A Tough Day for Writers

It was difficult enough yesterday to hear that someone had gone to the offices of a local newspaper in Maryland, The Capitol Gazette, and shot an unknown number of people, five of whom died.

I’ve been a reporter for a magazine and a freelancer for a local paper. This hit home. But life wasn’t done with the tragic yesterday.

Harlan Ellison has died.

I can barely type those words, and I have trouble accepting a world without him in it. His  writing will be with me forever, but the thought that irascible curmudgeon won’t do another rant, won’t demand that writers be paid, won’t upset the publishing establishment is depressing.

“I Have No Mouth. And I Must Scream.”

In the late 1960s, I purchased a copy of the March 1967 issue of IF: Worlds of Science Fiction. Inside was a story that rocked my brain, “I Have No Mouth. And I Must Scream,” by a writer I’d never heard of, Harlan Ellison.

The story takes place in a post-apocalyptic world occupied by the last four humans on earth. They are manipulated and tortured by an artificial intelligence, but humanity being what it is, they find an escape, except for one, whom the AI punishes. The title of the story is also the story’s last line, and when I read it, I was astonished that someone could write like this.

I immediately started reading anything by Ellison I could find and became mesmerized by his style, his dystopian approach. He won Hugo and Nebula awards for his speculative fiction, but he also was a journalist, a crime writer, a horror writer…a writer.

In Los Angeles, where he moved to pen TV shows (among them my favorite Star Trek episode, “City on the Edge of Forever”), he would often set up shop in the front window of a book store with an aging manual typewriter. Using his two-fingered typing method, he’d write a story based on a first line pulled from a hat by a book store customer. As he finished a page, the bookstore owner would tape them in order in the window, and people would stop by and read, waiting for every new page.

A writer.

A Chance Encounter

In 1974 WorldCon, the international convention that bestows the Hugo Awards, was in Washington, D.C. Ellison was going to be featured there, and I had to go. For someone who’d just graduated from college and had not yet started her teaching job, I had to save up babysitting, dog-walking, and horse-grooming money to pay the fee.

I contacted a student of mine from student-teaching days, and he agreed to come with me. On day one of WorldCon, I drove to McLean and picked him up and drove into D.C.–my first time driving myself. But it all went smoothly. Parked in the hotel, picked up my ticket and event schedule, and wandered around to get my bearings.

A group of people, exclusively young men, were grouped in a hallway of the hotel. A tall, white-haired man I immediately recognized. Isaac Asimov. I’d read a lot of his work, too, and he and Ellison had an on-going “feud” about hard sci-fi and spec-fic. (They actually were good friends, but the fans believed in this feud, so…)

I got closer, and sure enough, the other person in the hallway debate was Harlan Ellison. A small man in stature, I was dry-mouthed with being star-struck, but I worked my way forward until Ellison was only a few feet away.

“I don’t have time for this drivel,” he said. “I have an appointment I have to get to.”

Now, I never once thought I’d get to speak with him, but I was immediately sad that this encounter would be too brief.

Then, he was beside me, hand on my arm. “I have an appointment with this young woman. Excuse me.”

Me? Of course, I went with him–I was too stunned not to–seeing my friend’s concerned face as Ellison led me away. Ellison was a notorious womanizer. He was married several times, most lasting only a year or two, except for his last marriage, which lasted 32 years.

Ellison escorted me into a holding room where people about to go on stage for a panel waited. He ordered everyone out, and they obeyed. He and I sat down in side by side chairs, and he asked, “What brings you to WorldCon?”

This was 1974. Women or girls were rare at cons, and I was 22 years old and damned good-looking then.

I didn’t want to say “You” and be an idiot, so I said, “I want to write science fiction.”

“Why?” he asked.

“Because of you.” Then, the fan girl took over. “I’ve read everything you’ve written.”

A thoughtful scowl, and he said, “I doubt that. My bibliography is over 50 pages long.”

There was the irascible Ellison I’d read about. I felt like a fool.

“But if you want to be a writer,” he said, “do it. Start and don’t stop. Write what comes into your head. Don’t censor it. Don’t worry about what people think. Write it down. Now, don’t try to write like me, because no one can do that. Write like you.”

There was the egotistical Ellison I’d also read about. But he was kind to me. I suspect my youthful good looks had something to do with it.

We chatted for about twenty minutes. He asked what I’d written, if I’d had anything published. Rejections only I told him. “Keep at it. You’re not a writer unless you’ve been rejected.”

“Well,” he said, standing, “thanks for getting me away from the troglodytes. Enjoy the con and keep writing.”

And he was gone.

