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Why I’m Here Today, or, Secrets of My Black Past

Guest of Honor Speech
Delivered at Electracon
June 23, 1984

I’m pleased to be here today as your Guest of Honor at Electracon, and I wanted to thank the committee for bringing me in, and all of you for making the weekend so pleasant. I must admit that, a long time ago when I was starting in this writing game, I never dreamed that someday it would bring me to Kearney, Nebraska — possibly I never dreamed it because I’d never heard of Kearney, Nebraska. But you must remember that I was born and raised in Bayonne, New Jersey, and my knowledge of American cities was mostly limited to nearby towns with names like Hoboken, Secaucus, Paramis, Hohokus, and Perth Amboy, plus those places that had major league baseball franchises, preferably in the National League. I don’t think Kearney has ever had a major league baseball franchise, but if you did, it was surely in the American League, which doesn’t really count.

Kearney, Nebraska is a long way from Bayonne, New Jersey, especially if one travels by way of Santa Fe, New Mexico, Dubuque, Iowa, Chicago, and other spots in between. When I was reflecting on that, it occurred to me that I might tell you a bit about how I came to make that trip. And I’m not talking about Frontier Airlines.

The reason I’m here today, of course, is my writing. I am, to be sure, dashing as all get out, witty, charming, a snappy dresser, kind to my mother, and a lot of fun at a party. I even know all the words to the theme song from My Mother, the Car. Nonetheless, were I not also a writer, I doubt that even these impressive credentials would have been sufficient to tempt you to bring me in for the weekend. Among us writers, it has become traditional to say things like, “I was born with a typewriter in my hand,” or “I can’t imagine not writing,” and therefore suggest that the life and career we’ve wound up living was, in fact, the one we were destined to live. There’s nothing like hindsight to give a glow of inevitability to the directions our lives have taken. But I don’t buy it, not for a moment. There’s nothing inevitable about life, at least not about my life.

So how the hell did a longshoreman’s kid from Bayonne wind up talking to a bunch of Nebraska SF fans, eh?

Well, Robert A. Heinlein had a lot to do with it. The reason I started writing SF was because, years earlier, I had started reading SF, and that was all because of a book called Have Space Suit, Will Travel that a friend of my mother’s gave me for Christmas one year. It was a hardcover, a real trade hardcover, a “juvenile” of course, but it didn’t seem very juvenile to me. And it was great stuff, fabulous stuff. Kip and PeeWee, the maltshop and the flying saucer, beginning with the Skyway Soap slogan contest and ending with Earth on trial before the Three Galaxies. “So, take away our sun! We’ll make another, or die trying. To die trying is the proudest human thing.” I was hooked. Of course I was hooked. How could I not be hooked? My voracious reading of SF started right then, and never stopped.

Now, the very next Christmas, the woman who’d given me Have Space Suit, Will Travel gave me another nice hardbound juvenile novel. It was about a shepherd. If the order of those gifts had been reversed, I wonder, would sheep have replaced spacesuits in the center of my daydreams? If so, I’d certainly never have become a writer. The market for sheep stories just isn’t what it used to be, not even in Australia.

Years later, there was the business of the chain letter.

That one came about because of the funny books, y’see. Heinlein made me a devoted SF reader, of course, and in the years that followed I read lots more Heinlein, discovered Andre Norton, the Tom Corbett series, Eric Frank Russell, Doc Smith, and the Science Fiction Book Club. And Ace Doubles. Ah, yes — I positively devoured Ace Doubles. Two novels for 35 cents, that was hard to beat, even if they were really novellas, and one of them always seemed to be by Robert Moore Williams or Ray Cummings or somebody like that.

But long before that Christmas when Kip’s spacesuit and the Mother Thing parked under my tree, I had been an eager reader of comic books, and my new affair with the likes of Roger Manning and Dane Thorson and Blackie Duquesne (which name I invariably pronounced as Blackie DOO QUEZ NEE), did not make me love Superman, Batman, and the Challengers of the Unknown any less. Oh, I do recall a brief episode around the time I was in sixth grade when I decided I was too old and too mature for comic books and gave all my Supermans away. Fortunately, this aberration only lasted six months or so, and I started buying comics again just in time to snatch up the first issues of Spiderman and the Fantastic Four, thereby fortuitously providing for my retirement, though I’d hardly have guessed it at the time. So much did I love the FF that, around the time I was starting high school, I wrote a letter to the magazine, and got it published. It was a balanced, insightful, intelligent letter, as I recall, very perceptive and analytical — the main thrust of my argument was that Shakespeare had better move on over now that Stan Lee had arrived on the scene. Ahem.

