Wait, “The Leaning Lincoln” is Based on a True Story?

I’m pleased that my story “The Leaning Lincoln” is now available in this month’s “slightly spooky” double-issue of Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine, though it’s origin is more than slightly spooky.

It’s based on a true event from my life.

In 1983, my father almost certainly wound up an emotionally-troubled man into a shooting spree to kill their mutual enemies — creditors, bankers, and a lawyer. asimovs1016

The man started by fatally shooting his own lawyer (whom he saw as “mishandling” an inheritance case) and was luckily stopped there, but when he was arrested, he was found with a list of other victims not obviously connected to him. He never admitted they were connected to my father.

[I won’t comment on the specifics of the real case out of respect for the victim and his family. I hope I fictionalized it enough not to be offensive, and I hope that though I humanized the killer, I didn’t absolve him of his crime. He was definitely responsible for his own deranged reasons, but there’s a truth most people didn’t know which is that my father helped derange him.]

The man — fictionalized as “Henry” in the story — was kinder and more understanding to me and my family than my father ever was. He took us to the movies and talked about Dungeons and Dragons with me, and yes, he did make me a lead Abraham Lincoln figurine that seemed to bring me bad luck.

As a kid playing with action figures on the back patio, I heard my dad rant to “Henry” about his enemies while “Henry” quietly listened, and in the decades since, I’ve wondered what I should have done or whom I could have told. “Henry” was convicted and died in prison while my father went on to other crimes. He’s dead now, too.

The speculation in this story is the idea that a kid like me, weird and dreamy and superstitious, could find a way to use that to do good in the real world.

I wanted to talk about where magic came from with other readers like me who I know wonder that for themselves. I wanted to talk about how our books and comics and movies and action figures saved a lot of us from terrible things, and I wanted to talk about what we should do with that to pass it on, how we should add science fiction and fantasy to the world instead of just hiding there.

That’s what Scott does in the story, and it’s what I couldn’t quite manage when I was ten. I had to go back in time for another shot at putting my father on trial and convicting him with magic.


Mr. Trump, Two Minutes for Your Opening Remarks

[After writing the speech for Hillary, it’s only fair to write one for Trump. I think this could turn his whole campaign around. ]

Photo by Gage Skidmore

Photo by Gage Skidmore

(Trump ascends to the stage holding up a small plastic aquarium.)

Can you see that? I’m not sure you can get that on camera. If you look real close, you’ll see there’s a thing swimming around in there about the width of my thumb and maybe, what, a foot long? Something like that.

Anyway, me and the family went on vacation a couple of years ago to Bali — beautiful place, by the way, the best service on the planet — and while I was practicing some dives off a rock cliff, the larvae of this little guy wormed its way into a scrape on my knee from the gilded coffee table in my office.

Turns out that this is the Greater Balinese Brain Fluke, a trematode that laps up cerebrospinal fluid like a deer at a mountain stream. Loves it. Loves it so much that sometimes it makes a comfortable little nest in the brain of a human host. Kind of like that thing from that Star Trek movie. Beautiful movie, by the way. “Khaaannnn!” I love that part.

Anyway, this little fella set up shop near the amygdala on the left hemisphere of my brain and just started pumping away, kind of like a little fist. Like this. Just squeezing away, drinking and growing and secreting like all God’s creatures.

Wait, wait. Don’t get up. I’m getting to the point.

The amygdala, as we all know, is the breaker switch for decision making and emotional reaction, and, well, you might have noticed something a little strange about me lately. Still, it wasn’t until I started getting the migraines and those weird sniffles that my doctor ordered a CT scan that found my little friend curled up in my skull like a puppy.

Long story short, we had a surgery yesterday and this was pulled from my nasal cavity by a very nice Indian doctor. His name’s Doctor Srivastava, and I can’t recommend him enough. He’s great for all kinds of things, not just brain flukes.

And then my staff showed me the tapes of what I’ve been saying and, holy shit, I owe all of you a huge apology. Huuggge. Women, blacks, Hispanics, Muslims…Jesus Christ. It’s like this thing just rings the primal bell of tribal thinking over and over.

I’m truly sorry for everything I’ve said. Yeah, that Billy Bush thing happened before the fluke was frolicking in my brain folds, but that was some bullshit, too. I was just trying to look cool.

