By Leanne C. Harper
It seemed like such a reasonable idea at the time. George R. R. Martin had gotten in touch with Edward Bryant, Nebula Award-winning Denver author, about Wild Cards, his new shared world anthology. Wild Cards was to be a comics- and gaming-inspired book. Ed wasn’t a gamer, nor was he particularly a comics fan. But he knew someone who was deeply involved in the comics: me.
At the time, I was vice president of Mile High Comics as well as being a fan and collector myself. My friend Ed was well aware of this. Over dinner at Don Quijote, the since-shuttered Mexican-Spanish restaurant on Federal in Denver, he read me into Wild Cards and we started kicking around ideas for characters that would be suitable for the book. Ed took the thought that the story would be set in New York and quickly used his fondness for urban myths as a starting point. Adding his affinity for monster movies – think John Sayles’ Alligator script – and he started thinking about an underground ace, quite literally: Sewer Jack Robicheaux.
Somehow as we kicked around potential characters, I changed from being merely an advisor to a co-conspirator – apropos for a story set in an alternate 1972. We decided to add a character who would naturally interact with Sewer Jack. I sketched out Bagabond, an ace who was outwardly a mentally disturbed homeless person with no means of support. Her power is that of communicating with and influencing the animals of the urban environment. Her constant companions are a pair of cats who provide food and, most importantly, tolerable companionship because ace or not, she is psychologically damaged. As a dog person myself, I would have gone with wolfhounds or something similar in other circumstances. It was my tip of the hat to Ed, a dedicated cat person, to choose cats instead.
Ed may have started with a tongue-in-cheek character based on an urban myth of alligators in the New York sewers, but he took it seriously. As he considered the genesis of the character, he thought through where and how the character came to be. Sewer Jack’s back story started in Cajun country in Louisiana. He came to New York because he grew up thinking he was cursed by God as a were-alligator. Later, of course, we learn that it was not only his Wild Cards’ affliction that sent him away but also the fact that he was gay and doubly different from those around him.
We may have started working on the characterizations focused on how we could create two characters who would naturally interact. But Ed never forgot that, whatever the ace powers, our characters needed to live and breathe and have back stories that explained who they were and why. He made sure that we both took that aspect seriously. Bagabond was a child of the Sixties. Drugs and a mental breakdown had as much to do with her situation as her powers as an ace. What made her an ace was her ability to leverage those wild card powers to survive and thrive in circumstances that would have otherwise destroyed her.
Ed and I spent the next few weeks working out a plot and hashing out a proposal for George. In the course of this, we brought in a couple of other characters. Rosemary Muldoon, nee Gambione, social worker and heir to the Gambione crime empire, was attempting to save Bagabond from the streets, rather unsuccessfully since Bagabond felt absolutely no need for salvation. And C.C. Ryder, who we meet as a joker in the form of a subway car. I want to set the record straight right now that C.C. Ryder was all Ed’s idea.
Once we put together this motley crew indeed into a storyline that pulled together the characters, and shipped it off to George, I didn’t think much more about it until we heard that it had been accepted. At which point, I realized that I was actually going to have to write the thing. What had been a rather fun exercise with my friend Ed was suddenly real, complete with deadline. And I was collaborating with someone I knew to be a superb writer while I had no such illusions about my skills. The good news was that I knew that Ed was an equally superb mentor to many other writers. If anyone could get me through the experience, Ed would be the one to do it.
The practical nature of collaborating on “Down Deep,” our story in Wild Cards Volume 1, was a micro-version of what George was doing so ably through the entire book. We sat in my tiny and overcrowded home office and broke down the story into scenes. Sewer Jack scenes would be written by Ed; Bagabond and Rosemary scenes were my responsibility. Once we completed a scene, we would hand off to each other for feedback and editing. That all went amazingly smoothly.
Allow me to digress to say that while Ed was well-known as a fantastic short story writer, he was equally well-known for missing deadlines. Consistently. He could, and did, drive editors to despair. But Ed had been delivering book reviews to me as editor for the Mile High Comics’ in-house magazine, Mile High Futures, like clockwork for years. The question I was asked most often at conventions and other gatherings of writers and editors was how I managed it. My only explanation has always been that Ed and I were friends before I became his editor. I never had to guilt trip him into being on time; he seemed to be doing it on his own. The same was always true of our collaborations. We worked together, planned our own internal deadlines so that we could meet the deadlines for the Wild Card books, and managed to work quite smoothly together.
Well, there was the one exception. Remember that subway car joker, C.C. Ryder? When it came time to write those scenes, somehow Ed always felt that I had a “much better grasp of the character.” Ed chickened out on his own character, and I was left to come up with lyrics for his song-writing subway car. He never did answer my questions about conservation of mass about how a human could transform into a subway car either.
“Down Deep” was a learning experience for me as a neophyte writer, of course. I had done innumerable interviews with writers and film reviews, but “Down Deep” was my first work of fiction. Ed’s guidance was always appreciated, particularly on living with cats. I remember having a lot of questions around that.
But the most unexpected revelation was how differently we approached the act of writing itself. For me, writing starts as a mental movie. I visualize the entire scene or story, and start transcribing what I see, striving to choose the right words so that my readers see the equivalent of what I have imagined. I do not and really cannot start without having that vision, but once I do, I can write quickly to capture it.
Ed’s approach to writing was completely different. I liken it to building a wall. Ed obviously had a vision for a story as he started it, but it was not the fully fleshed out movie that I had. For Ed, writing was choosing words like setting bricks, one after another, building the story one word at a time, not moving on until he had the perfect word that evoked what he wanted. Ed produced magnificent work using that method. But to me, having to go through that effort to write was torturous. I could barely imagine the effort, but I got to see some of it first hand as we worked together. Once I knew that, I always felt that explained the deadline issues that Ed had. Writing for Ed could be Sisyphean.
In the Wild Cards universe, Ed and I collaborated on several more volumes Although we wrote separate stories in those books, our characters remained intertwined and we worked closely together in weaving the plots to serve them. Collaborating with my friend Ed is a treasured memory now. But Wild Cards and Sewer Jack live on in the stories.