"The thing is, this was 1954 so if a science fiction novel existed in hardcover in the first place and got bought by a library in the second place, it was damn good. So even at six, I speedily intuited that the quality-to-crap ratio was higher in this section than anywhere else in the building. So it was years before I read much of anything but science fiction and that's how my habits were formed and my doom was sealed."

 

 

 

On beginning writing | On first meeting science fiction | On writers he admires | On Tom Waits

 

On how he started writing...

The very first thing I ever wrote for money eventually became the first chapter of [my first Callahan] book. A story called, "The Guy With the Eyes." Well, I might as well launch into this, even though Jeanne is about ready to turn into stone: she's heard this story about 5000 times before. And, parenthetically, let me say that we found that people often ask: How the hell did you manage to stay married for 25 years? And we don't really know, but one of the suspicions I sometimes have is that one of the things that can kill a marriage is listening to your mate tell the same story you've heard them tell 25,000 times. And each of us is a story teller. We made an agreement long ago: each time you tell the damn story, at least vary it a little bit. Throw in a few fillips, change a few words, reverse the order of the setup, or something. And that's really helped a lot.

So anyway, one more time, Jeanne is going to have to listen to me explain that: I finally graduated from college one day with a Bachelor's Degree in English. And all of sudden -- you know, one of those V-8 moments -- I slapped myself on the forehead and went: but I don't wanna drive a cab. And there isn't much else you can do with a Bachelor's Degree in English except teach English and I wasn't that desperate yet. So I ended up in the other profession for English majors: night watchman.

It happened that the county I lived in was constructing a sewer and the law said they had to have a watchman on any county construction project even if it didn't make sense. So I spent a year guarding a hole in the ground to prevent its theft. This was a slow year. Not a lot went on. So I read a lot of science fiction: it was the ideal job for me.

One day I'm sitting there reading a piece of science fiction that was just awful. I flung it across the construction trailer and said for the gazillionth time in my life: I can write better than that! And this time, for no reason that I can explain, a light bulb appeared here [he indicates the space in the air above him] over my head of about 150 watts and it shone brightly. There was paper in front of me that was free. [The construction company's] letterhead: if you just turned it over, it would look like typing paper. And there was a typewriter that wasn't costing me anything to run. So -- more or less in order to keep myself from going insane with boredom -- I pecked out a story about where I'd rather be: the ideal bar. The place where they let you smash your glass in the fireplace when you're done.

The night before I had seen a movie with Claudette Colbert and Charles Boyer. I've managed to misplace the name of the film, but in it they were exiled Russian nobility, forced to work as butler and maid for British aristocrats because they had to run for their lives when the revolution came. But every night when the master and mistress were asleep, the two of them would gather in the cellar and put on their imperial finery, drink the master's champagne and then smash their glasses in the fireplace. And I just had in my head: Boy. What a cool thing that must be. Smash your glass in the fireplace.

So the next night, I'm sitting there typing and thinking: Wouldn't it be cool if there was a place where they let you do that? And then reality set in a little bit and I thought: Imagine the bar where they let you smash your glasses. It would have to be an extraordinary bar. The bartender would have to be a special human being and his customers would have to be rather unusual folks. The kind of folks you could trust to fling glassware around while drunk. And it sort of all grew from there. I was just writing about where I'd rather be than where I was.

The next morning when I woke up, I looked at the pile of paper and realized that I had what -- if you didn't know any better -- you'd think was a story. It looked just like what writers produce. And I thought: I bet if I sent this off to magazines they'd be fooled and they'd send me real rejection slips, just like a real writer and then I can impress women.

I went to the library and looked up a writer's magazine and they said that Analog paid the best, so I thought: Well, they'll have the most impressive-looking rejection slips. And so I mailed them my pile of paper, that included the name of the construction company on the back of every sheet, and waited for my rejection slip. And they sent me a check for 400 bucks and a little note saying: Love to see more of these.

Wow! I thought. Where has this been all my life? This definitely beats working for a living. So I quit the sewer job and started typing full time.

I had been picked out of the slush pile by a man named Ben Bova who went on to find most of the great writers of my generation in the Analog slush pile.

Anyway, I proceeded to write a whole bunch more stories and mail them off and then I collected my folio of rejection slips: I got a collection of first editions from every market in the business. [Laughs] And a year or two went by and I didn't sell a word to Ben or anybody, but because Ben had bought that one story, he would take the trouble in sending me the form rejections and scribble one sentence on the bottom of it. And the sentence would always be something baffling and infuriating. Zen. Like: I hate your hero. Or: Cut this in half! Or: You've told this backwards. I'd always look at this and think: He's out of his mind! And then send the story to every other market in the world.

Well, one day I'd had a pile of rejections and I went back and looked at Ben's and thought: Well that suggestion is completely stupid! He doesn't know what the hell he's talking about! I'll show him. I'll try it his way and prove it to him.

And I tried it his way and it was a better story and I sent it out and somebody bought it. So I went to the next one in the pile and said: But that's a dumb idea! How can I cut it in half? Well, maybe if I... well, to make a long story short, eventually every one of those stories sold to somebody because I followed Ben's advice. Basically over a year and a half I had screwed up every way there is for a chump beginner to screw up in writing short fiction and had been caught and corrected. He had given me the short course in how to write commercial fiction a sentence at a time. Since then, thank you Ben, everything that has come out of the family printer has sold somewhere, sooner or later, even if it wasn't to the market that I'd hoped for in the first place.

