Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Every Draft is a New Universe: Writing “Last One Close the Door”

This is a piece I plan to include in another little e-book that’s almost ready, called Through the Brightening Air, which will contain my stories “Last One Close the Door” and “The Button.” I’m doing these forewords (or afterwords – I haven’t decided) as little extras, so you’ll get something more than an old, reprinted story for your three bucks worth of electrons.

At first, I was going to delay this post a day and write something about the people I’ve recently lost or am losing – Delphyne Woods back in September, and today word reached me that Andrea Dubnick passed away. And a colleague of mine at Columbia, Arnie Raife, is in hospice. These are all good people, and I want to share the few memories I have of them. But there’s a heaviness that comes with loss, and I still can’t come to terms with it.

I will say that today I received word that Windycon, will have a memorial for Delphyne on Saturday afternoon. The Art Show will also have a special showing of her work.

And, I wasn’t planning on having a special dedication in the e-book, but the other story, “The Button,” is so much about the Red Lion Pub and the Twilight Tales reading series, and Andrea did so much for “TT” – and she edited so many of the Twilight Tales chapbooks, including the first edition of Tales of the Red Lion, I have to dedicate the book to her now.


Somewhere back in my undergraduate years I started up a story called “The Small Town Theater Owner.” I can’t say it was “the usual thing” – it was the usual thing for me: angst in the night – worn, grubby urban landscapes and lonely, alienated protagonists struggling for human contact. Mr. Thompson, the theater owner, lost between a world of dreams and an all-too-real world of diminished expectations and decay.

We were all into angst in those days, by “we” I mean all the young serious young men of late adolescence, of an intellectual/aesthetic bent – all six of us. I think we all met in the same old church basement coffee house while everyone else was out having a good time.

I could have buried that story as I did so many of the stories I started in the mid-1970s, but there was an appeal to the location: the little neighborhood movie theater, the bright marquee, the fading maroon carpeting, the lonely little candy counter, the ubiquitous smell of popcorn, the dark auditorium with the sticky concrete floor, the worn seats, the wilted nicotine-colored curtains around the damaged screen.

And overhead, the light from the projection booth, like a light from heaven shining down on a world in sore need of redemption.

And the movies. Always the movies. From Tomb of Ligeia to Battle Beneath the Earth; from the sublime to the ridiculous.

I don’t know how many drafts I went through on that story. I literally “went to school” on that it. Paul Pekin, who was teaching at Columbia College in those days, ran me through the opening paragraphs and showed me how I was using a first-person narrator while most of the observations in the opening were those you’d expect from a third-person narrator.

Now, the sensible student would have just changed the whole story from first- to third-person narrator. That’s what a sensible student would have done. I re-imagined the thing with the first-person in mind. Complete rewrite.

Then I rewrote the rewrite. And re-wrote the rewritten rewrite.

Six or seven years later, I was still sticking the latest version of “The Small Town Theater Owner” into a 10x13 envelope, with room for the 9x12 return envelope which, for six or seven years, the editors always utilized.

When I told people about the story, they always seemed to like the subject matter. I’m from a generation that grew up going to the movies at little neighborhood places: the Brighton, the Marquette, the Colony, the Hi-Way, the Coral, the Midwest … Theater chains made their incursion into the independent market in those days. There was a “multiplex” in the Ford City shopping center – three screens. The Evergreen Plaza shopping center had two theaters – “Cinema One” and “Cinema Two.” It seemed pretty classy to a young kid, and it was designed with all the touches that made the 1960s version of “modern” architecture distinctive – not like the stacks of twenty-odd boxes with seats and projection booths that showed up a decade or two later, one indistinguishable from the other.

Half my childhood memories consist of movies. The other half are of those little theaters.

I know I’m not the only one.

But the problem with “The Small Town Theater Owner” was this: it had no reason to exist. It had an emotional center, the sense of loss and the sense of dreams abandoned, lost in a morass of one’s heritage and address. The setting is there. The characters are there. The trumps of doom are waiting to play over the ruins of the Alma Theater – but why? Not ‘why the place or people?’ but why the story?

I didn’t have a necessary or sufficient answer for that one. I didn’t give up on the story, but it took some years until I could answer the question.

I had to go back to science fiction to find it.

As I have said many times before, my undergraduate training in fiction writing consisted of many instructors trying, with the best intentions, to beat the science fiction out of me. Graduate school picked up the truncheon, but it was too late. Blame my wife. Blame Delphyne Woods. Blame Algis Budrys.

Blame them all.

But blame me first.

I hung around the science fiction paperback racks at the Kroch’s and Brentano’s downtown like an angel thrown out of paradise, or a child banished from the playground. I picked up The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction regularly again; I read the other sf magazines a bit more irregularly, but I tried to keep my eye on what was being done. Someone out there – everyone, perhaps – was having fun. And I wanted to join them.

And eventually I did.

Near the end of the 1980s – the very late 1980s, like 1991 – I was reading a lot about particle physics and theories of multiple universes. I especially enjoyed Rudy Rucker’s The Fourth Dimension.

And before Stephen Hawking, there was Heinz Pagels.

I combed through The Cosmic Code a dozen times. Now, Pagels himself, as I recall, was fairly skeptical about the notion of multiple/parallel universes, but not entirely dismissive.

