Daily Archives: July 23, 2012

A Self-Made Man Looks At How He Made It

To begin, my mother and father are responsible for me existing at all, so I suppose the first round of “How I made it to where I am” begins there.

I was born at Travis Air Force Base in Fairfield, CA, and as I understand it I was not the easiest of births, taking on the order of three days to be evicted from the womb. That couldn’t have been comfortable or safe either for my mother or for me, so thanks go to the medical team of doctors and nurses who helped with my birth. Likewise, the fact I was born at an Air Force base means that I owe a thanks to America’s military for offering medical care to my mother (based on her relationship to my father, who was in the military at the time), and indirectly to America’s taxpayers, whose dollars went to supporting the military, and thereby those doctors, nurses, my father’s paycheck and my mother’s medical care.

My parents’ marriage did not last particularly long and in the early seventies — and off and on for the next several years — my mother found herself in the position of having to rely on the social net of welfare and food stamps to make sure that when she couldn’t find work (or alternately, could find it but it didn’t pay enough), she was able to feed her children and herself. Once again, I owe thanks to America’s taxpayers for making sure I had enough to eat at various times when I was a child.

Not having to wonder how I was going to eat meant my attention could be given to other things, like reading wonderful books. As a child, many of the books I read and loved came from the local libraries where I lived. I can still remember going into a library for the first time and being amazed — utterly amazed — that I could read any book I wanted and that I could even take some of them home, as long as I promised to give each of them back in time. I learned my love of science and story in libraries. I know now that each of those libraries were paid for by the people who lived in the cities the libraries were in, and sometimes by the states they were in as well. I owe the taxpayers of each for the love of books and words.

From kindergarten through the eighth grade, I had a public school education, which at the time in California was very good, because the cuts that would come to education through the good graces of Proposition 13 had not yet trickled down to affect me. My schools in the cities of Covina, Azusa and Glendora all had “gifted and talented” programs that allowed me and my other classmates extra opportunities to expand our minds, aided by excellent teachers, most of whose names I can still rattle off after 30 years: Mrs. Chambers, Mrs. Fox, Mrs. Swirsky, Mr. Johnson, Mr. Kaufman, Ms. Morgan. Through much of this time I was fed through school lunch programs which allowed me a meal for free or reduced rates. In the sixth grade, when again my mother and I found ourselves poor and briefly homeless, and I began feeling depressed, the school’s counselor was there to do his best to keep me on an even keel. These schools and programs were funded locally, through the state and through the federal level. The taxpayers helped me learn, kept me fed, and prevented despair from clouding up my mind.

By the eighth grade it became clear public education in California was beginning to get stretched by shrinking budgets, and my mother went looking for a private high school for me to attend. She called up the Webb School of California, and found out it cost more to attend than she made in a year. But she was convinced it was the right place. I went and took the entrance test and had my interview with a teacher there, named Steve Patterson. I don’t remember what it was I said during the interview; I have almost no memory of that interview at all. But I was told years later by another teacher that Steve Patterson said that day to the Webb admissions people that if there were only one child who was admitted to Webb that year, it should be me. His argument must have been convincing, because Webb admitted me and gave me a scholarship, minus a small parental contribution and a token amount which I would be responsible for after I left college, because the idea was that I had to be in some way responsible for my own education. I don’t know if I would have made it into Webb without Steve Patterson. I owe that to him.

I received a fantastic education at Webb, although there were many times while I was there that I did not appreciate it in the moment. Regardless, the teachers there taught me well, whether I appreciated it or not. As with earlier teachers, the names of these teachers remain in my mind: John Heyes, Art House, Dave Fawcett, Laurence MacMillin, Chris Trussell, Joan Rohrback, Roy Bergeson among many others. I learned of the world beyond my own immediate life from them, and that my life would be better thinking about things beyond its own limited scope.

When it came time to choose college, I had my heart set on the University of Chicago but I was a borderline case: The tests and essays were there, but the grades? Meh (I was one of those people who did well in the things he liked, less so in the things he did not). University of Chicago Admissions dean Ted O’Neill called Marilyn Blum, Webb’s college counselor, and asked her for her opinion on whether I would be a good fit for Chicago. She told O’Neill that I was exactly the sort of student who would benefit from Chicago, and that he would never regret admitting me. O’Neill told me this years later, after I had been Editor-in-Chief of the Chicago Maroon and the Ombudsman for the University, by way of letting me know in his opinion Blum had been correct. I owe Blum for being my advocate, and O’Neill for believing her.

The University of Chicago is one of the best universities in the world, and it is not cheap. I was able to attend through a combination of scholarships, government Pell Grants and work study jobs and bank loans. I owe the alumni of the University of Chicago who funded the scholarships, the taxpayers who paid for the grants and subsidized the work study jobs, and, yes, the banks who loaned me money. When one of my expected payment sources for school disappeared, my grandfather told me he would replace it — if I sent him a letter a month. I did. He did. This lasted until my senior year, when I was making enough from freelancing for local newspapers that I could pay for much of my college education myself.

Speaking of which, I owe Chicago Sun-Times editor Laura Emerick for reading the articles I wrote for the Chicago Maroon and during my internship at the San Diego Tribune and deciding I was good enough to write for an actual professional newspaper, and for giving me enough work (at a decent enough payment scale) that I could pay rent on an apartment and school fees. The San Diego Tribune internship I got not only through my clips from the Maroon but also because I mentioned to a friend that I was looking around for an internship and he said, well, my dad is a friend with the editor of the Trib, why don’t I ask him to make a call? This was my first but not last experience with the value of connections. I owe that friend, his father, and the editor.

