Author’s Introduction to the 2015 Digital Rerelease of Little Nightmares, Little Dreams
In 1990, a few weeks before the original publication of this book, I had lunch with a writer friend in New York City. I was thirty-one and anxious, having never published a book before. She was a much-published author close to twice my age. Since she had spoken candidly to me about struggles in her personal life, I allowed myself to reveal my feelings. She offered insights for me to hold onto over the emotionally bumpy ride ahead, but the one that has stayed with me was the one she uttered as we parted. "There is nothing like your first book," she said, shaking her head with knowing wistfulness. "It is like a first boyfriend. You love it as fiercely and completely as a young girl in love for the first time. Eventually you'll love again, but no other book will feel the same."
I walked off in a daze. I was entirely aware that Little Nightmares, Little Dreams marked the first time I had held in my own hands an elegant hardback with my name on the cover. I had even begun work on the next writing project, which would end up becoming my first novel, The Magic Touch. http://rachelsimon.com/mt_synopsis_v2.php Yet somehow, I hadn't thought of Little Nightmares, Little Dreams as my first book.
I thought of it as my only book. A hard-won culmination of decades of work, starting when I was seven and decided to become a writer; proceeding through the short stories, novellas, poetry, and plays I wrote for the next ten years; stalling when college brought a writer's block; and resuming with discipline and enthusiasm in my mid-twenties. From then on, I had worked on the stories that became this book, writing longhand drafts in libraries, typing them up at home, enduring bouts of insecurity, studying the craft, and finally gaining some degree of confidence.
Aside from Little Nightmares, Little Dreams being the summit of a lifetime of writing, its route to publication felt like something of a miracle. I began the oldest of these stories as I was applying to graduate school for a Masters of Fine Arts. In 1986, when I was twenty-seven, I entered the two-year program at Sarah Lawrence College, setting a goal for myself of completing a collection of stories by the time I graduated. I was prolific enough that after the first year I started submitting stories to literary magazines, telling myself to be patient and persistent. I never let a rejected story sit on my desk for more than a day before sending it out again, thereby leading to almost daily hellos with the woman who worked at the post office.
Early on, my efforts were rewarded, with a few stories finding homes in quarterly periodicals. (One was also accepted for a format that, in 1987, seemed impossibly obscure, an "online" version of the magazine. I was certain no one would ever read it.) But this quick luck was followed by a stretch when all I heard was no. The one exception was a prestigious magazine that held onto a story for over half a year, raising my hopes, until a chagrined editor admitted they'd lost it behind a desk. Now they would read it again, she assured me—only to reject it after all.
In my final semester of graduate school the night I learned that frustrating news, I shared my sense of discouragement with a fellow graduate student. She responded that there might be a more promising approach than mailing stories to editors who didn't know me: I could attend writer's conferences, where I'd stand a chance of meeting editors who might then be more receptive to my work. The idea was appealing, I told her, though impractical. I was living on a tight budget, with no extra funds for registration fees, airfare, or hotel bills. My helpful classmate then mentioned one particular conference. Called Writers At Work and held in Park City, Utah, it featured sessions with major authors, editors, and even agents. Writers At Work also sponsored a short story contest where the winner would receive a financial prize generous enough to cover all expenses related to attending. I figured it was worth a look.
It turned out that the judge for the contest was Richard Ford, a writer whose work I knew and loved. The next day, I selected my most Richard Ford-y story, "Skirts," and sent it off to the contest. Two months later, I received a letter back: out of six hundred entries, Richard Ford had selected mine.
I immediately recognized that the significance of winning this contest was far greater than I'd hoped for. I had, after all, met my goal of producing a collection of stories during my two years in graduate school. In three weeks I would be turning those stories into my advisors as my thesis—and two months later I would be attending Writers At Work, where a spotlight would shine on me as the winner of the contest. If I could, by then, revise my work so it reached a higher, indeed, professional, level, I might actually stand a chance of getting prominent people in publishing to read my whole book. And these weren't only editors from magazines, but from publishing houses like Norton and Graywolf and Houghton Mifflin. There were respected agents, too, and authors who were household names in the literary world. I understood that I was suddenly standing at the door of opportunity, and it had blown wide open.
For the next two and a half months I worked sixteen hours a day to polish my stories. On the occasions when I took breaks, it was to familiarize myself with the work of everyone I was likely to meet. The day before my flight to Utah, I titled the collection Little Nightmares, Little Dreams, made ten copies, and stuffed them in my suitcase. Then I boarded a plane, and, having never been west of Buffalo, flew in something of a trance across the country.
