A Writer’s Biography, Volume I, Part 10: The Basement

[PHOTO NOTE: My Basement looked nothing like this. Heck with it, I’ll use it anyway]

[AUTHOR’S NOTE: Sorry if this came a little later than when you expected it. I have the feeling that more people might read my stuff if I release it on Saturday during the day rather than Sunday at night. However, I end up usually being able to write something by Sunday given my schedule. Should I say either Saturday and Sunday night just to be safe, but I should start working on releasing more consistently on Saturdays? That might be a good writing goal for next year, a more consistent release schedule.]

This was my home for 20 years, my parents home for 30 years, and now it’s someone else’s home. Time always changes things. The basement in question was in the back.

Let’s talk a little bit about sanctuaries, especially the ones that kids carve out for themselves.

At some point in every child’s life, they have an instinct to have a space of their own, a space that is separate from their parents and the rest of their family, a space that they don’t share.

On that level, I truly have sympathy for children who live in large families, like my mother. She was one of eight kids growing up in a little modest two-story house in the northern half of La Crosse, Wisconsin. I have some (relatively) clear memories of exploring that house 30 years after she had grown up in it, during the time both of my grandparents were alive and living in the house. My mother had been one of eight children there. There was a tiny little enclosed side porch when you entered the kitchen, which I think had light green countertops. There was one restroom off the kitchen, and through the other door taking a small step up, there was the dining room and an old radiating heater sitting right off to the side. To the right of that dining room was, I had thought, a sewing room that seemed filled with odds and ends of stored things and a sewing machine. As it turns out, that had been a bedroom when my mother lived there.

Through one door, there was the dark living room that had the one television and an old black upright piano, as well as a good couch and my grandfather’s recliner. In one direction, you could walk through some swinging doors to get to my grandparent’s bedroom, or you could go up a winding staircase to get to an upstairs that had just two bedrooms there, as well as a landing that often boasted a bed of its own, a sort of open-air bedroom.

And my mom’s family lived in that place and shared it with each other, occasionally all 10 of them. The only thing I can think of is, how did they manage to have a space of their own, all eight of those kids? How did they manage to not get overwhelmed by each other, in that big house?

“You went outside a lot,” my mother says now, maybe 30 years after both she and I stepped into that home for the last time. When she and her brothers and sisters needed some space, they stepped out into the wild world of La Crosse. There were days at the local beach (LaCrosse is situated on the Mississippi River, just like my own hometown of Muscatine is), the local pool, or even the skating rink at the local park, which apparently had a warming shed. This is an important feature in Wisconsin, a state where I heard tales of my grandparents walking across the frozen Mississippi[1].

I ended up having a totally different existence than my mother or even my father growing up. My mother had her seven siblings, and my father was the middle son between an elder and younger sister. I was an only child, and my mother was almost the only one of her siblings to have just one child. (One of her brothers was childless throughout his life). So, it turned out that we three were the only members of our immediate family who would live in Iowa when I was a child. I would live as an only child while occasionally venturing out of the state to Wisconsin, primarily, where I’d meet and reunite with some of my two dozen or so cousins.

For many people, it might have been an isolated life, but it never really felt like that to me. Suzanne Louise Liegois was always there with me from the beginning. Of course, Dad (William Allan Liegois) was a strong presence in my life and we were always close, but with him working in the engineering field, it was Mom who was with me most of the time. It was her that started introducing me to letters, and I had the alphabet down when I was about 18 months old. When we visited the beaches on the Gulf of Mexico, near our home in Seabrook, Texas, where I spent my preschool years, she would write words in the sand where I could read them while enjoying the surf. By five years old, shortly before we would pull up roots and come to Iowa, I was able to read the stories in the newspapers we got at home.

“You were just so curious,” she told me years later. “I mean, really, you were just a nice little boy.”

It was both her and Dad who would read to me both during the day and then later at bedtime. Eventually, I would want to start reading books by myself. It would then lead me to want to have more books, and eventually I needed a place to store those books. This began my lifelong relationship with and use of bookshelves and bookcases.

By the time we moved to Muscatine, I had accumulated a serious mini library of Dr. Seuss books, other random picture books, and Muppet books like the one where Grover wanted to keep you from turning the page because he didn’t want to see the monster at the end of the book.

There was also a set of Worldbook encyclopedias that we picked up sometime around the time that I was eight. Many kids would avoid even looking at them in the shelves, much less picking them up. As for me, I would grab the “A” volume, the “G” volume, or the “R” volume, for example, and start sorting through all of the articles that attracted my fancy. I wound up learning a lot of random things over the course of so many days.

Even though I loved the encyclopedias when I was a kid, there were some disadvantages to them. After a few years, the whole set became outdated quickly. I think we had some encyclopedias that my parents had from the late 50’s, and then got some updated ones from the early 80’s. I actually am a fan of Wikipedia myself. If it was around during the time when I was a kid, I would be checking out all the articles of the day and clicking on the random articles of the day to see what I could learn.

