The motivation to begin writing in earnest arose from two things: the encouragement and support of my wife, Camille, and an illness that left me housebound and tethered to an oxygen tank 24/7.
I'd spent 35 years in local government service producing memos, procedures and all manner of legal mumbo jumbo when, in 2008, I quit and never looked back. Retirement went smoothly the first few years, but a chronic lung condition came to dominate my life. That's when, with a push from my wife, I began to spend serious time at my desk.
My first efforts were pieces written for her, an audience of one: brief memoirs and longer profiles of people important to us. These led to personal essays published in our local newspaper, The Buffalo News. After placing a half-dozen or so pieces there the next challenge was to try my hand at fiction, and since then I've had a number of short stories published in webzines and print anthologies. There are also two novels and a novella, as yet unpublished, resting comfortably on a bookshelf in my den, waiting for the right opportunities to present themselves.
My literary influences are broad, beginning at the age of six with those superstars of youth literature: Jane, Dick and Spot. When I was ten the most exciting moment in my short life occurred—the opening of a branch library a few blocks from my childhood home in Columbus, Ohio. It became an air-conditioned oasis in the midst of Midwest heat and boring school vacations.
Sports biographies were my first passion, a phase that lasted only until hormones kicked in. That's when I found my father's trove of Harold Robbins novels and got my first taste of fiction written for adults—the kind that, when you dropped the book on the floor it always fell open to the same parts. You know—those parts about our parts?
My reading as a teenager shifted to science fiction, with Bradbury, Heinlein, Clarke, and Asimov leading the way. Each of them revealed truths about the human condition in stories that went well beyond the genre's conventions. As I grew older I was drawn to the best of the early-mid 20th century writers: Steinbeck, Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Salinger and others.
My late teens and early twenties were spent as an English major at the University of Buffalo. It was the 60's, a turbulent time when UB was known as the Berkley of the East. The office doors of the English Department sported names like Barth, Creely, Corso, Fieldler, Olsen, Logan, Weiners, Coetzee and Barthelme. One or two became friends and mentors, and all had an effect insofar as they communicated the expectation that one must produce the best work possible—no slackers allowed. It wasn't all serious, however. These people knew how to party, gatherings where literate conversations shared space with stoned and drunken monologues, drum circles and seductions that crossed gender lines.
These literary all-stars intimidated the shit out of me. Fiction was a mountain too high, but I did try my hand at poetry. With the encouragement of John Logan I produced thirty or forty poems, none of which impressed me any more than they did the few others who were exposed to them.
After university my favorite authors were the major American novelists of the time: Roth, Updike, Vonnegut, Joseph Heller and others. Later, the names Pat Conroy and Cormac McCarthy became important to me, and I quickly read whatever they put out. Last, and most important, came Anne Tyler.
Tyler, the author of twenty novels, is known as a writer of what might be called "domestic fiction"—stories that explore relationships among and within families, involving characters who are, at their worst, mildly eccentric. Those are her strengths, the ability to reveal the significance within the mundane, to create characters as real as the person sitting next to you on the bus.
I've written only one fan letter in my life and it was to Ms. Tyler. In it I complained that writing a letter to an author was an intimidating task, akin to "…trying to sing the praises of Pavarotti."
To my surprise, a few weeks later I received a hand-written postcard back in which Ms. Tyler thanked me for my letter, noting that, "First it made me smile because I'd never considered the difficulty of writing to a writer, and then it made me smile because I saw that you were way more than equal to the task."
Years later, when illness made of me a shut-in, and my wife gave me the courage to write more seriously, those words became an important source of encouragement. I would look up at that postcard pinned to my bookshelf and think, "I can do this."
We all have doubts about our abilities, but when your favorite author implies that you have the right stuff, you begin to think maybe she's right. That and a few thousand hours in front of the keyboard can get you somewhere because, in the end, hard work is what it's all about.
Fact is, I don't know if such a thing as a "muse" really exists, but if you spend enough time at your desk, something's gotta give!