Thursday, August 21, 2014

The Story Behind the Story: “Screams from My Father: Stories by Paul F. Gleeson”

(Editor’s note: This is the 50th entry in our “Story Behind the Story” series. Today we bring you Sean Gleeson, who writes below about an unusual short-story collection he and his siblings in Chicago put together to honor their late lawyer father. Asked for a few biographical details, Sean explains: “I was born in Chicago in 1966. Worked at advertising agencies from 1987 to 2004, where my duties ever-so-gradually morphed from old-school art direction with marker layouts and paste-up to Web site development and programming. One day--I’m not sure when--I realized I was no longer an ad man, and had not been one for awhile. From 2005 to 2011, I was an adjunct professor teaching Web design and game creation. Today I am senior programmer at a defense contractor in Oklahoma City.” He and his family live outside of Arcadia, Oklahoma.)

In my fifth-grade classroom in 1977, an old nun was telling us kids about the radio shows she used to love. “Ooh, The Shadow was very exciting. It always started with a creaky door …” My hand shot up. “No, sister, The Shadow started with organ music and laughter. Inner Sanctum had the creaky door!” The good woman must have wondered, How did this ill-mannered 11-year-old become annoyingly familiar with old time radio dramas? That was from my father.

Paul Francis Gleeson loved stories. He loved hearing them, loved reading them, loved telling them. He was a successful lawyer in Chicago, but for one brief season in 1979-1980 he was something more. He was a pulp writer. He wrote well-crafted short stories of murder and intrigue, twisted tales ending with ironic justice, or sometimes ironic injustice. Witty and unsettling vignettes of the human condition.

I can tell you his literary influences, because he continued to enjoy them--and share them--long after they vanished from the rest of the world. He kept old radio dramas on tape, and played them often. “So, kids,” he’d say, “you want to hear Suspense tonight? Or X Minus One?” He loved publisher EC Comics’ Crime SuspenStories and The Vault of Horror, and television’s Twilight Zone and The Outer Limits.

He submitted his tales to the pulp mags of the day. The sci-fi he sent to Amazing Stories. The murders went to Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine and Ellery Queen--as well as to Mike Shayne, the less-popular alternative to those. Besides the fiction, he submitted humorous essays to the Chicago Tribune and The New York Times; the Tribune printed one as a guest column. But none of the pulps would buy any of his stories. Every manuscript kept coming back, rejected. Until one did not: finally, Mike Shayne accepted the story “Unhappy Hour,” and printed it in their May 1980 issue. If you have trouble finding a copy of that back-issue now, it may be because my dad bought so many of them.

In the next issue, the magazine printed a letter from one Bruce Moffitt, a janitor in Brookfield, Missouri, who began his epistle quite dismissively, admitting he only bought Mike Shayne “to keep my file complete” and generally held the magazine in low regard. But he continued, “Then I began reading ‘Unhappy Hour’ by Paul Gleeson. This tale deserves to be anthologized. I’ve been smiling at my mop for the last hour.” I never saw Dad happier than when he read that letter, aloud, five or six times.

Mike Shayne Mystery Magazine went on to publish a second Paul Gleeson story, “Don’t Touch That Dial,” in the October 1980 issue. It was starting to look like Dad was actually on the cusp of achieving his goal of being a full-time lawyer and part-time world-famous pulp writer. But that is not how this story goes.


Sean’s brother Kevin Gleeson (left) with their father in 1980.

A few of the rejection letters contained handwritten notes from helpful editors who explained their decision. “We already run too many of these domestic murders,” said one. “Having the X’s turn out to be Y’s instead of Z’s was just not enough of a twist ending for me,” said another (except I redacted three nouns from that sentence, because, you know, spoilers). But most of them were generic and impersonal photocopies: “Your story has been read by one or more members of our staff, but we regret …” “We regret …” “… we regret …”

How much regret can a man take? Each must have his own limit, and while it is easy enough to say to aspiring authors, “Don’t be discouraged! Just keep at it, champ!,” it must also be said that Paul Gleeson had ample sources of regret in his life without volunteering for more. And so, sometime in 1980, he stopped writing. These stories, these thrilling tales of crime and folly, these fables for an amoral world, were consigned--with the rejection letters--to a cardboard box under Dad’s desk. While they sat, unseen and untouched, turning more yellow and brittle each decade, he never mentioned them again, but he never discarded them either.

