A little under two years ago, I received an email from Conrad Williams inviting me to submit a story for a new project he was involved with:
“I’m putting together a themed anthology (working title DEAD LETTERS) dealing with all the parcels and post cards and love letters we send but never arrive, or end up at the wrong address or sometimes come back to us, slashed open and changed somehow…
Each contributor will be sent a mystery parcel from the dead letter zone: a trinket or photograph, an aide-memoire, a promise… or a threat… of fidelity. How you respond to this visual stimulus is up to you, but I’m looking forward to shaping a very dark, very inventive cluster of stories…”
I love anything to do with stamps and letters and the post in general, so this was an irresistible challenge, to which I agreed immediately. The project was only in the planning stage at that point, and I understood that it would be a while before my package arrived. As I was deep into final edits and revisions on The Race, I put all thoughts of Dead Letters on hold until after the London Worldcon.
At that point, something odd happened. Conrad was pretty amazing in the way he put the ‘dead letter’ packages together. When mine arrived, the whole thing was just so weirdly convincing that for a couple of minutes I found myself wondering what the hell the thing was, even though Conrad had pre-warned everyone the day he sent them out. Once I twigged, I found myself so instantly captivated by the story possibilities on offer it was difficult to decide which one to go with.
And then I started writing and couldn’t stop. I’m not good at writing ‘short’ short fiction at the best of times, but it wasn’t long before I had 30,000 words and no end in sight. It was at this point I realised that what I was writing wasn’t a short story at all, but my next novel. An exciting discovery, except for the fact that I believed my Dead Letters story was doomed, that I was going to have to write to Conrad and withdraw from the project.
I hated the thought of doing that – the anthology had been part of my thought process for quite some time by then, I didn’t want to let Conrad down, and I loved the idea of Dead Letters as much as ever. I wanted to be a part of it. I carried on drafting the novel – a loose initial draft that would soon become the bedrock of The Rift – and hoping that I’d find a way to perform a detour, go back and complete the Dead Letters story – a different story – after all.
I used the Christmas/New Year hiatus as a springboard to do that. By then, I knew so much about the characters in my novel and the problems they were facing that I thought I could take a risk, write a story that ran off at a tangent from them but that was not itself part of that main theatre of action. I am not the kind of writer who thrives on having several projects on the go simultaneously – in order to write to my strengths I need to be totally immersed in whatever it is I’m currently working on. One workaround that does seem productive for me though is to write linked stories. That way, I keep the mental connection with the main project whilst giving myself the freedom to work in territories adjacent to it.
This is how ‘Astray’ was written. One of the main characters from The Rift does make an appearance, but ‘Astray’ is not her story.
I was pleased (and extremely relieved) to be able to deliver the story to Conrad before the deadline…
The full table of contents for Dead Letters has now been released. You can see why I’m pretty chuffed to be a part of it:
The Green Letter Steven Hall
Over to You Michael Marshall Smith
In Memoriam Joanne Harris
Ausland Alison Moore
Wonders to Come Christopher Fowler
Cancer Dancer Pat Cadigan
The Wrong Game Ramsey Campbell
Is-and Claire Dean
Buyer’s Remorse Andrew Lane
Gone Away Muriel Gray
Astray Nina Allan
The Days of Our Lives Adam LG Nevill
The Hungry Hotel Lisa Tuttle
L0ND0N Nicholas Royle
Change Management Angela Slatter
Ledge Bants Maria Dahvana Headley & China Miéville
And We, Spectators Always, Everywhere Kirsten Kaschock
Dead Letters: an anthology of the undelievered, the missing, the returned will be unleashed upon the world in April 2016 by Titan Books.