Well, anyway, that was how I broke into professional print, in a manner of speaking, but having that letter published had a couple of odd consequences. One day soon thereafter I was watching the “Demon with a Glass Hand” episode of Outer Limits when I got a long distance phone call from Louisiana, which was rather extraordinary, since nobody in our family lived in Louisiana or knew anybody in Louisiana. Nobody in our family knew anybody in Jersey City, for that matter.

Turned out the guy calling had read my letter in Fantastic Four and gotten my number from information. He just wanted to talk about comic books. He said he was twenty years old and fabulously wealthy and he called up people all the time like this. He was so rich that at one point, when it came out that my family didn’t have a car, he offered to buy one and send it to me. It was a generous offer, but I was only thirteen and didn’t drive anyway, so I declined. We talked about the Fantastic Four for a couple of hours, long distance. To this day, I have no idea how “Demon with a Glass Hand” ends. My Louisiana friend continued to phone two or three times a week, for perhaps a month, to chat about comics and offer to give me automobiles. Then he stopped phoning.

The next person I heard from was an investigator with Ma Bell. Alas, my mystery caller wasn’t rich after all. Nor was he twenty. He was around thirteen too, and lived with his grandfather, and had amused himself for a month by phoning me and dozens of other people like me all over the US, giving an assortment of assumed names. It was a lot of fun until his grandfather unexpectedly received a phone bill for something like $37,000.

That was my first contact with fandom, in a way. Oddly enough, it was also the last time any fan has offered to buy me a car. Next time, I’m going to take it. I’m older now, and I know you should never look a gift car in the mouth, unless it’s a Ford. If any of you would like to uphold this fannish tradition of offering me free automobiles, my top choice would be a classic Mercedes Benz 300 SL gullwing from the 50s, but I’m not fussy, I’ll settle for a Ferrari.

But I’ve digressed. Those phone calls were one thing that came of being published in the Fantastic Four letter column. The other thing that came of it, which proved to have more lasting consequences, was a chain letter. I’d never gotten one before, so I was sure impressed. Here was this list of names, you see, and it said that if I sent away a quarter to the name at the top of the list, and recopied the letter, removed the top name and added mine at the bottom, then sent out four copies to friends, in a few weeks I’d get $64 in quarters. Well, hey, that sounded great. Sixty-four dollars was all the money there was in the universe, after all; it would buy me 533 comic books or 182 Ace Doubles, with change left over. I had a lot more faith in that $64 than I ever had in the car my phone friend kept offering me, so I sent off my quarter and waited.

Well, I never got any quarters, damn it.

But a funny thing happened.

It just so happened that the guy at the top of the list, the one who got my quarter, published a comic fanzine — a fanzine that was priced, coincidentally, at twenty-five cents. Now, all I sent him was a quarter in an envelope, scotched taped to a 3×5 index card; no letter, no nothing. Having probably long since forgotten about the chain letter, he sent me a copy of his fanzine. It was dittoed, like almost all comic fanzines in those vanished prehistoric days when the only photocopy machines that existed sat in libraries and gave you white writing on black paper. The art was crude and so was the writing, actually, but it was full of people talking about funny books, and accomplishing this without having to run up $37,000 phone bills. And in it were a bunch of reviews of other fanzines.

Welllllll . . . that was how an innocent high school student got sucked into the voracious maw of comic fandom.

And it was during those high school years as a comics fan that I really began the process of turning into a writer.

Oh, to be sure, like most people who turn out to be writers, I’d written all my life. As I related a few years ago in another GOH speech, my first, never-to-be-completed magnum opus was the fictional history of a glorious imaginary kingdom, an epic full of swordplay, dynastic intrigue, oppression, revolution, wars, betrayal, and valor most high, the principals of which were my pet turtles, who lived in a toy castle on my desk. You might say I began with a tale of shells and sorcery.

