James (W.) Bennett (1942-)
Personal, Addresses, Career, Honors Awards, Writings, Work in Progress, Sidelights, Autobiography Feature
Born 1942; Education: Illinois Wesleyan University, B.A., 1964; Illinois State University, M.A., 1966. Hobbies and other interests: Mythology, photography.
Agent—c/o Author Mail, Holiday House, 425 Madison Avenue, New York, NY, 10017.
Writer. Worked as a teacher of creative writing at a community college until 1976; aide to high school-aged, mentally handicapped students, Bloomington, IL, 1983-95. Writer-in-residence for Illinois secondary schools.
1995's Finest YA Novel designation, Voice of Youth Advocates, 1996, for The Squared Circle.
FOR YOUNG ADULTS
I Can Hear the Mourning Dove, Houghton (Boston, MA), 1990.
Dakota Dream, Scholastic (New York, NY), 1994.
The Squared Circle, Scholastic (New York, NY), 1995.
Blue Star Rapture, Simon & Schuster (New York, NY), 1998.
Plunking Reggie Jackson, Simon & Schuster (New York, NY), 2001.
Faith Wish, Holiday House (New York, NY), 2003.
A Quiet Desperation, Nelson (Nashville, TN), 1983.
The Flex of the Thumb, Pin Oak Press (Springfield, IL), 1996.
(With Donald Raycraft) Old Hoss, McFarland, 2002.
Harvey Porter Does Dallas, PublishAmerica, 2004.
(With Charles Merrill Smith) How the Bible Was Built Eerdman's (Grand Rapids, MI), 2004.
Fresh Killed and Grounded Out, novels for young adults.
Writer James Bennett draws heavily on personal experience in his novels for young adult readers. His high school-aged protagonists are often emotionally or intellectually confused individuals unable to summon the emotional strength to deal with the circumstances that confront them in school, at home, and in other social situations. Only the caring, compassionate support of others can provide Bennett's characters with a resilient lifeline to adulthood. Many of Bennett's novels have the theme of the individual set against the institution; Bennett theorizes that everyone has feelings of rebellion against institutional wounds. "I think any book that I have written would take any reader on a trip to answer these questions: 'Who am I within this framework? How do I define myself? How do I establish integrity but know the difference between just rebelling for its own sake and rebelling based on some imperative?', " Bennett explained to Jon Saari in an interview with Authors and Artists for Young Adults (AAYA). Some of Bennett's books also deal with mental illness. "I would like my readers to recognize that the handicapped are not throw-away people," Bennett told Publishers Weekly interviewer Lynda Brill Comerford. "Within them lies enormous courage and a strong nourishing drive."
Bennett enjoyed journalism since he was fourteen and created his own newspaper, but it was not until his junior year at college that he had his first thoughts of becoming a writer. Subsequent graduate studies in English at Illinois State University led Bennett to a career teaching creative writing to community college students. In 1974, however, Bennett suffered an emotional breakdown; during his recovery in a psychiatric hospital, he began to view writing as a way of expressing his feelings and promoting an increased awareness of the plight of many who are challenged by mental and emotional disorders.
During the period of his own hospitalization in the late 1970s, Bennett was particularly troubled by the acquaintance of a young woman, a fellow patient who was notably emotionally withdrawn. I Can Hear the Mourning Dove, his first novel for young adults, is based on his impressions of that young woman. "I knew nothing about the girl's background or diagnosis," Bennett explained to Comerford. "She was difficult to approach, but I realized that it was worth the effort to get through her shy exterior and discover the human being inside." In addition to recreating the young patient's speech and mannerisms—both on and off medication—in his novel, Bennett had to do some extensive research into the world of female adolescents to realistically portray his young heroine. Three years of effort culminated in Bennett's first highly praised work for young adults. Published in 1990, I Can Hear the Mourning Dove is the story of Grace Braun, a "crazy wild" sixteen-year-old attempting to return to the outside world after spending several weeks in the supportive environment of a hospital psychiatric unit following her most recent unsuccessful attempt at suicide. This was not Grace's first stay in a psychiatric ward: she had suffered from periods of depression for many years. The recent death of her father and the stressful transition to a new school add to the young woman's difficulties in readjusting to "normal" teen life after her release; unfortunately, it takes only the hateful actions of a group of rowdy, uncaring teens to send her back to the hospital in a highly depressed, manic state. Fortunately, Grace's condition improves with the help of her psychiatrist, her mother, and Luke Wolf, a brash and angry teen hospitalized in police custody after he knowingly killed a paralyzed friend. "Few novels written for teenagers have dared to probe as deeply into mental illness" as I Can Hear the Mourning Dove, according to Stephanie Zvirin, who praised Bennett's novel in Booklist. "With tenderness and remarkable insight, Bennett identifies the causes and effects of Grace's suffering," noted a Publishers Weekly reviewer.
In Bennett's second young adult novel Dakota Dream, teen protagonist Floyd Rayfield has replaced his early childhood memories of his natural mother and father with those of a long sequence of foster families and group homes. With a desperate need to belong somewhere, fifteen-year-old Floyd creates an internal sense of being a part of something by convincing himself that he is really a misplaced Dakota Indian; his main goal now becomes escaping the foster care system and joining "his people." Stealing a motorcycle, the young man makes an eight-hundred-mile journey to the Dakota tribe's Pine Ridge Reservation, where a vision quest taken with Chief Bear-in-cave and the active intervention of a naive but compassionate social worker help him to understand the real reasons for his fight against inflexible teachers and insensitive social workers. A Kirkus Reviews critic praised Dakota Dream, writing that the "dynamics between a thoughtful boy struggling to keep his unique spark alive and the oblivious public employees doing their best to quench it are poignantly realized." Deborah Stevenson of the Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books maintained that "this is a measured, serious story and Floyd, not your stereotypical problem kid, is admirable in his devotion and application." Voice of Youth Advocates contributor Shirley Carmony added: "Floyd is finely drawn and comes painfully alive for the reader."
Like Bennett's other novels, 1995's The Squared Circle features a teen struggling to deal with a series of emotional problems. This time, though, Sonny Youngblood must also try to cope with his mother's mental breakdown as she spirals toward hospitalization. Basketball provides the eighteen-year-old high school senior with an escape, and when his obsession with the game helps him to earn a sports scholarship to a university, it appears that he is on the verge of burying his troubles for good. Sonny's presence has an immediate impact on the team's success, as it moves up in the national rankings while Sonny himself emerges as a media celebrity. But not all is right with this picture; Sonny learns that there are strings attached to big-time college sports. He has already realized that campus fraternity life makes some unpleasant social demands through its ingrained hazing and racism, and his game has been affected by lethargy. In a dramatic scene that shows Sonny's emerging understanding of previously invisible forces, he challenges his uncle about the under-the-table payoffs. Then, in what appears to be a deliberate act, Sonny cuts the fingers off his right hand while chopping wood for an art class. "Interwoven around gritty, occasionally brutish, guys-only scenes of fraternity hazing, basketball team practice and tension-filled games is an acutely perceptive account of a young man's emotional and intellectual awakening," asserted a Publishers Weekly reviewer. Calling the novel "a sobering read," Tom S. Hurlburt recommended in a School Library Journal review that The Squared Circle "should be thrust into the hands of any high school students who are contemplating playing revenue-producing sports" at large colleges or universities. "It is difficult to adequately describe the power of this book," exclaimed Dorothy M. Broderick in Voice of Youth Advocates. "It is a masterpiece." The Squared Circle was named "America's finest YA novel" for 1995 in Voice of Youth Advocates.
