Maps in a mirror, p.114

Maps in a Mirror, page 114


Maps in a Mirror

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  He chipped the nails, he het the charcoal fire,

  Nothing remarkable about the lad

  Except for this: He saw the world askew,

  He saw the edge of light, the frozen liar

  There in the trees with a black smile shinin cold,

  Shiverin the corners of his eyes.

  Oh, he was wise.

  But there’s something about great works of art like The Faerie Queene that makes the beholder long to go and do likewise. In awe of Spenser and yet ambitious to learn from him, I wrote my way many stanzas deep into the story, until I reached a sort of conclusion when Alvin and his friend Verily Cooper tried out Al’s golden plow in the rich soil near the banks of the Mizzippy. At that point I gave the poem an ending—after a fashion:

  The rest of the tale—how they looked for the crystal


  How they crept to the dangerous heart of the holy hill,

  How they broke the cage of the girl who sang for rain,

  How they built the city of light from water and blood


  Others have told that tale, and told it good.

  And besides, the girl you’re with is cruel and pretty,

  And the boy you’re setting by has a mischievous will.

  There’s better things to do than hear me again,

  So go on home.

  At that point, exhausted, I set the poem aside, uncertain where the story should go from there.

  Though “Prentice Alvin and the No-Good Plow” won a Utah state fine arts contest, I never did get back to the poem, except to revise it slightly for forthcoming publication in a Mormon journal. Still, the story of it hung with me, in part because, in true Spenserian manner, it is an elaborate allegory for some of the most important tales of the epic of my own people; in part because I fell in love with that hill-country voice and the American frontier magic I had devised for the story. Here was a fantasy that was completely American—no elves, no dragons, no European myths and legends, and the setting was a log cabin, not a castle, and the people wore homespun and hunted with muskets instead of donning armour to go a-pricking with lance and sword. I wanted to go back and finish it.

  The opportunity came in 1983, when I finally realized that while long narrative poems have no particular audience, long fantasy novels—or trilogies—do. The language would be daring, for fantasy, as would the setting, but at least the ordinary-looking paragraphs between ordinary-looking book covers would reassure the audience that this story would be accessible.

  I wrote an extended outline of the trilogy (supposedly starting with Prentice Alvin) and sent it to Barbara. Tom Doherty bought this one and a story collection as well. (He then had six of my books under contract though not one had yet been published. His faith in me—an author whose books, up to then, had never earned out their advances—was extraordinary, and will always be appreciated.)

  When it came time actually to write the Alvin Maker books, I began as I did with every other expansion and adaptation: I started the longer version before the beginning of the original story. I didn’t dream at the time that I wouldn’t reach the events of the narrative poem until the middle of the third volume, but the introductory chapter became the novel Seventh Son, and the chapter in which Alvin was captured by Indians became the novel Red Prophet, so that by the time I finished Prentice Alvin in 1988, the world had grown so full and the characters so numerous that at times I despaired of containing the whole thing in any finite number of books.

  Nevertheless, it was the story that I had begun back in graduate school, even though the text had changed, the characters had been transformed, and the world had grown wider and stranger than I had ever imagined at first. Yet it’s hard for me to imagine that I ever thought the story was complete, as far as it went. There was so much more possibility; in writing the first version of it I had thought I was completing the story, but in fact I was merely essaying the first rough draft, the first bare outline of what the tale could be.

  I think perhaps that’s the case with all my work. At the time I write it, I think it’s complete, I think I have discovered all its possibilities and now an sharing them with an audience. But the stories that are best, that are most alive to me, I can’t leave them alone. They keep growing whether I like it or not. I keep imagining them without regard for the fact that they have already been written down, published, reviewed, and remaindered.

  I’m not “expanding” shorter works at all, I think. I’m merely returning to unfinished acts of imagination, warming myself at fires that only burn the hotter for having lain dormant during all the intervening years. Each tale finds its own occasion to come to life and grow again, and what I’ve been learning is not so much how to expand novelettes as how to tell stories more fully than ever before.

  Does the process end? I’d like to think so. There are plenty of new stories to tell, and I don’t have any older works that cry out to me for further development.

  Except that I just finished a short story called “Lost Boys” that I once envisioned as a novel of contemporary horror. Since it’s the most autobiographical piece I’ve ever written, I know I could expand on it considerably simply by mining my own life—and so who knows? Maybe a trend that began quite accidentally will continue deliberately.


  This story was my second science fiction sale. It is a one-idea story—something that I have since learned is not a terribly good idea. The idea? Heart transplants were big news back in the late seventies; I wondered what might happen if, far from rejecting the transplant, the host began to find itself being replaced by the growing cells of the transplanted organ. It would certainly solve the problem of rejection. However, I had neither the scientific knowledge to make the idea really plausible, nor the skill as a writer to make the question of human identity transcend the nonsense science. The result is a story that was more a placeholder in Analog than a particular standout.


