"Merry Christmas you ungrateful bastards!"
or, How we learned to stop worrying and write "The Toy Mill"
Aurora Award, Hurrah!
The 1993 Aurora awards were announced in Wolfville, Nova Scotia on March 14, on the weekend of the biggest snow storm to hit the area since the ice age. We had been unable to attend Wolfcon, which was hosting the awards, and so were huddled around a speakerphone at Rob Sawyers' and Carolyn Clink's place in Toronto, when the news came that we had won "Best Short Work in English" for "The Toy Mill".
When Allan Weiss read the results over the phone, we jumped and laughed like mountain men, as much from surprise as anything.
We felt validated for all the hard work and the litres of blood plasma we'd poured into the story, but beyond that, the whole experience taught us a valuable lesson. For while we worked hard on "The Toy Mill", most of what we put into it was a lot of high-density coffee, an admiration for the kind of prose Charles Dickens and Mervyn Peake used to write, and the kind of playful whimsy usually noted in six-year-old boys when they find their dads' power tools after an afternoon of mainlining twinkies and Crystal Pepsi.
"The Toy Mill" was fun to do, and even if we'd never gotten it published, it would remain one of our favourite stories.
If you haven't picked up Tesseracts4 yet -- and there are better reasons to do so than just to read our story -- "The Toy Mill" is the tale of what happens when a little girl named Emily wishes she were one of Santa Claus' elfs, and the old bastard decides to grant her wish. The bulk of the story takes place at the North Pole, where an industrial-revolution version of Santa's workshop -- the Toy Mill -- spews out Christmas gifts that nobody wants and the wheels of the Season are oiled with the blood of the elfs, so to speak.
"The Toy Mill" is an homage to Peake and Dickens. It is also, for us, a testament to the value of writing as play. And the best time for most of us with day jobs to get into a playful frame of mind is during some form of vacation.
Off to the Farm!
We wrote "The Toy Mill" on a writing retreat at Hart House Farm, an idyllic 200-acre estate about 40 minutes northwest of Metro Toronto. The farm is owned and administered by the University of Toronto. The place makes for an ideal retreat: a roomy farmhouse with all the breakable objects thoughtfully locked away, sitting on the edge of the Niagara escarpment. The writer's workshop we belong to had been using the place for weekend retreats for nearly two years, and a surprising number of published stories have come out of those events. For instance, Allan Weiss wrote the Aurora-nominated story "Ants" there the same weekend as we wrote "The Toy Mill". John Park stopped by at an earlier retreat and wrote a section of "Falconer". And Michael Skeet wrote "Pushing Buttons" at The Farm.
We'd been discussing the idea of "The Toy Mill" for a couple of months prior to the retreat -- since Christmas, actually. The origin of the piece is probably the nausea we both felt at the over-commercialized, Rankin-Bass/Burl Ives Christmas-special approach to the Yule season. We had begun to fantasize about our Christmas special... a dark, polar odyssey which would have no place for the doe-eyed saccharine figures of standard myth. Karl came up with our Santa (or the Claus, as we've lately come to call him) in a fit of exuberance one evening as we were sitting around complaining about this myth. He'd envisioned the Claus, but had no idea what to do with him. Dave responded with the image of Santa's workshop pretty much as described in the finished story.
Suddenly, we had a project.
As we arrived at the Farm friday evening, we still had these images in our minds' eyes, but little else other than a vague anarchistic impulse telling us to write. We decided to figure out things like plot, theme and, well, the ending, later -- after we'd had a couple of cups of coffee.
Mike Skeet calls the kind of coffee we make at Hart House Farm "Nickle Coffium" because he's convinced it's not coffee at all, but rather a new element from the periodic table somewhere on the heavier side of gold. This volatile brew, a Dave Nickle invention, has thinned the stomach lining of more than one writer on retreat. This particular weekend, it fuelled about 10,000 words -- 3,000 of which were finally kept -- of first-draft "Toy Mill".
Collaboration is a respectable tradition in Science Fiction. However, Dave had only done it once before (on the story "Rat Food" with Edo van Belkom) and Karl had never done it at all. When we first sat down at Dave's Brother portable typewriter with twin cups of Nickle Coffium and a three-inch stack of defunct office stationary, we had no idea how to proceed. So we decided just to have a good time.
