Galveston - Notes
After finishing Mockingbird I was in a real quandary about what to write next. Ace had made it tactfully clear that they would really prefer something a little more like, well, science fiction or fantasy for my next book. And I owed them another book; Mockingbird had been #1 of a two-book contract.
And yet... after Clouds End and The Night Watch I wasn't sure what other use I could put the sets and props of F&SF to. So I was shlepping around, without a definite idea or a story. Instead, I had the vaguest of parameters:
1. It should be recognizably F&SF; and
2. Nothing about anybody's damn childhood! Sheesh, after Mockingbird I was just fed up with anybody having any past at all. I told my friends, "I want to write a book that starts, "Look out! It's a bomb!" and goes forward from there without a single glance back." You know, maybe a good old action-adventure novel.
Other than that, no ideas.
Well, there are of course four universally accepted methods artists use to generate ideas:
- contract an incurable illness
- abuse drugs and drink
- fall into disastrous and illicit affairs; or
On reflection, I figured maybe #4 would be the best choice.
So I went to Bali.
My reasons for choosing Bali? Well, I had never had a chance to travel much; never seen New York City, let alone Paris or Tokyo or Melbourne. It seemed quite possible at the time that this might be the only trip we would have the time and money for me to take in the foreseeable future. So I figured I might as well go as far as possible, to the most exotic possible place. After all, the point was to stir the pot: not only to add to my store of experience, but to go somewhere sufficiently strange that it might change the way I looked at things I had already experienced.
And then, Bali is a deeply animist culture that is nonetheless racing full tilt into the urban Industrial Age--a combination that has always appealed to me.
I stayed in the center of the island in the village of Ubud, away from the surfer scene but enough on the artsy tourist track that I hoped I wouldn't be too freaked out and scared to enjoy myself. (No back-packing shoe-string hero, I.)
One of the most striking feature of Ubud, is that this village of fairy tale beauty and friendly people is over-run with hideous, scabrous, cowardly, snarling, mutilated dogs. It's hard not to see them as the price paid; Le Guin's "The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas" made flesh.
Sitting on the wrong side of the world in my first losmen (balinese for bed & breakfast) which was next to a temple yard full of demonic statuary, I thought, Jeez, why don't we ever write fantasy novels like real myths, where the gods come and have sex with people and turn them into spiders or stars?
So Bali did give me the basis for my novel: the curdling power of gods, and the paradise paid for with the coin of dogs' suffering.
...AND THE WAY THE PROCESS REALLY WORKS
--Of course, the dogs aren't in the final manuscript. The role of the gods has been much reduced and in places eliminated. The island that was Bali is now Galveston, Texas. And oh yeah, everybody had childhoods after all.
C'est la vie.
(I didn't cut the cannibals, though. A real action-adventure story set on a plague-infested desert island has to have cannibals. Even if they are wise-cracking and philosophical good ol' boys from East Texas... I've had characters arrested in other books, shot at, killed, and visited with all manner of indignities. But I can't recollect that any of my other heroes ever got rustled before.)
Jane Gardner, the matriarch of Galveston (and mother of one of our two protagonists) is slowly dying as the novel begins. She is living in the house of Bettie Brown, a turn of the century socialite who broke hearts at the court of Franz Joseph of Austria and rode camelback across the Sahara. I decided, for various reasons, that Jane was dying of a very rare illness, Lou Gehrig's disease. After the book was written I toured Miss Bettie's house (where it is widely believed that Miss Bettie still dwells; legions of Islanders will swear to having heard her play her famous square piano late at night in the decades since her death). At the end of the tour I learned two things: first, that my guide believed absolutely that Miss Bettie's ghost was still alive and kicking, citing many examples from her own experience. And second, I learned what had killed Bettie Brown: Lou Gehrig's disease.
TOP TEN REASONS GALVESTON IS THE MOST INTERESTING CITY IN AMERICA (not counting Bettie Brown, mentioned above)
10. First European to land on it was named Cow Head (Cabeza de Vaca, who in his defense was descended from a long line of illustrious and decorated Cow Heads).
9. Karankawa Indians, memorable for two reasons. First, they wept constantly; de Vaca claims that on entering another man's tent, there would be twenty minutes of teary sobbing before conversation began. Second, they were cannibals.
8. Jean Lafitte. Galveston was essentially this gentleman pirate's private fiefdom for more than a decade. It was from the island that he carried out his slave-trading, and his depradations of the Spanish fleet that plied the Gulf and the Caribbean. His treasure is rumored buried at the west end of the island.