I have remembered that encounter for 44 years and cherished it. I accepted he probably forgot it as soon as he left the room.

But…

Some years later in one of his stories, he had a scene where a woman had an embarrassing issue with her period. He didn’t write derisively about it but with tenderness and care. It was so similar to what happened to me on the second day of the con, I’ve always wondered.

Rest in Peace

I’d heard Ellison had had a stroke a few years ago which had essentially ended his writing but not his irascibility. I have a good-sized collection of his works, and they are now precious to me. For the rest of my life I can go look at how he put words together in such an incredibly beautiful and horrific way.

I didn’t take one piece of his advice. I still do try to write like him. When I write something horrific, something that makes people look away in distress or disgust, it comes directly from him through me. I always wanted to tell him that.

And yesterday he died in his sleep. Not fitting. Not the way he would have written it. If he had, there would have been drama, a fight to the death, and dystopia. He went silent into that good night.

I have a mouth. And I’m screaming.

Old School Spies

As a teenager, I read John Le Carre’s The Spy Who Came in From the Cold. Along with the TV show, The Man from U.N.C.L.E., it intrigued me about the world of espionage, especially Cold War espionage.

I’m a child of the Cold War. The Cuban Missile Crisis is not mere history to me. I lived it. I was glued to the television news. I had to bring a shoe box to school with a change of underwear, a bar of soap, a toothbrush and toothpaste, and some other odds and ends I don’t remember. We practiced “duck and cover” and trooping to the school’s musty basement, designated a fallout shelter. My father, in the Reserves by then, was told he’d likely be called up and deployed again to Berlin.

At the time I didn’t realize if a nuclear exchange had occurred, he would have died quickly. Not so much us. We lived two hours outside of Washington, D.C. We would have survived the initial blast, but radiation poisoning would have gotten us sooner or later.

I was ten and a half years old, thinking I wouldn’t make it to eleven.

Le Carre – The Master

Born David John Moore Cornwell, Le Carre was a pen name he used for writing spy novels while employed by Britain’s Security Service and Secret Intelligence Services. The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, was his third novel, and its success allowed him to leave MI-6 and write full-time. His best-known character is the spy George Smiley, who has appeared in most of his works. He swears none of his work, especially “In From the Cold,” is based on things he experienced. Rather, he says, he was a keen observer of behavior and people.

His novels are dark and gritty, the settings dreary places I’d read about. My father had served in West Berlin and talked a bit about the situation there. I watched news reports about the Berlin Wall and about the daring escapes by people from the east to get to the west section of the city. Le Carre’s books were “real” to me.

And I loved them. They drew me into the world of intrigue and counterintelligence, not enough to want to be a spy, but enough to want to write stories like Le Carre’s and, later, Alan Furst’s.

Back to the Beginning

Le Carre’s newest release is A Legacy of Spies, a sequel of sorts to The Spy Who Came in From the Cold. That intrigued me enough to plan on reading A Legacy of Spies, but I decided after almost fifty years, it was time to re-read The Spy Who Came in From the Cold.

Oh, the language! The way he describes people and places. He puts you there. In the opening scene, I was at Checkpoint Charlie waiting in the cold and dark for an asset to defect, my tension a direct result of Le Carre’s scene-setting, his subtle revelation of the characters’ emotions. Though you never “see” the main character in that scene, Karl, the defector, when he meets his fate, your heart is pounding.

And it’s a writing lesson, too, on how to engage a reader, how to infuse a scene with tension, and how to deliver the punch to the gut.

It’s old school espionage, not the gadget-ridden, high-action novels and movies of this century. It’s spy vs. spy, it’s pitting wits against other wits, it’s manipulation and extortion, it’s human not tech, and it’s absolutely thrilling.

Do you want to know why I write about spies? Read anything by John Le Carre.

—————

P. A. Duncan’s first novel, A War of Deception, is available now on Amazon. This week only, the Kindle version is 99 cents.

Book Trailers Galore!

When I was a kid and got a toy I’d wanted with the desperation of a child, I’d play with that toy exclusively for days. Okay, weeks. None of my other toys mattered. Of course, when the newness wore off, it got relegated to the toy bin with all the others.

I’m the same way with books in a series. If I like a series, I’ll read every book in the series and wait, impatiently for the next. It wasn’t until I wrote a series that I stopped being angry at authors for not writing fast enough.

This past week, my online author group, The Author Transformation Alliance, posted a challenge on doing a book trailer using a free program called Lumen5. I won’t go into all the specifics of how it works here; you can go look for yourself. It has a paid version and a free version, and the major difference between them is in the paid version, you don’t get an “ad” for Lumen5 in the closing credits and your video will be HD. And–big plus for me–it’s far less complicated than other video-making programs.