So anyway, I’m back and ready to talk about the issues. I’ll admit it kinda worries me that nobody really picked up on something being wrong with me, and I wonder what I’d have to have said or done for someone to say, “Holy shit, you think he’s got a Greater Balinese Brain Fluke up there in his noggin?”

That’s what this pale-veined satin ribbon on my lapel signifies: GBBF awareness. I hope the next time that I or one of your loved ones starts showing obvious signs of being crazy as a shithouse rat that you’ll get us the help we need.

There’s a difference between politics-level crazy and brain-fluke-level crazy.

Secretary Clinton, Two Minutes for Your Closing Remarks

[If the enjoyment I get from it is anything to go by, I’d probably be a better speechwriter than the fiction kind. Sometimes I write things that other people could say to better make a point, but I don’t often share them. Here’s one for Hillary’s closing debate remarks.]

Photo by Lorie Shaull

Photo by Lorie Shaull

Like many of you, I’ve spent the last ninety minutes wondering why anybody would vote for this gibbering lunatic.

It can’t be because he’s got the best ideas for moving America forward; all he has are plans to come up with those ideas. It can’t be because of his great business acumen; he makes it a business practice to stiff countless vendors and employees. It can’t be because he’s a patriot; he’s proud of not paying his fair share of the taxes that keep our soldiers equipped and our kids educated. It certainly can’t be for his empathy or his eloquence.

The only reason I can imagine to vote for Donald Trump is because many of you just really, really hate me.

Of course, I wish you didn’t. Or if you have to, I wish you’d hate me for the right reasons.

For decades, some of you have seen me as a Machiavellian figure in some paneled room with her fingers tented, cackling as my plans come together. You see me as a puppet master, pulling the strings of some sinister agenda for power.

I’ve spent my adult life around power, and I can tell you it’s easy to come by and virtually useless by itself. If I really wanted power and only power, if I really wanted to be a demagogue and rule the country by my egotistical whim…well, I’d look a lot more like Donald Trump. And I’d have done it better, too.

Here’s the prosaic truth. I don’t want your guns, though I wish there were fewer of them. I don’t want a one-world government. I don’t want white people to disappear from the Earth. I don’t want to tax all your money to pay for forced abortions.

You know who I am? I’m the vaguely annoying student government geek from your high school who used to stay late in the gym painting the homecoming float by herself.

When I brush my teeth in the morning, I’m not thinking of ways to rule with an iron fist. I’m thinking of what I need to do, who I need to talk to, so we can fix something broken that day.   

All I want is for the roads to be a little better and for college to be a little cheaper. I’d like to keep America secure not so much through force of arms but by diplomacy. I’m hoping we can be welcoming to more of our people, and it’d be great if we weren’t lighting the planet on fire.

Like my opponent, I’ve made mistakes, sometimes with dire consequences. But the ones I’ve made haven’t been about grabbing power or making me look better, that’s for sure. They’ve come from tunnel vision: I sometimes forget that even the greatest ends are made of up small actions, and I’m counting on all of you to remind me that good is done one small step at a time, not all at once whatever the cost. 

Here’s what I’m asking. If you believe in Donald Trump’s character or policies — whatever they are — then vote for him. If you believe in Jill Stein’s or Gary Johnson’s policies, then vote for one of them.

But don’t vote for anyone simply because you hate me. That’s not the way to choose a president. At least, it shouldn’t be.

Vote because of what you believe, not because of what you hate.

Then work for it.

Will Ludwigsen’s 36 Questions for Intimacy

This is old news, but apparently there are thirty-six questions you can ask someone new to your life to build a foundation of personal intimacy, and they’re…okay. They’re better than the usual ones you stammer out in a bar or on your online dating profile or across the Pokemon table at the local game store.

But they’re not as good as mine. I guarantee that if you sit across from someone and ask/answer these questions, you will know the depths of each other’s hearts by the final one.