At the conference, possessed by an unfamiliar courage, I simply walked up to the many publishing professionals in attendance. As soon as I introduced myself as the person who'd won the short story contest, I would receive a hearty handshake followed by an invitation for lunch, a drink, dinner, a chat on the chairs over there. Needless to say, I followed up on every invitation. When the conversation drifted around to the question of whether I was working on a manuscript, I was able to say yes, and that I could, if desired, put it in their hands right away. Several people took me up on this. Others gave me their business card and asked me to send the manuscript as soon as we got home. I did—and six weeks later, the editor from Houghton Mifflin called, and made an offer on my book.
So I sold my first book without the long slog toward publication that young writers never cease hearing about. Moreover, I had no agent, and only a few of my stories had appeared in magazines. (I soon acquired an agent, and within months I'd placed many more stories.) Working with my editor, I spent the next year fine-tuning the stories, and another year after that watching for the first time as the lengthy production process—copy editing, cover design, jacket copy, PR questionnaire, page proofs, proofreading, pursuit of blurbs, mailings to book reviewers, etc.—ran its course. It was at this moment, after the production was completed but just before the book appeared on the shelves, when I had my visit with my writing friend.
For a few days I dismissed her analogy about first loves. But as publication day neared, her words rang increasingly true. I had written the stories that became Little Nightmares, Little Dreams with a passion akin to what I'd felt for my first love. I'd also written in a variety of voices and styles and tones, ranging from realistic to magical to surreal, innocent to humorous to sensual, romantic to nostalgic to dark, while portraying female characters of widely divergent ages and ethnicities who were, for the most part, pursuing emotional intimacy—much as I had spent my first romance wondering just who I was while longing for moments of genuine connection. In addition, during the four years I'd taken to produce the stories, I'd submerged myself so thoroughly, it never crossed my mind that my work would, at some point, come to an end. Now, like the forever love that turns out to be but a first, it had.
By all but one measure, Little Nightmares, Little Dreams was a success. It was widely reviewed and well-received. Several of the stories won awards and earned me writing fellowships; the title story was adopted for National Public Radio’s "Selected Shorts" http://store.symphonyspace.org/products/little-nightmares-little-dream-by-rachel-simon and the Lifetime Channel's program "The Hidden Room" http://rachelsimon.com/mm_video_LNLD.php ; the story, "Paint," was adapted by the Arden Theatre Company in Philadelphia. The book's publication date also coincided with the Philadelphia grand opening of Borders, the first in that chain to appear on the East Coast, and I was asked to be their inaugural reader. To heighten the festive mood, I wore the most splendid gown I could find, which turned out to be a secondhand wedding dress, with a veil loaned to me by a friend. I added the accessory of a bouquet of pens and pencils. http://rachelsimon.com/docs/CarlinRomano1990BordersOpening.pdf
But sales, though brisk at first, dwindled. My writer friend had warned me of this possibility, noting the challenges faced by most books in the marketplace, and especially books by unknown authors. I had hoped, perhaps even assumed, I'd be spared this heartbreaking turn of events. Hadn't the almost charmed path my work took to publication amounted to something of an omen? Apparently not: a year and a half after it landed in stores, Little Nightmares, Little Dreams went out of print.
This was a crushing blow, and I struggled for a time with feelings of failure, shame, and lack of confidence. I will not dwell on that time now, though I did later address these and other emotions related to the writing life in my third book, The Writer's Survival Guide. http://rachelsimon.com/wsg_synopsis_v2.php Rather, I will say that, in time, I picked myself up, dusted myself off, returned to my work on The Magic Touch—and my disappointment faded. I went on to write many other books, and although none ever did feel the same as the first, the delight I took in producing them was, if less innocent, just as comprehensive and certainly more grounded. By 2002, when I published my first bona fide success, the bestseller Riding The Bus With My Sister http://rachelsimon.com/rtb_synopsis_v2.php, I rarely thought about Little Nightmares, Little Dreams.
Neither did readers coming new to my work. Almost universally, they presumed my career had begun with Riding The Bus With My Sister. If I offered a gentle correction, noting it was not my first but fourth book, they would sometimes ask how they could read my earlier work. As it turned out, the two books that followed Little Nightmares, Little Dreams had also suffered the same out-of-print fate, as, I'd learned, do the vast majority of books. For the longest time I had no choice except to advise them to hunt for copies in libraries or used book stores. Occasionally a determined fan would do so. But like the golden days of a long-ago summer, Little Nightmares, Little Dreams receded ever further away.
