Life As We Know It
According to my mother, I stood completely upright the entire time she was pregnant, arms crossed, kicking her now and then in the stomach. On December 30, 1950, I grudgingly emerged feet first and two weeks late into a frozen morning in Eugene, Oregon.
My mother suffered from asthma and left me increasingly to be raised by a neighbor—culminating, when I was less than a year old, in a stretch where I lived at the neighbor's full time while my mother was in a hospital in another town. I have to take her word for all this, which is of course one of the major ironies of autobiography: The most profound and inescapable influences of your life hit you when you're too young to remember them.
My first actual memories are from Tucson, Arizona, where my father had gone, in his thirties, to get his PhD in anthropology. By this time we'd already lived in five or six different houses, not even counting my stint with the neighbors back in Oregon. I remember a house behind a drive-in theater where I would get up in the night and stand at the window to watch Disney's LIVING DESERT. I remember another house with a low, white picket fence and a porch where I would sit with a doll I called Boy Baby and eat homemade grape popsicles.
One theory is I was using Boy Baby to try to demonstrate proper parenting to my own mother and father. It didn't work—my father was disgusted to see his male child play with dolls. When we moved away from Tucson I threw Boy Baby out the window of the car and began to cry hysterically. My father went back for the doll once, but warned me he wouldn't do it again, and when I tested him he was as good as his word.
I was apparently tired of moving and I was fighting with the only weapon I had. My father could simply have taken that weapon away from me and put it in the trunk, but it seemed important to him that I take complete responsibility for my actions, even at age three. My mother went along with him, as she always did.
One side effect of my enforced early adulthood was that my parents had already taught me to read. This spared them having to read aloud the books I liked at the time—THE POKEY LITTLE PUPPY and THE HOUSE AT POOH CORNER come to mind—and rendered me able to entertain myself. When I finally started kindergarten, though, I was deeply bored, and it gave me a distaste for school that I never lost.
We'd left Tucson because my father had joined the National Park Service as an archeologist. After stints in Seaford, Virginia, and in Macon and St. Simon's Island, Georgia, we moved back to Arizona, this time to a small copper-mining town called Globe, in time for me to start third grade. We stayed in Globe for three entire years, two of them, incredibly, in the same house. That two-year period stretches like an eternity in my memory, even though I spent the summers in New Mexico, where my father was rebuilding the ruined pueblos at Chaco Canyon and Aztec National Monuments.
By age eight, when I arrived in Globe, I was in many ways a fully-formed miniature adult. My parents had taken me to grown-up parties as far back as I can remember, where I would converse brightly with the other adults (whose approval, of course, I was desperate for) about the stock market or politics or literature, and then I would quietly go into a corner and read. My parents got lots of compliments on how grown-up and well-behaved I was, and that seemed to not only make them happy but to justify all the punishment, both mental and physical, that had shaped me to that end.
Jules Verne was my major literary hero at the time, though I was also deeply into various Grosset and Dunlap adventure series: the Hardy Boys, Rick Bryant, and my favorite, Tom Corbett, Space Cadet. I'd started my first (unfinished) novel the year before, at age seven. It was called THE DEEP BLUE SEA (as in, between the devil and), it chronicled the adventures of Tim Richards, scuba diver, and my memory of it is that it was a bit episodic to have amounted to much commercially.
Shortly after that I started a novel about a descent into a volcano, also unfinished, and then I wrote series of short novels (very, very short novels) about a group of non-super-powered heroes called The Planets. Other than the fact that they wore blue sweatshirts just like my best friend Dicky Benney and me, they were pretty much indistinguishable from the Challengers of the Unknown of DC Comics fame.
My favorite memory of Globe—which fueled a later short story called "Twilight Time"—is of the National News Stand on the three-block-long main street of downtown Globe. Well into my thirties I still had dreams of walking to the plywood rack against the far wall and finding one of my favorite comics there: SEA DEVILS, or the ATOM, or RIP HUNTER, TIME MASTER.
I was also writing and drawing my own comics, which I would sell to kids at school for 15 cents (a nickel more than DC was getting at the time). I drew them on newsprint, with slick shelf paper for covers, and finished them with colored pencils. One of my characters was named the Brain; he lived in a cave, wore a skin-tight purple suit, and outsmarted his enemies.
While still in Georgia I'd heard Elvis and the Everly Brothers and had only been able to think how much my parents would hate them. In Globe, however, it was the end of the fifties and all the grade-school kids were listening to Buddy Holly and Ray Peterson and Johnny Horton. I also especially loved Ray Charles, who I remember hearing on the jukebox at Upton's soda fountain.
I don't know why my memories of Globe are so vivid and emotionally charged. Maybe I had some mistaken conviction that we were actually going to stay there. Maybe there was just something about Arizona, about the deserts and the clear air and clean water. Maybe it was the fact that my father was in the field eight months a year (though we did join him for the summers) and being away from his moodiness and heavy-handed discipline for weeks at a time gave me some much needed-breathing room.
In any event, it didn't last. In the summer after my sixth-grade year my father quit the Park Service because my mother had been diagnosed with breast cancer and they wouldn't let him stay in Globe with her. Though my mother was very sick, and in Phoenix for radiation therapy much of the summer, I don't remember this as a particularly bad time. The one credit I will give my parents is that they were good in a crisis. They'd always taught me that when there was real trouble you got through it first and worried about the repercussions later. There was a sense during the summer of my mother's cancer that we were all pulling together, and it may be as close as we ever were as a family.
My mother made a full recovery; my father took a job with the Museum of New Mexico that took us first to Santa Fe—where I had a hellish seventh grade among Chicano gangs—and then to Africa, where the Aswan Dam was about to flood a wealth of early human sites.
We spent a month in Europe on the way over, six months in the Sudan, and another month in Europe on the way back. In many ways we were the boorish American tourists that make Europeans cringe—my father with his mangled attempts at French and hatred of non-representational art; me wanting only to find a passable American-style hamburger, or more importantly an English language bookstore so I could get more science fiction.
We arrived in the small, doomed village of Wadi Halfa in October. We were on the East Bank of the Nile, a flat, rocky landscape with occasional towering jebels that looked, as much as anything, like the mesas of northern New Mexico. The only vegetation was a band of grass and gnarled trees along the Nile. The village itself consisted of low, one-story shops open to the street, a block-long market, with sides of fly-blown beef and lamb, and block after block of nearly identical houses, all made of thick adobe blocks. Everything came in shades of off-white: the dry dirt streets, the plaster on the houses, the parched blue-white sky.
I spent most of my time there wandering the streets, or reading whatever I could scrounge in English. This ranged from James Bond novels to CATCH-22 to the international edition of TIME printed on flimsy air-mail stock. The novel I remember working on from this period was called DOG STAR, concerning the sole survivor of a mission to a deserted planet in the Sirius system; this was still not quite isolated enough for me, so I topped it off by blowing up the Earth he'd left behind in a nuclear war.