  1. The three required elements of a perfect day are: ______, ______, and _____.
  2. People who don’t use the Oxford comma are _____.
  3. People who use two spaces after a period are _____.
  4. The optimum place to live is close to the beach | the mountains.
  5. When you are debriefed in the afterlife, what truth do you most want to know?
  6. Do you believe in ghosts? Why or why not?
  7. What do you wish you had told someone before they died?
  8. What do you wish someone had told YOU before they died?
  9. What song would you send to space as the perfect representation of humanity?
  10. What book most changed your life?
  11. What movie most changed your life?
  12. If you could travel in time and stop one book from being written, which would it be?
  13. What day would you erase from your memory?
  14. What message of ten words or less would you send back to yourself in time?
  15. To what historical era do you think your personality is best suited?
  16. What is your go-to Freudian defense mechanism (repression | regression | reaction formation | projection | sublimation)?
  17. What does everyone else think is a flaw in someone’s appearance that you actually like?
  18. What does everyone else think is a flaw in someone’s personality that you actually like?
  19. You have thirty seconds to name a baby, a kitten, an infectious disease, and a battleship. What names do you choose?
  20. Which convicted member of the Manson family is LEAST morally culpable? Why?
  21. Who is the most overrated serial killer in history? Why?
  22. Lee Harvey Oswald did | did not act alone.
  23. D.B. Cooper did | did not survive his jump.
  24. What three convictions (historical or contemporary) would you pardon with executive power?
  25. After the collapse of society, what is your chosen weapon?
  26. Who was (or would have been) America’s greatest president?
  27. What amendment would you add to the constitution?
  28. What burning cultural question of the day do you truly not give a shit about?
  29. If you could design a recreational drug, what would it do?
  30. What is the worst decision you ever made?
  31. What is the best decision you ever made?
  32. Who has paid the highest cost for your success?
  33. What profession would have been perfect for you?
  34. What do you believe to be true without evidence?
  35. What is the least redeemable sin?
  36. What is the greatest possible virtue?

Coming Up: Necronomicon 2016 in Tampa (October 28 – 30)

Why, yes, I’m once again a guest at my home convention, Necronomicon in Tampa. It’s been around for 35 years and I’ve been attending for 23 of them. This year’s event takes place on October 28th through the 30th at the Grand Hyatt Tampa Bay.

I’ll be on panels this year about:

  • Humorous Fiction (Friday at 4pm)
  • Short Fiction: Where to Begin (Friday at 5pm)
  • Plotting a Mystery (Friday at 9pm)
  • Horror: Is Splatter Necessary?  (Saturday at 11am)
  • Drawing on Urban Legends (Saturday at 2pm)
  • Movies and Monsters (Saturday at 4pm)
  • The Fine Art of Exposition (Saturday at 6pm)
  • The Care and Feeding of Your Creative Process (Sunday at 11am)

Holy shit. That’s a lot of panels. I’m okay with you not coming to every single one of them; that’s probably the legal definition of a stalker. But for full credit, you should come to at least, I don’t know, let’s say six.

I’m told there are other things going on at the con this year like a masquerade and some gaming and panels about non-Will-related subjects, too.

We Built This Foot Up Your Ass

Assorted wiseacres on the Internet are mentioning a recent article at GQ.com telling the history of Starship’s “We Built This City,” ostensibly the most detested song in human history.

Friends, WBTC isn’t even the worst song from 1985. It’s not even the worst number one song from 1985. Take it from me: I was there.

Starship was an admittedly bizarre Frankenstein creation from the corpses of Jefferson Airplane and Jefferson Starship headlined by a Grace Slick who was surprised to have survived into the 80s. They released WBTC into the world on August 1, 1985.

In 1985, I was twelve and looked like this:


Now, let’s leap into the Wayback Machine and see what else was cooking on the Billboard Hot 100 number one singles that year, shall we? Madonna’s “Like a Virgin” owned the month of January as it rightly should. “Careless Whisper” by Wham! at least brought us the suspendered saxophone man, so that’s acceptable. The week of May 18, we had “Don’t You (Forget About Me)” by Simple Minds, unquestionably a great song. “The Power of Love,” “St. Elmo’s Fire,” “Take On Me”…that’s not a bad year. I’ve always disliked “Money for Nothing” and “Broken Wings,” but hey, I’ve heard worse since.

