Let’s start from the start. Where did you grow up?
North Miami Beach, Florida. It’s one of the suburbs north of Miami in Miami-Dade County. I was born in Miami Beach, which has more cultural zing to it than North Miami Beach (which, to my knowledge, has never been famous for anything, other than being the home of Corkie’s Delicatessen, which has since relocated to Pembroke Pines, Florida). The Miami Beach of 1964 (or 1974, or 1984, for that matter) was much different from the Miami Beach of today. Back then, it was a faded, down-at-the-heels resort (see the Frank Sinatra movie A Hole in the Head for a good portrayal). When I was a kid, my family would take me down to South Beach for hamburgers at Lum’s and walks on the old fishing pier. I was entranced by the old Art Deco hotels, all painted with coats of cheap, brown paint; the skimpy, eroded beach, which was always empty; the dry swimming pools behind lots of the hotels, drained when the winter season was over (J. G. Ballard and I have that fascination in common); and the dozens of elderly Jewish retirees spending their sunset years parked on folding chairs on hotel porches. One of these days I’d like to write the great Miami Beach fantasy novel.
What were your early influences?
Monster movies. One of my earliest memories is being taken to see Destroy All Monsters at the drive-in movie theater by my parents in 1968; I was three years old. The image that sticks in my head is Baby Godzilla (Minya) staring at the evil aliens through a porthole in their space fortress. (This scene does not appear in the movie and is the creation of my faulty memory; the actual image I remember, verified now by rewatching the movie, was human scientists inside their moon base watching video monitors of the various monsters on Monster Island, including Minya. For whatever that’s worth.) That got me hooked. TV was full of monster and fantasy movies back then. Adventure Theater on Saturday afternoons alternated between Buster Crabbe’s Tarzan movies and Ray Harryhausen’s Sinbad extravaganzas. Then, every Saturday night at 11 P.M. (I took naps so I could stay up late), Creature Features cycled through the Universal monster series, the 1950s giant bug movies (there was no end to the number of times I could happily sit through Tarantula or The Deadly Mantis), and all those spooky atomic holocaust/end-of-the-world flicks (The World, the Flesh, and the Devil; Panic in the Year Zero; I Was a Teenage Caveman). But the movies that really pushed my buttons were the Planet of the Apes films. The first one I saw in the theater was Beneath the Planet of the Apes, which really creeped me out (but in a good way). That scene where the telepathic mutants peel off their masks still holds up as genuinely horrific. I saw all the rest of the series in the theaters, then caught the short-lived TV series. I talked my parents into buying me all the stuff — Planet of the Apes tree-fort village and action figures; pajamas; trash can; Super-8 mini-films; and, best of all, the forty dollar Don Post Cornelius mask, which helped me live out my juvenile fantasy of becoming Roddy McDowell.
Along with the monster movies came the magazines all about monster movies. I loved Famous Monsters of Filmland, especially the issues that reprinted great old articles about King Kong or any of Ray Harryhausen’s films. My mom got me a subscription to The Monster Times, which gratifyingly concentrated on Japanese monster movies, a topic that Famous Monsters didn’t pay much attention to. Plus, The Monster Times had poster centerfolds of classic movie posters that I could trace with tracing paper.
I pretty much learned to read through comic books. An adult cousin used to keep copies of Marvel Tales, which reprinted the Steve Ditko and John Romita Spider-Man stories, in a rack in his bathroom, and I looked through them whenever I visited. My father started buying me Iron Man comics. My mom knew I liked monsters, so she bought me Werewolf by Night and Tomb of Dracula, and my step-dad had good memories of the Timely Comics from the early 1940s, so he bought me Captain America and the Falconand Marvel Triple Action (which reprinted early Avengers and Captain America stories). I pretty much stuck to Marvel Comics, although I tried out some DC stuff early on. Denny O’Neil’s Detective Comics was too noir and adult for me, and Jack Kirby’s Fourth World comics seemed too weird (although I liked The Demon). My favorite DC books were the issues of Justice League of America where the Justice League teamed up with the Justice Society from Earth Two, but these team-ups didn’t happen often enough to entice me into becoming a regular DC reader. One DC book sticks out in my mind; I traded it away or lost it as a kid, but I recently bought another copy on eBay, just to look again at something that had been so compelling to me as a child. It was an issue of Lois Lane, Superman’s Girlfriend, the only one I ever bought. The cover featured Superman being transformed into a tree, his feet becoming rooted to the ground and his fingers turning into branches. I must’ve been six or seven years old when I saw that cover, but I distinctly remember it giving me a little tingle, a thrill I wouldn’t get from a comic book again until I was a pre-teen hunting down reprints of Fantastic Four that featured Jack Kirby’s gorgeous, busty Medusa. Superman turning into a helpless tree. . . go figure. Must’ve been the implied S&M angle, or something.
