I‘ve not been able to attend as many science-fiction and fantasy conventions as I’d have liked, but I’ve been to a few. And the one question that is invariably heard at every writer’s panel, so unfailing that it has become a one-liner among writers. That is, of course, “Where do you get your ideas?” Some authors respond with mocking humor, others make an effort to explain why the question is so hard to answer meaningfully.
I don’t know if there are conventions for other genres of fiction: thriller conventions, romantic novel conventions, western conventions... I suppose there must be, but I just haven’t happened onto them. I’m pretty sure there are no Great Books of High School English conventions. It seems likely that horror, science-fiction, and fantasy stories rely more than other areas of writing on special hooks, unique situations and twist—not to say twisted—endings. It just so happens I know the answer to that question when it comes to the Karl Edward Wagner story printed in the Metro Pulse Halloween Fiction Issue, one his most popular. In fact, I knew every person in the story who is mentioned by name, even Old Morny who is already deceased when the story begins. And I was with Karl, walking along the little side street behind what later became the Stroh House, next to the rail yards there, when the idea for the story occurred to him.
The old curiosity vendor whose home and business we were leaving was the pivotal character in the story, Gradie. In reality the shopkeeper who lived there in a house he’d built himself of scrap lumber was named Omar Brock. He was a much more erudite man than the character in the story. He had, indeed, been overseas in the military, and he was also quite well read. He had an array of talents and managed to be completely self-sufficient without having to hold down a nine-to-five job. He was a carpenter, an upholsterer, a seller of collectibles and a gardener. His house was unconventional in design. The main living quarters comprised only a living room/bedroom combination and a tiny kitchen, so small that he’d saved space by letting his refrigerator jut through the wall and into the outdoors. To the south of that structure he’d constructed another room which had to be entered from the outside. Here he did carpentry and repaired odds and ends for sale or on commission. Next to that was yet another self-contained room where he did his upholstery.
I don’t know if he was old enough to qualify for veterans’ benefits or Social Security, but I don’t think so. But he managed to make do. In part he sustained himself with a sizeable garden, which he managed to make productive in spite of a topsoil that seemed largely composed of cinders left over from the days when steam locomotives changed cars on the acres of tracks behind where his house now stood. He counted canning among his skills and in the late fall his little kitchen was lined with row after row of gleaming provisions he’d grown and put up himself.
But the poor soil wasn’t the only challenge he faced in the process. Day after day he toiled with hoe and pruning shears and machete to fight back the kudzu that is accurately described in the story, so prolific that one could drive right past and not know there was a house hidden behind the green tangle unless you just happened to spot the little wooden gate in the thicket with the salvaged child’s glockenspiel on top and a sign that said, “Ring my chimes!”
The battle he waged with the devouring vine seemed almost epic. As we walked away I thought of the similar struggles of one of Hemingway’s characters, another unassuming man who had to strive mightily just to live. “Someday, Karl,” I said, “I’m going to write a story titled ‘The Old Man and the Kudzu.’”
Karl didn’t respond for a couple of minutes. “You know, Mayer,” he said, finally, “if you’re not serious”—he knew I wasn’t—“I think I can do something with that.” Which is how I happen to know where he got that idea.
Not, of course, that I take any credit for it. Karl was always spinning tales, throwaway stories, inspired by buildings we passed, a crow on a telephone pole, an old woman with a candle in the window of one of the old houses near Toad Hall one night, one of the old bottles he collected. His visit to meet my friend Mr. Brock just happened to have inspired this one.
As a small postscript, I’ll mention that the artist’s girlfriend in the story, Linda, was actually named Julie. I’ll not divulge her last name since I’m not sure she would wish me to. But while Karl was working on the story we broke up. Years later, his ex-wife, Barbara Mott, revealed that Karl had told her he was going to base the ending of the story on whether or not we got back together.