There’s a story behind the story that goes with “Tea with the Hatter”, published last week. I’ve been wanting to share it for nearly three years. Now seems about the right time.
Victorian horror challenge
The original kernel of the story came because I was responding to a challenge to write a “Victorian horror story in less than a thousand words”. I’d the idea of the hatter’s conformateur hovering in my mind for some time, and a pub I go to sometimes has a model of the phrenological head as one of its decorations, so I put the two together.
(After I wrote the first draft, I discovered that Victorian phrenologists did actually create a similar object to the one I described. At least, they further developed the conformateur to help them identify what they called “the character bumps” on people’s skulls under their hair. I don’t think anyone ever turned it into a device for changing the shape of someone’s head though.)
The draft written, I published it on this website to satisfy the challenge and thought little more about it. Little more, but not nothing more. I wasn’t really satisfied with what I’d written. The thousand word limit in particular had felt restrictive. In some ways of course it forced me to be brief, which was good. I do have a tendency to run on. But it also forced me to cut or elide things I thought, in retrospect, the story needed. Still, I would probably not have rewritten it if I hadn’t received an e-mail.
Words from a hatter
I don’t get many e-mails in response to the things I publish on the website. Most that I do are trying to sell me the services of hack bloggers or questioning my website Search Engine Optimisation and offering to do something about it – for a fee.
This was different.
The writer claimed to be a hatter. He was setting up a business, and he could buy a copy of my story as a poster? He wanted to hang it as a decoration in his shop. No mention of me paying anything (or, to be sure, any suggestion he might be prepared to pay me.) This was so unusual that I looked at the story again and had two thoughts. First, why would any hatter want to have this story on their walls? (A mad hatter perhaps?) Second, that the story really deserved a rewrite.
I went online and checked, as well as I could to find out if the letter writer was who he claimed to be. I traced the name back to a real hatter’s shop making genuine Western hats for sale to a clientele in Houston. Or maybe it was Dallas? Texas anyway. There was a young man with the same name as my letter writer. I could even read a write-up about him in a local paper, and about his new hatter’s store.
I still didn’t know if this was genuine or if I was being strung along. (And I still don’t.) But I chose to respond as if I believed it. If it was a scam, it was elaborate and, as I say, no money was being asked for.
Red Bubble poster
In the end I exchanged a couple of e-mails with him, and decided, if he wasn’t genuine, he was doing a good job of appearing to be so. I told him that I was not really satisfied with the story and that it wasn’t available as a poster. But I offered to rewrite the story in a way more satisfactory to me, and make it available as a poster – on the Red Bubble art and design publishing site – where he could buy a copy. He seemed happy enough with this.
For my part, I thought it would give me the necessary impetus to explore opening a creator’s page on Red Bubble. I’d been toying with this idea for a while.
So, I rewrote the story a couple of times, and finally settled on a form I was happy with. I also revisited the illustrations I’d made for the original post. They were, of course, small 72 dpi RGB images from copyright-free sources. I couldn’t use them to illustrate my story if it was going to be printed. So I back-engineered them in Photoshop and turned them into 350 dpi CMYK images. These I could add to the poster’s PDF.
Then I created the poster.
In the end it was possible to make something quite big, but once again there was a limit to the number of words I could fit on. This time it wasn’t a writers’ challenge. It was a conflict between getting the story whole and fitting it into a poster (along with the illustrations) such that it would be easily legible. Some editing was involved.
I managed, I think, and put it up on Red Bubble. There were three sizes. A decent A1 sized poster, a shower curtain(!) 2m x 1m, and a smaller A3 size poster. Then I wrote to the hatter and told him.
He didn’t reply, nor did he buy a copy of the poster. I never heard from him again. I like to think he re-read the story (or read it properly for the first time) and realised what it said – and got cold feet. Also, that he was too embarrassed to admit this.
A month or so after all this, I rewrote the story a third time to get the length just right, and then I thought I might as well submitted for publication somewhere. The place I had my eye on wanted something previously unpublished even on a website, so I cheated. I made the original version, the one on this website, private. And I took down the posters from Red Bubble. It wasn’t exactly lying to say it hadn’t been published, I thought. This version, the one I was submitting, had not been published, and the other versions hadn’t exactly caused a sensation.
The story behind version 3
In the end I didn’t have to wrestle with my conscience very hard because the story was turned down anyway. (Read: went ignored and forever unacknowledged.)
It was at this point that my then writers’ group announced what turned out to be their final anthology. They called for submissions and I thought I might as well include “Tea With The Hatter” in my portfolio to them. Which is how it came to be properly published at long last. (Though without the illustrations I’d spent so much time on.)
It’s been 2½ years now since the Far Flung anthology came out, so I think that a decent amount of time to wait before republishing the story here and closing the circle. It also gives me an excuse to tell this story.