Puff, the Magic … Darn It!

Puff, the Magic … Darn It!

or, stuff that happens while you’re falling asleep

Puff, by Andrew De Felice
Puff, by Andrew De Felice

When I was eight, my favorite song was “Puff, the Magic Dragon“, by Peter, Paul, and Mary. If you remember, it’s all about how Puff and his friend Jackie Paper go sailing, scare pirates, and generally have a good time, until Jackie grows up and stops coming around. Puff, broken hearted, just lies in his cave and doesn’t frolic any more. It’s very sad.

A few months ago, I was belatedly reading the anthology George R.R. Martin put together as a tribute to Jack Vance. I’m not generally a fan of fan fiction, but if any SF writer ever deserved a tribute, it was Vance. Some of the stories were good, some average. As I neared the end, reading the story by Martin himself, I was thinking about the difficulties and benefits of writing in someone else’s universe. I recall thinking that, like most of the authors in the anthology, even if I wrote in Vance’s world, I would never try to write like him. I love his writing, but I just don’t think I could pull it off, and a bad copy is worse than an original tribute.

As far as I can recall, my mind went straight from there to “I should write a story about what happened to Puff.” I don’t know why. There are no dragons in the Dying Earth. I don’t think there are any true dragons in Vance’s work at all. Maybe “Puff'” had just been playing on the stereo earlier in the day – it’s on shuffle at all times, so anything may come up.

In any case, I went to bed, thinking about Puff and what I could write about his life after the song ended. I thought, “Well, I’d have to contact Peter or Paul, to get their permission.” I’m sure there’s a transformative use argument to be made under copyright law, but I like these guys. As I thought about it, it occurred to me that I was surely not the only person who loved that song, and who’d be interested to read or write about it. I could edit a whole anthology of Puff stories!

I usually fall asleep right away. This night, though I didn’t sleep until I had a whole plan mapped out. I’d get Peter’s (or Paul’s) permission. I got out of my warm bed to look up the actual author – who turned out to be both Peter (Yarrow) and Lenny Lipton.

I went back to bed, but kept thinking about it. There’d be at least one anthology. If there were enough interest, there’d be three – Puff, Paper, and Honalee respectively. I developed rules for the writers – they’d have to respect the events described in the song, but otherwise there’d be no continuity or consistency requirement. Writers would not have to respect the children’s book based on the song, whose text was the lyrics, but whose illustrations introduced a young girl at the end. I pondered whether to recommend that stories be upbeat, whether to reject drug-focused stories. I decided to drop those criteria. The selection committee (me, Yarrow, Lipton) would just select the stories we liked.

I wondered whether there would be enough variation in the stories. Were there enough possibilities for Puff’s post-Jackie life? I decided to write my own story as a test case, to see how hard it would be to write about Puff, and as a tool to get publishers (or maybe Yarrow and Lipton) interested.
I thought about how to entice writers,which ones I’d invite, how we’d get other submissions. I thought about how to sell the book to a major publisher. In case that didn’t work, I mapped out a Kickstarter campaign, including what the levels and giveaways would be. I planned how Yarrow, Lipton, and I would donate any profits to charity (mine was the Oregon Humane Society) – unless they wanted to keep their share.

In short, I got excited, and I thought other people would be too. I got up in the morning and dug up contact information. I spent free time during the day drafting polite, professional e-mails explaining how I loved the song, laying out the plan, explaining how it could work. In Yarrow’s case, I went through his agent (very friendly). I sent them.

It turned out there was one small defect in the entire detailed plan – Yarrow and Lipton didn’t answer. Not yes, not “Great idea, but no.”, not “Who the hell are you to mess with our song?”. Nothing. I realized that Yarrow and Lipton would have to talk with each other, so I waited. And maybe get their lawyers’ advice. I waited some more. After a couple of months, I wrote again, using different destination e-mail addresses. No answer.

I’m not sure why they wouldn’t be excited about an idea from a literary unknown – whose main book to date is a grim story about violence and despair – who proposes to take their best-known song and have people write fairy tales about it for charity. It sounds like a sure winner to me. But apparently they weren’t persuaded.

I still think this is a great idea. I’d still love to do it. I still have a complete story called “Autumn Mist” in which Puff finds happiness, eventually. But without Yarrow and Lipton’s buy-in, there’s no more to this; it’s their song.

So there you have it – the story of how one more great idea never got off the ground, and in fact really never got past the design stage. If you’d love to see an anthology (or three), let me know. Better yet, write to your favorite big name publisher instead. Get them interested. Who knows? Maybe they’ll include my story too.

For the curious – my list of writers to invite included: Julie Czerneda, Robin Hobb, Katie Waitman, Phyllis Eisenstein, Samuel R. Delany, George R.R. Martin, Sheri S. Tepper, Patricia McKillip, Ursula Le Guin, Alan Garner, Lyndon Hardy, M.J. Engh, M.K. Wren, Steven Brust, A.A. Attanasio, Richard Adams, Martha Wells, Jim AikinBrent Weeks, Brandon Sanderson, and a host of others, including a list of newer writers you may not have heard from yet (but will soon). I think it would have been a hell of a book.