- Books, Literature, and Writing
The Strange Life of Another Odd Short Story
Nuclear Power and the Civil War Lizards
I cannot remember when or why I wrote Nuclear Power and the Civil War Lizards. Judging from the initial setting, I think I’d just started working for McDonnell Aircraft in the old Falstaff Brewery Building across the street from Forest Park, now the location of the St. Louis Science Center. That was 1978.
In digging through my collection of submissions and rejections, I found a May 17, 1979 submission to Bill Plummer of Quest/79. You can still find back copies online. Here is my submission as typed in 1979.
"Nuclear Power and the Civil War Lizards, approximately 1800 words, radiates heterogeneous realities; i.e. office women are lizards, golf balls are bullets and symbols of religious fanaticism, the narrator is a civil war hero attacking a Nuclear Power plant, the office women lizards are southern belles, and marathon running is a form of protest. You see, I think I’ve figured out the effect of nuclear radiation when mixed with alcohol, office drudgery, romance, marathon running, and the civil war."
Rejection, as you might imagine, quickly followed. "Regretfully... we do not find it suitable for our sales efforts and do not believe editorial work would be likely to lead to an eventual sale."
At some point, I showed the story to my friend Lynn. We were driving into the wilderness, twisting along Ozark roads, maybe headed toward the annual White Water races on the St. Francis River. We may have been a little buzzed. Lynn’s reaction, while I don’t remember her exact words, at least wasn’t unflattering. In fact, I may have (mistakenly?) taken her comments as a compliment, probably something like, "You don’t hold back."
Around the same time, I met Alan, a wiry, long-haired ex-mailman with John Lennon glasses who was hosting a radio show on the campus of Washington University in St. Louis. I may have met him through my involvement with a local theater company, The St. Louis Ensemble. (The executive producer, Lisa and I were dating, although we nor anyone else ever used the term "dating.") Alan decided that my story should be on the radio. Lisa and likely another St. Louis Ensemble actor (can’t remember who) read the lines of the two female characters.
When we rehearsed, my narration was monotone, a lifeless mechanical drone provoking guffaws and dismissive snorts from all the thespians perpetually fawning over Lisa. With theatrical graciousness, Lisa coached me into making my voice come alive for the listener, a first step toward performing my work over the years, and greatly improving my teaching.
We recorded the story. Alan played it on air soon afterward. Then the switchboards lit up, one listener saying, "What was that?" Later, Alan somehow mistakenly erased the recording, and he asked us to rerecord it. However, my second effort, being the amateur I was, fell flat. And as I write this, I wonder what happened to that second recording. I’ve lost touch with Alan long ago. Nobody knows anything about him it seems. (Alan, if you’re still alive, and you are reading this, feel free to get in touch and clarify. Maybe you can fill in the blanks. None of our memories will match. My recollections here are distorted. I can’t help it. Nobody can. But maybe a collective memory will approximate truth.)
While those were, in hindsight, exciting times, the radio performance didn’t carry over into publishing success. And while I can’t seem to find other submission letters in my library of dusty binders in the basement, I’m sure I contacted numerous publishers and tried to highlight the radio performance. Lucky connections with like-minded publishers never materialized. Nuclear Power and the Civil War Lizards was filed away. And I moved on to my next fiction.
But like all my stories, particularly one as odd as this one, it never quite left me alone. The childbirth analogy, like all cliches, rings true. So since 1978, I have lived with this peculiar child, occasionally trying to push it off on unsuspecting readers. I tried hard not to be too youthfully obnoxious and self-indulgent. (If I was and I haven’t apologized already, consider this admission an apology.) Every now and then when revisiting my collection of work, I reread Nuclear Power and the Civil War Lizards and thought, what the hell was that?
Within the past few years, 2006-2010, I returned to my story. (This isn’t unusual for me, as I regularly return to my work, even after lots of years.) I cleaned it up and added a new ending that reflected the times. It’s maddening of course that our work becomes dated in our own lifetime, missing it’s zeitgeist moment. How many of our babies never survive? However, while new technologies were making my story dated, they were also making it easier to submit. So I did. And I got more "meritorious rejections" (see my askwritefish blog).
We're sorry to say that this manuscript is not right for us, in spite of its evident merit.
As I’ve written before, writing may be the only "profession" that measures success by the quality of failure. The line "in spite of its evident merit" from the New Yorker seemed to elevate the rejection.
So I sent it out again, this time to Weird Tales.
Dear Jeff, Bizarre little tale, but I am not convinced it works for me. Try me again? Ann
Of course, I did try her again with something I thought fit her magazine. But to no avail, and rather than work on changing my writing (and me? as maybe I should have), I moved on to new projects. My story kept bothering me, appearing in my dreams, sometimes as a nightmare in which I become the character I was when I wrote it. Technology continued to revolutionize the publishing world as evidenced by such websites as hubpages. I pressed on, and submitted to the new, aptly named Electric Literature.
Dear Writer: We thank you for submitting your story, "Nuclear Power and the Civil War Lizards," to Electric Literature. Unfortunately, it was not chosen for publication at this time.
We are committed to publishing short stories by both new and more established writers, and trust that you will consider sending us your best work in the future. Sincerely, Andy Hunter, Scott Lindenbaum, and Jeff Price, Editors, Electric Literature
I no longer get too excited about the potential for publication and no longer get too down about the failure to publish. In this case, my failure became a "successful failure" three hours later.
Jeff, We were training an intern today and a few notifications went out with a little too much haste. I had meant to add a word or two about your submissions. We enjoyed reading both, the dark humor, the literary derangement, the Vonnegut homage. Although neither was a match for our next issue, we hope that you send another story our way down the line. -Jeff Price
Of course I sent them another story, but with no luck. Besides, I moved on to rewriting my first novel, Roobala Take Me Home, changing the 450 pages to a first person reflective narration and didn’t finish that until late summer of 2010.
The story of my story was giving me a multiple deja vu, and as I looked back through the dusty binders, I found that it wasn’t the first time I came close to publication and felt the knife twisting at the end. But no matter. In 2008-2009, my novel Where the River Splits was published, and my story "The Wells Creek Route" was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. I had poems published, again. So I kept trying with Nuclear Power and the Civil War Lizards
Jeff, I got the Vonnegut homage right away & I really liked it. Both stories have merit. I’m going to hang on to them & give them to our fiction panel. I’m sorry they didn’t publish it, but I’m glad that the ball is only in our court now. As I joke with my friends: "I’m still being rejected, but by a higher class of publication now." Alex
Alex has been gracious and helpful, and he put me in touch with someone for another teaching job. I didn’t follow up on the job or the story. I was buried in my rewrite of Roobala Take Me Home and more or less forgot about it. Then they changed their format to just poetry and flash fiction, and Nuclear Power and the Civil War Lizards suddenly became too long, not flashy enough. (The other story he referred to in the email was the Pushcart story, which is almost 6,000 words.)
So my odd child still lives with me and I’ve yet to rid myself of the creature. Should I delete it from my hard-drive and cremate all printed copies? Or does some form of publication remain the only remedy?
Where the River Splits by Jeffrey Penn May - The journey to the end is never boring. - St. Louis Post Dispatch
- AskWriteFish JeffreyPennMay
Practical tips and reflections from 35 years of trying to become a paid fiction writer; fly fishing for Missouri smallmouth and Wyoming trout, and so on