It was that basement that was my sanctuary when I was a kid. I remember when I first saw it, when we toured the home before we bought it. I saw the yellow, green, and brown plaid carpet across the entire floor, I saw the medium brown wood paneling along the sides of the basement. I saw the weird rooms, like the white and blue linoleum place where I wound up storing my toys, the cement block place where we put our washer, dryer, and a cement block shower and toilet. There was the weird storage room where we stuffed everything, and then there was the room off my toy room where Dad stored his tools and just about everything else and I would check it out every once in a while just to see what the tools looked like.

I loved that place. It was my sanctuary.

My main hangout was on the couch, which at the beginning of my time at that house was an olive-green corduroy couch where I relaxed and read. If I wanted to play my Atari 2600 or later, my Nintendo NES, I would skooch over in front of the fake wood and metal television that dominated the main portion of the basement that presented itself in front of the staircase that led down from the main floor. The basement was where I watched forbidden pro wrestling and morally questionable movies and where I kept my ears keyed on the slightest movement upstairs from my parents. My mother, at least, was prepared to check up on me periodically, and make sure that I was watching sensible entertainment, even though such sentiments were a lost cause. I was focused on consuming as much adult entertainment as possible and there was nothing that they could do to stop me from doing so. It was something I kept in mind when it was time to raise my own two children, who were both reasonable and unreasonable in their own ways.

To be fair, however, I never totally kept this basement to myself. My parents were welcome to come down and watch television and play Nintendo with me – I specifically remember watching Mystery Science Theater with them for the first time later in my youth and us laughing along together. I would occasionally invite friends, sometimes more than one friend, down there for video games, Legos, board games, and other amusements in the last generation to have a pre-Internet era. Of course, that was where I brought my girlfriends and eventually my future wife to so we could hang out.

But it was my sanctuary. It was where I felt comfortable to be myself, where I felt comfortable to start be creative. When I first began to jot down notes, ideas, and eventually short stories in a series of notebooks, it was in the basement where I first started to do that. And when I finally got my first desktop computer, I set it up not in my bedroom, but right in the middle of that basement. That basement was my first writing room, my first creative space. I began to treasure having it and later spaces in the years to come.


[1] I never managed to accomplish this feat myself, although I did manage to walk around and throw a football around on the frozen Iowa River during my time at the University of Iowa.

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A Writer’s Biography, Volume I, Part 9: Movie Nights

A good portion of my life has been spent staring at screens that tell me stories. They remain a part of my experience now, and they are among some of my earliest memories of life. They also tended to have an influence on what type of person, and writer, I would turn out to be.

There are plenty of times that I went and watched movies, either in the theater or in the basement that became my sanctuary during the early years of my life. Kids, there was an era before remote controls, and I was part of the end of that era. As a result, I wound up sitting on the tartan-greenish carpet of my basement, perched just in front of the television set, wearing out the numbers on the controls located on our grand television.

Usually, I was situated right in front of the TV because I kept changing channels to watch as much as possible1. The other reason, admittedly, was that I wanted to be ready in case Mom and Dad peeked down the stairs to see me watching something that I shouldn’t have been watching. In the early 1980’s we had HBO at our house, and there were several movies that had the pre-teen me a bit too interested. (It also gave me the opportunity to watch Star Wars at least 20 times on that channel alone, helping me fall in love with science fiction even more than I had with blink-and-you’ll-miss-it glimpses of the original Battlestar Galactica series and one or two errant episodes of Robotech. Back in the pre-Internet 1980’s, much of geek or sci-fi culture was as much rumor as fact. Nevertheless, it did make me open to reading science fiction classics like Dune and others that I took much inspiration from regarding the ideas of theme and worldbuilding. Later, after HBO was done at my house, there were other movies that were kind of chancy, especially regarding sex and violence. Pretty shortly after that, however, I discovered you could find a lot of that on other channels. Then there was my obsession with professional wrestling, which my dad never quite got and I decided not to flaunt it in front of my parents2.

As I was growing up, there were three times that I went to the movies that I had distinct memories of attending. The first show I remember attending was way back somewhere between 1978 and 1980. I have the clear memory of pulling into an honest-to-goodness drive-in theater in an open field at Mulberry and Cedar in Muscatine, Iowa, close to the high school I would attend years later. That same corner is now covered with office buildings, which is probably an improvement to the local economy but not to the aesthetics of the area3. It was a double-bill of The Blues Brothers and, I believe, Cheech and Chong’s Next Movie. I loved the anarchic humor and the great music of the first film. I get the feeling that my parents hoped that I might sleep through the second film; they were right.

Other than the multi-screen theater at the mall, during the 1980’s we would often attend the Muscatine Riviera theater right in downtown Muscatine. I included a picture of that place here on the blog. It was an old time movie-theater, converted from a live theater, complete with an old balcony, velvet drapes and curtains on the sides and front, and all of the old detailing that made you think for a second that you were actually in an old vaudeville house rather than a movie theater until you saw the white screen up front. That was where I was actually looking forward to watching Star Trek II because I knew they were going to kill off Spock after reading a novelization of the book beforehand in my local bookstore and I wanted to see what that would look like on the big screen. I never had a problem with spoiler alerts. Then I remember standing in a line around the block to watch Tim Burton’s Batman movie while wearing a black shirt with the Batman logo on it, jumping in anticipation. I remember leaving the theater excited that someone had finally gotten superhero movies right after so many hits and misses. Of course, more than three decades later it seems that’s all that Hollywood releases in the theaters now.