Blue Star Rapture, Bennett's second book on the corruption of college sports, takes place at a basketball camp, where Tyrone, a six-foot, nine-inch high schooler, is attracting the attention of the college scouts. The novel's narrator, T. J., is Tyrone's best friend, and the street agents (men who receive illegal payments for influencing high school players to sign with college teams) reason one way to Tyrone is through T. J. Meanwhile T. J. has befriended a girl at a nearby Bible camp who commits suicide, a plot development that permits Bennett to draw a parallel between religious fanaticism and college recruiting methods, as both use undue pressure tactics.
In Faith Wish, Bennett's main character is Anne-Marie, a popular teenage girl who is struggling to pass her classes her senior year. When she encounters the charasmatic evangelist, Brother Jackson, she is swept up in her new-found faith and her interest in the spiritual leader himself. The first time they are alone, Brother Jackson takes advantage of her and seduces her. At the same time that Anne-Marie discovers she has failed her senior year and will not be allowed to graduate, she also finds out that she is pregnant with Brother Jackson's baby. Instead of attending summer school in order to finish high school, she allows Brother Jackson to take her to an isolated girls' camp, where Anne-Marie tries to find God and herself. "This tale raises provocative questions about religious conviction and religious cults, blind faith and obsessive infatuation," wrote a reviewer for Publishers Weekly. Joel Shoemaker in School Library Journal also noted, "The book clearly communicates that religion can serve as a haven for evildoers and that vulnerable people can be harmed by religious people who take advantage."
The Flex of the Thumb, a baseball novel for adults, allowed Bennett to collaborate with his son, Jason, although not on the writing process. Jason, at the time twenty-three, published the book himself, setting the type and printing 10,000 copies. Jason marketed the book to libraries and bookstores on his own as well. "It helps me that dad has a good reputation as a writer," Jason told James Keeran of the Pantagraph. The Flex of the Thumb is an adult novel and the story of high school pitcher Vano Lucas who gets hit with a baseball bat between the eyes. The event changes his whole career, and when he goes to college, his focus is no longer on competetive sports; instead, he focuses on more contemplative arts. Bennett told Keeran that he'd written the novel five times over a span of twenty-five years. "It was the manuscript that was always lying around," he explained. "When I wasn't embroiled in something else, I went back to it." Bennett's other adult novels include 1983 title A Quiet Desperation and his satiric comedy Harvey Porter Does Dallas, a novel about a young man searching for his past.
Today, Bennett visits secondary schools to talk about writing and help students along the path to be writers. "I like to tell the students I was an underachiever. There are always kids who need to hear that," Bennett told Saari in AAYA, continuing, "I do like to be up front with them with the fact that I was not an outstanding student when I was young. I did not achieve a lot as a teenager. I did not mature until later. Teachers like to hear that too. I like to work with basic kids as well as honors kids."
Biographical and Critical Sources
Authors and Artists for Young Adults, vol. 26, Gale (Detroit, MI), 1999.
Booklist, January 15, 1991, Stephanie Zvirin, review of I Can Hear the Mourning Dove, p. 1052; January 15, 1994, Jeanne Triner, review of Dakota Dream, p. 918; December 15, 1995, Susan Dove Lempke, review of The Squared Circle, p. 697.
Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books, February, 1994, Deborah Stevenson, review of Dakota Dream, p. 182.
Kirkus Reviews, February 1, 1994, p. 138; November 1, 1995.
Kliatt, July, 2002, Barbara Jo McKee, review of The Squared Circle, p. 15.
Pantagraph, August 28, 1983, Barb Kueny, "Quiet Desperation," p. D2; August 13, 1996, James Keeran, "Author's Son Takes to the 'Road' to Sell Dad's Book," p. D1.
Publishers Weekly, July 13, 1990, Diane Robuck, review of I Can Hear the Mourning Dove, p. 57; December 21, 1990, Lynda Brill Comerford, interview with Bennett, p. 15; December 20, 1993, review of Dakota Dream, p. 73; November 20, 1995, p. 79; July 21, 2002, review of The Squared Circle, p. 92; June 2, 2003, review of Faith Wish, p. 53.
School Library Journal, December, 1995, Tom S. Hurlburt, review of The Squared Circle, p. 128; July, 2003, Joel Shoemaker, review of Faith Wish, p. 123.
Voice of Youth Advocates, October 1990, pp. 213-14; April, 1994, Shirley Carmony, review of Dakota Dream, pp. 22-23; February, 1996, Dorothy M. Broderick, review of The Squared Circle, p. 379.
James Bennett contributed the following autobiographical essay to SATA:
In order to write an autobiographical essay, I will need to share candidly with readers my more than thirty year struggle with mental illness. For the struggle not only defines the person I've been most of my adult life, but substantially accounts for what I've accomplished—or been unable to accomplish—as an author.
But the "puzzle house" is not the place to begin.
I recall my childhood years as mostly carefree, happy, and secure. Some of that recollection may be by choice, as a means of escape from adult stress and disorientation, but not much, I think.
As a fiction writer, I was a late bloomer. I didn't publish my first book, A Quiet Desperation, until I was nearly forty-one. But as a journalist, I was like one of the early crocus breaking through the snow.
When I was about fourteen, in the small town of Canton, Illinois, I wrote, edited, and published my first newspaper. It was a weekly called the Spectator. I also handled the deliveries. I wrote the copy in longhand, essentially just outlining my take on the news items of the week which appeared in daily papers. This was in the middle fifties, so you could say I was a "Butch Wax" talking head, doing much the same thing as the news analysts do nowadays on cable channels such as Fox News or CNN.
At least half of the Spectator was about sports. For instance, I might analyze and break down Stan "The Man" Musial's weekly production as a batter (he and another Hall of Famer, Ted Williams, were the Barry Bonds and Sammy Sosa of their era.)
My mother typed the paper for me because I didn't know how. She used an old-fashioned Royal upright to cut a stencil. The use of stencils for such purposes nowadays is about as frequent as the use of horse-drawn plows.
As a youngster (and as an adult) I was very close to my mother. She was a stay-at-home mom of course; remember, this was the '50s of the Ed Sullivan Show and Mickey Mouse Club. Like most boys my age, Mousketeer Annette (Funicello) activated my developing hormones, even as Elvis Presley was doing likewise for the girls.
In any case, I produced my newspaper during the summer months when school was out. We didn't have air conditioning in our house, but then neither did most other people. I can remember vividly the sweat rolling down my mother's face and frizzing her hair as she typed away at our dining room table, cutting the weekly stencil.
When it was ready, I took it across the street to the Methodist Church, where my father was the pastor. He had no objection to my using the church's mimeograph machine (another dinosaur) to run my copies. Then it was time to collate and staple and make deliveries. I charged ten cents a copy. Most of the people who "subscribed" to the paper were friends of our family or downtown merchants who thought such creative efforts by a boy so young ought to be rewarded. I have no idea who actually read the thing.
