Willo Davis Roberts Biography (1928-)
Willo Davis Roberts
Sometimes, when we are in the midst of an exciting adventure, or in a long-dreamed-of place with magical meanings, my husband David will look at me and grin. "You've come a long way for a little country girl," he says.
A country girl is what I was, and in many ways still am. I was born in Grand Rapids, Michigan, and grew up in that state. My earliest recollections, however, are of a little house my father built in a no-longer existing subdivision called Home Acres, a few miles from what is now the town of Portage, near Kalamazoo.
He bought the land during the Depression for one dollar down and fifty cents a week, with no payments due during January and February. I don't know how he paid for the house itself. In retrospect, I suppose it didn't amount to very much. He wasn't a carpenter, and there was no electricity or plumbing involved.
Our nearest neighbors were about a quarter of a mile away, and they were all just as poor as we were—at that time, virtually everyone was poor—but I didn't feel deprived. I loved living "out in the sticks," as I still do.
We had a big garden, where my younger sister Joyce and I picked fat, green worms off the tomato plants. (In those days I didn't mind touching such things as worms and snakes and baby mice.) There were swings at the foot of the garden where a big owl could sometimes be seen, and more often heard. Beyond the swings were wonderful woods, full of trees to climb and hide amidst, wild red and black raspberries to pick, violets to find, and a creek.
I was, for the most part, a very good child. I suppose I was too timid to be otherwise. But the creek, forbidden to Joyce and me except when we were accompanied by an adult, drew me like a magnet. When we were supposed to be taking afternoon naps, we climbed out the window and went off on adventures to the creek. We'd probably have been spanked for it, except that by
some miracle we never got caught. Mother never knew until we were grown up. Years later, the younger two of my own children also played in a forbidden stream, the much more dangerous Stanislaus River in California, and I didn't hear about that until years later, either. In neither case was there any bad intention; children are simply drawn to places and things that are exciting, and water is one of them.
They say that my storytelling began at that first remembered home, the summer I was two. My aunt Neva was painting the house and nearly fell off the ladder as she tried to stifle her laughter over the conversations I was having below her as I and my dolls had a tea party, with some quite adult observations from a two-year-old point of view.
I also had an imaginary companion named Bobby, who went everywhere with us. My folks played along with setting a place for him at the table, holding the door to give him time to get in behind us, and tucking him into bed at night. Bobby lived with us for several years, until I finally had other live companions.
I was two and a half when a neighbor teasingly asked me who was boss at our house. I astutely replied, "Well, Daddy thinks he is, but Mama really is." In later years, it took me a long time to realize that while my father made ninety-nine percent of the decisions, and could be blusteringly loud about doing it, the one percent left to my mother was often the most important decision of all.
When Joyce got big enough to understand—she was three years younger than I—I told her stories. Nobody, including me, ever knew quite where they came from, but the imagination was there from the beginning. I began to write the stories down when I was nine.
I always loved books. In those days there were not many books for children, but since both my parents were avid readers, there were always books in the house. Mostly they came from public libraries, though some were among my most beloved treasures. I can remember owning, before the age of eight, Black Beauty, Heidi, Andersen's and Grimm's Fairy Tales, Hans Brinker; or, the Silver Skates.
My mother, Lealah Gleason Davis, was and is a remarkable woman. She grew up in a family of one brother and five sisters. They lived on a farm and did all kinds of wild, exciting things I loved to hear about. They were most adventurous, and it was a wonder they didn't all break their necks as they jumped off barns, or nearly drowned in watery exploits. They, too, rescued one another from disasters, not telling their parents until long after the danger had passed.
My maternal grandfather was killed in an accident when Mother was about ten, and Grandma raised the family on her own in an age when women didn't have careers; work open to females was very hard and poorly paid, but she managed it, and they had fun. Even after they were all grown up, and I and my cousins were edging toward our teens, they played childish games and embarrassed us by their laughter over things we had come to consider too immature for ourselves.
My father came from an entirely different kind of family. I never heard the term until my own kids were nearly grown, but Daddy was an abused child if there
ever was one. I never knew if his own mother and father had also been abused, or what led to the fighting, both verbal and physical, that went on between them. He had a younger brother and sister, and on several occasions apparently saved their lives by intervening in a situation where they might have been seriously injured, at the least, by parents in conflict with each other. He was, I think, a difficult child—as he later could sometimes be a difficult man—but no child deserves to be caught between two adults who threaten him with opposing demands, as happened to him.
His name was Clayton, which he hated. When he left home (at the age of thirteen he ran away with a traveling carnival) he not only abandoned brutality as a way of life but changed his name to Bill Davis, which he was forevermore.
Though he never had more than an eighth-grade education, he read everything he could get his hands on, and his memory was phenomenal. He hadn't been allowed to read for pleasure when he was a child, but he made up for it later. It was not unusual for him to stay up all night reading a book and go to work the following day with no sleep whatever. Of course, it had to be a good book.
My father, like everyone else in those years, learned to adapt to the Depression. He had a quick mind and a quick tongue, and he'd tackle anything that offered in the way of a job. He often claimed to a prospective employer that he knew how to do a job he'd never experienced, and learned fast once they gave him the position.
He had little ambition, however, beyond the present. He had wandered about the country as a young man, doing balloon ascensions at county fairs, herding cattle or harvesting crops in the far west, working on boats in Florida (where he met Zane Grey, one of his idols), and worked on the Works Progress Administration the winter I was ten because that was the only thing there was to do. We always ate, but we never had anything in a material sense. It didn't bother him if his family lived in a shack as long as we were warm and had food in the house.
Daddy didn't know how to write anything, but he was a natural born storyteller. I used to think he made a lot of his stories up, but one by one they were proved to be true, for the most part. I can remember being extremely embarrassed on more than one occasion by the way he monopolized conversations; only when I was grown up did I realize that people liked listening to him, when a young man said to me, "Boy, your dad is a fascinating man!" Of course he was hearing those particular stories for the first time.
Daddy was the feisty sort, and thought nothing of quitting a job if anyone gave him any guff, even after he had a family to take care of and there were no more jobs in sight. In his early days he was handy with his fists, though my mother more or less tamed him once they were married.
He had two loves when it came to jobs. He loved driving, and for many years delivered new trucks out of Pontiac to dealers all over the United States. He also loved running a sport trolling boat, first on Lake Michigan and later on Lake Superior, where he was affectionately known to the customers who came back year after year as "Captain Bill."
As a driver, he had a lot of experiences that were even interesting to me—at least the first time he related them—like meeting President Truman and his entourage at a restaurant way out on the prairie somewhere, early one morning. Dad spoke to him—he was never bashful about speaking to anyone, even presidents and other famous people—and Truman invited him to sit with him to eat, to the obvious discomfiture of his Secret Service companions. Dad wasn't bashful about asking these celebrities to have their pictures taken with him, either.
It was the summer I was eight that he sold our little house in Home Acres to go fishing for the first time. I didn't mind moving to Northport, up on the "little finger" of Michigan. For the first time in our lives, Joyce and I had unlimited water to play in, on Grand Traverse Bay. We taught ourselves to dog-paddle, and while I never became an expert swimmer, my love of water and sandy beaches was set forever.
From then on, until I was in high school, we spent wonderful summers in the north woods, and less wonderful winters in lower Michigan when he went back to driving during the winters.
To this day the fragrance of pines or, as here in Washington, cedars and firs, sends my heart soaring and soothes my soul. Beaches do the same thing. I used to walk for miles along deserted dunes or hard-packed sand, telling myself stories, and I still do it when I get the chance. I would talk out all the conversations between my characters then, as I now sometimes work out what I'm going to put in the next book.
For years I was very leery of letting anyone know I talked to myself, because it was a peculiar thing to do. Everybody knew that only crazy people talked to themselves. Eventually I decided that was crazy. My thoughts come together better when they're voiced aloud. Now, when my daughter-in-law tells me about our grandson walking around the backyard telling himself stories (and sword fighting the bushes so that most of them are denuded of leaves) I think, uh-huh, another writer coming up. He dictates some of his tales onto a tape recorder, and then gets someone to type them out for him, an option kids of my era didn't have.
Unfortunately, Dad didn't have steady jobs all those winters; he wasn't willing to give up the fishing, where
he could combine his love of regaling paying customers with his stories while also enjoying being on the water, for the security of one job. So from the year I was eight until I entered high school, we moved more times than even my mother can recall. Years later, when Daddy was old and sick, he said, "I don't think it really hurt you kids to move around," The fact that he spoke of it after all that time suggests to me that he'd felt guilty about it and had tried to pretend he hadn't contributed to what had been a painful situation that lasted throughout our childhoods. I didn't say anything. It was in the past by then, and while it did hurt all three of us (we eventually had another sister, Janice) it probably also contributed to my writing ability.
The year I was in the fourth grade, I was enrolled in six schools; and I didn't go the last month because our family was quarantined with scarlet fever. The day I came down with it I didn't tell my mother I was unwell, because Shirley Temple was playing at the local theater in The Little Princess, one of my favorite stories. In spite of feeling awful, by the time my father came to find me I'd seen the movie two and a half times. I suppose I infected half the kids in Traverse City with scarlet fever.
