The Story Behind “Cancer God”

hospital room
Photograph courtesy Tomasz Sienicki

Background info for “Cancer God,” one of the stories in The History of Soul 2065.

THE STORY IN BRIEF
Jakie, a sharp-tongued retired salesman who is in the hospital, meets a man who claims to be the god of cancer.

HOW IT WAS WRITTEN
My father was a wonderful, ethical, funny, and loving human being, and when he died, my world was badly shaken. Several of the stories I wrote over the next few years were informed by his life and death. “Cancer God” was the first; I started sending it out in August of 2001, three months after he died. It racked up an impressive number of rejections. However, I was absolutely determined that it would see print, either on paper or online. It was finally accepted by Space and Time Magazine and published in July of 2009.

NOTES ON THE PEOPLE
As implied above, Jakie is loosely based on my father. Like Jakie, my father fought in the European theater in WWII. After the war, he worked as a salesman for wholesale women’s clothing companies in the 1950s/1960s NYC “rag trade” (although he eventually ended up in charge of a mail-order operation for a high-end men’s clothing company). And like Jakie, he knew how to get along with almost everyone, but didn’t take shit from anyone.

As mentioned in the entry for “Hearts and Minds,” Ben as an adult (who is only present offstage here) is somewhat based on a talented young man I knew in the 1980s who was lost in the AIDS maelstrom.

Ben’s partner Carlos is completely fictional, although if you squint hard enough you’ll probably find bits and pieces derived from several of my friends.

NOTES ON THE PLACE
The hospital is — a hospital.

NOTES ON THE HISTORY
Jakie is a man of his time: A veteran who came home, happy to have survived; he married his childhood sweetheart, had a couple of kids, worked hard, smoked a couple of packs a day, and hoped to eventually retire and grow comfortably old (a hope that was probably cut short by those couple of packs a day). He’s cynical, innately honest, kind without admitting it, foul-mouthed when he wants to be, and unwilling to talk about the war. He’s seen enough in his life not to reject any experience — no matter how strange — out of hand.

 


Want to read The History of Soul 2065? Here are some links:

Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound | Powell’s | Google Play

More links, and direct purchase of ebooks, can be found at Mythic Delirium.


 

The Story Behind “Hearts and Minds”

playing-cardsBackground info for “Hearts and Minds,” one of the stories in The History of Soul 2065.

THE STORY IN BRIEF
Abe, Ruth, Paulo, and Ben are sitting around outside a candy store, bickering about politics and playing cards, when they are interrupted by an irritating stranger.

HOW IT WAS WRITTEN
Let me start by saying I love “Hearts and Minds.” It’s one of my favorite stories to read out loud because, well, it’s just so much fun to do the characters. And it’s one of the few where I came up with the punchline before I wrote the story.

But what really inspired this story was an experience I had while working at a tech publication. I was being shown a new genealogy program that had been developed by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (popularly known as the LDS or Mormons), and noticed that one of the people in the family tree onscreen had a baptism date later than his date of death.

“You’ve got a mistake there,” I said, always trying to be helpful.

“That’s not a mistake,” said the woman. “He was baptized by proxy after his death, according to the wishes of his family.”

I smiled, thinking it a joke. “And what if he doesn’t want to be baptized?” I asked.

“He can always refuse it,” she said. She was absolutely serious.

I later found out that the LDS folks were posthumously baptizing people into their church en masse (including a large number of  Holocaust victims). Once this was discovered, there were, as you can imagine, protests. Finally, in 1995, the LDS church created rules against inappropriate retrospective baptisms. (Apparently, those rules didn’t stick.) I had to write something about this weird (to me) phenomenon, and the result was “Hearts and Minds.”

It appeared in Weird Tales #336 in 2004.

NOTES ON THE PEOPLE
As I think I mentioned before, Abe (whom we have already met in “Sabbath Wine” and “Lost Connections”), is loosely based on my grandfather, or on what I imagine my grandfather was like (although he was never as stout as Abe eventually became, and probably not nearly as rambunctious).

Ben, whom we meet for the first time here and who is the narrator of the tale, is a combination of several people, depending on which story you’re reading and how old he is. Here he is somewhat based on a work friend I had back in the 1980s named Mark; a very laid-back, sweet guy. One day Mark asked if I’d meet him for lunch, and it was obvious that there was something he wanted to talk about — he was unusually quiet and solemn — but by the end of the meal, he had never actually told me what he actually wanted to say. I didn’t push him. I wish I had, just a little.