7. The town planner. Even before the death of his wife from yellow fever, he was notably eccentric, and given to riding around the town on an ox. The town council reprimanded him for making the plots of land given to new arrivals and investors too big: this is why Galveston has M Avenue... followed by M 1/2, N, N 1/2... He decided to make his fortune by building a Meat Biscuit plant. He had a preliminary deal worked out with the British Navy, but it fell through when their representatives decided his meat biscuits were too disgusting to give to British sailors. If you know what they did make Jack Tar eat, the mind boggles. His next pet project? To take perfectly good milk, boil most of the water out of it, and can the remaining sludge. His name was Borden; the rest is history.
6. Birthplace of first black heavyweight champion of the world, Jack Johnson.
5. Bill Moody Jr. Son of the infamous Colonel Moody, who made Galveston's first truly immense fortune by cheating cotton farmers, Bill Jr. was notorious for his manner of refusing bank loans. He would nod sympathetically to the applicant, then turn and discuss the question with a stuffed parrot he kept on his desk. His face would fall, and then, regretfully, he would explain that his partner (the stuffed parrot) had nixed the deal. This was the single most powerful man on the island for thirty years.
4. The Mob. From the 30's to the 50's, Galveston was every bit as thoroughly controlled by the Mob as Atlantic City. Rose and Sammy Maceo made it the Vegas of the south, inviting Houston oilmen to gamble at clubs like the Balinese Room (there's a bit of synchronicity!) When the Texas Rangers came to raid, a doorman at the front would ring a buzzer. The band inside, often backing Tommy Dorsey or Guy Lombardo, would strike up "The Eyes of Texas are Upon You." In the back room, roulette wheels folded up into the wall like ironing boards, to be replaced by deal tables already laid out with hands of Old Maid and Go Fish. When you headed south from Houston, by the time you could smell salt around the towns of Texas City and Dickinson you were said to have crossed the Maceo-Dickinson line into the Free State of Galveston.
3. Prostitution. From 1870 - WWII Galveston featured two and a half times as many hookers per capita as Shanghai. Rendezvous with all kinds of women--including well-bred Christian girls customers were told would only be available after sunday school--played a major part in gaining industrial contracts for the city.
2. John Roberts & Friends. After the great hurricane of 1900, Galveston decided to defend herself from the sea by building a 7 mile long seawall, and raising the whole island 12 feet. Working a block at a time, crews would lift up every building on jackscrews--including the cathedral--shove an extra twelve feet of sand dredged from the channel underneath, and drop the building down again. This feat of stupefying hubris was overseen in part by ex Army Corps of Engineers major John Roberts -- more familiar to you as the author of Roberts Rules of Order, the handbook of parliamentary procedure.
...and Galveston's greatest claim to fame,
1. The Great Hurricane of 1900. To filch a bit from the book: on the evening of September 7, 1900, when a hurricane that seemed destined for the Louisiana coast veered suddenly to the west and caught Galveston square. At that time the island's highest point was eight feet above sea level. The storm surge crested at twenty. Sustained winds in excess of one hundred fifteen miles an hour ripped roofing slates off the houses and sent them screaming through the air like saw blades. The sea and the wind obliterated everything near the beach, gathered the debris and smashed it into the next line of buildings, over and over. The grinding thresher of rubble, twenty feet tall, scoured 1,500 acres bare, including nearly one third of the city. Where it had passed nothing remained standing: no house, no building, no dock, no tree, no shrub.
One out of every six Islanders died in the hurricane. Thirty-six hundred houses were destroyed. One man counted forty-three bodies left dangling among the trestles of an unfinished railroad bridge. Of the ninety-seven children in St. Mary's Orphanage, three survived. The bodies of nine, still roped with clothesline to a drowned nun, were found washed up miles down the beach. By sundown on September 8th, it had become clear that there were far, far too many dead to bury. Casualty estimates went from fifty, to three hundred, to a thousand, to six thousand killed. Bands of Negroes were rounded up at gunpoint and forced to load the dead and the pieces of the dead onto barges. By the time they got to open water it was too dark to work, so the blacks were forced to spend the night with the stinking corpses. When morning came they tied stones to the bodies and heaved them into the sea.
The next day the dead came back, floating up all along the beach. The stones had not held them and they had slipped their ropes. After that the bodies were cremated on pyres that smoldered for weeks. Every contemporary account talks of the constant reek of corpses burning.