Before my novel came out, I’d purchased a couple of inexpensive book trailers from a vendor. They were great, but the ability to customize them was limited. Not so with Lumen5.

Bottom line. I not only did a book trailer for my debut novel, A War of Deception, I also made ones for each of my collections of short stories, my novella, and my novelette–six book trailers total. In two and a half days. (And, there’s one or two more, I think, to do.)

Yes, obsessive much.

But it’s another tool for an indie author. The money saved purchasing book trailers can now go toward buying a professional cover or paying my editor, etc.

Anyway, here’s one of my projects, the new book trailer for A War of Deception. I’d love to know what you think of it. Comment below. (And, yes, I caught the typo; it’ll get fixed.)

To view the trailers I made for my other books go to my Facebook Author Page.

Remembering 9/11

Click here to view my political blog, “Politics Wednesday.” This week’s post, a day early to commemorate the eleventh anniversary of 9/11, is a reprint of an editorial I wrote within a week or so of the event. The original appeared in FAA Aviation News magazine, of which I was the editor from 1991 to 2002.

A Life-Changing Event

Thirty years ago today my world turned upside down. Two phone calls bracketed that beautiful late summer day. The first was at just after 0600 and woke me, so my answer was surly and aggravated. No one said anything, and I hung up. Almost twelve hours later, the second phone call came from my mother with the three words that echo in my head almost every day.

“Your Daddy’s dead.”

My life hasn’t been, couldn’t be the same after that, and suicide doesn’t just affect its perpetrator. It alters every family member’s trajectory. Some of us take acute vectors into too many drugs and too much alcohol until we get reeled back to earth. Some of us take it on as a burden we never discard. All of us take on the guilt. Well, unless, of course, you’re incapable of accepting responsibility for anything and blame everyone else, principally your own children.

Therapy is a blessing. Don’t ever hesitate to avail yourself of it. It’s life-saving. And that was my father’s final gift to me.

That first phone call of the day? That was my father. I checked the phone bill after his death. My mother and brother were still asleep, so he was the only one who could have made it. I also live with that every day; not just the cranky way I answered the phone but the fact the last person he chose to call was I.

Here is something I wrote for today, because writing is the only way I handle these things, and I thank you for indulging me.

For Dad

For someone born into privilege, he had a tough life—losing his father as an infant, being farmed out to cousins when his stepfather didn’t want children who weren’t his in the house, betrayal when he married young, going to war as a teenager, having his back broken in five places after World War II was over so he didn’t get a Purple Heart, being told he’d never walk again and defying every doctor who told him that, and much more. He did, however, get to live his dream—having a large, productive farm where he could raise his children and experiment with methods of farming at which the agriculture establishment scoffed.

My father was a brilliant man who could create things from metal and wood and coax amazing crop yields from the soil. He could make a dog or a horse do exactly what he wanted it to do but rarely could achieve the same with his children. We took after him too much for that to succeed. He was astounded by my writing and bragged to his friends I was a pilot. He professed to disdain my brother’s racing career but quietly made certain he had the funds to pursue it.

When you’re fifteen years old and your family has money so you don’t have to work, you resent the fact that you have to spend Saturday afternoons hauling a hay wagon or a silage cart. When you’re twenty-five years old and starting your own career, you appreciate that lesson in hard work.

When you’re a sixteen-year old volunteer for Robert F. Kennedy’s presidential campaign, you argue with your father over race. When you’re in college, you see him bring a black man he grew up with and his family to work for him when the man had no other place to go.

When you’re in college protesting a war, you argue with him, the career soldier, over that. Years later, someone tells you he stood alongside the Veterans of Foreign Wars to block American Nazi Party leader George Lincoln Rockwell from being buried in a Nazi uniform in a national cemetery. And you remember he fought to make certain you had a right to protest, even though he might not agree with why you protested.

I have now been half my life without my father. I hear his voice, have heard his voice every day since he decided he could no longer be in this world. Sometimes I listen to it; many times I don’t, and those are usually the times I should have listened. I missed him particularly on the day I retired from the U.S. government, for he was the one who taught me duty and service and love of country and to question everything.

He was a simple and flawed man who wanted nothing more than to be a farmer and have a family to raise. I was privileged to be one of his children, and, though I sometimes resented the attention he gave troubled youth, I was never so proud when some of those young men he turned from a life of crime called after his death to tell us, “I would never be what I am today if not for Mr. Duncan.” He was far from a perfect human being, but he was a good and decent man and an unwavering father when it counted.

And I miss him still. Every day.