two weeks ago, I received the Pan MacMillan/Tor UK hardcover
edition of City of Saints & Madmen. I pick it up periodically even though I’ve
thumbed through it about a thousand times just to make sure it’s
When I first conceived of a book of stories set in my imaginary
city of Ambergris, I have to admit I never thought I’d be looking at an edition of it from
a major publisher, using the same idiosyncratic cover design as the original
U.S. version. The path from writing the stories to finding a publisher to oh-so-elusive
publication has been so perilous, so littered with dead-ends and false starts,
that it often seemed unlikely it would ever see print, let alone receive so much
critical praise and reader appreciation. So, with City of Saints officially in
British bookstores April 2, in what I consider to be the definitive edition,
it feels like the right time to preserve in amber the circumstances leading up
The lessons learned from this little encapsulation of some of
my history as a writer and author include (1) the value of mule-like perseverance
in the face of indifference, (2) the value of mule-like perseverance in the face
of incompetence (including my own), and (3) the value of mule-like perseverance
in the pursuit of one’s personal artistic dreams. But the main purpose
of this “retrospective” isn’t to provide lessons. It’s
to celebrate a book that should, by all rights, never have existed, a book
about that cruelest and most beautiful of imaginary places, Ambergris.
PART I: GETTING THERE
For those unfamiliar with the book, City of Saints & Madmen consists
of a story cycle set in Ambergris, a place in which the human inhabitants
the original inhabitants--known as "gray caps" or "mushroom dwellers"--underground.
The city's history ever since has been haunted by the ever-more sinister
and nefarious aims of the gray caps. That history has also been driven
by the actions
of the city's many artists, musicians, historians, and priests, whose
eccentricities and foibles mirror those of people in our own world.
On another level,
City of Saints acts as an artifact--first, as book-as-artifact, containing
copious illustrations, many of which comment on or advance the plots
of various stories, and, second, as pure artifact, as several stories
as facsimiles of their original publication in Ambergris.
I wrote the first novella, "Dradin, in Love," in 1993, during a bout
of mononucleosis that kept me in a state of low-fever and fatigue for several
months. I'd come back from the Clarion writers' workshop at Michigan State University
less than a year before. At Clarion, I'd learned at least as much about what
I didn't want to write as what I did want to write, and I’d articulated
that by trying to deliberately subvert many of the accepted Clarion "rules" about
story structure, characterization, and plot in a story called "Learning
to Leave the Flesh."
"Learning" was a proto-Ambergris story that mentioned the River Moth
and Albumuth Boulevard. It marked the beginning of a new direction for me, but
I also knew "Learning" had a terrible fragility and passiveness to
it. I wanted to pursue this new direction, but with a more muscular and active
approach. "Dradin, in Love" was the result of that desire.
father of an imaginary city 1990.
One night, I woke from sleep with a vision of Ambergris in my head.
I ran to the computer and typed out the first few pages of "Dradin, in Love." Dradin,
newly returned from the jungles beyond the city, stands in the middle of a crowded
street, looks up, and falls in love with a mysterious woman he sees in a window.
I hardly had to revise those pages at all. The city existed complete within me.
I remember the feeling of utter joy in realizing that, somehow, I had found the
door to a mysterious and unique milieu. I had no way of knowing at the time that “Dradin” would
lead to more Ambergris stories, but it might have occurred to me that
the ease with which I wrote the beginning of the story meant related
If so, I was soon disabused of that notion. The rest of the story didn't come
easily to me. I spent several months revising it. In an early draft, there was
no woman at all in the end, and Dvorak the dwarf killed Dradin in a sordid back-alley
scene. In yet another draft, Dvorak told Dradin the truth about the woman, took
all of his money, and left him in the graveyard, with the Festival madness going
on all around him. But neither of these endings satisfied me. They felt rather
pat and formless. They didn't go far enough.
I had been reading Steve Erickson's Arc d' X at the time--an experience
that, when you have a continual low-grade fever, is quite surreal. "Dradin, in
Love" was vastly different from Erickson's novel, but the way Erickson pushed
the boundaries of what is possible with narrative told me that I needed to go
farther with "Dradin." (I also stole from Erickson a neat trick of
colliding tenses and moments in time, for a scene in which Dradin has a reverie
about his childhood and his mother's thwarted ambitions.) After I'd thought about
the implications of Dradin's infatuation, I finally realized I'd ended the story
too early. Around the same time, I also read Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast trilogy, and constructed the fight scene between Dradin and Dvorak as a kind
of minor homage. (The entire story I saw as my tribute to English author Angela
Carter—not pastiche, but my approach to the same subject matter from a
man’s point of view, which would necessarily comment on the objectification
of women in a very different way.)