I also loved naval history, particularly anything to do with battleships or ironclads. In fourth grade, I checked out American Heritage’s Ironclads of the Civil War from my elementary school library so many times that the librarian called my mother in and begged her to buy me my own copy, so other kids would have a chance to check out the book. That early fascination led years later to Fire on Iron, my Civil War steampunk horror novel.
What was the scariest movie you saw as a kid?
The Omega Man. No contest. After seeing those albino zombies running after Charlton Heston, and Rosalind Cash getting turned into a zombie herself, I wouldn’t take a shower after dark for months (because I was afraid I’d open my eyes after shampooing my hair and see Anthony Zerbe staring through the window at me with those freaky eyes). I did take showers, mind you. Just during the daytime. Nowadays, I watch the film less for the chills and more to groove on those splendiferous Ford convertibles Charlton Heston was nonchalantly ripping off from abandoned car dealerships. Big-block Fords; submachine guns; a penthouse apartment; watching Woodstock in an empty movie house. . . what a life! Leave out the embittered zombies, and you’ve got the dream existence of the American bachelor, circa 1971.
I still think someone needs to make a true-to-the-book adaptation of I Am Legend, though. Good as The Omega Man is in some aspects, faithful to its source it ain’t. Sadly, the most recent version, the one with Will Smith, wasn’t much better in that regard. Give it another twenty years. . .
How did you first get interested in writing?
My fourth grade teacher gave our class the assignment of putting together a literary magazine. I decided to write a story about a lonely little boy, his scientist father, and the thirty-foot-long mechanical Tyrannosaurus Rex the father builds as a pal for his son. Of course, the father gets kidnapped by gangsters who want to use ol’ Tyran for a bank heist, and the little boy and his mechanical pal have to go to the rescue (hey. . . maybe I should revise this. . . there could be a big book advance here, plus a movie deal!). I’ll never forget standing in line at the school cafeteria and having this whole story play out visually in my head like a movie on an internal screen. All the boys in my class loved the story (although the girls voted in a solid block for Kara McCullough’s story about fuzzy kitties as the class favorite, and since they outnumbered the boys, I lost the vote). From that point on, I was hooked. I went through phases of wanting to be an archeologist or an actor, childhood ambitions that fizzled, but my desire to write never went away.
So from there, it was a short jump to Fat White Vampire Blues?
Not exactly. I wrote that first story when I was eight. When Fat White Vampire Blues came out in 2003, I was thirty-eight. There’s a thirty year apprenticeship in there. I wrote more monster stories, and then, after I started reading tons of science fiction in junior high, I switched to SF. War of the Worlds was probably the first SF novel I read, followed shortly thereafter by Isaac Asimov’s I, Robot and Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles. I read just about every Ray Bradbury book I could get my hands on. Then I discovered J. G. Ballard’s novels and collections in the public library; the covers of the Penguin editions of The Terminal Beach and The Drowned World were so weird and freaky that I couldn’t help picking them up, even though they weren’t written with seventh grade readers in mind. I loved them anyway. Around the same time, I bought a copy of Robert Silverberg’s Nightwings (the Avon SF:Rediscovery paperback with the gorgeous nekkid winged lady on the cover. . . I was twelve years old and would stare at it endlessly), and then I had my bar mitzvah and received oodles of gift certificates from my local Waldenbooks. I spent my gift certificates on Silverberg books, Anne McCaffrey’s “Dragons of Pern” novels, and John Clute’s wonderful Illustrated Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, which provided me with an inexhaustible reading list.