But it was in the even smaller town of Monticello, Illinois, that I was first bitten by the newspaper bug. Monticello, which I still consider my "home" town, is located about 20 miles from Champaign-Urbana, home to the University of Illinois.
By the time I was ten or twelve, I was fascinated with newspapers. I had a morning paper route, delivering the Champaign-Urbana Courier. My mother rolled me out of bed at 5:30 each morning so I could be at the "warehouse" before six. The warehouse wasn't a warehouse at all, but that's what all the paperboys called it (there were no girls delivering newspapers back then). It was actually an abandoned factory building but none of us knew what might have been manufactured there in the past.
The lights in the warehouse were harsh and glaring. One hundred-watt bulbs with no shades hung from the ceiling. All of us folded our papers in a tight tuck on a long counter. We were very good at this. We had to be, because we delivered the papers while riding our bicycles, throwing them on porches as we rode by. If they weren't tightly tucked they would fly open, forcing us to stop and gather up their scattered sections. Why we weren't smart enough to use rubber bands mystifies me even to this day.
I was usually the last one to leave the warehouse. My problem was that I tried to read the newspapers as I folded. I read the sports section to get scores and results. I read the comics. I skimmed the national news headlines and the letters to the editor. I even read obituaries sometimes. I was often a little late with my deliveries, but I can't remember getting into any trouble over it.
Reading newspapers rapidly improved my reading skills, although that certainly wasn't my goal. In any case, I was an advanced reader during my elementary school days and my newspaper interest was no doubt a factor.
Monticello was a wonderful place to grow up—even for a "preacher's kid." It was, and is, a prosperous community with a Norman Rockwell courthouse square, church suppers, and Little League baseball. Churches and schools were the town's nerve centers. The locals were enthusiastic supporters of the high school athletic teams, as well as those of the University of Illinois. Monticello High School athletic teams carry the nickname "Sages." I've never heard of another school with the same nickname.
All of this rubbed off on me. At a very young age I was a bona fide sports "nut," trying to decide which professional sport I would star in when I grew up. My earliest heroes were high-profile athletes at Monticello High or the University. High school track phenom Larry LeCrone seemed larger than life as he often won six or seven events in the same meet. I can still recall his flashing white socks as he zoomed around the curve of the 220.
"Fightin' Illini" All-Americans like Johnny "Red" Kerr were often speakers at our Little League banquets. Kerr went on to play many years in the National Basketball Association (NBA) and was later the first head coach of the Chicago Bulls.
Except for math, I was a straight-A student in elementary grades, primarily because school came easy for me. I certainly never worked at it much. But math gave me fits. I suppose I had some classic "mental block" in this area.
Monticello is also home to the sublime Allerton Park, the State of Illinois' best-kept tourist secret. Its several hundred acres of timber and nature trails along the Sangamon River include an immense Georgian mansion (now a conference center), reflecting pools, acres of formal European gardens and outdoor galleries of Old World statuary. Our church often had Sunday picnics there as well as softball games and nature walks. My first love, about the seventh or eighth grade, was Bonnie Schroth, whose father, Buck, was resident director of the park. The Buck Schroth Nature Trail is still a signature location in Allerton. And Bonnie is still a dear friend of mine these forty years later.
My trouble with math brought me into conflict with our fifth grade teacher, the fearsome take-noprisoners Mrs. Fisler. Mrs. Fisler clumped as she walked due to a heavy leg wrap she wore as a phlebitis treatment; you could always hear her coming down the hall. Many years later, at a class reunion, a close friend of mine named Lou Burgess admitted that he was scared of her, too, even though "I never even had her for a teacher." Her reputation was that menacing. Lou never had her because he attended Monticello's other elementary school.
Mrs. Fisler held me inside most days during recess so that I could try and catch up on my math workbook, which was always behind and usually full of errors. She gave the boys regular whippings with a long wooden paddle. I was on the painful end of several of these paddlings, although not nearly so often as some of the other boys in class, especially the luckless Chad Hubbard. She never paddled the girls.
I can remember the sharp pain along the back of my legs as well as the overwhelming smell of Mrs. Fisler's leg wrap medication which she tried to mask with generous latherings of perfume.
Although Monticello was a small town, the Methodist Church was large. It had more than a thousand members. The church had active choirs, Bible study groups, youth fellowship groups, Sunday school for all ages, and many other groups and activities. Potluck suppers were a weekly occurrence; I always liked them because of the array of homemade pies, cakes, cobblers, and cookies.
We even had occasional "revival meetings," usually in the summer, which I didn't like at all. I did everything possible to avoid them, usually with no luck. I was a normal youngster, so dressing up in scratchy suits and tight formal collars to listen to evangelical preachers rave on about fire and brimstone didn't cut it for me.
My father was a devoutly religious, often stern man, who gave countless hours each week to the needs of parishioners and church activities. Because of his devotion he was beloved by the town and the congregation. But he spent so much time attending to professional duties there was little time left over for me or my two younger sisters, Nancy and Martha Jean. (When I write e-mails to her even today, I call her "MJ" to tease her into a sort of Michael Jordan connection.)
Even in the little spare time he had, Dad was devout. I have vivid memories of stopping halfway down the stairs when I realized he was reading Bible passages aloud to himself in the living room. The 23rd Psalm was always in his repertoire. Looking back, I assume his private Bible reading and meditating were ways of dealing with stress (or maybe even crises). My father was a driven man in his profession, and a "worried man" as the Johnny Cash song puts it. He was a worry wort who slept fitfully. I don't believe he ever had a disorder on any clinical level, but I was—and am—a product of his genetics, so it's likely some of the mental health episodes I've experienced as an adult were already seedlings in my psychological soil.
My dad came by his piety naturally. His father, my Grandpa Bennett, was a Methodist pastor himself, serving churches in several small towns in Southern Illinois. He died when I was only nine, but my memories of this gentle, playful man are firm and fond. He loved to recite poems to us kids at bedtime (mostly those of Edgar Guest, which he had committed to memory). My wheelchair-bound grandmother used to pluck chickens at the kitchen sink before she burned off the pinfeathers. The smell was repulsive; when I recall those visits, it's still strong in my nostrils.
I did have modest athletic ability in those years. I was a good Little League baseball player and, by seventh and eighth grade, a promising basketball talent. I was also by this time an avid book reader, devouring the Tom Swift books, as well as those by authors such as John R. Tunis and Jackson Scholz. Unfortunately, I didn't spend near as much time reading homework assignments so my grades began to slide.
Because preachers' families move so often, I never got to attend Monticello High. It was traumatic for me and my sisters (as it would be for any young adolescent) when we moved away after I finished eighth grade. I had to part with many of my fastest friends—the Miller Brothers, Tim and Tom—and most significantly, my closest buddy, Lynn Hays, who lived on a farm I often visited for "sleepovers." Lynn died tragically in a tractor accident at age nineteen when we were both sophomores in college; it's a sorrow that still haunts me. He was a young man of integrity and generosity of spirit rarely found in teenagers. And of course there was Bonnie, the love of my life.
I've been blessed in recent years by attending Monticello High School class of '60 reunions, reestablishing dozens of friendships. They call me "the ringer" but they let me come anyway.
We lived in Canton only two years. In 1958, we moved to Bloomington (IL), a large city (by my standards) of 40,000 residents. Its twin city, Normal, is home to Illinois State University. I completed my junior and senior years at Bloomington High.