At any rate, I learned very little in the fourth grade. To this day I don't know the multiplication tables much past the fives. I was shy and timid, and didn't make friends easily. That year was extremely traumatic and set the pattern for the ones that followed, when we moved so often that I seldom had any friends. By the time I'd gotten acquainted with anyone well enough to be invited to their home, we moved again. Besides that, we lived in some places I was ashamed to invite anyone to visit. It wasn't until many years later that I realized that real friends don't choose you on the basis of what your home is like.
During one of the short terms in school, I came into a class right when everyone else was in the middle of learning to read music. No one ever tried to help me understand what I had missed, and the whole thing went over my head. At the age of nine I was convinced that I was too stupid ever to be able to read music. I remained convinced for forty years that all I could ever do about music was listen to it. I liked singing, but never could go high enough to sing soprano nor low enough to be an alto; music teachers usually just threw up their hands and left me to shift for myself. Unlike the gym teachers who kept trying to make an athlete out of a person with no coordination or ability whatever in that direction.
It wasn't until my older daughter, Kathie, was in college that I discovered a wonderful thing. Our family has always written out Christmas want-lists which are then posted on the refrigerator to share; these include everything from inexpensive pens and paper clips (everybody in the family writes) to highly imaginative things like homes on the beach, with hot tubs, etc. Kathie was studying to be a kindergarten teacher, and had to know how to play a piano well enough to lead the children in simple songs. She joked that she wanted a piano.
A real one was out of the question, but in the spirit of the joke, I bought her one of those little toy ones with about two and a half octaves of keys. And we were amazed at how much music she could get out of the thing! A few weeks later, my other daughter, Larrilyn, and I were checking out the after-holiday sales and came across a little chord organ, the kind you learn to play by number. I just happened to have the $39.95 to spare, and took it home with me.
It was so popular that we had to set up a schedule to take turns, fifteen minutes per person. And wonder of wonders, even I, the musical idiot, could play recognizable tunes. I was ecstatic. Eventually that little toy piano led to full-sized organs—and with two lessons that were the most I ever managed to fit into my too full days—I got beyond playing by number to actually reading music. I wasn't too stupid, after all.
To this day, one of my greatest pleasures—and tranquilizers—is playing the organ or my electronic keyboard with automatic rhythms. Even a gross amateur can sound good with one of those. I'll never be a concert performer, but my own pleasure in this is marvelous. And I learned a lesson: don't let anyone convince you that you're too stupid or inept to do anything you really want to do. What do they know?
At any rate, I was a good student, so I didn't get held back to try fourth grade again. But some gaps in my education, from that year, are still there.
I didn't really like school. I was terrified when I had to enter a new one. Besides my difficulties in making friends, I was too shy to speak up. I was in agony hoping the teachers wouldn't call on me, so drymouthed and tongue-tied I could hardly respond when they did. Eventually a teacher asked me, "Why is it you never raise your hand, but you always know the answers when I call on you?" Red-faced, I admitted I couldn't talk in public. After that, he just called on me more often.
I began, a little, to get over the inability to speak in front of more than two people when, to my horror, I was elected president of our tenth-grade class. (It was the highest grade in the Drayton Plains school.) The only reason I could think of for the kids to have elected me was that I had a good relationship with our vice principal/class advisor, Lela Jeffries (the best teacher I ever had) and that she often agreed to my suggestions more readily than to those brought up by others. I suppose it was because I was considered to be "sensible." Thirty years later when I returned to Drayton and my friend Virginia called Lela to say, "You'll never guess who's standing in my kitchen," my beloved Miss Jeffries said without hesitation, "Willo." So maybe I had more going for me than I had recognized then.
At any rate, as class president I had to conduct meetings. The first ones were absolutely petrifying, to the point where I thought I'd throw up. Gradually, though, they became a little easier. I didn't know it yet, but I was learning another lesson: the more often you do anything, the better you get at it and the less frightening it is, though public speaking was a problem it took many years to conquer. Now I speak to many groups, hundreds of people at a time, as part of earning my living. And I love every minute of it.
By the time I got to high school as a junior, however, I went from a tiny friendly school to a huge impersonal one I had to reach by bus. Nobody knew me from Adam, nobody elected me to anything, and while I continued to get good grades, nobody noticed, either. I was lonely and at one point would have dropped out without finishing if my parents hadn't insisted I stick it out. (Daddy didn't have much education, but he believed in it for us.) The only teacher I really liked died that first year at Pontiac Senior High; the one I got in her place gave me the only C's I ever got in English, and accused me of plagiarizing the essays I wrote from professional writers! I never figured out how, after she'd been assured by some of the other kids that I really had written my own material, she could judge my work to be of professional quality yet only worth C's; since she made me write some things from scratch in class, she could see that I hadn't cheated. I resent her to this day. I stayed in school in spite of her, but there were others who didn't.
When adults assured me that these school days were the best ones of my life, I nearly despaired. It's possible, though, that if school hadn't been so miserable, and moving around so traumatic as it was, I wouldn't have spent nearly as much time writing.
Because once I started writing stories they became a refuge from the things that made me unhappy, lonely, left out. In my imagination I could be anything, anyone, go anywhere. I could live in a mansion, own more than one pair of shoes; have nice clothes, own books, and see every movie ever made. (Movies cost a dime, and dimes were very hard to come by.)
Summers were great, as long as we stayed at Northport. We and the DeWitt kids, three boys and a girl, ran loose and pretended ourselves into other ages and all kinds of exciting adventures. I made up plays, and we put them on for our own entertainment. We went whole summers virtually without taking baths. We didn't need them when we dressed in bathing suits in the morning and spent much of each day in the water. There was no television, of course, and we had no money for entertainment; we made our own. In those days nobody worried about bad people menacing their children; we often took a lunch with us after breakfast and disappeared in the woods or along the beach until hunger drove us home for supper. Life was lovely, until school started again.
The first thing we did as a family when we moved to a new place was to locate the library. We would never have survived without them. Most of them were wondrous places filled with books that could be had for the picking, at no cost, which was what we could afford. In several different libraries, our family checked out more books over the winter than any other family had ever done. In Kalamazoo, my sister Janice was, at eighteen months, the youngest child ever to hold a library card. This was because they only allowed each patron two books at a time, and none of the rest of us was willing to give up any of our books in order to provide her with the picture books she already loved.
I'll always remember the library at Suttons Bay the year I was eleven. It was very small and open for only two hours each Saturday afternoon. I lived about a mile and a half away, and I would walk there along the beach to be first in line when they unlocked the doors. I would then quickly check out two books, which was all that was permitted, race across to the beach and find a place in the shade, read the books, then dash back to the library to replace them with two others to last me until the following Saturday. What a treasure I found in libraries after that when we were allowed to bring a big cardboard box and fill it with as many books as we could carry!
By the time I was ten, I had read every juvenile book they had in the Northport and Traverse City libraries. I was well into Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys, still reading the "Oz" books to my little sister, and perishing for lack of reading material. That's undoubtedly why these days I splurge on books for my grandchildren, to make up for the ones I never had at their ages. Both my parents enjoyed murder mysteries, and in desperation I tried those, immediately falling under the spell of Erle Stanley Gardner, Mignon Eberhart, and others too numerous to mention. (One of my valued mementos is a delightful letter from Mrs. Eberhart that made me realize how much writers—the famous and the infamous, the good ones and the less talented ones—have in common.)
I was writing my own stories for two basic reasons at that point. They entertained me when I couldn't find enough books to read, and they took me out of the real world when other people around me made me feel inadequate and without worth. It's as appalling to me now as it was then how thoughtless and cruel others can sometimes be. Any number of adults made it clear that I and my family were little more than "trash," and I recall one woman in particular who hurt me deeply.
The summer we spent in Suttons Bay I had discovered a little white-frame church, with a crimson runner down the aisle. My family was not particularly religious, though Mother had taught me to say my prayers at night when I was very small, but I had always believed in God. This church answered a need for me. Not only did I have a momentary feeling of belonging during the Sunday services when I joined in singing those lovely old hymns but the church was a quiet place I could go any time to escape from the problems an eleven year old had. It was never locked, and during the week I usually had it to myself.
I had joined the Sunday school, and when they had their annual picnic my father gave up a paying party of fishermen (which he could ill afford to do) to take everybody out on free boat trips. The following Sunday, as I emerged from church, a woman in a big flowered hat stopped me on the steps outside to ask who I was. I told her my name, explained upon further questioning who my family was, and watched her expression congeal. "Your parents don't come to church?" she asked in a disapproving manner. I explained that my father's best business days were on the weekends, so he couldn't come to church (I had enough discretion not to mention that he had no regard for organized religion and wouldn't have come anyway), and it was too far for my mother to walk since Janice was little more than a baby.
She evaluated this, then allowed in a condescending manner that she supposed it was all right if I continued to attend.
I was young, but I knew I was being told, once again, that the Davises weren't really good enough to associate with. I never went back. And I hope I never made anyone else feel that they were inferior because they were poor or their family background wasn't "suitable."
