Talbert, Marc (Alan) 1953-
TALBERT, Marc (Alan) 1953-
Born July 21, 1953, in Boulder, CO; son of Willard L. (a physicist) and Mary A. Talbert; married Moo Thorpe (a real estate broker and contractor); children: Molly, Jessie. Education: Attended Grinnell College, 1971-73; Iowa State University, B.S., 1976. Politics: Democrat. Hobbies and other interests: Running, reading, gardening, traveling, cooking.
Home— P.O. Box 847, Santa Fe, NM 87504.
Writer. Marshalltown Public Schools, Marshalltown, IA, teacher of fifth and sixth grade, 1976-77; Ames Public Schools, Ames, IA, teacher of fifth grade, 1977-81; Los Alamos National Laboratory, Los Alamos, NM, writer and editor, 1981-86; speech writer for National Science Foundation, 1984-85; University of New Mexico, instructor in children's literature, 1989-90; College of Santa Fe, instructor in writing for children, 2000-2002.
PEN, Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators, Authors Guild.
Best Books for Young Adults Award, American Library Association, 1985, shortlist selection, British Children's Book Group Award, 1986, and West Australian Young Readers' Book Award, Library Association of Australia, 1988, all for Dead Birds Singing; Notable Children's Book in the Field of Social Studies, National Council for the Social Studies/Children's Book Council, 1987, for Toby; Owl of the Month Prize, The Bulletin of Youth and Literature, 1989, for The Paper Knife.
Dead Birds Singing, Little, Brown (Boston, MA), 1985.
Thin Ice, Little, Brown (Boston, MA), 1986.
Toby, Dial (New York, NY), 1987.
The Paper Knife, Dial (New York, NY), 1988.
Rabbit in the Rock, Dial (New York, NY), 1989.
Double or Nothing, illustrated by Toby Gowing, Dial (New York, NY), 1990.
Pillow of Clouds, Dial (New York, NY), 1991.
The Purple Heart, HarperCollins (New York, NY), 1992.
Heart of a Jaguar, Simon & Schuster (New York, NY), 1995.
A Sunburned Prayer, Simon & Schuster (New York, NY), 1995.
Star of Luís, Clarion (New York, NY), 1999.
The Trap, DK (New York, NY), 1999.
Small Change, DK (New York, NY), 2000.
Holding the Reins: A Ride through Cowgirl Life, photographs by Barbara Van Cleve, HarperCollins (New York, NY), 2003.
The Best in the World (serial), Breakfast Serials, 2001—.
Also columnist, Daily Tribune, Ames, IA, Cedar Valley Times, Vinton, IA, and Iowa State Daily.
Since the publication of his first book, Dead Birds Singing, Marc Talbert has won a reputation as a thoughtful author of young adult problem novels. Whether his books deal with abuse, death, or divorce, Talbert portrays the feelings of his characters with respect and empathy. "Few YA authors scrutinize the often painful process of growing up as intently" as Talbert, wrote a Publishers Weekly critic in 1995. Many of Talbert's books are notable as well for their New Mexico and Mexican settings. In the mid-1990s, Talbert published two novels, one featuring characters of Mayan heritage, which have elicited praise from critics: Heart of a Jaguar and A Sunburned Prayer.
Talbert grew up in Iowa, where he worked as a newspaper columnist and fifth and sixth grade teacher. He moved to New Mexico, he explained in a speech published in the ALAN Review, "ready to woo and marry" the woman who became his wife "or die trying." In New Mexico, Talbert lived with his wife and dogs and worked as a writer; he published his first novel for young adults in 1985.
Dead Birds Singing, Talbert's first novel, begins as Matt, a seventh grader, is riding home from a swim meet with his mother and sister. A drunk driver smashes into their car and, although Matt survives, his mother is killed and his sister is gravely injured. Matt, whose father died years before, is now an orphan; he is taken in by his best friend's family. For the remainder of the novel, he deals not only with his grief (his sister eventually dies) but also with the physical concerns of adolescent boys. In the words of Horn Book critic Karen Jameyson, Talbert's "insight into Matt's feelings is extraordinary." "Mr. Talbert … has done a very good job in tackling a difficult and potentially explosive subject," commented Marcus Crouch in Junior Bookshelf.
Talbert's second novel, Thin Ice, features a ten-year-old boy, Martin, who is troubled by his parents' separation. Martin's father has departed for Alaska, leaving his mother to care for Martin and his diabetic sister. Martin abandons his responsibilities at school and quarrels with his best friend. To make matters worse, after his mother meets Martin's teacher for a conference, they begin a relationship. Martin eventually runs away, and his sister grows very ill. Martin spends some time in the woods, and returns to his family with a new attitude. The story, explained a Kirkus Reviews critic, "is lightened by touches of humor." According to Junior Bookshelf 's Marcus Crouch, "there is much to admire and even more to think deeply about" in the book. Thin Ice, commented a Publishers Weekly critic, is "beautifully written."
Toby, the protagonist in the book of the same title, is the ten-year-old child of a mentally disabled father and a brain-damaged mother. While his illiterate parents are frequently incapable of helping Toby with his problems, they provide food, shelter, and an abundance of love. The local minister, however, insists that they cannot properly care for Toby, whom he thinks is a wild boy, and he tries to send Toby to a foster home. The minister's son, a delinquent himself, taunts Toby and insults his parents. When Toby is blamed for a break-in at a neighbor's house, the little family seems on the verge of dispersal. Toby reverts to bedwetting, but he finally stands up for himself and his problems are resolved. "Talbert has woven a story filled with unforgettable characters," wrote Nancy P. Reeder in School Library Journal. A Publishers Weekly critic remarked, "readers have a work of rare power."