All throughout my early SF reading, I’d been accumulating a list of ideas for stories I wanted to write. I was ambitious; I had visions of stunning the SF world with my brilliance. One niggling little problem reared its head, though. While reading books like The Illustrated Encyclopedia and James E. Gunn’s Alternate Worlds: the Illustrated History of Science Fiction, I learned that just about every idea I’d thought so fabulously original had been set down on paper forty or fifty years earlier by the likes of Edmund Hamilton or Olaf Stapleton. Bummer. It was almost enough to make me abandon any aspirations of becoming a science fiction writer. Almost. Actually, the next story I wrote, “Cliffside,” was about a wannabe SF writer, despondent at the dearth of original ideas, who contemplates jumping off a cliff. Instead, he invents a time machine, goes back to 1890, writes all of H. G. Wells’ books before Wells can, and becomes an international literary sensation. The story ends with Wells jumping off the cliff.
Three close buddies and I worked on a fanzine, The Dragon Reader, that started out as an homage to Anne McCaffrey’s books but took so long to pull together — almost three years — that it ended up having nothing to do with Anne or Pern or dragons. We took fifty copies to Noreascon 2, the 1980 Worldcon in Boston, hoping to sell them and recoup our printing costs. We gave away half and brought the rest home. All three days of the con, I subsisted on a box of dry cereal and a big tin of raisins that I’d brought with me on the plane. I wanted to save all my money for stuff from the dealers’ room; why spend good cash on meals from Burger King when there were mint copies of The Avon Fantasy Reader to be had? The undeniable highlight of the con was when Larry Lipkin and I hooked up with a gorgeous older redhead, maybe seventeen or eighteen, and escorted her back to her hotel room. All she wanted was some protective company on that late-night walk from the convention hotel to the hotel where she was staying, but our fevered adolescent brains assumed (hoped, prayed) there was more to her invitation than just that. Actually, there was. We drank Cokes in her room while she bragged about how her I.Q. had tested twenty points higher than Isaac Asimov’s. Once we were suitably impressed, she showed us the door.
One interesting project from my late teens was a short play I wrote for blind kids, “The Mermaid’s Gift.” I threw in every gimmick I could think of – sound effects, Touch-O-Vision (having the kids run their fingers over a foam rubber mermaid’s tail coated with Vaseline Petroleum Jelly), and Smell-O-Vision (the kids identified the villain through his distinctive fishy odor, the result of spoiled sardines being passed beneath their noses). I wrote a handful of stories during college and tried (unsuccessfully) to sell them to Asimov’s, Fantasy and Science Fiction, and The Twilight Zone Magazine. During grad school, I returned to writing plays, although no others involving Vaseline or rotten sardines. After I got my first professional job as an administrative intern at a children’s psychiatric center on Long Island, I started writing poetry and performing it at various venues on Long Island and in Manhattan. In 1989, I started working on my first novel, right around the same time I got the itch to move back to New Orleans.
“Back” to New Orleans? What brought you to New Orleans in the first place?
Loyola University. They offered me a full academic scholarship for undergraduate school, a deal that was too good to pass up. Even though, as a Jewish kid from Miami, I had qualms about attending a Jesuit university. As things turned out, I had a blast being one of the only Jewish kids on campus – all my religion professors treated me like a visiting expert (“Will the young man of Hebraic persuasion be so kind as to enlighten us as to the symbolism inherent in the prophetic exhortations of Second Isaiah?”), and the priests and nuns were all very kind. In the days before crack cocaine hit New Orleans (I attended Loyola from 1982 to 1986), it was relatively safe to go anywhere in town on a bicycle, anytime of night. So I pedaled from Uptown to jazz clubs in Faubourg Marigny and along North Rampart Street, coming home at two o’clock in the morning along streets that, nowadays, I might think twice about driving my car along. In the daytime.
