As I announced last week, 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 ran the first10 last week and I’ll run 10 more today, with 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
Guess Who’s Coming for Dinner?
“Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?” is a rowdy, rather jejune piece that I wrote in the early Eighties. The jokes about the future of the British Labour Party will go over the head of anyone who doesn’t remember that the party had split in half, between the socialists and the reformers, allowing Margaret Thatcher to kick both their arses.
Life Is a Game of Inches
“Life Is a Game of Inches” is a story that changed my life—not as much as I would have wished, but substantially. As they say, you can’t complain
Back in the day, when I was an unpublished writer, like untold thousands of unpublished writers, I had a clever idea. If I could just sell scripts for two sitcoms a year, or maybe even just one, I’d have enough cash to live on for an entire year, and I could devote all the rest of my time to writing “for myself.”
Naturally, I was a complete failure at this, but I did keep my eyes open, to learn more about scriptwriting and when I saw an article in the New Yorker by well-known scriptwriter John Gregory Donne, “Don Simpson was outrageous, erratic, and a great producer,” I read it. I didn’t know who Simpson was, but I thought if I read the article I might learn something about writing scripts.
I didn’t. Donne talked in a vague way about a script he and his more famous wife Joan Didion had worked on for Simpson that never went anywhere, and, the more I read, the less the article seemed to go anywhere. John and Joan never made a picture with Simpson, didn’t know much about him, and I was wondering why Donne had even written the article when suddenly, at the end of the piece—after poor Donny was dead, actually—it seems that the script that Johnnie and Joanie had tried to sell him, well, they had sold it to someone else, and now it had been made into a movie. I felt a bit had, feeling that Donne had somehow talked the New Yorker into paying him to plug his own movie, and it somehow moved me to verse—free verse, at least, the only kind I can write—in the form of the following poem:
Death of a Thug
(Lines inspired by “Don Simpson was outrageous, erratic, and a great producer,” by John Gregory Donne, the New Yorker, Feb. 5, 1996, p. 26.)
Donny died big; he went down hard
The madams mourned and the pushers paused
When the big guy bought it
You had to know Donny
He gave great memo
“Your plotpoints suck!” he told me
And it was true. I was soft, and Donny punished me.
Donny cut to the bone:
“You got the bucks, you get the fucks
So don’t fuck with my bucks.”
We all lost a little when Donny died
But Joanie and me the most. We cried.
Yes. We cried, all the way to the bank
Because we knew this was our last opportunity
To cash in on the big guy before his eyes fell out of their sockets
And because our latest picture, Up Close & Personal,
starring Robert Redford and Michelle Pfeiffer,
Is opening soon
At a theatre near you.
Well, that was pretty much that. I continued to get nowhere, of course, trying to sell scripts to Hollywood, and continued to get nowhere trying to place the novels and short stories I was writing. Two years later, I was in a bookstore in Union Station when I saw High Concept: Don Simpson and the Hollywood Culture of Indulgence, by Charles Fleming. I remembered Donny’s name, so I picked up the book and started reading. I liked what I read, so I bought a copy. High Concept is in fact an excellent book, and I learned an awful lot about poor Donny, whose massive success in Hollywood as a creator of fantasies—he co-produced such films as Flash Dance and Top Gun—only encouraged him to try to make his life a Hollywood fantasy. Basically, he wanted to become a tall Tom Cruise. Simpson ended up more or less eating himself to death—his weight ballooned at the same time as he was compulsively pigging out on diet pills.
One thing that Simpson at least considered before he died was something I never would have imagined—penis extension surgery. This gave me an idea for a short story—“Life Is a Game of Inches.” After a few rejections, the story was accepted by Reed Magazine, published at San Jose State University in California.
When “Life Is a Game of Inches” was published, I was publishing about one short story a year, in little magazines like Reed and Willow Springs, averaging about one acceptance per two hundred rejections. I was having no luck getting an agent, and I was wondering if I ever would. Then in early 2002 I got a letter from an agent whom I had never heard of, saying that he had read “Life Is a Game of Inches” and asking if I would like for him to be my agent. About a month later, he had gotten me a contract to publish Sherlock Holmes and the Giant Rat of Sumatra and to write a second Holmes novel.
