An old story of mine, “Air Raid,” has just been reprinted in an anthology, Fight or Flight, edited by Stephen King and Bev Vincent (who is a man, by the way). It was published on September 4th by Cemetery Dance Publications. The story has an interesting history.
It was a warm summer day in Eugene, Oregon, and I was sitting with a dozen other writers, from established names like Gene Wolfe to up-and-coming people like Kim Stanley Robinson to hopeful writers like me with only a few short stories and novelettes in print. We were in the large living room of Damon Knight and Kate Wilhelm, who had just moved from Florida. They brought their Milford Writers’ Workshop along with them, since it was easy to pack away, and I had been invited. I was flattered, but soon discovered that workshopping was not for me.
The idea of a workshop is, everyone reads everyone else’s submissions, and then you go around the circle criticizing them. My opinion on other people’s stories was either “I liked it” or “I didn’t like it.” I never had any useful things to say. As for getting criticism, I guess I was too damn stubborn to take advice from anyone.
I was feeling pretty bored and out of it, and drifted into a daydream. And a story idea came to me, all at once with no thinking involved at all. Even though the chief reason I was still in the room was that I enjoyed the socializing after the (sometimes brutal) assaults on the submitted fiction, I hurried home and started pounding out the story on my old Smith-Corona electric. I finished it that very night. Five thousand words almost as fast as I could type.
That story would change my life, in both good and bad ways.
I submitted it for discussion the next day. It was received with moderate praise and some “nits,” as we call them in workshop-speak. As in nitpicking. At the same time I had made a xerox (something I had never done before; those were the days of two carbon copies) and sent it off to New York, special delivery (another thing I had never done) to George Scithers, who was the editor of Isaac Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine, a publication that didn’t even exist at that time. I had heard it was coming right there at the workshop, and that they were accepting submissions.
I had included my phone number in my cover letter, and two days later my phone rang. It was Isaac Asimov telling me that he wanted my story for the first issue. I could hardly have been more stunned if I had picked up and heard “This is God speaking,” and the sky had opened up and angels descended all around me.
I didn’t tell anyone at the workshop about the sale.
It was soon published as by “Herb Boehm,” because I had sold another story to IASFM, and they wanted it in the first issue, too. Dr. A said he thought it was a silly tradition, not having two stories by the same author in one issue, but I thought it might be fun to write under a pseudonym. It’s the only time I’ve done it. Herbert is my middle name, and what everyone called me all my life until I started writing, and Boehm is my mother’s maiden name.
In due course it was picked up by several anthologies, and one day Dennis Lasker, the assistant to John Foreman, happened to read it. He read it on a plane, and when he got down he told John that it had scared the shit out of him. John Foreman was a producer, who used to be in partnership with Paul Newman. Among the films he produced were Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, They Might Be Giants, The Man Who Would Be King, Prizzi’s Honor, and The Great Train Robbery. Eventually the story was optioned, and eventually I was hired to write the screenplay.
Ten years, six directors, eight re-writes, and seven producers later, the film was shot in Toronto. I was happy to be there for the whole shoot. But the best you can say for it is that it’s not totally awful. But it’s not very good. All the rewriting squeezed the life out of it. I only have myself to blame. I should have let it go after about the third draft.
I spent a lot of time working in Hollywood during that time and afterwards, on about a dozen projects, including adapting Robert A. Heinlein’s Have Spacesuit, Will Travel. None of them came to anything. It wasn’t usually my fault, either (though I will cop to turning out a few scripts that were less than stellar). There are a thousand ways for a project to die in Hollywood, and only a few paths to somebody shouting “Action!”
So. I made very good money in those Hollywood years (adding it all up, I think I made more money out of that little five thousand word story than any three or four of my novels), but neglected what really should have been my primary job, which was writing books. Goods news, bad news. I don’t regret it, it was a lot of fun, but I should have kept writing novels, too. Live and learn.
Now here comes this book with the magic name of Stephen King on it. And I have already made ten times more money off of it than I have ever made for a reprint! And this was before the pub date, just from pre-orders. Now there will be translation rights and other ancillary rights.
There is also an audiobook, which I haven’t heard yet. I’m eager to get my copy. My story is read by a woman named Elizabeth Marvell.
The book contains seventeen stories by writers as diverse as Arthur Conan Doyle, Ambrose Bierce, and James Dickey to Ray Bradbury, Roald Dahl, and Richard Matheson. The Matheson story is “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet,” which was turned into a famous Twilight Zone episode, starring William Shatner. There are also new stories by Stephen King and Joe Hill, his son. I haven’t read any of them yet, but how bad could they be?
September 9, 2018