When I graduated, I told myself that I’d come back someday. “Someday” ended up being sooner than I’d planned, since by 1990 I was pretty fed up with Long Island’s high rents, astronomical real estate prices, traffic congestion, and lack of women who’d have anything to do with me. I moved back in October, 1990. I had nothing lined up for me in New Orleans, no job or relationship, just my last two paychecks from Sagamore Children’s Center and money that I’d pulled out of the New York State Employees’ Retirement System (I’ll regret that someday). My first apartment was a tiny two-story carriage house in Mid-City, just off Canal Street, a couple of blocks from Mandina’s Restaurant. It was in the back yard of a house not too much bigger than my apartment, and shortly after I moved in, the city established a halfway house for schizophrenic drug abusers next door. But I had a laptop, a novel in progress, and plenty of great coffeehouses to write in. I temped for a while, and I worked part-time as a program assistant at the Hillel Jewish Students’ Center near Tulane University. At night, I took the laptop to Borsodi’s Coffeehouse, where I drank coffee, chatted with friends, and tried to get some work done. After about a year, I started working at the Louisiana Office of Public Health, managing the Commodity Supplemental Food Program, a federally funded nutrition program for low-income senior citizens and young families. I worked that job for the next fifteen years.
So whatever happened to that first novel?
It’s sitting in a dusty file box, where it shall forever remain. It was my bildungsroman, a story of being a high school student in Miami in 1980, the year of the Liberty City race riots and the boatlift from Mariel, Cuba. It’s over seven hundred pages long, told from eight different viewpoints, some first-person, some third-person. It took me more than three years to write. If the old saw is true that every writer’s got a half-million words of crap to get out of his system, I hope I expelled the bulk of my crap with that one enormous book. I sent it off to a few first novel contests and to a few agents, none of whom declared me the next Jay McInerney or Donna Tartt.
What made you turn back to genre fiction?
Panic. In the spring of 1994, I thought I might lose my job due to State budget shortfalls. Not wanting to go back to the temp agencies, I wracked my brain for other potential money-making opportunities. Having never lost my love for SF, fantasy, and horror, I thought it would be a lark (and maybe a lucrative, pay-the-rent lark) to write a quick, really pulpy book. Naïve little neophyte that I was, I figured, “Selling a horror potboiler’s got to be a whole lot easier and faster than selling a literary novel!”
Yeah, right. . . the illusions of the young, so quickly shattered. . .
Anyway, the afternoon I thought I might get canned (I didn’t end up being on the layoff list after all), I went to lunch at the food court at New Orleans Center. Sitting in the middle of the big lunchtime crowd, I had this nutty vision of Civil War river ironclads battling enormous fire demons. Sort of an 1860s version of Navy vs. the Night Monsters. I have no notion why, or where this vignette came from. Shortly thereafter, I started writing a new book I called Fire on Iron. A few months later, I saw an announcement for a non-credit course at the University of New Orleans Metropolitan College called “World Building: Writing Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Horror,” taught by local SF writer George Alec Effinger. I signed up for George’s class that fall. It was a marvelous, very enlightening class. One of its big benefits was that, as a graduate, I’d be eligible to become a member of the monthly writing workshop that George had founded six years earlier.
I joined the workshop at the beginning of 1995, which was an insane time in my life. My thirty-one year old cousin, Amy Silberman, had just been killed in the French Quarter. She’d been visiting from Boston with her best friend for New Year’s weekend. The two of them went to the riverfront, behind the Jax Brewery entertainment complex, on New Year’s Eve to watch the fireworks display. A little after 11:30 P.M., while they were standing in the middle of a huge crowd, Amy suddenly slumped to the ground. Her friend thought she’d stumbled, but then she noticed a pool of blood spreading on top of Amy’s head. A .32 caliber slug had come down from the sky, pierced Amy’s skull, and hadn’t stopped traveling until it was into her throat. She was immediately brain dead, although, as per her wishes, doctors kept her body alive until her organs could be harvested.
I was in Texas visiting my inlaws when I got the news. I went back to New Orleans immediately, where I learned that at least six other persons had also been struck by falling bullets in the city that night, although no others fatally. This reckless tradition of celebratory gunfire had been injuring between five and fifteen people every New Year’s Eve in New Orleans as long as people could remember. The police estimated that over 200,000 bullets had been fired into the air the night Amy was killed. That first week in January, I met Steve Picou, local safety activist, and Gil Helmick, a businessman who’d been hit by a falling bullet the year before (the slug still resides in his chest). The three of us founded the New Year Coalition, a non-profit organization dedicated to educating the public about the dangers of celebratory gunfire. That first year, we raised over $35,000.00, which we spent on billboards, TV and radio announcements, and hundreds of thousands of posters featuring the faces and stories of victims. Over the next decade, working with the New Orleans Police Department and very cooperative members of local media, we steadily reduced the numbers of annual injuries. Between 2000 and 2002, we finally reached the point where New Orleans celebrated three New Year’s Eves in a row with no injuries at all.