Then in 2014 came a sudden revival of interest. The Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror, an anthology that had published the title story in the early 1990s, tracked me down, asking for permission to include the piece in a new digitized edition. By amazing coincidence, the executive producer of www.chillingtalesfordarknights, a website that produces audio recordings of horror stories, came across a library copy of that same anthology and asked to post an audio rendition of the title story for an MP3 download and YouTube video. http://www.chillingtalesfordarknights.com/2014/04/17/little-nightmares-little-dreams-by-new-york-times-bestselling-author-rachel-simon/
Maybe it was time to get Little Nightmares, Little Dreams out into the world again—only now into the digital world. No longer must out-of-print mean dead and gone. E-books can have a long life indeed.
They can also include new material. For a few years after Little Nightmares, Little Dreams was on bookstore shelves, I continued to write short stories. With all the moving I did for the next decade, some of these stories failed to survive. I have, however, been able to find four, which I've inserted throughout this e-book.
Three of these new pieces were partially influenced by childhood memories: "The Bells of God," "The Good Lie," and "The Speed of Love." In this way, they fit in well with several of the original stories, such as "Breath of This Night," "The Long Sadness of No," "Magnet Hill," and "The Secret Lives of My Toys." Most of these stories, new and old, happen to be among the shortest in this book. I'll leave it to psychologists to theorize on why that is so.
The other new story, "Better Than A Box of Dreams" also fits well with the title story, "Little Nightmares, Little Dreams." Both are what I call magical love stories. Both also feature elderly couples who venture beyond the boundaries of love when they enter the world of dreams. And, as "Little Nightmares, Little Dreams" has been adapted for radio, television, and now MP3 and YouTube, so has "Better Than A Box of Dreams" been adapted for the stage, at the InterAct Theatre Company in Philadelphia.
Other stories can also be clustered by their similarities. "Skirts," "Paint," and "Trains" are atmospheric tales that focus on troubled adolescent girls who turn to sexual behavior in an effort to find emotional connection. (You can skip the psychology here; these stories were sparked by my attempts to understand the habits of girls I knew in high school.) Calamitously difficult mothers and grandmothers populate the surreal black comedies of "The Greatest Mystery of Them All," "Grandma Death," and "Since Nanna Came To Stay." Providing a counter balance to that grimmer look at maternal love are the poignant, tonally realistic short-shorts about young mothers enjoying joyful moments with their trio of daughters, "Breath of This Night" and "Launching The Echo."
Readers of my later, disability-oriented books, Riding The Bus With My Sister and The Story of Beautiful Girl http://rachelsimon.com/bg_synopsis_v2.php , will probably be particularly interested in "Twins" and "The Good Lie." The former story was inspired by my sister Beth telling me about a pair of conjoined twins she met in a sheltered workshop; the latter comes from a message-in-a-bottle adventure we shared with our siblings during our childhood. The conflicts that can arise over family caregiving in general form the central issue of the short-short "Hearts."
Long a reader of fairy tales, I just had to have stories about young girls who are haughty and clever—respectively, "Magnet Hill" and "Afterglow." Though it moves backward in time, the story "Sheets" is about a fairy godmother, and how she became who she is.
Do I still agree with my friend's musings about first books and first love? I suppose I do, but, having read through these stories almost a quarter of a century after I first committed them to the page, I have found her words taking on an additional meaning. When I met up with my first boyfriend years after we parted ways, I was startled to discover, along with the many fine qualities I remembered, less pleasing traits I'd once overlooked, such as things he did and said that were no longer in keeping with the person I'd become. The same happened as I reread this book. Here and there, a character will express an attitude about others or herself that I now find limiting and antiquated. I have also ceased gravitating toward characters with overt sexualities. And, while darker perspectives still run through my work, they no longer cast the spell on me that they did at times in my youth.
Far and away, however, the writer I was then remains the writer I am today. Little Nightmares, Little Dreams continues to have a special glow for me.
My hope is that, as readers proceed into this book, they appreciate it for what it is while keeping in mind that I have continued to progress along the writing trail. I also hope readers unfamiliar with this book will find much that enchants, and readers revisiting these pages will savor each story anew.