On a Certain Day

On a certain day deep in the Mission District in the city of San Francisco, a pair of free-range Tor authors were spotted spinning tales of the fantastical and the absurd in a certain bookstore.

The day was March 28th; the authors were Ken Scholes and Jay Lake; the bookstore was Borderlands Books.

And the stories . . . they were a small breath of magic in the air.

* * *

As Lake says, “Watching writers write is like watching paint dry.” Yet a respectable gathering of people were there from the start, growing to a room-filling crowd by the time the stories were read aloud. Who would give up the heart of a lovely Saturday afternoon in our fair city to huddle indoors, gathered around the sound of keyboards clacking, punctuated only by the occasional random question — “How much space does a billion gallons of water take up?” “Where are the ghost ships?” “What’s your middle initial, Jude?” — and the mad dash of kitten-feet across a hardwood floor?

Those who wanted to see the magic at work, of course. Fellow lovers of fine absurdist–sci-fi–fantasy literature yearning to witness the process up close and deeply, sweatily personal.

* * *

The madness began, as these things so often do, with clowns in space. Lake and Scholes, who have been inseparable pals for nearly a decade, had always spoken of writing together. But other than a stalled effort about a space-faring colony of homicidal clowns, it had never come to fruition. Each had their own projects, their own increasing successes, coupled with the more usual full schedules and life distractions. The poor clowns languished, their story half-told, where it remains still. (Upon sober reflection, one can only hope the story never sees the light of day.)

Then the time came for Scholes’s tour to promote the publication of his amazing book Lamentation, first in the Psalms of Isaak cycle. This included a stop in San Francisco. Lake suggested the time-honored Writer in the Window venue at Borderlands.

From there, the concept twisted, turned, doubled back upon itself, and finally arrived at the notion of Lake and Scholes writing in one another’s universes. Lake would draft a story taking place in the Named Lands; Scholes would set his tale in the world of Mainspring, Escapement, and the forthcoming Pinion, where the Earth turns on gears of brass. The stories would undoubtedly have been things of beauty, dripping with knowing insider references, gloriously florid language, and the clever twists of plot and character the reader has come to expect from both Scholes and Lake.

Alas, it was not to be. The ever-crafty authors changed their plan at the last moment.

The day approached. The crowd gathered. The authors took their seats, facing one another across a small table, with only an extra-large pepperoni and olive pizza, a pile of homemade brownies, a bottle of mead, and twenty pounds of cheese and crackers to sustain them. With an old bald cat and a young bald kitten pacing between the men, they settled down over their computers.

“Start!” Borderlands proprietor Jude Feldman’s clear voice rang out across the room, and they were off.

Sweat dripped down foreheads. Fingers whacked at keyboards. The audience fidgeted and fretted. The cats grew bored and wandered off.

“Switch!”

The laptops were stripped of their files. The files were passed across the table. And then . . . right before our very eyes . . . Ken Scholes finished the story Jay Lake had started, while Jay Lake finished the story that Ken Scholes had begun.

Genius! Madness! Glory!

But that was only the beginning.

* * *

The room was packed by the time the readings began. Neither author had perused the final products — raw, throbbing hunks of fiction, hot off the Borderlands printer. Scholes stood, cleared his throat, and began, plunging into “Looking for Truth in a Wild Blue Yonder.” His lovely, melodic reading voice did great justice to his lyrical writing style, and a terribly sweet blush appeared when he reached Lake’s more salacious turns in the second half of the story. But he pulled it off like a trooper. The crowd went wild.

Then it was Lake’s turn. Taking “The Starship Mechanic” firmly in hand, he read his own words with grace and dignity, only bursting into laughter when he reached Scholes’s first lines of the story, round about page five or six. And then again, half a page later. And then once more. No, twice. Three times. This reporter, frankly, lost track.

* * *

When the formal festivities were complete, the damp and exhausted (but fully exhilarated) crowd peppered the Tor authors with questions, acclaim, offerings of alcoholic beverages, and requests for autographs. Eventually Feldman escorted the most fervent fans to the door and allowed Scholes and Lake to escape back into the wild, where they belong.

The stories, on the other hand, are here for your enjoyment. Read them in good health, and always remember to be careful of homicidal clowns. Or Todds from space.

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