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Notes on Steam Engine Time
By Lewis Shiner
Like a lot of my favorite stories, I wrote "Steam Engine Time" for Joe Lansdale, for an anthology he was editing for Doubleday.
It's about Elvis, of course, though I don't know how many people got that. (Greil Marcus did; at one point he was going to reprint it in an expanded version of Mystery Train, but unfortunately that never happened.) What if Elvis had been born 50 years too early? Growing up around black sharecroppers, loving black music, but simply too far ahead of his time to have a chance? The racism in US music around the turn of the 20th century was appalling; Stephen Foster, who was universally revered when I was growing up, was responsible for a slew of vile, condescending musical caricatures.
I got a kick out of seeing how many contemporary analogues I could find in the period. Pawnee Indians (and I assume Mohawks as well) had what we call Mohawk haircuts; Martin guitars were around; some scholars date the earliest blues songs, including "Rollin' and Tumblin'," back to the 19th century. And O. Henry actually published a newspaper called The Rolling Stone in Austin in the 1890s.
I found a book in the Austin Public Library with period photographs that were a huge help in picturing the locations for the story. I don't have a lot of imagination, so it's a lot easier for me to look something up than to make something up.
Speaking of picturing it, I really lucked out when my friend and sometime tennis partner, Doug Potter, agreed to illustrate the comics version of the story, which appeared in an anthology called Wild West Show (Mojo Press, 1996), edited by my pal Rick Klaw. Doug walks the line between cartoon and realism as few artists can, resulting in comics that are expressive, universal, and yet full of great detail. His Denizens of Deep City was a classic that you should make an effort to find.
Notes © 2007 by Lewis Shiner. Some rights reserved.