1993, I finished the final draft of "Dradin, in Love." I
let my now-wife Ann (Kennedy) read it and was relieved when she loved
it, as did several other first readers. A few, like Cliff Burns, an
and good friend to that point, were caught off-guard by the new lushness
of the prose and thought the piece marked a regrettable turn for the
Still, Cliff offered great suggestions for improvement that I incorporated
into the final scene.
After I made
these adjustments, it was time to send "Dradin" out for
publication. However, I soon found that selling long novellas wouldn't be as
easy as selling short stories. By 1993-94, I'd sold literally dozens of stories
to a cornucopia of professional, semi-professional, and indie press publications.
I expected that "Dradin, in Love" would be the piece that
put me over the top and make it even easier to sell my stories in the
marked the beginning of a six-year stretch during which I found it
hard to sell any fiction at all.
Dradin, in Limbo
I sent "Dradin" to Asimov's
SF Magazine, where Gardner Dozois--who
had gone beyond the call of duty in accepting not only the second-person story "Mahout" but
the non-fantasy story "The Bone Carver's Tale"--sent a very
kind rejection. Given the length, it would be hard for him to justify
such an idiosyncratic
piece. (When I later sent a letter to him in a kind of abject terror
about the future of my career, he sent another kind note, in which
he told me
to hang in
I remember sending "Dradin" to half a dozen other large publications,
each time meeting with a polite rejection. After a few of these rejections, many
of which, in that pre-Internet age, took several months, I became discouraged.
I sent the novella out less regularly, became embroiled in co-editing the first
Leviathan anthology, wrote most of a novel that would become Veniss
and gradually realized that "Dradin" was not going to be
my first big success.
Then, in late 1995, I won a Florida Individual Artist Fellowship for
excellence in fiction--ironically enough, for a realistic, non-fantasy
story called "Black
Duke Blues." The fellowship amount came to $5,000, and for the first time
the idea of self-publication entered my mind. I had self-published my first collection,
The Book of Frog, back in 1989, and really didn't want to repeat the experience,
but I had been re-reading "Dradin" and had become convinced
that it was still the strongest thing I'd yet written.
At that point,
Ann stepped in and suggested that "Dradin" become the
first book published by her Buzzcity Press. Ann had been editing and publishing
her award-winning magazine of the surreal, The Silver Web, for years; the magazine
had given me my start long before we'd started dating. She'd wanted to branch
into books for some time, and putting out "Dradin" would
allow her to try the experiment with a known quantity. Some of the
be used to help finance the project and contain Ann's possible loss
should things go badly.
| Buzzcity's Dradin, In Love
We talked about it for a week or two, thinking about all of the positives and
negatives, and then I agreed to the deal. Ann commissioned Michael Shores, an
artist who had worked for her magazine, to do several collage pieces, one for
each section of the novella. I did the layout of the interior, with help from
Ann, and we got advice on the cover design from Duane Bray, an old friend from
high school who has created almost all of the Ministry of Whimsy covers and who
now works for the largest design firm in the world.
"Dradin, In Love" came out and began to get excellent reviews. Early
on, Tangent magazine and Dave Truesdale gave much-needed support to the book.
New York Review of SF, Interzone, and several other publications wrote
some very nice things indeed. The only "negative" review came from
Darrell Schweitzer in Aboriginal SF, who lectured on the limited appeal
he intimated, was fit only for small press distribution. Certainly,
I had no evidence yet that the opposite might be true, so I couldn't
Sales were steady if not spectacular. By the end of the initial sales cycle,
the book had sold about 500 of the 800 copies printed (it is now sold out, and
some book dealers sell it for $125 to $150) and had been named a finalist for
the Theodore Sturgeon Memorial Award. It was also mentioned in a few articles
on the best fantasy of the year. Greek and Serbian editions eventually appeared
as well. All in all, Ann and I could not have hoped for a better result.
Post-Dradin: Strange Cases
I hadn't written
any Ambergris stories in the three or four years since finishing "Dradin." In
part, I had had a lot of other projects to work on, but I also
think that the lack
of enthusiasm from magazine editors had dulled my own enthusiasm
for Ambergris, as much as I might wish I could say it were otherwise.
