I have Sandra Ruttan to thank for inspiring me to finish the story, though at the time she probably thought she was just encouraging me to write a little something for the contest. She didn't know that this story had been simmering in the back of my mind for decades, incomplete, rudderless. At various time I thought I'd finished it, but it was never quite right. The problem was that I didn't know what kind of story it was. Over the years it went through all sorts of permutations, from Eudora Welty or Faulkneresque to something that might have sprung from the mind of Harlan Ellison. The critical point was that I hadn't figured out how to make it my story, and so I was trying to make it someone else's story. And so it became no one's story.
"A Tall House" was born from a dream. The only problem is it wasn't my dream. One morning at breakfast, my freshman year in college, I was talking to some friends and one fellow described his dream from the night before. Joe Miller was his name. Great buy who I've lost track of over the years. Anyway, in the dream, he was in this house with many floors above, a very tall house, and his mother lived in a tower room at the top. In the dream, Joe's mother was an imperious authority figure who wouldn't let him come upstairs.
For some reason, the dream resonated with me and I asked him if he minded if I wrote a story based on it. He thought the idea was pretty funny, someone else writing about his dream, and said he was all for it.
So the writing began. I actually completed the first draft of the story the following spring, but at the time it was a sprawling sci-fi mini-epic that made absolutely no sense. The character of Else wasn't even in it, and the mother was -- yes, I admit it -- half-machine. It also weighed in at 12,000 words, either too long or too short, depending on how you look at such things. And so I sat on it.
The following year in a creative writing class, I went back to the idea. It still intrigued me, this imperious mother figure in a tower, and I knew I hadn't gotten a handle on the story. I rewrote it from scratch, de-aging the boy and adding the housekeeper as a benign guardian figure, sort of Gandalf in drag. The science-fiction elements drifted into the fantastical, the story got a little shorter, and in the end, it still made absolutely no sense. Of course the other students in my creative writing class loved it because after all, this was the early 80s, the era of fiction that makes no sense whatsoever.
Still, I knew something wasn't right. "A Tall House" went back into the file drawer.
Over the next few years, I dragged it out again and again, tinkered, diddled, fiddled and flopped. It went no where, though it did settle down a bit. Became more personal, more character-focused, and darker. But it still wasn't really a story. No focus, no point. Just sense impressions and introspection.
Years pass. At various points the story swells and shrinks. It never quite returned to the 12,000 words of that long ago first draft, but there were versions that were as long as ten grand, as short as two. And at one point, I lost them all. It was during a move, a box full of manuscripts vanished while being shipped across country and "A Tall House" vanished with it. Some might have taken that as a sign.
And maybe it was. Maybe the sign was, "forget all that crazy old stuff and start from scratch." You have a house, you have a boy and his mother. Why are they there? Why is she upstairs and him down below?
New drafts ensued. The story had finally settled into the here and now. No more robots or wizards. A boy, his mother, and a housekeeper in a strange house. But where was it going?
The Cozy Noir Contest provided me with focus. Suddenly I looked at what I had and thought about it in the context of its noir elements juxtaposed against the frumpy every day life of a family. An odd family, with dark secrets. Doilies and blunt objects. Domestic violence and peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.
Sandra had given me what I needed to finish the story at last. I reset my thinking, and dove in. After more than twenty years it finally came together.
When I sent it off, I expected nothing. Whether it did well in the Cozy Noir Contest wasn't important. I'd finished it. I was happy with it. That was enough.
All that said, winning was pretty damn nice too.