In The Paper Knife, ten-year-old Jeremy and his mother flee from her boyfriend George to live with George's parents. Jeremy has mixed feelings about this move; George was kind, except when he was physically abusing Jeremy's mother, or sexually abusing Jeremy. As he struggles with his secret about George, and worries that George will come and get him, Jeremy has difficulty adjusting to his new school. Although his teacher, Mr. Williams, is helpful, the other boys in school taunt him. For protection, Jeremy writes down his secret and calls it his "paper knife." When Jeremy's paper knife is found by the bullies, Jeremy's mother believes that the letter is about Mr. Williams. To save Mr. Williams, who is asked to leave the school, Jeremy must finally report George's abuse. A Publishers Weekly critic appreciated Talbert's "matter-of-fact gaze at the problems of childhood." "Jeremy's plight and its resolution will hold readers while conveying a valuable message," concluded a Kirkus Reviews critic.
Rabbit in the Rock, set in New Mexico, begins as a sixteen-year-old girl riding her horse meets a rock star in hiding. Runaway Sean is tired of the career his father has forced on him, and he shares his complaints with Bernie. Bernie does what she can to assist him and even helps him stage a kidnapping. When the FBI appears on the scene, matters get out of control and Bernie's brother breaks his leg. By the end of the novel, Bernie and her brother are safe, and Sean goes back to his father and work. Sean writes a song about Bernie, and sends her a letter with the hope of seeing her again. A Publishers Weekly critic said, "Once again, Talbert's razor-keen prose illuminates the often confusing state of growing up. His matter-of-fact handling of sexual themes is to be lauded."
Sam, nine years old, grieves for his magician uncle in Double or Nothing. Sam, left with his uncle's props, wants to become a magician himself. Uncle Frank, readers learn through flashbacks, did more than show Sam some of the tricks of his trade: he taught him lessons about life. On the first birthday of his uncle since his death, Sam leaves home. He travels to a park to put on his own magic show as a tribute to his uncle. Kathryn LaBarbera of Booklist commented that the book is "a story about keeping love alive."
Chester, a young poet, is the child of divorced parents. The arrival of his thirteenth birthday forces Chester to make a difficult decision in Pillow of Clouds: should he live with his mother, a rich alcoholic in Iowa, or with his father and his artist wife in New Mexico? Chester goes to visit his mother, who tells him how much she needs him, but he realizes that he will be happiest with his father. After Chester's departure for New Mexico, Chester's mother attempts suicide. "More than a coming-of-age story," wrote Susan Oliver in School Library Journal, the novel is "about realizations and relationships." According to James E. Cook of Voice of Youth Advocates, "The writing in this novel is first-rate."
The Purple Heart is the story of Luke, whose father has been named a war hero and is returning from Vietnam. When Luke's father arrives, he is not the strong, proud man Luke expected. Instead, his father is wounded, tired, and reluctant to talk about the war. Confused, Luke takes his father's purple heart to show a friend and uses it to trick a neighbor. He loses the medal and is sent by his parents to help the neighbor, an elderly woman. Through the woman, whose husband also served in a war, he begins to understand that his father's time in Vietnam could not have been glorious. Then, when a tornado threatens the neighborhood, Luke's selfless bravery prompts his father to give him the medal, which he has recovered. Gerry Larson of School Library Journal observed that "Talbert delivers a positive statement on the healing power of family love." According to Karen Hutt of Booklist, Talbert's work is "perceptive and poignant."
By the mid-1990s, Talbert and his wife had two little girls and lived with them and their dogs in a diverse northern New Mexican community: "a sometimes uneasy mix of Native American, and Hispanic and Mexican mestizo, and Anglo," as he described it in the ALAN Review. Around that time, Talbert wrote two books that feature characters different from his others. "I have chosen to learn about my heritage and myself—as reflected back to me from the contrasting heritage and cultures of those around me," explained Talbert in the ALAN Review.
According to Talbert, he "noticed, on Good Friday, thousands of people walking along the highways north of Santa Fe." Curious, he learned that these people were making a pilgrimage to visit a Mayan statue and to taste the sacred dirt around it. Talbert himself made that journey. "It was a walk that changed my life," he revealed in the ALAN Review. "I began to write A Sunburned Prayer, much as I had started the pilgrimage, on faith, not knowing what would happen along the way.… I wrote to discover."
Set in New Mexico, and peppered with Spanish words, A Sunburned Prayer features eleven-year-old Eloy, who is determined to save his abuela (grandmother) from the cancer that is killing her. Although his parents have forbidden it, Eloy makes a grueling pilgrimage of seventeen miles on Good Friday to the Santuario de Chimayo shrine in order to taste sacred dirt and pray for his grandmother's health. As he walks, hungry from his fast as well as thirsty, a stray dog follows him and encourages him to continue. When Eloy finally reaches the church, he finds his brother Benito and his abuela, who persuades him that he must accept her death. Later, she explains that her death is a part of God's work. Jack Forman of School Library Journal asserted that A Sunburned Prayer, which includes a glossary, is "one of Talbert's most moving and meaningful novels to date."