Shortly after we got back from Africa we moved to Dallas, where SMU had hired my father as part of new graduate program in anthropology. I'd been supposed to read all my eighth-grade text books while in Africa, but of course I'd hardly bothered. The principal of the war zone that passed for my junior high had given me full credit for the year anyway, saying that what I'd learned on the trip was much more valuable than what I would have learned there.
These pretty sentiments weren't much help when my parents put me in a private high school in Dallas with what amounted to a substandard seventh-grade education. By working insanely hard I managed to make Cs and a few Bs my freshman year; my report cards said I had a lot of potential but didn't seem to be applying myself.
Up to this point I had been in many ways my father's son—smug, arrogant, racist, misogynist, walled off from the world by my intellect and a dozen kinds of fear. I liked the same easy-listening music my parents did, and hated queers and communists, as my parents did. But all of that began to change.
I saw that my teachers had no idea of who I was or what I was going through. I was stuck at an all boys' school when the only thing I wanted in the world—other than to write alienated novels—was to meet girls. I knew how to make friends quickly, but only because my entire experience was geared to losing them quickly too.
September 25, 1965, is as good a date to mark the change as any. My sophomore year had barely started, and my best friend, Jim Savage, had talked me into going to see Bob Dylan. Jim was a military brat and as bitter, introverted, and intellectual as me. Unlike me, he was smoking, drinking, and listening to rock and roll even as a freshman. He'd played me some of Dylan's stuff, which I liked, but seeing Dylan in concert literally changed my life.
It was only the second stop on Dylan's first electric tour. Later Dylan would be booed all over the world for betraying folk music, but not in Texas, and certainly not by me. Staring at the huge blue shadow of the bass guitar on the white backdrop, hearing the drums echo across Moody Coliseum's basketball court, listening to the high wail of Dylan's voice and Robbie Robertson's guitar, I got the message loud and clear.
The music literally set me free. I became the poster child for the evils of rock and roll—by the end of my sophomore year I too was smoking and drinking, and had gotten my first guitar, a cheap Sears Silvertone with nylon strings. My parents, not surprisingly, insisted I had no musical talent, but I was just starting to believe they might be wrong.
That summer, like the one before, I was part of a high-school summer-stock theater group called Harlequin Players. Women, again, were the big draw, especially a sexy blonde named Adrian that I'd met the summer before and would pursue unsuccessfully through my junior year. ("You're different," she would say when I complained about her sleeping with everyone but me. "I love you.") The season had barely started when I ran a Skil saw that was missing its guard into the flexor tendon of my left index finger. I spent the rest of the summer in the hospital, and when I got out my hand was in a useless and painful traction device; I was never able to bend the finger again. Worse yet, they'd given me Demerol all summer long, leaving me a teenage drug addict.
If I'd known where to get heroin in Dallas in 1966 I would have done it. After I got out of the hospital I went for a couple of weeks literally without sleeping at all. I couldn't get my driver's license because of my hand, couldn't play guitar, and it was weeks before I stopped being in constant pain.
I was not willing to give up on music, though, and by the winter of my junior year I'd made the decision to switch to drums. Another close friend, Mike Minzer, was a good bass player and a great natural singer. We teamed up with a classmate named Eric Vogel on lead guitar and, with occasional rhythm guitarists, started playing parties and coffeehouses.
Eric, like Mike and Jim and myself, was on the fencing team. The choice had been inevitable for me because of all the Edgar Rice Burroughs novels I'd read, all of whose heroes were swordsmen. Fencing seemed to attract all the weirdoes and outcasts in the entire school—certainly all of my friends were there.
Another fencer was John Alberts, who was famous for drawing Bruegelesque cartoons in class and for falling helplessly in love with women who humiliated him. John had a big family—an older sister and two younger brothers—and his parents encouraged him to bring his friends home. (As opposed to my father, who tried to start an argument with any of my friends he got in a room with.) I formed an attachment freshman year with John's father, who not only listened to me as if I were an adult, but was the first father I'd ever seen who was physically affectionate to his children. I knew instantly that I'd been missing it. And while I liked my mother's cooking well enough, the food at the Alberts' was gourmet quality. I spent as much time there as I could, listening to Bill Cosby and Lenny Bruce records, playing pool or ping pong, or touch football.
Then there was John's aforementioned older sister, Mary. She was the very picture of the high-school socialite—cheerleader, beauty queen, prom date of football players—the exact opposite, in short, of the kind of girl who would ever have anything to do with me. Despite my being her little brother's friend, despite my being weird and undesirable, she was kind to me and, in time, would talk pleasantly to me even when other people were around.
I know a lot of people—my friend John Kessel, for one—who might not have made it through high school if it hadn't been for science fiction. SF didn't mean much to me then; the thing that saved my life was rock and roll, either listening late into the night to the transistor radio next to my bed, or putting one of the few albums I owned on my parents' ancient monaural hi-fi, or playing with the band.
I was still reading, but I was into Len Deighton, Irwin Shaw, and James Jones. When I wrote it was usually another attempt at a novel, like YELLOW VALLEY, a novel about an eponymous prep school in Texas. The narrator was an alienated, overly-creative teenage misfit, and the plot revolved around his out-of-control best friend, who bore a strong resemblance to Jim Savage. By senior year this had mutated into a long story called "In the Car at Crabtree's," taking its name from Crabtree's Electronics, where the band bought a lot of musical supplies. I also published stories in the student literary magazine, the Marque—morbid and obvious pieces full of faux nobility and stifled longings.
I finished my junior year in May of 1967. On the rest of the planet it was the Summer of Love, but in my house it was the summer of my father's near-fatal heart attack. He was 49, younger than I am as I write this, and he'd been playing tennis in 100-degree heat with one of his graduate students. When he got off the court he, as always, sucked the smoke from one of his Roi-Tan cigarillos deep into his lungs. Then he drove home and told my mother his stomach hurt. He ate a banana and lay down and after a few minutes finally let my mother call the doctor, who listened to his symptoms and immediately phoned for an ambulance.
The things that culminated in his heart attack—his bitterness, his rages, his paranoia—had led me to finally admit to myself that I hated him. At that time, and in the context of my friends and the society around me, it was a chilling, completely forbidden thought. And yet he'd left me no alternative. I was finally making good grades at school—good enough to make the Cum Laude Society senior year, and to be a National Merit finalist—but nothing pleased him. There was always more work to do around the house or in the yard and nothing but criticism for the way I did it. He had finally stopped hitting me, but he insulted me constantly—for my appearance, for my taste in music, for my opinions—until in the weeks before his heart attack I began to have dreams about him dying. I'm sure they were more wish-fulfillment than prophecy, since they usually involved a car wreck rather than a heart attack, and because I was so disappointed when I woke up.