My only satisfaction, slight though it was, came from watching a big spider descend on his strand of web into her elegantly coiffed hair as we stood there. I didn't mention it to her.
When I entered the ninth grade, we settled down in Drayton Plains, a few miles outside of Pontiac, where Daddy built another house. It was no more than a concrete slab, studs covered with waterproof paper for walls, and a roof when we moved in. This time we had electricity: dangling light bulbs with pull chains. There was no plumbing, then or ever, beyond a pump in the kitchen, where Joyce and I had to pump the water to be heated on a big copper boiler on a kerosene stove every wash day.
There was a war on now, and because of that we stayed there for four years. There were shortages of various things—tires, gas, shoes, sugar, etc., were rationed—but we didn't really suffer from it except that Joyce wore out her shoes so fast Mother used her own coupons for Joyce's shoes. I don't think Mother had a new pair through the entire war.
My father was too old to be drafted, and he had too many dependents. But now his job was essential: delivering buses and trucks for army use. He continued to go all over the country, meeting interesting people. That's the period when I first remember paperback books: he always brought a few home—murder mysteries, historical and adventure novels, anything he came across that caught his eye—and we read them eagerly.
By this time the house had three bedrooms and I had a room of my own. It was tiny, but private, and I cherished it. It wasn't anywhere near as nice as the homes of the friends I had now been able to make, though; there were few of them I ever invited inside, except for Virginia who lived across the road. Her house was no better than ours and had more people in it. She lives in Colorado now and is still my friend.
It was during one of those years that I practically dragged my mother into town and coerced her into buying a couch—a blue velour one that could be opened into a bed. Except for an old horsehair sofa with one end so high and sloping we slid down it, which I remember from the days at Home Acres, it was the first decent thing we'd ever had to sit on. Things like that didn't bother Daddy.
Now that I was staying in the same school, small enough so that I was making friends, I began to have problems at home. Joyce and I were quite different in temperament, and we clashed constantly. In our younger days, playing with paper dolls, we had squabbled over my realistic, teacherish ways (I often conducted "schools" and even made up the tiny textbooks for each paper pupil) and Joyce's more flamboyant flights of fancy in which the dolls flew through the air and sometimes attacked one another in a manner that left some of them in shreds. Paper dolls also cost a dime per book, and getting a new book was a rare treat, so I didn't want my dolls damaged.
We no longer played with paper dolls, but there was friction between us. It's easy to see now that she was simply jealous of me and suffering her own conviction of shortcomings, but at the time I was bewildered and hurt. I was very self-conscious about my developing figure—I'd always been skinny as a twig, to the point that administrators in new schools thought I must be tubercular and insisted on my being tested before they allowed me in their classrooms—and she teased me unmercifully about it. I had baby-sitting jobs, which gave me more opportunities to earn money than she had yet, and I saved my money until I had enough to buy the clothes I craved, while she blew every cent the moment she got it. She often slid into a chair just as I was about to sit on it; she would turn on the radio to something she didn't even want to hear just before I was to listen to I Love a Mystery or one of the other programs that lightened our lives in the days before TV. She "borrowed" my hard-earned clothes after I'd gone to school, especially a red corduroy jacket that had to be drycleaned—when I went to wear it, it would be soiled or ripped. Our relationship deteriorated to where we professed to hate each other.
Our teachers undoubtedly contributed to the discord between us. I got very good grades and never misbehaved—I was too timid to defy authority at that point
in my life—and the teachers kept asking Joyce why she didn't do as well as I did, why she wasn't quieter like me, etc. She wasn't, I think, because she chose not to compete with me, scholastically or any other way. It's a mistake some teachers still make, comparing one child to another. It rarely brings out the best in the child who feels he's being compared to his disadvantage, and his behavior often worsens as he tries for attention on a different level.
But the worst part of my slipping life was my relationship with my father. Up until the time I began to express opinions about serious subjects, we'd gotten along fine. It was the era of race riots in nearby Detroit, and for the first time I went to school with black kids. I sat next to them in class, and I came to like and admire some of them very much. When assigned to do a long essay on a subject of my choice, I decided to write on the race riots and the problems of black people. Not only did this happen to offend my racially biased English teacher, she of the C- grades, so that she gave me a very poor mark on what was essentially a well-thought-out and well-written essay, but when I talked about the subject at home, my father also took issue with my opinions on the matter.
This led to some real rows, and Daddy wasn't a person you wanted to have a row with. He was bigger, he was loud, and though he never struck me, there were times when I fully expected him to do so. (I was a lot luckier than he'd been; his father had used a horsewhip on him.)
Other relatives told me the reason my dad and I didn't get along was that we were too much alike. Well, we may have been alike in that we both held strong opinions, but we were very different from one another in many areas. I considered him to be bigoted and unnecessarily forceful, and it seemed that I couldn't make the most innocent remark without bringing the house down around my ears because he disagreed with whatever I said. If he hadn't been on the road, away from home a lot, or if I'd been a boy instead of a girl, I wonder if we might not have come to physical violence.
At the same time, in senior high school, two instances of what I considered to be extreme injustice came up. For the first time in my life, I stood up to adult authority. At home I usually ended up either backing down or at least shutting up before I set off Dad's fuse. This time I fought an insensitive vice principal for what I thought was right. On both issues in school, I won out, to my own and other students' amazement.
I was still timid and avoided a confrontation when I could, but a small worm of power and gratification had begun to form within me, too. I recently read a quote that perhaps describes what I was beginning to feel. Robert Frost made an observation about a guy who won't take his own side in a fight. I could see that if I didn't take my own side in my own fights, nobody else was likely to do it.
I knew I wasn't going to win any fights with Daddy, however. My best bet seemed to be to keep my mouth shut (except that I set him off, quite inadvertently, so many times, with such innocent observations!) and plan to leave home as quickly as I could.
I continued to write, because I was compelled to. Even when I had friends at last, and I was participating (though still somewhat of a loner) in the same activities as other kids my age, I never stopped needing to write. The world of my imagination was often more real, more important, than life as I was living it.
I had encountered my first typewriter when I was about eight, over a Christmas visit to my aunt Nellie's. All my cousins were outside trying out new sleds and skis, but that old fashioned clunker of a machine drew me irresistibly. One finger at a time, I plunked away at those keys, writing out a few sentences of an impromptu story. I didn't finish it, but I never forgot that typewriter, either. Never had I coveted anything as much as I did that old Underwood.
My cousins were baffled and urged me to join them. When I refused, too fascinated by the way the words appeared at my uncertain touch on that virgin piece of paper, it was my first experience—but far from the last—of being thought "weird" for preferring writing to doing more "normal" things.
My aunt Neva came to my defense, then and to this day; I could write if I wanted to, she told me, and it didn't matter what anyone else thought.
It did matter, of course, to a child who often felt sheer terror when approaching a new school, new people, classes I entered in midstream where I never fully understood what was going on. It mattered that others made unkind remarks—adults and kids alike—indicating there must be something inferior about a girl who was skinny, plain, and poor. My name was different: the kids teased me about that. And since my writing interests were also "odd" that, too, seemed to set me apart from everyone else. I was grateful for whatever crumb of support came my way, but in those days before I became a "famous author" there weren't many crumbs.
Today many schools have creative-writing programs. The students where I go to speak proudly show me their stories and their art work, often bound into lovely books. They win prizes and good grades with them, and praise. How we all need a little praise from time to time, and how often those around us fail to give it!
I learned that I was, almost always, the underdog. I learned to empathize with underdogs, and usually do to this day. Such people are everywhere, though they don't wear labels on their foreheads so you would notice them. They tend not to push themselves forward, not to create a fuss to win you over to their side. But oh! how lovely it is for them when anyone expresses understanding or sympathy. I often write from the viewpoint of the underdog because it comes so naturally. I've been there. Plain. Poor. Bright but too timid to claim any honors or recognition for that. Dreaming so many dreams, and all of them, it seemed unattainable.
Yet the dreams kept time going. On the long walks to and from school, I became someone else. I imagined a life in which I would have everything, do everything, be everything. Looking back now, I see that even my longings were pathetically simple. I didn't want much. A few friends who didn't put me down, a decent place to live.
My obsession with houses started far back, when I was very young, no doubt because I was aware that my own home was not as nice or as comfortable as those of other kids. I went to extraordinary lengths to see the insides of nice houses, so that I could dream more realistically. To this day, when we tour the country, we often visit historic houses, and they've become a rich source of story material. More than once I've wandered through a very old house and emerged with an idea for an entire book; it's as if the ideas seep out of the walls and the floors to meet me, as if the people who once lived there have left an essence of their lives that I am somehow able to absorb.
During my last year of high school I started writing a historical novel. (All of this was done with a pen that had to be dipped in ink every few words!) This was an ambitious undertaking, and it didn't take long for me to realize that it was more than I was capable of doing. However, the idea was a good one; I "lived" with those characters for many years, periodically dusting them off and trying again. Each time I got further along in the story, and each time I put it away again, seeing that I could not do it justice.
