Putting the Face to the Name, or the Cover to the Book

When I first got out of college, I found a part-time job as a legislative aide for the City of Rochester, New York.  It wasn’t exactly the field of my choice, but it did involve some writing, and it served as worthwhile experience.  I was thankful to have the job.

 

I didn’t stay there long–only seven months.  But while my tenure as a legislative aide was brief, it was not without a healthy helping of intrigue, office politics, and political pugilism, as I served as the buffer (i.e., punching bag!) between the councilwoman (who was rarely in her office) and her constituents.  Indeed, one of my job responsibilities was to man the councilwoman’s phone, talking one-on-one with the residents of her district.  Some of the calls were low-key; but many were heated, with angry residents giving me an earful about perceived slights and local policies they disagreed with.  Each new day was an adventure.

 

There was one person who stood out from the pack, though.  His name was Terry, and he called several times per week, sometimes several times per day.  He had a laundry list of complaints, and he wasn’t shy about expressing them to me, usually with a raised voice.  One issue in particular that irked him was a pothole on his street.  “It’s huge!” he’d yell at me.  “You gotta fix it!  It’s gonna wreck my struts.  I ain’t rich, you know.  Tell ‘er that!”  (He always referred to the councilwoman as “she” or “her,” or some variant thereof–never by name.)

 

I listened to him as long as I could, letting Terry vent his frustrations.  Sometimes, though, he would start attacking me, personally.  “Do something about it!” he’d say.  “Don’t just sit there in that cushy office of yours.  Lift a finger for the people in your district for a change!”  I reminded him that I wasn’t on the city council.  I was only an office worker.  I couldn’t make or change policy, couldn’t direct the road crews to alter their service schedules.

 

One day, it was too much.  Terry berated me with four-letter words and insults directed at family members of mine he didn’t know and had never met.  “Sorry,” I told him.  “This isn’t going anywhere.”  I wanted to say so much more, but had no choice but to bite my tongue.  One thing I could do, however, was hang up the phone–which I did.

 

He called back immediately, yelled at me some more.  I hung up again.  He called back.  Yelled.  I hung up.  Finally, the phone stopped ringing. I tossed a crumpled piece of paper into the wastebasket, counted to ten.  Terry had a way of pushing my buttons.

 

I had long since created a mental picture of him.  I’d never seen Terry, but, based on his voice and his very direct and colorful vocabulary, I imagined him to be stocky, burly, with short, sandy hair, a thick, retro’80s-style mustache, and a perpetual scowl on his face.  If I wanted to, I would have been able to sketch a picture of him–he was that clearly defined in my mind’s eye.

 

Consider my surprise, then, when, later that same day, a tall, rail-thin bald guy showed up at the councilwoman’s office.  Of course, the councilwoman wasn’t there.  I was.

“Can I help you?” I said.

And the guy introduced himself as Terry.  I did a double-take.  He couldn’t have looked more unlike the Terry I had imagined.  Stocky?  The man standing before me now was easily six foot four if he was an inch.  Burly?  He had the girth and width of a rail spike.  Sandy hair?  Try no hair.  Mustache?  His face was clean-shaven, not a whisker in sight.  And a scowl?  He was actually smiling!

 

He extended a hand.  Discombobulated, I took it.

“I just wanted to apologize,” he said, looking at his shoes.  “Was in the area just now, and wanted to stop.  I know I got a little carried away on the phone today.  I know you can’t do nothin’ about nothin’.  It’s not your job.  So I just . . .”

I shrugged.  It was hard to find the words.  Finally, I told him not to worry about it.

“I ain’t sayin’ I won’t call again,” he said.  “You’ll hear from me until she does something.”

He smiled again, and this time I returned it.  “It’s good to put a face to the name of my highest-volume caller,” I said.  And it was.

 

Terry called the next day, complaining about the pothole.

***********************************

Books can share certain characteristics with constituents.  They don’t scream at you, the way Terry sometimes laid into me, but they might make you want to scream.  They have value, share opinions and knowledge, and express a point of view.  What’s more, they are incomplete without a face, or a cover.

The Singularity Wheel–the sequel to The Eye-Dancers–is nearing its release date.  It’s still on target for publication at the very end of the year or within the first few days of 2018.  And now, as the day of publication approaches, the cover is complete.

My longtime friend Matt Gaston, who also created the cover for The Eye-Dancers, has worked his magic again on the cover for The Singularity Wheel.  And here it is.

 

Thanks, Matt, for all your help–with both novels.

I think even Terry would approve.

And thanks so much to everyone for reading!

–Mike

“You Can’t Get There from Here” (But You Can . . . with Some Delay)

It was one of those lazy, hazy midsummer days in the Northeast, when the humidity hangs thick and wet over the land.  I was driving through the back roads of central Vermont, looking for a particular house–an address tucked away on a dirt lane far from the beaten path.  These were the years before I had settled in this area and called it home.  I didn’t know my way around.