I still had a kind of mental flinch built up from the rejections
of work I was sure had true merit. (There's a strange fragility
that must occur during a writer's career, in which you internalize
every negative comment about your work and try to learn from
it while simultaneously maintaining a staunch arrogance as to
the worth of the work in question.)
Now, though, the success of "Dradin" in book form gave
me a surge of confidence. Before, during, and after living through
the 24-7-365 experience of promoting Stepan Chapman's The
Troika in 1997 (and editing Leviathan 2 in 1998), I wrote three pieces
in (for me) quick succession: "The Transformation of Martin
Lake," "The Hoegbotton Guide to the Early History of
Ambergris," and "The Strange Case of X." (I also
wrote a very short story entitled "Exhibit H" that was
a precursor to "The Early History.")
The experience of writing these three novellas/long stories was
both similar to and different from working on "Dradin." On
all three, I had a flash of inspiration that led to a first scene
that required almost no revision. But with "Transformation" and "Strange
Case," the rest of the story came just as easily. The rough
drafts took no time at all and nothing substantive changed in terms
of plot or character between the first draft and the last. "The
Early History" required many hours of research of Byzantine
history and thus took longer, but it too came easier than it should
"The Strange Case of X" may have written itself so easily because
I never intended for it to see print. I got the idea for the
story because of an illustration Eric Schaller sent to me, of the mushroom
dwellers from "Dradin" as Disneyfied characters. Without
that image, scrawled on the outside of an envelope, the story
would not exist--and without that image, it is possible that
comprehensive illustrations for City of Saints & Madmen would
not have come to fruition.
I had written "The Strange Case" to work out some issues
I'd had in writing the Ambergris stories. For one thing, although
I'd been "inspired" before--the hand writing scenes
that the head seemed to have nothing to do with--I'd never been
for such long amounts of time as on the Ambergris stories, or
sustained the initial heady inspiration over so many pages and
pages of fiction.
This scared me, because I found myself wondering what would happen
if the spigot just one day turned to the off position, and because
I had no idea how I was channeling what I was channeling.
I also continued to wrestle with the question of what served the
writer best: writing as part of a well-balanced and interconnected
life or writing as a hermit in an old shack by the beach, unencumbered
by any human interaction. In short, I was grappling with the nature
of obsession as it pertains to writing.
Writing the story had had another salutary effect on me personally:
it had unmoored Ambergris from my imagination. Even though it
was just a mental trick, every Ambergris story I wrote thereafter
like something separate from my mind. Somewhere out there, Ambergris
existed, and I was just channeling "reports" from the
place. For some reason, this liberated me, made me relax, and
once again put the fun back into creating Ambergris stories.
I didn't intend to send it out for publication.
However, when I sent the story out to my first readers, who were
also my friends, I began to get phone calls from them, asking
if I was okay. Not only had they identified "X" with
me, but the story had had a strong emotional impact on them--to
point of dislocating them from reality. After a couple of reactions
like this, I decide the story might be more than just a personal
exploration--it might be something readers in general could connect
"The Early History of Ambergris" was another case of low expectations
on my part, or, at least, pragmatic expectations. Inspired in
part by Nabokov's Pale Fire and by the wonderful Byzantium history books
of John Julius Norwich, "The Early History of Ambergris" recounted
over 400 years of Ambergrisian history for a supposed travel
guide, the writer a disgruntled fringe historian who kept adding
asides in footnote form. Clearly, I wasn't interested in having
not a story"
I never sent it out for possible publication in a magazine--I knew
that no editor would be interested in a 30,000-word story disguised
as a history essay with over 100 footnotes. (Although I did send
it in for a Spanish short novel competition, to no effect.)
My first readers sometimes didn't know what to make of it. Granted,
about half of them enjoyed it. But among the others, one frequent
response was "that's not a story." Another response--the one
that irritated me--went like this: "Jeff, you've done
a great job of background writing here. Now you know the entire
history of Ambergris and you can write actual stories about the
Silence and other events, fleshing out what you've summarized
which I replied, no--this is the story; the summary is the story.
I wasn’t at all interested in fleshing out those events.
A couple of people even advised me not to try to publish "Early
History" because "it isn't a story." Did I agree?
Not really. I have no defense for summarily rejecting half the
advice I received on "Early History," except that it
didn't seem to pertain to the actual text I had written.
Eventually, I sent "Early History" to Jeffrey Thomas,
who regularly served in the thankless role of one of my first
readers, and he asked if he could publish it through his Necropolitan
as a chapbook in a 300-copy edition. I accepted his kind offer.