Obviously, so many things have changed in the years since then. The Riviera was bulldozed about 30 years ago, and the multiplex theater in Muscatine moved out of the now nearly-vacant mall to a bigger location on the highway bypass. I went there a few times before I moved away from the town. I have to say the snack selection was better and the new stuffed high-backed chairs were so comfortable that I often risked dozing off in them. However, going out to the movies has become more of an operation, and having to deal with rude movie viewers next to me and the cost usually convinces me not to go.

Some of the older people say we lost something when the communal experience of going to a theater started to die out. I’m an older person now, too, but I don’t necessarily see it that way. I love movies just as much now on a theater screen, a big screen television, my laptop, or even my mobile phone. It’s just like how it is for me with physical book reading or e-books. I take my inspiration and entertainment from wherever I can get it.

Footnotes:

  1. I think it best to discuss my television habits later. I watched plenty of shows that had no redeeming value at all and I cannot defend my decision to watch them as youthful folly (lol).
  2. There’s probably at least one post that I could think of that might take a look at how professional wrestling influenced me or showed me something regarding storytelling.
  3. It’s been a bit of a surprise to see that drive-ins have not totally died out, but are hanging on in not that smaller numbers than a few years ago.

A Writer’s Biography, Volume I, Part 8: The Old Mississippi

I recently completed my move from Muscatine, Iowa, where I’ve lived for more than 30 of the fortysomething years I’ve lived, to Chariton, Iowa, in south-central Iowa. In many ways, I’m excited about the move – it has been a great professional opportunity for my wife, a good financial move for us, and a good change of pace for me. Being closer to Des Moines might even be helpful for me as far as writing goes – more writers, more people to network with. My wife even has suggested that I start a Chariton or Lucas County writer’s group, but I have to admit that I have no idea how many writers are out there or what type of writing they might do. I’d be open to the idea, however.

It’s going to be the river, however, that I’m going to miss the most.

For more than forty of my years, I have lived a couple miles or so from the Mississippi River. That has been something that I truly treasured. I remembered when I was a little kid, reading something in a National Geographic book about how the Mississippi/Missouri/Ohio river system was the third biggest river system in the world, topped only by the Amazon and the Nile. Heady stuff for a little kid.

I want to describe what this river meant to me, then and now. Doing justice to the subject is a little intimidating, to be honest. I haven’t done much looking at other people’s writings about rivers or the Mississippi in particular.

When I talk about this, I need to be honest. It wasn’t like I was some river rat, hanging out on the shore every weekend or even every month. If I wandered down to the riverfront once every week it was an uncommon occurrence. But the fact that the river was there was reassuring to me. It was a living, breathing river and passageway to me, a place where I could lose myself if I had the chance.

Since I learned that we were going to be moving to South Central Iowa, I’ve been thinking more about my feelings about the Mississippi, some of the ways that I have experienced the river. My old writing group back in Muscatine did a lot of poetry and a lot of writing about our region. I decided to finally try my own hand at poetry, which turned into my current Project C.

So, I’m thinking that maybe a poem might be a good way to maybe get at the way I feel. This is the first time I’ve shown this – be gentle.

NO-MAN’S ISLANDS (A River Story)
2.2019
The thing that The River has over other rivers and streams
is its own land.
Usually, it’s just a dirt road of two-lane blacktop of muddy water
or a four-lane at best.
But The River has its own land, right there tucked in the channel.
Carved and molded and rounded-off by the ever-shifting waters
with no shape but overwhelming mass and motion.
These are the No Man’s Island’s.  
Temporary Sentinels guarding the river for as long as they’re around.
They are for no one for everyone that has a boat
or strong enough swimming stroke.
Some are bare sand, all but ready for a rise in The River
to send it away.
Others are thick jungles, oaks and maples cluttering the interior
and hanging off the banks like a daredevil hanging from a bridge.
They’re perfect for parking your boat,
and getting some sun quota for the day.
You hang out with love behind the trees and bushes
obscuring the view of the jet skiers and party boat passengers and barge crews.
It’s their own little fiefdoms away from the cares and stresses
On Shore.
At least, they are until the snacks and beers in the coolers run out.

I’m planning on trying to do more of that poetry with river themes, as a way of keeping those memories alive with me and keep creative.

There’s no rivers the size of the Mississippi around here. There are some sizable lakes around here, including Lake Rathburn and some others within decent driving range. However, I do have an active railway not a block away from my house. I’m actually living on a highway for the first time in my life, as well.

Maybe its time to try out some train and road poems.

Unplanned Posts

There’s been a few times when something I’m writing has turned into something totally different. Usually that’s been a good thing for me, so I’m hoping it’s a similar situation here. It’s the first time it’s happened to me blogging.

Remember how I mentioned about that one blog post that I was planning on writing last week? The one about the thing that happened with me about an aborted project?

Well, now that’s turned into no less than three Writer’s Biography pieces.

Let me explain.