To this day, I wonder what he was afraid to tell me. That he was gay? (I knew that already.) That he had AIDS? This was when many AIDS patients were isolated and blamed for their illness, so it isn’t unlikely.

I’ve always regretted that I wasn’t insightful enough at the time to realize that he was ill and what he was going through. Mark left work soon after, for reasons that were never said out loud. He died shortly after that. I attended his memorial and sewed a square in his name for the AIDS quilt. But that wasn’t nearly enough.

All the other characters in “Hearts and Minds” are completely fictional.

NOTES ON THE HISTORY
There isn’t any specific moment in history referenced here. All four of the main characters — Abe, Ruth, Paolo, and Ben — represent fighters for justice from various times and places.

THE SONGS
Finally, I thought it would be nice to let you sample the songs or artists that are mentioned in the story.

Moonglow / Benny Goodman Quartet

 

Minnie the Moocher / Cab Calloway

 

Union Maid / The Almanac Singers
(I couldn’t find a YouTube video of Woody Guthrie singing the entire song, but this is a version by the Almanac Singers, a group co-founded by Guthrie and which also included Pete Seeger, Lee Hays and a bunch of other left-wing folkies of the time.)

 


Want to read The History of Soul 2065? Here are some links:

Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound | Powell’s | Google Play

More links, and direct purchase of ebooks, can be found at Mythic Delirium.


 

 

The Story Behind “Lost Connections”

Brooklyn street 1920s
Photo courtesy NYPL

Background info for “Lost Connections,” one of the stories in The History of Soul 2065.

THE STORY IN BRIEF
Marilyn Feldman, Chana’s granddaughter, takes a virtual journey back in time to see her parents as children.

HOW IT WAS WRITTEN
I started writing “Lost Connections” when I was recovering from my father’s death in May, 2001. I wrote it very quickly while still coming to grips with the impermanence of life, and musing on how so many things can set our lives on courses that do not meet our own expectations. It was accepted and published in a wonderful specfic / literary journal called Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet from Small Beer Press in June 2002. It has been tweaked somewhat to fit into the book’s family trees and timeline.

One note of interest: The book itself was originally called “Lost Connections,” but as the manuscript progressed, a change of title seemed called for.

NOTES ON THE PEOPLE
The two families in this story — that of Chana and Abe Hirsch, and Millie and Sam Feldman — were based very loosely on the families of my mother and father. I emphasize loosely because none of what’s told here is based on real events; all the dialogue, personalities, thoughts and actions were generated completely by my imagination.

NOTES ON THE PLACE
The story takes place in Brownsville, Brooklyn, in the late 1920s. When I wrote about the Hirsch apartment, I pictured my grandparents’ apartment as I remember it from when I was a child. The Feldman apartment is completely imagined.

NOTES ON THE HISTORY
There was a huge push to organize mine workers during the 1920s by the United Mine Workers of America and the more left-wing National Miners Union, a push that resulted in a good deal of resistance (to say the least) by mine owners and operators. In Kentucky, this eventually led to violent and deadly clashes between the mine workers and company men in Harlan County, Kentucky in 1931, although there were plenty of smaller clashes in the years leading up to it, as described by Abe. (I remember sitting in my grandparents’ apartment listening to an old recording of “Which Side Are You On,” a song about the Harlan County strikes.)


Want to read The History of Soul 2065? Here are some links:

Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound | Powell’s | Google Play

More links, and direct purchase of ebooks, can be found at Mythic Delirium.


 

The Story Behind “Sabbath Wine”

Rabbi and wine during Prohibition
Photo courtesy The Magnes Collection of Jewish Art and Life

Background info for “Sabbath Wine,” one of the stories in The History of Soul 2065.

THE STORY IN BRIEF
A radical Jewish man must find some wine during the first year of Prohibition when his young daughter asks for a Sabbath dinner.

HOW IT WAS WRITTEN
The first version of “Sabbath Wine” was very different than what it turned out to be. It started when I happened across a story that appeared in the NY Times from December 5, 1930, with the headline, “Rabbis Urge New Plan for Wine Permits, Charge Officials Discriminate Against Jews in Distributing Sacramental Beverage.” The short piece reported that Orthodox rabbis were complaining that applications for wine made by rabbis were not being treated in the same way as applications by Protestant and Catholic congregations. So that gave me the germ of an idea.

