I was invited to lunch at El Nido in Santa Fe. Selling a few short stories had happened and I was sort of legit in the New Mexico science fiction community. A newbie, but I had offered our Albuquerque apartment to Ellen Datlow for an overnight stay on her way to Armadillocon in Austin. I was going to meet her for lunch and drive her there.
El Nido, “The Nest,” was and is a restaurant north of town. It’s on Bishop’s Lodge Road, two lanes of winding, blind-curve blacktop shaded by cottonwood and piñon. The road is bordered by adobe walls that guard earth-toned houses a hundred years old or six months old. You can tell the difference between adobe and stucco but it doesn’t matter. Even the new ones are pretty.
There were some guys in the bar.
If I went to the bar at El Nido this evening I know I would find the same cast of characters, rich in facial hair, short on cash, comfortable in their faded jeans and plaid flannel shirts, nursing their hard-earned drinks. They would be telling the same wilderness stories I heard first in the late sixties and heard again on that September afternoon in the early nineties. They live for the best powder snow in the world, the best near-drownings in white water, and they spend their entire lives skiing the winters and rafting the summers. Day jobs are for off-season. That’s how they like it.
The counterpoint and lyrics of male choirs in quiet bars is a music that is dear to me, and that’s where I sat, because I was early, waiting for omigod, Ellen Datlow, who edited omigod Omni, and Parris the super SMOF,(Secret Master of Fandom, that means), and omigod with bells on it, Roger Zelazny. I knew he lived in Santa Fe. Santa Fe is the City Different, and part of why it’s called that, as far as I’m concerned, is that Roger Zelazny lived there.
I didn’t see Parris and Ellen come in or get their table against the adobe wall in the main dining room, but that’s where I found them when it got to be time and ten minutes past time for them to be there. Ellen with her amazing mane of curly black hair, Parris red headed and wrapped in a flowered shawl. The big room was afternoon quiet, with white linen and silver waiting under the shadows of the vigas, the peeled pine tree trunks that hold up traditional New Mexico ceilings. The windows looked out at the cottonwoods. They weren’t turning yet but their rustling green had a late feel to it.
We chatted for a while, waiting for Roger.
The fundamental act of selling fiction is called “submission.” Once upon a time, writers typed words on actual tree paper, put them in manila folders, and mailed them, along with self-addressed stamped return envelopes, to editors, and then waited, patiently or otherwise, for “acceptance” or “rejection.”
Rejections hurt one’s feelings, always, but Ellen had made nice hand-written notes on mine. A hand-written note is code for “Close but no cigar. Send another one.” I was good with that. But I thought that real writers, like Zelazny, simply sent things in when they were ready, and waited for the checks to come in.
There’s a mix of feelings that goes with a submission. You’ve revised it until you know you took all the good stuff out, so you hate it, or you’ve put it aside and gone back to it and you are surprised at how good it is. It sucks. It’s brilliant. There’s hope. There’s despair. It’s never going to sell. It will sell a million copies.
Every. Damned. Time.
A slender man, black haired, in khakis and a windbreaker, made his way through the maze of tables to where we sat. He was quiet on his feet, and he was hunched forward just a little to protect the manila folder he held against his chest. And he had a shy and somewhat anxious look to him.
It really was Roger Zelazny. I’d seen photos of him.
Ellen and Parris greeted him like the old friend he was to them. He laid his manila envelope on the table beside Ellen, with as much controlled, brave hope and apprehension as any new writer meeting an editor for the first time.
Roger Zelazny was human after all, not a fearless and whimsical Zeus on Olympus who sent down his gifts to mere mortals, or didn’t, depending on his mood.
I was shocked. I was also amazed and delighted to know that he, too, had human insecurities about presenting a submission to an editor. I felt less lonely, if that makes any sense.
Now, if I were writing fiction, I would tell you how Ellen peeked inside, thanked him, told him she would read it once she was back in New York.
I would describe his reaction, which might have been a stoic preparation for a long wait, six weeks or so, before he heard whether his new work was accepted. There would crises, and dangers, and perhaps a love interest or several before a satisfactory resolution.
But this isn’t fiction, and what Roger handed over wasn’t a submission.
The folder held precise, delicate pen and ink drawings by Gahan Wilson. They were somewhat reminiscent of 18th century broadside illustrations, but no creature or human was quite what it seemed. They were charming and ominous and designed for A Night in the Lonesome October.
Roger wanted Ellen to see them. He hoped she would like them. She did. We did.
And we had lunch, and there was conversation. I don’t remember a single word or a single topic, but I remember the sense of quiet pleasure, the assurance that all was well that afternoon with the world, with the people at the table, and with the timeless magic of an early autumn afternoon in New Mexico.
It was the only time I ever observed the phenomenon of Roger Zelazny and chocolate. He ordered an old-fashioned classic dessert, profiteroles au chocolat. Profiteroles are little cream puff shells, filled with vanilla ice cream in this version, with fudge sauce drizzled over.
You know that scene in Starman where Jeff Bridges tastes Dutch apple pie for the first time? Well, Roger’s pleasure was more controlled, but had the same intensity. He reveled in those profiteroles. He paid attention to them.
The time came, several years later, for me to write Croyd Crenson, Roger’s character, for Wild Cards. Croyd likes food and treats it with a certain reverence, even when he wakes up in a new body with new ace powers. Even when he wakes up as a twisted joker and wants to go right back to sleep. Even when he’s starving and needs a lot of food at once.
Those scenes aren’t fiction, except for the character’s name. They are real. Trust me on this. If you can’t taste the vanilla and enjoy the contrasts between the cold cream and the warm chocolate when Croyd takes a spoonful of it, I’ll try harder next time.
I’ll submit my effort with trepidation and hope for acceptance. That’s what we do.