I grew up in suburban Milwaukee, chewing through crime and science fiction novels at a rate of five or six a week throughout middle school and high school. Reading John D. MacDonald and Ed McBain, Robert Heinlein and Larry Niven, I learned a lot about plot and setting and how to move things along.
It was my parents’ fault for buying me a giant stack of Doc Savage books (at least fifty of them) for Christmas in the fifth grade, all in one big box – those books were the gateway drug to my serious and ongoing addiction to reading.
I wasn’t allowed to watch much TV as a kid – just the Sunday night double-header of Walt Disney and Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom. No compelling video games then, either. (Dating myself, I know.) What else was there for a non-athletic introverted kid to do but read?
I remember taking the bus downtown, alone, in middle school and early high school, to wander through the string of used bookstores along Wisconsin Avenue – this at time when Milwaukee crime was much higher than it is now, and a person could buy just about anything they wanted from the shady characters wandering around on that little strip of urban blight, or get into any possible kind of trouble.
In retrospect, I can’t believe my parents allowed me that freedom, but it was a different time. Helicopter parenting hadn’t been invented yet. They were busy with their own lives, and I’m sure I spun a good story about the quick trip downtown. Besides, I was a (mostly) good kid, the youngest of three and the least likely of their children to occasion a call from the police department.
I was also clueless, oblivious, already telling myself stories in my head, so nobody ever bothered the pale, lumpy boy with the bagful of battered paperbacks. Every few Saturdays, I climbed on the bus to sell back the stuff I didn’t like and track down more of what called to me, stories of other times and places, stories to carry me away from the now.
Used books for a quarter or fifty cents apiece. Maybe a buck for something new in good condition, although I didn’t care about condition as long as the pages weren’t falling out. I just wanted my allowance to buy me as many stories as possible.
Arthur C. Clark, Ray Bradbury, Ursula K. Le Guin, Philip K. Dick, Frank Herbert, Roger Zelazny. Donald Westlake’s deliciously nasty early Parker books, written as Richard Stark. Ian Fleming, Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler. And those new guys, Robert Parker and Gregory McDonald and Elmore Leonard and Loren Estleman.
Along the way I discovered that I wanted to get lost in those stories in a different way – I wanted to write them. I got started on the high school paper but discovered I was a crappy reporter. Who cares about what really happened? I wanted to write about what should have happened. Mr. Huth, the school advisor for my first three years on the paper, thankfully recognized this and pointed me toward assignments where a tendency to make stuff up was not a liability.
My senior year, I wrote a 10-part high school soap opera. (A careful reader might have recognized a few characters from real life.) And when my fellow-students stopped me the hall to say, “Hey, I liked that thing you wrote” – my fate was sealed. I was a writer.
High school was a long time ago. There are still plenty of great books out there, old and new, and I’m still reading like crazy. But the greatest kick I’ve found, and the greatest challenge, is to write the stories I most want to read.
And somehow, miracle of miracles, Putnam agreed to actually publish my work. You’ll have The Drifter in your hands soon – you’ll all rush right out and buy one, I hope, plus a few more for your friends and relatives – and the next book about a year later.
I hope you enjoy reading them as much as I enjoyed writing them.