At first I was lonely and lost in Bloomington. The move was another difficult adolescent adjustment. The friendship I made with Terry (Terrence) Smith helped me immensely. Terry and I were instant soul mates and established a deep friendship which lasted over many years and many places.
Terry was an aspiring writer and enjoyed early success with his first novel, The Thief Who Came to Dinner, which was published by Doubleday in 1969. Later, the book became a major motion picture. He published several other books of lesser success, and he loved "whodunits" so much that he wrote a series of detective novels under the pen name Phillips Lore. Unfortunately, Terry died in an automobile accident in December of 1988.
I need to mention too that his father, the Reverend Charles Merrill Smith, was highly significant in my life too. He was an author of religious satire, and his New York Times bestseller, How to Become a Bishop without Being Religious, is still a wickedly funny piece of work. Charles was such a mentor to me over the years that he soon became like a second father.
It was at Bloomington High that I was first exposed to serious journalism. Our school newspaper was annually the recipient of awards for excellence in statewide judging contests. The paper came out every Friday, so we had to write material on a tight deadline. Writers on our staff knew they had to produce good articles. We had a very demanding sponsor, a history teacher named Mr. Hostetler. If Mr. Hostetler didn't think our work measured up, he simply blue penciled it and left it out of the paper.
It happened to me often enough, that's for sure. And it hurt. As a junior, I was writing sports articles. I can remember writing what I thought was a terrific article about a thrilling BHS football victory on a Friday night. The next Monday, Mr. Hostetler blue penciled it, then privately told me why. "That game is old news already," he said. "By this coming Friday it will be stale as rotting fruit. Nobody will care."
"What about the writing?" I asked.
"The writing is good," he was willing to admit, "but it's not appropriate for a weekly newspaper. It would be fine for a daily. You need to be writing about things which will happen in the near future."
That is the guiding principle for a weekly newspaper—to write about events or situations which are upcoming events.
It did help that we had a staff of ten or twelve students who met in journalism class every day. We had the time to produce what our sponsor demanded. Still, it always hurt our pride when he would make us revise our copy and then maybe revise it again. He used to say, "There is only one standard—excellence."
Whenever people ask me who was influential in my development as a writer, my answer is simple and immediate: "More than anyone else, it was Roy Hostetler."
By my senior year I was sports editor of the paper. Rarely did I write an article which failed to meet his standards. For the first time in my life I understood the "rush" that could come from producing good writing. Because I played on the basketball team too, I had understood for a long time the high that came from scoring on the court. But my newspaper scoring was new to me and has served me well to this day. As for basketball, I never was very good at it. I gave it up after high school.
In college (Illinois Wesleyan University, also in Bloomington) I joined the newspaper staff as a freshman. It wasn't too long before I was promoted to the sports editor position. By the time I was a junior, I was the newspaper's editor. This success came as a result of my demanding high school journalism experience.
I was also writing part time for the local newspaper, the Bloomington Pantagraph, a daily with a circulation of nearly 80,000 readers. I began as a sportswriter covering high school football and basketball games, then later took assignments that allowed me to branch out. I was covering political activities such as city council meetings, zoning board sessions, concerts, art shows and school board meetings. So I was involved in a great deal of journalism during my college days. Too much, in fact; I didn't have enough time to spend on my academic work and my grades suffered.
Journalism is excellent training ground for any would-be writer, fiction or otherwise. Like any newspaper writer, I learned about people and their issues. I learned about the community I lived in and agendas which disturbed or gratified it. Through countless interviews, I began to understand where/why people found their passions, took gratification from their successes, and suffered through their failures.
I found that my journalism experiences were also factors in my own growth as a person. Young adults are usually bored when it comes to community issues such as zoning guidelines, local taxes, liquor licenses, street repair, snow removal budgets, and so on. Journalism can be a crash course in maturity. That which makes us more mature makes us better candidates for authorship. That which gives us information is even more crucial.
Even today I still have journalism in my blood. I do occasional freelance articles for newspapers and magazines. I write a weekly column for a small "community" newspaper called the Normalite. I recently had the great fun of writing an article about a 102-year-old ex-football and basketball coach who is his university's oldest living alum. Interviewing him taught me about geography, philosophy, sport in West Virginia, values, and even the secrets to a long-lasting marriage.
Throughout high school and during my first two years of college, I was (and this is being generous) a mediocre student. I wasn't mature enough to get motivated in subject areas I found difficult or boring (mostly math and science). Repeatedly, I got what Jack Buck, the late St. Louis Cardinals broadcaster, called the "God Bless America" report card: "From sea (C) to shining sea (C)."
As I've said, the only reason I got As in elementary school is that everything came easy to me; I never had to work. If you happen to be a student working below ability level, I hope you grow up faster than I did. Still, it's good to know that underachieving students can somehow find the level of maturity needed for academic success eventually, as well as success beyond the classroom. It wasn't until my junior and senior years of college that my name started showing up on the Dean's List. By this time, as an English major, I was studying literature almost exclusively. Because my interest level was high, so were my grades.
For the first time in my life I was captivated by great writing and great writers. I liked poetry, but I became deeply engrossed in the fiction of such major novelists as John Steinbeck, William Faulkner, Ernest Hemingway, James Joyce, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Flannery O'Conner, Lawrence Durrell, Virginia Woolf, and many others. I didn't have much spare time, since I was still editing the campus newspaper and working part time for the local daily. But in the spare time I did have, I devoured the novels of Edgar Rice Burroughs (he wrote the "Tarzan" series) and plenty of the detective "potboilers" by leading authors like Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler. So I was gobbling up "great literature" at the same time I was reading novels more popular with the general public.
I decided I wanted to be one of these guys. I wanted to be a novelist. It was just as cool as scoring touchdowns or hitting home runs. And anyway, my life as an athlete (such as it was) had ended after high school.
Nowadays, my reading habits are quite different, although they are not aimless. What I read—for the most part—is dictated by the books or articles I'm working on. There is always research to do. Because I don't have as much energy as I did when I was younger, I don't read much fiction for pleasure. Nearly all of the books I read now are strategy driven rather than pleasure driven. They're still fun, though.
The research factor leads me to more nonfiction books and articles. Many of them are excellent works with narrative elements very similar to those found in fiction. For instance, when I was doing research for Dakota Dream, I read, among others, Black Elk Speaks by John Niehardt, and Lakota Woman by Mary Crow Dog. Both of them provided me with important background information about the Dakota Nation.
Later, I satisfied my thirst for American Indian history and culture by reading the superb Counting Coup by Larry Colton. I also added two other excellent Native American books to my personal library. A Season on the Reservation by basketball hall of famer Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Dancing at Halftime by Carol Spindel not only increased my knowledge of Indian tribes and customs, but also helped me sketch out a Dakota Dream sequel. That goal has not been achieved yet, but if (when?) the time comes, all of these varied and consequential books will have increased my readiness.
College Sports Inc.: The Athletic Department vs. the University by Indiana University Professor Murray Sperber helped me better understand the corruption and deceit of college athletics, especially in terms of misleading accounting procedures usually practiced by athletic departments. Big-time football programs like those found in Florida or Ohio State claim to make huge profits, but they really don't, if you sit down carefully and count the costs.