In a departure from his stories set in contemporary North America, Talbert takes readers back seven hundred years to the Yucat́n of Mexico in Heart of a Jaguar. Balam, fourteen years old, has some very serious concerns and responsibilities. He works his way towards manhood and a beautiful young wife already selected for him as he toils alongside his father and develops his skill as a hunter. When drought comes, Balam's life is changed: raiders take what supplies his village has along with Balam's promised wife, who is later sacrificed. When the village warriors are captured in a raiding attempt of their own, the elders are forced to sacrifice the very best among the village youth. As Delia A. Culberson of Voice of Youth Advocates noted, "Talbert's careful research gives a fascinating look at … the ancient Mayas." Culberson called the book, which also includes a glossary, "one of the most stirring, sensitive YA books I have read in a very long time."
Talbert explained in the ALAN Review, "Any honest reader might look into the mirror that is Heart of a Jaguar and see reflected back struggles between life and death, love and hope. Certainly I wanted to portray the Maya view of life and death, love and hope as accurately as possible. And I also wanted their view to serve as a useful mirror for the reader, a mirror that could help the reader see more clearly his or her attitudes toward life and death, love and hope."
Talbert's next novel, Star of Luís, is set in 1941, when Luís and his mother move from Los Angeles to New Mexico when his father joins the army. While in New Mexico, Luís learns that he has never really understood his own identity—his family has kept secret that they have a Jewish heritage. Sorting through this knowledge, Luís returns to Los Angeles and has to decide who he is, and because of this, who his friends truly are. A writer for Publishers Weekly called the novel an "en-grossing tale about a little-known subject," while Hazel Rochman of Booklist commented, "readers will be caught up in the astonishing revalations about Luís's identity."
The Trap and Small Change are packed with action, but are no less about self-discovery than Star of Luís. In The Trap, Ellie's cat is killed by local coyotes. Ellie decides the coyotes are her enemy, and with a friend, decides to place a trap to destroy them. But when a dog is caught in the trap, Ellie has to face the pain she has caused the animal and the morality of killing the coyotes. Small Change tells the story of Tom, on vacation in Mexico, who is separated from his parents by a guerilla attack on a marketplace. Taken in by a kind local family, Tom has nothing but disdain for them, because their lives are so different from his. "Tom's adventures … will keep readers … turning the pages," wrote John Peters in Booklist. As Tom is shown that his ideas about the Mexican family are wrong, he begins to question his certainty about his own superiority. Carol A. Edwards of School Library Journal praised, "Talbert does a great job of showing the change in Tom's character."
Talbert's next book went in a different direction; Holding the Reins: A Ride through Cowgirl Life is a true account of the lives of four girls who live on ranches in four different western states. Talbert's text accompanies photographs of the girls by Barbara Van Cleve, and the combination gives readers a new understanding of the daily jobs the girls must accomplish. Each section follows one of the girls through one of the four seasons of the year. Ed Sullivan, writing for Booklist called the book "interesting, insightful" and noted that it "does not romanticize its subject." Carol Schene commented in her School Library Journal review, "This look at these unique lives will educate those who have no clue about the realities of ranching."
Talbert lives with his wife, Moo, and their children Molly and Jessie at their home in New Mexico. He writes on his Web site, "I love the fact that the two main interests in my life—writing and children—are now combined in such a way."
Biographical and Critical Sources
ALAN Review, fall, 1990, Marc Talbert, "What Is a Mirror to Do?" pp. 2-6.
Booklist, October 1, 1990, Kathryn LaBarbera, review of Double or Nothing, p. 333; December 15, 1991, Karen Hutt, review of The Purple Heart, p. 760; August, 1995, p. 1950; March 1, 1999, Hazel Rochman, review of Star of Luís, p. 1203; November 15, 1999, John Peters, review of The Trap, p. 628; April 1, 2000, John Peters, review of Small Change, p. 1451; January 1, 2003, Ed Sullivan, review of Holding the Reins: A Ride through Cowgirl Life, p. 886.
Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books, January, 1989, p. 137; December, 1990, p. 104; April, 1991, p. 206; March, 1992, pp. 194-95; July-August, 1995, pp. 398-99.
Horn Book, July-August, 1985, Karen Jameyson, review of Dead Birds Singing, p. 459; January-February, 1991, pp. 71-72; January-February, 1996, p. 110.
Junior Bookshelf, April, 1986, Marcus Crouch, review of Dead Birds Singing, p. 81; December, 1987, Marcus Crouch, review of Thin Ice, pp. 289-90.
Kirkus Reviews, October 1, 1986, review of Thin Ice, p. 1512; November 15, 1987, pp. 1633-34; October 15, 1988, p. 1534; March 1, 1991, review of The Paper Knife, pp. 323-34; January 1, 2003, review of Holding the Reins, p. 67.
Publishers Weekly, December 12, 1968, review of Thin Ice, p. 54; November 27, 1987, review of Toby, pp. 82-83; September 9, 1988, review of The Paper Knife, p. 138; October 13, 1989, review of Rabbit in the Rock; April 17, 1995, review of A Sunburned Prayer, p. 61; February 22, 1999, review of Star of Luís, p. 96.
