A Writer’s Tears by James A. Hearn

TWO LIFE-CHANGING PHONE CALLS . . .

“When the Dams Break” is my first solo sale to AHMM, but it’s not my first story to appear in my favorite mystery magazine.  Last year, my friend Michael Bracken and I had the good fortune to see our collaboration, a football-themed short story called “Blindsided,” in the Sept/Oct issue of AHMM.

That sale was especially significant for me, the realization of a lifelong dream to walk into an actual bookstore, take something off the shelf with my name on it, and pay for it.  To be honest, I shed a tear the day Michael called me and said “Blindsided” had been bought; I teared up again in the Barnes & Noble parking lot, several copies in hand to share with family and friends.

If that had been all “Blindsided” gave to me, it would’ve been enough.  But on January 19, 2022, Michael once again called with news that would change my life.  I was working, so I let it go to voicemail.  “Holy mother of God,” Michael said when I finally listened to the message.  He was stoked about something, and I had to play it twice to absorb the incredible news: “Blindsided” was a 2022 Edgar Allan Poe Award Nominee for Best Short Story.

Wow.  When Michael Bracken calls, pick up the damn phone!

THE EDGAR AWARDS

Last April, my wife and I attended the Mystery Writers of America Edgar Awards in New York City.  Dawn and I did the usual touristy things, but one of the highlights was my visit to Otto Penzler’s Mysterious Bookshop, where I drank too much champagne and insisted that Mr. Penzler sign my copy of the new MWA anthology, Crime Hits Home.  He was a gracious host and accommodated me, but he asked me not to call him Mr. Penzler.  I said, “Yes, sir,” and he poured me another glass of champagne.

At the Edgar Awards banquet, we were seated at the AHMM table with editor, Linda Landrigan; two Dell Magazines employees, Abby Browning and Chris Begley; Brendan DuBois; Michael Bracken and his wife, Temple; and fellow nominee, R.T. Lawton and his wife, Kiti.  During the ceremony, I tried to track the number of Edgar statuettes on the table behind the podium.  Was there an extra award for two short story winners—Michael and me—while accounting for the remaining categories?  But I was too far away to see clearly.

When R.T.’s name was called for his excellent story, “The Road to Hana,” a cheer went up from our table.  He gave a model acceptance speech—gracious, insightful, and witty.  (I must admit, R.T.’s speech made me curious enough to try a bottle of Crown Royal’s Vanilla Whisky, his drink of choice when a story is sold.  I find I still prefer my favorite Irish whiskey, the appropriately named Writers’ Tears.)

Though “Blindsided” didn’t win, I returned home with new friends and good memories.  As Michael said in that second life-changing phone call, being an Edgar nominee is an achievement in and of itself.

“WHEN THE DAMS BREAK”

My second sale to AHMM was inspired by my wife, Dawn.  (She’s my best friend, first reader, and inspiration for life in general.)  Dawn, an interior designer, told me about one of her clients who was building a lakeside home.  In the middle of construction, the client learned that state authorities had decided to drain four Texas lakes, including hers, due to concerns with aging dams.  Cue the lawyers.

Originally constructed in the 1920s and ’30s, these dams were only supposed to last for 75 years or so.  Two other Texas lakes, Wood and Dunlap, have already been drained following floodgate failures on their dams.  Flooding is nothing new for Texas, but perhaps climate change is impacting the frequency and intensity of these floods.

The state’s early history is rife with stories of catastrophic floods leading to loss of life, livestock, and property, particularly along the Brazos.  In the early twentieth century, the state began constructing dams along many rivers.  The theory is that these flood control reservoirs would absorb rising water levels and prevent disasters.  Today, these dams are being tested by Mother Nature, and efforts are underway to strengthen or replace the aging infrastructure of these lakes before tragedy strikes.

As for my story, I immediately began wondering what secrets might be uncovered when a lake was drained, and what a person might do to keep those secrets.  “When the Dams Break” was born—now I just had to write it.

Since the pandemic, I’ve been working from home exclusively.  While I’ve enjoyed being with my other best friend and writing partner, a Labrador retriever named George, working from home was initially problematic for creativity.  At the end of the work week, I couldn’t sit in the same room, at the same desk, and write fiction.  The dining room became “my office” and the breakfast room—just twenty steps away—became my writing room.

On weekends, I move my laptop and George’s bed to the breakfast room, put on my writing music (usually a digital “mix tape” of my favorite film scores), pour a few drinks (iced coffee for mornings, ginger whiskeys at night), and write short stories.  In this way, I’m able to separate my work and writing areas.

I eventually sold “When the Dams Break” to AHMM.  On August 16th of this year, the day the Sept/Oct issue hits the shelves, people in the Barnes & Noble parking lot might wonder to see a crying guy with a big stack of magazines.  If they ask what’s wrong, I’ll just tell them, “These are a writer’s tears . . . of joy.”

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