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 kid.

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."

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