The story behind Take One for the Road

It has been strangely surreal seeing my story, “Take One for the Road” appear in Analog and it has been gratifying to hear from a number of people who liked the story. Even more fascinating are the things that people find in the story that I never knew were there myself. This really has been a dream come true.

When I sold my first story, “When I Kissed the Learned Astronomer” to InterGalactic Medicine Show, Edmund Schubert asked for a short essay on the origins of the story. He does this for every story that appears in that magazine and I think it is a good idea, if only because I am always fascinated by the origins of stories. If that is not your thing, if you simply like to read the story and enjoy it for what it is, by all means, skip this post. But if you are interested in the origins behind this story, read on.

My best stories, it seems to me, are the sum of two or more ideas. In the case of “Take One For the Road” that was no different. Back at Readercon 21, I sat in the audience listening to a panel discuss science fiction mysteries. Among the panel members were Allen Steele and Jack McDevitt. I love Jack’s science fiction mysteries and they are for me, pure joy to read because they are so much fun–exactly what science fiction should be in my mind. As I listened to the panelists talk, I realized that I should try to write the kind of story I so much enjoy reading–a puzzle story or a science fiction mystery. That evening, I thought up a problem: a crew goes to Mercury, returns without one crew member and then refuses to talk to anyone about what happened–including one another. The mystery, of course, is what the heck happened down there. That was it. That was all I was trying to do.

It was my good friend, Eric Straus, who provided the character that I eventually called Simon. I should take a moment to tell you about Eric. We met in 10th grade and quickly became good friends. I went to my first rock concert with Eric (Aerosmith, with Skid Row opening). And I did my first tequila shot with Eric many, many years later. We are still good friends today although we are no longer in high school. (I am very lucky in that most of my best friends are those people that I met in high school nearly a quarter century ago and that we have remained such good friends for so long.) Back in high school, Eric and I used to write these stories–parodies of Douglas Adams, really–which we would distribute to small audiences throughout the school. Some of those stories are pretty funny right down to this day. And Eric even has a science-fictional connection: on the street on which he lived in high school (and where his folks still live today) a few houses up on the opposite side, lived (and lives) a writer that you may have heard of: Harlan Ellison. I didn’t know who Ellison was back in high school and I must have driven past that gargoyle-laden house fifty times without knowing who lived there.

Eric, who now lives in New York, wrote a post about the passing of his next-door neighbor and when I read the post, I was amazed at how it read almost like a perfect story. Even more so, I was fascinated by a person who would behave the way his neighbor did. It felt like just the kind of character I needed for my story. I obtained Eric’s permission to use a fictionalized version of the character in his post in my story, to which he graciously agreed.

These two ideas: the mystery and the character combined to form the story that finally appeared in Analog. I wrote the story in July, made several false starts until I hit on the voice that I was looking for. I sent the story onto my first readers and got positive feedback from them. So at the end of July, I sent the story off to Analog. And toward the end of September, I got that simply wonderful email from Stan Schmidt saying that he was taking the story.

In an amusing side-note, I joined the Arlington Writers Group at the end of August and attended a couple of meetings. I decided to submit something for critique and submitted “Take One For the Road” to get it on the critique schedule. No sooner had I submitted it for critique (the first thing I ever submitted to the group) than did I receive Stan’s acceptance. I had to withdraw the story for critique since there was no longer a point. Fortunately, the group was very understanding at my reason why.

It has been interesting to see the things that people have seen in the story that never occurred to me consciously. I was just trying to put together an interesting mystery. While I won’t give away the story, I will say that I struggled with what the ultimate mystery was and it wasn’t until I was on the elliptical machine one day, wracking my brain for what might have happened, that I came up with the solution that I ultimately used in the story. One of my favorite all-time novels is Barry N. Malzberg’s Beyond Apollo (and here is why you should read it), and that clearly influenced this story as well.

Back on March 27, 2010, our oldest cat passed away. It was a sad day for us, and I tried to joke with Kelly that as a writer, I would one day try to immortalize our cat in a story that I had written. Our cat’s name was Simon.

And the references to Old Speckled Hen? That is a British beer that my friend Eric introduced me to at a bar in Albany, a nod in Eric’s direction for providing me with a wonderful character to use in this story.

Take one for the road, Eric!

13 thoughts on “The story behind Take One for the Road

  1. Well those are very nice things to say about me, but it seems a bit incomplete without some mention of my overwhelmingly masculine bravado, your true inspiration. ;)

  2. Fellow writer and baseball fan here. If you’re anything like me, I’ll bet you enjoy it when people say good things about your work. I really enjoyed “Take One For The Road.” I look forward to reading more from you.

    1. Wow, Jon, thanks! I’m so glad to hear you enjoyed the story. Did you catch the Cubs reference? I really appreciate you taking the time to stop by and tell me you liked the story.

    1. Someone said to me, “But it really wasn’t a science fiction story, was it?” And I replied, “Look, the Cubs won the world series–back-to-back. What else would you call it?” (And my boss at the day job got a kick out of it–she’s a White Sox fan.)

  3. I, too, enjoyed your story. There is not a wasted word, nor a bit of fat in the plotting. While reading it, I couldn’t help but think that I was reading a NEW ‘Near Space’ Allen Steele tale. And that thought is a VERY good thing, indeed!

    Even the bit about the Cubs serves a purpose; it is SO fantastically mind-boggling that the reader’s discernment is briefly disengaged.

    Does your friend Eric intersperse ballet terms (like “entrechat”) during conversations? Or is that solely a characteristic of Simon Hollander’s? :-)

    1. Thanks, Mark! I’m so glad you enjoyed it. I’ll tell you, I’ve been nervous ever since it came out.

      I’m humbled that you would compare my story to one of Allen Steele’s. Allen would certainly get a kick out of hearing this story of mine compared to one of his. We have an amusing “in-joke” between the two of us because we once both published a story with the same title. (I eventually changed the title of mine to avoid confusion.) Allen told the tale of our mutually-titled stories on a panel at the last Readercon. Incidentally, he has been super cool to me, encouraging me long before I sold the story to Analog.

      A number of people have commented on the Cubs, but I can’t believe I’m the first person to make this joke in a future-based science fiction story.

      I heard the phrase (or perhaps read it) entrechat used to describe a complicated maneuver once and thought it was perfect for Simon. After all, orbital mechanics is a kind of ballet. And my friend Eric would mock anyone who used such a term in his presence. :-)

  4. I don’t have the ‘Near Space’ stories at hand, but I believe that more than one followed the template of an astronaut relating a story to a first-person narrator. Usually over a few beers or, perhaps, something stronger.

    And Simon’s use of the word ‘entrechat’ was perfectly in character– especially when he qualified it with ‘a goddamn’.

  5. I’m a little late to the party, but just wanted to say that I really enjoyed this post, too. It’s funny, isn’t it, how ideas for stories can come from the most unexpected places…

    1. Alec, thanks. I finally got around to starting the other stories in the June issue and I’ve finished part 1 of “Kawataro”. Such smooth writing, I can really see the surroundings. And I love stories that involve linguistics. Can’t wait to finish it up. :-)

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