My life as a writer
Various areas of this web site
touch on writing, in particular
the interviews dealing with the novels. But let me add a few
words and mention a few individuals who have been instrumental
in my career.
In high school I was never
part of the literary crowd, if there was one. I didn't write
for the school paper and was intimidated by those who did.
But my college
prep English teacher at Gresham High School, Miss Winifred
Casterline, was both a demanding and an inspiring teacher who
encouraged my love of writing. Before long I was writing short
stories and poetry, sometimes over fifty a weekend, heavily
influenced by the authors I was reading.
I also can't forget two teachers
of Modern Problems, Jim Jenkins
and Julius Bialostosky. When my dad found Salinger's The
Catcher in the Rye in my personal library and told me to burn
it (guess he read the first page and saw the word "crap" and "goddam"
and figured that was too subversive for the son of a hellfire-and-damnation
preacher), both teachers advised me that I was not morally bound
to do so. And they held the book for safekeeping for as long as
I needed. That copy is still in my library today.
In college, after studying abroad
in Pavia, Italy, I took one writing course at the University
of Oregon—in theater. We wrote a one-act play every few
weeks and could contribute other works on the side. But there,
too, I felt out of place. It seemed the class was filled with
advanced creative writing majors—great bull shitters all—and
I struggled to speak or to write anything worth reading, although
the teacher, who read one play a week, once picked one of mine.
Close to deafening silence afterwards. Maybe it was
too simple. The extra work I submitted in that class was all
poetry. I'd hand in a five-page poem, heavily influenced now
by Italian poets, and the teacher would circle four or five words
and write in the margin, "here's your poem."
The only other item of note from
my undergraduate years was the opportunity to hear a few writers
give talks: Alan Ginsburg, who sat on the stage in Mac Court
and chanted as incense wafted through the air; Ken Kesey, who
wore lacquered, scarlet-colored boots and spoke about how to
be an Indian; Edward Albee, who complained about all the money
Neil Simon made for foolish comedies, while he earned diddly
squat for his serious works of theater.
Since then I've had the pleasure
of hearing other writers talk, ranging from Tim O'Brien
and John Irving to William F. Buckley, Jr. and Andrew Greeley.
I started writing my first novel,
In Light's Delay, as an undergraduate and finished
it when I was twenty-two. Like many first novels started when
one is a teenager, it was a semi-autobiographical coming-of-age
story. Soon after, I began my second novel, still unpublished,
THE ECHOES OF OUR TWO HEARTS. This work, set in cities along
the West coast, Chicago, and New York, told the story of a couple
who break up in part one, spend five years apart in the second
section, and then, with difficulty, get back together again in
part three. I wrote it over the course of seven years, while
working on my graduate degrees, and the long time span detracted,
I think, from the book's unity. As it stands, it's actually the
third volume of a trilogy, the first volume of which was published
and written last—The
Turning, the story of a summer night in the life of a sixteen-year-old
The Turning is a novel
that I carried around in my mind for probably at least ten years,
with a sketchy plot written out on a single sheet of paper, and
that flowed out over the course of ten days. In time, given that
the first draft was only 120-some pages long, I added material
until it reached its published length of 168 pages.
But long before writing that
novel, I had decided to focus on writing suspense. At Loyola
University of Chicago, where I was teaching in the Department
of Modern Languages, I managed to audit two writing courses,
one taught by an Irish author, Sean Lucy, the other by William
Hunt, a writer of short stories. Both courses kept me in touch
with creative writing at the same time that academic books were
occupying my time. It was only after I moved to Tucson to teach
at the University of Arizona that I made a conscious decision
to write fiction that was more commerical.
I started research on my first
thriller one summer while attending a Newberry Library institute
on the archival sciences back in Chicago. But I didn't use the
Newberry for the novel. I spent my free time in the Chicago Public
Library, which, at the time, had its stacks of books stored
in a warehouse. Later I traveled to Italy and Yugoslavia
for location research. That novel, CLOUD COVER, got me an agent
but was never published. I completed it in 1986, six years
before the fall of the Soviet Union and the easing of tensions
between East and West.
I've continued to write fiction
ever since, both suspense and young-adult novels, with three
different agents handling my work at various times. I have to
say, in conclusion, that I once tried to register for a fiction
writing class at the University of Arizona, one requiring the
professor's approval, and I was turned down because he didn't
think the other students would like my work! (There's a mind
reader for you.) But one of my best friends is a brilliant writer
who earned his M.F.A. from Arizona, and his conclusion is that
fine arts degrees at universities (judging from his experience
here) are not only a waste of time, they do as much harm as good.
I think that depends on the individual. And it probably depends
on your goals as a writer. I have to confess that despite reading
voluminously, both so-called serious, literary fiction and commercial
fiction, I have yet to make it through James Joyce's Ulysses.
Maybe I will some day, but I think occasionally of that lament
attributed to his wife, Nora, "James, why don't you write books
people can read?"
Now that's a worthwhile goal.
Update: I've finally read Ulysses (!) [February 2010]. Now I see a photo in the New York Times Book Review (Sunday, December 5, 2010) showing Marilyn Monroe reading what looks like the last page of Ulysses, but, then again, maybe that's all she read--Molly Bloom's final ". . . and then I asked him with my eyes to ask again yes and then he asked me would I yes to say yes my mountain flower and first I put my arms around him yes and drew him down to me so he could feel my breasts all perfume yes and his heart was going like mad and yes I said yes I will Yes."