Eventually, more than thirty-five years later, my writing skills were sufficiently honed to enable me to do the job I had envisioned at seventeen; I wrote a proposal for a book called The Gallant Spirit, and redeveloped that original idea. By the time I had written eight
hundred pages, I was only halfway through the complete story I had envisioned, and I contacted the editor. Did he want me to end it there? Or should I do a second book with the last half of the story? He opted for the second book, which became Days of Valor. It is one of the most bitter disappointments of my life that the publisher sold their fiction list just as The Gallant Spirit was issued; the new publisher agreed to bring out the second book and said they would also reissue their own edition of Spirit, with a cover to match that of Valor. Almost the entire first printing of Spirit was destroyed in anticipation of this (without even giving me any warning so that I could buy a stock of the books myself) but they never followed through on it, though both books had excellent reviews. Those who found only Valor wondered about things that were fully explained only in the previous book. One of my strongest unfulfilled dreams is that one day these two books will be reprinted as "one big toothsome book," as my agent Emilie Jacobson puts it, so that those who were deprived of Spirit the first time around will have a second chance.
In a very real sense, books are a writer's children; we struggle with them, live inside the characters, or they within us; when they are discarded or mistreated, we feel it almost as deeply as when disasters happen to our flesh-and-blood loved ones. That is how it is with Spirit and Valor.
And this example shows why an aspiring writer should never throw away anything he's written: even if you can't write it well enough to get it published the first time the idea strikes, you may well reach a point where you can do it later on.
Up until I was nearly ready to graduate from high school, I wrote entirely for my own pleasure—though I did share some of my writings with friends who were impressed with them. When it dawned on me that there were people out there who got paid for writing the things I enjoyed reading, a little flicker of hope began to grow in my heart; maybe I, too, could earn money this way some day.
Also during that final period I spent at home, my father bought our first set of encyclopedias and an unabridged dictionary. I'd always had a love of words, and for a time he almost killed it with the dictionary because he drove the whole family crazy. He read it at random, and when he came across an intriguing word he'd say to the family at large, "I'll bet you can't guess what this means." It didn't matter that we were engrossed in other things, that we didn't want to figure out what his words meant. We had to try to come up with answers.
Gradually I learned about root meanings, and became intrigued myself, although I preferred doing my own explorations among words to being expected to "guess meanings" on demand. To this day I have a terrible time looking up words in the dictionary; it's not unusual for my eye to fall upon some unknown word that distracts me, so that I even forget what I was trying to look up in the first place. For that reason, I keep a small Webster's Instant Word Guide beside my computer to check spelling; it has no definitions to lure me away from the job at hand.
My parents were willing to buy me a typewriter for a graduation present, but at the end of World War II there were none to be had. Manufacturing had all been switched over to produce munitions and other goods needed to win the war. It wasn't until I'd been out of school for six months or so that my name reached the top of the waiting list for one of the first typewriters made in 1946. It was a Royal Portable, and I used it with great joy for over twenty years.
I started out trying to write short stories. I got lots of encouraging letters from editors, but I didn't sell anything. And then I met David Roberts.
I'd heard about him from his cousin and had seen his picture (too precious for words, was the way he struck me in the photograph, and too perfect, from his cousin's description of him), and I didn't think I'd like him. Nobody could be that perfect, and if he were, why would he be interested in me?
Yet the moment I saw him, all my reservations melted away. He was back in Michigan for one night, to visit his sister, before he headed for the West Coast, just discharged after three years in the navy. He wasn't the callow youth in the picture, nor the "perfect" cousin I'd heard described.
We've laughed about it many times, that we probably could have gotten married that very night and made it work. As it was, we weren't quite that foolish, or maybe it was only that he had a train to catch and we didn't have any time.
We wrote to each other almost every day from Christmastime until May, when David finally found a permanent job and sent me the money to travel to Oregon on the train. We'd met in person once, for a few hours, but we'd poured our hearts out on paper. My practice as a writer finally came to some good use!
We horrify people with the truthful statement that we never had a date before we were married. The events of our wedding day were wildly improbable, but we managed to be married in church—without guests—and while we would never recommend our methods to anyone else (especially not our kids!) we are still happily married forty years later, and we're still best friends.
Being married, and having four kids, cut into my writing time considerably. I did the best I could to write, but the time was frustratingly limited. When I finally got an automatic washer and dryer, and they came out with clothes that didn't have to be ironed, it helped quite a bit. But for most of the time the kids were growing
up, we lived on a dairy farm in the San Joaquin Valley in California, where there never seemed to be an end to the work to be done.
I hated central California. I would have enjoyed living on a ranch, because I always liked being outdoors, but dairying was a losing proposition. Many people have asked me why I've never written about that long phase in my life, and the answer is simple: until I can write about it with a sense of humor, I'd rather not write about it at all. And even many years later, I can't look back on it with much humor.
David put in fourteen-hour days, seven days a week. During the summers, when he was irrigating as well as milking up to 120 cows morning and night, he sometimes put in twenty-hour days, with only occasional fifteen-minute naps to keep him going. And this was when I really learned about poverty.
We barely kept our heads above water. Farmers are subject to catastrophes of nature to a large degree, and we were no exception. Operating on marginal financing to begin with, we slid deeper and deeper into debt while dealing with things like broken ditches that deprived our corn of water at a critical stage (resulting in far less feed than we needed for our cattle) to epidemics of blue bag. One morning David came into the house with his shoulders sagging. Most of the ranch houses were ratty places; ranchers put their money into barns instead, and this house was worse than most. Four more cows had died during the night. We needed to inoculate the others, and we didn't have the money to do it. Our herd was being decimated, and we felt so helpless. In addition to that, David had severely burned his right hand a few days earlier; the flesh looked gray and dead and made my stomach churn when I changed the dressings on it, and I was afraid it might never heal adequately. We tried to think of something encouraging to say to each other.
The best we could manage was what David said as he sank down in the little window seat that was the only pleasant thing this house had to offer: "Well, at least we can still enjoy the sunshine."
And at that exact moment, as if someone had thrown a switch, the sunlight went out, leaving us in near darkness.
After a few startled seconds, we started to laugh, though admittedly my own laughter was close to tears. Not even the sun could be counted upon, it seemed. It was one of the (many) low points during those years.
I came to resent the cows as well as California. Whenever there were a few dollars available, they had to be spent on cattle feed or medication. When our kids ran out of clothes or shoes—amazing how many shoes four kids need!—the only way to pay for them was to buy fewer groceries, and I felt I was already getting by on less than we needed. The kids, as adults, say they never felt deprived in any way and loved living on a ranch; so at least they weren't damaged by poverty, which I defined as being unable to afford the "necessities" of adequate food, clothing, shelter, and medical care. For years our family doctor got us through health emergencies, including tetanus injections for the whole family after a calf died with it; David was trying to give the poor thing a shot when it went into convulsions and he accidentally stabbed himself as well. There were plenty of emergencies, and we never had any money to pay the doctor or buy medicines. That doctor was one of the reasons we refused to declare bankruptcy at the end of our ranching days, and though it took us many years of being harassed by creditors and continued financial struggling, we did eventually pay the doctor and the others off.
What was among the hardest things to bear, though, was the heat. The morning the thermometer registered 107 at 7:30 in the morning, I wondered in despair if I'd live through the day. David drinks lots of water and has a good natural cooling system because he perspires heavily. I'm just the opposite; I have no ability to cope with heat, and in those days we had no air conditioning, not even a fan.
As I've learned is usually the case, something good comes out of most things, even the worst of circumstances, though I'd have been hard to sell on that idea at the time. I learned to experience and describe extreme heat, and I relive it yet when I write about it. The first June on what we came to call "the big ranch" outside of Oakdale we had twenty days when it went over one hundred degrees, and it didn't cool down much at night. Linoleum floors were so warm we stopped going barefoot in the house. The bathtub retained so much heat that I put a folded towel on the edge of it to sit on when I bathed the kids. The water came from a distant well in pipes barely under the ground, and I had to run their bath water well in advance and let it cool off before they could sit in it comfortably.
There were times when I felt as if I'd surely suffocate; the air was so hot and thick it was like trying to breathe cotton. I can remember wringing towels out of
the coolest water I could get and spreading them over me when I tried to sleep, in the hope that the evaporation would help. The towels dried within minutes, and the cooling power was gone.
The kids, luckily, didn't react to heat the way I did, though they often refused to go outside during the afternoons, complaining that it was too hot to play. And we lucked out with our neighbors across the road.
The Woodbridges had a chicken ranch as well as dairy cows, and they had kids about the ages of ours. They also had a swimming pool. I guess that swimming pool was about the only thing that saved my sanity in the years we lived on the big ranch, because every day they'd call us up and invite us to go swimming. After a while they said, "Just come on over whenever you want to," and if we didn't show up by 1:00 p.m. they'd call to find out why we hadn't arrived. All four of our kids learned to swim there, and even though we got heated up again walking the quarter of a mile home, it was several hours of respite from that devastating heat.
We had no money for entertainment of any kind. We say the kids were our only entertainment for years; they were funny and cute and precocious. Kathie, the oldest, was quiet and shy but very imaginative. She was only persuaded to go to school by the promise that she would then learn to read and could write down her own stories instead of just telling them. She came home in tears the first day because she didn't know how to read yet, but it didn't take her long.
