Writers of the Future Award Week: Day Three (Tuesday, August 21, 2007)

I woke up around 5am (which was really 8am my time) freaking out about having an apple as my inspirational item.

I’d started writing down ideas the night before, kind of brain-storming, word association, etc. but they all seemed really clichéd to me. The apple is just so done in our culture, isn’t it? Right from Genesis on down.

At some point I got thinking about another story I’d submitted to the WOTF about a tree museum (inspired by a Joni Mitchell song–points if you can tell me which song) and started thinking about apple trees. Hmm. Okay. Maybe I’ll reuse that idea. Kathy had written a note on the story saying that it was more like an outline than a real story–maybe I could resurrect the idea like I’d always meant to.

Knowing that today was to be the day we interviewed our stranger, I decided to wear blue. One of the few things I remember from my first year into to psychology class is that people wearing blue are perceived as more trustworthy, and I certainly didn’t need anyone thinking I was some weirdo asking questions (even though I was).

And blue brings out my eyes 🙂

We had a short class about research and interviewing–appropriate given our plans for the afternoon. Along with Tim and Kathy’s thoughts we read some of Hubbard’s articles on research and specifically on interviewing strangers. These were interesting–his main point being, rightly, that by talking to people who do what you’re writing about or who have lived through events you’d like to describe, your portrayal of same in the story will have the ring of truth about it even if it is fiction.

“I totally ripped those guys off.”
– Tim Powers

However, our interview was to be a little different. Unlike Hubbard, we were not to inform the person we were talking to that we were a writer seeking information for a story. We were simply to pry and pry and keep prying…until they called the police (which I’m told almost happened once…)

Then it was the walk to the library.

Here we are in the hotel lobby before heading to the library. That’s me center in the blue shirt–see what I mean about it bringing out my eyes? These informal hallway sessions are where we really learned. Just after this photo was taken, Tim showed us all the secret Masonic author handshake that guarantees access to the inner sanctum of sci-fi success… I mean…No he didn’t. Didn’t show us anything. Nothing at all.
(photo courtesy of WOTF/Galaxy Press)

On our walk to the library. Here is Pasadena City Hall
(which has a lovely Spanish courtyard and fountain).

Hugette took a number of pictures of us outside (she kept having to run into the dark of a doorway because the glare of the sun meant she couldn’t see the digital display on her camera–but that left us all withering in the heat).

A good lookin’ bunch. I’m in the back thinking: “I’m melting…Oh, what a world!”
(photo courtesy of WOTF/Galaxy Press)

At one point a random stranger tried to jump into the picture with us and started cracking jokes as he did so. He was covered in tattoos and looked pretty tough.

“Hmm,” I thought. “I bet he’s an ex-con. Maybe out from San Quentin. Wonder if I could interview him? That would make for an interesting story…”

“You should have mutilated those cattle on the very first page.”
– KD Wentworth

No sooner had my thought finished than pictures were over and we were set free until 5pm to do research in the library and interview our person. I turned to see where San Quentin had gone but Jeff Carlson was already walking down the street with him, talking.


(It turned out that they guy was an ex-con from San Quentin, on his way to see his parole officer. Ah, California).

I spent the next hour or so wandering through the stacks of the Pasadena public library, a beautiful building. I decided that the first order of business was to find and interview my random stranger, since I assumed that would be a lot harder than looking up books.

“This book–once you put it down you can’t pick it up again.”
– Tim Powers

My first potential was a guy I noticed in the basement (warning sign #1) sitting on the floor in the corner (warning sign #2) working intently taking notes on something. I casually picked a book from the shelf (I was in the biography section and spied a bio of Douglas Adams–fitting, I thought) and tried to suss out a little more of what he was doing in hopes of finding an in to a conversation.

Now closer I could see that he had a collection of items piled around him: a sleeping bag, a ladies’ change purse, some shopping bags, odds and ends. He had a bushy beard and wiry, unkempt hair.

Okay, a homeless person.

He looked up at me with a wild look that you’d not expect from your average library user.

Okay, a crazy homeless person.

