I have a new book out, Brief Lives, available here, both as a ebook and a print on demand paperback. Brief Lives is a collection of 32 short stories, many of them quite short, only a few pages, but some of them run on for a dozen or more. An “Afterwords” includes (usually) brief descriptions of how the stories came to be written. I’ll run 10 of them today, 10 next week, and the remaining 12 the week after. Enjoy!
Go here to check out my other books—Vorak of Kolnap, Author! Author!, Sherlock Holmes and the Hapsburg Tiara and Sherlock Holmes and the Giant Rat of Sumatra. Vorak and Author! Author! are both ebook/print on demand paperbacks, while the Holmes books are dead tree only—well, pretty much. Sherlock Holmes and the Hapsburg Tiara is also available in a complete audio version, ably recorded by noted British actor Simon Vance.
In addition to all this pay to read stuff, I have a complete freebie, Three Bullets, an exercise in fan fiction, recreating Rex Stout’s renowned fat detective, Nero Wolfe, available as an ebook only. Again, enjoy!
Brief Lives—the story behind the stories
Living in the Year of Our Lord 1959 AD
This was the first short story of mine to be published, in Willow Springs. It was based, quite heavily, on a man who lived up the street from us when I was a boy. In real life, he wasn’t quite as lovable as I’ve made him out to be, which is often the case with alcoholics. Do yourself a favor, dude, and lay off the booze.
I had a very negative reaction to the film Amadeus. Ten years after seeing it, I was still pissed off enough to write this little story.
The Bounty of the Lord is Inexhaustible
Making fun of evangelicals is even easier than making fun of WASPs. I guess my only defense is that I don’t do it very often.
Boy on the Water
My grandfather, Allen Vanneman, worked on the construction of the Conowingo Dam on the Susquehanna River. U.S. Route 1 runs across the top of the dam. My dad was born and grew up in Port Deposit, a small town on the Susquehanna. One night I was driving across the Conowingo and I thought about my father and I wrote this story.
Waking Up Christmas
“Waking Up Christmas” came about as the result of a story someone else wrote, which we read in my writing alma mater, the Northwest Fiction Writers Group. The story involved a family that ran a Christmas store, a family that, behind the tinsel and mistletoe, suffered the usual disfunctions. Anyway, I was quite taken by several long descriptions of the store itself, and I exclaimed “I bet you could write a whole story on that,” which, I’m afraid, someone thought was ridiculous.
Thus goaded, I paid a visit to a Christmas store in Union Station, which may or may not be still in existence, checked it out, rearranged things in my mind quite a bit, and came up with “Waking Up Christmas.” There isn’t much here for the little ones, but I’m not that much of a Scrooge in person. I like Christmas, a lot, but sometimes getting into the spirit, and staying there, can be a bitch.
“Layover” began as an attempt to write commercial fiction, something I’ve never been able to do. After I finished my first Sherlock Holmes novel, Sherlock Holmes and the Giant Rat of Sumatra, I spent quite a bit of time looking for a publisher, with no success. It occurred to me that if I published a short story in one of the two monthly mystery magazines on the market, Alfred Hitchcock and *Ellery Queen, selling my novel might be easier.
I bought a couple of copies of the magazines and read them, to see what they were printing. I was surprised to discover that the stories were not at all fierce and bloody, as I had expected. It appears that the readers of both Alfred and Ellery were gentle souls who did not much like the rough, dog-eat-dog world of global capitalism in which they found themselves and liked stories that would take them away from all of that.
I wrote a story of that sort, hoping it would sell, and sent it off. I collected two rejections and sat down to write another. The night before I had had a dream based, in dream-like fashion, on a trip I had taken once to Cabo San Lucas, a resort town on the southern tip of the Baja Peninsula. Once I started in on the story, I forgot that it was supposed to be “commercial,” and I enjoyed the experience so much of letting the publishers be damned that I wrote the story to suit myself and no one else, which is pretty much the way I’ve always written. After all, I already have a day job. Of course, writing to suit yourself is a pretty good way of ensuring that you’ll always have a day job, which is how things have worked out for me.
Anyway, I had a good time writing “Layover.” There’s a lot of legal mumbo-jumbo in the story, mumbo-jumbo that is, alas, entirely inaccurate, according to a member of the Northwest Fiction Writers Group, who happened to be a member of the faculty of the Catholic University School of Law. But—and this is what’s important—he told me that the story was so exciting that he didn’t care that all of my “facts” were erroneous.
There at the New Yorker
“There at the New Yorker is scarcely even a sketch, let alone a short story. Like so many unpublished writers, I have sort of a thing about the New Yorker, and this piece is little more than a brief release of bile.
The Truth About Henry Kissinger
“The Truth About Henry Kissinger” was prompted by the “aggressive” coverage of Henry by a number of liberal Jewish journalists back in the Vietnam era and after. I wasn’t a fan of Kissinger, but I didn’t think of him as completely evil. I came to the conclusion that these angry journalists resented Kissinger because they expected all Jews to be liberals, and Kissinger obviously wasn’t.
At the time that I wrote the story, what I really disliked about Kissinger was his constant lying about his record in order to ingratiate himself with the moralizing Reaganites who had seized control of the Republican Party. Since that time, Kissinger’s reputation has continued to darken, most recently due to the revelation that as Secretary of State he rescinded a planned warning by the State Department to General Pinochet’s authoritarian regime in Chile not to engage in assassination. A few days after Kissinger’s action, former Chilean ambassador Orlando Letelier was murdered with a car bomb at Sheridan Circle in Washington, DC, a few blocks from my apartment. Which leads one to believe that Henry Kissinger was/is almost as bad as Christopher Hitchens says he is, and perhaps as bad as my nameless narrator says he is as well.
The Meaning of Life
“The Meaning of Life” is hardly even a sketch, hardly more than a diatribe. But my bar is low, and “Meaning” leaped over.
In the Kingdom of the Girls
“In the Kingdom of the Girls” has the tri-partite, thesis/antithesis/synthesis pattern of the classic short story, and even has the standard “important” last sentence. It’s so classic that I almost blush to think of it. But there’s a reason why classic forms last. They work, and I hope this one does.
I was inspired to write this story by two things. At my twentieth high-school reunion, one of my classmates, who worked for the CIA, encouraged me to apply. The thought that the CIA might actually give me a job struck me as a little amazing, and I stored it away. Some years later, on my real job, not with the CIA, I paid a visit to a fairly fancy girls school outside of Baltimore. I was the tallest person on campus, which can be a refreshing experience. This story was written so long ago that Arianna Huffington was still a conservative. I had enjoyed her book on Picasso, written prior to her marriage to Mr. Huffington, a book that enraged “professional” art critics by pointing out what a shit Pablo was to women. Men are so touchy.