories, like the books in the The War Against The Chtorr series, but as horrific as some of the events in those books might be, I don’t see that as horror—suspense, yes. But not horror. To me, horror has a supernatural element. Other writers may feel differently, but that’s how I distinguish it.
I don’t think in “horror”terms, so if and when I write a horror story, it’s a happy accident. Because I really do appreciate that cold chill that creeps up the spine when confronted with the inexplicable. I got it with the last line of “Night Train to Paris.” I still get it when I think about Shirley Jackson’s “The Haunting of Hill House” —when Eleanor Vance asks, “Whose hand was I holding?” <shudder!>
– What are you working on now?
I just completed a one-act play, which at the moment is called “Uncle Daddy Isn’t Invited” — but it might be called something else when it finally gets on stage. It’s not science fiction or fantasy, and it’s not horror, although there are some horrific revelations in it. It’s about two men trying to plan their wedding and discovering that there’s still a lot they don’t know about each other.
At the request of Marty Krofft, I’ve also written the first hundred pages of a novel that takes us back to the LAND OF THE LOST, the classic television series. This time around, Will and Holly’s younger brother, the one who was too little to go on the original expedition, is all grown up, he’s a real scientist now and he’s equipped an expedition to go looking for his lost family. We want to use it to springboard a reboot of the LAND OF THE LOST. There are parts of the story that I never got to tell way back when….
I’m rereading the first four books in The War Against The Chtorr series, updating the technology and fixing things that are now known to be obsolete. And I’m fighting my way through the last 30,000 words of book five, A Method For Madness.
After that, I have a couple of novellas that deserve to be expanded into novels, and another autobiographical work, called *Footnote. So my writing schedule for the rest of the year is pretty full up.
But sometimes I interrupt myself for a really good short story idea.
– Anything else you’d like to add?
Writing is a paradoxical exercise. You’re alone in a room, talking to yourself, typing the stuff that you think is worthwhile. You’re alone, but with the intention of communicating to others—others who are removed in time and space and who may or may not ever receive that communication. It’s an act of hope, it’s an act of defiance against the obstinacy of the universe, it’s like waving a small flag that says “here I am” before the avalanche of time wipes everything away.
I can’t speak for other writers, I don’t know what goes on inside their heads, but for me, the whole thing boils down to an act of love for other human beings. I think that a lot of us start out simply wanting to understand ourselves, but I think the very best writers, the truly great writers, end up wanting to understand everyone and everything around them and then the writing becomes an attempt to explore and understand the essential foundations of the human experience as a way of becoming more human.
And science fiction—to me, that’s evidence of an even more inspiring need to become more than human, the next step toward true sentience. Sometimes we see glimmers of that condition, just enough to make us hunger and reach and sometimes for a moment to get a slippery grasp on a small piece of it. That’s the real human adventure.
“Night Train to Paris” appears in the Jan./Feb. 2013 issue of F&SF.