It was late summer when he came home from the hospital. I remember standing in the driveway, watching him slowly shuffle toward the front door in his pajamas and robe, barely able to walk unassisted, his face as gray as the cement under my feet. He turned and looked at me with contempt and said, "I can still kick your ass, you know."
Twenty years later I wrote a story called "Match" in which a mid-thirties version of myself takes his aging father onto the tennis court. The father says "I can still kick your ass" and the son says the words I used to wish I'd said as I stood on that driveway back in 1967, words that I was able to think but not to say out loud: "Prove it, old man."
In the story the father has a second heart attack on the tennis court and then, like some creature from a 50s horror movie, shakes it off, refuses to acknowledge defeat, keeps shambling on. It's still difficult for me to read that story because of the utter lack of compassion it brought out in me, and for the truth it tells about my father. He continued to find ways to hurt me and defeat me until almost the very end.
Senior year, especially the spring, was an eye in the storm of my adolescence. Other than two rather feeble attempts to run away from home—one ending in my own lack of resolve, the other in betrayal by my mother, who promised to get us counseling and didn't—I had a pretty good time of it. I'd been in one school for over three years now, a new record, and I was even getting along with most of the football players. I'd quit the fencing team for tennis, which enhanced my reputation, as did my writing on the Senior Follies and my band's performance at the party afterwards. And I was having a very grown-up relationship with a beautiful girl named Tricia Alexander, whom I'd known as part of the extended drama club family since sophomore year. We saw an incredible succession of concerts that year, from Jimi Hendrix in February (our first official date) through the Jefferson Airplane in late summer, with Cream, Vanilla Fudge, the Doors, Country Joe and the Fish, and the Mothers in between, not to mention great local bands like the Chessmen and the Novas.
I'd made some progress as a writer as well. I won the Creative Writing Cup at final assembly, and won a short-story contest in OUR GENERATION, a local teen magazine, that earned me twenty-five dollars and, at age seventeen, my first professional publication.
If you looked hard enough, though—which no one bothered to do, despite my running away from home twice, publishing a story about suicide in the school literary magazine, and the almost-unheard-of act of going to school drunk on several occasions—you could see that everything was not quite right. I did all my homework in study hall during the day, and at night I sat alone in my room listening to the radio. I had a blue gel over the desk lamp that was the only light in the room. I didn't read, I didn't write, I didn't practice my drums, I just sat there, night after night.
Given my father's social status as a professor, skipping college was not an option for me. Between my parents and the guidance counselors at St. Mark's I was maneuvered into choosing Vanderbilt, a nice conservative Southern school, where Mike Minzer also decided to go. What I wanted was to go to a technical school and get an apartment with Tricia and live in the real world, doing real things. I never stood a chance.
I was supposed to be an English major, but rebellion was getting to be a habit with me. I found the English department stuffy and repressive, and committed to a Russian major instead—despite no aptitude whatsoever for the language. It seemed practical, since I could earn money as a translator, and in the back of my mind I still thought I might have a career in espionage.
And so, after an uneventful freshman year and a summer of construction work in Dallas, I started my second year at Vanderbilt. Early that fall, Tricia sent me a dear-John letter that ended an increasingly awkward long-distance relationship. I had Russian language at eight in the morning, taught by a Vietnamese émigré with an unintelligible accent. I was in a band, the Nashville Blues Group, that was getting work and even had a tape that the student radio station was playing, but practice often didn't start until eleven or twelve at night.
I grew my hair and spent a lot of time in my dorm room. The previous year I'd rewritten "In the Car at Crabtree's," adding fantasy sequences that featured midget alter egos of the main characters. With the new title "Adam Rhodes at the North Pole," it had won the Henrietta Hickman-Morgan Award for Freshman English, which consisted of thirty dollars' credit at the student bookstore. Alone in my room sophomore year I put that story together with some other related stories, added a final section called "Adam Rhodes at the Circus," which incorporated badly-drawn cartoons with the prose, and ended up with a book I called VOLUME ONE. I sent it out a couple of times and got a couple of rejections, and by that time my life had changed again.
It was spring of 1970, and students were getting killed at Jackson State and Kent State. Despite having drawn a disastrously low number (three) in the nation's first draft lottery, it was becoming increasingly clear to me that I couldn't stay on at college. I didn't care about anything they had to teach me; all I wanted to do was play rock and roll.
I had plans to hit the road with my band at the end of the school year. Instead it turned out that the band's new promoter had his own drummer (a situation I went into in some detail in my novel GLIMPSES) and I ended up in Austin instead, in a one-room apartment with giant roaches, unable to find work, trying to put together a band with a guitarist who'd only been playing six months, an organist who'd only ever played classical music, and a bass player who disappeared in his ice-cream truck somewhere between Austin and Houston.
To pass the time, I wrote a novel, in longhand, called AND THEN PALESTRINA (from a line in Dylan Thomas's UNDER MILKWOOD, a Harlequin Players staple). The main character was an alienated, overly-creative nineteen-year-old misfit whose girlfriend dumps him. He takes up with a depraved older guy named Reese with whom he commits random murders and then, in the novel's climax, attaches a 50-caliber water-cooled machine gun (which he nicknames "Roger Iron") to the back of a convertible and machine-guns an entire town to death. (David Lynch, if you're out there, the film rights are still available.)
When my money finally ran out I went back to Dallas and worked construction again for my old boss. I started looking for a band again and eventually hooked up with an awesome and strange guitarist named Phil Graef (rhymes with "waif"). Phil, in turn, introduced me to a bass player named Arthur Hoffman, with whom I became friends so immediately, with such complete lack of reservation, question, or even perceptible ramp-up time, that only some theory of reincarnation can explain it. Within weeks we were tied inextricably in a web of standing jokes and unspoken communication, and Arthur remains one of my best friends in the world at this very moment.
Arthur and I made a great rhythm section, and Southern Cross (a name we stole from Mike Minzer) was a great band, but Phil was determined to do only original material, so we had a tough time getting jobs. Our big moment came when we played for about 1500 people at a pop festival in Grapevine, Texas, an event we referred to sarcastically as "Grapestock."
The end of the summer of 1971 found me retired from the band and house sitting at the Alberts'. John's parents were on vacation, John himself was in Pennsylvania rehearsing a play, Mary was married and living in Oklahoma, and everything I owned was in my car. Once John's parents got home I was either going to move to Hawaii (I don't know why, it just seemed like a good idea at the time) or go back to school. In the end I decided maybe I did want an English degree after all. I could get free tuition at SMU because of my father, and it sure beat working for a living.
Besides Arthur, my other best friend at the time—and for decades to come—was a guy named Julian Gamble, whom I met at the Alberts' that summer. He was an aspiring actor, a superb poker player, a serious drinker, and an incurable romantic. As Arthur and I were two halves of a rhythm section, Julian and I were two halves of a comedy team. When the director of a local girl's school kicked us out of his production of THE LITTLE FOXES he gave us the nickname that we adopted with pride: The Trained Dog Act.