David, two years younger, was also extremely bright and at the age of two had a vocabulary that made our neighbors raise their eyebrows in disbelief. Years later I came upon him in our utility room with the washer, dryer, freezers, and furnace, explaining to his two-month-old son, in adult terms, how they all worked. He was also the "problem" child in our brood, the one who got into trouble with astonishing frequency. He fell and broke his arm; pulled Kathie out of a tree and broke her arm; was bitten by a snake that we thought might have been a rattler; jumped sideways off the diving board and slashed open his chin so that it needed ten stitches; slid down a steep hill on a piece of cardboard and collided with his cousin, almost tearing one ear off his head, etc. He provided much material for my books later on. Interestingly, he now has a son who appears to be his clone.
Larrilyn, three years younger than Dave, was an absolute angel by comparison. I remember one time when our kids and their cousins had been naughty, and my sister-in-law said, "They all did it, even Larri!"It was one of the few things she ever did to upset us.
Christopher, the youngest, never did anything that I can recall that created any problems. He was sweet and solemn and quiet; he did get hurt a few times, or sick, and we worried about that, but his behavior never caused alarm. When he was three and wanted to go down to the pond where huge bull frogs could be caught, and I told him he couldn't go there alone, he fixed those big dark eyes on me and asked reasonably, "Well, where's all those angels that are supposed to be watching over me?"
Once in a while, when we could spare the money for the gasoline—it was about thirty cents a gallon then, but expensive to us—we would load kids (ours, and their friends the Fahlenkamps; we were always trading kids back and forth with them after church) in our Volkswagen van and with a picnic lunch head for the nearby Sierra foothills. We visited the gold rush country, which I would write about many years later in a number of different books.
We stayed in the dairy business for twelve years, which we wouldn't have done if we hadn't kept thinking things would surely get better soon. When it ended, leaving us deeply in debt, with a family to raise and nothing to do it with, it was more a relief to me than a disaster, though I felt badly for the end of my husband's dream.
The thing that did the most to keep me going was that I finally sold a book, an adult mystery called Murder at Grand Bay, for the munificent sum of $150, which was a lot of money to us then; it gave me hope that after all those years of submitting stories that were rejected I might be able to earn money for the family on a regular basis. I went out on the back forty and cried my eyes out when I realized that I had to go to work and help bring in money faster than the writing could yet do.
Yet that, too, disastrous as it seemed then (I was convinced I'd never have time to write again if I had to hold down a full time job as well as keep house) worked out for the best. I went to work at the Oakdale hospital, where they asked me if I was bothered by the sight of blood. I told them I had four kids, and two of them were boys, and I'd been in their emergency room with one of the boys many times, which got me over that hurdle.
It didn't pay much, but it bought groceries, and oh, what I learned. I loved it. True, I didn't write much for a time, but I was picking up so much that served as a basis for many books later on. I sold several more books, also adult mysteries written in pathetically brief moments—I was up to $350 advances now—and then I was introduced by the surgery staff to "nurse novels." I'd never heard of them, but after reading half a dozen I sat down and cranked one out, and sold it to Ace Books for $1,000. That was as much as I earned at the hospital in four months!
The acceptance came when I was recuperating from major surgery, and when I saw the envelope I thought it contained another rejection slip. But no, they wanted the book, though they said the little boy in the story was too precocious, and would I rewrite his dialogue so he sounded younger. This was an ongoing problem for some years. Usually I told the editors that precocious kids were the only kind I knew anything about, and mine did talk with vocabularies like these. When I eventually began to write children's books, the editors took my word for it and I've never had a complaint from the kids or their teachers regarding my child characters being too smart.
Earning my first "big money" as a writer was heady stuff. I could write nurse novels forever, with little effort, because of what I'd learned at the hospital. However, I had on hand three twenty-thousand-word novelettes I'd originally written as suspense novels for the old American Magazine; they hadn't sold, though I'd had nice encouraging letters from the editor there.
I pulled out those old scripts, expanded them to forty thousand words, changed the heroines to nurses, and sold them to Ace as fast as I could get them typed.
I thought I was on a roll. And then nurse novels died, as genre fiction sometimes does. Nobody wanted them. Nobody bought the last one I'd written.
So I suggested to my agent, who hadn't thought of it, that since it was a mystery about a nurse in an old house (it was a Gothic but I didn't know the word then) that we change the title to a suspenseful one, Return to Darkness. It was submitted with no change in text to Lancer Books, who bought the next twenty-two books I wrote. I was on my way.
Three times over the ensuing years I thought I'd reached a stage where I could make a living writing; three times I went back to work in doctors' offices, because I couldn't quite do it and we were still paying off ranch debts.
At one point early on a relative made the remark that I was wasting my time, that nobody had ever heard of me and nobody would buy anything from me. There was a time when such a remark might have crushed my spirit. Now it made me furiously indignant. Who was he to decide such a thing? I kept on writing, and it gave me great satisfaction when I reached a point where I was making as good a living with my writing as he did on his job.
I've since met hundreds of writers, and read about them, and I realize that many of them were discouraged by family and friends from doing the writing they longed to do. My feeling now is that nobody can make you feel incapable or inferior unless you allow them to do it. And never again did I allow anyone to convince me I couldn't succeed.
I was lucky that my husband, David, was always supportive. Without that, everything would have been so much harder. He also provided me with much of my material; our adventures together over the years gave me firsthand experience in situations I would have avoided at all costs, such as being caught in a rock slide (three-foot boulders bouncing off a cliff all round us while our car was trapped between some of them) and driving along cliffs where the road disappeared under a violent stream of water shooting out into space on the other side. He's a champion archer, so I learned about that; I often call on his expertise with firearms, and his memory and his camera provide me with details I couldn't retain on my own. He's a history buff, and has often been the one to find a reference to some obscure moment in time that's sent us on excursions to find out more than enough to turn the idea into a book.
Though I often put (precocious) children into my books, I never considered writing for children. When Larrilyn was planning for a big formal wedding, I got the idea for The View from the Cherry Tree, in which eleven-year-old Rob sees a murder committed next door when he escapes from his sister's wedding preparations by hiding in a tree. The book was based largely on things that really happened (exaggerated, naturally) and my kids said I should be ashamed to take money for the book because they provided all the material. It was wonderfully easy to write (it took twelve or thirteen days) because so much of it was true; it seemed I had only to sit at the typewriter and let it flow out through my fingertips. Nightmare is the only other book ever done as easily as that of the eighty titles I've sold.
Cherry Tree was intended as an adult suspense novel, but my editor at Doubleday's Crime Club, while saying she enjoyed it tremendously, felt it wasn't an adult book.
I was outraged. I dragged my feet for a full year when my agent suggested we try it as a juvenile. I wanted grown-ups to read it! Which shows how much I knew. It was the first of many books sold to Atheneum for kids, and to one of the top editors in the business, Jean Karl. A couple of years later, I was informed that it had become a classic, as had Don't Hurt Laurie! which followed it.
Jean nudged me gently for more, saying, "Children need good books too, you know."
I hadn't anticipated the non-monetary rewards of writing for kids, such as the volume of fan mail. Adults write to an author primarily to tell her what she did wrong. Kids write to you for that, too, but more often they tell you what they love about your books. Their letters are warm and funny and poignant and wonderful. I have at least a dozen in my files from kids ten to twelve years old with complete plots for sequels to The Girl with the Silver Eyes, and they're all perfectly viable.
I never had any trouble switching from adult to kids' books; I think in essence I've remained about eleven myself. I remember very clearly what I thought and felt at that age, how painfully shy I was, how I was intimidated by people and circumstances. Children are still vulnerable; they have little control over their lives and the adults around them are not always aware of nor responsive to their fears and problems. They feel inadequate, awkward, shy, frightened, and they still respond to encouragement and love. I know about those things. And the books are such fun to write! Not to mention what fun it is to win awards voted upon by my young readers.
I used to get some of my ideas from my own kids, who are all imaginative and creative themselves. They give me credit for contributing to that, because they say that I used to send them to bed because I was exhausted, and since they were not yet sleepy, they told stories to each other. Including, I found out years after the fact, ones about monsters under their beds and in their closets that kept the littler ones afraid to get out of bed at night. All four of them write now, and extremely well. And the third generation, our six grandchildren, is beginning to do so, too.
These days I get some neat things from the grandchildren. The episode in Baby Sitting Is a Dangerous Job where the little boy paints his sister really happened when my son neglected to put away a can of paint; our poor Sammy was blue for some time before the paint wore off. Some of the things the kids do don't get into books because I don't want to give other kids ideas their parents wouldn't appreciate, such as the one when Dave's children learned from TV how to make Green Slime with disastrous results. Maybe I could use that if I don't give the recipe.
In 1977 I signed contracts to write nine adult books. For years David and I had talked longingly of wanting to travel, to see distant places, to research historical novels on the spot. So I called him at work, where he was managing a building supply company, and told him my work would support us for a couple of years; why didn't he retire for that time, and we'd travel a bit? Within a few weeks, we were on our way to Alaska, a truly memorable trip where he took some of the pictures that now appear in the slide show we take around the country to schools.