Sperber's book provided solid information about big-time college sport in American culture. It helped me establish credible background material for Blue Star Rapture as well as The Squared Circle, perhaps my most honored book.
I read a very good book recently by legendary novelist Stephen King titled On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft. Like other books of its type, it aided me in outlining, character development, and narrative strategy. You could call it self-improvement reading. But please understand that such reading is much more than mere "homework." The books I choose to read to help in my own research are sources of pleasure as well.
And I haven't abandoned fiction reading altogether, although my habits in this area might seem a little peculiar. I read the same books over and over, often for the third or fourth time. These are usually books that reinforce my own personal philosophy of lean, mean, and tight.
When people ask me to name my favorite novels or works of fiction, this is the place I start. If I read a work of fiction several times over, it must be a piece that brings me exceptional gratification. Some of this fiction is the short story work of Flannery O'Conner. I read the stories ("A Good Man is Hard to Find" or "Parker's Back") for the pleasure of reading fine fiction, but also to study her techniques of narration, character development, irony, and the presence of evil. It amounts to reading two ways at once.
Other books which never cease to give me pleasure are Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men, and Hemingway's The Old Man and the Sea. Both books are tight and economical (they turn a little into a lot). Or, perhaps, they reach their goals without seeming to work at it. It all seems so easy, which, of course, it's not. But that's what good fiction can do. Any would-be writer can learn much about the importance of setting by reading either book, while the Hemingway masterpiece shows us layer upon layer of meaning. The way he does this by weaving seemingly inconsequential details (a ship's mast, a defiant fish, bleeding hands, and Joe Dimaggio) into the total fabric of the tale teaches us ways to transform the ordinary into the extraordinary.
I have cited quite a few titles and authors here. I hope not too many. I do so because they have helped me while giving me pleasure. I also do so because I can recommend each of them to you with enthusiasm.
When spring of my senior year in college rolled around, I was toying with my own vague blueprints for plotting and characterization, but not with enough focus to write any competent fiction or even a useful outline. I applied for, and received, a graduate assistantship in English at Illinois State University, Normal, Illinois. I spent the next two years earning a master's degree while grading hundreds upon hundreds of freshman essays. As a "grad ass" (graduate assistant) I was paid 140 dollars a month but able to live on it.
I boarded with a close friend of mine, Rodney Sakemiller. His mother, a wonderful woman named Ruth, put me in the heavyweight division. She'd grown up on the farm and while she didn't have much formal education, she sure knew her way around the baking pan. Breakfasts were generous servings of eggs and bacon. Dinners always included homemade pies and cakes; even her noodles were made from scratch. My mouth still waters. I gained more than twenty pounds during those two years and had trouble crossing my legs.
I paid Ruth eighty dollars a month for room, board, and laundry service. I had a paid-for '54 Ford which my grandmother had given me when her failing eyesight prevented her from driving. That left sixty dollars to cover all other expenses for the month. I got by on it. You could get a lot more mileage out of sixty dollars in the middle sixties than you can today.
In the fall of '66, I took my first teaching job at Black Hawk Junior College in Moline, Illinois. I was a very green teacher dipping my toe in the shallow end of the pool. Lots of support came from my department head, Tom Batell, a kind man who had earlier been one of my professors at Illinois Wesleyan.
It was in 1967 that I met and married Judie Vensel, who has now been my wife for nearly forty years. Unusual circumstances brought us together. A local community theatre director talked me into taking the romantic lead in Kaufman and Hart's You Can't Take It with You. Judie was the other romantic lead. We were the "straight guys" in a play filled with outrageous characters. I stumbled through my part in undistinguished fashion but at least I fell in love. I had never been in a play before, nor since.
In the spring of '68, Judie and I longed to experience some of the big, bad world beyond the Midwest. I landed a job teaching at Orange County Community College in Middletown, New York, located some sixty-five miles northwest of New York City in the graceful Catskill Mountains. It was a a warm and pleasant campus where we made many friends with students and faculty. Some of my colleagues there remain close friends even today. At OCCC, I was soon promoted to associate professor and took on the role of sponsor for the student newspaper. I remembered all of Mr. Hostetler's newspaper guidelines and imposed them on the student staff, although several of these students weren't pleased or amused. The college newspaper was voted best community college newspaper in the state of New York two years running.
During this period of time, we all experienced the electric counterculture movement of life on a college campus. "Peace, Love, Dope," seemed to carry voltage all the higher since we were located so near to New York City. Neither my wife nor I had much to do with drugs, but we stood with friends, colleagues, and students in countless candlelight vigils and marches protesting the Vietnam War. We were part of protest marches in Middletown, New York City, and Washington, D.C. In those controversial times it seemed nearly impossible to get through an entire class session without at least a brief discussion of The War. After all these years, I still regard the wrongheaded presence of U.S. military might in Vietnam to be one of the most shameful periods in our nation's history.
In 1971-72, I took a year's leave of absence so we could spend that year in County Cork, Ireland. Terry Smith, his wife, and his dad Charles Merrill (along with wife Betty) joined us. This was the year I was going to write the "great American novel." That didn't happen, but I did learn more about my own writing goals, strengths, and shortcomings.
What did happen was that we circulated intimately with the charming Irish rural folks, helped build thatched roofs for homes and barns, carried milk home in cans from local farms, tried to survive with hopeless "beaters" of old English cars, and traveled extensively in Europe. That was a year we will never forget.
Back in New York, the greatest blessing of our lives occurred in February of '73 when our son, Jason, was born. I was a parent two months before my thirty-first birthday, and I took such joy in my new son I found my world revolving around him. When he was scarcely more than three months old I was taking him to class, picnics, shopping, parks, hiking and the like. I regretted leaving the house without him. I kept a daily journal of his development, from first words to first teeth, even to first poem. His first verbal poem was: "P.U. Sidney has cows."
But on a cold and snowy morning in January of 1974, I got out of bed to discover that my life would never be the same again. With no warning, I was undergoing a major mental breakdown characterized by runaway anxiety and depression. My stomach was tight as a fist, day after day, and week after week. I couldn't eat or sleep. I was constantly terrified, with no observable cause, perpetually in the "fight or flight" mechanism, as they say out in the wild.
I spent some time in the Orange County mental facility and lots more time with counselors over the next months. I still don't know how I made it through classroom sessions; sometimes I didn't. Lots of those I did complete I suspect were pretty ragged and unproductive. If I got two hours of sleep during the night I considered myself lucky. My failing appetite (not surprisingly) caused a severe weight loss; during the twelve months from January '74 till January '75 I went from 180 pounds to 120. I had the shakes most of the time and often lost my balance. I remember flashbulbs going off behind my eyes. I had become completely dysfunctional, but neither doctors nor counselors could figure out why. And that made it all the more hopeless and helpless; if there was no way to identify a cause, then how could I hope to find a cure?
It was in the spring of '75 that I resigned my teaching position at OCCC. I couldn't perform my teaching duties anymore and it was a terror to try. I had no idea what I would do and I feared for my family, but I felt more than anything that I needed to get back "home." So off we headed for Illinois, with a packed-to-the-gills U-Haul truck, bidding a woeful, tearful farewell to our town, our campus, and our many close friends.