School Library Journal, July, 1988, Nancy P. Reeder, review of Toby, p. 77; March, 1991, Susan Oliver, review of Pillow of Clouds, p. 218; February, 1992, Gerry Larson, review of The Purple Heart, pp. 89-90; Jack Forman, review of A Sunburned Prayer, July, 1995, p. 82; May, 1999, Coop Renner, review of Star of Luís, p. 130; October, 1999, Coop Renner, review of The Trap, p. 160; June, 2000, Carol A. Edwards, review of Small Change, p. 154; April, 2003, Carol Schene, review of Holding the Reins, p. 193.
Voice of Youth Advocates, December, 1988, p. 243; April, 1991, James E. Cook, review of Pillow of Clouds, p. 37; December, 1995, Delia A. Culberson, review of Heart of a Jaguar, p. 310.
Marc Talbert contributed the following autobiographical essay to SATA:
I am looking at an old photograph of me as a boy. I am ten years old. I have blond hair and a crew cut. My widow's peak defines enormous arches above both sides of my forehead—like a second set of eyebrows, raised in surprise. My actual eyebrows hover over my eyes and are bunched together, serious. Below them my eyes are serious. Below them my smile is serious.
I must have been a serious boy, which makes sense. Today, I am a mostly serious man. Or, rather, a playful man smiling under a serious mask the world most often sees.
A sirius man howling, seriously? Perhaps.
What was I thinking when that picture was taken, over forty years ago?
Perhaps I didn't even know at the time. But I can imagine.
Let's try an experiment.
Imagine for a moment that you are me, looking at that photograph of me as a boy. My ears stick out a bit too far. My chin has a dimple.
Is it possible to crawl inside the head of the ten-year-old boy I once was? I think so. As a writer I spend a lot of time in other people's heads. Sometimes I forget that this doesn't come easily for other people. But give it a try.
Study the photograph, giving it your full attention. Let yourself drift and float. Float and drift toward the boy in the photograph. Look at his eyes. Let them draw you in through the pupils, making you a pupil of the mysterious, shadowy space inside my head.
Once you're inside, you will feel the weightlessness of thoughts and images floating through the coils of my young brain. They are the thoughts and images of a dreamy ten-year-old boy. Some of those thoughts and images are from my distant past: being born in Boulder, Colorado; moving with my parents to married-student housing at Iowa State University in Ames, Iowa; having a little brother join our family; moving to a real house on Hilltop Avenue in Ames with a swing set in the backyard; liking to swing so high I punched holes in the sky.
Some thoughts and images are more recent: moving to Littleton, Colorado, in first grade; the excitement of a school fire in the cafeteria kitchen; President Kennedy's assassination; hunching under my desk during air-raid drills; witnessing the Rocky Mountains west of Denver at night, suddenly backlit by a flash of light, panicked that we were witnessing the start of nuclear war (it was a large meteor landing in Utah); moving back to Ames. When beams of light, coming in through my eyes, focus on one of these thoughts or images, that thought or image shimmers.
And then, suddenly, darting among those thoughts and images you see words, flashing like little fish, disappearing as fast as they appear.
You blink as a word (WHOA!) collides with an image of me riding a horse for the first time at a relative's Wyoming ranch. The horse bucks once and takes off at a gallop. The word and image fuse, like me fused to the saddle horn in a death grip, hair from the horse's mane whipping my face. Or is that water streaming over my forehead and down my nose as I race, swimming to the other end of the pool?
You feel something physical. BAM! The word and the image disappear. In their place is something unlike either image or word, something bigger and brighter. It has no shape, but it has energy and a life of its own. And it is nearly blinding.
As if through a radioactive fog you see me floating over the horse's head in slow motion, floating and falling, falling, falling? Is it me shouting for joy when the horse stops with me still in the saddle? Or maybe I've just popped up from under water having just won another swimming race, hearing the crowd cheer?
These images are joined by a tangle of others. You see me straddling an out-of-control bike as it careens down the steepness of Hilltop Avenue. Fear and panic fill my brain as I anticipate an unavoidable crash. You feel the fear and panic. And then these feelings begin to fade as the fog grows dim. From it you now see elbows and knees and chins protruding, scraped and bleeding. From its center comes the sound of a beating heart. You feel the power of blood pulsing. You hear voices, some of them soothing, some of them scolding, some of them laughing, some of them screaming (mine?), some of them talking, all of them startling. You see eyes staring and are overwhelmed by a chaos of feelings. Time has stopped and turned back on itself, sliding sideways, curling inward, looping around these eyes, seeing them from every angle.
To make sense of this confusion, you reach for a piece of paper and a pencil. You must write. Your head will explode if you don't write—a word or two words, a phrase, a couple of sentences, a poem, a story, a.…
Weird, huh? Some experiment. And all from looking at an old photograph of me as a boy. If you could picture and feel what I was describing—the vivid confusion of it—you got a sense of what it is like to be me. To live in my head. To glimpse the way my brain works.
My brain has always worked like that, even before I was ten. I've had a lot of practice living with my brain and, instead of trying to make it work like everybody else's, I have learned to encourage it to be better at doing what it does naturally and best.
It has been both an interesting and frustrating brain with which to live.
Having a brain like mine can be entertaining. I study old people and imagine what they looked like when they were my age. I study five or ten year olds and imagine what they will look like when they are parents. I make stories from stray dogs I see lurking in bushes or slinking across busy streets. I make stories from tumble-down swing sets in the backyards of abandoned houses.