Without giving away the entire story before I write it, a few years ago I began initial plans for a nonfiction book, which was the first time that I had ever thought of doing anything like that. Essentially, the lure of fiction called me more than the subject I had been researching.

Last week, the guy who had passed the project off to me asked for some files that he had given me a few years ago because another writer was interested in it. No problem there, I thought.

So, that planned visit got me thinking about the differences between fiction and nonfiction writing – a difference I was familiar enough with from my dive back into fiction and my years in journalism. I thought it was at least worth a post.

Then Dale, the writer who first mentioned the project to me, came to my house last Thursday. Our conversation went into old journalism days, long-ago projects, and other related topics.

That got me thinking about three things. First, I realized that it’s been since last May when I last wrote one of my A Writer’s Biography posts. For those not familiar with this blog, those have posts that have looked back at my life and my experiences with writing and literature. Some might have noticed that I’ve broken them into Volume I and Volume II. Volume I has covered my experiences as a kid, while Volume II explored experiences I had as a young man. However, to my surprise, I’ve read through all of my Volume II posts and I have not yet written any post specifically about my years in journalism. Considering that I spent 12 years overall working full or part-time as a journalist, I though that was a bit of an oversight. So that’s has to be worth a second post.

That led me to my third realization, which was that I have yet to write a Volume III entry. I’m going to classify Volume III as stories from when I decided to rededicate myself to writing in middle age to the present time. It would make sense to add the whole nonfiction book story to that list, since that just happened a couple of years ago. It would be a good Part 2 for that volume.

Why Part 2? Because I also realized that Part 1 had to be an analysis of how I turned things around and got back to my passion of writing. As I considered this, I really tried to search my brain and try to recall a single instance where I decided to get back to what I considered to be my passion. I’m not sure there was such a moment, but I think there might be enough for me to talk about it in depth. Creating this blog was a big part of that gradual turnaround, but I haven’t discussed it head on before.

[EDIT: If you’re interested in (rough) timelines, etc., I’d estimate that Volume I covers 1980-1995, Volume II covers 1995-2010, and Volume III covers 2010 up until the present time.]

So, that means that I now have enough stories to last the entire month. Not sure about what order I will post them in, but they will be related to each other. It’s been a bit since I’ve been excited about upcoming posts. I’ll be interested to see what comes out of the process.

That’s all for now; I’ll write more later.

A Writer’s Biography, Volume I, Part 7: The Old Library

Yesterday was the last day that I checked out books from the library of my childhood.

 

It’s not like my community (Muscatine, Iowa) is losing a library, like too many others have in this country and others. In about two weeks, the current location you see above will be closed for four weeks. That’s why I decided to stock up while the getting is good – and got all of my library fines forgiven, as well! Classy move from the librarians. (I admit I am an inveterate book hoarder who has been fined by libraries in four different Iowa counties.)

Afterwards, the Musser Public Library will reopen as the HNI Community Center and Musser Public Library. (HNI makes stuff like office furniture, so if you work in a cubicle you might be sitting on or working on something they made.) This is what it’s going to look like:

HNI Musser Public Library

I mean, it looks classy, at least. HNI had an old headquarters building that was just sitting around and said why not let the city have it, since the older place was getting a bit run down. Here’s some info on the project if that kind of thing interests you.

I think there were things like roof issues, foundation issues, and some other things that required the old place to get retired. They first built the library that I used nearly 50 years ago. I mean, it looks ultramodern and slick from the outside, but it was built in the past century… like me.

Musser isn’t like a nickname for Muscatine or anything – it was the name of one of the old families here in town beginning in the 19th century that were some of the first to make some money – I think in the lumber business. The original library, build around the start of the 20th century, looked like this:

img_5423

If I went to libraries in Illinois and Texas when I was a young child, I do not remember them. I remember the first school library I had at Grant Elementary, a modest room overlooking the parking lot where I first started sorting for books. Central Middle School had a third-floor library, tucked away from everywhere else. I managed to plow through all the books they had of interest before I left.

The library of Muscatine High School, where I spent four years, was an ultra-funky layout that spoke to the building’s 1970’s origins. It was and is located in the center of the main building, on a mezzanine level between the ground and second floors. Back in the days when I went to school there, the sides of the library were open to the walkways of the ground floor below. A few years after I had graduated. apparently some students had thrown some smoke bombs from the library down below into those walkways to cause some consternation among the faculty. Well before the time I returned to the high school as a substitute teacher, they had walled off those open areas with paneling to prevent that from happening again.

However, it was the Musser Public Library that soon became my home. It’s a little difficult for me to recall how I first started getting there. I have to assume that my parents were willing to take me there as a child, to drive me there. After all, the location was catty-corner from the building where my engineer father spent the vast majority of his professional life as an engineer.

What I remember about those times, both before and after I started hauling myself to the library on a moped and then in a car, was how every topic I wanted to read about was there, open for me, at the library. That was where I was able to indulge my love of Stephen King, and, years later, Richard Laymon. I started learning about how good biographies could be, and how a book about building a castle could keep my attention until it had finished explaining how such a structure could be built. That’s where I learned about tourism guides and how they could become useful tools in my research. I believe that’s also where I learned about young adult writers like Julian F. Thompson, on Koertge, Paul Zindel, and others. I also got into Michael and Jeff Shaara and more historical fiction than I could shake a stick at.