It sounded like the best possibility at that time. (In fact,
it was the best decision I could have made--while "Strange
Case" and "Transformation" went
unnoticed in their initial publication appearances, "Early
History" gained kudos from the likes of Norman Spinrad in
Asimov's and Brian Stableford in Vector, who
named it one of his books of the year.)
"Strange Case of X" I placed with Stephen Jones for his anthology
White of the Moon. I'm fairly certain I never sent "Strange
Case" to anyone but Stephen, but "The Transformation
of Martin Lake" went to F&SF, Dark Terrors, Starlight,
and several others, before Wayne Edwards took it for his Palace
Now, I could see
why most editors might not want to publish "Strange
Case" or "The Early History," but I had a hard time
living with the idea of "Transformation" being too
strange or not good enough for publication in a professional,
(grateful as I was to Palace Corbie). I'd simply worked too hard
on it. As easily as the plot and characters had come to me, I
had slaved over that novella for months, adding layer after layer
and above the base storyline. I'd spent weeks just coordinating
the use of color in each scene. I'd studied countless paintings
by Chagall and Ernst and Dali, as well as several books of art
criticism. I'd also put much of my own personal self as a young
man in his early twenties into Martin Lake, while using memories
of my mother's studio to create his work space. I'd studied and
deconstructed scenes from Ian McEwan's The Innocent,
among others, to get a sense for ways to convincingly convey
violence. Did this
mean that the end result had to be good? Of course not, but I
knew that I'd managed to elevate my craft with that story. And
it might be a long time before I wrote something with that "conventional" a
labor of love.
As with "Dradin," I was convinced I'd written something
special that for reasons of length, and perhaps the editors'
particular slant or prejudice, or unfortunate timing, had gone
unappreciated. By now, however, I was used to it. It had become
a fact of my writing life. I could either write something different
or trust in my abilities.
It was a tough decision, and one that I have had to keep making
over and over again. As mentioned previously, you have to admit
to your deficiencies, your weaknesses, and address them. It would
be all too easy to say "These people just don't get it--this
is good work" and find out later that, well, they had a
point. But in re-reading the Ambergris novellas, I still thought
were good. It wasn't that I couldn't see fault lines in them--every
story has a fault line or two--but that I really did believe
in them. And I believed in Ambergris, too, as a compelling setting.
The Book of Ambergris
So now that I
had four novellas (although "Strange Case" is
technically just a long story), I thought I had enough for a
collection. Maybe a book of the Ambergris material would strike
more of a nerve
than the individual stories--especially since I'd be dealing
with a different group of editors: book editors rather than periodical
I sent out queries to agents and publishers, but too many of
them thought of the book as a short story collection rather than
it really was: a mosaic novel (or, as some call it, a "fix-up";
after all, major characters in one story served as minor characters
in another, and so forth). A short story collection from a relatively
unknown writer would not sell to a big publisher--I needed a
novel. But I had a novel, I groused. It just wasn't conventional.
My best chance for publication came from John Oakes at Four Walls
Eight Windows, who did take a look at the book in 1999 (at that
time it was just called The Book of Ambergris). He called me to
tell me he loved the writing, but that the stories weren't commercial
enough and he couldn't do anything with four novellas--I should
send him a novel. (At this time, a relatively polished version
of my SF novel Veniss Underground was being sent around by my agent,
a very nice woman in England who usually marketed children's books,
so I had that sent to him, but he didn't bite on that, either,
despite being remarkably nice in rejection.)
Soon, I'd run the gamut of the larger publishers who might be willing
to take a look at a book composed of four interlocking novellas.
Then I happened upon Invisible Cities Press, who liked the work
and began to dance around the idea of publishing an Ambergris volume.
This seemed to be more and more of a possibility, until the night
I received an email from my editor contact at the press. She asked
if I would consider rewriting the stories and setting them in Paris
around 1900. If I could also get rid of the mushroom dwellers,
that would be great. I sent an angry email in response--one of
the few times I've thought later that I was justified in sending
such an email--and pulled the manuscript.
For a few months, Alan M. Clark of IFD Publishing toyed with doing
the book, but a combination of my own paranoia (that old mental
flinch acting up; a misunderstanding over whether or not I might
have to change my fiction to match the proposed art for the book),
bad-timing, and a reluctance on my part to have one artist create
all of the illustrations, scuttled that opportunity, although it
did leave the collection with a name: City of Saints & Madmen.