We came home long enough to see my mother through cataract surgery, then took off again in a fifth-wheel trailer to research Destiny's Women in Georgia.
By this time David was submitting magazine articles about archery, hunting, RV traveling, etc. He learned that he had to have pictures in order to sell them, so he became a photographer, specializing in wildlife and the outdoors. To begin with, we thought his "retirement" would he temporary, but we found that we liked the life-style that was possible when neither of us had to report to a regular job. We're not quite as enthusiastic about the uncertainties of the writing income—too many editors/publishers seem to assume that we write for the fun of it and have other sources of income (untrue, in our case) so there's no necessity to pay us in a reasonable period of time.
But we love writing and we love traveling. I prefer not to write about places I haven't seen—there's so much margin for error and the natives will inform you of your mistakes and, particularly in writing historicals, there is often much information available only on the site.
After a Toklat grizzly bear tried to open up our trailer at 4:00 a.m. in Alaska, we switched to a motor-home, which we find much more comfortable. The one we have now is thirty-four feet long. It has a queen-size bed, a full bathroom with shower, a complete kitchen (with the dinette turned into office space for the computer that travels with us), couch and easy chairs, and a color TV and VCR we never get time to watch. It has become a part of our traveling "show" at schools where we put on our slide presentations.
We thoroughly enjoy meeting children who have read my books. They always want to know where the ideas come from.
Some, like Sugar Isn't Everything, come from real life. I, too, am diabetic, and when I learned there was nothing available for diabetic kids to learn about their condition, I wrote a fictional story about Amy's experience. I was not an abused child, but my father was, and I had several friends who were, also. Don't Hurt Laurie! came out of their experiences. The idea for What Could Go Wrong? came from a scary episode that happened to a nine-year-old great-nephew when he was flying alone. Many other stories were simply made up for fun.
For a long time I felt educationally deprived. There were no community colleges where I lived when I was young, and there was no money to go away to school. After I started writing adult mysteries I was able to attend police-science classes both in Modesto, California, and later in Eureka where we lived when I began to write for children. I became acquainted with many police officers in order to know about procedures they rely on, and now son Chris is a cop in Everett, Washington, so I sometimes call on him to assure accuracy.
After Kathie and then young Dave attended college, I began to think that perhaps I hadn't been so short-changed after all. Not that I minimize the value of higher education: I don't. I urge young people to get as much education as they can manage. But I would also say to those for whom college is not an option that they needn't despair over that. Learning can be done anywhere, through reading and through life's experiences. It's possible to have multiple degrees, for instance, and have no understanding of what other people go through, how they struggle just to survive and to cope with the mishaps life dishes out. Once I was at a conference where I was virtually the only one, of twenty-five authors, who didn't rattle off a string of degrees. It made me feel somewhat inferior until my wonderful husband pointed out that I had more published books to my credit than all of them put together.
Some authors advise youngsters to keep a daily journal as practice for becoming a professional writer some day. There is nothing wrong with this, if you can't think of anything more imaginative to write about. However, it was always more fun for me to make up something, to write stories that excited me. I do think it's very important to write regularly and to set priorities that allow this, if you ever want to be published. It's also essential to develop such a strong belief in what you want to do that you get thick-skinned about criticism of your dreams. Many creative people seem to have met strong resistance from family and friends in their attempts to be writers, or artists, musicians, actors, or dancers. Some parents and grandparents want their children to follow their own footsteps into professions or businesses that would stifle the joy of creating their own careers.
I was lucky that both my parents and my husband supported my desire to write in every possible way. They encouraged me when I got rejection slip after rejection slip, then exulted with me when I began to be successful.
My kids, who were not overly cooperative about helping me find time to write when they were younger, suddenly did an about-face the year that I got an unexpected eight thousand dollar check on the 14th of December. After years of homemade gifts (including certificates of services we would perform for one another, because no one had money for "boughten" presents) we had a glorious Christmas.
Our tree, harvested on the property of the doctor I was then working for, was fourteen feet high after it had been trimmed to fit into the parlor of the wonderful old Victorian house we had bought in Eureka. The kids got electric typewriters, bikes, stereos. My ailing father got a color TV with earplugs so that my mother didn't have to listen to his endless sporting events.
Overnight, my kids became serious writers. (Actually, Kathie had been since the age of six.) At thirteen, Chris made a bet with his brother Dave that he would be the first to see his work in print. Scoffing, Dave put up his money—and lost it. Chris wrote a letter to Sports Illustrated, and there was his name in print. David came
home one day and heard five typewriters going all over the house at the same time; he begged us not to synchronize them for fear our one-hundred-year-old house would come down around our ears.
Once I had sold a book, I forgot about writing short stories or articles, although recently I have sold medical articles about diabetes and Chronic Fatigue Syndrome. When I told Larri that I'd agreed to do a twenty-five-hundred word article for Parents Magazine, she stared at me in consternation. "Can you write anything that short?" she asked. It was hard work. It's much easier for me to write long.
I love writing. I love learning about many things, both from meeting other people and by traveling to places we've never seen before. So far our travel has been restricted to the United States and Canada, because we enjoy the motorhome so much. When we get too old to go that way, we'll try ships and planes to more distant places.
I know now that it's possible to overcome adverse circumstances, that it's important to a writer to know the sorrows as well as the joys of life, the downs as well as time ups.
I have few regrets about my life, none of any significance about things that I did do. Lack of courage kept me from doing some things that I had a chance to try. Like driving (I finally got a license when I was thirty-two) and dancing. I was too self-conscious to make the attempt, when a friend of the family offered to teach me to dance when I was twelve. I regret it still. I wish I'd discovered sooner that I could make music, at least for my own entertainment. I wish I'd gained the courage, sooner, to speak in public. I wish I hadn't wasted so much time on projects that weren't important, so I'd have written more by this time. I wish I'd been braver about defending people and ideas instead of being intimidated by someone who was only louder than I was, not more right-thinking.
Children often ask how long I'm going to keep on writing. My reply is that I hope to write until the day I die—hopefully many, many more books. I've already done so much that I never realistically believed I could do, back when I started.
And maybe—just maybe—one of these days I'll even take dancing lessons.
POSTSCRIPT: Willo Davis Roberts contributed the following update to SATA in 2004:
For seventy-six years, I have been one of the luckiest people in the world.
I didn't always know that. There were times when I felt positively unlucky. There were even times when I whined when things didn't go the way I wanted them to. My mother dealt with whining children by stating that she could not hear them, and therefore she ignored them. When feeling sorry for ourselves did not get my sisters and me any sympathy, we quickly turned to something more satisfying.
For me, what was fun and exciting and extremely gratifying was making up stories. Not very many people thought I could ever succeed in becoming a professional writer, able to earn a living from doing what I most loved to do. I might have been crushed when they told me that, and given up. But I was so determined that I kept right on writing, no matter what anyone else thought, until that first book sold in 1955.
Many young people write to me today to tell me that they want to create stories, too, except that they don't know how to come up with ideas. Many said their lives were so ordinary, and so dull, that they were convinced nobody would be interested in anything they had to say.
Gradually, over the years, it became clear to me that if a person didn't have a wonderfully exciting life to provide ideas, they could be made up, or they could be developed around the adversity that happens to everybody.
So I now suggest that they build stories around the difficult things that have happened in their lives.
During my entire childhood and teenage years, our family was poor. Of course part of that time was during the Great Depression, when practically everybody was poor. Many people didn't have jobs. I grew up in houses with no electricity except one dangling light bulb per room, and with no indoor plumbing. The things kids take for granted today—televisions, cell phones, microwaves—weren't even thought of yet.
Even if they had been available, the Davis family would not have been able to afford them.
After World War II, though, a lot of my friends weren't especially poor anymore. They had houses so much nicer than the ones I lived in that I felt ashamed to invite anyone over to visit. I wanted a nice house so badly I dreamed about houses for many years. Eventually houses inspired many of my stories. And eventually I realized that anyone who has any brains at all doesn't pick friends for the houses they live in.
I particularly enjoyed going through old historic houses, imagining who had lived in them, and what happened to them. Long after I'd grown up and was selling the stories I wrote, we bought a house in Eureka, California, that had been built in 1880. It was enormously tall, with fancy gingerbread trim: fourteen-foot ceilings downstairs, ten-foot ceilings upstairs, and an attic where my husband always said he was going to build an archery range, because there was plenty of room. The house had seven bedrooms and three bathrooms and double parlors and a dining room as well as a kitchen and a laundry room. Sometimes we heard footsteps overhead, only to discover later that there had been no one home up there at the time. Strangers asked us if we had ghosts. We never saw any, but there were those mysterious footsteps.
It had been a neglected house for many years, which was the only reason we could afford it. The sole heat in this 7,000 square foot house was a floor furnace between the parlors. It did have two fireplaces—too old to be safe to use—but they were only large enough to have burned a gallon milk carton. My husband David installed two forced air furnaces—the one under the ground floor had twenty-three outlets—and one in the attic for the second floor. I wondered how people had lived in the house for almost a hundred years with no more heat than that. It was a seaside town where the climate was cool enough that I frequently wore a goose-down jacket to walk the dog in the evenings. I'll bet our predecessors wore sweaters and long underwear most of the time. Maybe even mittens.