And there’s “We Built This City” for the weeks of November 16 and 23. Though I don’t want it played at my funeral or anything, I’ve always enjoyed WBTC somewhat mindlessly. It’s on my playlist for running even now, among a lot of other songs you hipsters would hate.

But lurking in the top singles of 1985 is the true worst song of that and every other year, the egregious insult to music for which we will all answer when alien invaders lay waste to our planet. The song, of course, is “I Want To Know What Love Is” by Foreigner, and it makes “We Built This City” sound like “Hey, Jude.”

Here it is for your listening and viewing enjoyment.

Listen carefully to that. Let it seep into your ganglia. Imagine someone trying to pick you up in a bar or lure you into his wolf-painted van by saying, “I want to know what love is and I think you can show me.” You would punch that person and never stop even when the police came to cheer you on.

I completely understand that it’s jarring to see the psychedelic Jefferson Airplane seem to sell out for a quick buck in the 80s. But let’s not forget that Grace Slick clearing her throat in a recording booth is still a thousand times better than half the poor assholes who actually meant their music. Grace Slick ordering a Happy Meal in a rickety McDonald’s drive-thru box is better than the entire Hall and Oates catalog. Grace Slick howling from stubbing her toe on a coffee table is better than “Sussudio” or “Don’t Worry, Be Happy” or “Red Red Wine.”

“Old Time Rock and Roll”? “Stuck with You”? “Walk the Dinosaur”? For fuck’s sake, there’s a lyric in Bon Jovi’s “Dead or Alive” that says, “I’ve seen a million faces and I’ve rocked them all.”

Bon Jovi rocked FACES in the 1980s.

If you think that “We Built This City” is the worst song of even the 80s, you either weren’t there or too hopped up on Pixy Stix to remember it.

A Real Pick-Me-Up

Someone I care about has recently been reminded that at the core, most human beings are one perceived deprivation away from crushing the skulls of anyone in their way. If you’ve been to the grocery store before a hurricane or stuck at a malfunctioning traffic light, you know this is true.

It would actually be a relief if there was evil, if perhaps something icy and conniving could creep into our spirits and make us do horrible things. Then we could call it a sickness, a syndrome, some kind of awful infliction like locusts or a storm.

But what I’ve seen throughout my life is that assholery is always the same simple equation:

A = Deprivation (real or perceived) + Opportunity + Rationalization * Mob Think

I write horror, so lots of people ask me what scares me. Here’s what scares me:

All of our belief, all of our conscience, all of our intellect can be subsumed by the ancient callings of our beastly hearts if it means even the slightest improvement to our safety or group status. When it happens, we are masters at rationalizing it as justice.

And worst of all, it’s likely to be either by accident or exigency. Much of the time we don’t even “mean” it. (I know I haven’t when I’ve been the malfeasor.)

Cosmic horror? We should be so lucky to have an uncaring and ambivalent evil like Cthulhu instead of the flailing want-monsters all around us every day.

I don’t hate people (truly). I don’t call cataclysm upon us all. I just wish people were more…attentive? Perceptive? Careful? Contemplative? I don’t know.  

I wish I could hand out little business cards that say, “Really? Is this what you’re doing with 200,000 years of consciousness?”  

Confessions of a Non-Fiction Failure

I can think of at least five kinds of writing that I do better and more easily than fiction:

  • Gently-worded diplomatic overtures in the workplace
  • Bally-hooing business propaganda
  • Letters of advice
  • Hoaxed letters, email messages, and news articles that amuse and terrify people
  • Contemplative blog and journal entries

(I suspect I’d be pretty good at speechwriting, too, but I’ve never had the opportunity to find out. I used to be adept at love letters as well, but these days I’m like, “Hey, it’s awesome you’re alive. Let’s go eat pizza rolls and watch true crime.”)

In fact, it wouldn’t be hard to argue that fiction (description, exposition, dialogue, plot, etc) is actually the kind of writing I’m WORST at. It’s certainly what I feel least comfortable doing, as though my mind doesn’t work that way naturally. I don’t even know how to practice at it, though I’ve written thousands of exercise paragraphs.

If there’s a story of mine you like, there’s a good chance that it isn’t structured like most stories. It’s a teenager’s science fair paper or a near-death experience or a series of letters or fragments of research books or a fake acknowledgements page from a book about ghosts.  