I landed a part-time job as youth minister at First Methodist Church of Urbana, Illinois, a job I held for two years. The senior pastor, Reverend Bob Mulligan, was a friend of my father's. The pay was not nearly enough to support a family so I held other part-time jobs shoveling grain, mowing grass, and painting fences for the Champaign parks department. Judie also found part-time work as a secretary.
During these two years and the ones to follow, I was in ongoing therapy and psychoanalysis. We tried and tried to get to the bottom of what my disorder might be, but without much luck. I was diagnosed with acute anxiety disorder, acute depression, manic-depressive (bi-polar) disorder, and adult Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD). It seems now, so many years later, that all these diagnoses were right but only partly so. One psychiatrist I saw for several years eventually said I had "a cluster of symptoms" of all these forms of illness, but he had no way of saying what the primary one might be.
Many, many medications in various dosages and combinations didn't seem to help. Neither did the hundreds of counseling sessions. I still struggled day after day to eat, to sleep, to function. No matter how bad it all seemed to be, I never gave up or considered suicide, although some of the mental health professionals I was working with considered me a suicide risk. But I wasn't; I had my wife, and I had my son.
In the spring of 1977, my family and I caught a wonderful break when I was hired as manager of East Bay Camp on Lake Bloomington (IL). The camp had recently been purchased by the Methodists from the Baptists after it had gone into bankruptcy. Once again, my father's connections had come to my aid.
Moving to East Bay wasn't just a strong opportunity, it was a rich homecoming as well. I had gone to church camp here as a youngster and both of my parents had often been camp counselors. It really did feel like "home."
Our son Jason couldn't have been plopped down in a more desirable childhood setting. There was swimming on the beach in warm weather. There was sledding down snowy hills onto the ice in the winter. There were summer staff college students to overindulge him and hundreds of acres of woods and timber to play in. We lived in a comfortable, year-round residence, extremely busy during warm weather months, but able to throttle down a bit during the winter.
It was during those winter months that I began writing again, as well as I could. But afflicted with the never-ending anxiety, irritability, depression, restlessness and lack of focus, my efforts were shaky at best.
Not that I wasn't trying (to become a published author, that is). I always submitted manuscripts to publishers the proper way, sending a query letter first, so the editor I contacted could choose to read the book or not. It's a cardinal sin to send an "unsolicited" manuscript to a publisher. Such books don't get read and rarely get returned. They find their resting place in the publisher's dumpster, in most cases still unopened.
Eventually, when I got the green light from an editor, I sent in the manuscript with my fingers crossed. These manuscripts, all fiction, were usually rejected. Getting rejected is always a bitter pill to swallow, of course. Looking back, I realize now that those manuscripts deserved to be rejected. They weren't very good. But I was learning as I went by identifying weaknesses and striving not to repeat them. I understood that the only way I would find success as an author would be through trial and error, hard work, and persistence.
I couldn't know it at the time, but even all of my good novels—eventually praised by critics and organizations like the American Library Association—would face rocky roads to publication. The truth is every book I've published was rejected three or four times before it found its way into print.
My ambition to become a published author was strong, but it was becoming clear to me that I wasn't especially talented or gifted. Some people who are longtime students of fiction don't believe that there are inherently "talented" or "gifted" writers. These people believe that good writers achieve their success almost exclusively as a result of learning the craft, working hard, and being persistent. I would have to define my own successes in these terms, but I do believe there are gifted fiction writers.
The gift is not in a showcase vocabulary or the ability to write lyrical sentences; it is, rather, their vision. Such gifted authors are able to see quickly how parts fit together to form a whole. Two of the finest twentieth century fiction writers, James Joyce and Flannery O'Conner, had this "vision gift." I know this from reading their work, biographical information about them, and letters they wrote. Because of this superior vision, gifted writers can put together a good working outline more easily than most other authors.
Finally, in 1983, I published my first book, A Quiet Desperation.
The camp manager position turned out to be the best—and worst—of all possible jobs for me. There were more than five hundred acres and in excess of one hundred buildings, counting all the summer camper cabins. Never was there a day without screens to repair, painting to be done, grass to be mown, boats to be housed, or cleaning to be done (our temporary seasonal staff was never quite large enough to handle it by themselves). I also spent many hours in the manager's office conducting the camp's organizational affairs and paperwork, but I handed those chores over to the secretary as much as possible.
So the job allowed me to "throw" myself into hot, physical labor, often for as many as twelve to fourteen hours a day. Ever since the onset of my mental illness, this was a strategy I had used for relief whenever possible. Physical work, often the better if it led to the brink of exhaustion, seemed to absorb me; it kept the demons away, if only temporarily.
But as much as I loved the camp and its mission, I was driving myself toward another serious breakdown. In the winter of 1984, I suffered another massive meltdown, almost ten years to the day of the first one. I found myself (once again) sobbing and pacing throughout the night, shaking, unable to function. And, as always, there was no observable (at least to me) set of conditions causing the suffering.
In the spring of that year, I quit the camp manager job. When I did so, I put my family in peril once more, since I had no job to go to and no prospects either. There was plenty of tension between Judie and me. She was angry and disoriented, almost as much as I was. Jason was confused and mystified. But as upset as Judie was, she stuck by me once again; she said the sickness was always the culprit, not me. And I guess she was right. But that distinction didn't do much to alleviate my intense feelings of guilt and shame.
I need to share at this time that I've always felt truly blessed by Judie's never-wavering support and love. She could have left me many times, and I couldn't have blamed her. But she didn't. Her motto continued to be, "It's the sickness, not you." This dedication to the husband she always loved (although I rarely felt lovable) kept me going, more than anything else. When we stood at the altar in 1967 and she said "For better or for worse," she wasn't just repeating required wedding vows.
We packed up again. This time we moved twenty miles down the road to Bloomington (IL) where I had lived as a teen and graduated high school. We made ourselves a "home" of sorts in a small, shabby apartment in a tacky neighborhood. We were desperately poor. I took a job as a teacher's aide at Raymond School, a small institution for the mentally disabled. Although I'd never worked with this sort of student population before, I took to it quickly. I fell in love with the students, their needs, their determination, and their optimism. I even coached the basketball team, taking them to the state finals in the Illinois Athletic Association for "handicapped" team sports.
Once again, though, the pay was very low. I had to supplement it by making pizza deliveries, driving produce trucks, and doing office janitor work. Meanwhile, Judie pursued her lifelong dream by enrolling in a local college for nursing. We had to take out large loans to finance this venture, but after two years she received her diploma as a Registered Nurse. As a matter of fact she went one step better, securing her Bachelor of Science in Nursing. Not surprisingly, she chose mental health nursing as her specialty.
This was a humiliating, fragile time period for our family. We tried to live on five dollars a day, and had a card file. At the end of the week if there was any money left in the "back of the box," we used it for an ice cream cone or admission to a local softball game. We did have the pleasure of reuniting with Terry Smith, his family, and his parents, Charles and Betty.
Judie graduated from nursing college in 1986 and took a job at BroMenn Hospital on the mental health unit. This favorable turn of events meant we finally had a real breadwinner in the family. It also put me back at the typewriter. I still held part-time jobs like delivering pizza or cleaning office buildings, but school was out. There was time for me to start writing again. In 1990, I published my first novel for young adults, I Can Hear the Mourning Dove. It was well received by critics and reviewers as well as the American Library Association, but earned very little money. I was forty-eight years old at the time.