I also remember the big comfy chairs, either over on the side or in the new additions area, where I hunkered down and started reading stuff. I would spend hours there, and had to make sure that I had enough quarters there to feed the meters or I would have to pay paring as well as book fines. (That didn’t always work out.)

That library was one of the main influences on wanting to write. I wanted to see if I could create something that could sit on the shelves along with all of the other works. I still might manage that.

 

A Writer’s Biography, Volume I, Part 6: Stephen is Still The King

Last weekend, I happened to catch the new film version of IT at my local theater, at the suggestion of my daughter, who happens to be into horror more than a little bit. I have to say it was of a higher quality than the 1990 miniseries. After the movie, over dinner, we wound up having a lively discussion regarding why they moved the plot setting 30 years ahead of the original book (cheaper and more readily available 1980’s items than 1950’s items nowadays) and how the plot progressed fairly closely to the original text. I was surprised…

 

[SPOILER]

 

… that the filmmakers decided to split the story into two. But with that decision made, it made far more sense to me that they decided to focus on the Losers’ adventures as kids rather than going back and forth between teen and adult adventures. It made for a far more coherent plot line, all things considered.

 

[END SPOILERS]

 

As we watched the film, I kept thinking back to the prominence that King has had in my writing life. It is a place that has hardly diminished from my teen years, and it’s only recently that I’ve started to come to terms with what it has meant to me.

My mother was – still is – never a horror fan. I was not going to be able to buy any of King’s books or watch his films in my parents’ house. I still had to respect that. But there were libraries, other opportunities to get involved with his work. And I did.

If there has ever been someone that I would count as a literary idol in my life, it would be Stephen King. I can’t remember the first King book I read, but I know that I read the vast majority of them from when I was a kid to now. I don’t think everything he wrote was great – not even he thinks that everything he wrote was great – but he has had way more hits than misses, and I firmly believe that the hits are keeping on coming even though he’s now in his seventh decade.

There were so many things about King that I dug so much. His plots… well, plot was never something that he was into, more interesting situations with interesting people. An outcast girl who has the telepathic powers of a demigod? Sign me up. Recasting the Dracula myth into an American ethos 20 years before Buffy the Vampire Slayer? I’m down. Writing two insanely long books that, in turn, aim to be the definitive apocalyptic thriller and the Great American Novel of childhood and growing up? Sign me up, brother.

As a kid, I was interested in the graphic nature of the material, but it was the psychological horror that really got me. There was plenty of guts in some of the books, but one scene that has stuck with me more than any of those was the one in Salem’s Lot where the father was so distraught at his son’s funeral that he jumped onto the coffin. (On a related note, Salem’s Lot probably had one of the most devastating endings I’ve ever read.)

Whenever I read King, I read someone who was in love with the art of storytelling. With King, I gained more insight into the people and country I lived in. I also managed to get a lot more insight than I ever anticipated about the culture of New England. (I still will argue that King should be classified just as much as a regional writer as he is a horror/scifi/fantasy author.)

Then I read his book On Writing when it came out. I still rank it as one of the best books on writing that I have ever read – so simple, such an easy read, a mix of his writer’s biography and whatever advice he gave to be a writer. I’ve used adverbs sparingly and watched out for the passive voice ever since – a lot of my students got the active verb/passive verb lesson from me at one point or the other.

More than the individual pieces of advice, it was a literal dare to me. As I read it, I realized, this was what it meant to be a writer. This is what it takes to really dedicate yourself to being a writer, never mind a successful writer, however that’s defined. Are you ready to take him up on the challenge?

Reader, for many years, I was not.

Why I was not ready to meet that challenge, after years of saying I wanted to be a fiction author, writing tons of journalism that some people read and others disregarded in places that were never hotbeds of news, and teaching more than a few people how to write better themselves?

Man, that is a massive question. In fact, it’s probably such a massive question that it will likely dominate Volume II of my writer’s biography, which I think will soon start. (Don’t worry, I’ll likely put out some more stuff about reading as a kid, AKA Volume I stuff).

But to start answering it, I have to mention about how I always compared myself to King. I saw in him someone who was inherently a writer, and I always pictured myself as lesser than him. I didn’t get started writing serious fiction until I was much older than he was when he got his first book published. He’s put out more fiction than entire towns of authors. I’ve come to accept I’m not going to write as many books as he will, much less James Patterson. (Yes, I know Patterson has help.)

I’ve accepted that, though. I’ve accepted not being a literary superstar because that’s not really the reason I’m writing anymore, even though I’m really interested in finally getting my fiction published somewhere, in some capacity. But it’s OK to have something to shoot far, even if you miss the target. I get why Joe Hill hid his name for a while, took some time to become his own person before his name got out in the world. He’s a damn good writer, too.

Now I just want to be me as a writer. With my recent work, with this blog, I might start to finally get there.

