I've just spent the morning going through my notebooks. The Scribbledehobbledehoydenii I named them because James Joyce titled his Scribbledehob, and I was young and ambitious and more than a touch arrogant. I'm not sure exactly how many notebooks I've filled by now somewhere around a hundred is a fair guess with my unreadable scrawl and gnostic abbreviations. But I only went through the oldest, those dating back to 1973 and 1974. Because if I'm to tell you anything at all about myself, that's where I have to start.
In the winter of 1973 I arrived in Philadelphia with a suitcase full of clothes, seventy dollars in traveler's checks, a friend who was willing to put me up on his couch for a few weeks, and the absolute conviction that science fiction was the highest form of literature and that I could teach myself to write it.
Today, in those notebooks, I can find no reason why I should have believed I would ever publish anything. It was madness. I could not write well, and indeed I could hardly write at all. Over the course of that long, dark winter (during which I lost forty pounds for lack of food), I sold my blood, ghosted term papers, did a little freelance typing, and held down the kind of temp jobs where you have to know where your employer lives if you hope to ever get paid. I invented words and grammars, struggled to import Gysin's "cut-up" method into sword and sorcery, studied the New Wave, and began story after story that I could not complete.
In the spring, I landed a job as a typist. By then I was sharing a house with three art students, across the street from a flophouse (Sister Minnie's Kitchen the sign read, left over from a previous business), and next door to the Sahara Hotel, where rooms rented by the hour and contained no more furniture than a box spring and mattress. In my notebooks, I find synopses of nightmares, transcribed conversations with derelicts and con-men, and an account of the night a wino fell asleep with a cigarette in his mouth, setting fire to the mattress and then to the flophouse, and the fire engines came and the art students rushed out to set up their easels on the sidewalk and paint it all. Fiction still came painfully. I schematicized universes of Nabokovian elaboration, listed the names of ships in vacuum dock around imaginary planets, memorized passages from Barthelme and Davidson and Pynchon, and tried to write like Wolfe, Russ, Ellison, Cortazar, Le Guin and Delany all at once.
Six years later I finally finished a story.
It was as if God had reached down and flicked a switch. The stories came, and sold, and were noticed. My first two published works ("Ginungagap" and "The Feast of Saint Janis") were both Nebula award finalists. I had finally made a beginning.
That was six novels and forty-some stories ago. Since then I've lost something like twenty major awards, and won five: a Sturgeon for "The Edge of the World," a World Fantasy Award for "Radio Waves," a Nebula for Stations of the Tide, and Hugos for "The Very Pulse of the Machine," and "Scherzo with Tyrannosaur." In 1980, Marianne Porter (who sometimes appears in my acknowledgements as "the M.C. Porter Endowment for the Arts") and I were married. Twenty years later we are still together. Our son, Sean, is eighteen years old and about to enter college. The important stuff of life keeps on happening.
Back in '73 and '74, those years of ecstasy and dread, almost nothing that was essential made it onto the page. Dear friends appear only once, or not at all. No mention is made of my first meeting with Susan Casper, though in a description of a street fair I find an offhand reference to Gardner "Dubois." And no matter how hard I look, I can find not a hint that I was planning someday to write my own version of the Faust legend.
It was in high school that I first encountered Kit Marlowe's Doctor Faustus. In those days I had climbed from my childhood ambition of being an inventor to the nobler one of being a research scientist. But, oh, how Marlowe's words did rattle and chime! They shook me to the bone. I didn't realize yet that my aspirations had taken another surge upward.
I did know, however, that Marlowe had missed half of the potential of the legend. The archetypal Faust story is (this is received wisdom, part of the common lore we all "know") that of damnation by science. Yet as soon as Marlowe's Faustus sells his soul, science disappears entirely from the text. A few pranks, some low laughs, a glimpse of Helen, and then down the coal scuttle he goes. Goethe's Faust is all about Margarete (Part I) and philosophy (Part II). Thomas Mann's Adrian Leverkühn see how I oversimplify! is about music and the German soul. I determined that someday I would do it right.
For almost thirty years I carried within me the secret that someday I would create a Faust who actually gets what he bargains for and is damned thereby. Periodically I took stock of myself, to see if my writing were up to the task yet. It never was.
None of that's in the Scribbledehobbledehoydenii.
Not a word, not a breath, not a hint, not a hair. In fact, the first shiver of premonition of my intent that ever reached paper was in 1995, when I began to assemble notes toward the construction of Jack Faust.
Perhaps the problem was simply that existence was too intense, too chaotic. One day in December, coming home from a miserable temp job as a toy demonstrator in a department store, I realized that I was following a trail of blood one bright red splash on the pavement every quarter-block or so. Small knots of people were talking nervously all up and down 12th Street. Two stick-up artists had been targeting salesmen in the area and the police had set out a decoy with an open walky-talky in his briefcase. In the ensuing clash, one of the robbers had run, been shot, and kept on running.
The trail turned left on Rodman Street, and then jagged into the courtyard of the apartment where I was staying. I stepped back as the body was carried out. Inside, detectives were smoking Kents by the chalk outline. My friends stood on their doorstep, spooky-eyed and silent. I went inside and tried to write about it and failed. I was heavily into mythological structure then, trying to emulate Barth's "Dunyazadiad" and worshipping the great Delazny, he who wrote "A Rose for Ecclesiastes" and "The Star Pit." But the raw matter of what was happening before me the blood, the passion, the fear didn't want to be reduced to mythic structure, and didn't work as mere reportage, and I couldn't discover what shape it wanted to be.
By Christmas I was living with the art students. To celebrate, I fixed myself two turkey pot pies (instead of my usual one) and opened a tiny can of cranberry jelly. All my friends were out of town. Leroy, one of the winos from across the street, knocked at the door and tried to panhandle some money. When I said I didn't have any, he cursed me until I closed the door in his face. I got out my notebook and tried to write.
Where to end? Perhaps here, in the winter of 1974, when things had begun to calm down just a bit, and I opened my door one Sunday morning to discover all of Center City encased in ice and holy silence. Not a car or truck or airplane anywhere. Just blue sky, frigid cold, and the windchime tinkling of small twigs snapping off of sparkling trees.
Enchanted, I stepped outside and nearly broke a leg falling down the stoop. The sidewalk was almost frictionless, and it was hard to get back on my feet. But when I did, I found myself alone in a city of wonder. Two stone lions guarding a doorway shone as if dipped in diamond. My gloved hand glided a millimeter above their surface. Stone columns, doorbells, automobiles, fire hydrants everything had been rendered untouchable. It was as if I had been translated to the land of ghosts.
Slowly, carefully, I made my way through the enchanted city.
On Lombard Street, I was hailed by an old woman with a rubber-tipped cane. With an apologetic laugh that had just a touch of fear in it, she said, "Young man, can you help me to the corner store? I got up this morning and there wasn't any milk for the cat. But now I'm stranded. I don't dare move at all."
Cautiously I edged her way and offered my arm. "I'm having trouble walking too," I confessed. "But if we hold each other up, I think we can get there."
originally appeared in Tangent #19, Summer, 1997, and is
copyright 1997 by Michael Swanwick. It has been altered slightly
to bring it up to date.
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