Author’s Introduction: Russians in My Head
Let’s see. Sometimes things get in your head and need to get out. We’ve all had ear worms, we’ve all had the silly idea that just will not go away, right? This happens to writers in odd ways, in ways that sometime colors an author’s works for years, and in others becomes a burp, a bump, or a bumble.
Forty-nine years ago the world as we knew it nearly ended. The October Missile Crisis threatened a large part of the southern and eastern portions of the US with Cuban-based immolation by Russian rockets. While events turned in other directions, the event stuck with me: I was an impressionable kid who read a lot and knew that things could have gotten really bad, really fast. One of my memories is of the twelve year old me walking to my first girlfriend’s house while I visited Baltimore City from the country, just a few days before Halloween.
There was an oddity that night in the city: almost every house I passed in the suddenly darkening sky. . .had lights on in the basements. Even my low-key Aunt and Uncle were doing it–down beside the washing machine in the basement there was now a box of soups and crackers and what-nots, oh, and two extra cases of beer and a couple bottle of Seagrams. Doing something for some folks meant that, and for others, it meant starting on that backyard bomb shelter. Me? I started carrying a knife. I also had some bad nights from time to time, since we lived in the country and were in the seam between several volunteer fire houses–sometimes the sirens calling in the help would start in one jurisdiction and move to the next, and then the next, and back to the first for another alarm, so that we could have an an hour’s worth of sirens, with missiles in Cuba just fifteen or twenty minutes away.
Fast forward a few years to the late 60s and I’d gone off to UMBC for an education, which I got there, even if I didn’t get that degree. In several writing classes the anti-war theme was palpable if not paramount, and though I felt like I had story. . .somewhere. . .to deal with that theme, I was writing love poems and “slick sci-fi” to the horror of my instructor and though I’d once or twice started on the “October story” it just didn’t want to come out of hiding, and oddly enough, I got a chance to teach science fiction as an undergrad, because I knew it far better than any of the staffers.
The Kent State thing put me into newspaper mode and I ended up dropping out of UMBC, getting a job selling carpet and stereos, writing for newspapers and magazines, with an occasional stab at the October thing — but I was selling a lot of what I wrote, making a living between salesmanship and tabloid features and rare fiction bits — so I didn’t worry about that one too much. I got a job at UMBC as Curator of Science Fiction, went back to school there yet again. . .and still couldn’t get that story to speak to me, even though stories I was writing were by then hitting Amazing Stories with positive results. . .and thus, I was a science fiction writer, FWIW, and began hanging around science fiction types, going to conventions.
And one of the science fiction types I met often was a guy named Charles Ryan. He’d been editor at Galileo magazine, IIRC, and we knew each other by name and face if not better. Among the things I’d done along the way was to be co-publisher and managing editor of the tabloid-style Star Swarm News, a newspaper featuring half SF-related community news and half fictional news from the larger universe, so when, a few years later he began Aboriginal SF, using a somewhat similar concept, I was paying attention, especially since he said he wasn’t getting enough SF from people who read science fiction.
Change happened, and I finally had a one sentence start to the October thing–and a basic idea, but I was doing other things, like life, jobs, work, marriage and divorce. The sentence I’d come up with to start the story was bright and cheery: “The most important thing my father ever taught me was how to kill my mother.”
Yah, bright and cheery and optimistic. Well, most of my fiction was and is optimistic, but this one was just. . .there.
So I met and married Sharon Lee and we started writing together successfully, and eventually moved to Maine, with books written and published. Arriving to more disarray than we’d expected, I ended up teaching several writing courses at the local Adult Ed, at the same time rescuing Carpe Diem from an editor. And I kept leaving my page with “The most important thing my father ever taught me was how to kill my mother.” sitting where I could find it.
Then we offered to write book four in the Liaden series and were turned down flat by Del Rey.
But, the October thing had become “Russians in My Head” by then–a thing I worked on, or tried to work on, while I was teaching writing. It was in the way, by then, and even putting the page into a drawer didn’t help. It came back and got between me and everything I was writing, or trying to write.
It had gotten in my head and needed to get out, seriously.
Then we got one of our small-market lists that we subscribed to, and I saw that Charles Ryan, still at Aboriginal, was still saying he needed stuff from people who actually read science fiction. We’d sold all the stories we had in hand, and Sharon was working night-shift, so we didn’t have time to chat about this….
After a bracing march up and down the road collecting cans to take to the redemption center at a nickle per (my job at Cumberland Farms having been given up for good and proper reasons) I sat down and my mood was perfect. It took about two hours, but finally, after twenty-seven years “the October thing” was out of the way, and shoved into an envelope.
To make a short story longer, I mailed this off to Charles Ryan, and moved on to other things. In relatively short order I had the reply I’ll try to scan in here. Charles scratched out the “Dear Contributor” and scratched in my name, and then he told be it wasn’t science fiction (I maintain he was wrong) and that it had been done before (which is possible, but not by me). . .and asked me to send him something else.
I didn’t have all that much else around, but the Russians were out of my head, and then we got the chance to write what eventually became. after several iterations, Master Walk (see Amazon for an electronic edition, also available from Smashwords and Barnes and Noble’s Nook) and I put “Russians in My Head” away, never to be mailed out again.
Is there a lesson to learned? Perhaps it is that every idea needs to be thought, but they all don’t deserve to be written. I do recall the lesson at Clarion West about the Ten Stories Every Writer Must write–I wonder if this is one, and I just didn’t recognize it. Or maybe the lesson is that sometimes facing a problem removes it faster than ignoring it.
In any case, “Russians in My Head” is here in Splinter Universe, make of it what you will.