 

Sure enough, as I came to an unmarked intersection, I took a wrong turn.  I didn’t know it at first.  It took a couple of minutes.  But when I drove several more miles and didn’t have a clue where I was, I decided to stop in the gravel parking lot of a country store.  It was the only place I saw, aside from isolated farmhouses and old, weathered barns, that might offer the hope of someone providing directions to steer me back along the right route.

 

I parked in front of the store, a clapboarded single-story structure with white peeling paint and two ancient gas pumps out back.  They looked like something out of the 1950s.  I had no idea if they were operational, and had no intention of finding out.

 

The door was open, without a screen, and I walked in.  The interior was small and cramped, complete with wooden shelves, a pot-bellied stove in the corner, and thick bark-covered beams overhead.  Beside the unlit stove, four men sat at a round table.  Each eyed me suspiciously.

 

I approached the table.  The men, three of whom were seniors, and the fourth perhaps in his thirties, continued to eye me.  There were poker chips gathered in the middle of the table, and the men were holding playing cards in their hands.  Already uncomfortable at the intrusion, now I felt worse.  I was interrupting their game.

 

“Excuse me,” I said.  My voice sounded too loud in the close, warm space.  “Sorry to bother you, but I was wondering if you might be able to help me find an address.  I thought I had everything mapped out, but I guess I was wrong.”

The men just sat there, motionless, looking me over as if I were a specimen to be driven over to the town taxidermist.  One of them cleared his throat.  A second placed his cards, facedown, onto the table.  The other two just stared.

 

I gave it a few seconds, and when no one said a word, I took a step back and turned toward the door.  I guessed I’d go knock on a farmhouse door and hope for a more cordial response.

 

That was when someone finally spoke up.

“Where ya headin’?” the younger guy said.

I turned back around, told them the address.  This brought on another round of silence.

Then, the oldest-looking guy seated at the table, a gaunt fellow with wire-rimmed glasses, said, “Thing is–if you was a bird, it’d be easy to get where you’re wantin’ to go.  But if you have to take the roads–it’s a field.  Fact is, you can’t get there from here.”

 

One of the other men smirked.  Another one coughed.

I wasn’t sure what to say.  I realized I was the amusement for the day.  There was no reason to hang around.  I’d just have to go back the way I had come and re-map the journey.

 

But then the younger guy held up his hand, and proceeded to give me the directions I needed.  He used short, staccato phrases, offering only the barest of minimums.  But I thought I had it when he was through.

I thanked him for his help.

“Would be easier if you was a bird,” the older man said again.

When I walked back through the doorway, I was sure I could hear them laughing.

As I got behind the wheel of my car and pulled away, I wondered if they had given me the wrong directions–just to further the joke.  But they hadn’t.  Twenty minutes later, I found the place I was looking for.  The directions were accurate.

 

“Though roundabout,” I was told later by someone in the know.  “He led you out of your way.”

But at least I’d made it–delay or no delay.

************************************

And that also accurately sums up the writing and editing process I have undertaken on The Singularity Wheel–the sequel to The Eye-Dancers.  It was a surprise project from the get-go.  I hadn’t even envisioned there would be a sequel–but then, out of the ether, an idea struck that wouldn’t let up and wouldn’t let go, and I had to write it.

 

When I began the book, over four years ago (!), I had no way of knowing how winding, circuitous, and bumpy the road would be.  I first announced the sequel’s existence in a blog post in the spring of 2014.  “It’ll take another year to write, no sweat,” I thought at the time.  But then 2014 bled into 2015, which morphed into 2016–and still, the book wasn’t finished!  There were character crises, plot points that needed wholesale makeovers, and twists and turns in the story line that needed alterations.  It was, and has been, the most challenging writing project I have ever undertaken.

 

Even so, as 2017 dawned, I was almost finished!  And in April, the first draft was finally complete.  I was at last able to key in the words, “The End.”  I even posted about it at the time.  So okay–I would release The Singularity Wheel at the end of summer!  Piece of cake!

 

During the editing process, however, I found that more changes still needed to be made than I’d realized.  Time slipped past, summer came and went.  Then again, The Eye-Dancers was originally published in November 2012.  I liked the symmetry.  Why not release The Singularity Wheel in November 2017?  It would be perfect.  Five years of real time had passed–and, in the story itself, five years of fictional time had also passed from the conclusion of the first book to the start of the second.  Everything was coming full circle.

 

But now–here we are, in November, and just like my journey through the back roads of Vermont that summer day years ago, I have discovered that “as the bird flies” isn’t always the way a story will proceed.  I am right now in the final edit/proofreading/copy editing stage.  The endgame.  But even here, I have found a few last wrinkles that need to be ironed out, a few tweaks that need to be inserted, a last assortment of fixes that need to be made.  Grudgingly, I have come to realize that the November release is too ambitious.  The project has been “a field” as the old-timer at the country store said to me once.  A field, indeed.