About the only things I did for the next two years were drink with Julian, and drink and study. I found that if I kept drinking I was perfectly content to sit home reading all night every night, and so alcohol led me to straight As at SMU.
My favorite professor was unquestionably Ted Tucker, an Englisman who taught Chaucer and Old English and loved American baseball. He showed me how profoundly important mythology was to all of literature and took me to a couple of Rangers games, where he knew the batting average of every player on both teams.
A close second would have to be Marshall Terry, who taught the senior fiction writing class. I gave him a short-story version of AND THEN PALESTRINA as an audition piece for his class, and he let me in anyway. He called me Shoeless Lew because I came to class barefoot in warm weather, and gave advice and encouragement as I took the two main characters from PALESTRINA and put them in a science-fictional retelling of Jason and the Argonauts that I called SOLDIER, SAILOR. (The title is from the song "Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Sailor," which the Yardbirds covered on their final album—the same album that contains the song "Glimpses.")
I'd found my way back to SF because of my astronomy class junior year, where we'd been required to read Clarke's CHILDHOOD'S END. I modestly thought that if somebody could combine the mythic potential of SF with a real literary sensibility they might really have something. A couple of years later I discovered that Roger Zelazny and Ursula LeGuin and J.G. Ballard, among many others, had beaten me to the punch.
Getting my undergraduate degree was all the college I could stand, and I resisted the faculty's attempts to lure me into graduate school. Instead I joined Arthur's new band, a country-rock outfit that we jokingly called T.T. Taylor and the Rice Paddy Raiders. Unfortunately we never sobered up enough to come up with a real name.
We played three nights a week at a club called Booger's off Lemon Avenue, making $20 each per night. By eating lots of chicken pies and confining my really serious drinking to the free beer at the club, I was able to live off the band for quite a few months. Eventually, though, the liquor control board made Booger's start carding their patrons, the under-18 set stopped coming, the band broke up, and Arthur got me a job at the record store where he was assistant manager.
Arthur eventually became manager, I eventually became assistant manager, but that only meant longer hours, driving my actual dollar-per-hour figure below the minimum wage I'd been making before the promotion. The Sound Town philosophy was "We can replace you with a 16-year-old" and eventually I let them.
It was now the summer of 1974. I had some savings, a little money my grandmother had given me, a girlfriend with a job, and a conviction that it was now or never. Like so many others before and after me, I decided I would try the Harlan Ellison write-a-story-a-week-until-you're-famous plan.
I was living at the time in an efficiency apartment near SMU at 3420 Rankin, #1. I would get up around ten in the morning, shower and eat breakfast, watch a Perry Mason rerun at eleven, and at noon I'd hoist my massive, ancient electric typewriter onto my lap and go to work. In the first month, among others, I wrote an SF story called "Tinker's Damn" about an artificial intelligence who falls in love. I wrote three drafts, working late into the night, and when it was finished I put it into the mail and went on the next one, an adventure story about underwater treasure-hunting and sharks.
I believed that plotting was my biggest weakness, so I read Raymond Chandler and Ross Macdonald in the evenings and tried my hand at some mystery short stories. One of the first was called "Buyin' My Heartaches a Beer," about a construction worker who gets framed for his wife's murder. I got a nice long rejection letter from ALFRED HITCHCOCK'S MYSTERY MAGAZINE for that one, and though I never did sell them anything, it was the first personal response I ever got on a story and it made me think I was on the right track. I followed it up with "Deep Without Pity," featuring an Austin private eye named Dan Sloane. At the time nobody had done a private eye who was a Vietnam vet, and I had dreams that he would catch on and I could do a series of novels about him.
Along with the mysteries, I was reading J.G. Ballard, and I loved his idea of the "condensed novel." Of course I just happened to have a novel lying around that was in desperate need of condensation—SOLDIER, SAILOR—and when I changed the protagonist's name to the sinister-sounding Kane and worked up a highly stylized prose that featured ampersands instead of the word "and" (an homage to Blake as well as a blatant attempt to seem literary) I felt I was really on to something.
Nobody else did, and the rejections continued to pile up. There were times when the frustrations were overwhelming—insulting rejection letters, manuscripts lost, manuscripts left at the bottom of a slush pile and sent back unread when the market closed, manuscripts mutilated by the post office or stained with spilled coffee. Once a magazine returned a story—after it had been completely copy-edited for publication in green-felt tip pen—with a form rejection slip saying it "duplicates material already in our files" and no other explanation.
Yet at the same time I was slowly dragging myself up by my bootstraps, first wearing my influences like coats of bright red paint, then gradually internalizing them, then finally making my first tentative steps toward originality. I remember getting a tax refund and shelling out two hundred dollars for a reconditioned IBM Selectric. It was a profound and nearly religious experience for me to suddenly be able to produce such physically beautiful manuscripts. I loved the sound of the print ball, the smell of the ribbons, the wide "o" of the Courier font. I was determined to write something worthy of the typewriter and began a story called "Kings of the Afternoon."
The title popped into my head one day while doing dishes, and I still don't know where it came from. The story took me deeper into personal obsessions than anything I'd written before, blending UFOs, early Eagles songs (a band that to my mind has been unjustly persecuted for the crime of being popular), the myth of James Dean, John Ford westerns, and a hatred of capitalism into a finished product that had less calculation and more emotion in it than anything I'd written before. Using Dean let me put a character on stage who could actually lose control, and at the same time that I was uncomfortable with it, it was also immensely liberating.
I'd first wanted to write a post-apocalyptic Western because of a writer's group I was in at the time. It was a Dallas offshoot of the well-known Turkey City workshop in Austin, which featured such local luminaries as Steve Utley, Lisa Tuttle, Howard Waldrop, Bruce Sterling, and old pro Chad Oliver. A guy in our local group had written a story where the protagonists tied their horses up to the parking meters in ruined cities, and I thought that was the wrong way around—they should have been riding motorcycles and big-finned convertibles through the desert, guns blazing.
Fortunately the guy didn't hold my criticism against me. Instead, when my money finally and completely ran out in the fall of 1976, after two long years of hunger and odd jobs, he offered me work as his assistant, doing technical writing for a local computer company. My personal pendulum, which seemed to swing back and forth between the need for freedom and the need for security every two to three years, had brought me back to the fear of starvation again, and I took him up on it.
I'd always wanted to learn more about computers, and I made the most of the opportunity. I volunteered to write the manual for the proprietary language the company used, and learned to program in the process. I then turned that into a programming job with a VP who left to start his own company.
Meanwhile the years of work had finally, grudgingly, begun to pay off. A couple of weeks after I took my first computer job I sold "Tinker's Damn" to GALILEO, a small SF magazine out of Boston which later gained a certain cachet from having published the first stories of John Kessel and Connie Willis, both of whom went on to major awards and important work in SF. When the acceptance letter came I didn't jump up and down with excitement, but instead felt quietly satisfied, as if some great injustice had finally begun to be set right.