A Writer’s Biography, Volume I, Part 5: Ambivalence Toward YA Fiction by a YA

I’m now a teacher of young adults. As part of being a teacher, I try to get kids active with reading. I’ve even taken it upon myself to collect some books in my own room for their reading interest. As part of this effort, I’ve acquired more than a few books with the “YA” (Young Adult) stickers on their spines, and they now are part of my improvised library.

If I were building a library from scratch, however, it probably wouldn’t include many YA books. This was the case even when I was a YA myself.

In my memory, which can probably tell tall tales as well as anything, the label of YA fiction started sometime in earnest around the late 1960’s and continued on since then. That always made sense to me, because the youth market was so big in those days due to the baby boom generation of my parents.

I missed out on the megahit YA genre series that have come to dominate the market in the 21st century, like Harry Potter, Hunger Games, Divergent, and The 5th Wave, among others. (Personally, I enjoyed Potter, was so-so on the Hunger Games, never thought Divergent made sense, and The 5th Wave was over the top, but had promise.)

Back during my childhood, there were a lot of kids that looked like me in towns that looked like mine dealing with teenage dramas that even then seemed irrelevant. I wanted to jump right into the big adult novels, like 1984 and Stephen King’s work. (It’s going to take another blog post to discuss my ongoing obsession for King’s work, and maybe more than one post.) I had made the amazing discovery that fiction that touched on the adult themes that kept kids of my time out of R-rated movies was far more accessible in book format than in theaters or television. That’s not the only reason I read those books, but it was admittedly one of them.

Despite my wariness about YA titles, I couldn’t help but pay attention to some authors that I couldn’t help admiring after I’d had the chance to read them. Paul Zindel and Chris Crutcher were two of them – I dug their offbeat young characters and attempts to find their own identities in hostile environments that I couldn’t imagine growing up in.

It was when I read The Grounding of Group 6 by Julian F. Thompson that a YA novel really caught my attention. Kids forced to immediately grow up – in this case, because your parents want you dead? Kids having to run into the forest to avoid sharpshooting teachers? Kids falling in love while on the run? What wouldn’t a 13-year-old me not like about it?

There were some flaws about it, however – some of the adults seemed to be too silly to believe and the kids seemed to have things too together at times. But 13-year-old me saw a great story about kids having to grow up unexpectedly. That’s the type of story that never grows old (pun somewhat intended).

In the end, I came to realize that it didn’t matter whether a book was classified as YA or not, just like it didn’t matter whether it was called sci-fi, horror, romance, literary, or unclassifiable. If a book had a story and characters I related to and fired my imagination, labels didn’t matter.

I didn’t usually read YA, and I still don’t. But sometimes one of them does spark the imagination.

A Writer’s Biography, Volume I, Part 4: Falling in and Out of Love With Technothrillers

Normally I always include some sort of image on these stories, even if it’s one of the those boring landscape images of eastern Iowa or those shots of my writing desk. 🙂

Oftentimes, if I’m talking about a particular author I like, I’ll usually take a photo of the book cover of an author I’ve read to illustrate a post. I tend to want to avoid copyright issues – although I think I’m covered by fair use rules. Today, however, I wasn’t able to do that. There’s a story behind that, and part of this section of the writing biography.

As a kid, I was obsessed over reading about the military and about military equipment. When my family and I had a chance to travel to Washington DC, the one place I had to visit was the National Air and Space Museum. It absolutely dovetailed with my existing interests in science fiction and space travel (the sci-fi obsession I’ve touched on before, although I’ll probably go into more detail in a later post). Anyway, all of these interests in cool vehicles that made things go boom, the technologies that made them possible and their sci-fi possibilities, and the strategies and tactics that involved their use, all converged in a big obsession tornado in my pre-adolescent mind.

It was right around this time that The Hunt for Red October hit the shelves. I don’t recall when I first read it, but it had to be sometime after it came out in paperback because I read it in the paperback format.

The minute I started to read it, it hooked me in. Why? Like I said, I was a military tech faddist back then, and Tom Clancy knew his stuff. Not just the amount of detail about the American military and its technology, but what he knew about how the Soviet Union and its military and navy worked. A few years later, I was amazed to learn that Clancy had never even served in the military, and the book was a result of something like five years of research while he worked at an insurance agency.

(This was a great inspiration for me to see that you could write intelligently about anything, regardless of your life experience, as long as you did your research. For years I had wanted to write a novel about soccer, but I believed that I didn’t have enough life experience or background knowledge to write about it and not sound stupid. A few years of reading about the history and business of soccer and intense soccer fandom, and I’ve finally gotten started on that project.)

The pace and the structure of the novel was also highly influential to me, as well. I’d often heard of unfilmable books and books that were not able to translate into a visual format. But when I read October, I read a book that could have been assembled on a Hollywood film storyboard. Clancy was telling a large story with a lot of moving parts, different characters, and different locations. The way he shifted perspectives and moved where the action was fascinated me, took me along for the ride. In years since, I’ve often talked with writing students about how deciding to move to a new paragraph or section works in the same way as a film director deciding to change a camera angle or location. Reading October and seeing how Clancy did this was the first time I really started to “see” how that worked. (I learned from Andrew Vachss about how you can keep chapters as short or as long as you wanted to, but that’s another tale.)