 

That said, the eleventh-hour adjustments are minor in nature.  Ninety-nine percent of the work has been put in.  It’s just a matter of trying to finish strong and present the best possible product I can upon publication.  As much as I wanted to meet my own self-imposed November deadline, I didn’t want to rush it now, at the end, after such a long journey getting here.

The delay will be one month.  And this time, there won’t be any further postponements!  The Singularity Wheel will be released prior to January 1, 2018.  I don’t have a single, specific date in mind–but it will be in December.  This time, I promise.

 

In this season of Thanksgiving, I want to thank all of you who have read and still read this blog and who have supported The Eye-Dancers these past five years.

 

Writing a sequel has been a long, long process, often beset with speed bumps and deep, tire-puncturing potholes, but, to paraphrase my old country-store friend, I have, at long last, “gotten here from there.”

 

Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

Haunted Houses, Coming Full Circle, and the Echoes of Ghost Wolves

Up the road from where I live, there is an old, abandoned house.  It sits back from the road, with overgrown shrubs obscuring the windows, a sagging front porch, a rusty metal roof, and an unlocked bulkhead that leads to what surely is an unfinished basement with a dirt floor and perhaps a tight crawlspace.  I know the bulkhead is unlocked because I tried it once.  It squeaked open without resistance, revealing a descent into darkness.  It was a descent I did not take.

 

The house, you see, is haunted.

Or, at least, some of the locals say it is.  And I don’t doubt them. It’s flanked by mature woodlands that encroach closer and closer with each passing year.  There are no nearby neighbors.  Rarely have I heard the birds sing when I visit the property, as if even they, on an instinctual level, detect a sense of malice and ill will about the place.  Yet, for all that, I feel drawn to the house.  I never go more than a month or two without stopping and looking and wondering.

 

And remembering . . .

********************************

“Hey, let’s go inside!”

My friend Matt uttered these words, but I doubted he wanted to act out on them.  He and I had taken a stroll through the neighborhood.  We didn’t really have a destination or a plan–we were eleven years old.  Who needed plans?  But as if guided by an invisible magnet that zeroed in on preteen boys, we found ourselves in front of the Ivy House.

 

The Ivy House was so named because rows of leafy, green ivy climbed up its clapboard siding like a pack of pythons seeking an unseen but sought-after prey.  It sat at the end of the street, with several tall maples providing shade and making the yard perpetually dark and cool.  It was also empty.  It had been unoccupied as long as I had been alive, and years before, to boot.

 

More riveting still, it was rumored to be cursed.  Stories varied depending on who you talked to.  My brother had told me a murder had occurred at the Ivy House in the 1920s, and the victim’s ghost wandered the rooms and halls, seeking vengeance on anyone she came across.  Matt’s brother had told him an old man once lived there, friendless and ornery.  He ate raw squirrels and racoon hearts, and fed the leftovers to a pet wolf.  This seemed far-fetched, even to my eleven-year-old, imagination-always-on-overdrive brain.  But Matt vouched for its veracity.  “It’s the truth,” he said, solemn as a tax return.  “A wolf.  People used to hear it howl at night.”

 

I nodded.  I still wasn’t sure I believed him.  But I wanted to.

As we stood there, the wind picked up, and I pulled my jacket in tighter.  It was early November, barely above freezing, winter’s approach unmistakable in the air.  Dried, fallen leaves swirled along the street, crackling.

 

“So, you really want to go inside?” I said then.  A woman walking her dog strolled past, giving us a sideways glance, surely wondering what we were doing loitering in front of the Ivy House.

 

Matt hesitated.  Shrugged.

“Chicken,” I said.  The house brooded in front of us, hidden behind the ivy.

You’re the chicken,” he shot back.  I bet you wouldn’t go in there.”

He had a point.  I couldn’t really refute his logic.  But if we both went, together . . .

We didn’t.  We never did.

The Ivy House was torn down a decade later.  A new, cookie-cutter ranch home now sits in its place, the maple trees in the front yard gone, the ivy a memory, a ghost from childhood, an echo whispering across the years.

 

**************************

It’s late October 2017.  On my way to work, early, the sun still a rumor, the sky dark and speckled with stars, I pull over in front of the abandoned house and get out of the car.  I am ahead of schedule on this day.  I have the time.

 

I walk through the front yard, up to the door.  Haunted, is it?  And I remember the Ivy House, the way it seemed animate to me in my boyhood, a living, sentient thing with a heartbeat and a soul.  This house is no different.  Perhaps all houses are alive.  Especially the old ones.

 

As I stand there, a hoot owl calls out, and I hear a rustling in the woods off to the right.  A fisher cat on the prowl?  A rodent rummaging for food?  Pennywise the Dancing Clown, come to Vermont from Derry, Maine?  But nothing emerges, and everything goes silent once again.