Now that I think of it, I’m not sure I even believe in fiction, the arbitrariness of story-time, the contrived third-person stance outside of events. Most of what I write pretends to be non-fiction, as though I’ve chosen the wrong genre to tell it.

(I lie and exaggerate too much for ethical reporting, alas.)

As I struggle on this next novel, I’m wondering about my future as a writer of fiction. Between writing the only two chapters that exist, I wrote an entire 16,000-word novelette while cackling insanely with amusement. What was the difference? The novelette was stitched together from many forms and perspectives — fake books and newspaper articles and court transcripts.

A few things bother me about writing that way:

  • It feels like a cop-out to avoid learning to write more “storylike” narratives.
  • Editors hold it at arm’s length because it isn’t as “satisfying” as normally structured prose. Most people want to be told a story, not to have a bunch of linguistic Lego blocks dumped at their feet.  
  • How long before it becomes a schtick? “Oh, a new Ludwigsen story. This one’s told entirely in Craigslist missed connections!”

Even so, I’m still deeply uncomfortable writing stories that don’t somehow explain or hoax their existence in the real world. The forms that please me like newspaper articles and diaries and letters fit so much better with my aim of making stories part of our lives. Everything’s a story if you look at it close enough.

I guess this is just my fair warning that even if it shortens my career or loses me readers, I’m going to keep telling my stories as fake found objects.

If you’re looking for authorial-voiced guy with a pipe in his mouth (“In the hinterlands of Merlindor, the ancient cobbled roads wind unguarded through primeval forest…”), that isn’t me.     

How We Went Off to College in 1991

Twenty-five years ago today, I embarked on my  journey to Gainesville to start school at UF. By an interesting coincidence, my niece Katie is starting her OWN college career at UF this fall, and I’m sure my sister will take the same pictures of her in the dorms that she took of me.

It's a desk, it's a closet, it's a bed, all in one!

It’s a desk, it’s a closet, it’s a bed, all in one!

I arrived with a milk crate and maybe two boxes filled with the following:

  • The CD boom box you see here.
  • The CDs behind me, heavy in U2 and Guns N’ Roses but speckled with Journey and REO Speedwagon.
  • A giant box of 5.25” disks for my portable/luggable SX-64.
  • A thin quilt.
  • A towel.
  • Toothpaste and toothbrush.
  • A couple of portfolios to write and take notes in.
  • Some clothes, including my fancy Hypercolor t-shirt that changed color when you touched it, as was the style at the time.

Karen, realizing I was an idiot, took me out to buy a dorm refrigerator, a toaster, some eating utensils, sheets for the bed, and some food. If I’d chosen to go to any other school, I’d probably have died.

(Insanely, I only applied to UF because, what, they wouldn’t take me?)

It’s hard to overstate how staggeringly dumb I was at eighteen going to school, a weird mixture of feeling divinely destined to do great things but also completely ignorant of how to actually function in the world. My total savings for college from high school jobs was $150. My plan was to get an English degree, get famous from writing, and then run for President of the United States some day.

(Which, to be fair, is shockingly plausible in this election year.)

What I needed was advice from someone I believed. Karen was as helpful as a sister could be, and so was her husband Marty, but they weren’t privy to just how deranged I was.

So here’s my advice to myself back then. Maybe there’s something here for you if you or a loved one is going to school this fall, too.  