When I was a kid, I imagined myself living in the small towns we passed during long drives with my family (I visited nearly forty states before I was eighteen). I imagined myself as the son of women I saw, or the brother of kids I saw.
I still invent stories and words. It is what writers do. But back when I was five years old, or six or ten or sixteen, I never thought of my brain as that of a writer. There were good reasons for this.
The first reason was a source of great frustration for me, especially as I was beginning to learn to read. I am a very slow reader. I learned to read only when I found that I could say each word silently in my head—without moving my lips. It was only when I could hear a word in my head that I understood it. I am still that kind of reader. I read only as fast as I can say the words to myself, hearing them in my head. I can say them faster now than when I was six or seven. But there is no getting around the fact that I am a slow reader. I made up for being slow by reading all the time. I carried books around with me and read them every chance I got. The only place I couldn't (and can't) read books was in a car. I still get carsick.
The second reason I never thought of myself as a writer was a source of great embarrassment. I am a miserable speller—spelling makes me miserable and I make words look miserable. It didn't matter how hard I studied spelling in school. Many words would trip me up in the end. Words made me look foolish and lazy. They made me feel stupid. My parents had a hard time understanding how such a bright boy could not spell. If only I would improve my attitude, they told me. Or work harder. If I told myself I could do it, I would be able to. My father had an especially hard time understanding my inability to spell. He spells perfectly. He also reads very fast. What he didn't know was how much I wished I could spell and read like he did. It was like being the short son of a professional basketball player. I would never be able to spell well any more than I would be able to do a slam dunk or wear size fourteen shoes.
When I go into classrooms, I sometimes joke about how badly I spell. If I ask who in the class has a hard time spelling, many hands go in the air, including mine. I ask them to keep their hands up if they are such bad spellers they can't spell their own names. Every hand comes down—except mine.
My full name is Marc Alan Talbert. It looks simple enough. Imagine my surprise, then, when my parents looked at my college diploma and frowned.
"You'll have to ask them to make you another one," my mother said. "They misspelled your middle name."
I took the diploma from her and studied it. The name looked correct to me. "What's wrong with it?" I asked.
"Your middle name should have two Ls in it," my father told me. "That's the way it's spelled on your birth certificate."
Because I had consistently misspelled my middle name for so long—it was spelled with one L on my driver's license, my college records, and my tax returns—I have never had to spell it with two Ls. And I'm glad. I don't like the way "Allan" looks. It isn't me. "Alan" is my official middle name.
Being a bad speller makes me feel differently about words than most other people. They aren't just black marks on paper. They are alive. I know, because they have often made me look foolish. I know, because they often change the ways in which I think they should be spelled. I know, because I wrestle with them and fight with them and sweet-talk them into working for me. Words and I have a special, almost sibling, relationship. To me words have personalities, and I often see things in words that other people don't. Hicdowns are worse than hiccups. I'm only embarrassed when my pants fall down. And why is awful terrible when being awed is to be full of amazing wonder?
And, no, I don't use spell check on my computer. Using a crutch like that would change my special relationship to words. It would deprive me of being way-laid by the words that grab my attention in dictionaries (my favorite books of all).
It has taken me a while to realize that being a slow reader and bad speller have made me a better writer. Because I hear each word in my head as I read, I find myself constantly tuned in to the music of language. I read some writers just because they make language sing (Margaret Mahy, Gary Paulsen, Kathe Koja, and Gary Soto spring to mind). Wrestling with words (ornery little critters) has made me a stronger writer—I have to be in good shape, otherwise I will lose more than I win.
Even though reading and writing were difficult for me, I persevered. Writing—experiencing and inventing metaphor, describing images and story—was how I made sense of the world. It still is. I am smartest when I write. I am most organized and alert and observant when I write. I am wisest when I write. I must be a writer.
When I was in elementary school I walked around with pieces of paper and stubby pencils in my pockets. I would "capture" feelings or some of the things I saw on paper. Because I didn't know enough words, I invented words and combinations of words for things I wanted to describe. For example, the first time I saw a man playing an accordion, I called it a "suitcase piano." When the pencil became so dull it scratched the paper, I would chew off some of the wood and continue writing with the exposed lead. Remembering that time brings to my mouth the remembered taste of pencil lead.
In the fifth or sixth grade I learned to type. Grandfather Talbert owned an office supply company in Casper, Wyoming, where both of my parents grew up. We always had several old typewriters around the house to bang away on. I loved the clickety-clack of a typewriter and loved the ding at the end of each line and throwing the platen back with the silver lever, which also advanced the paper. At night, as I fell asleep, I'd picture my fingers touching the correct keys to spell different things. I could soon touch type as fast as I could think.
It was about this time I began to make oil paintings. I loved capturing images on canvas even though it was never as satisfying, or seemed as playful, as capturing images in words. One painting I remember was of a Biafran boy from Africa. Photographic images and descriptions of torture, rape, and murder of the Nigerian Civil War in Life magazine haunted me. The Biafran boy I painted was about eight or nine. He was sitting naked, his skin chalky, his knees akimbo, his belly swelled from starvation. He had no hair and his huge eyes stared at me as I painted. They were eyes that had given up, the eyes of someone waiting to die, perhaps wanting to die. I still mourn this boy, who was so prominent in my dreams at that time.
