This is a short return to the Gutters, the space between successes that dominate our lives and work. Not sure when the rest will return, so, a mild refresher of where we left off.
By 2005, I had a couple of okay sales, one nice payday, but for six years of trying it didn’t seem to mean much. I read widely to improve my game, including vast swaths of works from Joe Lansdale, Gary Braunbeck, and other innovators of modern horror and crime fiction, classics from Albert Camus and Herman Hesse that spoke to my darker views on humanity and hope, as well as oodles of military history for my doctorate. I also read the usual books on improving, including horrid classics like Damon Knight’s Math Textbook for Narrative which is useful if you’re not me. I wrote a story a month and tried to prove the old Soviet proverb correct: “quantity is a form of quality.”
But besides a semi-pro sale to the Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine (yes, that’s the name of the mag), I wasn’t almost making a sale a year. And, with an increasing workload of a Ph.D. and between four and five jobs, ranging from teaching cadets military history . . . to saying “would you like a bag with that?” to the very same cadets on the weekend when I worked at Novel Idea Bookstore, I was getting pretty discouraged at such little forward momentum after six years of toil.
But I was self-taught. No MFA. No English degree. Hell, I’d only started reading books “for fun” when I was nineteen. I knew I had vast holes in my knowledge of the craft. There was no substitute for experience, but why not try and learn from the best? So I applied to the Odyssey Writing Workshop the year AFTER George R.R. Martin was there (since I didn’t give a shit about George R. R. Martin, beyond digging “Sandkings” and “Meathouse Man,” and a very cool but average novel with Lisa Tuttle called Windhaven). I wrote a story about childhood bullying, suicide, and the French film The Red Balloon, which featured a quote from a Winged Victory, a novel written by an air war veteran of the Great War who would later die in a sanatorium:
“No Kingdom of Heaven could be made up of children: it would be a kingdom of jealousy, squabbles, and attempted murder.”
That got me in the door. And, fun fact, that story has never sold. Make of that what you will.
I had a lot of great teachers, like Liz Hand (currently writing the amazing Cass Neary punk rock crime series) and Jim Morrow (the elder statesman of satirical SF and monster fiction), whose work I enjoyed and whose reputations were known. But the writers in residence were new to me. A husband and wife duo best known for horror, which was one of the reasons I applied that year; I figured I was a horror writer, and very few workshops of note gave a fuck about the most punk rock of the genres. Clarion, in particular, seemed averse to horror fiction, but Jeanne Cavelos, the director of Odyssey, had run two horror imprints in the 1990s, and her love of horror brought our class Steve and Melanie Tem.
The week Steve and Melanie gave to us was a boon. Their lectures were a dialogue between them on various aspects of writing, and the best part was they didn’t agree. Anytime Steve got close to an answer that sounded like a “rule,” Melanie would challenge him on the existence of absolutes, and they’d find a synthesis and contextual refrain and then carry on. I spent all night writing the best story I could for them to read. I pushed myself to try things I barely knew how to do, like framing mechanisms, different POVs and uses of time. And the result was the best thing I’d written to that date, minus a shit ending. “It’s not that it’s bad,” Melanie noted, “it’s that it doesn’t work given the the structure of the story.” Steve agreed, saying it hit a different tone. They were right, but it was also shit. Nick Mamatas, when he was the editor at Clarkesworld, gave me a clue as to why in a lightning fast rejection: he thought it was well written but it lacked “moral complexity.” Four years later, I found a morally complex ending (in comparison to the shit one) and sold it to two great editors, David Morrell (creator of Rambo) and Nancy Kilpatrick (Canada’s queen of vampire fic). Make of THAT what you will.
Best of all, I got to hang with the Tems and just talk writing in a one-on-one session. I was likely hopped on Moxie and excitement (in my edition of Steve’s first collection, CITY FISHING, he signed with the note “I enjoy your enthusiasm”), and I barely recall what we talked about, but I remembered asking if they thought Harlan Ellison was right when he suggested, as he did to Dan Simmons, another writer I don’t much care for, that “you’re only a real writer if another writer says you’re a writer.” Melanie’s response? “Well, that’s nonsense. Don’t let other people dictate who you are.” Steve laughed, said he thought he knew where Harlan was coming from, about validation coming from professionals instead of your mom or best friend or dog, but agreed the only way to be a writer was to write, get better, and keep at it.
“Great!” I said. “But . . . would you say I’m a writer?” I’m sure I was grinning like an idiot because that’s who says such things to such amazing writers of THE DEADFALL HOTEL, BLACK RIVER, and their magnus opus joint-memoir of their imagination, THE MAN ON THE CEILING.
They both laughed. “Of course you’re a writer,” Melanie said. “Don’t be ridiculous, Jay.”
I kept in touch with them through the years, visited them once in Colorado and saw Steve at conventions (Melanie’s eyesight was fading so she kept close to home). Melanie also had a critique service, so I asked her to look at my bitter anti-Ray Bradbury tale called “The Last Ice Cream Kiss.” She thought it was professional grade and wanted to give me my money back since she had no advice to give. That was the kind of lady Melanie Tem was to this young writer, who read her books and stories and learned much from them and her.
Melanie died on February 9th, 2015, just over two years ago, after a vicious return of breast cancer that she thought she’d beaten in the late 1990s. The last time I’d chatted with her was when my life collapsed in 2013, and she and Steve offered me sympathy and advice. “Hang in there!” she declared, and I did my best. I always had a sweet spot for the utterly friendly and forthright personality. Her work is haunting, lovingly crafted, and waits for all of us who want to read the tales of a gifted woman who wrote about the dark side of life with her eyes wide open. Steve continues to do great work, and his new novel UBO, a treatise on the nature of violence, is en route and I can’t wait to read it. You can read his short memorial to Melanie here.
Apex Publishing recently published YOURS TO TELL, a writing guide Steve and Melanie wrote together for over a decade, largely based on the lectures they gave me and my class in 2005 and their return to Odyssey as writers in residence in 2014. Our class gets a shout out a couple of times, which is awesome, but the real joy is the Tem’s giving us a glimpse into a partnership in art, and the sage advice on techniques, tactics, career, and work-life balance that they offer. It’s this lifelong love of each other and their art that created a body of work that should inspire you to write stories only you could write.
Make of that what you will.