All Profits from “Watt O’Hugh” to American Heart Association till May 28, 2015!

I am running in the New York “Run and Heart Walk,” and have decided to donate all profits from either of my Watt O’Hugh novels between now and May 28, 2015 (when the run takes place) to the American Heart Association. This is to avoid sending everyone emails saying, “Hey would you sponsor me?” Because, really, if you want to give money for people with heart problems or heart research or whatever, just go ahead? Why should you be inclined to give more money if you hear that I’ve managed to waddle around for three miles? On the other hand, if you were thinking of giving money to a heart disease charity and you are interested in weird western sci-fi, well this is a two-fer, a win-win.

So why am I participating in this event? Because when I am not writing science fiction westerns, I work at an office, and a director at the firm told me I was “encouraged” to participate. I don’t want anyone to have a heart attack, but this isn’t my number 1 charity. I mean, it’s a good charity and everything.

If you send my publisher the receipt for your purchase of the book (email, I will donate the profits in your name and will give you a receipt to use on your taxes.

You can buy the book here. Thanks!

Green Acres is the Place to Be

RIP Richard L. Bare, who directed almost every episode of Green Acres, and also the “To Serve Man” episode of The Twilight Zone. According to the New York Times, “Mr. Bare began directing Green Acres, which starred Eddie Albert and Eva Gabor as a sophisticated Manhattan couple who move to a farm, in 1965. He said in 2003 that he took over for Ralph Levy, who was credited as director of the first two episodes, because Mr. Levy was using ‘strange camera angles’ and trying to coax ‘magnificent performances’ from Mr. Albert and Ms. Gabor instead of completing the show. ‘Making Green Acres art!’ he scoffed. ‘Can you imagine ‘Green Acres’ being art?'”

Actually, I can, and I think that Mr. Bare protests too much, and I think he knows it. It might have been a hopeless cause for the mastermind behind a ridiculous 1960s sitcom to try to make his own case for himself, but this was a great show, and it finally found itself praised (back in the late 1970s I think) in the pages of the Washington Post on the occasion of the American Film Institute’s Green Acres tribute! You know: The American Film Institute showed episodes of Green Acres in its screening room!

Watt O’Hugh quotes Green Acres’ conman extraordinaire Mr. Haney in Book 2. You’ll never find it, but just so you know, it’s there. I put a Green Acres homage into my novel, and I’m not ashamed to admit it.

Finally, one more personal note about Green Acres. One of my ancestors was a man named David Betts or Petts who fled the Honiton lacemaking district of England (probably as a fugitive) to remake himself in America, where he took the name Frederick Slocum, a fancy-shmancy name that gained him entry into fine society. Everyone who has inherited these faux Slocum genes (including my maternal grandmother, me, and my younger daughter) looks like Mr. Haney for a couple of years in childhood, before growing out of it; the resemblance is so bizarrely striking that Pat Buttram (the actor who played Mr. Haney, and the funniest man on television back in the 1960s) must have been a long-lost relative


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A few guest blogs for you to peruse

May 23, 2014 –

For my publication week, I wrote a few guest blogs on some great websites. I talked about the “Big Idea” of my book on John Scalzi’s Whatever website, I explained why I have to believe in dragons on Suvudu (which my daughter kindly illustrated), and I imagined an interview from 1936 with Watt O’Hugh for the New York Herald-Tribune on the No More Grumpy Bookseller site. I hope you enjoy them.

A Birthday Question/The Meaning of Life

April 20, 2014.

I woke up this morning and I was 49 years old, entering my 50th year. So this person who lives in my home with me (who I’m not allowed to mention on Facebook) said “Are you freaked out about this?” So I wasn’t really till she mentioned it. I like the 49 part ok but not the 50 part, but I’m still younger than Jackie Chan and always will be, and he’s the spirit of youth, so I will be ever-young, thanks to Jackie Chan. But yet, I feel so wise.

Here’s something that is perplexing me, and it didn’t really start to bother me till last night at about 10 minutes before midnight, and I’m wondering if any of you are smart enough to figure this out. It involves statistics.

