How did “Morning Child” come about?
I started “Morning Child,” then an untitled fragment, about ten years before I finished it. I wrote a few pages, then lost steam on the story and put it away in a file drawer. Ten years later, I was going through old files, happened to pick up the fragment and looked at it, and suddenly saw how I could finish it. A couple of days later, I had. This shows you why authors should never throw anything away. You never know when an abandoned fragment or draft is going to rekindle and grow into a completed story, even years later.
The unfolding truths about John are handled so delicately and so beautifully: Can you talk about the challenges of the pace and nature of the revelations in the story?
The key to this story is misdirection. I wanted to plainly give you facts that are valid at the moment but that will become subject to a different interpretation in the light of new knowledge you’ve gained by the end of the story. In the original story fragment, the first couple of pages, which survived into this draft almost unchanged, the old man is really an old man and the boy is really a boy. In the final draft, I started playing with assumptions, having fun with the idea that although everything I’d said was the truth at the moment I’d said it, nothing was really as it seemed, and it was all going to turn out to be totally reversed by the end. All the assumptions you make when reading the opening turn out to be “wrong,” or at least turned on their heads, by the end. The story has to be paced carefully, so that your recognition of that doesn’t happen much before you hit the actual end of the story itself, for maximum effect. Ideally, the reader won’t understand what’s really going on until a few paragraphs before the end of the story, on the last page. Has more impact that way.
Did your vision for the story change during the writing of it?
Yes, quite a bit. In the original fragment, it was the story of a man and a boy surviving out in the woods after a traditional atomic war scenario. That may be why I ran out of steam on it—it was too familiar a scenario, with nothing to be done with it that hadn’t been done before a dozen times. In the final draft, I made the war a lot stranger, weirder and more bizarre, not just your typical After-the-Bomb scenario, which made it a lot more interesting to write about, and which also provided a moderately “scientific” justification, or at least a rationalization, as to what happened to the boy to make him the way he is. As a consequence of exposure to some unimaginable, alien, high-tech weapon or procedure, it’s acceptable enough to get you through the story, whereas there would have been nothing to explain it or justify it if it had been the standard After-the-Atomic-War scenario.
The other thing, the major thing, that changed between the first draft and the final was the inclusion of the time-shifting gimmick, which wasn’t going to be part of the original story, where everything was straighforward and the boy was really a boy and the old man was really an old man. The time-shifting thing came to me as an image in a dream, of a boy growing old and then growing young again; the dream faded when I awoke, taking with it any concept of what was happening that might have existed in the dream, but the image lingered. A day or so later, when I was looking through old story fragments, I chanced upon the fragment that became “Morning Child,” and saw how I could use the existing fragment as a vehicle to allow me to present the dream-image, and express it in story terms.
“Morning Child” is the embodiment of what you’ve said you most enjoy about short fiction: “The brutal efficiency. A short story delivers one hard punch, fulfills one purpose, and then stops.” What are some other stories you feel do this well?
Hundreds, too many to possibly list. It’s the main reason why I’ve always been someone more comfortable working in short fiction than in novels, which often strike me as padded, sometimes to the point where they become boring. There aren’t too many modern novels that I couldn’t cut at least a hundred pages out of without losing anything of significance. With a good short story, every word should either drive the plot, establish character, or create the setting, and it should be next to impossible to cut anything out without making the story unworkable. No fat, no padding, no words that aren’t absolutely needed.
Does this story still stay with you over the years? I think it may haunt me in the way some Bradbury stories do.
I do think it’s one of my most effective stories. It’s one of my trickiest stories, in that I’m misdirecting the reader throughout and diverting their attention from things that are hiding in plain sight, and sometimes stories like that come across as emotionally cool and uninvolving. But because this one deals with the relationship of a father and son, which almost everyone can relate to and which evokes an emotional response in almost everyone, “Morning Child” manages to be slyly tricky and emotionally involving at the same time. A difficult thing to pull off, needing very fine balance, and one that I could have easily ruined at any time with a few wrong words in the wrong place. So I’m pleased that I was able to walk that tightrope successfully and make it work.
How has your writing style evolved in the thirty or so years since you wrote “Morning Child”?
I have no idea. Ask a critic. After I’m dead, somebody will be able to explain it all, I’m sure.
Any new projects you want to tell us about?
My latest projects are two more anthologies edited with George R.R. Martin, a cross-over anthology called Rogues, and a retro-SF anthology called Old Venus, a companion to this year’s Old Mars. I also have two tribute anthologies coming out this spring, Microverse: Exploring Poul Anderson’s Worlds, edited with Greg Bear, and The Book of Silverberg, edited with William Shafer. And, of course, my The Year’s Best Science Fiction, Thirty-First Annual Collection.
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