At first, the story was going to be about an immigrant rabbi in 1920 and a streetwise young boy who helps him negotiate the mysteries of the U.S. bureaucracy in order to get wine for his tiny congregation for Passover. I wanted some kind of fantasy element in there, and I gave it to the boy. Eventually, over I don’t remember how many rewritings, it turned into “Sabbath Wine.”

NOTES ON THE PEOPLE
Malka isn’t based on any one person, but her taste in music is. My mother has told me how she would sit on the fire escape outside her apartment when she was a child, and listen to the singing from a nearby African-American church. This was, she said, the beginning of her love of jazz, and it is why Malka finds herself sitting on the steps outside a brownstone listening to a choir rehearse.

Abe is very loosely based on my mother’s father, whom I only knew as a child, since he died when I was eight. I remember him as a quiet, patient man who put me on his knee so I could “help” him play the accordion. But this was a man who was a soldier in a world war, lived through a revolution, immigrated to a new country, and took an active role in the fur workers’ union. So I always suspected he was more of a firebrand, at least when he was younger, than I ever saw.

There is also a family tale about the time (when my mother was a child) my grandfather decided nobody had the right to tell him that he had to wear a hat in shul. My mother and grandmother were climbing the steps to the women’s section when there was a roar from the men’s section, and a group of congregants stormed out and bodily threw my grandfather out. An incident like this is mentioned briefly in the story.

Finally, my mother’s cousin has told us stories of how, in his childhood, members of various political factions — the Communists, the Socialists, the Anarchists, and their various subsets — would occupy different benches in a local park and argue with each other. I loved the idea of that, and really wanted to use it somewhere. It ended up here.

David and his father Sam are completely fictional.

There really was a Prohibition agent named Izzy Bernstein, and according to all accounts, he was very good at his job.

NOTES ON THE PLACE
The area where this story takes place is supposed to be somewhere around the East New York / Brownsville section of Brooklyn, NY, and a few streets from that area are mentioned.

NOTES ON THE HISTORY
For much of my information about the early years of Prohibition and the exceptions made for religious uses, I looked into the NY Times archive. I also got a good deal of information from two books: Marni Davis’ Jews and Booze: Becoming American in the Age of Prohibition, and Daniel Okrent’s Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition.

The Odessa pogrom of October, 1905, was the culmination of a variety of social and economic upheavals, including economic uncertainty caused by war, the Potemkin massacre (portrayed in Eisenstein’s famous 1925 film Battleship Potemkin), and the Tsar’s October Manifesto, which promised civil liberties and an elective assembly (and was condemned by conservatives). According to Wikipedia, “Fear of a pogrom in April 1905 prompted the National Committee of Jewish Self-Defense to urge Jews to arm themselves and protect their property.” But, as Abe finds out, that didn’t help against huge numbers of well-organized rioters and an uninterested police force. Reports of the number of Jews killed during the three-day pogrom vary widely, but were at minimum in the hundreds.

For information about lynchings in the American South, I looked at a variety of sources on the web, but the book that convinced me that I had to include it in the story was Without Sanctuary: Lynching Photography in America by James Allen. It is a necessary and horrific book. I also want to thank my friend Terence Taylor, who told me how, in the South, women would go out after dark to take down the victims of lynchings and bring the bodies home for burial.


Want to read The History of Soul 2065? Here are some links:

Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound | Powell’s | Google Play

More links, and direct purchase of ebooks, can be found at Mythic Delirium.


 

My Schedule at Readercon

The folks at Readercon have given out the schedules for all the participants, and so I thought I’d quickly post mine (which I’m very pleased with — thank you, Readercon people!). I’m very much looking forward to seeing all my friends there again this year.

Friday

Kaffeeklatsches: Jim Freund, Barbara Krasnoff
4:00 PM, Concierge Lounge
Jim and I will be having a Kaffeeklatsche together! That’s going to be interesting especially since it will be my first. (I wonder if they put us together because of that article that Elizabeth Crowens wrote about us in Black Gate?!?)

Autographs: Anna Kashina, Barbara Krasnoff
6:00 PM, Autograph Table
This is also my first time at an autograph table, because I will actually have a book of my own to autograph — and with any luck, you’ll be able to buy one there (assuming you haven’t bought one already…).

The Etiquette of Criticism
John Clute, Lila Garrott, Barbara Krasnoff (mod), John Langan, Arkady Martine
8:00 PM, Salon B
In 1938, critic Cyril Connolly advised writers to listen for “the critic’s truth sharpened by envy, the embarrassed praise of a sincere friend, the silence of gifted contemporaries.” How does etiquette influence criticism, and conversations among critics about criticism? How does the critic’s place within (or outside of) the field or community influence their criticism and how it’s received? This panel will tackle these and other thorny questions of critical etiquette.