  Unlike “Malpractice,” “Follower” actually represents a trend I would pursue later in my career. The thriller-story structure isn’t for me, but the motif of a child who has a twisted relationship with adults is a strong one in my work. When I submitted this to Ben Bova, he told me it was all right as far as it went—but it simply didn’t end. He suggested an ending to me. I liked it, wrote it just as he suggested it, and sent it back. I didn’t alter a word of the first part of the story in order to make the ending work. Then, when the story came out, I was repeatedly told by friends and kin alike that they had guessed the ending almost from the beginning of the story. Ironic that I didn’t guess it—I had to wait for Ben to give it to me!

  This story is one of the few I’ve written that began, not with the story idea, but with a sentence. “His dog and his doctor disagreed”—that was the phrase I tried to hang a story on. I know many a writer who does begin writing with an evocative sentence, but it rarely works for me.


  This story began with a news story about some people who were murdered by a hitchhiker. I have never in my life picked up a hitchhiker or, for that matter, hitched a ride myself—my parents drummed that rule into my head before I could see over the dashboard of a car. But still, I began to wonder if there was some way that an unarmed driver could stop a murderous hitchhiker. It struck me that the only reason the hitchhiker’s weapon gives him power over the driver is that the driver still hopes that if he just goes along and does what he’s told, the hitchhiker will let him live. But what if the driver starts from the assumption that he’s already as good as dead, and his only goal is to make sure the hitchhiker doesn’t outlive him? Then all he’d need to do is smash the car into an overpass abutment and the hiker would have hitched his last ride.

  That led to the thought that if you could once convince the hitchhiker that you were more dangerous than he was, then his behavior would be under your control. The tables would be turned.

  The idea became a story when, instea
d of a crazed maniac killer, I decided the hitchhiker would be someone more innocent at heart. The result was this story, which appeared in a regional magazine and won a few laughs from a few readers before the magazine went out of business.


  This story began as a conversation with a couple of dear friends, Clark and Kathy Kidd, as we were driving away from the Casa Maria restaurant in Tyson’s Corner, Virginia. We were joking about brand names that might tell what a product actually is, instead of completely unrelated names. “Tight-ass Jeans” instead of Jordache, for instance. Then I applied the idea to books and decided it was about time I wrote a novel called “F——ing Good Read.” But we decided that nobody would publish such a title, so we’d have to call it “Damn Fine Novel.”

  I wrote the story the next morning, with the idea of submitting it to the graduate writing course I was taking at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. It ended up being a kind of twisted Escheresque literary joke, and as my wife pointed out when I read it to her over the phone, there was no way I could turn this story in to the workshop, since it absolutely ridiculed the kind of story that these students were trying to write. So instead of turning it in for a grade, I published it pseudonymously in the Green Pages section of my fanzine, Short Form. It marks the only time that I’ve used the “F-word” (as we Mormons call it) in my fiction; I hope that the necessity for using it here will be obvious.


  There are three LDS Church magazines. While I was working for The Ensign, the magazine for adults, the offices of The New Era, the Church’s teen magazine, were in the suite just south of us, and the offices of The Friend, the Church’s children’s magazine, were in the suite just north of us on the twenty-third floor of the LDS Church Office Building. We saw the other magazines’ editors now and then, and got to hear them moan about how rare it was for them to get good fiction. So while Jay Parry and Lane Johnson and I were working on story ideas, we inevitably turned to trying to write stories that would meet the needs of The Friend and The New Era.

  One of the results was “Billy’s Box,” a story in which I tried to realistically depict a very young child in a story that might appeal to slightly older children—and, I hoped, their parents.


  The Mormon Church encourages its members to meet together as families in their own homes every Monday night. This story should make clear both what Family Home Evening is supposed to be—and what it more commonly is. This specific story, however, is based on some experiences of my brother-in-law, Scott Allen, when he was very young.


  This story is a pretty faithful, depiction of a real incident that happened on my mission to Brazil, when we taught a young boy to ride a bicycle. What I couldn’t convey in the story was the desperate poverty and ignorance of this family, and yet the powerful love that bound them together. They were good people, and for the first time I realized that it was possible for people to sleep packed into a room the size of a small conference table and still be decent, civilized human beings. Teaching the boy to ride a bicycle was such a pathetically small thing to do to help them—but it was something, and that was more than I had ever been able to do before. I think it was this family’s desperate financial condition that finally killed any remnant of allegiance to free market capitalism that I might still have had.


  I wrote about a half-dozen stories for The New Era magazine during this time, and while the editor, Brian Kelly, bought several of them, to my memory only this one actually appeared in print—the others were somehow not quite “correct” enough for an official Church publication. This was not an issue of censorship. The Church leadership was the publisher, not some outside censor, and they had not only the right but the responsibility to make sure that what appeared in the Church magazines was exactly what they wanted to say to the members. In the meantime, though, there were things that needed to be said in some unofficial forum, not by way of criticism, but in order to show the great variety of possibilities for individual identity within the larger community identity.

