Wow. It’s been a long while since I’ve blogged. I’m going to make more effort to get back to it. It’s one of those activities that largely went by the wayside in the Grand Struggle of the last several years. I’m on Facebook daily and that’s always the best place to get the latest news. But today merits a post, I think.
September 11 has come around again. It’s a day with layered meaning for me. I will never forget the phone call I received that morning in 2001 from my Office Manager. I was running a community center in a recycled school building up in Seattle’s University District and she called me early that morning, fear heavy in her voice, to ask if we should still fire up the boiler and open the building on time. I had no idea what she was talking about and she sent me to the television.
It was a dark time. I remember how strange it was to look up into a sky empty of planes. That memory was to later come back to play a part in the Psalms of Isaak’s fourth volume.
Just four days after 9/11, my stepfather died in his sleep. That event combined with 9/11 set into motion a great chain of events that has me sitting here now on my back porch in Saint Helens, Oregon, contemplating the fifth and final volume of a series I never meant to write.
My stepfather’s death led ultimately to my slow move south. I left the Seattle area in December 2001 and re-located to my parents’ property in Vader, WA, about 20 miles outside Longview. It was a tiny bit of land (half flooded river plain) at the end of the highway on the far edge of a tiny, tiny town. Ultimately, that led to me meeting Jen and landing in the Portland area where I started spending time with my newish friend, Jay Lake.
And somewhere in the midst of writing and marrying and working, I wrote a short story called “Of Metal Men and Scarlet Thread and Dancing with the Sunrise” and had no idea what that would come to mean for my career. It sold to Realms of Fantasy and when I saw Allen Douglas’s art for the story, the stark 9/11 influence of his painting and the story came into focus for me and I knew I would be taking it further. I wrote a second story, “Of Missing Kings and Backward Dreams and the Honoring of Lies,” and in August 2006 Realms of Fantasy rejected it. Shawna McCarthy had a note with the rejection challenging me to write a novel about Isaak and his friends. Of course, I had no intention of doing so. I was a short story writer.
By this time, Jay and I had spent four years – close to five – lunching with great regularity at the Barley Mill on Hawthorne. I had won Writers of the Future and my stories were coming out in bigger markets. Lots of people wanted to know when Ken Scholes would write his debut novel.
Then, on September 11, 2006, seemingly by coincidence, Jen and Jay took me to dinner – at the Barley Mill of course – and the dares and taunts began. “Look,” Jay said, “you need to write your first novel at some point. You might as well use these two stories.” He told me if I had a first draft by World Fantasy – seven weeks away – he would make sure I met all the editors and agents and publishers he knew. It was a solid dare. And Jen told me that if I committed to writing in all my spare time, she’d take care of my chores. I could buy takeout on my cooking nights to help out. So that very night, after a good two hours of their very best work convincing an extremely stubborn Trailer Boy, I sat down to my laptop, created a document and dropped the two original stories into it, changing their font to red so I would remember to check those bits carefully to make sure the front and back synched up. Then, I wrote those first true words that found me: Wind swept the Prairie Sea and Rudolfo chased after it, laughing and riding low in the saddle as he raced his Gypsy Scouts.
The experience of that first novel was brutal, terrifying, exhilarating. I pushed my muse harder than Leroy had ever been pushed before and by the time I was five chapters in, I was convinced I was utterly failing. But Jay read what I’d done and insisted that I was doing something amazing. I couldn’t see it but I trusted my friend. I trusted Jen and John and Jerry and all the others cheering me on and kept writing, winning the bet. You all know the rest. I finished the book in October and by the following October, I had a five book offer from Tor on what had become The Psalms of Isaak.
The Psalms were intended to be an exploration of how trauma and loss shape people and society. In a world resonating with the question ‘where were you the day Windwir fell?’ In an odd bit of Unfortunate Coincidence, art that was imitating life changed seats and life started imitating art with a vengeance. Over the course of the four and a half books I’ve written so far in this series about loss and trauma, I’ve buried nine loved ones, gained two children, discovered a raging ocean of PTSD that I had no idea lived beneath my surface. Most recently, the friend and brother that was so central to the birth of this series – Jay Lake – lost his long fight with cancer. It’s been three months and I’m still hollow from that loss.
I had hoped to land Hymn before Jay passed but it’s been a hard book to write for lots of reasons including all the grief. My team of readers – including my editor – have read the first half that I’ve written and it’s holding up fine. I just keep getting thrown out of the car as life takes its corners.
But I can feel the writing lamp coming back on as the fog slowly clears. I’m filling the bucket with Story – movies, television, books. That’s usually where it starts. Along with a mild agitation – a fussiness – about not being back to work. Which led to some free-writing. And now I’m re-reading the first half of Hymn to remind myself where things stand. Next week, I’m slipping out of town for a few days and getting back to work. I’ll have a nice stretch of solitude to write in. Once I’ve been at it for a week or two, the story will hook me and the work habits will re-establish themselves as the characters pull me along.
I’ve been thinking a lot about Jay, of course. This series was something he really loved and didn’t get to finish reading. I remember that coming up in one of our last conversations. And he’s who I’d be going to now for advice on how to get over this latest mountain of grief and back to work. I know what he would say: “Dude, write. Write faster. Write more. Writing will save you.” He would be right.
So today means lots of things to me. A time of loss and fear. The birthday of a series. A few intersections in time. Those no longer with us. And specifically, today, I feel like it really is more of an upward spiral than not…and that I’m making the climb with slow but measured steps.
Wish me luck. I have a book to finish.