All I owe Ben Bova, really, is everything. Which is one of the reasons I'm a strong supporter of his newest project, galaxyonline.com. It ultimately hopes to be much more than just a cyber science fiction magazine. They want to do streaming video and produce original science fiction movies. It's no relation at all to the old Galaxy Magazine of honored memory: thank goodness because I worked for that Galaxy and it used to be payment on lawsuit. This one is much nicer.

It was originally created by David Gerrold, a good friend of mine who probably the whole world best remembers by his first professional sale, which was the script for "The Trouble With Tribbles," for Star Trek. He's also just one of the best science fiction writers alive. He's won countless Hugos and Nebulas and he took it into his head: We need a cybersite to do everything science fictional. He got Ben Bova to come aboard as executive editor and he found a money guy to put up the bucks. I've been doing a twice-a-month column for them since January. I've been given a mandate, basically, to shoot my mouth off on anything that enters my head. It's called "Nocturnal Emissions," which is a reflection of my working habits. I'm up all night working. And it's just a lot of fun to be working for Ben again.

Most of science fiction owes [Ben] big time. He came along just at a crucial moment in history when science fiction's first great editor, John Campbell, had come and gone: revolutionized the world and then dropped dead. And all the energy that he'd created and built up could have dissipated then. Could have crashed like a wave on the shore and been spent but Ben came along and took that juice and brought it ahead. He bought stories John Campbell would never have touched, by weirdos like me. I've got an award called The John Campbell Award for Best New Writer, but I'm painfully aware that if I'd ever submitted to John Campbell, I'm pretty sure he would have hated my stuff.

 

On his first encounter with science fiction:

I went down to the library. My mom had said: Tell them to give you a book. And the first book -- [that was given to me by] some nameless librarian who I tried to look up and thank and buy her a case of Scotch -- some woman looked over the 6-year-old me and handed me Rocket Ship Galileo by Robert A. Heinlein. My fate was sealed. It was the first of the Heinlein juveniles and when I went back to the library, I said: You got any more of these? And they took me to a place where all the books had a little sticker on the spine that showed a hydrogen atom being impaled by a V-2: it meant it was sci fi.

The thing is, this was 1954 so if a science fiction novel existed in hardcover in the first place and got bought by a library in the second place, it was damn good. So even at six, I speedily intuited that the quality-to-crap ratio was higher in this section than anywhere else in the building. So it was years before I read much of anything but science fiction and that's how my habits were formed and my doom was sealed.

 

 On writers he reads and admires:

The last few years I find that my favorite of all the guys still working on the scene is Donald Westlake, God bless him. He never loses that sense of humor. He's come close a couple times in recent years, but just about any Donald Westlake you pick up will get you through a bad time.

Lawrence Block is another favorite and a guy I like a lot is Laurence Shames. A helluva writer, he's written about seven or eight books and they've all been set in Key West. He writes warm, whimsical stories about quirky Key West-type human beings. He's often compared to Carl Hiaasen and much as I like Carl Hiaasen and admire his work, you can't help but notice that Carl has contempt for almost all of his characters, with the possible exception of Skink. Whereas Shames, even his bad guys, you can tell he loves them: he secretly likes them and doesn't want harm to come to them either.

Douglas Adams is another great one. He's as loony as they come and I admire sustained looniness. That's hard to do.

 

On Tom Waits:

He's wonderful. I wanted to quote Tom Waits in an earlier book called Mindkiller. I wanted to quote a verse from his song "Twenty-nine dollars and an Alligator Purse." I wrote to the musician and he passed it to his lawyers and they wrote back: Send us $2000. And I wrote back and said: You don't understand. I sold the book for $5000. That's almost half my advance. But I really wanted this Waits quote and I couldn't afford no $2000. Jeanne's elder sister Kathy Rubico is a world-class musician and she's got the musician's union directory. So from that I got Tom Waits' personal address and wrote to him directly and said: I'm a starvin' artist, man. Your lawyers are going to hold me up for a whole bunch of bucks. I'd really love to quote that "Twenty-nine dollars and an Alligator Purse." Here's that chapter of the book so you can see the context and see I'm not making fun of you or anything. What can you do me?

I got back this wonderful hand-scrawled crayon letter from Waits saying, [he affects a Tom Waits-style gravel voice] It's wonderful you wrote to me instead of my managers because they're all scum-sucking flesh peddlers and I just fired the cocksuckers. You wanna quote my song $29? All right: send me $29.

So I sent him a check for 29 bucks and he sent me a waiver and then a year later -- and I still don't get this -- I get this envelope in the mail, return address: Tom Waits in care of a motel in Florida. And in the envelope -- without explanation -- are a matchbook, unused, from a gin mill in New Orleans in the Quarter somewhere; a single die from a Monopoly game -- red with white spots -- and a little plastic airplane with pontoons. That's it. Jeanne and I stared at this stuff for a week, because it's gotta be a rebus, right? Jeanne thought it was: Take a chance and fly to New Orleans. Whereas I thought it could just as easily be: If you fly to New Orleans you will die.

After a week we just went and opened up our junk drawer and took out three goofy little items at random, threw them in an envelope and mailed them back to that motel. We never heard another thing. Either we failed the test or he sobered up or moved on. But I have no idea what it was about.

 

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