Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Start Small, Think Big

It's not easy knowing the unknowable. Johnny Carson understood that and prepared well for his Carnac the Magnificent shtick. That's why I have ready answers for questions like, "Why did you use asylum as an adjective in Chapter 24 of 'The Leather Man?' (It came to me when I opened a pound of mixed nuts.) Or, "Why is the football on the cover purple?" (It got washed along with the game jerseys.) Or, "You're a scrawny little guy. Where did you get the chutzpah to write about the inner feelings of a giant?" I answer this last question by saying, "Think like an acorn."

I mean, the trail up Everest begins with one step. The history of a symphony leads back to a single note. And, at least in my case, peeling off layers of character development reveals one idea that spawned all the others.

I put myself through the last years of college working the overnight shift on a loading dock in Pocatello, Idaho. It was dark on the dock, chilly when the big metal doors were up and the wind blew through, and some of the people who inhabited the place in the wee hours of the morning were nihilistic enough to suit the dark fiction of Harry Crews. But I didn't have an author moment until I became a sports writer for the Idaho State Journal. That opened the door for access to Idaho State athletes and alumni, among them a former lineman who stayed around town to coach. The thing was, he didn't look like a college lineman.

I say that because he was amazingly tall, coordinated. and quick (the reason Usain Bolt is the fastest man ever is that he is taller than other sprinters and moves his legs just as rapidly, so he inches ahead with every stride). The coach also had very little body fat, resembling a mountain of bone and muscle. At this juncture, just about anyone who has read "The Leather Man" might be tempted to say, "This guy was the template for Jake Wombat." Wombat, a basketball player at Canyon State College where the title character coaches football, is so rough the football players wonder why he doesn't take up their sport. An opponent thinks of Wombat as "a middleweight boxer blown up to six-seven." But Wombat arrived later in my novel's timeline.

Ben Steinbrecher preceded the other characters in the book, springing to life in the late 1960s when I was thinking about the coach cited above and hit upon an idea: What if some super-sized alpha male, incapable of being cowed by ordinary humans and unaware of the way other mortals filter their comments to avoid giving offense, were deprived of health, family, self-confidence and his belief system? What would happen? I immediately knew I had a book to write. What I didn't realize until later is that I was borrowing from an old plot, and the test had already been run _ in the Old Testament, on a man named Job. I won't give away my ending, but I will say that I had the wrong one when I completed the first draft of the manuscript, and that led to the seemingly interminable amount of time it took to get published.

The characters of Steinbrecher and his wife Gloria developed with the addition of their mentally handicapped child. That grew out of my next job _ community-relations work for the Idaho Health Department in Boise. One assignment was to write promotional material for the first Idaho Special Olympics, and that put me in contact with special children and their parents. I noticed the inner strength of the parents, and decided caring for such a child would add a new dimension to Steinbrecher.

One more career move, and I was back in journalism, working for the Ogden (Utah) Standard-Examiner. At a gym located close to the newspaper, I became friends with a young Vietnam veteran. His talk about the war didn't ring a bell at first, but the fact that he'd worked briefly as a Los Angeles cop after leaving the Army _ and volunteered to work in Watts _ did. He said having a normal beat seemed too tame. That's just not normal, I thought after the revelation. That was my introduction to post-traumatic stress disorder, which went by other names at the time, and long-range reconnaissance patrols, called "Lurps." He said he usually volunteered to walk point, the most dangerous place to be in a column of soldiers looking for a fight. Later on I taught him to play handball, small compensation indeed compared to his giving me the basis for Quintus LeClaire.

With a hero and an antihero who becomes more heroic as he returns to football, I had the main characters set. LeClaire's is such a compelling story that I had to decide a few years ago whether to rename the book and rearrange the heroes, but I managed to get things in balance.

Other roles such as Wombat; Sam Moody; Sherry Sullivan; Edison Green; David Talty; Uncle Joe; Brock Banning; Froggy Lund; Taters Jones, Frederick Steinbrecher,and Jed Plinckett revolve in one way or another around the two main characters, and I had to flesh out each in a new way to keep them separate. I'm anxious for feedback on whether I succeeded.


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