Less than a month later my first Dan Sloane story, "Deep Without Pity," sold to the new MYSTERY MONTHLY, and for the first time I dared to think of myself as a real, honest-to-god writer. Unfortunately, I was premature again. The editor at GALILEO was "dismayed" with the rewrite I did for him, and I went a year and a half without knowing (or really much caring) if the story was going to be published at all. MYSTERY MONTHLY folded the month before my story was scheduled to come out. It was another three years before my next sale, when SHAYOL, a semi-professional magazine out of Kansas City, finally bought "Kings of the Afternoon."
By this point I was a full-blown alcoholic. I drank at least a six-pack a night, and maybe a couple of them at the regular Friday night poker game (which I described in my novel SLAM). My joke at the time was that I drank to forget. If anybody asked me what I was trying to forget I would say, "I don't remember, so it must be working." Funny, maybe, but also the truth. I truly didn't know why I drank so much, only that I was happy if I kept it up and that I didn't dare stop.
The reasons would not have been hard to find. I was 27 years old and I had none of the things I'd expected to have at that point in my life: no writing career, no music career, no girlfriend. I didn't even have my Rankin apartment anymore—it had literally started to fall down around my head and the landlord was uninterested in fixing it. I'd set a new record there, five years in one place, and it killed something in me when I moved out. For years I dreamed about going back and discovering that my key would still let me in. Either the place was empty and I would begin a second, secret life there, or I would start a relationship with some woman who was living there. In either case, my former mailbox would be stuffed with mail for me—an indication of how much of my life there had centered on that mailbox.
In the summer of 1978, after a long vacation where I drove out to California and came back through Globe, I went back into discipline mode. I'd been taking notes as I drove for a suspense novel called RED WEATHER (from a Wallace Stevens poem), set in a computer company with clients in the oil business, just like the one I worked for. I used my coworkers as models for the characters, and my protagonist was a late-twenties, alienated, overly-creative misfit named Jack Marshall who stumbles on a dark secret in the company's past. I made myself write two pages a night, every night after work, and after nearly a year I had the first draft of a decent, salable novel.
In whatever time I had left after writing the novel I wrote letters to my new friend Joe Lansdale. I'd met him at the 1978 World Fantasy Convention in Fort Worth, where we started talking about detective fiction and didn't stop for almost ten years. The letters led to a collaboration on a story about a Houston ex-cop with a bad knee named John Talbot, "Black As The Night," the first, we hoped, of a series. Joe had already sold to MIKE SHAYNE MYSTERY MAGAZINE and figured maybe we could sell there together.
Joe had an agent who he was willing to mention my name to, so in May of 1979 I sent her the first hundred pages of my second draft of RED WEATHER. I gave the final manuscript of "Black As The Night" to Joe to market, quit my job, sold my car (which had been breaking down with infuriating regularity), put everything I had in storage, and went to Mexico.
It had been a bad year. Bad luck with romance, bad weather, the aforementioned car trouble, long days working for somebody else. A badly butchered version of "Tinker's Damn" had come out in GALILEO and the first I'd heard of it was when one of my poker buddies mentioned having seen it. I remember my lack of enthusiasm when he told me. I guess my disappointment that I hadn't sold again, and that my one sale wasn't even on local newsstands, kept me from feeling much of anything. As I got on the Greyhound for Laredo I was thinking that I would come back when my money ran out, or my career got going again. I didn't much care at that point if I came back at all.
I spent a month in Mexico City, and the change of scene got my creative juices going again. I found a wonderfully shabby hotel room near the Alameda Central and spent my days reading, exploring the Anthropology Museum, eating fabulous meals for next to nothing, and writing a new novel in longhand while sitting in Chapultapec Park.
The novel was called IN TRANSIT and was high adventure in the KING SOLOMON'S MINES tradition: hard-boiled hero, ruthless villains, Mayan and Incan ruins, and treasure. Once I knew I was going to write about the jungle it became inevitable that I go see it, so eventually I made my way to the Yucatan and the ruins at Palenque. Getting things right has always been an obsession in my writing—probably that internalized voice of the disapproving father that I felt I had to be able to refute.
The rain forest had a completely unexpected emotional impact on me. I'd thought it would be alien and frightening and instead it felt peaceful, welcoming, and (relatively) cool. As for the ruins, they were not just breathtakingly beautiful but also spiritual. I spent three days there but could easily have stayed for years.
Finally, just over two months into my trip, I arrived in Cozumel, where I called my parents and got the news: Joe had sold "Black As The Night" to MIKE SHAYNE and his agent wanted to take me on. I was back in Dallas within a week, where I washed all my clothes, got my typewriter out of storage, and moved to Austin.
After a few weeks at the Lexington Suites ("A Day or a Lifetime") Bill Alberts found me an efficiency behind his apartment on Duval, near campus. His sister Mary was in town as well, with her then husband, and she saw to it I had a good home-cooked meal from time to time. I finished the rewrite of RED WEATHER, put it in the mail to my new agent, and immediately started a Dan Sloane detective novel called THE SLOW SURRENDER. The theory was that since my agent liked RED WEATHER, I wanted to have another mystery ready to go when the first one sold. Besides, IN TRANSIT still needed some fairly expensive research—a trip to Macchu Picchu in Peru—that wasn't likely to get done anytime soon.
Even though I basically thought of myself as a mystery writer, I was still doing the occasional SF short story, one of which I was particularly happy with. Bill's roommate was a pharmacology student, another ex-St. Mark's kid, and he helped me with the research on a story called "Stuff of Dreams," about traveling to dream worlds by means of an addictive drug called Adonine.
When I showed it to Lisa Tuttle, one of the Turkey City writers, she said, "Ed Ferman will buy this." I didn't believe her; Ferman was the editor of FANTASY AND SCIENCE FICTION, a.k.a. F&SF, considered the most literary of all the SF magazines. I desperately wanted to sell there, and had had a couple of nice rejection notes from him, but I'd also been burned too many times.
One of the great things about F&SF is that you find out you've sold there when you see your name on the check through the window of their envelope—a clear and unconditional response. Three months after I submitted "Stuff of Dreams" I got my check and it felt like a major watershed.
It was. Everything in my career before it had been touched by heartbreak and frustration, and from that point on the momentum, at long last, began to build.
There were still setbacks. RED WEATHER never sold. THE SLOW SURRENDER never sold. I fired my first agent and a half dozen more over the next four years when they failed to sell my work or asked for idiotic revisions. My mystery short stories continued to kill the magazines that bought them. I wrote a couple of adult western novels, one with Joe Lansdale and one on my own, that never sold.