Unfortunately, the reviews and sales for the Holmes books were less than spectacular. I parted ways with both my agent and my publisher, which is why I am self-publishing on the web. But, believe me, it is nice to be able to tell people that you are a published novelist. So I owe John Gregory Donne, and Don Simpson, and Charles Fleming, a debt of gratitude.
Stan the Man
“Stan the Man” is a story about the Fifties, looking back on them, as a time when people had dreams that seemed as if they would never come true, but then they did come true, though not always as people expected. The title refers, not to Stan Musial, but to Stan Getz, the tenor saxophonist, whose album, “Hamp & Getz,” which aligned him with vibraphonist Lionel Hampton, figures in the story.
Air Boat Operator
Once I went to a party and a couple of young men at the party told funny stories about air boats and air boat operators in the Florida keys. I stored this information away in my head and a couple of years later I decided—why, I don’t know—to write a story about a personality collapsing in on itself. And for some reason I decided that air boat operator might be an appropriate occupation for such a personality. “Air Boat Operator” is one of eight of my stories to have been published, in the North Atlantic Review. I received a single copy of the magazine as “payment,” which I loaned to my mother. She was so offended by the story that she threw out my copy.
Michael and the Book
“Michael and the Book” is scarcely more than reportage—recollections of my own struggles with Hegel’s Phenomenology of Mind. I can say that I understood about a third of it, which puts me ahead of most people. Still, I’m far from a Hegel guy. All great philosophers make mistakes, but Hegel’s hatred of empirical science—his contempt for “modernism,” in general—was pathological, and corrupted his work. To my mind, he has had a very negative effect on European thought, but he remains remarkably influential to this day. I would blame Marx on Marx rather than on Hegel, but I suppose that a system of thought claiming to be able to justify every aspect of contemporary culture can be modified to justify rejection of every aspect of contemporary culture. “Michael and the Book” first appeared in A Summer’s Reading.
Men Are Dogs
I got the idea for “Men Are Dogs” in an odd way. I used to work in a small office with two young women named Molly and Shannon. One morning I entered the front room of the office and started to take my coat off. As I did so I could hear Molly in the next room, telling Shannon about one of her girl friends, who had just discovered that her fiancé had gotten another woman present. As I entered the next room, Shannon turned to me and said sharply “Men are D-O-G-S.” I thought to myself “Well, I’ve got the title, and the first paragraph and the last paragraph. All I need is something to go in the middle.” “Men Are Dogs” is the result.
Sisterhood Is Powerful
“Sisterhood Is Powerful” is another short story that came about in an odd way. I was walking through the downtown DC mall formerly known as “The Shops” when I encountered one of the unhappiest-looking families I’ve ever seen. The wife was wearing something ridiculously frilly—and, sadly, she was really a little too plump for anything seriously frilly—while the husband was wearing a blue blazer and a pair of spectacularly yellow pants. The son—about ten—was also wearing a blue blazer. The daughter, about three, was also wearing something frilly, but fortunately was young enough to get away with it. The husband looked desperately unhappy, and the wife, not much better.
All in all, they looked like the Brooks Brothers family from Hell. The yellow pants in particular stuck in my mind, and, anyway, who can resist making fun of WASPs, even though I basically am one? “Sisterhood Is Powerful” is the result.
“Drugstore Annie,” now that I’ve had a chance to look at it, is yet another whack at that unoffending minority, WASPs. I guess I’ve never been able to pass up an easy target. The story first appeared in Kiosk.
Body of a Woman
“Body of a Woman” is quasi-autobiographical, except that my mom was never fat, and my parents never divorced, and in fact both of them lived well into their eighties. Also I did not grow up in Baltimore, nor did we summer in Cape Cod, or anywhere else, nor did I go to Williams.
No Ordinary Shit
“No Ordinary Shit” is a very brief sketch, reflecting my underwhelmment at David Mamet’s regular guy dialogue, on display in “Buffalo Nickel.”