 

And I ponder–about life, about time, about the way things often come full circle.  Take Mitchell Brant, for instance.  Nine years ago, I began writing The Eye-Dancers, and the book began with Mitchell.  Now, on the verge of finishing the final edits, of dotting the I’s and crossing the T’s for The Singularity Wheel, the sequel to The Eye-Dancers, I am ending where I began–with Mitchell Brant.  The story ends with him.  He was there at the start.  He is there at the end.  He’s been with me, in spirit, on the written page, vying for my attention and understanding, for nearly a decade.

 

I tip an invisible cap to Mitchell.  To childhood.  To legends and ghosts.  To haunted houses.  To the unlimited vistas of the imagination.  To explorations of the mind and the universe.

 

To the creative life.

And somewhere, in the distance, despite the geographical impossibility of it, I am sure I can hear the howling of a wolf.

 

Thanks so much for reading!

Mike

An Enduring World Series Blooper (Or, The Ability to Move On)

In October 1912, six months after the sinking of the RMS Titanic and two years before the start of the First World War, the Boston Red Sox and the old New York Giants squared off in what would prove to be an exciting, competitive, and nail-biting World Series.  The series would go to a deciding seventh game (technically, an eighth game, as a game earlier in the series had been called off on account of darkness) as the two best teams in baseball went toe-to-toe.

 

The deciding game took place on Wednesday, October 16, in Boston’s Fenway Park, which had just opened for business that spring.  Trees were starting to turn, the air had a tang to it, and, one way or another, the 1912 baseball season was about to reach its conclusion.

 

The Spalding’s Official Baseball Guide that hit the newsstands the following spring wrote of the 1912 Series: “No individual, whether player, manager, owner, critic, or spectator, who went through the world’s series of 1912 ever will forget it.  There never was another like it.  Years may elapse before there shall be a similar series.”

 

For one player, though, the memories of that deciding final game would be far from pleasant.

Fred Snodgrass was a 24-year-old center fielder for the Giants, just three days shy of his 25th birthday.  He was a solid player–not a superstar by any stretch, but a consistent, steady contributor.  He had played in 146 games that year, batted a respectable .269, and stole 43 bases.  “Snow,” as he was called, would have been as likely as anyone in the Giants lineup to play the hero.

 

He did just the opposite.

The big game went to extra innings, the tension swirling around Fenway Park, thick as sea fog.  And when the Giants plated the go-ahead run in the top of the 10th inning, to take a 2-1 lead, it appeared that they would break the Fenway faithfuls’ hearts.  But in the bottom of the 10th, the first batter up for the Red Sox lofted a lazy fly ball to center field.

 

Snodgrass camped under the ball, reached up with his mitt, and . . . dropped the ball.  The baserunner slid into second base, safe on the error.  Later, Snodgrass tried to explain what went wrong, how he could have muffed such an easy ball.

“I didn’t seem to be able to hold the ball,” he said, unable to offer an excuse.  “It just dropped out of the glove, and that was all there was to it.”

Snodgrass made a brilliant play on the next batter, robbing him of an extra-base hit.  But the damage had already been done.  Ultimately, the Red Sox scored two runs that inning, aided by “Snow’s” miscue, and won the game, 3-2, and the Series, four games to three.  Snodgrass’s error would become known as “the $30,000 muff,” alluding to the difference between the winning and losing shares for World Series participants that year.

 

Sadly, this was what many fans and sportswriters remembered from the 1912 Series–up until that time, perhaps the best and most compelling World Series ever played.  The matchup between the Red Sox and the Giants that year included four future Hall of Famers and was the first World Series to be decided in the final inning of the final game.

 

But for Fred Snodgrass, he would be reminded of his untimely error for the rest of his life.

“For over half a century I’ve had to live with the fact that I dropped a ball in a World Series,” Snodgrass recounted in Lawrence S. Ritter’s delightful The Glory of Their Times, decades after his 1912 error in the Fall Classic. “‘Oh yes, you’re the guy that dropped that fly ball, aren’t you?’–and for years and years, whenever I’d be introduced to somebody, they’d start to say something and then stop, you know, afraid of hurting my feelings.”

 

The question was–would Snodgrass be able to move on and live his life fully, or would he remain stuck reliving an unforgiving and an unchangeable past?

***************

In The Singularity Wheel, the sequel to The Eye-Dancers, set to be released in November, Mitchell Brant has a different, but at the same time, similar dilemma.  Five years have passed since the events in The Eye-Dancers, but Mitchell cannot seem to forget Heather, the girl he met in another world, as far away from our earth as can possibly be imagined.  As the years have gone by, Mitchell misses Heather more and more, holding imaginary conversations with her, saving the gold locket she had given him as a keepsake, wishing there was some way he might be reunited with her.  He’s dated other girls since, but no one can hold a candle to Heather.  Being with other girls only serves to remind him of what he’s lacking, the one person he longs to be with but can’t.

