I was saddened to learn of the death of Paula Fox. I did not know her, though I much admired her work. I once had an occasion to sit down with just her for a lunch. We talked about this and that, mostly about her work, and writing. She said something to me that I have always remembered, and have passed on to others, even as I tried to practice it. Perhaps it was what she said to others, but I had never heard it before. She said, “The writer’s job is to imagine the truth.”
Sometimes things happen to a writer which allows him or her to write a tale using the incident as the basis for a story. The origin of Wolf Rider was just such a true incident, and it was quite horrific.
I had just moved into a new apartment. I had just installed a new phone (this was before cell phones.) I am not even sure I had received a phone call as yet. Nonetheless the phone rang.
I picked it up and a man’s voice informed me he had just killed his girlfriend. He said, “Do you mind if I talk about it?”
If you read the opening pages of Wolf Rider, I closely replicate that call, what happened during that call, and what happened right after it.
The man had named and described his “girlfriend.” I immediately called the police. “Don’t worry,” I was told. “It’s a full moon, Friday night and welfare checks are just out. Forget it.”
Those lines are in the book. I didn’t make them up.
I checked in the phone book, and there was the name of the person who had been—so I was told—murdered. I called. She answered. She was a probation officer, and the description the “voice” had given me was accurate.
She was quite concerned. I gave her my name, phone, etc.
It was all deeply troubling. Who was the caller? Why had he called me? Was it a coincidence? What happened after I gave the police such information as I learned?
A couple of weeks went by. The police never called me back.
I spoke to a reporter friend of mine, a guy who specialized in crime reporting. “I’m going to call that woman again, and get some answers,” I told him.
“Don’t,” he advised. “The police will think you made up the whole thing as a way to meet the woman.”
I took his advice. I left it all alone. I learned nothing more.
Still, it troubled me greatly.
That’s exactly what I did. It’s called Wolf Rider. After the first few pages it’s all my invention, which I wrote to give myself some closure.
I used to have a standing bet. It went like this: “Pick up that book and read the first few pages. I bet you can’t stop reading.”
I’ve never lost that bet.
I recently wrote about my book, S.O.R. Losers, and how it was the fastest book I ever wrote: one day. Now I’ll write about Bright Shadow, which from the time I first started to write it, until publication day, required fourteen years.
I cannot recall what triggered me to start this book. I suspect I was reading fairy tales to my two older boys. It contains two aspects (common in fairy tales) that made it hard for me. It is a fantasy, and I had never written one before. It was also a fantasy which had, as its core, a dying gift of wishes, a kind of riddle.
The last wishes are here. They will bring thee long life if thou keep thyself from harm, but nothing for thyself. Use them well. Tell no one what thou has or before thy time, or all, both thee and they, shall be lost. For when the wishes are gone, so too shall thee be.
My heroine, Morwenna, is given this gift of a few wishes, but-ah ha!—she does not know it. However, her boyfriend—if you will—thinks he has the wishes and is forever getting into trouble, which forces Morwenna to use the wishes to save him. By so doing, she moves ever closer to her demise. It takes time-the plot-for her to understand what is happening, not just to the wishes, but to her.
Clever, yes? Alas, too clever by half. I loved the idea, its irony, its parable-like quality, its heroine. The problem was I couldn’t figure out how to put it all together. I would work on it, give it up, put it aside, work on other books, pick it up again, only to give up—but never completely. Back I’d go, while referring to this unending project as my “hobby.”
Somehow I figured it out. Fourteen years. In short (so to speak), beware of wishes: they can take a long, long time to come true.
Actually the book starts off with a riddle:
When bright, it’s dark, when darkest, it’s gone.
When gone for good, so are you.
What am I?
When dark, it’s bright, when brightest, it’s gone.
When gone for good, so will I be.
What am I?
But please don’t think I’m going to give you the answer here.
At the time I was living in Lambertville, New Jersey, so it was easy for me to catch a bus and get into NYC for a meeting with my editor. We were going to discuss the new novel manuscript I had sent her.
I did indeed meet with her and learn that she was rejecting my book. Long ago I had learned that you didn’t argue about such a thing, you just accepted it, and moved on. Indeed, while taking the bus back home my primary thought was, “What am I going to write now?”
I stared out the window.
I was just about a mile from home when I noticed a road marker, one of those signs that tell the passer-by about something that happened at that spot years ago. I had never really paid attention to it before.