  Unfortunately, in LDS Church publishing at that time it seemed there were only two kinds of publisher: official or quasi-official Church publishing, which by definition could publish only the most narrowly acceptable kind of material; and the dissident press, which delighted in publishing things that were either so literary as to be unreadable, or so offensive and inflammatory that most Mormons could only perceive it as another form of anti-Mormon literature. What was missing was the loyal alternative press, by no means an opposition, but rather a more open unofficial press that could speak freely, but in ways that the Church membership would receive as coming from within the Church, not outside it.

  I waited a long time for such a press to appear, believing that if it did, it would be quite successful. While I was waiting, I wrote a few works that belonged in that genre: Saintspeak: The Mormon Dictionary, a gentle satire that nevertheless affirms Mormon values and only criticizes the Saints where we tend to depart from those values; and Saints, a Mormon historical novel that gives a perspective that could never be published by the official LDS press if only because the official press is not free to imagine what thoughts might have passed through Joseph Smith’s head, or what words he might have whispered to his wife in bed. The response from the Church membership was all the proof I needed that there was a great hunger for this kind of writing among the loyal members of the Church. So this past year—1989—I used earnings from my science fiction that I could ill spare and launched my own publishing company, Hatrack River Publications, to bring out the kind of book that I thought was needed. It will take time to build an audience—we have no promotional budget and must rely on word of mouth—but our first two novels are doing very well, and in the coming year we expect to publish several more, including novel adaptations of some of my early LDS plays.

  All of that began, really, with the stories I sold to The New Era that, unlike “I Think Mom and Dad Are Going Crazy, Jerry,” were never cleared for publication. And, though this story is definitely an early work of mine, and does not represent the level of skill and sophistication that Hatrack River Publications looks for in the books we publish, the story does represent the basic approach: humor, satire, along with an honest representation of LDS life.


  “Gert Fram” was my first published fiction. I wrote it years after the first draft of “Ender’s Game”; in fact, I whipped it out in one night to meet a deadline for The Ensign magazine’s special fine arts issue in July of 1977. It is sentimental—but with sentiment that is deeply felt within the Mormon community. It is the most strongly Mormon of all my works, I think.

  I had an uncredited collaborator on this story, by the way—Gert Fram herself. Gert Fram was the nom de plume of my then-future sister-in-law, Nancy Allen (now Nancy Allen Black). In her childhood she actually wrote all but the last of the Gert Fram books, exactly as they appear in this story; she, with a friend of hers, lived a pretend life as world-famous authors, and produced these books for each other. So, while the incidents of this story are entirely out of my imagination, the character of Gert Fram and the books she wrote are entirely the creation of the young Nancy Allen. I keep urging her to write the young adult novel Gert Fram, so that I can publish it with Hatrack River. Nancy remains the most madly creative person I’ve ever known, and if she actually wrote the book, I think it would be a work of genius.

  It was for this story that I first used the pseudonym “Byron Walley,” which appeared as the credit line for all my fiction in the LDS magazines. It began for one of the traditional reasons: I already had my name too often in the July 1977 fine arts issue of The Ensign. Both an article and a poem appeared under my name. “Gert Fram” appeared under the name Byron Walley, and my play “Rag Mission” appeared under the name Brian Green. I liked the Byron Walle
y name and have used it ever since when pseudonyms were required.

  Now, at last, you have come to the end of this book. The introductions and afterwords themselves amount to some forty thousand words—a slim novel’s worth of text. It is outrageous that I should imagine anyone would want to read all of this; and yet, whether or not you read the introductions and afterwords, I hope some people will read at least some of the stories, if only because it is there that some of my most heartfelt work has appeared. I have often said, in other places, that it is in the short fiction that you find the cutting edge of science fiction and fantasy. New authors show up there first; new ideas and techniques also tend to find their way into the magazines before the book publishers are ready for them, or before the writers are willing to invest a novel’s-worth of time in them.

  Some of our best writers, of course, almost never write short fiction, like Tim Powers, or write it almost as an afterthought it seems, like Lisa Goldstein. Others, like Harlan Ellison and Ray Bradbury, write almost nothing but short fiction. But the fact remains that if you want to understand what science fiction is, you must read the short fiction—The Science Fiction Hall of Fame, voted on by the members of the Science Fiction Writers of America; The Hugo Winners, an anthology series edited and introduced by Isaac Asimov; Dangerous Visions and Again, Dangerous Visions, edited by Harlan Ellison, the definitive anthology of the sixties and seventies in science fiction. There you’ll see most of the history of science fiction unfold. There you’ll see the first blossoming and the freshest songs of most of the writers who created this field and keep it alive.

  In these pages you’ve seen something far less interesting (to everyone but me and my mother): my personal history as a writer. Every step I’ve taken in my books began with a step taken in one or more of these stories. Every idea I’ve explored in my novels, I first broached in fiction in one of these tales. And if I have anything of value to say to you, I hope I’ve said it here.

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