Two Days and Eighteen Songs

by Michael Swanwick

Emily Hockaday [Asimov’s Associate Editor] asked me if I would write a guest blog post for From Earth to the Stars about how I came to write my latest story for Asimov’s Science Fiction.

Um . . . okay.

At the risk of sounding reductionist, it took eighteen songs and two days to write “Eighteen Songs by Debussy.” Here, as best as I can reconstruct things, is what went into the creation of that story.

First Movement

Of Debussy’s songs I know almost nothing. Only that they are lush, moving, romantic, tragic, erotic, and capable of touching the spirit as well as the body. Also that, when well performed, they are worth paying money to hear.

Thus it was that I found myself at the Academy of Vocal Arts, one of Philadelphia’s cultural treasures, listening to Lyric Fest’s recital of the songs that inspired my story.

Listening to music is easy. You let it wash over you. Hearing it takes attention. Through experience I have found that the surest way for me to focus my attention on something is to write about it.

I picked up my pen.

The music started.

I began to write.

Second Movement

I cannot remember when I discovered that I had a knack for flash fiction. Somehow, I did. I wrote an abecedary, which is a collection of one story for every letter of the alphabet. Then I wrote another. I wrote The Periodic Table of Science Fiction, one story a week for every element in existence, and The Sleep of Reason, a story a week for all 86 etchings of Goya’s Los Caprichos. Because the online publication of these series overlapped (and because, at the time, I was also posting weekly flash fiction on my blog), other writers turned pale when they saw me and held up crucifixes or offered me garlic sandwiches.

What I unexpectedly learned from those and other experiences with the form was that, by itself, a work of flash fiction can only achieve a single effect—a laugh, a smile, a sigh, a moment of dread, a sinking of the heart. But with a series of flash fictions, where characters can recur and interact with one another, the collective totality can aspire to the status of literature.

Literature is where my heart abides. I aspired.

Third Movement

I was born in 1950, which pretty much disqualifies me from commenting on today’s concerns with gender and gender fluidity, much less making any serious contribution to the ongoing conversation. It was hard enough—I look back on this with astonishment, but it was true—to understand what the feminists were saying back in the ’70s.

It’s also hard to admit that one can learn from those a generation younger than oneself. It goes against the biases of a brain shaped by all those Neolithic ages of tribal lore being passed down from parent to child in cultures that seemed never to change. But one can make an honest attempt.

So I did.

I make no claim of success.

Fourth Movement

Claude Debussy used poems and excerpts from poems as structures for his songs, much as sculptors build armatures for the clay figures that will be used to cast their bronzes. The resulting songs soar. But they do not replace or in any way alter the originals. They are new things built upon the pattern of the old.

In much the same manner, I used the words of the poems and the spirit of the music to create my own linked stories.

I no more pretend that my stories are an improvement upon Debussy than he would have said his music was an improvement upon the poems. They are all different, if related, things.

As Chairman Mao once said, in a different context, let a thousand flowers bloom.

Fifth Movement

I heard these songs in what was once the ballroom of a rich man’s mansion, just off of Rittenhouse Square. The ceiling was high, with friezes featuring scenes from Shakespeare. My wife and I were there as guests of an old, old friend, Tom Purdom.

Tom sold his first two science fiction stories in 1957, and he’s still writing today. For pleasure, chiefly, he reviews classical music in Philadelphia, where the opportunities to hear world-class performances are frequent.

Tom Purdom is one of the most modest men I know. I wish he were less so. I wish all the world knew just how good a writer he is. I wish he had ten times his current fame, which would still only be a tenth of what he deserves.

I dedicate this essay to him.

Coda

I wrote “Eighteen Songs” during the recital (and revised it the following day) as a series of very short stories, or perhaps in this case vignettes is the correct term, that gradually reveal a larger story. The recital included three or four more songs whose flash fictions I had to discard because they did not fit in well with the resulting whole. It gives away nothing to say that at the conclusion of the story, I abandoned fictionalization and left the concluding poem by Paul Bourget untouched. This I did so that it could speak for him, so that it could speak for itself, and so that it could speak for my story and all that went into it.

But also because it said everything I would have said, had I only the words.


Michael Swanwick says, “There’s actually an interesting story behind the Debussy stories. Tom Purdom will tell you that I wrote them during a recital at the Academy of Vocal Arts, here in Philadelphia, and that’s true as far as it goes. What he doesn’t know is that during the reception afterward, I slipped away to fin de siècle Paris to get some period detail (you’ll recall that I will acquire the ability to travel in time a few years from now) and, well, to make a long story short, I lost my manuscript. Debussy found it and was inspired by it to write the songs that inspired the stories. Claude and I had a long argument when I went back to retrieve the manuscript over who owed whom royalties for the other’s work. We shall never, I fear, see eye to eye on this one.” Michael recently “had the strange experience of teaching writing classes in Beijing and Reykjavik all within one month. Truly, it’s a global world anymore.”

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