As with most obsessions, this one expanded. By my count, I’ve read at least a dozen of the novels that he has put out, and maybe a few of those that were put out by Zombie Tom Clancy, when other authors write books under Clancy’s name. (Entertainment Weekly had a good article on the practice here; I just wonder how these guys manage to get the gig. It sounds like easy money to be honest.) At some point, I had as many as four of his books in my personal collection, and some by a couple of other authors with similar styles, like Vince Flynn.

Now, however, my shelves are bare of Clancy, Flynn, or any of their like. (That’s why I needed the Internet to find my art today.) What happened? Essentially, I got tired of the guy’s politics. (I try to avoid politics on this page – I’d probably consider myself a socialist if I had to define myself – but since it fits in with how I feel about a writer, I think I needed to get into it.)

More and more as he wrote later in his career, all of this stupid conservative beliefs started bleeding out into his books. There was his blind faith in the military and military leaders, little acknowledgement that government needs to act transparently, an outdated view of women and reproductive issues, and a blind faith in market and libertarian solutions to problems. There were just a lot of ideas that were both wrong and gross to me. It started getting bad around Executive Orders and just kept getting worse from there.

All I wanted to do is read the action, but all I could see in those later books were stupid political ideas. For the first time, how I felt about the way the world should work clashed directly with authors I enjoyed. I’ve heard many say that they can separate the author from their personal views. I can’t however. There’s simply too many authors out there that I can read and that have reasonable political or personal views that I don’t believe I have to compromise myself in that way.

The truth is, how you feel about society and personal opinions does affect what you write. For example, the main characters in books by Clancy, Flynn, and others were alpha males for whom finding the right guy and guilty party was easy and the way to solve almost any geopolitical problem involved bullets and explosives. I never saw Jack Ryan or Mitch Rapp from Flynn’s series catch the wrong guy and kill or torture them, or see them accidentally kill a whole flock of civilians. But that does happen, because I see that happen every day. Since those authors were so fascinated by the military or military solutions, it eventually eroded their credibility to me as a reader. I’ve always said that ideology is how you wish the world would work if only humans weren’t the way that they were. If someone has an ideology that’s too stupid for me to buy into, I have no interest and taking a tour of that author’s head by reading a book.

EDIT: Since I wrote this, apparently they are adapting the Mitch Rapp character for a film, American Assassin, based on one of the Rapp novels from 2010. I’ve seen some preview clips and I have to admit I’m more than a little intrigued. The kid they have playing him, Dylan O’Brian, seems to be willing to show how damaged such a person like Rapp would have to be to be the person he is, rather than going the full 80’s action flick guy he seemed to be in the books. Now I might have to watch it on Netflix.

So, Tom Clancy became a teacher for me as both how to and how not to write books. He is nowhere near the last one of those I have run into as a reader. To paraphrase Stephen King, you can learn something from both the great writers and the terrible writers.

AUTHOR’S NOTE: I’m starting to tag and headline these writing biography posts as either Volume I or Volume II. Volume I are biographical reading and writing posts about things I first encountered as a kid or young adult. Volume II will touch on stories taking place in my adulthood since then. Hope you enjoy both, because I believe I will start doing both Volume I and Volume II stories simultaneously as we go along. I’ve also retroactively re-titled those previous Bio posts to reflect those changes, but that won’t affect their URLs.

A Writer’s Biography, Volume I, Part 3: Comic Book Days.

I wound up buying a comic book today when I was in the Quad Cities running some errands. (For those who don’t know what I’m talking about, here’s a couple primers.) I realized today that this was the first comic book I’ve bought in about 20 years. It might even be 25, but it’s at least 20.

Before I get into why I purchased the particular comic book pictured, I have to tell you how comics were a major part of what I read when I was younger. In the choice between DC and Marvel, in the end I was a Marvel guy. I loved the tales of the X-Men in particular, this idea of people with superpowers representing outsiders and those feared by society. The comic book writers of the late 20th century got endless mileage out of that idea, almost like how the WWE got endless mileage for years from the conflict between labor (Stone Cold) and ownership (Vince McMahon). However, a biography piece on wrestling’s influence in my life is another bio entry for another time.

As I said, I was a Marvel guy in my heart (who may have even bought a Captain America comic once), but when I heard about The Dark Knight Returns I immediately had to go to the bookstore to thumb through it, then to the library to check it out. This was revolutionary stuff, and I became a disciple of Frank Miller’s writing. I immediately attempted to try and find more examples of comic book coolness, which included a couple of collections of the original Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles run and some other books.

You have to realize that as this comic book revolution that had started in the 70’s and ramped up in earnest during the 1980’s and 90’s was something that was more of a rumor to me than an actual fact. I grew up in Iowa during the 1980’s and 90’s. Comic book stores were exotic places that I went to once a year on visits to Iowa City and Davenport. The Internet and smartphones didn’t exist. When I eventually went to college, I was literally the last college student in America not to have email, which would have been very helpful in keeping in contact with my future wife.

So with all of that, I had to do some digging, going to libraries to find the cool collections of comics or histories of comic books. Later, I’d find the more hip bookstores of Iowa City would have plenty of “graphic novels,” and I really started to dig the stories I found there. I discovered Watchmen there well after the fact, and dug the idea of a superhero reimagining – as well as a history re-imagining. I read Maus for the first time and realized how the medium could affect how you told a story.