The tale the sign told was about a small Revolutionary War skirmish fought between a few New Jersey militia and a small troop of Hessian soldiers. The numbers involved were small. “Only a few deaths,” read the sign. The last line of the sign read: “The import of this skirmish was small.”
But I thought, “It wasn’t small for those who died, or the families from which they came.”
That was the beginning of my thinking for The Fighting Ground about a boy who is caught up in just such a small skirmish The most interesting part of the book—in my view—is that the boy, when captured, hears only the German (and doesn’t understand) his captives speak. A friend translated my English into German.
At the back of the book I translated the German passages into English. For the reader, it completely changes the story.
It’s a curious case of what is not actually part of the story being an essential part of the story.
The Fighting Ground won the Scott O’Dell award for best historical fiction that year.
Staring out of windows can be productive.
Novelists are often asked, how long does it take to write a book? My truthful answer is, about a year. S.O.R. Losers, however, was written in one day. How could such a thing happen?
I was able to do it because the story—about a team of nerds who are required (by their school) to form a soccer team and then go on to lose every game they play—is true.
I was on such a team, and indeed, I had the honor of being captain of that memorable squad. My boys loved to hear stories about what a bad player their dad was, and often asked me to regale them (and their friends) with the saga. Needless to say, I was happy to entertain them, throwing in (just a bit) of exaggerated ineptitude along the way—though my team truly scored a goal by putting the ball into the wrong net.
So it was that when I sat down to write S.O.R. Losers I had, if you will, rehearsed the story many, many times. It was easy, then, to write.
There are a couple of other curious things about the book. I had sent the book to my agent, and (I thought) agreed which editor to whom it would be sent. It did not go to that editor, but (to my surprise) to Richard Jackson, the first of the many, many books I did with him.
Another curious thing: I’m often asked how I name my characters. Perfectly reasonable question. But there is only one book about which I have often been asked: “How did you make up all those weird names for the characters on the S.O.R team?”
The answer? None of them. Every name in S.O.R Losers comes from the actual players on my illustrious team.
Years ago, when living in Pennsylvania, north of Philadelphia, I was a member of a back-packing club. We’d meet at a nature center early Saturday mornings, and returned Sunday afternoons, having camped for the night. One of the places we liked to hike and camp was along the Appalachian Trail, in a state forest park with the wonderful name, St. Anthony’s Wilderness.
St. Anthony’s Wilderness also contained an abandoned 18th Century cemetery, which was usually the place we camped on Saturday nights. One of the old stones had a name chiseled into it: John Proud.
John Proud became the name of my hero in the ghostly tale, Devil’s Race, which is set in and about St. Anthony’s Wilderness. The title of the book I had chosen was St. Anthony’s Wilderness. This was vetoed by the editor who chose Devil’s Race, which has nothing to do with the story. There is no devil in the story and the word “race,” is a rarely used word which means fast-moving creek, such as the one briefly referenced in the story.
There is an old tradition in publishing, a party to celebrate the publication of a book. In all my years I have had only one such party. When my back-packing pals learned about my book, they insisted we must have such a party. So it was we all packed tiny bottles of champagne in our backpacks and hiked up to that cemetery. There, next to the stone that celebrated the once real John Proud, my friends toasted me, my hero, and my book, Devil’s Race.
Bad title. Great party.
If the writer is patient he/she will hear a narrative about something that happened to the storyteller. Truth to tell, sometimes these are good and even interesting stories, but simply don’t resonate with the writer. More often than not, they are simply curious narratives that do not have much literary possibility. Of course, the tellers of these tales are not interested in writing the story themselves.
But in one instance someone did tell me a story which caught my attention. It happened this way.
Joe, an acquaintance of mine, not a particularly close friend, approached me quite out of the blue in the library where I was working, and loudly announced, “I have a story for you.”
“Let’s hear it.”
“When I was a kid, I’d spend my summers with my grandmother on Cape Map (New Jersey). This was during prohibition. Every Thursday night she would lock me in her house because smugglers were bringing in liquor. Trying to keep me out of trouble.”
That’s all he said, and with those words, he went off.
The more I thought about it, the more Joe’s story appealed to me. In fact, Joe’s tale was the basis for the book I wrote, Shadrach’s Crossing. Subsequently, it would be republished under a different title, Smuggler’s Island.
The moral: When someone says “I have a story for you,” listen.