 

From chapter 1 of The Singularity Wheel:

“He knelt down in front of his dresser, opened the bottom drawer.  This was where he stored his most valuable comic books.  It was off-limits to everyone else, even Mom, and a perfect place to stash his secret.

“He pulled out stacks of Fantastic Fours, Spider-Mans, Avengers, and X-Men, and set them aside, revealing the necklace with the gold-shaped locket tucked back in the far corner of the drawer.  This was the gift Heather had given him.  Something to remember her by, she had said.  It was cumbersome having to perform this ritual every night.  There were a hundred other places he might store the locket.  But he wouldn’t risk it.  The locket was too precious, too sacred.  No one else could see it.

“He picked it up, sniffed it, wondering if some faint, long-ago fragrance from her might still linger there.  It didn’t.  He wrapped his fingers around it, tight, held it against his cheek.  It was silly, really, what she had said—as if he would ever need anything to help him remember her.  He just wished the way she had believed in him, had confidence in him, might be able to rub off on his own opinion of himself.  Maybe it would have been different if he’d been able to stay with her in Colbyville, be near her, every day.  As it was, it was hard, even impossible sometimes, for Mitchell Brant to believe in Mitchell Brant.”

Will Mitchell get the opportunity, against all odds, to span the void and see Heather again?  And if he does, how will their meeting go?  Will she still feel the same way he does, after all this time?  Or will she no longer care?

 

Moving on is hard to do.  Coming to terms with the regrets of our past, with things we cannot change, with hopes and dreams that may seem out of reach, is one of life’s great challenges.

 

But it’s not impossible.

******************

Fred Snodgrass was never allowed to forget the error he’d made on baseball’s grandest stage.  But he didn’t let it ruin his life, or eat him up.  Perhaps Mitchell can take solace from Snodgrass’s perspective.

Perhaps we all can.

“Well, life has been good to me since I left baseball,” Snodgrass said in The Glory of Their Times.  “My lovely wife, Josephine, and I have enjoyed success and things have gone well, very well, through these many years.  In contrast, my years in baseball had their ups and downs, their strife and their torment.  But the years I look back at most fondly, and those I’d like most to live over, are the years when I was playing center field for the New York Giants.”

 

Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

On Symmetry (Or, There’s Something about November)

“Hey, how about that?” I said when I received the schedule for my senior year in high school.  I had been waiting for it for a few days, eager to see who my teachers were and what order my classes would be in.  (Mind you, these were the days, in that long-ago 20th century, when class schedules were snail-mailed.)  For three days, I had been watching for the mailman, a rotund fellow by the name of Al, to deliver it.  Finally, the schedule had arrived.

 

The first thing I noticed was that one of my teachers would be someone I knew well, someone who had taught me in a different class as a freshman.  I will call him Mr. D.  And back in my freshman year, he taught English and unlocked for the class the treasures of great literature and the colors of the writing rainbow.  But now, in my senior year, he would be teaching a class called Current Events.  Great, I thought.  I always liked Mr. D.

 

On the first day of school, I lingered after class for a couple of minutes, talked with him about what might be in store for the semester, reminisced about ninth grade.  “Freshmen,” he said with a roll of his eyes.  He still taught freshman English, too.  In fact, even as we spoke, the first brave souls of his freshman English class began to trickle in to the room.

 

I told him about the impact his writing rainbow lesson had on me, how I still thought about it, still tried to live it, and always would.  That made him smile.  I asked him if he still talked about writing rainbows and creativity and reaching for your best to the current crop of freshmen.  “Indeed, I do,” he said.  I was glad to hear it, and hoped some of the wary underclassmen filtering into the room, eyeing me suspiciously as I conversed with the teacher at his desk, would be as motivated by the lesson as I had been.

 

“Well, it’s good being back in your class,” I said then, knowing I needed to go.  If I didn’t leave soon, I’d be late for my next period.  “I look forward to the semester.”

And I did.  I meant it.  And it didn’t disappoint.  Mr. D. didn’t disappoint.  Throughout the term, he assigned for us to read through issues of Time and Newsweek, and report on the news, every week.  (Again, this was early 1990s education!  No Googling.)  Frequently, my worldview clashed with his, and we’d have spirited debates.  He’d write in the margins of my handwritten essays that he disagreed with my interpretation of events but that he supported my right to hold views contrary to his own.  We argued, we clashed about politics, but I enjoyed the class.  And, I like to think old Mr. D. enjoyed having me as his student again.

 

One morning, a frosty, early November, hint-of-winter morning, I arrived in his class a few minutes early.  Since it was the first period of the day, there were no departing students from a previous class.  It was just Mr. D. seated at his desk.