What fascinated me about this notion of universes beyond our immediate residence plays into that sfnal notion of “literalizing the metaphor.” Writers create alternate universes all the time. What if some of these universes were real?

Well, they are real – real for us, the writers. And it’s fun to work with them, because intrinsic to the notion of an exponentially expanding pattern of realities is another notion very dear to the core of much science fiction: that what is here is not the only way things can be.

“It does not have to be this way.”

I wrote up a draft that I kept under 5,000 words. I kept the word length down because I wanted to have the story critiqued at the Chicon V writing workshops in 1991. The critiques were sort of what I expected. Hard science fiction writers can’t stand multiple universes and do their best to pull the plug on them whenever possible. Why was I using a teenaged narrator? And worse, a female teenaged narrator? Why didn’t I explain more about this strange organization that used these young people to survey and police the inter-dimensional activities in other universes? Why didn’t I explain more about why Mr. Thompson abandoned physics and became a theater owner? Another sharp spear thrown at my story: multiple universe stories had “been done.” What was new to say in this story?

All the answers were in the story, but the workshop readers were missing them, so it seemed, or they just weren’t interested.

It had been my policy when I sent a manuscript out to be critiqued, that I also send the story to a magazine, sort of as an “insurance policy” or reality check. Very often, the critiquers in such workshops are very smart people who know every possible reason why your story doesn’t work, though they themselves can’t write a saleable story. This doesn’t preclude their being right very often, but just in case their judgments were based less on what I’d done (my story) and more on what I didn’t do (write something not like me, but more like the stories these critiquers enjoyed and were familiar with), I wanted a comment from an editor – someone who was actually in a position to buy my story – to balance off the critiquing crew.

In this case I chose Kim Mohan, who at the time was the editor of Amazing Stories. I’d sold a story to the previous editor, “A Man Makes a Machine,” that ran in 1990. So for once I included a cover letter that stated I was fairly certain this story would need more work, but I wanted to know if this version looked interesting to him in its current state. If not, I’d just move on. If it did look interesting, I’d send him a revised version as soon as I’d finished with the workshop.

Kim was a great editor to work with. In reply to my cover letter, he said he’d withhold judgment until he saw my revised version. That version came in a little over short story length, “novelette” length, and most of the rough edges I had to leave in the workshop version were effectively smoothed out in the revision.

Amazing sent the contract back pretty quickly. I couldn’t be more pleased. The story may not have been a prize winner, but it floated, like all short stories and bars of ivory soap should. I was planning to write more stories set in that same universe (or universes) – did write more (see “Auteur Theory” and a few others, like “The Unremembered Gate” and The Last Labyrinth, are still on the launching pad), and I finally had my small town theater owner down.

Amazing Stories was a great magazine in those days. It had gone from digest-size to full-size, and glossy. Each story got a full-color illustration. The illustrator for “Last One …,” Mark Maxwell, did an incredible job. He got the sleeping projectionist in, with a bunch of posters lining the booth (including the gloriously-named forgotten Roger Corman opus, Swamp Women), the projector and the light emanating from it, that square of light that catches on the glass from the booth window, and some errant particles – as if from a ring accelerator – flying right out of the illustration. It’s a beauty and one of my favorite illustrations for one of my stories that I’ve ever seen.

Yes, it was a splendid thing to have a story in Amazing in those days.

The only problem was that nobody read it.

Even among the fans – fandom, for some odd reason (or maybe not so odd) preferred to think of Amazing as doomed from the get-go and were so determined that their prediction come true, few of them bought the magazine themselves. It was one of the things I discovered in later years about fandom: collectively, they like nothing better than large quantities of cheesy and cheese-flavored snacks, chocolate in quantity rather than quality, and predicting the failure of well-intentioned projects. So, with great fiction by George Zebrowski, Robert Silverberg, Tanya Huff, Greg Benford, Harry Turtledove and dozens of others to ignore, I was lucky to have my story ignored at all.

“Last One Close the Door” takes place in a town where the factories have closed, the downtown area has been decimated. Twenty years later (I’m writing this in 2013), I can’t say all that much has changed for many towns and communities. If anything, things have gotten worse.

What does it say for a science fiction author that only his most depressing speculations turn out right? I have no cell phones or compact computer devices in the story, and their absence may date my vision. But the loss of all those little movie houses – along with their function as being a sort of avenue for dreams for all the residents in the little neighborhoods and towns where they reside, that part I got right. Different avenues may exist, new media has come to prominence, but I can’t help feeling the loss. I won’t, I can’t, say the new media is any better or worse than the neighborhood theaters, but I’d feel better in a world where we can have the option, the choice, of indulging in one over the other.

Which is to say, I miss being able to slip into the Brighton Theater on a Thursday night, after a rough day, and catch a double feature in a nearly-empty mini-palace, while I muse over the relative values of the “real” universe over its imaginative rivals occupying the upraised plane of light between my eyes and the gritty, glass-bead-surface of the movie screen.

Whatever else I have to say, short of relating all sorts of little anecdotes about my excursions into the dark – those soiled and seedy little places where we all stare straight ahead at the screen as if it is the window through which we will arrive at our destiny (and whatever “destiny” may be) – is perhaps better expressed in the story.

If you were born after the heyday of the “nabes,” I hope “Last One Close the Door” helps convey a little of their flavor.


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