Back | Next

How I Got This Job

As I sit here finishing this collection and sipping fine Scotch, I still wonder, “How the hell did I get here?”

I was born in the UK, to a Scottish father and English mother. They got married, so I’m Scottish. If Scotland ever does declare independence, I will gain yet another passport.

I remember growing up middle class in the UK. My father had a motorcycle, and eventually a car, while he alternated electrical work and school. My mother waited tables evenings. We had a “flat” with no heat, and a transistor radio. Lunch for me was usually a boiled egg or a slice of bread with jam. In 1969 we got a black and white TV so we could watch the moon landing. Since my father was an electrical engineer, he re-programmed the set and we got four channels, though BBC1 and -2 usually showed the same thing. I remember the occasional Doctor Who, Tom and Jerry, and yes, Sesame Street.

Eventually we moved to a real house (well, a duplex), with plumbing. We were lucky. The row houses behind us had bathrooms tacked onto the back, with pipes running up to deliver water, and I believe the sewage dumped down into a semi-open system. They were a hundred years old and predated modern plumbing.

Every day, my mother would walk me the half mile to school, and pick me up afterward. The school toilets were also outside. After three years, the school built a brand new bathroom, still outdoors. However, we no longer had to urinate in a gutter or crap in a hole. When school wasn’t in session, my mother would take my hand and, with my sister in a pram, we’d walk most of a mile to the town market.

Now, in early 1970s Britain, she had to argue with the grocer, who wanted to get rid of the oldest food first for the same price as the fresh stuff. Then she’d load it in a small cart and pram in front, pulling that behind, or having me push one, we crossed a couple of four-lane roads to walk home.

We moved to Canada, because the mid’-70s economic climate in the UK didn’t look promising. My parents were young, but they were correct.

My father went ahead of us, secured a job, and sent for us. As we departed England, there was a bomb scare on our aircraft. It only took a few minutes to resolve, but I’ll always remember it.

Upon arriving in a hot, sunny Toronto, I was loaded into a Pontiac Parisienne, a Bonneville with a Canadian accent, where my feet didn’t even reach off the seat, and there was a radio in the car. THERE WAS A RADIO IN THE CAR! I was driven to an A&P, where there was a hundred feet of fresh produce. It was really odd, because there was no glass and no grocers. You could take whatever you wanted and put it in a bag, then they’d load it all into the car for you. You could just leave what didn’t look fresh, and they’d do something with it. I was sure they didn’t waste it, though.

You’ll see hints of this in my writing. Do not ever make the mistake of thinking that a shared language equals a shared culture. Certainly, there are likely to be more similarities than for people who don’t share a language, but even common words can change. For example, the first day of work, my father asked the office’s secretary for a “rubber,” by which he meant “eraser.” In Canada in the 1970s, this was easily understood and corrected. Use that term in America today, and there could be legal repercussions and EEO action.

I liked Canada, mostly. The bullies were worse than in the UK or the U.S. and traveled in packs. That surprises people who want to believe all Canadians are polite and kind. I have two words for you: “Ice hockey.”

It was quickly determined that my British education at the hands of the Anglican Church put me far ahead of my peers. I could write in cursive, do long division, basic wood crafting and needlepoint, and had a good grasp of both grammar and science. That paid off later, of course. At the time, I was placed a grade ahead.

Most Canuckians in Mississauga, Ontario, are apartment dwellers, though the apartments have a lot of nice features—pools, squash and tennis courts, underground parking. It wasn’t a huge change for me in that regard—the apartment was at least as big as the house in England, and there were lots of kids to play with. TV was easy—we could reach Toronto and Buffalo, and get Sesame Street in English, French and Spanish, and about thirty channels. Actually, I could have learned a lot of languages. Twenty-seven of thirty students in my fourth grade class were immigrants.