 

I approached, and we started talking.  I mentioned again how it was good having the opportunity to take a class he taught.  “I never thought I’d be in your class again,” I said.  “Freshmen year and now senior year . . .”

“There’s a kind of symmetry to it,” Mr. D. said.  “You got stuck with me at the start, and at the end, of your high school career.”

 

A kind of symmetry, yes.  I liked the sound of that.

*******************

It’s hard to believe it’s been almost five years since I published the e-book version of The Eye-Dancers.  Time continues to speed along on rapidly fluttering wings.  I remember well the stops and starts that led up to publication day.  There were hiccups, hurdles, and unexpected delays.  But eventually, release day arrived–in November 2012.

 

So it seems fitting somehow that, five years later, there have been delays and hurdles and hiccups with the sequel, as well.  Editing has taken longer than expected.  The writing process has taken longer.  And of course sometimes things simply crop up, a week’s delay here, a month’s there.  The end result has been a later-than-originally-anticipated release date.  But The Singularity Wheel is getting close!  I am working through the final substantive edits this week and next.  Following that, a few heaven-sent beta readers will comb through the manuscript.  Once they are done reading and offer feedback, I will do a final, final round of edits followed by a thorough copy edit/proofread.  The cover will be completed.  The file readied for publication.  And . . .

 

A November release date is planned.  Five years, to the month, following the release of The Eye-Dancers.

There is something about November, indeed.

 

As Mr. D. might say, there’s a kind of symmetry to it.

Thanks so much to everyone for all your ongoing support.  It means the world.  And thanks so much, as always, for reading!

–Mike

 

Arriving at the Intersection of Fantasy, Science Fiction, and Classic Comic Books

What is your nostalgic pleasure, the thing that makes you hark back to a simpler time?  For me it is, and has always been, old, vintage comic books.  Since I was in junior high, these gems from yesteryear have called out to me with a song and a story I can’t resist.

 

I have always found it easy to imagine transporting myself to a time years before I was born–say, circa 1955 in a drugstore or a little corner shop, browsing through the comics rack, listening to the squeak it emits when I make it spin, and figuring out which issues to plunk my dimes on.

 

When I started collecting comics, the mid-1950s were, to me, an alien world glimpsed primarily via old, grainy, black-and-white TV shows or Hitchcock classics.  I enjoyed them, but they belonged to another era, beyond the purview of my personal experience.  Vintage comic books, however, brought the mid-20th century alive to me in ways television and cinema never could.  The culture of that period jumped off the pages, both from the stories themselves as well as from the ads and fan letters. I couldn’t afford the issues that were in tip-top condition.  I could only buy the ragged copies, with missing staples and spine rolls and water stains.  Some even had corners chewed off by rodents who had no doubt long since met their demise.  If anything, though, these imperfections just made me love these comics even more.  They were more personal this way.  More mine.

 

To this day, I still have hundreds of old comics.  I have the tried-and-true titles, such as Mitchell Brant’s favorite, The Fantastic Four, along with other stalwarts like Superman, Batman, The Avengers, and The X-Men.  But it is the science fiction comics from the 1950s, sans superheroes, that appeal to me the most.  The ingenuity of the stories, the old-fashioned and innocent tone, the crisp, imaginative artwork all inspire.

 

Perhaps more than anything, though, I respect the attempt these vintage issues made to educate as well as entertain.  Granted, it was with a light touch, but the effort was deliberate and consistent.  The authors and editors of DC’s (the same company that gave birth to Superman and Batman) famous sci-fi duo of Strange Adventures and Mystery in Space eschewed all-out, no-holds-barred fantasy in favor of hard science fiction that always managed to have one foot firmly planted in the laws and realities of science.  By approaching their work in this way, the creative team inserted tidbits of learning for their readers.  The hero would generally solve a puzzle, perhaps even save the world, through some ingenious application of a scientific principle.

 

While it’s true that many liberties were taken, nuggets of actual science were always there to be mined.  For example, in Strange Adventures number 95 (August 1958), in a little tale titled “The Boy Who Saved the Solar System,” the protagonist, a twelve-year-old son of a scientist, accomplishes what the best minds of the Solar System cannot.  (Indeed, in the story, we meet the brightest minds from Jupiter, Mars, Venus, and Saturn.  Liberties!)  The entire Solar System is imperiled by a great gaseous cloud that emits a blight, the effects of which are ruining the crops and farmlands and limiting the food supply.  As the twelve-year-old’s father tells him one evening, “”It’s slow starvation, Son–for the entire human race.”

