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by Bruce Bethke
Editor, Stupefying Stories
September. I’m beginning to develop an attitude about September.
I used to love September. It was my favorite time of the year, although I’m not sure why. Perhaps it’s some atavistic legacy left in my genes by my distant hunter-gatherer ancestors: the time of the Great Hunt, when we strove to put away enough food to survive the winter. Or perhaps it comes from my less-distant farming forebears: the time of Harvest, when we found out whether all the hard work of the past year had paid off.
Or perhaps it’s simply that for most of my young life, September was the start of the new school year, and a time to make new friends, reunite with old friends, and begin grand new adventures.
Thirty-two years ago, in September, my first daughter was born, and I began the grandest adventure of them all: fatherhood. That little girl changed my life in so many ways, all of them wonderful, and none of them possible to explain to the person I was before she came into my life.
Four years ago, in September, she died: suddenly and without warning, from a natural cause that was undetected, unpredictable, and apparently unstoppable.
Three years ago, in September, we learned that my wife had what eventually turned out to be inoperable Stage 4 cancer, and she began a two-year Hell of surgery*, chemotherapy, and radiation treatments. She’s in remission now, thanks for asking, but the journey is still in progress, and we’re acutely aware that each new day is a gift.
One year ago, in September, my 94-year-old mother collapsed, and began her final downward spiral through a succession of hospitals.
One month ago, in September, Mom died.
Most people are getting this one all wrong. There is very little grief involved in Mom’s passing. To be honest, my grief glands were squeezed dry long ago. Mom lived with us for much of the past year, between stays in hospitals and such, and we reached a tremendous amount of closure in that time. In the end, her old heart simply gave out. She’d planned well for this moment, though. She was lucid and able to communicate right up until five days before she died, knew and accepted that it was her time to go, and passed away peacefully in her sleep. You can’t ask for much more than that.
No grief. She had a good run: ninety-five years. I daresay I won’t last that long. She saw the world and got to do some amazing things. Here’s one of my favorite snapshots from the family album, of Mom and Dad together on the Great Wall of China. I don’t have many photos of the two of them together. Dad was usually the one taking the picture, and he died nearly twenty years ago.
It was only after it was all over, and I as executor of her estate was in the throes of handling all the business that followed, that it finally dawned on me how much of the past year was consumed by Mom’s final adventure. I’m glad she came to live with us. I’m glad she got to spend her last year surrounded by her children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren. But this is one of those situations where I had no idea of how overworked and stretched-thin I was, until one day the work stopped.
Oh. No wonder I was tired all the time, and yet never felt like I was getting anything done.
We’ll pick up; we’ll carry on. We’ll learn from this experience, adjust, and adapt. “Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.” The quote is usually attributed to John Lennon but actually comes from The Reader’s Digest; so much for the profundity of pop-song lyrics. We have an insanely ambitious book release schedule set for now through the end of this year, but I don’t want to talk about particulars until we’re at least halfway through and it looks like we’re actually going to hit most of our targets.
I guess that at heart, I am just a Wisconsin farm-boy. Some years you plant your fields and end up taking in a bumper crop. Other years, you just wind up with a whole lot of weeds and scrawny rabbits. For STUPEFYING STORIES, 2013 was definitely a weeds-and-rabbits year.
But while we’re scrambling to harvest what we still can, and to get things wrapped up and in the barn before the heavy snow flies, we’re also browsing the seed catalogs and thinking about all the changes we want to make for 2014.
The adventure continues...
Before I end this already over-long piece, though, I want to come back to the subject of friends. Without the help of my friends, we would not be here today to have this conversation.
You make a lot of almost-friends in the writing trade. You meet a lot of Peter Pans and Future Crazy Cat Ladies: people who can almost function as real friends, but who somehow were frozen emotionally between the ages of 15 and 25 and never quite made it to true adulthood. Perhaps this explains why they became professional fiction writers: so that they could avoid having to interact with real people in real time, and instead get paid to sit alone in their rooms, playing with dolls and toy soldiers.
Perhaps this line of thought is unnecessarily cynical, and best left for someone else to explore.
While it’s true that everyone likes you when you have a major literary award on your mantelpiece and loves you when you have a book on the bestseller lists, it’s equally true that adversity reveals character. When my daughter died I was stunned to discover how many of the people who I counted as friends were actually only Professional Associates, unable to get over themselves long enough to manage more than, “Gee, that’s sad....but enough about that, let’s talk about me!”
Thankfully I was also stunned, but in an equal-but-opposite way, to discover how many of the people who I thought of only as associates from my old Friday Challenge writing workshop -slash- blog were in fact good and true friends, who rose without being asked and pitched in to help pull me through. Rampant Loon Press and STUPEFYING STORIES would not exist today without the steadfast help of Henry Vogel, M. David Blake, Kersley Fitzgerald, David Yener Goodman, Guy Stewart, Chris Bailey Pearce, Allan Davis, and too many more people to list them all here, but whose names you will find on the mastheads of our books.
And then they rose to help again, when my wife was diagnosed with cancer, quite literally between the day we signed off on the printer’s galleys for Stupefying Stories: It Came From The Slushpile and the day we took delivery of the finished books.
Friends like this, you can’t buy. You can only appreciate them, and try to reciprocate their friendship as best you can.
Which makes it somewhat surprising to me—I know, I should be past surprise by now, but I’m not—that I should be hearing now from some of my former Professional Associates, who are asking questions like, “Why did you give M. David Blake a budget and free reign to put together STRAEON?” (Others are asking other questions, but this is the one that is most germane at the moment.) When I explain simply that I thought it was a good idea, they can’t resist trying to clarify. “But—but he’s nothing like you! He’s... some kind of long-haired bearded hippie freak! You don’t agree on politics! You don’t even always agree on what makes a good story!”
At which point I can only sigh. First off, he’s proven himself to be a good friend, which I find far more important. Secondly, that “long-haired hippie freak” crack tells me they didn’t know me back in the Seventies, when my hair and appearance... Well, let’s not get into that right now. Thirdly, as for politics: honestly, I feel sorry for people who can’t separate the personal from the political, and can’t find it within themselves to be friends with people who don’t agree with them all the time. No wonder they’re so grouchy. It must be painfully cramped, to have to live inside that narrow mind all the time.
Look, if we all agreed on what exactly makes a good story, we wouldn’t need different magazines now, would we? We wouldn’t need different editors, or different publishers, or different authors—or for that matter, different stories. Ultimately we’d have just one perfect story, which you could buy over and over again, each time in slightly different packaging. How boring would that be?
For a hint at the answer, just turn on network television, turn on a Top 40 radio station, or take a look at the paperback book rack in your local supermarket.
As for me: I’m just a farm-boy, remember? I think of STRAEON as an experimental plot. (And there are others in the works, but STRAEON is the one I’m most concerned with today.) Different soil, different seeds, different cultivation techniques...
I can’t wait to see what Marc has grown!
* It’s been pointed out to me that this seems like a contradiction. The original tumor was operable. The secondary tumors that were discovered eight months later were not.
Bruce Bethke probably needs to update his professional bio one of these days...but this is not that day.