Research Notes · 10/28/2016

City of Weird

Our Research Notes series invites authors to describe their process for a recent book, with “research” defined as broadly as they like. This week, Art Edwards writes about his story “Waiting for the Question” in the anthology City of Weird: 30 Otherworldly Portland Tales, edited by Gigi Little and available from Forest Avenue Press.

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Waiting for the Answer

In May of 2015, I received an email from Gigi Little. I’d been waiting to hear a verdict on my short story “Waiting for the Question,” also known as my Alex Trebek story, which I’d submitted to Forest Avenue Press’s weird Portland anthology, of which Gigi was editor.

“Thank you for submitting ‘Waiting for the Question’ to Forest Avenue Press’s next fiction anthology. We like this story a lot. The inclusion of Alex Trebek is both a plus (weird and funny) and a potential minus because there can be the danger of lawsuits when you publish works using real celebrities. We’ve been doing some research and will need to err on the side of caution and say we can only publish this story (which we really want to do) if we can get express permission from Mr. Trebek.

“We’ve pulled up the address for Jeopardy! and would be happy to contact them to see what we can find out.”

In the span that it took for me to read the email, I was flattered, disappointed, and mystified. Flattered because I had watched from the sidelines as Forest Avenue Press became one of the go-to publishing houses in Portland, boasting a title written by my friend Dan Berne and a host of other writing luminaries. Disappointed because my inclusion of Alex Trebek in the story — a character choice that was somewhat random but at the same time weirdly necessary to make the story go — was standing in the way of the story’s publication by said house. Mystified because on what planet does Alex Trebek respond to such a query? Aren’t there, like, ten people in the way to prevent such a response? And if he does respond, what exactly would be his motivation to say yes? A short story written kind of about him? In this particular story Alex Trebek is, shall we say, not treated very well. People throw garbage at him, at one point he’s forced to wear one of those rainbow umbrella hats, and he suffers in the end what we’ll call a sort of polite mugging.

I couldn’t shut off the part of me that was less than optimistic about this pursuit. It would be another tough blow I’d endure at the hands of this one story.

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In the summer of 2011, I started and finished a short story called “Trebekett,” about a day when a weirdly catatonic Alex Trebek shows up to an unemployed guy’s apartment complex. After Trebek’s appearance, things start magically to go right for the unemployed guy. He gets a couple of big checks in the mail, and starts to think this good fortune is because the recalcitrant version of Alex Trebek is watching over him. When things start to go ill for the guy, he’s desperate enough to violate a certain trust with Trebek. At the climax, the guy yells, “What do you want from me?” And Trebek, opening his mouth for the first time in the story, says, “I wanted you to put it in the form of a question.”

Corny, I know, but I still felt “Trebekett” was the best short story I’d ever written, and I submitted it liberally to literary magazines. It got many good responses, and eventually it was accepted by a very small lit-humor magazine on December 15, 2011, my first ever short story acceptance. I bought champagne, but didn’t have time uncork it. On December 19, the very small lit-humor magazine went on indefinite hiatus.

I submitted “Trebekett” to other places, but never with quite the same verve. Maybe you know the feeling. You’re excited about this new piece, the piece gets some attention, then abruptly that attention goes way, and the wind is no longer at your sails. Besides, there was that stupid ending. Responses from a few very established magazines had suggested that the story had gotten close to acceptance, but ultimately they passed. One editor commented specifically that the ending “doesn’t quite feel earned.” I agreed. The story didn’t want my punchline. It wanted something else.

I went back to revise “Trebekett” several times, improving it at points, but through each revision I kept winding up with some version of the punchline for the ending. Over a period of years, I would open the story on my desktop, hoping to get some insight on where it wanted to go besides the punchline, but I always gave up. The story was too tied to Alex Trebek to do anything else. Besides, the piece had been accepted once as-is. Maybe some other editor would find favor with it.

Which brings me to Mara.

Sometime in 2015, Mara, a new member of the writers’ group I attend, brought in a piece that featured a ghost named Freddie who pesters a young lady from — so I thought — beyond the grave. Freddie makes the lady’s car break down, makes it so her coffee shop is late with her latte, and ruins her day at work. After each obstacle, Freddie celebrates with a line like, “Another one bites the dust,” or “I’ll keep on fighting ‘til the end.” Finally, the young lady confides to a friend about how difficult her day has been, and the friend says, “Oh, that’s just because Freddie Mercury is in retrograde.”

Everyone laughed. I laughed. As a former rock guy and forever a lover of the zinger, it was right up my alley. Still, I found myself weirdly invested in what I saw as the conflict of the story. For some reason, I’d assumed Freddie was the dead former lover of the woman, and I wanted him to get some kind of retribution for being so spiteful to her from beyond the grave. In the end, I didn’t want a joke. I wanted to have my emotional investment in the story validated. I told Mara. I even mentioned I’d written a similar story a few years back called “Trebekett” about a weirdly stoic Alex Trebek who shows up to an unemployed guy’s apartment complex.

The morning after the Freddie Mercury story, I lay on my yoga mat, my wife Kel on her mat next to me, going through our exercises. This is when I’m supposed to clear my mind and focus on nothing, which in eight years of daily practice has never happened. On this morning, I used my yoga time to stew about Mara’s story. What I saw as the drama of her story — the almost Dickensian conflict between the “ghost” and the young woman — had trumped what was perhaps the original idea for the story, “Freddie Mercury is in retrograde.” For me, this latter idea was getting in the way of the more complex notions the story raised. Still, the joke was built solidly into the piece, with several quotes from Queen lyrics throughout. Then it hit me. “She should just get the joke out of the way with the title,” I said as I worked through my king dancer pose. “Then the story can move on.”

Kel looked at me. “Huh?”

“Mara should just call her story ‘Freddie Mercury is in Retrograde,’ get the joke out of the way, then let the story do whatever it wants.”

Later that morning, I realized I wasn’t working on Mara’s story at all.

A little rewriting, and I had a new story, “Waiting for the Question,” about an unemployed guy who has Alex Trebek show up to his apartment complex, with an entirely new, no-punchline ending that hopefully resolves the conflicts that arise in the piece. Once I felt I had a good version, I learned of Forest Avenue Press’s City of Weird anthology. It was the first place I submitted “Waiting for the Question,” and it was accepted.

Kind of.

After editor Gigi’s initial email, I admit it was a difficult few of weeks for me. I was somehow hopeful and cynical at the same time. It seemed important to be both. It could go either way. As we writers know oh so well, the only thing to do was wait and see — and check your email every five minutes.

I received a email from Gigi within the month.

“Well, guess who just heard from Alex Trebek,” she wrote. “He says yes!” He even had a small copyediting suggestion for the story.

I, of course, need to thank Mr. Trebek for being so open to something like this. It matters to me that this story is in this anthology. He didn’t have to care, and he did.

But beyond that, I want to celebrate the five-year haul of my Alex Trebek story not from a publishing but from a writing standpoint. The revisions were many, over the course of several years, and the ending never came, until it did. I finally had my answer, and it was this: work hard on your writing, work hard on the writing of others, and it will come back to you eventually.

And hopefully not in the form of a question.

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Art Edwards is three novels into his ten-novel series spanning many generations of musicians. His third novel, Badge (2014), was named a finalist in the Pacific Northwest Writers Association’s Literary Contest for 2011, and his shorter work has appeared in Salon and The Writer, among many others.