Then I found out about something called “Trick or Treat.” Rather than wear sheets and papier maché masks while munching treacle around a fire on the commons, it was encouraged to visit other apartments asking for candy. When you realize these apartments were 13-25 floors of 15-40 apartments per floor, with five buildings within easy walking distance, I still don’t remember how I managed to cover them in only a few hours, but I do remember entire pillowcases (plural) full of loot.

I did take up skating, and ice hockey, and street hockey, and gym hockey, having an entire bag of sticks of different types at different lengths for skates vs. shoes, and both left and right handed.

It was in Canada where I started writing my first book. I’d been studying up on rockets (that moon landing was still with me), writing text and sketching pictures of fuel systems, gantries, rocket staging, telemetry charts. I had dozens of pages finished, all done with marker and ruler.

Canada wasn’t quite what we were looking for, apparently. A few years later, my father found another job, and we wound up moving to the U.S. and settling in Central Ohio, where it was explained to me that we should have two cars, since we had two adults in the house. A friend’s parents were unable to properly discipline their son, because if they sent him to his room, he just watched TV there instead. Same language, different culture.

The teachers frowned at the complication I offered, and tossed me into class. That first day, I took an American history quiz and aced it. They were surprised. I was surprised to find it was specified as “American” history, and more so to find that the name was redundant, as they didn’t really teach other nations’ histories.

I could have skipped another grade, but I was already far ahead, skinny, and facing maturity issues. We all decided I should stay where I was.

There were bullies in Ohio, too. I was a small kid, but I always fought back, and eventually got better at it. At first I got the crap beat out of me, and I really didn’t know how to fight back. By the time high school rolled around I was a pretty decent brawler, but for some reason—probably being skinny, too smart for my own good, and mouthy—kids kept trying to beat on me. A few of us came to terms. The rest seem to have wound up the way most congenital bullies do—as not much of anything.

There was another turning point about then. It seems our immigration attorney was sneaky. He never actually put in writing what he was advising us to do by phone. We’d gotten a temporary visa for a year, moved to the U.S., bought a house, settled in, and applied for a permanent visa.

The temporary visa expired. That left us in limbo. You can’t leave the country and reenter without a visa, so we couldn’t visit family. We had no legal status at all, though we were still paying taxes. But you know those silly things kids do, like shoplifting, breaking curfew, et cetera? If I’d been caught doing stuff like that, my entire family could have been deported, our future stricken. In theory, it takes a pattern of such behavior, and a few misdemeanors aren’t an issue. It has to be a crime of “moral turpitude.” But legal immigrant teens are very cognizant of this standard. And, once the visa expired, we had no status. Any slip could have ended the trip. I sympathize with a lot of “illegal” aliens, because it’s very easy to be illegal even without intent. I know of several variations that friends have slipped into by accident.

Three years later, we finally got in to see an immigration officer. She looked at our papers, considered, looked at us, and said, “The problem is that what you did is illegal.” (It is legal now. It was not then.)

Even for a teenager, that’s a pretty heavy blow. By getting a temporary visa, we’d stated an intent to leave. Applying for a permanent visa contradicted that. And no, good intentions make no difference to the law in a case like this. All that matters is your papers. The easiest thing for this agent to do was to stamp a sheet and send us back to the country before the country we’d left, with a bar on reentry to the U.S. for ten years, and sucks to be you. We’d have had a few months, but would have had to sell the house, uproot, see if Canada would take us back as residents, or else relocate back to the UK again, at the height of the late 1970s troubles, and re-adapt to a culture we’d left behind.

The hardest thing for her to do was for her to write a letter to her superiors explaining that she believed we had honest intent and faulty advice, and that we should be granted the opportunity to apply for permanent visas.

She did this.

Ma’am, whoever you were, THANK YOU. I can never repay that kindness, that very nonbureaucratic thoughtfulness.

We were allowed to become American Permanent Residents, and don’t ever lose that green card.

My parents divorced when I was fifteen, and my mother, sister and I were on tight rations while my mother sold real estate and tried to find something more lucrative. My paper route money often went toward food. At sixteen I started cleaning and detailing cars for a few bucks.

