Pittsboro author David Drake has had a long and prolific writing career, and when I saw his recent newsletter mention the word count of new introductions for his new collection Night & Demons (Baen, October 2), I thought I knew what I would get when I asked him what the hardest part of putting together the new collection was: “The story introductions total around 12,000 words and are as much autobiography as you’re likely to get from me.” However, it turns out it wasn’t the words themselves or their number, it was the trip there and back again to get them that made for the toughest sledding.
“A Hard Look Back” by David Drake
ON A PANEL AT The Escapist Expo in September, my friend Mark asked for a show of hands from people who hadn’t been born in 1966 when I sold my first story. He got at least half the room. Folks there and generally nowadays see me as a successful writer who is respected by his colleagues and whose books have been selling well for over 30 years.The stories in Night & Demons weren’t written by that person. Here are a few examples of the things that were happening to the person who wrote Night & Demons:
1) My first sale in 1966 brought such a brutal acceptance letter with the $35 payment that I didn’t look at the story again for decades. During that period I repeatedly described it as a bad story.
When I finally reread the story (because I was booked for a reading at a World Fantasy Con), I realized it was quite good of its sort; ‘the sort’ being a filler for Weird Tales in 1938. I had modeled it on the filler stories which the editor had been writing for Weird Tales in 1938.
2) When I was typing up my third story at Blackhorse Base Camp in Di An, Republic of Viet Nam, the ammo dump blew up behind me. This was by no means the worst thing that happened to me while I was In Country.
Nowadays I realize that immersion in really bad parts of reality in 1970 gave my fiction an edge which I couldn’t have gotten any other way. The ability to transfer savage reality to the page sets my work apart from that of most people writing on similar subjects.
3) In 1974 my agent, Kirby, edited an original horror anthology titled Frights. He offered me 2-cents/word for a story. I met Kirby for the first time in at the Worldcon that year, where he was trying to convince Joe Haldeman to accept payment of only 4-cents/word for his story in Frights.
I turned my story in. Kirby thought I’d overestimated the wordage (I hadn’t; I counted every word and sent him the page by page totals). Kirby also thought that the ending (a climax/conclusion) was too abrupt.
More recently, Kirby has told me that on rereading, he saw that my ending was exactly right for the story. At the time, he wasn’t used to anything so harsh.
4) Kirby then edited another original horror anthology, Dark Forces. It was to be the no-holds-barred equivalent of what Harlan Ellison’s Dangerous Visions was for SF.
Kirby didn’t ask me for a story this time, because I’d recently written a horror story for a British anthology. My story had really disturbed Kirby, and it was at least partially responsible for getting the anthology seized by the police.
When a twenty-fifth anniversary edition of Dark Forces came out, Kirby phoned me to apologize for not asking me for a story–or simply taking the one which had been banned in Britain (since the whole edition of the British anthology had been pulped).
Those four examples (the stories are included here) show you the stature in the field of the person who wrote Night & Demons. The follow-ups to these anecdotes happened to the present me, the successful writer whom people think they meet at conventions.
But writing these intros and proofreading the stories rubbed my nose in the person I was in the ’70s. I wasn’t an innovative writer who was laying the groundwork for what has been for more than 30 years a successful career: I was a failure, a traumatized Nam vet whose friends and agent were part of the chorus telling him he was doing the wrong thing.
And in my head when I look back, as I had to look back to prepare Night & Demons, I’m still that person.