Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Starting Out

I have to confess to feeling some trepidation about my introduction to blogging. It's not fear of writing _ I've been doing that since I was five; it's the feeling of unease that most people have trying something unfamiliar, like shifting gears in a car with what used to be called a standard transmission. I believe (and hope) this blog will look better and better as I familiarize myself with the medium.
My father, who was one of the five most intelligent men I've ever met (two of the others were Cornell University professors I interviewed for The AP), noticed two things early in my grade-school years: That I was making up stories and setting them down on paper, and that I was fascinated by animals. That led to my first two commercial writing experiences _ both of them of the natural-history genre, illustrated by yours truly. I finished the first when I was eight and the second just before my tenth birthday, and my dad bound them so that they look like real books. He tricked me into tackling the first project by offering me a penny a page, and I turned out 81 pages _ each one a description of the animal above a crayon-colored picture of the same. I was quite cavalier in organizing it _ for instance, the page describing coral snakes is opposite the page describing bison, and I discuss mandrills across from alligators. I was both better organized and hungrier for money when I began the second book the next year: It has 326 pages, chapters, an index and an "Identification Page" which states that I began writing it around Christmas 1949 and finished on June 13, 1950. While handing over the $3.26 at a time when a bottle of pop cost a nickel, my father made the fateful prediction: "Mel, I think you're going to be a writer."
After that he began letting me use his typewriter, and I started two much more stylish books _ a third one on animals, and the last on U.S. military aircraft (a new fascination) _ without finishing either. I managed to get 46 pages deep into the latter before I reached my teens and decided that was enough reason to quit, dropping my compleion average to .500.
The next important step on my writer's journey came in 1960, when my college roommate and I spent more than four months hitchhiking in Europe. I'd been told travel would have a broadening effect on my mind, and it did. We crossed the Atlantic in late July aboard the Cunard Line's RMS Mauretania, a 35,738-ton steamship so steady and massive that the often unruly ocean seemed like a pond. On the return trip in December, the Atlantic lived up to its reputation and tossed an even larger ship, the 81,237-ton Queen Mary, around like a cocktail shaker. But both passages left me lots of time to contemplate the art of writing, and, by the time I returned to college at the University of Utah, I couldn't wait to start studying Latin. It was a fortunate coincidence that the beginning course was taught by Dr. Jerry Gresham, the best teacher I've learned from in any subject, and it is no coincidence at all that Quintus LeClaire, the Latin-quoting tailback in my new novel "The Leather Man," owes his existence to the influence of that initial course.
Years later, having worked for three newspapers, the Idaho Health and Water Resources departments, and as a UPI stringer, I was hired by The Associated Press in Helena, Mont., and began writing "The Leather Man" after each night shift. I struggled the produce about 40,000 words before I realized writing until 4 a.m. every night was having a deleterious effect on my health, and I laid off the project for a while. The interlude stretched to more than three decades before my daughters got hold of the grainy old sheets of paper, read them and decided they wanted to see me complete the book. They took turns transcribing what I'd done, stored it on a CD and gave it to me one Father's Day. After I retired from journalism, I took up the project again; renamed the title character Ben Steinbrecher; relegated LeClaire to an antihero's role; beefed up Brock Banning as the villain; introduced Sam Moody as the Leather Man's best friend and Edison Green as Canyon State's controversial quarterback; boiled the original 40,000 words down to about 9,000 in the finished product, and added another 90,000 words to make it novel-length. Now I'm finally a published novelist, and I can't wait to see where it goes from there.

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