But my SF stories were starting to sell, and in 1982 I was the most prolific SF writer in Texas, selling almost a story a month to major markets like F&SF, the TWILIGHT ZONE magazine (under the enlightened editorship of T.E.D. Klein), and the revamped ASIMOV'S under Shawna McCarthy.
My personal life had stabilized as well. I began dating Edith Beumer, a film student who lived in the apartment under Bill's. Though she was nine years younger than me, she'd sustained her own damage in relationships; she was smart and pretty and funny and I very much wanted to feel settled. We got married in July of 1981.
I quit the sixties revival band I'd been playing in right around the same time. And, somewhat to my surprise, I quit drinking. Part of it was physical—the mornings after were getting more and more difficult. The rest had to do with the reasons I'd been drinking in the first place. I had a writing career now, and a relationship, and I didn't need to medicate myself the way I once did.
In 1982 I started going to major SF conventions on a regular basis. Some aspects were appalling to me after years of highly civilized Texas conventions: the fans with no social skills, the drunken and obnoxious professionals, the overloaded elevators, the bizarre costumes. On the other hand I got to know the editors I was writing for and they got a face and a personal style (I always dressed well) to put with my name. I got to meet other writers my age who were just starting out, many of whom became friends for life, including John Kessel, Karen Joy Fowler, and Jim Blaylock.
I came home from my first WorldCon in September of 1982 to an unfinished horror novel called THE DARKLING. I'd shown part of it to an agent who didn't want to market it unless I finished it; I didn't want to finish yet another novel without some better reason to believe I could sell it.
I was sure, though, that I could sell an SF novel. More importantly, I knew that was what I wanted to write. I'd just had my interest in the field revived by Bruce Sterling, who gave me a manuscript of "Burning Chrome" by his friend William Gibson. The story stunned me. It was the first SF I'd read that was truly contemporary, not a relic of the fifties or sixties. It was SF that watched MTV, rode the subway, and read fashion magazines.
When I thought about writing an SF novel, two pieces of unfinished business came to mind. One was IN TRANSIT, now mutated into a time travel idea involving both ancient Mayans and the end of the world; the other was my condensed novel, "Soldier, Sailor." I took some notes, I drafted a few pages, and I finally decided to make IN TRANSIT into a short story called "Deserted Cities of the Heart" (from the song by Cream). With luck I could use it to break into the very high-paying and prestigious OMNI (which I did) and maybe turn it into a novel later (ditto).
With "Deserted Cities" in the mail, I started to turn "Soldier, Sailor" back into a novel again. I decided to call it FRONTERA, after a song by Roxy Music guitarist Phil Manzanera that had a minor, yearning quality that sounded like Mars to me. I also liked the denotation of "border" and the fact that there was a Frontera Truck Parts just outside Dallas on the road to Austin.
The first draft was a shambles. It started out in first person and ended in third; characters changed name, race, and/or gender in mid-paragraph; sub-plots appeared and disappeared without notice. I somehow knew that momentum was important and I didn't let myself go back to the beginning to rewrite. I just kept pushing on.
In the midst of all this I still had to make a living. At the time that meant going to Dallas every five or six weeks for a week to ten days of contract programming, ten to twelve hours a day. I hated the time in Dallas, not just because it was hard, lonely work, but because it meant staying with my parents. My father was as bitter as ever, my mother as critical and undermining.
I finished the first draft of FRONTERA and almost immediately started the second. I was still working on my IBM Selectric, and I retyped constantly as I went, getting a fairly smooth and consistent feel. When I had about 75 pages done, I sent xeroxes to Shawna McCarthy at ASIMOV'S and Ellen Datlow at OMNI, hoping to get some word of mouth started.
The strategy worked. Betsy Mitchell, who'd been managing editor at ANALOG when I sold a story there, had just gotten a job at a new line of paperback originals named for editor Jim Baen. She mentioned to Shawna over lunch that she was looking for manuscripts, and Shawna remembered me.
I had two-thirds of the book finished when Betsy called me, and within a few weeks she made me an offer. I agonized a little before I signed the contract—her boss, Jim Baen, was a nuts-and-bolts, hard-SF fan, and I saw FRONTERA as an ambitious book that could get lost in his list. But in the end I'd been waiting too long to finally sell a novel and I opted for the nearly instant gratification of going with the start-up company. I finished the manuscript around Christmas of 1983 and the book was in stores (including my local grocery) the following summer.
Sales were modest, reviews were sparse (as they always are with paperback originals) but very gratifying. I was a finalist for the Nebula and Philip K. Dick awards, and lost both (deservedly) to Gibson's now-classic first novel, NEUROMANCER.
Edie and I bought a house in the summer of 1984 and spent two months remodeling it. In fact I stopped putting up sheetrock one afternoon in July to go to the local SF specialty shop where I saw my first finished copy of FRONTERA. It was strange to finally hold it in my hand. After seeing the page proofs and the cover proofs it was too familiar to seem entirely new, and yet I didn't want to let it out of my sight.
I was already at work on the novel version of DESERTED CITIES OF THE HEART. I'd gotten tired of SF and was reading mainstream fiction again—Robert Stone, Don DeLillo, Denis Johnson. I wanted DESERTED CITIES to talk about the end of the world (which the Mayans are expecting early in the 21st century) but still be set in the present day. I spent a lot of time weeding the back yard and trying to think my way through the contradictions, eventually deciding that it was enough to see the beginning of the end. There were plenty of omens in Latin America, from earthquakes to cults to political upheaval.
I assigned myself a daunting amount of research: classical Mayans and present-day Lacondones, revolutionaries and U.S. Army weaponry, socialist theory and New Age philosophy. My friend the pharmacology student took me on psilocybin trip; a local helicopter instructor gave me a flying lesson and a look at a real military Huey. I even put together a plastic model of the helicopter to plot out the action scenes that took place inside it. It had only taken me a year to write FRONTERA (unless, of course, you counted the previous incarnations all the way back to AND THEN PALESTRINA), but DESERTED CITIES took more like three.
By the time I finished the first draft I knew where I wanted to sell it. Bantam Books had started a trade paperback line, Bantam New Fiction, meant to compete with the Vintage Contemporaries that I loved. Shawna McCarthy was an editor at Bantam now, and through her boss, Lou Aronica, she could get me into the New Fiction program. It was the mainstream credibility that I'd always dreamed of, and so when the auction for the rights came down to traditional SF publisher Ace Books and Bantam, I chose Bantam.
At this point my career had pretty much peaked. My work was starting to appear in both the YEAR'S BEST SF and YEAR'S BEST FANTASY collections. I had been labeled—along with Sterling, Gibson, and others—a "cyberpunk" and gotten a disproportionate amount of publicity as a result. Though I never really felt that the label fit me, I was willing to take all the notoriety it could bring me, including the chance to write an OpEd piece about it for the New York TIMES. I'd been able to buy a computer and do my contract programming from home, part time, leaving the majority of my days free for writing fiction. I was on the phone every day with editors and other writers all over the country.