In 1830, in the South Bavarian Hamlet of Emmendingen, my great great grandfather Ephraim Weil, who was a moderately successful 20-year-old cattle trader, was trying to decide whether to marry Bessie Sonneborn or Barucha Heilbron. (Ephraim later had a synagogue named after him – Congregation Zichron Ephraim, which still exists in Manhattan.) He let his horse decide, and his horse chose Barucha. Had his horse chosen Bessie, I would not have been born. OK, 50-50 odds there, pretty good. Anyway, his son Jonas came to America and became a butcher, then a fantastically wealthy real estate developer, but he squandered – er, nobly gave away – all his money for good works. His son-in-law, a rabbi named Bernard Drachman (who was once accused by Arthur Conan Doyle of being a wizard), traveled back to Germany in 1882, where he fell madly in love with a woman named Jeanette Shemayah, “a true Oriental beauty of the finest type,” with “skin of alabaster whiteness” and a “softly melodious [voice] like the gentle rippling of a fountain.” But he was too timid to propose marriage and to bring her back to America. She was last heard from in 1941, when she was deported to Poland. Had he proposed, I would not have been born. 50-50 again. But beautiful Jeanette’s life would have been spared.

Meanwhile, my goyishe great-great-great-great-great (maybe a few more) grandfather was born David Betts or Petts between 1780 and 1790 in the lace-making hamlet of Honiton in Devonshire, from whence he fled to the New World, a wanted fugitive, and finally remade himself before the War of 1812 as William Frederick Slocum, the captain of a merchant vessel, where he met and married Rachel James. Had he not been accused of committing whatever crime he was accused of committing, I would never have been born. Many years later, my mother fell in love with a nice young man, who went off to war and was shot dead. Had he not been killed, I would never have been born. But other children would have been, the children of the brave soldier. Finally, even when she met and fell in love with a Jew from Brooklyn and collapsed with him in a drunken, passionate stupor in the dumpster behind McSweeney’s that crazy night in 1964 (ok, I made up the part about the dumpster), and even assuming that a child would result from the interlude, the odds were at least 100 million to 1 that the child would turn out to be me. (Because – I looked this up – each ejaculation contains between 100 million and 400 million sperm. Sorry to be graphic.)

So considering all this, the odds against any one of us being born has to be trillions and trillions to one. Really impossible odds. Like winning the lottery once a week for your whole life. Has anyone tried to crack the numbers? My point here (and I do have one) is that I’m just not that lucky. I’m kind of lucky. But mostly unlucky. So isn’t it just possible that there’s something more to this whole existence thing? Anyway: I HOPE SO.

Happy birthday today to me, Harold Lloyd, and Hitler.


Screen shot 2014-04-07 at 9.58.18 PMSeptember 7, 2014.

I wish that Mickey Rooney had lived long enough to have a role in the Watt O’Hugh movie. But then he’d have to live forever. And I wish he could have lived forever.

When my kids were little, he was one of their favorite actors, mostly from “Bill”, but also the Black Stallion, and they thought he was funny in Andy Hardy and Pete’s Dragon. They found it very hard to believe that all these guys were the same person. When he showed up briefly in The Muppets, they shouted, “Bill!” About a year and half ago, I was watching an Andy Hardy movie with them, and there was a scene with Mickey Rooney, Esther Williams and Ann Rutherford (as long-suffering and long-tormenting girlfriend, Polly). They all radiated youthful energy (and Esther radiated something else too). I googled Esther Williams and Ann Rutherford, and I was really overjoyed to realize that, along with Mickey, they were all still alive. Now, such a short time later, they are all gone. Really, probably the last three of the 1930s stars. Who’s left? Anyway, I loved Mickey Rooney, I watched his 1980s sitcom every week (in which he co-starred with Dana Carvey, Nathan Lane, Scatman Crothers and Meg Ryan!!!) and I forgive him for Breakfast at Tiffany’s. He won an Emmy for The Comedian, an absolutely brutal live TV play written by either Rod Serling or Paddy Chayefsky way back in the 1950s, in which he played a horrifyingly sadistic TV show host, a monster in real life, a lovable imp on his show, a brave and incredible shredding of his image.

