The oldest story in this collection is “Double Occupancy.” Technically, it was my first sale, and occurred in 1995—seven years before Gardner Dozois bought “Dead Worlds” and made me a household name—even if it was only in my own house. I say “technically” because, though I received a check for $150, the story didn’t appear in print.
If anyone’s interested, here’s how publishing used to work sometimes: Back in the early 1990s I saw a listing in The Gila Queen’s Guide to Markets. It was for a new magazine called A Different Beat. They wanted genre stories with a law enforcement element. Beyond that, anything went. I gave it a try, writing an old school Stephen King-influenced horror story about a couple of state troopers encountering Lovecraftian monsters in the Cascade Mountains. The assistant editor, an MIT student named Michael McComas, worked with me over a period a few months to accomplish several re-writes. I felt optimistic. I felt this was my lucky story, the one that was going to make it.
After completing the last rewrite request I sat back and waited, fairly certain I had a sale. A year later I wasn’t so sure. I wrote to Mike and asked him what was up. My letter was a little cranky. When he got back to me he seemed surprised that I didn’t know they had bought the story. And by the way, A Different Beat was no longer a magazine but a trade paperback anthology. Wow! I was in! Another year or so passed. I wrote to ask how it was going. Mike informed me that the senior editor was having personal problems and no one could get at the manuscripts for the book, which were locked away in her house. Eventually the other senior editor, and earthbound angel, Dawn Albright, took over the project. She made sure all the contributors got paid, but still the book didn’t appear.
Years slipped by . . . and I felt that defeat had been snatched from the jaws of victory. I had a first sale, but it didn’t feel anything like what it was supposed to feel like. During this period I was still writing stories, a few of them good, but I was running out of optimism. Even the gloomiest writers flourish only because of a fundamental and largely illogical optimism. When the optimism runs out, so do the stories—and occasionally the writer.
Jump ahead a few years. Stephen King publishes his book On Writing. In the middle of it he invites readers to try an exercise in writing from a situation. The situation was simple and appealed to me, so I gave it a shot. I have no idea why. By this time I was out of optimism. Like dead out. A year later I get an email from Marsha DeFilippo, King’s personal assistant. I was one of five winners. Stephen would like to post your story on his website . . . Optimism raised her weary head and attempted a smile.
I got organized.
And I returned to an old love—science fiction. The first new story I wrote was “Dead Worlds.” Right before Gardner picked it up for Asimov’s in August of 2002, I received a couple of other acceptances from a guy who ran Undaunted Press, a small publishing concern somewhere in the Midwest. But Gardner’s acceptance was the Big One. I worked nights, and when I returned home, weary and discouraged after nine hours in the factory, I stood in the kitchen and opened the mail. As I read Gardner’s letter, which was all of two sentences, I got teary. That’s how a first sale is supposed to hit you, I think. At the time, I was married to my first wife, Kathy, and she asked me what was wrong. I told her a letter I’d been waiting for finally arrived. It was twenty years late, but nothing’s perfect, and the twenty years were my fault, not anybody else’s.
The newest story in this book* is “The Avenger of Love,”* which started out as a collaboration with Harlan Ellison, though I ended up doing this version by myself and selling it to The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, which I’d been trying to crack since, roughly, The Dawn Of Time. Most of the other stories were written and sold after “Dead Worlds,” but a few, “Reunion,” “The Tree,” and “The Apprentice” are from the period of disorganization and diminishing optimism. They are survivors.
Interestingly, right about the time Gary Turner accepted this collection for Golden Gryphon, I heard from Dawn Albright. It had been years. She was starting an online magazine and wanted at long last to publish “Double Occupancy”—twice! First in the online mag, then in a print anthology,** due out about the same time as Are You There and Other Stories. I cleared it with Gary and signed a new contract with Dawn. Gary claims that “Double Occupancy” is his favorite story in the book. For all I know, it tipped the scale in my favor when he was deciding whether or not to make my agent an offer. I guess life, or the writing life, anyway, is circular.
I’d like to thank the editors who have bought stories from me over the years. In chronological order: Sandra Hutchinson, Dawn Albright, Cullen Bunn, Gardner Dozois, Diane Walton, Sheila Williams, Rich Horton, Patrick Swenson, Shawna McCarthy, Lou Anders, George Mann, Gary Turner, and Gordon Van Gelder.***
I’d also like to thank Nancy Kress, who surprised me when she offered to write the introduction to my as-yet unsold collection.**** And John Picacio, who created the cover art. He went the extra mile, because that’s what John does, and he totally nailed it. I count myself almost preternaturally lucky to have these two lauded and accomplished pros participate in the project. Finally, I want to thank Christine Cohen, my agent on this book. She took a chance on me years ago when I barely knew anyone in the business. I’ll always remember that.
These stories kept me going through some dark stretches, which may account for the tone found in many of them. Certainly the stories, and the novels that followed, have changed my life, given me a new world to inhabit, populated with friends and colleagues. The dark is in retreat. Writing is magic.
February 15, 2009 (updated May 6, 2018)
* In the Fairwood Press edition “Free Dog” is the newest story.
** Actually, the anthology never happened.
*** As of 5/6/2018 I can add Bryon Thomas Schmidt, Neil Clarke, John Joseph Adams, and David Brin.
**** A few years later I surprised her back by asking her to marry me.