I don’t remember learning to read. I’m sure it I did at some point, but I don’t remember it any more than I remember learning to walk or talk. I do remember that my first favorite book was Stuart Little, so presumably I was born with good taste. E.B. White continues to be an influence and role model. I also remember that when I was about five or so my mother was startled to discover that I could read upside down as easily as right side up. The position of the text seemed irrelevant as long as you could orient yourself and follow the same basic rules. In fact, I can still read upside down pretty well to this day, though I’m not quite a fluent as I used to be since by this point I’ve had a lot more experience reading things right side up. Still, it’s a fun trick and handy snooping device to be able to read things people are writing at a quick glance. It’s a very useful writer’s trick when you’re trying to be very observant about the people and things around you. But I’ve learned you’ve got to watch out for this. Sherlock Holmes makes it seem cool to make casual observations and surprise people with easy deductions and insights. However, in the age of stalkers and identity thieves, people tend to be more alarmed than impressed if you notice too much about them. These days I keep it all to myself and save the details to feed my fiction.
In addition to always being a reader, I’ve always been a writer. My first creative piece that I still have around was screenplay of sorts. In first grade, we built television screens out of construction paper and created a long sheet of paper with frames containing pictures, dialogue, and narrative. The sheet could be fed through this makeshift idiot box and the frames told a story. My story was called “Lost in a Tuba,” and it was about a guy who fell into a sousaphone and couldn’t find his way out. Okay, I didn’t know that style of tuba was called a “sousaphone” when I was six. I wasn’t quite that precocious. But I did start thinking of myself as a writer. It seemed to go hand in hand with reading, and reading and writing were always the things I did best at in school and enjoyed the most when I wasn’t in school and had the freedom to do whatever I wanted. Around this time, I also started reading more grown-up books. Edgar Allan Poe and Robert Louis Stevenson kept me up late at night, reading under the covers with my flashlight long after my prescribed bedtime.
I soon learned that apparently if you ignore one prescription, you’ll be given another because it wasn’t much after these late-night reading habits started that I met my first optometrist. Combined with my tendency to wear my shirts buttoned all the way to the top, my department store glasses helped me bring geek chic to grade school with a vengeance. Throughout junior high and high school, my bookish demeanor kept me from being especially distracted by girls or sports. Instead, I got a lot of reading done. The writers who influenced my adolescence are too many to name, but two stand out above the rest in my memory. William Styron and F. Scott Fitzgerald cemented my ambition to become a writer. When I was fourteen, The Great Gatsby became the greatest novel I had ever read, a stature it maintains to this day though it shares the podium with a few other works I’ve encountered since. At sixteen, I read Sophie’s Choice and first glimpsed the path one takes to become a novelist.
Turns out the path to being a successful writer isn’t so neat and narrow. In fact, my life has been a long, bumpy ride since those days. But through it all, reading and writing have been my constant companions. In fact, I can’t imagine my daily life without both activities. For a while, studying literature (and literary theory) in graduate school burned the joy of books out of me. But it came back. It returned slowly and in the way it first began in my life. After a few years of only spotty and infrequent reading, I dove back into reading mysteries and crime fiction. I read the things that felt fun. And gradually, I realized that instead of trying to write the Great American Novel (which I had done three times without success), I ought to write the type of stuff I read for fun. So, I did, and very quickly I started publishing short stories in magazines and anthologies.
Now I’ve written a new novel. This one isn’t the Great American Novel. It’s a short crime novel, a noir piece, the type of nasty little thing that Jim Thompson or James M. Cain might write if they were still around today. If it’s not a masterpiece that will find its way onto the college syllabus of the late 21st century, it’s still the type of book that says something about who we are and how we live now. And, more importantly, it’s the type of book people like to pick up and read. Because it’s fun.
You won’t be surprised to learn that I had a lot of fun writing it too. It’s called The Lawn Man, and I’m shopping it around to publishers and agents right now. I have a feeling somebody’s going to pick it up because the fun shows through. I can’t wait till you have a chance to read it.