When I interviewed Marianne Sagebrecht, the zaftig German actress, in the early 1990s for a great film called Martha and I, she told me that her next role was in a film called The Milky Way, with Mickey Rooney as an old man whose last wish is to be a baby again. So he hires a wet nurse. She retrieved photos from somewhere, of topless Marianne suckling a diaper-clad Mickey. What other famous octogenarian actor would do such a thing? No one, that’s who.

He was not only a cornball, but also a great actor. And, apparently, a cowboy. RIP. Every day that Mickey Rooney is not in this world is a less happy day.

(Picture courtesy Westernpunk – The Weird, Wicked and Wild West.)





September 18, 2013.

Cory Monteith has died, which means, ipso facto (as the Harvard boys say) that the character he plays, “Finn,” is also dead. For a while, it seemed that because Cory Monteith had died of a drug overdose, the same type of death would be Finn’s fate, although Finn was not a drug addict, and Monteith was. It was to be a teachable moment.

The plan has changed and Finn will not die of drugs, but he will still die. Why does the death of a TV actor necessarily means the death of his character? Could Finn not receive a terrific offer over the summer to sing and dance on a variety show in the Czech republic?

The death of a beloved TV actor who plays an unlikable TV character is even more awkward. While Phil Hartman, of Newsradio, was indeed beloved by the cast, his character was not equally beloved by his office co-workers – hence, you see, comedy ensued. Yet when the actor died, the character was eulogized with tears. It may be heartless to say, but when a disliked office colleague dies, a representative might be chosen to attend the funeral (or not), but life goes on without tears.

When Freddie Prinze died, his Chico and the Man character was away for a while (“I can’t wait till Chico gets back,” was uttered at least once), and then after a while we learned that his character had died, but not how. We lost Freddie Prinze; I am not sure why I could not have been allowed to believe that Chico, the character, was still alive somewhere, which would have been more in keeping with the show’s message of hope and redemption. Even today, more than 35 years later, I think that would still make me feel better. Why did Chico have to die too?

I wonder whether the death of an actor from a cancelled TV show means that the character, off in his fictitious universe, has also died. When Amanda Blake died of AIDS, years after Gunsmoke went off the air, did Miss Kitty die of syphilis? Is Lord Bowler still riding with Brisco, in spite of the death of the great Julius Carry, some years after the show went off the air? Happily, Horace Rumpole is still solving mysteries with his typical gusto in a series of novels, blithely unaware of Leo McKern’s infirmity and death.

These are things I think about ….


Is indie publishing awful? Or really, really great?

Salon continues its ongoing debate on the future of publishing with its latest article, entitled Self Publishing is the Worst, which you can read here. This follows a piece arguing that, well, Indie publishing is really horrible, which followed a piece arguing that Indie published books literally SELL THEMSELVES!

The author of the most recent piece suffers because he expects an indie publishing experience to be the same as a traditional publishing experience (except without the pesky rejection slips), when, of course, it’s not. Any book published by Random House (for example) has a certain floor of library sales and media publicity, while an indie published writer has to struggle for everything. While his complaints ring a LITTLE hollow (his sales rank on Amazon is actually pretty good), he has correctly discovered that competing against the million other indie books that are published each year can indeed be not-exactly-always-easy.

Anyway, it’s worth reading for anyone who may be lulled into thinking that the indie publishing model is a guarantee of riches and fame.


APRIL 28, 2013.

Almost exactly twenty years ago, I wrote a feature story about the film version of This Boy’s Life, by Tobias Wolfe. One of the great coming-of-age stories, This Boy’s Life details Wolfe’s not entirely noble childhood, his close relationship with his resourceful mother, and how he survives when she makes the mistake of moving to the small industrial town of Concrete, WA, to marry a buffoon named Dwight.