Another of my paintings was the mushroom-cloud of the first nuclear bomb, exploded in the Jornada de Muerta in south-central New Mexico. I remember being fascinated by how beautiful something so terrible could be. It was perhaps one of the ways I worked my way through the puzzle of my father—a gentle, civilized man who is a nuclear physicist, exactly the kind of man J. Robert Oppenheimer gathered together in Los Alamos during the 1940s to develop the bombs that destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki, vaporizing hundreds of thousands of human beings in a flash. In fact, our family spent a couple of summers in Los Alamos, where my father consulted at the national laboratory on several experiments.
And then, when I was twelve or thirteen, I began capturing feelings and images in poems. The poetry I wrote came from my gut. It was honest and moody, sometimes playful but often dark. It was adolescent, in the best sense of that word. Poetry helped me make that awkward transition from being a child to being a young adult.
Some of these poems ended up in my novel Pillow of Clouds because Chester, the main character, is more like me than any other character in my books. That isn't to say I experienced what Chester experiences in that book. I didn't. But if I had, I would have reacted much as Chester did.
The first of these poems that totally pleased me was:
there is a wall
observed a cat
and over it she sprang.
It starred the cat I grew up with, Fluffy, who was completely white with one green eye and one blue eye. The poem was a gift, as poems tend to be. In a very few words, I felt that I had distilled her practical, graceful, and independent way of living. I was envious of her approach to life because it was so different than mine.
Some of my poems were playful. I found inspiration in e e cummings' poetry, which appealed to my sense of humor, my wish to be clever, and my need to impress and break rules (if only in writing).
ee cummings &
goings i like
you in winter when
i need some
sun lets in snow and
the comings and goings of
footprints on pages dance
I was already developing a social and political conscience, as evidenced by:
The highways varicose veins
Of cars clogged and pulsing venomous, noxious fumes.
The world enmeshed in a filthy gauze
That keeps it festering
And will not let it heal.
When the seas are puss
And the rivers cut deep into the flesh
The world will avenge itself.
It will die.
I was hypersensitive to hypocrisy and ugliness and misery. Litter offended me. Ugly buildings offended me. Lots of things, including snow boots with buckles, offended me. Kids like I was are not easy to get along with. There were many times my parents must have worried about the kind of man I would grow up to be. This was especially true one Christmas when I decided that, with people starving and dying and suffering in the world, it was wrong for us to indulge in Christmas presents. Instead of buying gifts for my family, I wrote a Christmas story, which I typed out six times so my parents, brother, and two sisters could each have one. Never mind that my youngest sister was only three. The story was supposed to be beautifully sentimental, a quality I loved in Charles Dickens' novels. I remember feeling vaguely disappointed when my family graciously accepted my story, and vaguely grateful for the presents they gave me.
About this time I decided I would never again ask for particular presents at Christmas or my birthday. After all, I reasoned, if those people who were closest to me couldn't figure out what I really wanted, why should I tell them? I was almost always disappointed in my presents and, like an insufferable twit, chose to bear that disappointment as a martyr.
As I remember and write about this time in my life, I feel stirred up. I wasn't very likeable—to others, to myself.
And so it went through my adolescence. I had a few close friends, all boys. Their families were all tied to Iowa State University in one way or another. We pretended that girls did not exist. We talked politics and behaved as if we were the first people in the history of humanity who had discovered mortality, inequality, hypocrisy, and despair. I loved exploring the forests in the river valleys around Ames, Iowa. I enjoyed these solitary outings because I didn't have to justify my feelings, or my route, to anybody. I could be myself, and noodle ideas in my head, and marvel at how beautiful nature was in comparison to the ugly world created by people. Now that I am a parent, I marvel at how my parents allowed me the freedom to roam, never asking questions, never seeming to worry. Ames was safe, and times were different.
I was fifteen when the summer of 1968 rolled around. The Vietnam War was on the television news every night. We watched Walter Cronkite on CBS. Although Grandfather Talbert (whom we affectionately called Grandpa Growl) was an archconservative and my parents were Republican (I have a sneaking suspicion, however, that my mom voted for John F. Kennedy in 1960—she saw him at a rally in Denver) I was beginning to believe that the Vietnam War was a mistake. It seemed to go on and on. It seemed to have lost its point. The country we were trying to save was fighting against us and we seemed to be destroying the country we wanted to save from Communism. Sometimes I would argue with my father about Vietnam, and our arguments were loud and emotional. I felt he discounted me because I was young. He told me it was each man's duty to fight for his country when asked. I thought he was using the standards of World War II to judge this particular war. I thought he was wrong. He thought I was naïve and immature and self-centered. I thought he was rigid and living in the past.
As it turned out, many years later, we have come to realize we were both right about each other and about ourselves. Reality is often a combination of contradictory opinions. This is called democracy, in the best sense of that word. Of course I hated old floppy-eared, hound-faced President Johnson. But Nixon seemed like a snippy egotistical creep. At first I supported Senator Eurgene McCarthy in his bid to become the Democratic nominee for president. He was an accomplished poet from Minnesota. Bravely, he was the first Democrat to run against President Johnson and the Vietnam War.