My eldest son had a classmate, a good friend. We’ll call him Toby. A likable, polite, full-of-fun kid, Toby was around our house often. I didn’t know much about him, save one thing: he lived with his grandparents, not his parents. I believe it was my son who told me that. It was nothing I pursued, but at school occasions I had the opportunity to meet these nice grandparents, where we exchanged pleasantries about our two boys.
One day, as spring break approached, my son was making preparations for a week of Boy Scout camping. Toby was at our house. “Toby,” I asked. “Have plans for spring break?”
He said, “I wanted to go visit my parents, but my grandparents said I couldn’t. So I’m just staying home.”
That gave me pause. I decided I needed to know a little more.
What I learned was not much, but a lot. Via the parents of another of my son’s friends-who knew Ian’s grandparents far better than I did, I learned that Toby’s parents had been divorced, that they lived in different parts of the country, and had been deemed “unsuitable” as parents, and that Toby’s grandparents had been named guardians by a court. That’s all I learned, and it was made clear I would not learn more. I had no particular desire to pursue it.
These circumstances, however, became the basis of my book, Sometimes I Think I Hear My Name. It tells the story of Owen, who lives with his aunt and uncle in St. Louis, but runs away to track down his parents in New York City. With the help of a secretive girl, Nancy, a girl with a butterfly tattoo (this was published in 1982) he finds his parents. The results are devastating.
Curiously enough, perhaps a year later, the real Toby did have a chance to visit with one of his parents. As I would learn, what happened was, alas, very much like the plot of my novel. Sometimes I Think I Hear My Name, is, I think, the saddest book I have ever written.
Lots of people are fascinated by maps. I knew a serious book collector who built a large library of books which specifically had maps in them. For example, Treasure Island, famously, has a map in it. Indeed, it’s said that Stevenson drew the map for his step-son first, and then wrote the book.
I too like maps and so, back in the day when I working as a librarian, I was intrigued when a new atlas came into the reference collection. Moreover to my great delight it was an atlas of fantasy lands. A wonderfully clever idea, it was such fun to see maps of, not just Treasure Island, but the lands of Oz, the Thousand-acre Woods, and so on. Much fun.
As I was going through the book I realized an important map was missing: the chessboard from Through the Looking Glass, by Lewis Carroll. That was the beginning of my thinking of the book which became Who Stole the Wizard of Oz?
My notion was to write a mystery in which the essential clues were to be found in the maps of well-known children’s books—books which had been stolen from the Checkertown, Ohio Library. When an innocent Becky has been accused of stealing the books, she and her twin brother, Toby, need to track down the real thief, and find a hidden treasure, using the maps as essential clues. (Hint: a checkerboard and a chessboard are identical.) And, if it brought my readers to The Wind in the Willows, Winnie-the-Pooh, the Oz books, Treasure Island, and Through the Looking Glass, better yet.
In short, Who Stole the Wizard of Oz? is a book about books brought into my head by yet another book. That’s what happens when the writer is also a librarian.
My parents had a retirement home on Shelter Island, a quite enchanting and rather unusual island (wild canaries, bamboo groves, and bays filled with oysters and clams) at the end of Long Island, New York—about a hundred miles from New York City.
It was around Labor Day one year that I, along with my family, had been visiting my parents. My youngest son was endlessly grumbling about the fact that he was about to end his summer vacation and needed to return to school. Could he not, he constantly begged, just stay with his grandparents in this idyllic place? Well, no.
The car was packed. We had said our good byes. My wife was in the car. My oldest son was in the car. I was in the car. It was necessary that we leave quickly so that we could catch the last ferry to the mainland. But—my youngest son was nowhere in sight.
The thought suddenly struck me: could he have run off and hid so as to avoid going back home and skip returning to school?
In the instant I thought about this possibility I had the plot of A Place Called Ugly. Sometimes, if a writer is lucky, the idea for a story fairly well leaps at you, whole and breathtakingly complete. It has happened a few times, but not often. This was one of these times.
As for my son, he popped out of the house. He had merely been to the bathroom.
We drove off, made the ferry and continued on home … and to school.
But I had the plot of my next book in my mind and, during that long drive, I worked out the details.
That said, when I submitted the book to my editor he turned it down. “Not good. Something is missing,” he said. “Find it.”
It was rather like my missing son.
I searched and found the missing piece.
Second submission. “Terrific,” said my editor.
So there it was, A Place Called Ugly. One of my favorite books.