At the same time the life had completely gone out of my marriage. I found Edie cold and she told me I was unromantic. Though we were both unhappy, neither of us was strong enough to end it. The more I pulled away from her, the more involved I got with my career and my friends, the more distant I must have seemed to her.
I finished DESERTED CITIES in the spring of 1987 and ran immediately into trouble. I went back and forth for months with the editor of the New Fiction line, who refused to speak to me directly. I even line-edited the entire manuscript at her behest, though no one would give me a clue as to what she thought was wrong with it. The real problem, I think, was that Shawna and Lou had tried to foist one too many SF writers on the program. In the end Lou actually marked up a chapter for me, and when I saw what he'd done I literally took to bed sick for four days. I thought every change he'd suggested was for the worse, and with great sadness I declined to make them.
Needless to say I was washed up at Bantam New Fiction (though apparently I wasn't the only one who disagreed with their ideas of good writing, since the line didn't last very long). Lou gave me the choice of buying the book back (which meant going back to Ace, if they'd have me) or letting Doubleday publish it as part of a new hardcover SF line. Ace would have published it as SF too, and Doubleday would let me keep the gorgeous cover that was already finished, so I reluctantly let them keep it.
I hadn't been able to write since I finished DESERTED CITIES, despite the fact that I'd been taking notes on a new novel, SLAM, since the previous winter. It sprang from a throwaway idea: What happened to the money that you always heard about little old ladies leaving to their cats? It seemed like the basis of a Harry-Crews-type comedy, and maybe for that reason I had an unshakable image of a beach house and the sun rising out of the ocean—which I thought at first meant Florida. Then one day I realized that Galveston Island had an East Coast too, and I was off and running.
The other half of the plot grew out of watching skateboarders from the window of my favorite Mexican restaurant near campus. I loved the circle-A T-shirts and the haircuts and the disavowal of 60s culture—my culture. I got deeply into THRASHER magazine with its deranged graphics and evocative language and developed a genuine love for the skate-punk band Suicidal Tendencies.
It was October of 1987 before I finally made my peace with Bantam/Doubleday, and once I did, the dam broke.
My marriage had degenerated into long silences and there were many nights when I slept in my study. Still I remember the time I was actually working on SLAM as very happy. I wrote the entire first draft in ten weeks, knowing at the end of each day what I wanted to do the next, but sure that I was going to run out of ideas any minute. I never did, and most days I was smiling or even laughing out loud as I wrote.
When I had about fifty pages I showed them to Edie, to my mother, and to my agent. All three hated it, my agent even calling the protagonist a "layabout loser." My feelings were hurt, but I was otherwise undeterred—except that I did wait until I had a finished second draft before I showed it again. At that point everybody liked it, including Pat LoBrutto, who had taken over for Shawna when she left Bantam.
Pat was a bit disorganized from a business perspective, but he and I were kindred spirits, and he was the perfect editor for SLAM. He completely understood what I wanted to do, was full of great ideas and encouragement, and had exquisite judgment. As a Bantam genre editor, however, he needed a mainstream Doubleday editor to sponsor the book. Unfortunately, between my second and third drafts, that editor bought a book called THE FIRM by John Grisham and lost all interest in me. Whether for that reason or another, SLAM suffered the same fate as DESERTED CITIES before it—fabulous reviews, poor sales.
On November 16, 1988, about a month after I sold SLAM, I got a phone call at four in the morning. It was my mother calling from Australia to tell me my father was dead.
At the time I hadn't spoken to my father for a couple of months. Our last phone conversation had been about DESERTED CITIES. "I read your book," he said, "and I've got a list here of your mistakes, both factual and grammatical."
At the time it was important to me to be able to take criticism of my work—a point of honor at Turkey City—so I cheerfully told him to go ahead. After a couple of quibbles he told me that no camera made had the F-stop setting I'd used at one point in the novel. I actually got my camera and told him the setting was right there on the lens.
"It must be some kind of Russian camera, then."
"Dad, it's a Nikon."
"Well, it's the only one like it ever made."
In a moment of absolute clarity I saw I would never win an argument with my father as long as I lived, and that he would never be able to praise me or show that he was proud of me. And I saw that it was his fault, not mine.
"Okay, Dad," I said. "Fine, Dad. Goodbye, Dad." I hung up the phone and never spoke to him again.
As in my novel GLIMPSES, where I (barely) fictionalized the incident, I continued to have some contact with my mother. According to her, my father's response to my continued silence was, "He'll get over it."
His death—also very much as described in GLIMPSES, though it happened in Australia rather than Cozumel—was mysterious. He was scuba diving on the Great Barrier Reef and, at the end of the dive when he should have been swimming up to the boat, he turned and swam downward instead. The dive master chased him and got him turned around at about 90 feet, but both were then out of air. By the time my father got to the surface he was dead.
Did he kill himself? He'd always said he wanted to die underwater. More importantly from my perspective, what was he thinking of when he started swimming down? Was he thinking of me?
After I finished SLAM I started a novel about a late-thirties, alienated, overly-creative misfit who goes to Cozumel (I'd never been to Australia, and couldn't afford to go), both to see the place where his father died and to escape his crumbling marriage. I called it IN TRANSIT because I still thought it was a great title.
I worked on IN TRANSIT for close to a year, and despite all my insistence about being a mainstream writer, I knew something was missing: a spark, an energy, to carry me through the vast work of writing a novel. At this point I was living off the SLAM advance and the money I was making writing comics—a sideline that I really enjoyed. I was not under any financial pressure, and I was able to set the novel aside for a while and work on something else.
That something else was a short story, an SF short story, which meant I might actually be able to sell it (I'd never been able to crack an important market with any of my mainstream short fiction). The idea concerned a man who could imagine a legendary lost album from the rock era and actually have it show up on tape. He'd get more and more into it and eventually have to choose between fantasy and reality. The fictional characters would interact with real people like Jimi Hendrix, and Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys.
I started writing and couldn't seem to write it fast enough. For every page I wrote I had to backtrack and add two more. Before long I saw I was going to have to answer the central question of the story: Who was this guy, and why did he need these albums so badly? I held out for days before I finally gave into the obvious answer. He was probably a guy with a lousy marriage whose father had died under mysterious circumstances in Cozumel. In one bite the short story—which I'd been calling "Glimpses"—reached out and swallowed IN TRANSIT whole.
Edie had read the first chapter of GLIMPSES, the novel, and there was no question where I'd gotten the details of the protagonist's bad marriage. "Is Ray going to leave Elizabeth," she asked me, "or is Elizabeth going to leave Ray?"
"I don't know yet," I said.
The summer of 1990 was heavily booked. First I had a research trip to L.A. for GLIMPSES, combined with signings for SLAM, which had just come out. Then I had an academic conference in Long Beach, followed by a week in Seattle teaching Clarion West, a prestigious SF writing workshop. Edie came with me for the first leg of the trip, and on the last day, before she flew back to Austin, we had one of the worst fights of our marriage.
