I was born in Bloomington, Illinois during an ice storm. I’m not sure what the weather has to do with it, but it’s still true. The fact that it was a Friday morning under the sign Sagittarius also has no bearing on anything. This information also comes to me second-hand, as I don’t seem to recall a stitch of it.
What I do remember is the house we lived in at the time, although most of the details are a bit sketchy. It was a huge, run-down old Victorian farm house in the very small town of Stanford, just west of Bloomington. We were poor back then; my parents were young with two small children, and my dad had just gotten out of the Navy. I can’t remember much about my toys, except for a large collection of wooden building blocks. But I didn’t need toys in this environment; my parents spent much of their time rehabilitating the old house, and it had a basement ripe for a kid’s imagination to run wild. It was like a maze of tiny rooms, dark and creepy. The walls in the house would seem to change daily; doors would be added or subtracted depending on my parent’s ultimate design goals. In my mind, it was a haunted castle, or a cave system filled with monsters.
I shared these fantasies with anyone who would listen. The person who enjoyed my stories the most was a family friend we called Uncle Strawberry. I have no idea how Russell acquired the nickname Strawberry, but there it is. The point, however, and there really is a point to this rambling, is that Uncle Strawberry first predicted I would grow-up to be a writer.
By the time I started school, I had grown-out of telling stories, perhaps because Uncle Strawberry and his wonderful wife, Auntie Hilda, had retired and moved to Texas, but my imagination was not stifled. We had moved to a new house south of Bloomington. It was fairly isolated, there were few kids my age within walking distance, but for me, it was a golden age. We had an enormous yard, almost three acres backed-up by a miniature pine forest. In particular, was a mature weeping willow shaped in such a way you would swear was designed for climbing.
The world was changing in the late seventies. Star Wars had been released, Buck Rogers, Battlestar Galactica and Doctor Who were on TV. I had seen photographs from the surface of Mars, and learned about the Voyager program. But most importantly, at this time LEGO was producing the most awesome space sets, which I still have. The willow became a rocket, the back yard was a hundred alien planets. I was now a certified Science Fiction geek.
Among all these little anecdotes are large patches of blank space, lost to the foggy mists of time. However, one night in June, 1985, still stands-out in my memory. My parents had gone to bed, my sister had moved out, and I was alone in the living room watching the Tonight Show. For some reason, I decided to pick-up a pencil and started to write one of my most recent imaginings. This was my first book, which is probably overly generous. As I recall, it was 64 pages, hand-written and just plain bad. But it was a beginning. After that piece of dreck, I wrote another, which was a little better, and then another.
My parents gave me a battery-powered Brother typewriter which got a hard workout all through high school, which I barely graduated from because I was a daydreamer with little interest in academics. When I started attending classes at the community college in East Peoria, my dedication to school work improved greatly. I was going to be a writer, dammit, and I needed an education. I could study the things I genuinely found interesting, and I was shocked to discover I was actually good at things—except math.
This was when I started my epic. I was delusional, apparently, but had a great scheme. It was a massive space-opera called The Kingdom of Oraque. I worked on that thing for eight years, and only got half way through it. But at half way, it was already over a quarter million words long. What the hell was I thinking?
Life often gets in the way of life. I didn’t finish college, not even community college. I was working at a grocery store, making decent money for the first time in my life. Also, I was in my early 20’s, having a really good time, and was anxious to be out on my own. I figured I would take a semester off, and before you know it, years had gone by.
During this time, I wrote the first novel I felt was good enough for publication. A science fiction comedy, tentatively titled Short Fuse. The first draft was completed in February 2010. Perhaps I was now taking myself too seriously and I made the most obvious beginner’s mistake. I started pitching the book long before it was ready. Naturally, I didn’t get anywhere. There was some interest, a few industry professionals commented on my book’s potential, but that interest was lukewarm at best, because it wasn’t ready.
Over the next few years, I edited Short Fuse and worked on other projects, mainly short stories, and went through the usual rounds of rejection. I had also decided to go back to school and maybe finish this time, which I did in 2012. That last semester was exceptionally helpful to me, one class in particular, focusing on the modern short story. I gave a few of my shorts to the professor, and he urged me to submit to the school’s annual publication Patterns. I entered just before the deadline in December.
2013 began badly. Another series of interested publishers, followed by a series of kindly rejections. By March, I was about to give-up, and was saved only by an email notifying me that two of my stories had been accepted by Patterns. I decided to try one last campaign, but only after the award ceremony in late April. I made a new list of small presses, and one in particular caught my attention, mainly because of their name: Leo Publishing. This almost seemed like kismet; one of the main characters in Short Fuse is a cat named Leo, based on my own beloved pet, who had died recently from extreme old age. He was over 19.
April came. I was a wreck, knowing that if I managed only an honorable mention, I would be crushed—again. But the awards ceremony turned out better than I had hoped. One story won the top award for fiction, and another came in third. Invigorated by this acknowledgment, I submitted again three days later.
A long summer followed. Waiting and pacing. Finally, on August 1st, which, ironically, would have been Leo’s 20th birthday, Leo Publishing offered me a contract.