Over time, my tastes in comics changed. I boxed up the comic books I’d collected in a plastic container 20 years ago and they’ve stayed there ever since. There’s dozens of them there, but the entire box was barely worth about $20 worth when I had them appraised a few years ago. (I sold the one comic that was worth $10 and kept the rest.) I got away from continuing series and liked graphic novels that told extended stories yet eventually came to a conclusion. I also started developing a taste for independent comic books, like Love and Rockets, The Crow, and others.

Superhero stories were not what I was buying, although 10 years or so ago I saw a collection of the Starman series by James Robinson and Tony Harris that blew my mind, how it showed the growth of a new superhero in a city that became just as vital as Gotham or New York had been in previous comics. And I’ve been impressed by the film adaptations of the MCU and DC’s efforts. (Trust me, they make far better adaptations of comics than they did years ago.)

I still have a collection of these and some other great books I’ve collected, including the last volume of Strangers In Paradise. One of the happiest times in recent years was my daughter’s discovery of those books in one of my bookcases. She proceeded to liberate them from my shelves and they were in her room for the better part of the year.

Even though I’m not sure I’ll probably ever write in the graphic novel format, I do appreciate how the medium attracts creative people trying to expand what can be done with the idea of graphic stories in general and superhero stories in particular. I had heard about Black Mask Studios being this new publisher that was experimenting with new ideas, not just trying to tell the same stories over again with the same characters. And when I heard that they were doing a comic, Black, that told the story of a world where only black people had superpowers, bringing new life to the old ideas hinted at in X-Men – well, that got my attention.

Why shouldn’t I support that type of creativity? So, I got out and bought Chapter Six (the last one) of Book One of Black. Not that I’m collecting comics or anything. For one, it was only $5.99. Second, they didn’t have a graphic novel collection of it. But, I’d be interested in one whenever it comes out.

A Writer’s Biography, Volume I, Part 2: Building Worlds.

By the time I was in middle school, I was voraciously absorbing every single book that interested me and that I could get my hands on. I lived, and lived now, in a Mississippi River town in Iowa with the unique First Nations-based name of Muscatine. By the time I had entered high school, I had raided my grade school, middle school, high school, and public libraries for whatever hidden treasures I could find.

One of the things I realized that there were so many delights – maybe delights adults would have preferred I not see – in those libraries. (I’ll likely go into more detail in another post – but it’s fair to say that I was one of those who scanned the banned book lists in search of reading material.)

Over the course of a childhood, I would find many of those and many others. It was… what, my escape? What did I really have to escape from? I didn’t face any poverty; I had no siblings to compete with for attention; I was coddled and loved with no reservations; my parents were loving and remain together even today. Whatever was left was an awkwardness with people and an isolation from my peers that was both self-inflicted and suggested by more popular peers. To this day, one of the things that I am happy with about my children is that they are better social beings than I ever was or am.

Regardless of whether my problems were either morally dire or simply First World Problems, I retreated more than a little bit into the world of books. Maybe my parents sensed that when they got me an entire encyclopedia set when I was around 10 and I could spend an entire day pulling out the two “S” volumes and seeing what I could learn about that particular day. (Of course, that would have been unnecessary if Wikipedia had existed when I was young. If it had, I have a feeling I would have been addicted to the “random article” link on that page.)

As I mentioned before, some of the links of my personal biography have many holes, or areas where the fog of time covers my personal timeline. Despite that fog, I have the distinct impression that it was somewhere between the eighth and ninth grade that I ran across Dune by Frank Herbert.

I first became aware of the book right around the time that David Lynch’s adaptation came out in theaters. It was considered anywhere from a flawed classic to an absolute bomb by the critics when it came out in theaters. I never had the chance to see its theatrical release, but the reports about the story (including an old Nickelodeon series staring Leonard Nimoy) were too intriguing for me to ignore. With that, I decided to find and read the book.

Well, the minute I started reading this massive tome, I got transported into an entirely different world, fam, as some of our British relations might say. (You’ll eventually learn that I happily steal phrases and slang from any culture as long as it sounds cool to me.) As I was reading, I was far away from the hot and humid river town in Iowa and transported onto a desert planet were water and how it was preserved was the key not only to survival, but to the culture itself.

What I learned from Herbert was this; the less familiar your surroundings are, the more you have to show the reader how it works. In the books that I’ve written up to this point, they have been based in the modern American world, with not too much need for explanation. But here was Herbert weaving a massive universe to amaze me – a universe so detailed he needed an 18 page or so glossary just to explain all of the terms and terminology. Some found it ponderous, but I was awed by the level of attention he gave to it. Of course, it didn’t hurt that Muad’Dib was one of the most fascinating characters I ever saw in fiction, and it was incredible how Herbert showed the creation of a legend from ordinary person to a literal messiah for his world.

I haven’t yet tried to build a fictional world as far removed from my own and as detailed as Herbert gave us in 1965. But ever since I read Dune, I knew it could be not only done but done with the highest level of craftsmanship.