The film was being made with Wolfe’s participation and filmed in part in Concrete itself, on the very streets described in the book, which I thought was an intriguing collision of art and life. The film starred Robert De Niro as Dwight, and Ellen Barkin as Wolfe’s mother, and a teenage kid in the film with whom I was completely unfamiliar – the titular “Boy” – a seventeen-year-old weightily named “Leonardo DiCaprio”. He had previously played a secondary part on a canceled ABC sitcom that I didn’t watch. But Barkin told me, “It really is Leonardo’s film; the truth is, Bob and I have support roles … Leonardo holds the film together beautifully,” and the director, Michael Caton-Jones, confidently insisted that DiCaprio was the real deal, a genuine find and fated to be a star.

De Niro, interrupting all-nighters editing A Bronx Tale to speak with me, was tired and grumpy (and who could blame him?); Barkin was cheerful and friendly; and the unknown DiCaprio, in what seems to have been his first interview, was inarticulate, wet-behind-the-ears and frequently apologetic. I liked him.

When Sunday came, I was startled to discover that De Niro, Barkin and DiCaprio had been cut from the article without my knowledge.

Since then, of course, DiCaprio has had an illustrious career, which has included (among other things) his role in Sam Raimi’s “weird western”, The Quick and the Dead.

With his latest film, The Great Gatsby, hitting 3D theaters on May 10, and with DiCaprio recently having announced a retirement from film acting that may prove temporary, I think it’s a good time to dust off that two-decades-old interview for a fresh look at the way he approached his first film and the career that beckoned.

Below is a version of our conversation from 1993, published here for the first time. It’s been edited significantly, and some of the questions have been rearranged.


SSD: When did you start acting?

LDC: Three and a half years ago. … I always wanted to, but I got turned off to it when I was ten, because I went to an agency and they said I had the wrong haircut. Had us all in line like cattle, and said, “No, you’re out, you have the wrong haircut,” and I said, well, shit, is this what it’s all about? This sucks.


SSD: How old are you?

LDC: Me? I’m eighteen. Almost – no, just turning 18, just in like 10 days.


SSD: What have you done before?

LDC: I did Growing Pains, the series. For a year. Right now, I’m up here doing a movie called Gilbert Grape.


SSD: How did you get involved in This Boy’s Life?

LDC: Ahh. I auditioned. [laughs] Well, I auditioned like many times, like five or six times I believe it was, and I remember coming in for a reading for another part just to read with another kid for another part…  Then that day I got the part. I wasn’t aware that like they were looking at me. So I guess it was sort of good.


SSD: Did you meet Tobias Wolfe?

LDC: He came [to the set] with his mother and I talked with him for a while. He looked at [my] hair and said, “Wow, that’s exactly like it was when I was a kid. That’s great, cool.” … It was interesting seeing his reaction to how I was, if I looked anything like him, if the period pieces around the neighborhood were right, if I was, you know, if I was going to be worthy. [laughs]


SSD: The way Robert De Niro prepared for the role is that he flew down and met with Tobias Wolfe’s mother and found all these little details about what the real Dwight would have done. Did you have any inclination to do that with the real Tobias Wolfe?

LDC: I mean, he’s a grown man now. If I met with him as a kid that would be completely different ….


SSD: Some of Tobias Wolfe’s step-brothers and step-sisters still live in Concrete, and were extras in the film. Did you talk to them at all?

LDC: I talked to them for five minutes.  Saw some pictures they had of what Tobias Wolfe looked like. And he did look similar to me. Not when he was grown up. But, you know, as a young kid, I saw a lot of goofiness that I have. A lot of, you know, just kid, just kid kid kid kid-ness.


SSD: You’re not a kid! You’re almost a legal adult.

LDC: Well, I’m not [a kid] by age. But I still [laughs] – I’m still a kid …. You’re an adult sometimes, but you love to be a kid sometimes. The way it is now, I like being a kid, still.


SSD: What was it like acting with De Niro? Did any of the hostility between the characters carry over to your relationship when the camera was off?

