DAGGER was an important book for me in various odd ways. In the Fall of 1979 I ran into Bob Asprin when we were both boarding an airplane to return from a convention (probably World Fantasy Con in Providence, but I don’t swear to that). I told him I’d picked up a copy of his new novel Tambu. “But did you get Thieves’ World?” Bob said. “That’s much more important. Read it and write me a story for the next volume.”
Looking back on it, the whole business seems improbable–starting with an author saying his solo novel was less important than the anthology he’d edited–but it really did happen that way. And Bob was right: Thieves’ World was possibly the most important book in the f/sf field during the 1980s. There’d been earlier shared universe volumes, just as there’d been horror novels before Carrie; but Carrie and Thieves’ World created new genres which for a time were the hottest thing going.
I rewrote into TW form a story I’d drafted in high school. Bob bought it for the second volume. There, so far as I was concerned, my involvement with shared universes had ended.
Man proposes, God disposes.
Bob called me three years later, reminding me that I’d said I might do another TW story some time. Could I do one in two weeks?
I’d said, ‘some time’ in the fashion that you say, ‘We’ll have to get together for lunch some time,’ to somebody you never want to see again but wish to be polite to. Still, I could do a story. Two weeks would be a stretch for me, but I’d I said I’d try.
Bob called back the next day. I told him it was going pretty well. Fine, he said. Ah–could I finish it in one week instead of two? I didn’t think I could, but I did. The 4500 words of the climax of Votary are still the greatest daily wordage of my career–and I did them with a pencil on legal pad. (I later learned that Andy Offutt had thrown a hissie and withdrawn his story at the last instant.)
That could’ve been the end of it, but Jim Baen introduced me to Janet Morris and put us together on a number of projects. Janet was heavily involved with the planning of TW, and she had big-budget books with Putnam/Berkley who’d bought the TW franchise along with the rest of Ace Books. Janet decided she was going to raise my profile and income.
The first stage of this was to get me a TW novel contract for $30K. (That was my share: the TW creators properly got a significant payment from the publisher as well.) Janet accomplished this. At the time, Baen Books had a ceiling (imposed by the equity holder) of $20K/book and I hadn’t been paid even that much by Tor, so it was a very significant jump.
In order to maximize my income, I also used the first section of the novel as a story for another TW volume. I’m embarrassed about this: I’d never done it before and I never did it again. I think it’s a cheat on the reader and leads a writer to think only of the money, which is utterly destructive of the writer’s morality. (I’ve let editors have chunks of novels because they begged me, and Karl used our existing story Killer as the opening of the novel of the same name when he sketched out a plot. In the case of Goddess, the first third of Dagger, all I was thinking of was the absurd 24-cents/word TW was by then paying for stories.)
Having said that, the novel itself is interesting. I’d bought and read a three-volume UCal set titled Ancient Egyptian Literature. It introduced me to the concept of wisdom literature. (My first experience with wisdom literature itself is the book of Proverbs in the Old Testament, but I didn’t know it was a standard form of literature in all cultures.) I used Egyptian wisdom texts to flavor the dialogue of the wizard’s manikin, just as I did that of the little robot in The Sea Hag which I wrote shortly thereafter. I didn’t execute the concept well in either instance, I’m afraid; but it wasn’t a bad idea.
The dagger, by the way, is one I own. (Well, mine isn’t magical.) It’s a show piece of Damascus steel. (I’ll come back to Damascus steel shortly.) Gary Ruddell used a photo I sent him when he composed his excellent cover for the Ace edition.
Dagger was my first attempt at giving my hero (which in my usage includes heroines) an inhuman sidekick who has immense knowledge. I’m still working on the concept. I don’t think I’ve gotten it quite right yet, but Mellie in Lord of the Isles came pretty close.
Dagger was an Egypt-intensive novel. Besides the wisdom literature, the temple of Abu Simbel features prominently in the middle section, and the final section is based on an Egyptian folktale (as well as using an Egyptian residential setting). I think there’s good stuff in it.
And there the good stuff ends, people. Don’t do things just for the money: they will rise up and bite you on the ass, and you’ll deserve it–just as I did.
I started the novel before I took my wife and son on a three-week trip to Iceland. Because I was still drafting longhand, I actually worked on it in Iceland, though none of the setting of Dagger is Icelandic. (For that see the Northworld trilogy.) The trip was wonderful but very expensive. (I didn’t know ahead of time that Iceland has the highest per capita income in the world, but I certainly realized the fact while we were there.)
I got home and finished the novel. As I started to type the edited version into my Olivetti ET 360 (a dedicated word processor), it died. (Parenthetically, it later came out that Olivetti had been forced to pay a seven million dollar bribe to get even the Italian government to buy their office machines.) I ran out and bought the first laptop computer, an IBM Convertible. This is not a highly regarded machine, but I have a certain amount of affection for it. The IBM worked, which was never a conspicuous virtue of the Olivetti.
Still, the Convertible was another couple thousand dollars of expense, and I had to pay for my son’s braces at that time as well. I sent Dagger off and waited anxiously for the $15K turn-in payment.
Which didn’t come. There were layers of editing on TW projects–not only the in-house Ace editor, a nice woman named Sue Stone with whom I’ve had pleasant contact in later years, but also Bob’s then wife, Lynn Abbey; a nice woman as well, and one whose line-by-line writing skills are above average.
But the technical sophistication of the pair is suggested by the problem with the dagger blade. The name ‘Damascus steel’ came about because Damascus was the point of entry to Western Europe of high-quality Oriental blades forged by welding strips of iron and steel, then doubling the bar and hammering the result flat again–hundreds of times. The city of Damascus doesn’t exist in the TW universe, so I used a common alternate terminology: watered steel, so called because the pattern on the polished blade looks like waves.
“Shouldn’t this be ‘oiled steel’, because you describe the blade as being tempered in oil?” was one of the editorial questions. I honestly didn’t know where to start with my answer. (One of Lynn’s stories involved ‘green-glittering steel ore’ and red-hot blades quenched in ice water. If you don’t understand the problem with those statements, you shouldn’t be editing a book of mine either.)
I borrowed money from a friend to pay my bills; and eventually I got paid for Dagger. I think of it as being a learning experience. Which is also how I describe the time I spent in Vietnam.
Dagger. Thieves’ World Series. 1988, New York, NY: Ace Books. 250 p. 0441806090 (pb). $3.50.
————– 1988, New York, NY: SFBC. 218 p. $5.50.