After Dad died in March 2012, at 70 years of age, that box of old stories turned up, and my two brothers, my sister, and I had to figure out what to do with them. We decided that we would turn those 10 short stories and five humor columns, everything Dad had ever tried to get published, into a book. We also decided that we four surviving Gleesons would make this book together, each of us taking on a role suited to his or her talents. Kevin, the oldest, would write the foreword, explaining who Dad was and how these stories came to be. Colleen would be the editor, transcribing and correcting the manuscripts. Brendan, who had attended New Jersey’s Joe Kubert School of Cartoon and Graphic Art, would illustrate the cover. None of us had ever produced a book before, but we knew we had the skills, the smarts, and the inspiration to do this one.

My job was to publish. Having labored in advertising, I knew about design and print production, but I had never published a book before, so I had to teach myself how. I studied the specs for the CreateSpace print-on-demand platform. I acquainted myself with such terms as folio, running head, and front matter. I figured out how to get an ISBN, and the difference between a preface, an introduction, and a foreword. I also had to learn how to format a book for the Kindle, but this was a pleasant surprise: it turns out that Kindle books are made with essentially the same code as Web pages, which I already knew.

(Left) Sean Gleeson today

Not wanting to make any mistakes on Dad’s book, I did a dry run. All by myself, I edited and published a little volume titled Subjective Grounds: Writings by Persons with the Initials S.G. (Really, it’s a whole book of short works by 11 authors with my initials. Pretty good stuff, too.) That process went smoothly--it only took two weeks from start to finish, and cost nothing--and helped me navigate all the stuff you need to do after a book is launched: Amazon controls for adding descriptions, fixing prices, running promotions, and other settings. So now, I was a real honest-to-God publisher.

But I also felt that a book should have “blurbs” on its cover. You know, quotes from prominent persons saying this author is a new star in the firmament, and that you are indeed fortunate to be about to read this wondrous literary triumph, and so forth. I figure they’re easy enough to get at large publishing houses; the bosses probably shoot a text message to Stephen King, saying, “Sent new galley, fax me blurb by Monday,” and go golfing on their yachts. But I had no idea how to go about getting blurbs. So I just asked nicely, and found that David Cranmer, the editor of Beat to a Pulp, was happy to supply a great quote. Dad’s brother Tony Gleeson, who works as an illustrator in Los Angeles, helped me get a second blurb from Terrill Lee Lankford, the author of Earthquake Weather as well as dozens of other works. (He even wrote the screenplay for Hollywood Chainsaw Hookers.)

We did it! Except for some guys at the bindery, I was the first man on earth to hold Screams from My Father: Stories by Paul F. Gleeson. The book my dad sired, and his children birthed. A dream come true after death. I am not exaggerating when I say it is beautiful. And I have to be honest, the very first moment I held it, all I could think was how damned sorry I am. I’m sorry he’s gone, and I’m sorry he was not happier in this life, and I’m sorry we didn’t think of publishing this book years ago (print-on-demand has been offered since about 2006) so Dad could have held it in his hands, and seen how much people love to read it. I held back a tear, maybe two. But I got over it; regret is a killer. And frankly, I doubt my dad would have allowed this book to exist while he lived. I imagine he has a better view of things now.

There will be no author tour, for obvious reasons. And we have no promotion budget, because I am not that kind of publisher, so you will see no ads for Screams from My Father. I have been sending copies of the book to various strangers, some in the media, some not. Every day I try to find a person I think should like the book, and I mail him one.

I even tried to look up Bruce Moffitt, the letter-writing janitor. I wanted to send him the anthology he wished for in 1980 while smiling at his mop. I was too late; he died in 2014. Mr. Moffitt, wherever you are, I want you to know your letter made my father smile too.

4 comments:

Colleen Gleeson Hicks said...

I imagine Dad does have a better outlook now, and he would be proud of what he -- and his children -- have accomplished.

June Lorraine Roberts said...

A lovely tribute to your father and damn sweet story. I love the old radio shows and listen to them on my iPhone when I need a break between books.

David Cranmer said...

It was a pleasure to play a small part in this book's release. My copies arrived today and as I held the sharp looking Screams From My Father I can only imagine how proud Paul Gleeson would be.

Oscar said...

If the stories are as good as the cover, I'm hooked.