The story I just submitted to the Machine of Death anthology is a bit of a breakthrough for me. Karen Stolz, in a lot of ways, helped me write it. I should explain.
Karen Stolz is my creative writing instructor at Pittsburg State University. She died this week.
The story, “Mortal Combat with Ants,” is urban fantasy with trace literary elements. It was an argument Karen and I had a lot. She wanted me to write literary fiction, because–she said–it would make me a better writer. She didn’t want me to write genre fantasy, because she believed that if I depended on well-worn tropes and recycled ideas for my fiction, I’d never improve. She had a point, but I’m hard-headed. I wrote fantasy stories for her class–everything always had fantasy elements. “All Coated in Bonemeal” in Arcane #2 originated in one of her classes. An unpublished (and probably unpublishable) story titled “The Girl With Giant Wings.” A story I’m submitting around at the moment called “Don’t Look Back.”
I wanted desperately for Karen to read fantasy and like it, because I liked fantasy, and I liked her. So I spent time identifying elements of literary fiction and trying to shove them cockeyed into fantasy. It actually worked out really well, when I got the hang of it. My writing got better because she was pushing me (perhaps not how she intended) to do something different. “All Coated in Bonemeal” is about an evil necromancer, sure–but it’s more about making a friend. The mixture comes off as bleeding the lines between dark fantasy and literary to me.
Karen was quiet and I was loud. I liked being around her, because she always had something sharp and witty to say when she got a word in edgewise. This was outside of class, of course. I like to think I rein it a little during class. And I always appreciated her comments on my stories.
They taught me that it’s OK to connect the dots a different way. That they connect more than one way.
This summer, before she died, I started working on “Mortal Combat with Ants” and I was determined to make it literary enough to compel her, but fantastic enough to still be genre. It turned out that my favorite group of people, over at Machine of Death, had a call for submissions for their second anthology. And their submission guidelines suggested that, perhaps, some outright fantasy would be acceptable.
I started with the random words “pixie” and “christ.” I’ll let you wonder from there. Three weeks later, I’m at Freddy’s in Pittsburg. I’ve just typed the word “end.” I’m mostly happy with my story. I’m positively giddy, because, sure, I want the story to get accepted into the anthology–but what I really want is to put a good polish on it, show it to Professor Stolz, and have her like it. To learn something new because of the way she connected the dots.
I opened Facebook, and within a minute my friend Catiri tells me that Karen Stolz is dead.
So now I have a story about ressurection, written for an anthology about death, dedicated to a teacher who died in her sleep on a night when I was rapidly approaching the end of the story. I’d stayed up all night working on the ending. She died while I was writing.
I’ll never know if Karen liked the story.
I’d like to think that she’d have given me back the manuscript and circled something I hadn’t really thought about, and then asked me if I was referencing a piece of obscura that she’d read 20 years ago. I like to think that she’d love it. I like to think that she’d have had some amazing suggestion for it that would have instantly prompted another massive revision.
I like to think.
Rest in Peace, Karen. I didn’t know you long, or well, but you were powerful in my life, all the same.