I also gave up counseling and psychoanalysis in favor of psychiatric care exclusively. I went through medications and more of them, as the shrinks were in ongoing frustration, still struggling to identify my primary diagnosis and an effective drug therapy. I was still shaky, going through the sleepless nights and indulging in "panic eating." I gobbled what food I could, when I could. I drank lots of milkshakes and ate lots of Jell-O and pudding. A side effect of this pattern was elevated cholesterol levels and triglycerides as well. I've been on medications for this disorder for years, while trying to watch my diet as much as possible.
In 1990, Raymond School was dissolved because as a "segregated school" it seemed to violate the federal government's Civil Rights guidelines. The students were moved into a wing of Bloomington High School. They were in no way "mainstreamed" with regular students but they were in the same building. I have a vivid remembrance of the BHS principal showing us (Raymond faculty and staff) where the lockers for our kids would be located. He was stopped up short when we pointed out to him that since our students couldn't read numbers, they wouldn't be able to operate combination locks.
So, lo and behold, I found myself working in my old high school. The building was the same but the students were different; they were much more racially diverse. Even though the former Raymond students were in the BHS building, they were essentially still segregated, in self-contained classrooms and programs. They ate in the school cafeteria but at isolated tables, carefully supervised and aided by special education staff personnel. The "family atmosphere" of the Raymond School environment was lost, but we were now in compliance with good ole U.S. of A. civil rights requirements.
To the extent I can, I try and work pretty much as other professional writers do. The first thing you have to do if you want to write is sit down. I sit down at a very large corner computer work station in an average-sized room. Its actual appearance might lead some to believe that I know a great deal about computer systems. They would be wrong. I can work the word-processing system. I can send and receive e-mail messages. That's about it.
It's the only place I do my writing. It is my office: A second-floor spare bedroom with lots of windows. So the room is cheery, with plenty of available natural light. I don't think I could work in a room without windows. When I glance outside from time to time, I see my neighbor's flower garden of lilies, purple cone flowers, lilac bushes, and black-eyed susans. I can also see his huge maple tree, which tracks the seasons of the year. Unlike some writers, I don't like to have any music playing when I write. I like it quiet.
My computer work station has a name: Gilbert. It is a massive unit of several particle board components. My wife and I needed three days to assemble it. Even the parts seemed to weigh a ton when I lugged each one up the stairs. Gilbert will never be moved. The corner spot is his for good.
I named the station Gilbert after a Green Bay Packer lineman named Gilbert Brown. Gilbert was a good lineman when he weighed about 330 pounds. When his weight went up to approximately 370, the Packers gave him his walking papers. They told him to find a "fat farm" somewhere and lose at least forty pounds. He put in his time at such a weight-loss center but emerged from the experience at about 390. (A year later, Gilbert returned to the team with his weight under control, although no one would confuse him with a beanpole. As of this writing, he is now a member of the team again.)
The work center has a large shelf unit right next to the computer. In addition to all the stamps, envelopes, and stationery is a shelf of reference books I return to time and again. An Oxford Dictionary and Thesaurus sits there as well as a copy of Bartlett's Familiar Quotations. A simple grammar book is there too. Three reference books keep them company: Joanna Cole's Best-Loved Folktales of the World, Edith Hamilton's Mythology, and Sir James Frazer's classic The Golden Bough. These last three reflect my interest in ancient religions as well as their legends and myths.
I also have several of Joseph Campbell's books close at hand. There is probably no better scholar on the landscape when it comes to ancient religions and their mythological connections. Many of these books contain research information I've incorporated into my stories.
My computer is an eMac. I'm used to Macintosh systems, although I have no reason to believe they're better than others. I used to write my material in longhand before moving to the word processor. I don't do that anymore; I skip the longhand step. Nowadays, I compose right at the keyboard. I like to pretend that makes me a modern man.
Like most professional writers, I work on a regular schedule. I'm a morning person so I do most of my writing early in the day when I'm most alert. Typically, I work from about 7:00 until 9:00. When I was younger (and more focused), I worked the same schedule but with longer hours. In those days I worked until noon as a rule. I find now that I'm older I simply don't have the stamina I once did. That applies too to most of the other areas of my life. As the famous actress Bettie Davis once said, "Gettin' old ain't for sissies."
I know writers who do most of their work after lunch and I know others who are night people. They work primarily in the evening; I can't imagine it. I'm so whipped by suppertime I often fall asleep watching the evening news. One Connecticut author I know has the habit of walking with her dog along the beach in the early part of the morning, deciding what she's going to write on that particular day.
I don't set myself daily goals or quotas. My Attention Deficit Disorder, restlessness, agitation, and inability to concentrate for extended periods of times makes it impossible. But many writers do. They insist on finishing six or eight or ten pages a day, or a given number of words—say, 3,000 or more. I've never been comfortable with this approach. Some days I may write only a page or two, particularly if I'm writing something that's especially sensitive or challenging. Other days I may spend my morning working on revising material that's still in "first draft" condition. Sometimes sharpening one part of a writing project makes it easier to move ahead faster. At least that's the case for me.
Naturally, I've often wondered how much more good work I might have produced over the years if I were "normal." But it's not a useful or productive thing to dwell on.
The one thing professional writers have in common is working on a regular schedule. We don't wait for "inspiration" or wait to wrap our work habits around it, even when such inspiration may seem to occur. I've been asked many times, "How can you write every day at the same time, even if you're not inspired?" The answer is that my inspiration is an ongoing inner dialogue which may connect with a writing project, or projects that are in various stages of development. Sometimes I'm writing actual text for a novel I'm working on; sometimes I'm working on an outline, trying to reshape it, improve its focus, or make it more complete. Or, I might be at work on a newspaper column or a freelance article. Another device which helps me work consistently on my regular writing schedule is an old Hemingway trick. He liked to stop "in the middle of" whatever he was working on. That way, he never had to get up the next day and wonder, "What should I be writing today?" I try and use this strategy whenever possible.
Again, this "One step forward, two steps back" explains primarily why I'm such a slow worker. As I've said on many occasions, it's not unusual for me to take an average of two years to write a book if we include all steps in the process: brainstorming, outlining, revising the outline, writing the text, and finally, revising the text.
The first novels I wrote were done without access to computers. They were written on legal pads in longhand, then typed out. I didn't know a word processing application from a New Zealand holiday. Nowadays, as I've mentioned, I not only use a computer, but I actually compose on it.
Before we entered the electronic world, most of us (authors) had to go through the laborious process of writing material in longhand, then typing it on the typewriter, making changes and adjustments as we went. When we were "cutting and pasting," we were doing so literally. That meant a lot of work with scissors and rubber cement. Revising was slow and tedious, especially for authors like myself who are inclined toward a great deal of reorganization, added development, modulation, and all other steps associated with the revision process.
Using a computer to write a novel is like a gift from heaven. It allows for easy and speedy changes. An author can bump an outline around from several angles, and if he is still not satisfied, it's easy to just put everything back in place the way it was at the outset. And of course, it's a blessing when it comes time to make minor changes in a final draft, including such small but important elements as changing a word, dropping a phrase, removing a sentence, or even just correcting a typo.