  • English, really? You’re going to take ten courses for the major and enjoy the reading for only three of them: Intro to Science Fiction, Poe, and Major Critics. There’s a reason we have to assign this shit so it doesn’t get forgotten.
  • It’s going to take about half a decade to recover from the turgid kind of writing you learn to do analyzing dead fiction.
  • You’re going to feel inspired and happy with both the lectures and reading for your History of Journalism class. Follow that feeling.
  • Take some classes in public relations and marketing. You might be surprised. It’s like making up hoaxes for money!
  • Man up and put yourself in the way of actually writing stuff. Take writing classes. Submit short stories. Don’t chicken out when The Alligator agrees to publish an op-ed and all you have to do is go down to the office and give it to them on a disk.
  • Basically all you have is a weak talent for saying and writing weird things in surprising ways, and all that crap about programming and law school and psychology is a blind alley.
  • No, you aren’t crazy. Those weird emotional fight-or-flight explosions are panic attacks. Go tell a doctor about them. In the meantime, lay off the caffeine because it’s basically liquid anxiety.
  • You’re going to discover a book called The Outsider and Others one night in Library West and it’ll be awesome, but for God’s sake, don’t write like that.
  • The moped is fucking ridiculous and it breaks down all the time because it’s made by angry Yugoslavian communists. Just keep the bike.
  • It turns out that you learn mostly by creating outlines of what you read and hear in your own words.
  • It’s probably a good idea to shut the hell up about politics for the next few years because you really don’t know what you’re talking about. In fact, keep that up the rest of your life.
  • Don’t install Doom or Wolfenstein when you get that 486 PC. You’ve finally shaken the video game habit.
  • That girl you’re in love with is a person, not a destiny.
  • There’s a lot more I can tell you, but it all basically boils down to lighten up, for Christ’s sake. Swear more. Use more contractions. Use fewer participial phrases. Read more Stephen King. Don’t be so pissy about noise and football crowds. History isn’t watching.   

Clarion, Wayward Will Part 4: The Moon’s Turned Black

I didn’t think I’d write any more about my Clarion writing workshop experience ten years ago, but since today is the exact anniversary of a moment I actually learned something, I’d like to commemorate it by passing it on.

By this time in 2006, the six-week workshop was winding down to its last days and I’d handed in my final story for critique. After weeks of trying to write carefully plotted science fiction stories that ended up quivering on the page like botched abortions, I’d reached my inevitable “fuck this” moment.

We all have a “fuck this” threshold, right? Where you realize there’s no hope of doing something the way everybody wants so you just fling something out, like throwing your tennis racket into the stands? That’s where I was.

For my last story, I returned to being funny and mean with “The Moon’s Turned Black,” about a genetically-resurrected Algonquin Round Table quipping through the apocalypse in our moment of greatest need. I’d written it as something of a gift for Aimee after a couple of conversations about Dorothy Parker.

(That’s lesson one, by the way: write to amuse someone specific instead of a faceless multitude.)

So we all sat down in our circle of couches and chairs as the summer thunderstorms rolled in for the early afternoon, and for some reason, that’s what I remember most about it: how dark it seemed in the room. A good dark, though — a cozy dark.

It was darker than this.

It was darker than this.

(Lesson two? Find your comfort in the things you love wherever you find them.)

Each person offered their critiques and I was stunned at how positive they were, if not glowing. One person said not to change a word. Aimee said she felt like it was written just for her, which it was. Someone asked who the fuck Dorothy Parker was, but I let that go. Kelly and Holly, our instructors, seemed to enjoy the story and had great suggestions for it that excited me for revisions.

(Lesson three? Don’t do anything someone suggests to your story unless it excites you with a feeling of recognition.)

It was a big moment that I desperately needed. I was pretty sure that I’d be going home as one of those people who leave Clarion to never write again, having realized they don’t have and can’t get what it takes, but the general approbation for that story hinted that maybe there was something in me after all.

(Lesson four? Don’t give a shit about whether you are or aren’t a “writer.” Do you like doing it? Do you enjoy entertaining people? Then who gives a fuck what they — or, for that matter, you — call you.)

So I went home to find out what that something was, sitting down for many sessions with a journal in the library to figure out what I had to work with and what I didn’t. I call this the “Fix It or Fuck It” list, where I decide whether it’s worth improving what I didn’t do well (character, description) or working around it (plot).

(Lesson five? Nobody teaches you writing. You decide what to practice and improve by looking honestly at your own work and making adjustments.)

I’m not sure how much of the weird inter-social aspects of our particular Clarion helped or hindered me, though I met some wonderful friends and a life partner there (no, Steve, not you: Aimee). And I’m not sure if I needed the full six weeks away from my normal life to boil me down to my essentials.

What I needed was a calibration of my expectations of how much talent I had and how much I had yet to learn, and I doubt I’d have gotten that any other way.

(Lesson six? Some fiascoes are necessary, if you only know how to use them.)

[If you’re curious, I’ve posted “The Moon’s Turned Black” on the site for your bemusement.]

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