Once a reporter came to interview and photograph me and the house after I'd just written one of the five books I eventually set there. Two of them were The View from the Cherry Tree and The Pet-Sitting Peril. After the picture came out I got a letter from a lady whose grandparents had lived there when she was a little girl. She told me that at the top of the stairs, which was a small open room, her grandparents had kept all of their pets. They had been sent to a taxidermist after they died, and preserved as if they were still alive. They had dogs, and cats, and birds. For a long time, the little girl believed that when she died, she, too, would be stuffed and put on display there.
We lived in the house for only five years, so we didn't get to do all the things we wanted to do to it. We loved living there. We installed lovely red velvety carpeting in the twin parlors. I had fewer dreams about houses now that we had this one.
When he was in his early teens our Chris used to paint elaborately detailed historical battle scenes on "canvases" he improvised by putting the largest pieces of paper he could find together with scotch tape. His was the only room I had painted yet, when the kids came running to tell me that "Daddy just fell through the ceiling in Chris's room." Daddy had been in the attic, pulling out old, unsafe wiring, when he slipped off the timbers. The area had burned at one time, and all the charred bits and dust and dirt fell through onto Chris's bed. Eventually I had to repaint the ceiling before I went on to the rest of the house.
By this time, with four kids and a marvelous old house, things were seldom dull.
But when I was a child I didn't really appreciate my life. Besides being poor, and doing without things many other families had, we moved. And moved. And moved. Once we only lived in a house for only two weeks before it was sold out from under us so that we moved yet again.
One summer we lived in a chicken coop. Two summers we lived in tents. A skunk got under one of them and had to be coaxed out without doing any smelly damage. Later, one of his relatives got into the tent where I was sleeping with some neighbor kids. It wasn't hostile until a dog came in with us, and scared the skunk so it ruined everything we had in there. That included a pretty dress I had just gotten from my grandmother for my twelfth birthday. I had worn it only once, and no matter what we did with it, we couldn't get the odor out of the dress and I was never able to wear it again. This was a tragedy, because new dresses didn't come my way very often.
One summer, while the family lived in a primitive cabin with no plumbing or electricity, my sister Joyce and I slept in what had been a woodshed. There was no bathroom, so we never had a bath all summer. But it didn't matter, because we lived on the shore of Grand Traverse Bay, which had wonderful white sand beaches. When we got up in the morning, we put on our bathing suits, and spent all day in and out of the water. The sand scoured our bare feet so that all we had to do was brush it off before we crawled into bed.
Those summers were a lot of my lucky times. We had no responsibilities, no worries, and while we were at the fishing camp where my dad ran his sport trolling boat, I had friends. I made up plays, and we all put them on for our own entertainment. I directed, of course.
Looking back, I'm amazed that so much of the joy of my childhood was packed into such short periods of time, about five months of each year for five years. The same kids came back to camp each year, and we always took up where we'd left off: roaming the woods and the beaches, in a day when it wasn't dangerous to be by ourselves. When I didn't have companionship, I was content with telling myself stories as I walked for miles along the edge of the bay. And yes, I spoke the dialogue out loud.
However, except for those summers between the ages of eight and twelve, I was very lonely. I don't think it's coincidence that it was when I was nine years old, the year I was enrolled in six different fourth grades, that I started to write down my stories.
My only friends apart from those months during the summers were the characters I created in my own head. We had no money to buy anything to read; if I wasn't where I had access to libraries, life was totally miserable. And in those days there were only a limited number of books written for kids, so that by the age of ten I had exhausted them all and I began to read mysteries and historical novels for adults.
But already I had one of the greatest gifts I could ever have asked for. I had imagination beyond the ordinary.
I have read that virtually all children are naturally imaginative. Unfortunately, by the time they start school, much of that wonder has been shamed/punished out of them by parents who consider this "lying" rather than being creative. One of our grandsons, at the age of three, would tell us that whatever naughtiness he was involved in was done by "Babby," his imaginary playmate. We all recognized that he was making up the companion and hoping to slide out of responsibility. This was handled so that he knew we were not excusing unacceptable behavior, but nobody branded him a liar and insisted he give up Babby. When life provided companionship, Babby faded away on his own, just as my "Bobby" had done when I was that age. It is sad that parents cannot accept this helpful, not harmful, way of enabling lonely children to cope.
When I encountered people who felt compelled to point out that my family was "poor white trash," I escaped into my private world of fiction, where I could be anybody, go anywhere, have any wonderful adventure I liked.
Many of the things I experienced during those early years were not fun. But they were all learning experiences. How else would I have learned to write about a child who was lonely? Friendless? Scared? Angry and impotent in the face of injustice?
How else could I now write about kids with so many needs, and so little control over their own lives? How could I get inside the hearts and minds of today's children who struggle with the same problems as I did then? First I had to experience those things myself, and by knowing how much they hurt, I can connect with other people who also suffer.
Over the years, I have written about children who had to land in an airport where they were not supposed to be, because of a bomb threat on their plane. That came out of an experience our nine-year-old nephew had, when traveling alone. (What Could Go Wrong?)
When I was diagnosed with diabetes, the instructors at the hospital begged me to write a book to help diabetic kids understand what was happening to them, and how to cope with it. That was Sugar Isn't Everything. It was an example of making lemonade when someone has handed you a lemon.
There are plenty of lemons in every life. If you've been burglarized (yes, it happened to us, and it was a distressing experience) it's easy to describe how someone feels about this. If someone you love has died, it readily works into a story. Most kids love pets, and many things that happen to them could induce a character to do something dangerous to rescue a pet that children would never think of doing on their own behalf.
Many of the things I've written about, in an imaginary story, were based on real things that happened that frightened me. I'm not a very brave person, but I try to think of reasons why my characters would be brave enough to take chances—to save a friend or a dog, for instance.
I like to write about ordinary kids caught up in extraordinary circumstances. Such as in Buddy Is a Stupid Name For a Girl, when Buddy has to go stay with a family of dysfunctional relatives when her father disappears. Lots of families have dysfunctional relatives. If you put them into a story, be sure to change their names so they won't recognize themselves. Actually, if I write about an obnoxious person under a different name, it's amazing how few of them do detect their own unfortunate attributes.
The real thing that happened before Buddy was written was that my husband broke an axle on the rear trailer of the eighteen-wheeler he was driving, and it threw him and the truck over a 400 foot cliff. He survived, and another seed was planted in my mind to use years later.
Many of the most unlikely things in my books are based on events that actually happened. Over the years my kids and grandkids have provided me with many things to write about. I did not always appreciate those behaviors at the time.
When my older son repeatedly did things that damaged either himself or his siblings, which resulted in multiple trips to the Emergency Room, I hardly appreciated him at all. Once when young Dave had provoked me greatly (he was about nine at the time) I told him I hoped when he grew up he would have a kid just like him. Interestingly enough, he did. The little sister Saul painted blue, an incident that appeared in Baby Sitting Is a Dangerous Job, now is the mother of our great-granddaughters, Ashley and Willow. At three, Ashley, is already showing great promise as future inspiration.
I have written about kids who ran away to escape what they saw as impossible situations at home (Caught!, To Grandmother's House We Go). I've written about a child abused by her mother (Don't Hurt Laurie!) Both my grandparents were so abusive that Daddy ran away at the age of thirteen and did not see either of them again until he was twenty. I've always regretted that it did not occur to me to question those grandparents as to whether or not they were both abused themselves, as I suspect was the case.
I've written about a little boy who desperately wants a family of his own (Eddie and the Fairy Godpuppy) and a girl who has lost her own family who hopes for a caring foster mother (Pawns) because I've seen so many children who do not have loving and caring parents. Sometimes the only way these young readers can find hope is through a story.
During the years that we lived in scrape-the-bottomof-the-barrel poverty, when there was no money for entertainment, our humor and perspective were maintained by our kids. We had four of them: Kathie, David, Larrilyn, and Christopher. They were all exceptionally bright, and they were funny. Oh, were they ever funny! Larri's interpretations of the movies she saw on TV (Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde) often had us collapsing on the floor in laughter.
It gave me a lot of insight into how easily children can misunderstand what they hear. Sometimes they are unnecessarily frightened by what they misinterpret. Plenty of story material there.
So, ultimately, my children were a major part of my tremendous good fortune. As adults, they have all become wonderful people and good friends. There are many families in which this is not true, and I feel greatly blessed in this gift.
And, equally on a par with them, my husband has been beyond simple good luck.
I met David Roberts on the one night he spent in Grand Marais, Michigan, when he was on his way to the West Coast after being discharged from the U.S. Navy in 1948. It was love at first sight, and we will have been married fifty-five years in May of 2004. When the time comes that you are considering a marriage partner, be sure to pick someone who loves to read as much as you do and makes you laugh and is fun!
I have already stated that I am not a particularly brave person. In fact, I have moments of abject cowardice. Not so my husband. He completely counterbalances my timidity.
David has been responsible for many adventures I never would have had without him. This includes the jams his adventurous spirit has gotten us into; so far he's also managed to get us out of all of them. And when I write myself into a corner, where I have cut off all avenues of escape for my hero or heroine, he helps come up with something creative to save them from the villains.