LDC: It’s amazing to watch him be Robert De Niro for a second and then pop right into Dwight. I want to use a fancy word here, but I can’t.  … Doing a scene with him, he always made sure that I wasn’t being too affected by it in real life, he was always are you ok, are you ok after some of the scenes were done, but when we got into it, we got into it, and you know, I didn’t have any fear in me while off the set, but when we did it, he scared me, and it comes off good in the movie.


SSD: Is the movie different from your expectations at all?

LDC: [S]eeing the movie was just fantastic, watching all this work and time that everyone spent and that I spent doing it on screen and little things that you’re worried about, things where like Oh shit, I don’t think I nailed it in that scene, and then watching it onscreen and seeing that it’s all ok. All these nervous little things you have about certain scenes or certain ways you did things, that it’s all ok onscreen. It may not always be like that, but in this movie it was, because I was just blown away by how great it was.


SSD: What was it like filming in the real Concrete? What was the mood of the town?

LDC: It was sort of eerie noticing that, you know, this is where he was so depressed and going crazy in this little town, and then you look at the town and you say, you know, I could see how he would have been feeling that way.


SSD: You know you’re going to be doing a lot more interviews, before the movie comes out, right?

LDC: Yeah. I suppose so.


SSD: Are you looking forward to that?

LDC: I’ll take ‘em how it comes; I’m not gonna plan on it or plan my approach or anything, but you know, it’ll turn out ok, because I’ll just tell the truth.


SSD: It must be very exciting. Good luck with it.

LDC: Thanks a lot, man. Sorry, I’m sort of out of it today.


SSD: That’s all right. I know you put in long grueling hours on a movie set.

LDC: Yeah, I do. Almost every day. But pain is temporary, film is forever, as [director] Michael [Caton-Jones] always says, which are words to live by.


SSD: Good luck becoming a big star.

LDC: Who knows? It could or could not happen. It’s one of those things. But hopefully I’ll be an actor, which is what I’m most concerned about. Not a star.

When Brisco County Jr. Met Watt O’Hugh

January 27, 2013.

Twenty years back, I was a lawyer working at one of those huge firms where middle-aged men (like me) worked when they were twenty years younger than they are today. During one grueling week, I worked all night long, and then the next day, and then the next night, until the dawn came and I found myself in the emergency room. In my case, I discovered (the fairly obvious fact) that drinking coffee like water to stay awake for days at a time is not good for me.

The emergency room doctors sent me to bed to recuperate. Before my wife left for work on my first morning of my convalescence, she slipped a VHS tape into our VCR.

“This is a show my sister taped for us,” she said.

It was back in the era before TiVo and TiVo-esque devices, when people videotaped TV shows and forced them on their friends and family, an annoying phenomenon, but in this case a blessing.

The show was The Adventures of Brisco County Jr., a Fox series about a 19th century Harvard-trained lawyer turned old West bounty hunter, played by Bruce Campbell back when, like me, he was young and handsome (or, in my case, young and more-handsome-than-I-am-now). Within the first few minutes, a banker/robber baron criticized Brisco’s change of career as a “shameful waste” of an education, and Brisco replied, without missing a beat, “Better than a shameful waste of an entire lifetime.”

At that particular moment in my life, this meant a lot to me; and I was hooked.

Brisco County fell into the “Western Science Fiction” category, and it was not the first, but it was the first time that I really cared.

Brisco was on the trail of the outlaw gang that killed his father (that great Western hero Marshall Brisco County Sr.), and along the way he came into contact with the adorable Dixie Cousins, a gangster moll and sometime-dancehall singer who first stole, then won, his heart; a glowing orb from the future; a small-town Western sheriff who bore an uncanny resemblance to Elvis Presley (years before the real King would be born); a gang of kung fu Chinese mobsters; and a mysterious boardinghouse eerily reminiscent of the Bates Motel.

Some people might call this a bag of anachronisms.  Sometimes it was. In one episode, a bomb exploded in Brisco’s hotel room, and he quipped, “I thought this was a non-smoking room.” It was a stupid joke, and something that would have been meaningless to a man in 1893. But in most cases, I think there was something smarter at work, a sort of overarching theme to the show that asserted that a hint of the 20th century was blowing around in the wind of 1893, a seed amusingly planted in the soil of the old West.

