Doug Allyn is the author of novels including The Burning of Rachel Hayes and the forthcoming The Jukebox King, and a multiple winner of the Edgar Award for Best Short Story as well as the EQMM Readers Award. His last tale to appear in AHMM was “Message from the Morgue” (January/February 2015). Here, on the reflective occasion of our 60th anniversary, he talks about publishing his first short story “Final Rites” in the December 1985 issue—and winning the Robert L. Fish Award for it.
Some memories never fade. Your first kiss. First car. First serious love affair. (Not necessarily in that order, but often as not, I suspect.)
But for writers, the First that ranks right up there with the aforementioned big 3, is the First Story that doesn’t come limping home with a business card stapled to page one: Sorry, but your pathetic offering doesn’t measure up to our lofty standards, mwa-ha-ha-ha. (Or words to that effect.)
Instead, you get a brief letter of acceptance and a contract. And after the initial confusion, (what? No rejection card?) you realize you’ve actually made your First Sale.
Wow. What a freaking rush! A high equal to the best buzz sex, drugs, and rock’n’roll can offer, and I’m speaking from experience. (Well, okay, maybe not quite as good as sex. And Shanghai speed can be—but I digress.)
The rush of elation is, for most writers, geometrically intensified by the number of rejections we received prior to that First Acceptance.
And that truly is the feeling. Acceptance. Some far off, godlike editor in the Big Apple (in my case, Cathleen Jordan, of AHMM) was offering to publish my puny little story.
Remember the night Sally Field won her Oscar? “You like me,” she babbled. “You really like me.” And the world chuckled indulgently. And maybe her speech was inane, but it was from the heart, and a lot more moving than some vapid diva thanking everybody from Krishna to her pool boy.
That’s the feeling of a First Sale. Sally Field on Oscar night. A once-in-a-lifetime rush that has nothing to do with the numbers at the bottom of the contract.
My First Sale was a story called “Final Rites.” Often, I have no idea where stories come from, but “Final Rites”? That one’s easy. One of my son’s high school buddies had a summer job as a gravedigger. A tough kid, a football player, hardcore jock.
“What’s it like, digging graves?” I asked.
“It gets weird sometimes,” he said. “If I’m down in the hole, squaring it up, and the mist rolls in off the river . . . ? Whoah!” And the burly football player shivered.
And gave me a story. About a gravedigger, who shivered, when he was down in a hole.
I still remember that rush. Even now, a hundred-plus stories later, I get that same lift when I find a story that needs telling.
But for “Final Rites”? The amazing First Buzz was about to get even better.
A few months after the story appeared in Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine, Cathleen Jordan called to inform me that “Final Rites” had won the Robert L. Fish Award, for best first story.
I was stunned, overwhelmed, reduced to tears, right? Wrong. I had no idea what she was talking about. Literary awards? I grew up in northern Michigan where wealth is measured in wives, dogs, and rifles. (Just kidding. About the wives part.)
“If you’re serious about a writing career,” Cathleen said, “I strongly suggest that you come to New York to accept your award.”
“Do I have to wear a tie?” (I didn’t own one.)
“It’s black tie,” she said.
“I have to wear a black tie?”
“No, you putz, it is black tie. It’s the Edgars, the Oscars of the mystery world. It’s . . . New York! Formal dress, tuxes and evening gowns.” (Cathleen didn’t actually say ‘you putz’, she was far too refined. Bet she was thinking it, though.)
Without further ado, my wife and I were off to NYC, to party for a week, collect the award, (plus a check). And Cathleen was exactly right.
That first story, and the award it won, got my career up and running. In addition to meeting the staff at Dell Magazines (Cathleen, Eleanor Sullivan, et al, I acquired an agent, had lunch with Ruth Cavin, the legendary editor of St. Martin’s Press, who published my first five novels. (My eleventh, The Jukebox King, will be released by Stark House in February.)
All this, from a gravedigger’s shiver, and a first story Cathleen rescued from Dell’s towering slush pile.
Some memories never fade. Some debts can never be repaid. I will be forever grateful to the folks at Dell, for inviting me into this game, and letting me play.
And I’ll never forget Sally Field’s Oscar speech, either.
Because I know exactly how she felt.