Adulthood is a turning point for many people, and it was for me, but with a difference: Our citizenship hearings came up. I was barely an adult, still in high school, and had to be debriefed.

As immigrant nonrefugees, the bar we had is somewhat higher than it is for native borns or those seeking asylum. For example, proof of literacy is required. One couldn’t belong to any subversive or communist group, must not have a criminal background, must demonstrate “adequate knowledge” of U.S. history and government, and, yes, much of this applies to teenagers as well as adults. That last is the cutout—if they’re sure you’re some kind of enemy plant, they can ask who the fifteenth vice president was (Hannibal Hamlin) and when you don’t know, they can boot you.

It was ironic that the kid from England was required to write on the form, “I can speak, read and write the English language.”

In the meantime, I realized I didn’t have the focus for college, and needed out of the house. I didn’t get along well with either parent, and needed something. The Army recruiter probably could have hooked me if he’d shown more perseverance, but the Air Force recruiter won out. I took the ASVAB test—Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery—and demolished it, as I had the ACT and SAT. I got 99th percentile across the board. I showed up at the Columbus Military Entrance and Processing Station and was offered a huge list of jobs, including things like “computer security,” which were in their infancy. I gleefully selected a dozen choices.

Then the counselor said, “Wait, your paperwork indicates” something negative. “Are you a felon?”

“Uh . . . no . . . ”

It turns out there’d been some questionable security clearances that had allowed spies into various places. Immigrants were held to the same standards as felons, until naturalization was complete, and mine wasn’t.

That list of a hundred jobs shrank to a dozen, including things like “Plumber.” Now, plumbing is a worthy profession. But it wasn’t as glamorous as what I’d been shown moments before.

I wound up in an engineering specialty that changed over time, being largely a glamorized air-conditioning and cryogenic plant mechanic on the peacetime side, though it did include some weapons and vehicle training for deployment purposes.

Sometimes, you take what you can get. It worked out in the end.

I entered the Delayed Enlistment Program, and prepared to finish school. I finished, I graduated, and it was very much anticlimactic. I wasn’t any smarter, and richer, or any more employable.

Then the second immigration hearing came up, the important one. We scraped enough money to buy me a suit, and my mother and younger sister wore church-worthy dresses.

This time, the waiting room was full of dozens of people. There were Czechs, Chinese, Argentines, Rhodesians, Malians, a couple of other Brits and others we never met. I have never felt what I felt in that room. None of us had anything in common, but we all had one thing in common. We talked about our former homes, the differences, the opportunities. Everyone was dressed for the occasion.

When my name was called, the immigration official required me to confirm previous questions. He asked, “Since your last hearing, have you joined or belonged to any organizations other than the Boy Scouts and Civil Air Patrol?”

“Yes,” I answered.

He looked up at me, a bit surprised, because this was supposed to be largely a formality at this point.

“Which organization?”

“The U.S. Air Force.”

It took him a moment to process that, then he grinned hugely and said, “So you’re definitely here for the long haul.”

“Yes, sir, I am.”

He had me sign the papers, then he signed.

A while later, all of us together wound up in a courtroom, in seated rows, silently and politely awaiting our Immigration Judge.

The judge came in, very cordially, noted this was the most enjoyable part of his job, and he was proud to see us. He even knew which countries some of us were from, which was both very thoughtful, and very professional.

Then we raised our hands, and he administered the Naturalization Oath. There was a quiet cheer, and we all shook hands and patted each other on the back.

Fifty people entered that courtroom. Fifty Americans came out. If you are an immigrant, you understand. If not, I cannot explain it to you. At that moment, after a decade, I was once again, and at last, home.

I still have that suit, by the way. There is no way my chest would fit in that skinny jacket anymore, nor my arms, and to be fair, the waist is at least three inches too small. But that suit is mine.

Three months later I left for Basic Training, and it took the USAF three years to straighten out the paperwork from Permanent Resident to Naturalized Citizen, complicated by the fact that it was illegal to make any copy of the document in those days.