Taking Tennis as a good working model, we began by trading off at the keyboard with each new paragraph -- in some cases with each sentence. Karl wrote, "The man in the moon's smile began to slip. It turned into a leer. Then, breaking from the rim of the moon came a shape of crystalline hardness, led by eight bobbing points." At which point Dave, in an excess of inspiration, pushed Karl out of the way and typed, "Emily, perched straddling the peak of her auntie's home with the cold shivering through her spine, counted those points three times and whispered aloud..." And on it went, with one of us typing maniacally in the center of the small room we'd commandeered, while the other yanked newly finished pages out of the creator's numb fingers and attacked them with an editing pen. We're told that much sinister laughter floated out of that room over the next two days.
Between three-hour sessions we would mill around in the kitchen, eating indiscriminately and topping up our coffee.
As we became more confident with the voice and the characters, the time each of us spent typing grew longer. Looking back on the experience, it's easy to see that a kind of dynamic was developing. We were literally trying to dazzle and outdo each other with literary riffs, pumping up the energy on both the prose and story level in the same way that rock musicians try to build up a level of spontaneous energy during a live performance. In that sense, "The Toy Mill" is probably the loudest story either of us has ever produced.
On Sunday night we all gathered next to the fireplace for a noncompulsory reading. "Ants" was very well received. Our fellow writers' reactions to "The Toy Mill" ranged from bemused indulgence to cautious enthusiasm. Certainly, nobody was prepared for it.
We knew we were on to something.
The story that finally came out of Hart House Farm bore little resemblance to the version of "The Toy Mill" that was finally published. When we finished it off a week or so later, it came to about 12,000 words. The first version had as a major character Jack Trueblue, a friendly and supportive elf, who finally had to go. Also, Mrs. Claus, who plays a major role in the final version, was absent, and in her place was a character called Black Peter, sort of a festive Terminator who battled Santa Claus in a 1,200 word fisticuffs outside the Toy Mill's administrative building. For those who are curious, here's a portion of Santa Claus's big death scene--the first one--involving a yuletide vortex conjured by Emily's last Christmas wish:
"The vortex was at the administration building's roof, worrying around peaks and towers like a tongue over sore teeth. The Northern Lights glowed violet above it, and as Emily looked she saw silhouetted atop the highest tower an immense, greatcoated form. Jack Trueblue saw it too.
"'Claus!' he shouted, pointing.
"Claus disappeared an instant before the vortex found his perch, and reappeared hunched at the tip of the tower's cone. He opened his great, wintry mouth, extended a long, branch-like arm, and roared so that all could hear:
"'Merry Christmas! Merry Christmas, you ungrateful bastards!'"
The only part of this we eventually kept is Claus' closing line: "Merry Christmas, you ungrateful bastards!" It still brings a tear to our eyes.
When the story first came out, we had no idea how people would react. We were too close to it. The critical and popular response to the story has been heartwarming, but has also forced us to consider how it is that this story, in particular, worked so well.
We've heard a lot of writers describe collaboration as a kind of artistic battle-ground on which the authors go head to head over the placement of every phrase and comma and cross each other off their Christmas card lists when the process is all done.
It's difficult for either of us to get behind this view of the collaborative process. One of the pleasures of working on "The Toy Mill" was the complete lack of disagreement over any of the changes we made, nearly all of which were considerable. In the SFWA Handbook, veteran collaborative writer Larry Niven treats it as a given that one partner must have final veto over revisions. For us, such an arrangement would have been detrimental; it would have removed one of us from the final polish of the story. More importantly, it wouldn't have been as much fun.
We believe that the things that work in "The Toy Mill" work because of the spirit of playfulness both of us brought to the project. The thing that is most gratifying about the response to the story is that apparent fact that much of that playfulness has been transmitted through the story. Our readers seem to respond with the same maniacal spirit in which the story was written.
We've both meticulously crafted stories from this or that thematic blueprint. We've followed agendas and "rules of writing," and perhaps we've produced some good work that way.
But that work has never given us as much out-and-out pleasure as following eight-year-old Emily and thundering, wild-eyed Claus through the worst Christmas ever.