The credit for my transition from dinosaur to modern man (if I may call myself such) goes to my son, Jason. He too is a writer. He more or less took me by the ear and forced me to learn how to write using a word processing program. The Flex of the Thumb was the first book I wrote on a computer (it was an old Apple 2E). A Quiet Desperation, Dakota Dream, and I Can Hear the Mourning Dove were written the old-fashioned way.
My most recent novel for teens (I've also written adult fiction and historical fiction) is called Fresh Killed. The protagonist is a polio victim at the same time his older brother is serving in the military in the Korean War. The polio epidemic was devastating in our nation during the years from 1945-1955. This ten-year period is often referred to as the "Postwar Decade." A good book called Patenting the Sun helped me understand the nature of the polio virus, the disease's crippling effect across the country, and the development of the Salk vaccine. Dr. Johas Salk's breakthrough in the laboratory effectively ended polio as a medical menace.
James Brady's The Coldest War is his memoir of military service in the Korean Conflict. It is vivid and it is brutal. The war in Korea (1950-53) often goes by the name the "forgotten war." Even though it is often called the Korean "conflict," as Shakespeare might say, "A war by any other name will carry all the same pain, suffering, loss, and sorrow."
Brady's book reads like a novel, due to its strong narrative pattern, but it is in fact a series of tales of real men, places, and events. For a writer like myself, it's another of the books that does double duty: It provides a captivating narrative while also revealing particular and actual circumstances of that desperate battle. I was alive during Korea, but too young to remember much about it.
In 1995, with the publication of The Squared Circle, it seemed as if I might be a shooting star in the heavens of young adult fiction. I have no modesty whatsoever about this book. It may be in fact the finest basketball novel ever written. Several publications chose it as the year's best YA novel.
There's an irony here. I never wrote the book for young adults. It was meant for a broader, mainstream (adult) audience but was marketed as young adult fiction nonetheless. This pigeonholing hurt the book's sales, although it has maintained a modest sales profile over the years. All of a sudden I had literary agents knocking at my door, conferences requesting speeches and presentations, and schools asking me for author visits. I made many author visits in schools during the second half of the nineties, all over the country. Such visits are often an author's most gratifying activity. The opportunity to visit with students in their classrooms, share with them in an informal setting, to discuss books and writing, is nothing short of delicious.
But, alas, my star fell as fast as it had risen. I wasn't able to establish a successful professional connection with agents, even though I liked them all well enough, while they (I believe) enjoyed me in return. But they weren't able to spot me in presentation situations or school visits. Even worse, they weren't able to place my books with publishers. Eventually I decided to cut my ties with these people. I had shown through my history with publishers that I could collect rejection slips as well as they could, if not better. My conclusion is simply this: Literary agents don't want to be bothered with manuscripts that are hard to place, and as I've pointed out earlier, mine usually are.
Agents had no luck with the movie business either. I had nibbles from production companies on I Can Hear the Mourning Dove as well as Dakota Dream, but my representatives were never actually able to get a production company on the hook. Like any author, I would love to see one of my books on the silver screen—for one thing, that's where the real money is—but it's never happened.
I might indicate here that I, like most effective fiction writers, have never made a lot of money. In schools, students frequently ask, "Are you rich?" Or, "Are you famous?" As to the second question, my answer tends to be the same: "If you have to ask, you've really answered your own question."
With respect to the "Are you rich?" question (which usually mortifies their teachers), I always welcome it. I like students to know that most successful authors don't make a lot of money. I know I don't. I suspect for each Toni Morrison or John Grisham, there are thousands of us "out there" doing good work, but earning very modest income.
Now that I've advanced in age, I guess I'm supposed to be wiser. I suppose I am, in some respects. With respect to writing, I try to impart a few fundamental guidelines to aspiring writers in classroom or workshop settings. My first piece of advice is so traditional it almost seems tired: Write what you know.
I've always done this, and I think more than anything else, it's the strategy that's brought me such success as I've had. My settings, characters, and narrative strategies are always based on elements of life I know right down to the ground. My three areas of expertise are mental health, sports, and religions. The spine of my books is always found in one of these regions and sometimes more than one is involved significantly.
We've all read novels whose material seems unlikely and therefore implausible. There is no surer way to undermine the effectiveness of a book. When readers roll their eyes or say to themselves, "Oh this could never happen," that book is in trouble. And as authors we take great risk if we underestimate the sophistication of our readers. That's another thing that often happens in the world of YA fiction, in my humble opinion. Our teen readers can smell out the phony as easily as the drug-sniffing dog bears down on the guilty suitcase.
If a writer is going to highlight material involving music, he had better understand what arrangement means, how it works, how chord changes impact compositions, and what sequences in such chord progressions are appropriate for different kinds of music (jazz, rock, country, classical, soul, etc.).
I also tell young writers to learn to keep their mouths shut and their ears open. It may be that more than anything else, curiosity is the single characteristic necessary for effective fiction writing. People with strong curiosity learn what people think, what they do, how they deceive (even themselves), what they fear, what they relish, and what they value. People with their jaws flapping all the time aren't likely to be privy to this important information.
Such curiosity, for instance, helps writers create effective dialogue. They listen carefully to the lilt and slant, the stumbling for language, slang, frustration, expression of pleasure, and so much more. When I'm in a public place surrounded by strangers, I usually eavesdrop on conversations. Maybe the strangers are talking about stocks and bonds. Maybe they repeat phrases about political conditions. Maybe they disagree about a boss or supervisor, while really trying to say the same thing. Maybe they're teenagers talking endlessly on cell phones while sitting in a restaurant booth. There's no more reliable route to staying in touch with "teen talk" and their slang.
As for mental health, I usually try to limit the discussion, as I find teens and young adults too curious. The subject can carry us away from exploring the route to effective writing. But I don't shy away from the subject either. I don't hide my own experiences in this area of life.
I long for young people to understand that a mental illness is not necessarily a "character weakness." It's not the "fault" of the victim. Most people with a serious mental disorder such as acute anxiety or depression are wired wrong; their brain chemistry is out of whack. It's no different from a sufferer of high blood pressure (hypertension) or a pancreatic cancer victim. No one would accuse a diabetic of suffering from the disease because of a "lack of character."
Our culture attaches no stigma to the person with heart disease. Although most of the medications I've tried over the years haven't been effective for me, many of them have been for other people. So people who suffer should find a way to put aside the stigma and work with mental health professionals. I know many folks with minor depressive conditions for whom Celexa, Zoloft, or Paxil have provided real relief. I have a dear friend named Dottie who is a long-time sufferer of manic-depressive (bi-polar) disorder. She has taken Lithium for years and declares it's just like "magic."
As the years have passed, the symptoms of my emotional turmoil have become less acute, although they haven't taken a vacation. Along with my doctors, I still experiment with new medications and dosages. I still have many sleepless nights, the "racing mind," inability to concentrate or prioritize, and restlessness. Somehow I write, even if in little bits and pieces, until a project eventually comes together.
Terry Smith often remarked upon my courage. I guess he was right. Somehow I've stayed the course through all the years, when giving up would have been so much easier. As a matter of fact, I'm working on a new YA book right now. Its tentative title is Grounded Out. I am optimistic readers can have it in their hands one day soon. There is always room for hope.
- James (W.) Bennett (1942-) Biography - Personal, Career, Honors Awards, Writings, Work in Progress, Sidelights
- James (W.) Bennett Biography (1942-) - Sidelights
- Other Free Encyclopedias