Saturday

Group Reading: Tabula Rasa
Sally Wiener Grotta, Randee Dawn, Barbara Krasnoff, Terence Taylor
Sat 12:00 PM, Salon C
These are members of my New York–based writers group, and we’ll all be happy to see you.

Reading: Barbara Krasnoff
2:30 PM, Sylvanus Thayer
I’ll be reading a story from The History of Soul 2065. Haven’t decided which one yet…

Sunday

Graybeards Beyond Gandalf
John Clute, Elizabeth Hand (mod), Anna Kashina, Barbara Krasnoff, Robert V. S. Redick
11:00 AM, Salon A
Relatively few stories have protagonists much older than the target audience, and the traits commonly associated with heroism aren’t often associated with age. Yet in speculative fiction there are all manner of ways to break the link between age and infirmity, or to defy or redefine the concept of aging. Panelists will explore the potential of elderly protagonists.

A giveaway, an interview, and a convention

I promise that I will soon write up the second of my backgrounders for the stories in The History of Soul 2065, but right now, I have some more newsy items to report.

  • First, I’m having a book giveaway! Mythic Delirium, the publisher, has sponsored a giveaway on GoodReads for the Kindle version of The History of Soul 2065, which starts today — so go sign up! (Or, if you want, you can always buy the book — it’s in pre-sales right now.)
  • I’ve had my first interview as a writer! Well, as a couple anyway — Jim Freund and I were interviewed by Elizabeth Crowens and are now featured in an article about power couples in speculative fiction at Black Gate. It’s a fun article — we talk about how we met online on the old BBS system, how we got involved with spec fic, and who some of our favorite writers are, among other things.
  • I attended Balticon last weekend, and while I unfortunately had to leave early, I was part of some really good panels on Saturday. At one, Gender in Genre, I promised to distribute a list of some of the great books that were mentioned during the panel, and still intend to do that in the near future.

Be back soon! I promise!

The Story Behind “The Clearing in the Autumn”

anna
My grandmother as a child.

Background info for “The Clearing in the Autumn,” one of the stories in The History of Soul 2065.

The story in brief
Two young girls, one from Ukraine and one from Germany, meet in an mysterious, magical forest glade a day before World War I breaks out, and swear eternal friendship.

How it was written
“The Clearing in the Autumn” may be the first story that appears in The History of Soul 2065, but it was one of the last to be written. Along with “The Clearing in the Spring,” it’s among the few stories written specifically for this book, and it introduces the two girls whose lives begin this intergenerational saga: Chana and Sophia.

Notes on the people
Chana is loosely based on my mother’s mother, whose name was actually Chana (later changed to Anna after she came to America). My grandmother had four older brothers and a younger sister, and was well educated for a girl in those times — her parents were well off enough so they could bribe the local officials to let their daughter into the regular schools.

As I recall her (she died when I was 21), my grandmother was a sturdy, strong, intelligent, opinionated, radical woman. She did nursing in Russia during WWI, and also lived through a revolution, pogroms, and the chaos that followed. She and her family (including her new husband) emigrated to the U.S. in the early 1920s, just before the door slammed on people from Eastern Europe and other “undesirable” areas.

Sophia — at least, at this phase of her life — is completely fictional.

Notes on the place
The glade where the girls meet has its origins in my own experience. Back when I was a tween, I went to a sleepaway camp where there was little supervision, and where I was badly bullied by the other kids in my cabin. There was a small wooded area on the grounds, and I found a clearing there where I felt hidden, and could sit and read my books without having to deal with any of the other campers.

Notes on the history
Lviv (previously known as Lvov or Lemberg) sits near the border of Poland and Ukraine, and after WWI ended, it was claimed by both countries, resulting in a small war (as if WWI wasn’t enough). There was a large Jewish population; they declared their neutrality, and organized their own militia in defense of the country. However, when the Poles (who suspected that the Jews were actually supporting the Ukrainians) occupied the area in November of 1918, they disarmed and interned the Jewish militia. Several days of violence followed. Accounts of the number of people killed and injured vary widely.


Want to read The History of Soul 2065? Here are some links:

Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound | Powell’s | Google Play

More links, and direct purchase of ebooks, can be found at Mythic Delirium.