I would teach every day in Seattle, then go into my room at night and continue my increasingly grim discussions with Edie via long distance. When I got back to Austin we agreed to separate. I left the next day for Dallas, where I was supposed to help my mother move out of her house and into a retirement apartment. Two days later I drove back to Austin and took the last of Edie's furniture to her new place.
Edie met someone very quickly, eventually married him and moved to Dallas. For me it was more difficult. I didn't want the marriage back, and I was happy enough to be living alone. I went out on a few dates, spent a lot of time on the phone or writing to friends. But I wasn't okay. I was angry a lot, out of proportion, it seemed to me, to the things that set me off. Other times I was consumed with self-pity. Much of what I did seemed pointless.
What was happening, in fact, was that my entire life had come to a head. Everything I had put my energy into since I was in high school—sex, alcohol, performing in front of an audience—had been an attempt to just keep functioning. By the fall of 1990 nothing worked.
I was still seeing a lot of the Alberts family. Bill had provided legal advice and lawyer jokes for SLAM, and was my divorce attorney. In December of 1990 he and his wife had their annual Christmas party, where I saw Mary again for the first time in eight years. I had changed—sobered up, published some books, and gotten a lot more self-confidence—and she, after three bad, brief marriages, was open to the idea of a relationship with somebody who wasn't necessarily on the money track. On that first night we found we could barely scratch the surface of all we had to say to each other, which led to more nights, then weekends, together.
She started a job at M.D. Anderson in Houston in February, and the next thing I knew I was giving up the house where I'd lived for six years, longer than anywhere else in my life, and moving to Houston to be with her. We each had our share of misgivings, but for both of us it seemed like the storybook romance we'd always wanted, and I was willing to gamble everything I had on it.
I had written the first nine-tenths of GLIMPSES without really knowing how it was going to end, and the shape of my life after separating from Edie shaped the last chapter of the book. I figured out the ending on I-10 headed for Houston one Thursday afternoon, taking notes with one hand and driving with the other.
I finished the second draft in late 1991 and sent it to my agent. She agreed with me that this could be my breakout novel and went looking for a big offer. When it didn't come she started looking for any offer at all. In the end we sold it to an editor named Dan Levy at Delacorte for less money than I'd gotten for SLAM. When your advances start to go down it's never a good sign, and I was afraid that the streak of luck that had let me, first of all, sell wildly diverse novels, and secondly, support myself with my writing, might be coming to an end.
I was right. Dan was a huge music fan, the perfect editor for the book, and he was fired before I turned in my third draft. His boss, Brian DiFiore, took over the book and then moved to Morrow. I'd always wanted to be a Delacorte/Dell author, but there was no one left to support the book there, so I did what I had to do and pulled the book. When we couldn't sell it anywhere else we took it back to Brian at Morrow, who bought it a second time, and then moved again before it was published.
The book got some great reviews but also took some hits. The VILLAGE VOICE and the NEW YORK TIMES seemed disappointed that I was no longer hip, ironic, and distant, like I'd been in SLAM. The hardback sold about the same as both my previous hardbacks, and despite my winning the World Fantasy Award, the paperback was a financial disaster.
But the story of GLIMPSES, in the end, was not about money. It was about Brian Wilson showing up at a signing for the book in L.A., and about my getting to know David Leaf, his friend and biographer. It was about meeting people, and getting letters and email from people, who had been genuinely touched by the book, people who would not have reacted in the same way if it had been hip, ironic, and distant.
Mary and I moved to San Antonio in February of 1993, shortly before GLIMPSES came out. My comics work dried up at about that time and my brief career as a full-time writer was over. In September I took a full-time job with a computer company.
I was heartbroken. I went two years after finishing GLIMPSES without really writing any fiction at all, and once I started working I quit writing altogether. It shouldn't have been a big deal; I'd gone long periods without writing before. Only this time I wasn't drinking, and I wasn't playing in a band. And this time I'd been really close to making it, close enough to taste it.
I began to fall apart.
Eventually it became clear, even to me, that I had to start writing again. I had to write not to become famous, not to become rich, and not to make up for a loveless childhood. I had to write for its own sake, for whatever satisfaction I could get from the act itself.
It was a new attitude for me, and it didn't come easily. I eased back into writing with the first draft of a stage play, NEVERLAND, which I may or may not finish rewriting one day. I then started a novel called SAY GOODBYE, in which I used a young woman's attempts to break into the music business in L.A. as a stand-in for my own struggles with writing. It was desperately hard to write a novel and work full time, and there were many nights I feel asleep at the computer or simply stared at the screen, too tired to think. But I kept at it for three full drafts, moving from first person to third person to a separate narrator, trying to get enough distance from my protagonist that the sadness of her story would not overwhelm me, or the narrative.
By the time I was done I was without an agent or a publisher, and convinced that no one was going to buy the book. I began making plans to publish it myself even as I sent the manuscript to the three editors in the business with whom I was still on speaking terms. One never responded, even to acknowledge receipt of the book. Another, Pat LoBrutto, who was back at Bantam, loved the book but was unable to get the company to back him up. The third, Gordon Van Gelder at St. Martin's, who had been a fan of my SF and had published my work in his other job as editor of F&SF, bought the book for what, considering my track record, was a generous advance. I was amazed and grateful.
In the meantime Mary and I had moved to North Carolina to escape her conflicted relationship with her family. We had bought a house in Durham, and despite growing evidence to the contrary, I continued to try to convince myself that it was still a fairy-tale romance. I was anticipating a major emotional reaction when my mother finally died, after a long illness, in March of 2001. It never came. The problems, it became increasingly clear, were in my marriage, and I left Mary in August of 2001.
It didn't solve all my problems. SAY GOODBYE got largely excellent reviews, but sales were my lowest ever. I'm working on a new novel, one that promises to be vastly longer and more complex than SAY GOODBYE, and that requires vastly more research, and it drags on and on and on. Writing is still something between a pleasure and a need for me.
There are many pleasures in my life these days. Salsa dancing allows me to indulge a love of Latin music that goes all the way back to my childhood, when Perez Prado's "Cherry Pink and Apple Blossom White" was my favorite song. I'm playing drums again, after a 23-year layoff. And thanks to email, friends like Arthur and Julian and so many others are still with me, no matter where I go.
One thing I have learned is that I have a powerful need to create narratives that make sense of the events of my life. My heavily autobiographical novels and stories are the most obvious cases of this, but I also tried repeatedly to make narratives out of my marriage to Mary, out of my career, out of the events of any given day—usually with the result of distorting the truth.
For that reason, and others, I'm going to resist the opportunity to tie this autobiography up into a neat conclusion.
The biggest reason, of course, is that story is not over yet.