 

The boy is interested in science himself, and while his father tries to find a remedy for the worldwide (actually, Solar System-wide) blight, he fills balloons with hydrogen gas.  When his father forgets his wedding anniversary (he’s busy trying to save the world, so the date slipped his mind until it was too late!), the boy tells him not to worry, he’ll find something to give to Mom and then offer Dad the credit.  The boy picks some roses from the backyard–from the same rosebush one of his hydrogen balloons broke on the day before.  The thing is–the roses are perfectly healthy, not a sign of the blight that has plagued virtually all other plant life on Earth.

 

That’s when the boy and his dad realize–hydrogen kills the blight!  And Dad dutifully informs us that hydrogen is the simplest element in the universe.

 

So we have a good son, covering for his absent-minded dad, and in his kind act, he accidentally discovers the cure for the worldwide blight.  A neat and tidy (and deliciously corny) tale wrapped up and delivered in six pages.

In addition to the stories, there were other methods of sharing scientific information with the audience.  Take this same issue, Strange Adventures number 95.  In a page called “Amazing Ratios,” we learn that the weight of the earth in tons is equal to the number of atoms in a single drop of rain–6,000,000,000,000,000,000,000!  And that Phoebe, the outermost of Saturn’s moons, takes longer to revolve around the planet it orbits (550 days) than Earth does to revolve around the sun (365.25 days).

 

There is even a “Spotlight on Science” letters page, where readers ask science questions for the editors to research and answer.

Likewise, in both The Eye-Dancers and its sequel, The Singularity Wheel (scheduled for release this fall), an attempt is made to tether the far-out and the mind-boggling with some semblance of scientific explanation.  And the primary vehicle for achieving this, in both novels, is Marc Kuslanski, the science wiz, who is, in some respects, the scientific mouthpiece for the unfolding events.  When Mitchell or Ryan or Joe stray far afield in their speculations, Marc is there to reel them back in, often with a theory or a hypothesis grounded in quantum mechanics or cold, hard logic.  And does he ever have his work cut out for him in The Singularity Wheel--which takes the concept of parallel worlds from The Eye-Dancers and expands it exponentially.

 

At the outset of The Singularity Wheel, Monica Tisdale, “the ghost girl” from The Eye-Dancers, is five years older and five years more advanced in her ability to bridge the chasm between dimensions.  And she wants to explore.

From the opening scene of The Singularity Wheel:

 

“She was endless.  Infinite.  She knew that now.

Monica Tisdale smiled.

With her eyes tightly closed, she sent out a mental thought-wave to . . . herself.

No.  That wasn’t right.  Not to herself.  To herselves.  She was more than one—far, far more.

She had practiced religiously, diligently, ever since she’d contacted the boys who had rescued her.  The boys who had come here from another world.  That knowledge had awakened a thirst in her, a quest to learn and discover.

And connect.

She was not like other girls.  The day-to-day happenings in Colbyville, New York, bored her.  Sure, she loved her mom and dad, liked a few of her classmates at school, and sometimes just wanted to have carefree fun.  But she had always been different, attuned to phenomena most people didn’t recognize and didn’t see.  As the weeks merged into months, and the months to years, her awareness of these things had sharpened.

She was ready.”

 

And in so doing, Monica sets off a chain reaction that will push her to the brink, as she sees and experiences her life in an infinite number of worlds, remembering things from a billion places, unable to know one world from another, one self from another.

 

Marc will be there, of course, to try to make sense of it all–if he can.

So while The Singularity Wheel will be as much fantasy as sci-fi, it will, hopefully, in the tradition of the classic sci-fi comic books from decades ago, keep its eye on the factual and the actual as it ventures off into the shifting, capricious landscapes of the unknown.

 

Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

A Walk Across Upstate New York (Or, The Rewards of a Step-by-Step Process)

I’d been looking forward to it for weeks.  We had been talking about it since the early spring, and now, at the height of summer in western New York, the time had come.

It was 1995, I was still in college, and the prospect of a new century, a new millennium, was still five years into the future.  Cell phones were still mostly a novelty, and the Internet was a newborn, slowly gaining traction, just beyond the outskirts of the mainstream.  No matter.  As summer approached that year, I was excited, eager to partake of the adventure.

 

It wasn’t hard to plan.  School was out, we had cleared our schedules.  We had a full week to do it.  I had hoped to corral the entire gang–Rick and Joe and Matt and Andy, the neighborhood friends I had known for years–and also the people who inspired the protagonists in both The Eye-Dancers and its soon-to-be-released sequel, The Singularity Wheel.  But some of the guys backed out, citing potential dangers, scheduling conflicts, previous commitments.  That was okay.  We still had three of us going.

 

So it was that on the warm, humid morning of July 10, 1995, precisely twenty-two years ago today, my neighbor Rick (on the right), my cousin “Moose” (left), and I (center) set out on our mini-journey.

 

We would spend the next week walking across a portion of upstate New York.  I had long romanticized about walking across America.  This bite-sized facsimile would have to do.  We’d trek west from Rochester, traveling through remote, rural towns, experiencing the pastoral heart of the Empire State on foot.  And while our experience would only last a few short days, I knew, even before we started, that I would never forget.

