U.S.S.A. is a YA novel, the first of three that I wrote for the book packager Byron Preiss. Unlike the other Young Adult books I did for him (Joe Gosh and The Orphan’s Tent), for this one I worked from a short bible that laid out the cast of characters and the general premise (though not the plot or incidents). This happened at a blip-time in the mid-1980s when a number of fiction series for teenaged girls were selling briskly; Byron’s idea was to create a similar series for teenaged boys. He asked me to launch the project, then return to it after a few years and write the final installment.Unfortunately, the series sold poorly (even 30 years ago, adolescent American boys weren’t voracious readers) and never made it past the third or fourth book, none of which I ever saw, but that was typical of Byron: he was not generous with comp copies).
U.S.S.A., both my novel and the series, was a dystopian near-future adventure story pitting wily Middle American high school kids against a repressive Washington regime that had scrapped the Constitution and rechristened the United States of America the United Secure States of America. I thought it was damn ballsy of Byron Preiss to conceive and execute such an undertaking during the Reagan presidency, because despite the title, which seemed intended to evoke the dreaded Soviet Union, the storyline was deliberately anti-Right, not anti-Left. At the time Byron invited me onto the project, I was disgusted by the nationalist drift, and the corporatizing, of our power politics, and I’m sure—I hope—that was apparent in the narrative.
Since it was written to be only the beginning of a much longer story—the opening salvo, the first movement, a short etch of the arch—the novel feels, and the novel is, “incomplete.” Still, I like it, and I enjoyed doing it; it gave me an opportunity to write a short novel (I tackled it soon after finishing Funny Papers, a very long novel), as well as an adventure story, and fiction for middle- and high school students. (Is this a word likely to be in the vocabulary of a tenth-grader? How about this one?) And I remain inordinately/boastfully proud of my invention—it wasn’t in Byron’s bible—of the mechanical “spy” sparrows that mingled with real birds on telephone wires and roof lines to track goings-on among disgruntled elements of the citizenry.
It took about four months to compose—easily the shortest time it’s taken me to write a book—and if I hadn’t first written it by hand in black-and-white marble-covered school composition books (that was intentional), I would’ve finished it much sooner. My handwriting was (and is) so atrocious, so unreadable, that I couldn’t decipher it when I went back to read through the manuscript, and had to write it from memory all over again on a typewriter. (Sunburn Lake, my next book, was the first I composed on a computer; an Atari!) Byron was disappointed when the series failed to catch on, and so was I.
I met Byron Preiss in the 1970s, near the start of both our careers—as I recall, it was at an art show that he’d curated in a small Manhattan gallery (somewhere up near Bloomingdale’s, I believe) that consisted of super-realistic, high-key paintings of Brian Wilson and the Beach Boys (yes, the Beach Boys; don’t ask me why, although probably it was the first or second or third step in a scheme to produce a “Byron Preiss Book” sometime in the future). He was the most confident man I’d ever met. Soft spoken, slow moving, but confident as hell. Always well dressed. Good clothes but they could get rumpled looking. For as long as I knew and saw him, and it was quite a while, Byron always had a hundred ideas for new projects and the sublime confidence they’d all make millions.
So far as I understood it, he worked like this: he’d pitch a slew of different ideas to a variety of book editors in New York City, ideas that (again, so far as I understood it) he’d dreamed up himself, ideas inspired by current trends in publishing or pop culture (U.S.S.A., for example, followed in the wake of the original Red Dawn movie). Whenever Byron got the go-aheads for specific packaging projects, he’d call up writers to do the actual writing. (He was also likely to call up cartoonists and illustrators since most of his books came illustrated. Later, when he was one of the first people to pionneer digital publishing, he probably called up programmers.)
For me, and no doubt for many other “midlist” authors like me, it was often a lifesaver to get a telephone call from Byron Preiss; he took a big cut of any advance, naturally, and the advances were never better than just okay, but when you were in-between books and fresh out of ideas, or in-between advances for novels of your own, or had a major house repair that you couldn’t afford, or there was a new baby on the way, you were glad—at least I was glad—for an offer from Byron. A lot of the work I did through his auspices were merely jobs—like the primitive computer-game script based on Jules Verne’s Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea—but much of it was great fun; if I’d never met Byron there’s a good chance I’d never have tried writing for younger readers, and he gave me my first shots at scripting graphic novels, too (adaptations of Raymond Chandler’s Goldfish and William Gibson’s Neuromancer).
I don’t think I had a falling-out with Byron, although as time went on I began to suspect there might be some hinkiness going out regarding my royalty statements and payments. At any rate, I stopped saying yes to projects that he offered to me, and eventually he stopped phoning and we lost touch. For more than ten years.
Then, in early spring of 2005, I ran into him again one day, at an alternative-comics convention at the Puck Building in downtown New York City. In a killer but rumpled three-piece suit he was manning a table spread with a variety of science fiction, fantasy and comics titles that he’d packaged. He’d gained weight, I’d turned gray, but we recognized each other immediately across the dealers’ room, and if there had ever been any hard feelings (I really don’t think so), they vanished, vanished utterly, and then it was like we both were young again, young and starting out, and he regaled me half a dozen ideas for books and series he was currently pitching or planning to pitch. “Tom! You know Roger Zelazny’s Amber novels, right?” he asked me.
“Sure,” I said.
“Well, I’ve negotiated the rights to bring out a second Amber series”—Zelazny had been dead several years by then—“and I want you to write it!”
“Pass,” I said.
“No, you’d be perfect.”
“Byron, thanks, but I already have a bunch of things I’m working on, and besides I have a full-time teaching job. I really can’t, but thanks.”
“If you change your mind….”
“I’ll let you know.”
We shook hands, and I promised to call him next time I was in New York and we’d have lunch, then we parted. An hour or so later, as I was standing outside in a steady drizzle having a smoke, I saw Byron, in a black raincoat, leave the Puck Building alone; alone, pensive, and melancholy. No longer, I thought, quite so confident as before. I knew the feeling. He hailed a cab and rode away.
Not terribly long after that, on the fifth of July, Byron was killed out on Long Island, in East Hampton, driving to synagogue; as I got the story, a jitney bus ran a red light and plowed broadside into his car.
Anyhow. I wrote U.S.S.A. because Byron Preiss asked me to. Thanks, man.