Because it was great and because I loved it, of course, it was canceled at the end of a year, at which point Jonathan Matson, my agent – a patient pillar-of-the-industry who had stuck with me throughout my journey from journalist to lawyer – suggested, grasping at straws, that I propose a novelized continuation of the Brisco series to the program’s executive producer, Carlton Cuse.

I pitched the idea first to Bruce Campbell, who pledged his support. Then a short letter to a CAA agent received a surprisingly quick response and won me a lunch of turkey tetrazini with Cuse in the commissary at CBS, where he was developing Nash Bridges for Don Johnson.

For Brisco’s further adventures, I invented a turn of the century war that would split the continent in two. To join our Harvard bounty hunter and his faithful companion, Lord Bowler, I invented another sidekick, a third wheel named Watt O’Hugh, a crusty old gunslinger whose aim is always deadly accurate, but who disclaims any particular skill. I believe in ghosts, he says: ghosts who steady his trigger finger and steer errant bullets away from his heart.

Cuse seemed to give me a tentative green light; but a few weeks later, he split with his agent, and our project died. Matson suggested that I keep Watt O’Hugh alive along with the war I’d invented, tell his backstory and wind the whole thing up at the turn of the twentieth century, as originally planned. I began writing the first book of the trilogy, set in 1873, but I didn’t finish it till 2011, the better part of two decades later, and long after Matson and I had last spoken.

Lazy and impatient, I published it myself as The Ghosts of Watt O’Hugh, and most readers and critics seemed to like it, and I figured I should finish the trilogy.

I’m nearly done with Book 2, and approaching Book 3, the climactic chapter of my saga, in which the 20th Century dawns, and the Sidonian War roars across North America like a tornado.

At this point, Watt O’Hugh is meant to fight alongside Brisco County, loyal soldiers, both.

What is to be done?

The simple fact is that I have lived with the Watt O’Hugh story for so long now that it has taken on a life of its own.

To wit: over a year ago, when I gave a reading at the Wyoming Territorial Penitentiary – once a prison, and now a museum – I asked to see cell number 17, which had once held Watt O’Hugh and his cell-mate, the other-worldly Billy Golden.

And there it was. Watt O’Hugh grew even more real for me.

Yes, I know that Watt is fictitious; intellectually, I know he never stayed in that cell. But in his world, he did. And in his world, he met Brisco County Jr. around 1902 or so.  And the two fought together in the great Sidonian War, the young bounty hunter, Brisco, and O’Hugh, the weathered old Civil War vet. Hoping for the best, when Book 1 was published, I wrote on my blog that “if I can sell enough copies of my book, I’m going to see if Warner Bros. will allow an appearance by Brisco in Book 3, which is going to be set around the turn of the 20th century.” Well, I had a good run for a while, sales-wise, but Warner Bros. has not come calling (yet).

I cannot change the story. But legally I cannot tell you the whole story.

The ironic thing is that Watt O’Hugh has come across so many great figures of the 19th century in his strange and varied career — from banker J.P. Morgan, playwright Oscar Wilde and outlaw Tiburcio Vasquez to the evil mathematician Leopold Kronecker and the famous and unbelievably beautiful Swedish soprano Christine Nilsson – and it is all detailed at length in the pages of the first two books. Nothing prevents me from telling it all to you, because no one owns the dead.  But Warner Bros. owns Brisco County Jr.

So the only thing that I cannot tell you about is the adventure that gave rise to them all, the battles Watt O’Hugh fought at the side of Brisco County Jr., as the new century blossomed.


Dragons Were Real

November 11, 2012.

In my western science-fiction novel, The Ghosts of Watt O’Hugh, my eponymous hero and outlaw is camping out in the middle of Utah when a lizard flies across the night sky. A great lizard with “hundreds of scales on its body, the head of a camel, a demon’s eyes, a cow’s ears, antlers like a deer, the neck of a snake, a clam’s belly, a tiger’s paws and an eagle’s claws.”