My experience as a freelancer for the Sun-Times and the fact that I had a philosophy degree from Chicago were impressive to the Features Editor of the Fresno Bee, who gave me a plum job right out of college, for which I had almost no practical experience: Film critic. I owe Diane Webster, that editor, for having the faith that a kid right out of college would live up to the clips he sent. I owe Tom Becker, the Entertainment Editor, as well as a raft of copyeditors and fellow staff writers at the Bee, for helping me not make an ass of myself on a day-to-day basis, and to guide me through the process of becoming a pro journalist and newspaper writer.

Because of the Bee I did a story on a local DJ, Julie Logan, who did an event at a bar in Visalia. While I was there the most gorgeous woman I had ever seen in my life came up to me and asked me to dance. Reader, I married her (although not at that moment). This woman, as it turns out, had an incredibly good head on her shoulders for money management and had a work ethic that would shame John Calvin. Since Kristine Blauser Scalzi came into my life we have as a couple been financially secure, because she made it her business to make it so. This level of security has afforded me the ability to take advantage of opportunities I otherwise would not have been able.

Eventually I left the Bee to join America Online in the mid-90s, just as it was expanding and becoming the first Google (or Facebook, take your pick). My job there was to edit a humor area, and the practical experience of helping other writers with their writing made me such a better writer that it’s hard for me to overstate its importance in my development. I owe Katherine Borsecnik and Bill Youstra for hiring me and handing me that very odd job.

I lasted two years at AOL, at which point I was laid off and immediately rehired as a contractor, for more money for less work. By this time AOL was shedding talent to other startups, many of whom hired me as an editorial contractor because a) They had seen my work and knew I was good, b) I was the only writer they knew. I am indebted to America Online for hiring so many bright, smart people the same time I was there, and then shedding them to go elsewhere, and for all those bright, smart people for remembering me when it came time to look for writing work.

One of those contracts I had included writing a financial newsletter. In 1999, my non-fiction agent Robert Shepard was on the phone with the editor of Rough Guides, who mentioned to him that they were looking for someone to write a book on online finance. My agent said, hey, I have a guy who writes a financial newsletter for AOL. The Rough Guides people said, great, ask him if he wants to write this book. I did. It was my first published book, and it led to two more books by me for Rough Guides. I owe Robert for being proactive on my behalf when he could have let that opportunity swing past him, and I would have been none the wiser.

In 2001 I wrote a novel I intended to sell but then didn’t. I decided to put it online on Whatever in December of 2002. Patrick Nielsen Hayden, the senior editor of science fiction at Tor Books, read it and decided to make me an offer on it, which I accepted. If Patrick hadn’t read it (or alternately, had read it and did nothing about it because I hadn’t formally submitted it), then it’s deeply unlikely I would have the career I have now in science fiction.

When that book, Old Man’s War, came out in 2005, it was championed by Glenn Reynolds of Instapundit to his readers, and by Cory Doctorow of Boing Boing to his. Because of their enthusiasm, the first printing disappeared off the shelf so quickly that it became clear to Tor that this was a book to watch and promote. Glenn and Cory made a huge difference in the early fortunes of that book. In 2006, Neil Gaiman was informed that his book Anansi Boys had been nominated for a Hugo in the category of Best Novel and asked if he would like to accept the nomination. Neil, who won a Hugo a year for the previous three years, politely declined, believing (he told me later) that someone else might benefit from that nomination more than he. The nomination declined went to the next book in the nomination tally: Old Man’s War. And he was correct: I benefited immensely from the nomination.

The publicity Old Man’s War gained from the Hugo nomination, among other things, took the book far and wide and brought it to the attention of Scott Stuber and Wolfgang Petersen, who optioned the book to be made into a film, and to Joe Mallozzi, a producer on Stargate Atlantis, and who (with Brad Wright) eventually hired me to be the Creative Consultant to the Stargate: Universe series. The latter experience was huge in helping me learn the day-to-day practicalities of making television, and having the chance to intensively study scriptwriting; the former has helped me get my foot in the door in terms of having my work seen in film circles. Its success has also made it easier for my fiction agents Ethan Ellenberg and Evan Gregory to sell my work overseas; they’ve sold my work in nineteen languages now, none of which I would have been able to do on my own.

And so on. I am eliding here; there are numerous people to whom I owe a debt for the work that they have done on my behalf or who have done something that has benefited me, who I am not calling out by name. Some of them know who they are; many of them probably don’t, because most of them haven’t met me.

There is a flip side to this as well. I have helped others too. I am financially successful now; I pay a lot of taxes. I don’t mind because I know how taxes helped me to get to the fortunate position I am in today. I hope the taxes I pay will help some military wife give birth, a mother who needs help feed her child, help another child learn and fall in love with the written word, and help still another get through college. Likewise, I am in a socially advantageous position now, where I can help promote the work of others here and in other places. I do it because I can, because I think I should and because I remember those who helped me. It honors them and it sets the example for those I help to help those who follow them.

I know what I have been given and what I have taken. I know to whom I owe. I know that what work I have done and what I have achieved doesn’t exist in a vacuum or outside of a larger context, or without the work and investment of other people, both within the immediate scope of my life and outside of it. I like the idea that I pay it forward, both with the people I can help personally and with those who will never know that some small portion of their own hopefully good fortune is made possible by me.

So much of how their lives will be depends on them, of course, just as so much of how my life is has depended on my own actions. We all have to be the primary actors in our own lives. But so much of their lives will depend on others, too, people near and far. We all have to ask ourselves what role we play in the lives of others — in the lives of loved ones, in the lives of our community, in the life of our nation and in the life of our world. I know my own answer for this. It echoes the answer of those before me, who helped to get me where I am.