When he saw me looking at him he muttered something (to me or himself I wasn’t sure)…and then reached down and zipped up his pants (WARNING SIGN #3! WARNING SIGN #3!) He had, it turned out, been scribbling intent notes about the Bible (the copy he held might have been his own, as certain passages were highlighted) and, getting up, he walked to the end of the stack where he stood, waiting for me to leave.

Afraid if I stayed any longer this man might eat me, I obliged him and went (ran) back upstairs.

“These people should be hospitalized.”
– Tim Powers

Next, I found a fellow I dubbed Samurai Man. He too was sitting on the floor reading, but as I casually wandered closer he seemed normal–no stack of worldly possessions, no muttering or frothing at the mouth. He was maybe a few years older than me, Latino, dressed pretty hip, and had his black hair pulled back into a topknot that reminded me of a samurai hairdo. Okay, interesting. But best of all he had one of those metal briefcases that spies carry. Ah ha! Perfect! That case alone could hold my whole story. Ever seen Pulp Fiction? What’s the macguffin they have in there?

Okay, now how to strike up conversation?

“Excuse me,” I said.

He looked up, annoyed at having been interrupted.

“If you don’t mind me asking: where did you get that briefcase?” I asked. “I’ve always wanted one like that.”

Then he named some intersection.

“Oh, is that here in town?”

“No. In LA,” he said, and not only went back to reading but turned his back to me. Now, I’m not expert in body language but I’m pretty sure that mean “Piss off, buddy.”

Strike two.

I wandered upstairs again, this time to the main floor and the periodicals reading room. Walking through I noticed a guy just sitting there in a chair, no reading material, but who had on a really nice gold watch. We made eye contact and he kinda smiled at me. I kept walking but only to seem casual. I doubled back, grabbed a National Geographic, and took up a seat near enough to him that we could talk.

I’d decided that the gold watch was to be my in.

Flipping through the magazine, I waited for a couple of other near-by people to leave before approaching the man. I didn’t want to disturb these folks, and I suppose part of me didn’t want to look like some nosy freak (though I felt a bit like one…)

But at that moment who appears but…Hugette! She sees me and starts snapping away with that giant camera. And not just a few photos–she spent what had to be 10 minutes taking shots of me from all angles. When the flashes started going off people starting looking up, no doubt wondering who I was, why I was having my picture taken, and what kind of crappy brand of anything would have such a homely model…I tried to pretend none of this was happening.

Me, attempting to look casually disinterested
in the giant camera taking flash photographs
of me in the library…
(photo courtesy of WOTF/Galaxy Press)

Eventually she moved on to find others. Soon after that (perhaps deterred by the flashes) the other people near us left as well.

“Say, that’s a nice watch,” I said.*

(* Now, you have to understand that earlier in the day we’d had a hilarious discussion in class about dialogue, and one of the examples of bad dialogue Tim used was Terminator 2. He (rightly) pointed out that when the T-1000, disguised as a cop, walks up to the motorcycle cop and says “Say, that’s a nice bike” the officer should have known that he was talking to a homicidal shapeshifting robot from the future and driven away as fast as he could because no one would ever really say that. Having just done so, however, I couldn’t help feel intensely awkward and hoped that this guy didn’t think I was a homicidal shapeshifting robot from the future.)

“Oh yes,” he said. “My ex-wife gave it to me for my birthday.”

And such was my introduction to Billy Bland of Hunstville, Alabama. Billy was an interesting guy. Divorced, with two kids in college, he’d been down on his luck for many years, and had moved out to Pasadena to be near his children. He was staying at the Mission down the street but was planning a trip to Fiji in the winter as the heat was good for his arthritis. He was apparently well-traveled, having been to Vancouver, Montreal, and Toronto, all over Europe, and even up to Greenland (“Because I wanted to see it for myself,” he said). Mostly, though, he liked the Caribbean and the South Pacific (having been to Fiji fifteen times). The highest compliment he could pay a place he had visited was to say that he liked it because it was quiet. He also had an uncanny ability to know and recount every route of every transit system in every city he’d ever visited.

I suggested lunch so we could talk more and Billy knew a sandwich place nearby. We’d just got our order and were going to sit down when who should appear?