I even had a very short-lived professional career at one point, writing monster stories for the others kids in the projects where I lived. I was way ahead of my time, in a sense; I began with a series, long before they became fashionable. I block-printed the stories on pages ripped from one of those school tablets with the funny black and white covers, the kind where you started filling in the white areas on the cover in September, so they were all black and blue by June. They paid me by the page. The first story was a page long, and I got a penny, the second was two pages for two cents, and so on. Since most of the other kids in the projects didn’t read all that well, a free dramatic reading was part of the deal. I must say, I was a great reader, especially noted for my werewolf howls, a talent I lost for years until howling along with “Wolf Boy” in a Santa Fe bar. Well, I had worked my way up to a nickel, and visions of vast riches beckoned me onward, until one of my regular customers started having nightmares, and his mother came to my mother, and that was that for the child pro. Perhaps if I’d written stories about sheep instead of wolves . . . sigh.

Anyway, I did continue to write all through those years in Bayonne, but I seldom completed anything, and I never showed any of my stuff to anybody. Writing stories was just something I did to amuse myself. Like keeping a journal. Like playing an endless solitary RISK game where every army had a commanding general and I annotated the results of every battle. Like building an entire fleet of paper airplanes and carefully documenting the performance of each in order to arrive at an optimal design. Like breaking into the neighborhood haunted house with a couple of friends . . . except, no, it wasn’t like that last, because it was an essentially solitary act, more like masturbation, or reading my sister’s confession magazines when nobody else was at home in the hopes that I’d learn some more about sex. The stories I wrote then were games, in a sense, a private amusement that I worked on until I got bored with them, after which I moved on to something else. I never really thought other people would want to read the stuff I was writing.

And then came the chain letter, the sticky quarter, the fanzine. The fanzine, and the other fanzines that followed it, fascinated me. The contents were composed in roughly equal parts of articles about Golden Age characters, most of whom had passed from the four-color scene before I was born, and amateur super hero fiction. The articles . . . well, they were okay. The fiction, especially in the first few fanzines I got . . . hooboy. The fiction was awful.

I remember one writer in particular. He had a story, a superhero yarn related in prose, which in those days comic fans called a “text story.” It was about four typewritten pages long, and had thirteen superheroes and a horde of villains too. Lots of action, no plot, and not a line of dialogue. The writer obviously didn’t know what dialogue was. He’d write lines like, “The Purple Squid told Doctor Wormface to surrender, but Doctor Wormface wouldn’t surrender, so they punched each other.” Now, this writer may have been bad, but he was certainly willing to learn. When various fans wrote in, explaining about dialogue and suggesting that he might want to use some, he immediately took their comments to heart. His next story was all dialogue, sort of like a play without stage directions.

The truth has to be told; this man was my inspiration. Not Tolkien, not Heinlein, not Andre Norton or Eric Frank Russell or Stan Lee or any of the writers I loved. They could never have inspired me to write. But this guy, he was being published! It was after reading his stuff that I first uttered those magic words, the words every would-be writer must utter, sooner or later: “Even I can do better than that.”

I owned an ancient manual typewriter that I’d found up in my aunt’s attic one day. I’d fooled around on it enough to become a real one-finger wonder. Of course, the ribbon was so faded you could hardly read it, but I made up for that by pounding the keys so hard that the letters were deeply graven into the paper. The little top inner parts of the “e” and the inside of the “o” always fell right out, but you can’t expect perfection, right? Reading the pages I produced in this fashion was quite an eyestrain, no doubt, but I guarantee that once blindness had set in, feeling the letters with your fingertips would be no problem at all.

Anyway, I sat down and I invented a superhero — just one, I figured that was smarter than introducing thirteen at once the way my role model did — and I began to write. The second hardest thing to do was to actually finish a story, which I’d seldom managed before. The hardest thing was to work up the courage to send it out. Eventually I managed both though. And the story was accepted, and published, and people even wrote in and said how good it was. I mean, I blew them away — dialogue and narration in the same story, what an innovation!

I wrote more stories.

They got published. They got praised. I did still more. I stayed in comics fandom all through high school. In some ways, it was the only thing that kept me sane in high school. Eventually I got beyond the dittoed fanzines where I started, with their fading purple print, and into the class of that subfandom, the photo-offset fanzines like Star Studded Comics. One year I even won an award for Best Fan Fiction. I know now that awards for Best Fan Fiction are like awards for Best Dwarf Basketball Player, but I was a high school kid and it meant something to me, even though I never did get the trophy I was promised. I did get something more important. I got confidence. I got criticism. I got experience.

I got better.