Then Martin Luther King, Jr., was assassinated. My family and I were visiting a sister of my mother's in Los Angeles. From her house we saw the smoke roiling from the rioting in the predominantly Black section of Los Angeles, called Watts. It was frightening to witness the self-destructive anger of the Black community from such close quarters. King's death shook me, and Robert Kennedy's calming, compassionate response to King's death (and his opposition to the Vietnam War) caused me to wonder if he was more than the opportunistic politician so many McCarthy supporters believed. Was it possible he wasn't just cashing in on his name and the assassination of his older brother? I went so far as to read Kennedy's campaign book, To Seek a Newer World. In it he quoted from Greek tragedies and had obviously been tempered by his older brother's death. His ideas were big and his ideals were timeless. His smile was huge, yet his eyes were sad. I was hooked.
I remember the day Robert Kennedy died as clearly as I remember the day John F. Kennedy died. I took it personally. It was as if I was part of a living Greek tragedy. I bought the 45 rpm record of Andy Williams singing Ave Maria at Robert Kennedy's memorial service in Saint Patrick's Cathedral. Every time I listened to it I wanted to cry. I still do. When Ames High School took a handful of us on a bus trip to New York and Washington, D.C., it was Robert Kennedy's grave that moved me most. It was off to the side of John F. Kennedy's, which was visited by busloads of people. Robert Kennedy's grave was simple and achingly beautiful. I was the only one of our group who sought it out.
Throughout this time, I continued to write, but I didn't get much encouragement from family or teachers, except for one teacher in high school who thought I had talent. Mr. Forssman, who taught honors English, made me feel that my writing was somehow special. Lots of people write for themselves and, for most people, that is good enough. As much as I kept my most important writing secret, I had a longing to share it with people. I longed for the power over people certain writers had over me. I didn't know, however, if my writing (good as I thought it was) would ever be appreciated by other people. Mr. Forssman, with his genuine and understated enthusiasm, made me feel that my writing was good enough to share. He planted an idea in my head—that perhaps someday I could be published.
It just takes one teacher like that. Unfortunately, many promising writers never have a Mr. Forssman in their lives.
High school was drawing to a close. With one year left to go, my father accepted research positions at CERN, an international atomic research accelerator across the border in France from Geneva, Switzerland, and at the Nobel Institute for Physics in Stockholm, Sweden. It was a bit awkward to be gone my senior year, but my parents packed, ordered a VW van for us to pick up in Europe, and off we went. Geneva was a beautiful place for a teenaged boy of some independence to explore. It was exquisitely lonely. For somebody who had grown up in Colorado and Iowa, it was exotic but safe, challenging but familiar. It was there that I discovered Albert Camus and Antoine de Saint-Exupery. Both of these writers suited my adolescent outlook on life. Camus' outlook is one I have carried with me into middle age. His book, The Stranger, explored the idea that we cannot live in this world without intentionally or unintentionally harming and killing other people. He believed the best we can do is go through life killing the least number of people. I took this truth into my heart and it has remained there ever since. We drive cars that kill with air pollution. We are safe because policemen and firemen and soldiers sacrifice their lives for us. We buy diamonds and coal and gold for which a certain number of miners die. I grew, through Camus, to believe that we must recognize these facts and be respectful of and grateful for the sacrifices made for our wellbeing.
Saint-Exupery appealed to my desire that I never grow up. He was a boundless adventurer. Wind, Sand and Stars often took my breath away. He was a philosopher/adventurer, able to glean so much wisdom from what he experienced in life. In The Little Prince, he created a character who appealed to my longing for innocence, my longing to remain a child forever. Peter Pan, which I also read that summer, also appealed to the puer in me.
It was in Geneva that I experienced the grandest Fourth of July I'd ever witnessed. The John Deere Company had a huge manufacturing facility near Geneva and had brought over many American executives to oversee its operations. It was partly because of them that there was such a large expatriate American community in Geneva. The fireworks, detonated over Lake Geneva, were spectacular. The carnival rides were more elaborate than any I'd seen back home. I was aware, for the first time, of how American I was, and also, as an American, how much of an outsider I was in the world at large.
One of our neighbors was a Czechoslovakian psychologist who worked at the human developmental institute founded by Jean Piaget. It was through him, and his French wife, that I first learned of developmental psychology and the fascinating experiments being done that tested spatial and quantitative reality with children of various ages. A seed had been planted that would sprout many years later. This couple, who were in the process of buying their Swiss citizenship (successfully), were intellectually and emotionally stimulating for a boy who was sometimes overwhelmed by his self-imposed isolation.
My sense of isolation followed me to Sweden, where my brother and I were enrolled in an international school in Viggbyholm, just north of Stockholm. Although the common language was English, my classmates came from all over the world. I met the son of the leader of the Eritrean Liberation Front, before I knew anything about Eritrea and its quest for independence from Ethiopia.
It was at the Viggbyholmskolen that I was taught world history by a communist from India. I was taught English by a man from England. I took Spanish (which I learned to speak with a Swedish accent) and Swedish (which I spoke with an American accent). Among other things, I ate blood pudding one lunch a week (not knowing what it was the first time, and liking it).
My history teacher took it upon himself to expand my world view beyond the platitudes of American-style democracy. Because of the Vietnam War he was joined in this effort by many of my fellow students—from Germany, the Soviet Union, Latvia, England, Canada, Sweden, Denmark, and the Netherlands. I discovered that, as defensive as I felt about being American, they all had valuable perspectives of my country. I developed an uneasy combination of humility and pride in being American. I loved my history teacher for his honest perspective and his respect for our differences.