Clearly, City of Saints & Madmen was cursed--fated
to sail, rudderless and almost-publisher-less, until it struck
of immovable obstacle and sank…
The Strange Case of "S"
Just when it seemed
as if the book would never find a publisher, Dr.S., who lived in
Sweden at the time and ran Imaginary
Worlds Press, expressed interest in City of Saints & Madmen.
I had a publisher again. Even better, Dr. S. asked Michael Moorcock
to write the introduction. Incredibly enough, Moorcock read and
enjoyed the stories and did indeed write the introduction. (I
will always be thankful to Dr. S. for introducing me to Michael
someone whose generosity and kindness has been invaluable to
me as a writer, an editor, and in my career.)
Sometime thereafter, in, I think, August of 2000, I received
rather incredible news. In an act of desperation, I'd photocopied "Transformation" from
Palace Corbie and sent it to the World Fantasy Award judges. I didn't think
for a second that they'd even read it, but, suddenly, there it was on the ballot--as
a finalist for best novella! I've never been more shocked in my entire life.
Well, that is until "Transformation" actually won, in a tie with
a novella by Laurel Winter. I think my jaw literally dropped when I heard
that news. For the first time in my career, I felt that, in some mysterious
I had achieved a validation I had never known I needed. Now that I had it,
it filled me with renewed energy and purpose.
Almost as importantly,
the award would create even more momentum for the book. It should
have, but plans kept changing--first the novellas were to
as separate volumes in slipcases, then as one volume. Dr. S. hired a videogame
designer to do an Ambergris game as a special bonus feature. I received one
email from the man and then never heard from him again. At one point, I was
to do a reading from "Transformation" for a CD. None of these plans
actually came to fruition, and I kept asking Dr. S. why we weren't keeping
our focus on the goal of getting the book out, rather than wasting energy
of this peripheral stuff.
But worse was to come. All throughout this process of yes-this and no-that,
I had been collecting advance orders for the book from friends, family, and
co-workers. I then wired the money to Dr. S. It was quite a lot of money. I
thought that collecting the orders would make Imaginary Worlds Press give extra
attention to my book.
A few months passed. The book seemed no closer to being published. Finally,
Dr. S. admitted that Imaginary Worlds Press had some financial trouble, and
that he was moving my book and a few others over to an outfit called Prime
Books, which I had never heard of before. Dr. S. would send the advance order
money to Sean Wallace, the head of Prime Books, so that Prime could fill those
orders without incurring any kind of loss.
In March of 2001, I began to have extended e-mail correspondence with Sean.
Sometime between March and May, it became clear that Dr. S. had never told Sean
about the preorders, and had never sent Sean the preorder money. E-mails to
Dr. S. resulted in e-mails back full of excuses or empty promises. It appeared
that Prime was going to have to eat the advance order monies if they wanted
to publish the book.
Then, I began to get a different kind of e-mail from Dr. S., supposedly on his
honeymoon in Switzerland. In the e-mails, he told me he couldn't refund the
advance orders because he'd spent it all--long before he'd booked the honeymoon,
apparently. Still, the juxtaposition of the subject of the e-mails with the
location from which he was sending them rankled me.
out of the woods yet...VanderMeer in 2001.
Whatever the truth of Dr. S.'s situation, it was only with much effort--I dogged
Dr. S. like the paper boy dogged John Cusack's character in the movie Better
Off Dead--that Prime ever saw even half of the advance order money again, much
later. Cutting a deal with Dr. S. on this issue--I agreed to drop my request
for the rest of the money back--meant Sean would take only a small loss on
In the meantime, Sean offered a trade paperback deal through John Betancourt's
Cosmos Books, which Sean ran for John. I accepted, and work commenced on producing
that edition. Unfortunately, publishing the hardcover before the trade paperback
was hampered by the situation with Dr. S. and also by a glimmer of a glint of
an idea that had begun to take shape in my mind.
So, despite the illogic of putting out a trade paperback before a hardcover,
the first edition of City of Saints was the four-novella trade paperback from
Cosmos Books. Published to considerable acclaim, it made Locus Magazine's Recommended
List and received great reviews in a number of prominent publications. China
Mieville, basking in the success of Perdido Street Station, provided a blurb,
as did several others. Nick Gevers, Michael Levy, and Brian Stableford all
gave the book great support. Finally, I could relax.
Except, the Cosmos edition of City of Saints proved to be only the beginning
of the City of Saints story. Months and months of preproduction hell lay ahead,
created in part by my unrealistic expectations and the limitations of print-on-demand
Continued in Part 2
credits: Eric Schaller, mushroom
dwellers; John Coulthart for the title pages; Scott Eagle Cover