By the time I hit college, I was corresponding with people like Howard Waldrop, who had started at Star Studded Comics just about the same time I did, and I was moving beyond superhero text stories into horror and sword and sorcery. Still bad, but better. One thing led to another. Somehow I had begun thinking of myself as a writer, or at least as someone who would always write a little on the side, whatever career I might ultimately pursue. To keep my hand in, I not only took all the creative writing courses I could, but I even tried to write fiction for courses where it had no business whatsoever. Once, in sophomore year, I talked my prof in Scandinavian history into letting me write a piece of historical fiction instead of a term paper. Not only did he go for it, and give me an A, but he liked the story so well he sent it out for me to a professional magazine called American Scandanavian Review. They didn’t buy it, alas, but they sent a nice letter, and thus I collected my first professional rejection slip. It hardly hurt at all, so the following year, when I wrote a batch of short stories for a creative writing class, I took to sending them out myself, and collecting my own rejections.

I got a few. One of the stories, an SF piece called “The Hero,” vanished for a year, lost in the mail when I sent it to Fred Pohl at Galaxy not realizing that Fred had left and the magazine had been sold. When I found out, I retyped it and sent it to the new editor, and it got lost there too. Months and months passed, I graduated college and went home to Bayonne for the summer before beginning my year of graduate study. Bayonne is pretty close to New York; I decided, instead of wasting time, to phone and inquire. I must say, the woman I spoke to was not very friendly. When I said I wanted to ask about a manuscript that had been there for a long time, she said, “We can’t possibly keep track of all the stories we reject.” But when I told her the name of the story, there was a brief pause. “Wait a minute,” she said. “We bought that story.” A golden moment. Of course, it turned out my check was lost in the mail. They’d sent it to the college address I was no longer at, and by the time it got forwarded to my summer address in Bayonne, I was back at school at another address, so it had to be sent on again. But I finally got it. Ninety-four bucks.

The chain letter had promised me sixty-four. I’d come out thirty bucks ahead, though it took a lot longer than I ever would have guessed when I mailed off that quarter.

That was the summer of 1970, my first sale. “The Hero” ran in the February 1971 issue of Galaxy. I made my second sale to Ted White and Fantastic in the spring of 1971. Oddly enough, that story too had been sent off just as the magazine was changing addresses, lost for a year, retyped, and resubmitted. It wasn’t until my third sale that I realized it was possible to sell a story without first losing it in the mail. My first SF convention was just about the same time, and more sales and more cons have followed in the years since, until, finally, here I am.

Inevitable? I can’t believe it.

If I’d never gotten that Heinlein book, would I even have read SF? Would I have read at all, for that matter?

If not for that chain letter, would I ever have seen a fanzine? The right kind, that is, a bad one? At just the right time? Comics fandom was important to me. It gave me a place to publish, a place to be bad. My stories there got the criticism I needed to improve, but also the encouragement I needed to continue. The kind of stuff I was writing as an eighth- and ninth-grader was not even remotely good enough to find a home in the worst SF crudzine; nor could it possibly be published in comics fanzines as they exist today, for that matter. Those fanzines were part of a crude infant fandom, three-quarters of whose fans were high-schoolers. They’ll never come again. Had they not existed for me, though, I really wonder where my life might have lead. I learned more about writing from doing it than I ever did from high school English classes, or college comp classes either.

There were, of course, other turning points. In 1971, for example, I emerged from college with a bright shiny master’s degree in journalism, piled high with honors, and still couldn’t get a real job in my chosen profession. If I had, I might be a foreign correspondent for the New York Times even now, though more likely I’d be a disgruntled rewrite man on the Jersey Journal. But it didn’t happen that way.

I had just made my second sale and attended my first con; I was able to find only part-time summer work in Bayonne, so I drove myself to write. That summer I wrote a story every two weeks, the best stuff I’d ever done, including “With Morning Comes Mistfall” and “The Second Kind of Loneliness,” and by the time I signed up for VISTA that fall, my ultimate course was pretty well set. I might work other jobs to keep bread on the table. I did, in fact: public relations, chess tournament director, college instructor. But mostly I was a writer, ultimately I was a writer, deep down inside that was the important thing.

Inevitable? Nah. No way.

It’s a long way from Bayonne, New Jersey to Kearney, Nebraska, as I said. But you know something?

I’m glad I came.

Shoe Inside
© 2014 George R.R. Martin. All rights reserved.