by JEFFREY THOMAS
A few weeks ago, one of my publishers made me an offer. Since they knew I’d be out of the country on vacation the whole month of July, and thus couldn’t afford another trip in August, they offered to take care of my expenses in bringing me to Los Angeles for the next Worldcon. They’d pay for my flight, my hotel for the week, even buy me dinner. This was how much they wanted to meet me in person, and have readers meet me, too.
Shortly after I write this essay, I’m going to let them know I can’t accept. The main reason is…I don’t think my boss would like it.
I’ve been procrastinating in telling them I can’t make it. Everyone I’ve talked to, myself included (right, Jeff?), has told me what a great opportunity it would be. And when might I ever receive such an offer again? I could be introducing myself to new fans, psyching people up for the novel I’m writing for this publisher. It would further my career as a writer! But it’s my career as a blue collar worker in a pharmaceutical company that has to take precedence. See, the company shuts down every month of July, and employees are pressured into taking their vacations then. Were I to take another vacation in August to attend this con, I’d have to take it as unpaid days, and these would count against me in terms of attendance – and in this company, if one takes more than six days off in a year for illness or personal matters, one is “abusing the system” and can anticipate closer scrutiny, a poor(er than usual) pay increase the next year, and possible termination. My boss especially has it out for me since I recently complained to his supervisor about his favoritism, his sexism, his racism. His last pay evaluation of me kindly reported that I have the “potential” to be a “good producer,” but I guess I haven’t figured out how to do that yet. I’m too busy crawling on hands and knees under machines (there are holes from broken glass in the knees of all my uniform slacks, not to mention the bodily scars I’ve received from glass, scalding water, and cranial collisions with said machines), sweeping up shattered vials and ampules, to take note of the practices of the “good producers.” I have at least noted that these outstanding performers tend to be of my boss’s same religious beliefs and/or to come from his region of the world, and also that they tend to sit or stand around talking for a good portion of every night while I’m apparently slacking off in my slacks-shredding pursuits.
There are two worlds that I live in. But one world too often eclipses the other. They are two versions of Mars, let’s say. One is the beautiful and melancholy Bradbury Mars…or better yet, the exciting and exotic Burroughs Mars. This is the world the writer Jeffrey Thomas escapes to, his spirit swept there through space like that of John Carter. But the Jeffrey Thomas who pays the bills to keep that guy’s internet service turned on, who puts the roof over his dizzy dream-filled head, is the Jeffrey Thomas living on the cold and airless Mars of harsh reality. This guy worked five years in a boot factory, went on to become a security guard, work in a sticky soda-making plant, a pocketbook factory, a plastics company. Fifteen years in a print shop. Now, going on five years doing his part to keep hospital patients high on morphine and the like. The two Jeffreys resent each other, in a way. Both resent when their twin steals away some of their too-precious time. But they also resent themselves, for how they cheat the other. The Burroughsian Jeffrey feels guilty when he takes his too-brief flights abroad. Shouldn’t he be doing something “practical” to help out the grumpy guy, like mowing the lawn, balancing his checkbook? The hard-nosed Jeffrey feels guilty when he can’t let his creative twin sit down to his keyboard for a number of days at a time, the same way he feels remorse at not having more time to spend with his young son or even giving the poor dog a longer walk.
How to reconcile these two worlds? Or is that like trying to reconcile matter and antimatter?
We don’t always hear what writers do when they’re not writing, because it can shatter the fantasy for reader and the writer both. It can be…humiliating. But for the vast majority, the truth is that this writing thing isn’t all (or at least, only) glamourous literary parties, book signings and readings, lectures and conventions. It isn’t all gigantic paychecks (those are reserved for the occasional teenage plagiarist). I know only a couple of writers who live exclusively on their writing – just barely. Well, fortunately a lot of writers are also journalists or technical writers or teachers, are experiencing less of a dichotomy in their lives, don’t have to hesitate so much when they talk about what they do when they’re not writing. I doubt I’m the only blue collar worker whose books are being read and respected; it can’t be so. I think it’s just that not too many people would want anyone to know about such a situation. It might discredit them as writers. If I’m so good, what am I doing punching a clock every night from 11 PM to 7 AM? My skills must be lacking, eh? It doesn’t look good on a dust jacket bio, does it? “Jeffrey Thomas is the author of the books PUNKTOWN, LETTERS FROM HADES and UNHOLY DIMENSIONS. He feeds over a quarter million dental syringes through a sanitizing tunnel every night. In his spare time he tries to keep his house from being foreclosed upon. He lives in Massachusetts.”
God…Ramsey Campbell had to work in a chain bookstore briefly, in order to make ends meet. Is that a story full of horror and tragedy, or what? At least he put this state of affairs to good use and wrote a novel incorporating the experience (THE OVERNIGHT). And that’s what I try to do, so that something more is coming of this than merely keeping my phone turned on. I’ve used my blue collar experience as the basis for many a story. My observations of my coworkers have bettered my sense of character, and exposed me to people from a greater range of cultures and backgrounds than I might otherwise have come into close contact with. (Not to mention that I met my first wife and several ex-girlfriends at work. All work and no play makes Jeff a dull writer.)
I’m proud to say that some of my books will soon appear in Taiwan, Germany, Russia and Greece in their native languages. Through the way I tell a story, through the way I give illusory life to characters, these faraway strangers will come to know me in a way that is actually quite intimate. They may in fact know me better than people I work beside every night, because those people might not read my books. Too many of my coworkers know me the way a mortician knows the body on his slab, not the way my family knows me.
The most I’ve made yet on a single book is $7,000 from a mass market publisher; a nice fee, in my experience, but not enough to live on. It’s usually much less than that. I’m not blaming small press publishers (except for a couple of assholes); these folks aren’t exactly bathing in champagne, either! If you really believe that’s how writers and publishers live, you’ve got a wilder imagination than I have and I find it hard to suspend my disbelief. Would those readers in foreign lands – even more removed, in a number of senses, from this author than English-speaking readers – be shocked to know about the job that pays my bills? Well, but then we all have two lives, don’t we, and the flip side of the coin isn’t always pretty. Tom Cruise sits on the toilet, just like I do. Angelina Jolie menstruates, just like I…well, you get the idea. But I don’t mean just people who to a great or humble degree express themselves through forms of entertainment. We all have our work personas and our home personas; our children know us as parents, our employers know us as employees. Maybe it’s just that a situation like mine heightens that contrast. Or maybe it seems that way because I’m feeling
extra sorry for myself for having had an extra stressful day. And because I have to write that email to my generous publisher, soon.
I deeply appreciate their offer; I’m proud that it was made. Even if its like never comes again, I will remember it with fondness. It will inspire me; reconfirm that my kookier self must be doing something right when he’s playing around on the computer. Remembering their offer might help me find some sort of inner balance, the next time I am on hands and knees sweeping up those little shattered vessels, sparkling like the detritus of dreams.