“Dragons are real?” Watt O’Hugh asks his traveling companion, a one legged counterrevolutionary named Madame Tang.

“A dragon just flew over our heads!” Tang replies, exasperated.

What, after all, could be better evidence of the existence of dragons than seeing one fly right over your head?

And, as far as I am concerned, what could be better evidence of the past existence of dragons than rare but documented dragon sightings from every society on Earth, societies with no contact at the time of the sightings? Everyone from ancient China and Israel to Europe of the Middle Ages had their dragons.

As Desmond Morris, a dragon expert (but a non-believer) wrote in his foreword to Karl Shuker’s Dragons: A Natural History:

No other imaginary creature has appeared in such a rich variety of forms. It is as though there was once a whole family of different dragon species that really existed before they mysteriously became extinct. Indeed, as recently as the seventeenth century, scholars wrote of dragons as though they were scientific fact, their anatomy and natural history being recorded in painstaking detail. … From now on, the concept of the dragon would have to be tossed into the cauldron of fiction ….

Shuker, for his part, is more open to belief. Are dragons, he wonders, “mysterious living creatures still awaiting formal discovery by science”?

In my novel, Madame Tang gives our hero a history lesson on dragons. Only in the modern era was there even any doubt expressed about the existence of the great, noble lizards, she says.

 “There aren’t many left,” she continued, “and those that still live stay mostly out of sight. In China, by the turn of the Millennium, they were already so rare that whenever a dragon appeared, everyone thought it was auspicious. If a dragon appeared in your home village on the day of your birth, it sealed your future. Sometimes it was really an omen. Sometimes a dragon just wanted to stretch his wings.”

“Real fire-breathing dragons?” [Watt] said, more than a little amazed.

She sat up and leaned back on her elbows.

“How could a dragon breathe fire?” she said. “This is real life, O’Hugh, not a bedtime story. If any reptile breathed fire, it would burn up its lungs and its mouth. Plus, reptiles by definition are cold-blooded – no mechanism for making fire, or even keeping warm. No, here’s how that myth began: In the old days, dragons would often fly in thunderstorms – less likely to get a spear through the chest – and the next morning the crops and forests would be burning. Caused by lightning, but blamed on dragon. The drachenmanner – dragon-slayers – found they could get better pay if they fought a fire-breathing dragon, so they had an incentive to propagate the rumor. More danger to it, the villagers were more worried, more eager to find an outsider to kill their dragons for them. So the traveling drachenmanner moved through Europe, and the stories grew through the years. I say Europe, because in China, we didn’t kill our dragons. But no, dragons never breathed fire. They’re just big flying lizards, dinosauria that didn’t quite die out and that never evolved into birds. Didn’t you ever study Darwin? Everybody knows about this.”

You may have noticed that the name for the dragon slayers is awfully close to my surname, Drachman. I like to think (without a shred of evidence) that my ancestors were dragon slayers. My great grandfather claimed, on the contrary, that we were Greeks who immigrated to Germany, where they named us after the currency, drachma, that we carried in our pockets when we arrived. A less ripping explanation.

One of the audience members at a reading last year asked me, “Were dragons real?” and I said, “Yes.” That brought the whole thing to a thudding close. A friend of mine once said to me, “One day, you’ll be up for something important, like senator, or attorney general. And I’m just going to walk into the room and say, This guy believes in dragons.”

Still, as idiotic as it may be, I’m sticking to my guns. I do not believe in unicorns. I do not believe in fairies or leprechauns. But I will insist that dragons are probably extinct, flying lizards that never breathed fire, the missing link between dinosaurs and birds. A thousand years ago, they were not yet extinct, though exceedingly rare. While dragon sightings were reported, no dragon’s lairs were ever found, so they were probably well hidden. Because of their rarity, and their ability to hide, a dragon’s remains have never been found by modern scientists.

Nevertheless, I fully understand that I am probably completely wrong about this. Wouldn’t be the first time. But I will go on believing in dragons, because it’s nicer to believe than not to believe.