I have described the experience of being caught in a rock slide on Highway 101 in California, with 300-foot-cliffs rising on one side, and a 400-foot plunge into a canyon on the other. We could easily have been killed. Again, in the Fraser River Canyon in British Columbia, only David's quick reactions saved us and five other people from death in a head-on crash with a careless driver. There have been many close calls in traffic in the 600,000 miles we've driven together, and we're appreciative of the years of experience David had before that, driving trucks.
When I describe breaking down in the desert, you can be certain I have been through it. Or meeting another vehicle on a narrow mountain road that is only wide enough for one, and where there is no guardrail. I learned what it's like to be threatened by a forest fire that has turned the sky red and is dropping bits of burning debris around us, choking us with smoke.
One of our "favorite" horror stories happened when we started out on a speaking tour which was to cover three Midwestern states over a period of a little more than a month. We had allowed plenty of time to get to our first date, but we only got 135 miles from home when we broke an axle on the motorhome.
We were dead in the water. We were thankful for a cell phone, to call for help. We were on a busy freeway, with barely room to pull off the pavement, and no room to get out without risking our lives. The tow truck that responded had to call for the police, who came in two cars to make sure we could be moved off the shoulder, on a narrow bridge, without that seventy-m.p.h. traffic running over us.
We sat in Ellensburg, Washington, for five precious days, trying to get a replacement axle. The nearest one was in Chicago. It had to be airlifted to us, and our mechanic and his helper worked all night to put it on. By the time we could move, we had despaired of making it to Duluth, Minnesota, for the presentation scheduled there.
I do not drive the coach. We would not have trusted just anybody else to do it, either, unless they were accustomed to driving trucks or buses. We hired a friend who had driven big rigs in the Army, and he and my husband took turns driving 1,600 miles in thirty-two hours, stopping only to refuel.
To add to our time pressures, we hit a genuine blizzard going across North Dakota during the final night. We knew if we stopped, we would never get started again, and that we had no slack in our schedule at all. In ten inches of snow on the road, over ice, we followed the taillights of a bus that helped us to know we were still on the road we could not really see.
We made it to Duluth with barely time for me to take a shower before I had to be on stage to give my slide show/lecture presentation.
Our schedule was set up so that we had just time enough to get from one town to the next, and if we missed a date, there was no time to reschedule. I was speaking virtually every day. And of course if I didn't get there on time, I would not get paid, and we'd already spent our own money to reach each of these places.
In one city in Indiana, we spoke to kids in two neighboring schools, a total of 2,300 middle-school students. Each of them had a copy of either The Absolutely True Story or Megan's Island, both Edgar winners. I autographed every copy, the most I've ever done in one stopover. Yes, my hand and arm were painful!
To many people, touring schools sounds exciting and rather glamorous. When we get home, people ask, "Did you have a nice vacation?" They have no idea how hard we've worked, and how many obstacles we've encountered just trying to get to the right place on time. Bad weather is one of the hazards, when the freeways are closed because of snow or ice, when bridges are washed out, when our maps are useless because every road is under construction and we don't know where to go, when detours send us miles out of our way and we have not allowed enough extra time for this.
We've also had two major tours when I continued to lecture when I was so sick I would hardly have been able to stand up if I hadn't had a podium to hang onto. Once, near the beginning of the Indiana part of fifteen engagements, I had to have a wheelchair to get out of the auditorium. That was scary, because I wasn't sure I would get better before the rest of them. For a few months I had to wonder if I would ever get better. That made me think about how it must be for those with disabilities from which they have no hope of recovery.
But the rewards are endless. Most of the time I'm speaking to 200 to 600 kids at a time. A few times I've talked to about twenty-five kids at an isolated school where they've never had an author visit before. Those are the exciting ones, talking to boys and girls who never dreamed that an ordinary person could write books, and it gives them the courage to try things for themselves that other people don't believe they can do. I'm proof that miracles are possible.
Everyone should be able to live in expectation of a miracle on one level or another. I never dreamed, as an underprivileged teenager, that I would ever have the life that has been so exciting and so rewarding.
A large part of this, of course, relates to enough success in writing so that for many years I have not had to do anything else to earn a living. The other major factor has been my relationships with people.
Most of those were very good relationships. My mother, Lealah Davis, was a wonderful person. She always supported whatever I wanted to do, cheered me on when great things happened, was proud of my accomplishments and supportive through the tough times. I remember once when I'd written her a letter detailing all the reasons why I'd been too depressed to write to her, and she said, "The Lord must love you a lot, because He chastens those who are His own." It's hard to think of that in such a light when there are so many needs that seem not to be met, when it can be touch and go with despair when no solutions can be found. Yet without faith that eventually everything will work out, most of us wouldn't have the courage to hang in there and keep trying.
My father, Clayton "Bill" Davis, was a better parent than he might have been, considering that he did not have a good example in his own early life. By any standard, he would have been considered abused. Many abusing parents go on to mistreat their own children in turn. Dad never did that, but he was an opinionated man, with deep-set prejudices. By the time I was fourteen, I had begun to form strong opinions of my own, and we clashed about quite a few things. He expected everyone to leap into action the moment he gave an order, and I had a tendency to want to stop and explain why (I was articulate at a very early age, say from the time I was two) I did not want or feel it necessary to follow his explicit orders.
That made for uncomfortable conflict. I suspect that if he had not been traveling much of the time, we could not have lived in the same household. I left home as soon as I could manage it, right after I graduated from high school. That probably saved either my life or his.
My tendency to have my own ideas about how to do things has carried over into my writing. When an editor has occasionally questioned a character or an incident in a story as "unnecessary," and ask me to delete it, I have instead successfully written more fully about the matter so that the editor accepted it after all. Cutting truly unnecessary words is frequently essential to a tightly-written story, but reducing the word count on anything is one of the hardest things for me to do. It's much easier to enhance the original words with additional ones than to take anything out.
The one thing Dad and I did have in common was a love of books and words. He never finished the eighth grade, and his own reading had been curtailed up to then because his father believed it was a waste of time. I suspect that Daddy read for the same reason I did: not only to be entertained, but to escape from a world that was increasingly painful around him as a boy. He did not write, but he was a storyteller. Many of his stories were true experiences, and he loved relating them to everyone around him. As a teenager I resented the fact that he monopolized most conversations. It was not until other people began to comment on how fascinating he was that it occurred to me that they saw him differently than I did.
He educated himself, reading everything from mysteries to cereal boxes. And when I finally began to sell what I wrote, he was very proud of me and bragged about my success even when it was so marginal that it hardly made a blip on the screen of life.
In his later years, when because of health problems he had to retire and then lived with us until he died, he could no longer be the aggressive person who had annoyed me so much in the past. Getting angry meant he had chest pain. He learned to tamp down on his temper because losing it meant risking his life. Oddly enough, though it made the household less volatile, it also made me sad. He was a pathetic man during the last few years, unable to handle even the simpler problems in his life, and he was afraid of what was to come. I tried to convey to him my own faith in what was ahead, but he resisted almost to the final hour. I have often regretted that I could not persuade him to my own beliefs that would surely have given him peace much sooner than it came.
I had to wait until my father died, and then my mother as well, nearly thirty years later, to write The Caregiver. It deals with a man shaped by factors he does not know how to control, and his daughter caught in painful circumstances which make it impossible for her to forgive him.
One of the things that affected my own life strongly was learning that harboring resentment and dislike harms only the one who cannot forgive, not the one who inflicted the pain in the first place. Writing about the people who were difficult during my lifetime has enabled me to achieve understanding of why they were the way they were. One thing beginning writers sometimes overlook is the fact that the villains as well as the heroes need plausible motivations. Once, in Act of Fear, I had intended one character to be a murderer. However, the more I wrote about his background, the more justification I gave him, and eventually I had to create a different villain because I liked this young man so much!
For twenty-five years we traveled the U.S. and Canada in motorhomes, speaking in schools and libraries and doing research for my books. Along the way we
had many adventures that I'd just as soon have skipped—they were often very frightening—but they all have made fodder for stories with at least a thread of truth to them.
Breaking down mechanically, or being caught in blizzards when freeways had to be closed, or having hail break out our skylights and make the road impassible, were some of the "lucky" but ultimately useable things that have happened to us. Each of them makes us wiser and stronger. Even things that at first seem catastrophic can be used for good.
How can you relate to someone else who is struggling if you have never learned to struggle yourself?
Life is a journey. It is said that we are just about as happy as we decide to be. Even when we cannot control our circumstances, we can control our own attitudes, and that can make all the difference in the world as to how we lead our lives.
A thing as small as a smile can reach out positively to other people. Try it, and see how many others will smile back at you.
And believe in yourself. You are the only one qualified to determine how happy—and how successful—you can be.
Brief BiographiesBiographies: Dudley Randall Biography - A Poet from an Early Age to Ferrol Sams Jr BiographyWillo Davis Roberts (1928-) - Personal, Addresses, Career, Member, Honors Awards, Writings, Work in Progress, Sidelights, Autobiography Feature