 

The first day was the hardest.  We weren’t used to walking so many miles.  Our feet ached, we drank copious amounts of water, and we rested every few miles.  But we had a blast.  Walking mostly on the shoulder of the road, we traveled along both main thoroughfares and sparsely used back roads.  With our packs and gear, it was obvious to passing motorists what we were up to.  Some cars honked at us.  A group of college students sped past at one point, calling us “nerdballs.”  That made our day.  A middle-aged man in a straw hat, doing yard work at the base of his lawn, stopped us and offered us water.  We politely declined, letting him know were well stocked.  He asked us where we were going.  I’d like to say we were honest–just a weeklong walking trip across western New York.  Alas, we embellished the details–substantially.  Something about Colorado to Cape Cod, and back again.  What’s worse, the guy believed us.

 

“I wonder if we should have told him the truth,” I said, a mile up the road.

“Well, we’re walking across most of the country in spirit,” Rick said.  “So, I mean, it’s kinda, sorta the truth, right?”  That was good enough for us.  I have no good excuse to offer now.  What can I say?  It was a heady moment.  We were young.

That first night, we stayed at the farmhouse of a family friend just outside the small college town of Brockport.  Well, we didn’t spend the night in the house.  We slept out in the yard, in sleeping bags, under a sky dotted with stars.  We were tired–we had walked twenty miles that day, and had run through the wheat field out back behind the farmhouse that evening.  It took us a while to get to sleep, though.  We lay down, listened to the cries of hoot owls, the rustlings in the plants and shrubs that flanked the yard, the whispers of the night breeze as it shared its sacred, eternal wisdom.

 

We talked.  We joked.  We savored.

And the next morning, bright and early, we set out west again.  The walking was already growing easier, our bodies acclimating to the journey, adjusting to the rhythm.  It rained, briefly, and then the sun came out, a hot, large July sun that tested our stamina.  More cars beeped at us.  More insults were hurled.  More strangers stopped us, took a moment to chat.  For every derogatory remark we received along the way, we got ten more that were kind.

 

We walked through tiny, speck-on-the-map towns, with names like Clarendon and Holley and Albion, dotted with old capes and town squares and corner stores.  Interspersed between the towns, acres and acres of cornfields and dairy farms spread across the land like a luxurious green carpet.  We slept in cheap motels and ate convenience store pizza.  And then, on the fourth morning, we turned around, headed east, back to Rochester.

 

Suddenly, it seemed, the miles grew longer, the movements more laborious.  We had lost some of the spring in our step.  It was easy to understand why.  While we had journeyed west, away from Rochester, we were exploring new ground, in full discovery mode.  Sure, we’d seen many of these same towns before, but it’s far different zipping by in a car than it is taking the time to really look and listen and experience while walking.  Not to mention, a few of the smallest towns were in fact new to us.  We had never visited them prior to the walk.

 

Now, though, we were going back, covering much of the same ground we had just days earlier.  We took a few different roads, tried to change it up a bit.  But the truth was undeniable.  The return trip back was a known quantity.  We were heading back to the point of origin, no longer breaking new ground, no longer heading away, deeper into the unexplored.  The sun felt hotter, the humidity more taxing, the water supply less plentiful.  Even the pizza lost some of its zing.

 

As I reflect back on the experience now, two decades later, I realize the entire episode was not unlike writing a novel.  The walk away from Rochester was akin to the twists and turns and highs of creating the first draft.  You know where you’re going in a broad, general sense, yet the specifics of how to get there are shrouded in mystery and intrigue.  There is always a bend up the road, and until you take it, you can’t be sure what lies beyond. The euphoria of discovery is in the air as you boldly journey into the unknown.

 

Likewise, the return trip back to Rochester, plodding through familiar territory, was like the editing process, hashing over material already on the page, pruning, crafting, reshaping.  There is nothing new here.  The story has already been written.  This is the time to sharpen the focus, tighten the prose, and make sure the plot developments and characters and events link seamlessly together from front to back.  If Character X does this in chapter two, the reverberations must be felt in chapter twenty-seven.  The editing process can be tedious and slow–but it is a crucial aspect to completing a finished project.

 

And that’s where I am currently, in the process of finishing The Singularity Wheel.  I’m walking back to Rochester, as it were, through towns and streets and along back roads I have traveled along before. And yes, it can feel like walking uphill sometimes.  But I have to hope that the extra time and effort will help to shape the final product into something worthwhile.

 

One thing I do know for sure.  When we did get back home to Rochester that hot July of 1995, we felt as though we had accomplished something.  Sure, it would have been easier to hitch a ride back, shorten the journey.  But it wouldn’t have been the same, wouldn’t have meant as much.

 

That first evening back, the sofa had never felt so good.

 

Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

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