If you see me at public functions, you will find a lot of immigrants, including me, congregate. No matter where we came from, we share the bond of having chosen, and worked, to be Americans. Skin color, religion, political affiliation, have far less interest or impact to me than that unique connection. I noticed this in the military, where lots of immigrants wound up in my unit, and at science fiction conventions, which I started attending.

At my first convention, I managed to break my watch. I have never replaced it. It didn’t really matter what time it was, and I threw myself in headfirst. No one knew it was my first convention. I’ve always fit into that crowd.

I had lots of letters to editor, recipes, and such published from age eighteen, with a very high hit rate. I wrote stuff for that went viral, and eventually got reprinted for money. I sold some erotica, and got requests for more.

I wrote a short story, which I submitted to several magazines, only to have it rejected. It wasn’t great. I did eventually salvage some of the characters and elements for other stories.

It’s almost a stereotype that science fiction authors have an odd employment history. I got caught in the first round of military cutbacks in the late 1980s, wound up getting my reenlistment cancelled, and was out the gate on a week’s notice. I had to get all the essential stuff I didn’t have—an apartment, a bed, kitchen utensils, a cat—on credit. Then I had to find a job in a sucky area for jobs. Champaign-Urbana being a small town with a large college has lots of well-educated, needy, underpaid applicants for jobs. I took some hourly positions in fabrication shops, and doing machine maintenance, and even as shift manager at a pizza place, until I could get enrolled for school with the GI bill to help. I also enlisted in the Army National Guard.

During this time, I hung out a lot with the Society for Creative Anachronism, and someone with a small business asked if I’d both craft armor and weapons for them to sell, and be a sales rep for those and other products. Every weekend, I was at Drill, or a convention, or a reenactment. I stopped working day jobs and did school weekdays. The money wasn’t great, but it was enough to see me through classes.

A funny thing happened on the way to my degree. I went to a convention in Minneapolis. I arrived after a day of school, a night of driving, and no sleep, so I wasn’t really lucid after ten hours of setup and selling. A friend of mine introduced me to a friend of hers, wearing leather and spandex and nothing else except boots and a sword. We got to talking, and talking some more, and had a great time. She was curvy and cute, great to talk to, and almost psychic. While I was trying to come up with a clever way to say “Is there somewhere more quiet we can go?” she asked me, “So, should we find somewhere more private?”

Good idea.

I actually was dating someone at the time, though not exclusively. I made a point of saying so, that I was free for the weekend, but couldn’t promise more than that. So we had the weekend.

A funny thing about one night stands. They don’t always last one night. A month later, she drove all the way to Milwaukee to join me at a convention there, and a month after that, she stopped by the apartment in Illinois on her way to Florida.

She never got to Florida, and still hasn’t. She managed, very politely, to divert my date for that weekend into an accomplice and roommate, move us into a rental house, find another roommate, and wind up my Significant Other.

Twenty-two years later, twenty of them married, Gail is still here. The bitch just won’t leave. On the other hand, I haven’t had any reason to throw her out. But it’s a one night stand. Honest.

I paid my way through college several ways. I had the GI bill. I had National Guard drills and volunteered as support for whatever extra days they needed people for. I was a stripper (yes, really) for decent money, though not often enough. The small enterprise I worked for moved and folded. We started our own small business. I worked on blades—repairs, sharpening, custom crafting, and selling retail at SF conventions, SCA events and occasional other events. She helped with sales, costumes, and the tax paperwork.

Gail went back to school, too, having previously attended University of Minnesota and a local college. She managed fast food, then wound up doing office management.

Winters were the slow season, and I spent those times trying to build up inventory, scrape money from what small events there were, stringing my wife’s income along into a fine thread, and writing.

I left school without a degree, though I have more than enough credit for a master’s. The problem is, it’s in electronic controls, history, English, physics, and none of it complete as a program. I was making enough from events, and enjoying it, that I didn’t miss the official stamps (I do hold a Journeyman’s certificate in HVAC, and a certificate in electrical controls).