So my mind wasn’t completely focused on novel writing when I first joined the workshop, but I kept pressing forward and writing new chapters to hand in. And, more months than not, the feedback was positive, both from George and from the dozen or so regular members of the group. I started attending the annual New Orleans Popular Fiction Conferences, which gave me opportunities to personally pitch my novel to editors and agents (not successfully at first, but at least I was in the game). I would’ve stuck with Fire on Iron, continuing to revise and submit it, had I not hit a brick wall in my personal life. Good Friday, 1997, wasn’t good at all to me. My then wife wanted me to be more adventurous, more fun-loving, so I decided to go rollerblading with her. That afternoon in Audubon Park was my first and LAST time on rollerblades. I got tired, hit a bad patch of pavement, and the next thing I knew, my left ankle was broken in two places. Not only that, but the next night, my wife told me she wanted out of the marriage. . . right before I went into Baptist Memorial Hospital to get my leg screwed and plated back together.
This double whammy sort of threw me off my game for a while. Nearly a year, actually. I didn’t touch my word processor for months after my divorce. When I finally got the writing itch again, I wanted to turn to an entirely new project; Fire on Iron was too closely associated with my dead marriage for me to consider working on it again, at least then (I wouldn’t pick it up again until 2010, thirteen years later). Luckily, hearing a funny anecdote about celebrity weight problems in New Orleans gave me the idea for a new novel—
Fat White Vampire Blues?
Right. I reveal the rest of the story, as Paul Harvey would say, in a little essay entitled, “The Secret Origin of Jules Duchon, Vampire! Or, How Jules Duchon, New Orleans Bloodsucker, Got So Darned Fat.”
So what’s going on with Fire on Iron?
I heavily revised it in 2010, hoping it would become the first book in a three or four book series. It’s still looking for a nice home.
What did you work on after Fat White Vampire Blues?
Bride of the Fat White Vampire. The folks at Del Rey liked the first Jules Duchon book well enough that they contracted for a sequel. Bride came out in 2004. For the story of what happened after Bride did a belly flop in the marketplace, I refer you to this essay.
What projects are you working on right now?
Why, I just happen to have an entire set of pages of my website devoted to that subject.
Has your personal life gotten any better since your lousy 1997?
Much better. So much better that I couldn’t have even imagined, when I was at my personal nadir, how much better my personal circumstances would become just half a decade down the road. I met my current wife, Dara, in 2000, the night before Halloween. We now share three wonderful, young sons and (currently) four cats, and Dara has an adult daughter. Being a father is both the toughest and the best job I’ve ever had. The boys frequently drive me nuts, but I can’t imagine going more than a few days without seeing and holding them. I had always wanted children, but before I actually had some, I had no idea how much having them would elevate my life. I now have a purpose for being on the planet, aside from collecting vintage laptop computers and writing about vampires with weight fetishes. Not everything has been hearts and flowers since 2000, of course; Hurricane Katrina was hard, as was having to leave New Orleans in 2009.
So you know what it means to miss New Orleans?
Definitely. I spent most of my adult life, prior to 2009, in New Orleans. I put down roots there. All three of my children were born there. I invested ten years of my life in a public advocacy campaign to reduce the incidence of holiday gunfire in New Orleans. Most of my books are set there. Most of my favorite bookstores and people and coffeehouses are there. I never thought I’d leave. But as a father and a husband, I couldn’t afford to be without a job, and there were no jobs for me in New Orleans after my temporary job with FEMA came to an end. We’re up in Northern Virginia now, in Prince William County. The quality of life for families is good up here. The boys and I are happy, and Dara adores this area. Every night, she sets out leftover food for racoons, possums, and foxes, and we frequently have deer troop across our back property. It’s a good place. I get plenty of writing done on the commuter train into Washington, DC. But I still miss New Orleans.