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 Friends are the Best

Like many people, I made relationships in college that have endured, even nearly fifty years later. There were three of us who were roommates for the 1971-1972 college year, and that one year has led to a lifetime of events where we three supported each other like sisters: marriages, divorces, childbirth, miscarriages, children with special needs, illnesses, the deaths of parents, siblings, and a spouse, and a child coming out as gay. We’ve always been there for each other with absolute, unconditional love.

When my first novel came out, my two friends were some of the first to get a copy of A War of Deception. I appreciated that, of course, but I never expected either to read it. One is a mystery fan, the other more for historical romance.

I spent a few days last week with those friends, and the first thing one said when I arrived was, “I loved your book. I didn’t think I would because I don’t read the spy genre, but once I started it, I couldn’t put it down. Why, I was going to bed at 6 p.m. so I could read it!”

She went on to explain that though she’d proofread my college term papers, she didn’t know I was such a storyteller.

My other friend echoed her comments and told me she was “hooked from the beginning and can’t put it down.”

Now, you say, they’re your friends; of course, they’d say that. Nope, these are the kind of friends who have told and will tell me when I’ve effed up and will mince no words. If they’d hated A War of Deception, they would have told me in no uncertain terms. And I would have accepted it because it would have originated in love.

I can’t describe what it means that friends of long-standing appreciate my literary efforts. That means more to me than any five-star review. It almost makes up for my father and brother not being here to celebrate this accomplishment.

I love all my friends made over the years, but old friends are the best.

Which of your lifelong friends can be brutally honest with you about your writing? Let me know in the comments.

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.

Music Heals

“Musick hath charms to soothe a savage breast.”
The Mourning Bride, Act 1, Scene 1
William Congreve

For the past five weeks, as I’ve recovered from surgery and a nasty case of bronchitis (which hasn’t entirely faded), I’ve been the oft-misquoted being of the above quote–a savage beast. I’ve engaged in numerous online arguments, something I normally don’t do. I’ve snapped at baristas, strangers, family, and friends. I hate being sick, and I hate what being sick does to my mood. I’ve hated every word I’ve managed to write during this time. I’ve decided I’m a hack author who’ll never get more than three reviews.

Yeah, good thing I live alone, because living with me the past month would be a ginormous self-pity party.

Music

My social engagements have been limited in the past month as well. As an extrovert I do better when surrounded by people, but one of my early excursions after feeling halfway human again to a Starbucks for some #coffeeshopwriting resulted in people leaving the tables near me to sit somewhere else because of the coughing.

(No need to suggest home remedies or a visit to the doctor. The former don’t work, and I did the latter. This is a result of my usually well-controlled asthma, and there’s not much to be done but endure until it runs its course in five or six weeks.)

So, I hibernated. I didn’t even join my regular Google Hangout sessions because coughing. But one series of events I’ve always looked forward to since I moved to the Shenandoah Valley is the annual Heifetz Institute Summer Concert Series. (For more information on this incredible series, click here. If you ever needed a reason to visit the Valley, this should be at the top of your list.) How could I go, knowing the urge to cough comes on suddenly and lasts until I’ve coughed a lung up? (That’s called hyperbole used for dramatic effect.)

Music has always been important to me. I sing. I listen to many genres of music, depending on my mood: classical to soft rock to acid rock to opera to rap to… You get it. Music inspires me, calms me, excites me, thrills me, heals me. Music is always at my fingertips when I want it.

I skipped the opening Heifetz events but bought a ticket for “Stars of Tomorrow: PianoPalooza!” Piano performances are one of my favorite concerts. I looked forward to this, but my trepidation was there. Heifetz records all the performances. What if a coughing jag came on in the middle of the performance?

I picked a seat on the aisle so if it did, I could make a conspicuous escape.

Hath Charms

The first performance was a contemporary piece by Petr Wajsar for harpsichord, Harpsycho. The harpsichord is a beautiful instrument which produces amazing sounds, but this piece consisted of a lot of slamming of the keyboard, beating on the sides and bottom of the instrument.

I’m not a fan of contemporary classical aka “experimental” music. Sorry.

Next was a Brahms piece, Romance in F major, Opus 118 No. 5, a piano solo played with technical precision but with little passion.

“Musick” wasn’t soothing anything in me it seemed, and I kept expecting the tickle in my throat to manifest.

And then there was Stravinsky. Three movements from Petrushka: Danse russe (Russian Dance), Chez Petrouchka (Petrushka’s Room), and La semaine grasse (The Shrovetide Fair). Played by a Russian without the sheet music. When he closed his eyes and played with the controlled passion that’s very Russian, my spirit and my mood lifted with every chord.

As if that weren’t enough, next came Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 in C-sharp minor by Liszt, played by four hands and with some wonderfully timed and performed comic mugging by the pianists.

I felt better than I had in weeks.

Ravel’s Mother Goose Suite, M. 60 followed by his La Valse, M. 72 had me floating on air.

I had to clear my throat a couple of times, but no coughing.

To Soothe A Savage Breast

I was so uplifted after this concert, I had trouble getting to sleep, the chords still running through my head. I slept through the night. No coughing, and I’ve yet to cough today.

Music heals.

As I said to a friend at the end of the concert, “I so needed this.”

This morning, my writing looks and feels better to me. I’m not a hack. I’m an author. I’m a novelist working on the next novel. I’m writing, and it’s good because “musick hath charms to soothe a savage breast” of its coughing.

Must be endorphins or something. 🎼😎