Gail’s research suggested that if we moved, we could keep the same cost of living but earn more money. I wasn’t tied down to any location. The only complication was that I had transferred back to the Air National Guard at this point, and would have a four hour drive for drill. It was workable, until I could find a slot in a unit closer to home.

So we moved to the Indianapolis area, staying with friends until we got settled, and yes, managing to earn twice as much money for the same cost of living.

So I kept doing it, we managed with some great years and lean years, and in the late ’90s, my firearm articles started getting published. Summers were, and still are, hectic with events. I took four years of winters to write Freehold, which is not my best writing, of course, but was heartfelt and earnest at the time.

SF, though, especially military SF, is not a sellers’ market. Several experienced authors advised me to “write short stories,” build up a following with sales, then get a novel sold. It used to work that way. That was falling by the wayside at the turn of 2000, and is pretty much no longer valid advice, in my opinion.

My shorts got rejected, often because they sucked. I knew my grasp of language was sufficient. I knew I had good plots and characters, but something in the construction was missing.

By the time I wrote the short story that begins this collection, I thought I had a reasonable grasp of the art, and the friends I could trust to be honest not only liked it, but had discussions among themselves about it. Of course, that didn’t mean it would work for any particular periodical. It was frustrating.

I groused about this fact on Baen’s Bar, where I’d been holding lengthy debates on the history of weapons and the logistics around them. I was always careful to spell and punctuate properly. It’s what I do, and this was a publisher’s site. I didn’t want to make the people who use the language for a living cringe with my errors.

So I complained about all these rejections of, “Alas, we can’t use it at this time.” “Alas, it doesn’t quite grab us.”

“Alas, it doesn’t fit our current needs.”

They were saying, “Dear aspirant: Sorry, try again.” Why pretty it up with archaic wordage?

Jim Baen replied, “Perhaps they’re trying to be alliterative. Alack, alas, alay . . .” He wrote a whole paragraph of alliterative A-words, which ended with, “That said, send me one. single. chapter. of something you’re working on and I’ll take a look at it.”

After a brief adrenaline shock I shooed my wife from the office (er, kitchen), and I emailed him “One. Single. Chapter. Of Freehold.

He replied, “I. Have. Read. It,” and offered some small advice, which of course I took. He suggested I add a bit on a page about a departure from Earth, describing the shuttle in detail. I didn’t see the point. It was a plot device more than anything, connecting two scenes. But, Mister Baen had been doing this as long as I’d been alive. I took his advice under consideration, and yes, it turned a break into a segue. An astute editor, that Mister Baen, which is of course why I’d been trying to court his attention.

He then asked for another chapter. A week later, he asked for another. He was politely unhappy with some rambling parts, which I fixed. We went on. Finally, he said, “Just send me the rest of the book,” and told me to politely remind him once a month. Six months after that, I got a late night email that said, “Mike, let’s call it a deal. I’ll take Freehold for (respectable sum of money for someone desperately broke at that time), and have Marla send you our boilerplate contract.”

I did consult with my friend Dave Drake to make sure I understood all the ramifications of said contract. But I said yes.

I still only have one TV in the house, and it’s used more for movies and games than TV. I got cable when it was necessary for Olympic coverage. My son plays the games. If it weren’t for the computer (no games here, either) I wouldn’t need a screen at all, really. I spend most of the time writing, ranting and creating. I do fewer events than I used to, but still quite a few. Some are large for promotion and profit. Some are small for promotion and to hang out with friends. I still forge blades and do repairs, but it’s a money-making hobby, not really a job. I also do product reviews to provide feedback to manufacturers, and to then promote the stuff that holds up well. I’ve reviewed tactical lights, cameras, guns, backpacks, survival rations, training videos, any number of items relevant to disaster preparedness.

So here I am, doing what I love doing, getting paid for it, and telling you about it.

It’s been a hell of a ride so far.

Back | Next