Yup. Hugette and her camera. She “just happened” to be passing by.

No doubt 🙂

Billy and me. He was very gracious about having his
photo taken by a complete stranger while having
lunch with a complete stranger.

(photos courtesy of WOTF/Galaxy Press)

Billy and I parted ways after lunch. He gave me his address and asked me to write. I wished him well and promised I would.

On the way back to the library I pass the Jackie Robinson
Memorial. He grew up in Pasadena–who knew?

I returned to the library to finish my research and bumped into some of the others, a few of whom were still having problems finding someone to interview. I recommended against venturing to the basement.

Still fixated on reusing the tree museum idea I grabbed a stack of books on trees, forests, and greenhouses. Amongst these were some kids’ picture books and simple science books, which Kathy recommended we look at sometimes for good, basic descriptions of things.

And as I was researching trees I was approached by an elderly gentleman who wanted to know if I was an arborist. Now some stranger was interviewing me. I decided to interview back.

His name was Bob (this was my day for meeting ‘B’ people, apparently). He was an 88 year-old retired marketing director for Dow Chemical and used to travel a great deal for his job. His interest in trees was based on a curiosity about which kind of pine was out front of his condo (we eventually decided it was a Madagascar pine).

And that’s when Hugette found me again. She kept more of a distance this time, and I was able to point out John Burridge near-by and she went to photograph him instead (sorry, buddy 🙂

“Okay, now point to the book and pretend we’re talking about something…”
(photo courtesy of WOTF/Galaxy Press)

John and I left together, bumping into Andrea and Joe on the way back, and traded stories of our interviewees.

When we reassembled at 5pm we had a brief discussion of the afternoon, then a quick chat with our twin about what we’d decided to write about and our research and interview. After hearing my stuff Tony wasn’t convinced by the tree museum idea–he didn’t see how what I’d found from my interviewee was going to fit. Part of me had to admit that he was right.

“Still on about the trees, eh?”
(photo courtesy of WOTF/Galaxy Press)

Tim and Kathy gave us a run-down of what we were expected to do for the 24-hour story, and at 6pm we were dismissed to begin our writing odyssey. Heading back to our rooms, as we stepped off the elevator Tony said, sagely: “Don’t be too attached to your tree idea.”

The tux fitting was at 730pm in Sarah’s room, which was set up like the WOTF command center for the week. I met Marcus Collins and Randall Ensley, two of the illustrator winners, for this first time in the hallway outside. Randall was the artist who illustrated my story and is a really nice guy–and funny as hell. He wouldn’t give me any hints on what the drawing he’d done was though…

“A man. A woman. A lonely road. What will become of them?”
– KD Wentworth

Also in the hall, as we waited to get in for measurements, I met Sean Williams, one of the judges for the contest. Sean was wonderful the whole week and would later give me some very good advice about making the transition to novels. He turned out to be one of the judges for my quarter and said that he enjoyed my story and thought it very original. I always take “original” as high praise because I’m usually worried about how hard it is to do something new in SF. This was very nice to hear.

Just as my measurements (36-24-36) were being read off by the tailor
to his assistant everyone in the room went quiet and listened intently…
(photo courtesy of WOTF/Galaxy Press)

After the fitting Doug, Jeff, and I went for (more) tacos and then quickly back to work. Tony’s words had echoed in my mind all night and when I sat down at 8:50pm to “think at the keyboard” as Tim had advised I realized Tony was right. After some quick brainstorming I realized that the material I’d gathered from Billy wanted to be told as a fantasy, not science fiction. I dashed down to the hotel’s (thankfully) 24-hour business center and did some quick Wikipedia searching on geomancy and ley lines. Things fell into place quite quickly and I knew (roughly) the story I wanted to tell.

I even knew how the apple would fit into the tale.

By 130am–when I could no longer key my eyes open–I had 500 words written.

I would be up again soon, though…

– S.

TOMORROW: Wednesday
– Marathon Man
– Discovery of coffee-based life forms
– “Blogging–it’s so cool.”
– Kim Zimring and I agree to a steel cage death match…on ice!