Wednesday, August 7, 2013

"In The Turning Of A Hand . . ."


Almost a third of a century I wrote my first collaborative with Gardner Dozois and Jack Dann.  Almost a quarter of a century ago, "Touring" was reprinted in Strange Days, a very fine collection of Gardner's stories and I wrote an introduction to it.

The poet Du Fu once wrote, "These fifty years have passed/In the turning of a hand."  That's how it feels to me to realize how much time has passed. In a nostalgic mood I looked up the intro.  And I thought . . . why not share it?

So here it is:

It was a clear, starry night and Jack Dann came breezing into town at the wheel of a limousine twenty feet long, with a big cigar stuck in one corner of his expansive grin...  That’s the way I remember it, anyhow.  Maybe the details are a little off, but if so the blame lies not in me but in reality for failing to live up to those rare and wonderful times when Jack blew into Philadelphia and we all sat around in Gardner and Susan’s tiny Quince Street apartment, laughing and talking big and kicking ideas around.  Making literature.

There is no way to exaggerate what a glamorous guy Jack was when I first met him.  No kidding, and not that he’d believe it, but I’ve seen drop-dead gorgeous women follow him down the street with their eyes.  Gardner, on the other hand, was his bohemian opposite, a gargantuan figure with long blond hair, faded jeans, cowboy hat and a black t-shirt reading PROPHET OF DOOM.  They were each larger than life. 

I, meanwhile, was a skinny young freak (hippiedom was gone by the time I came along) with raggedy clothes and hair down below my shoulders, still unpublished and desperate to connect with the live-wire core stuff of literature, that fiercely-beating heart of language that makes prose sing.  Now, keep in mind that Gardner and Jack didn’t just write just any stories and novels but works that grappled with the key questions of existence, guilt, and identity.  It didn’t matter that Jack wasn’t yet getting the big-buck contracts his fiction would later receive, or that Gardner was forever a breath away from penury.  They were writing things that mattered, stories so intrinsic to their insights and experiences that nobody else could have written them.

Oh man, did I want to be like them!

Imagine how I felt, then, when Jack and Gardner informed me thatwe three were going to collaborate on “Touring” together.  The two of them had plotted out a story that required a lot of specialized rock and roll lore and, by chance, I’d recently researched Janis Joplin for what was to be my first published story, “The Feast of Saint Janis.”  With the low cunning of working writers, they decided they could save themselves a mountain of work by dealing me in.

I was only too happy to oblige.  I wrote down every word they told me and started in on the first draft.  Which any writer will tell you is the hardest and least satisfying part of writing.  It’s where all the ugliest prose exists, the stuff that’s got to be revised out of existence before the story is fit for human eyes.  Later drafts are where all the fun and most of the art lies.

So Jack and Gardner got their money’s worth out of the deal.  But what was in it for me?  The chance to learn from the best.  Midway through the process, I made a major structural change -- I forget now exactly what -- and boasted to Jack that I’d done something surprising with the story.  After a brief pause, Jack said, “I know what you did.  But you’re going to find that it doesn’t work that way.”

That’s how sharp these guys were.  Jack could see not only the way the story ought to go, but which false trails would present themselves to lead me astray.  He was right, of course.  I knew that instantly, just by his tone of voice.  But I monkeyed around with the story for a week or so, doing it the wrong way just so I could see why it wouldn’t work.

“Touring” was the beginning of my postgraduate education.  And (this, too, is part of the working writer’s education) I got paid for it, too.

Copyright 1990 by Michael Swanwick. This essay originally appeared in Slow Dancing Through Time. 


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