My English teacher recognized my love of reading and saw some talent in my writing. He tailored a program for me that year that allowed me to concentrate on Charles Dickens as long as I could explain to him my critical perspective of each book I read. I spent many dark Swedish afternoons and evenings eating raisins from Israel, drinking tea from Turkey and Ceylon, reading Martin Chuzzlewit (weighing in at over nine-hundred pages) and Hard Times and David Copperfield and Dombey and Sons. My love of Dickens grew with each book I read.
Because this was my senior year of high school, I was required to take my SAT tests for college applications. I took mine at the American Embassy in downtown Stockholm on a Saturday when there were massive demonstrations against the Vietnam War. Swedes are known as peaceful people. Not everyone in the crowd outside my first-floor window was peaceful. I remember being distracted by rocks hitting the window and by the constant din of shouting. In spite of my learning and reading challenges, I am a good standardized test taker. I did exceptionally well on that test, in spite of (or perhaps because of) the protests going on outside.
I have many fond memories of that year. One is of skating on the Baltic Sea in the dead of winter. The man my father worked with provided several pairs of Baltic Sea skates for my brother, mother, and me. They were strap-ons and about sixteen inches long. The Baltic Sea was frozen a little beyond the archipelago of islands that reached from Stockholm toward Finland. We spent an entire day skating from island to island over black ice that occasionally cracked from cold with the sound of a shotgun. A bonfire and mulled cider greeted us at each island.
Another fond memory is of beginning to accept my naked body. Swedes are known for swimming naked, sunbathing naked, and being frank about the importance of sexual expression in life. The locker rooms at school were cleaned continually by a team of Finish women. It didn't matter to them that dozens of naked boys were showering, horsing around, dressing, or undressing as they mopped floors and picked up towels. For a prudish American, it took a while to become comfortable being naked around women.
Yet another fond memory is our family skiing holiday to Verbier, Switzerland, where I learned that skiing was more than the rope-tow hills in northern Iowa (powered by a tractor) with bales of hay at the bottom, in case anybody went out of control. At Verbier, there were some runs that took over an hour to ski from top to bottom, snaking around entire mountains, all of them above timberline. The chalet we rented was on the ski slope.
Midway through my year in Sweden, I had to make a decision about which college or university I would attend in the fall. I had no idea how to do it, and my thinking about college was pretty primitive. Iowa State University was too familiar to be an option. But my parents wanted me close to home. The best college in Iowa was, and is, Grinnell College. One of my father's graduate students was a physics professor there. I applied to Grinnell sight unseen. I was accepted. I had no idea what I was getting in to.
As my Swedish year drew to a close, my Talbert grandparents joined us for the last month. With them we toured Norway, taking cruise ships up the coast, exploring fjords, staying in hotels that were so beautiful they made my grandmother cry. We took a ferry to England, where we toured London (for the second time) and headed to Portsmouth, where we were to board the Queen Elizabeth II on its first trans-Atlantic crossing of the season.
Because my hair was long, in the Swedish style, my parents marched me to a barber shop close to port where I got the worst haircut of my life. The barber knew only one way to cut hair, and that was in the British naval style. A year's worth of lovely hair was gone in a flash. I could barely look at myself in the mirror for six months.
The voyage was magical enough to take my mind off my hair. Being the first voyage of the season, the seas were rough. Grandfather Talbert was seasick most of the time, as was my second youngest sister. My brother and I had the run of the boat—and what a huge, glamorous boat it was! We snuck into first class and watched movies (among them, Dustin Hoffman in Little Big Man), amused when fancy people lurched to their feet and tried to exit before throwing up. Many of them failed.
I was surprised at being moved by the Statue of Liberty as our ship sailed into New York City's harbor. After a year of living in Europe, happily so, I felt very emotional being greeted by such dignified splendor upon coming home.
Ames, Iowa, looked pretty mundane after a year in Europe. But I had college to get ready for. I packed what I thought I needed and then decided to bike to Grinnell. My parents would drive my stuff there the next day. Grinnell was ninety miles from Ames, and I was sure I could do it in a day.
It was undoubtedly one of the longest days of my life. As it turned out, we had a relative who lived in Grinnell, a cousin of my mother's mother, and also one of her best friends growing up. Why we hadn't spent time with Ollie Canvin before I went to Grinnell, I will never understand. She was perhaps one of the kindest souls I have ever met. She waited dinner for me when I rolled in four or five hours late (almost dusk), completely beat up by a ride I wasn't prepared for. All that year, and the next, she cooked Sunday dinners for me and my roommate in the style of the dinners she used to cook the mining men in her family, including her husband who, when he was nineteen, lost the use of his legs in a mining accident.
Ollie lived on the wrong side of the tracks, in a beautiful gingerbread house that would have fit beautifully on the college/country-club side of Grinnell. It was choice, not poverty, that determined where she and her husband built that house. She was also a nurse and had chosen to work in the Catholic hospital, with its hand-me-down equipment, before it was finally absorbed into the well-heeled general hospital. She was not Catholic, but she had an abiding dislike for the prejudice against Catholics and Jews that was so prevalent in small Midwestern towns. She had raised the son of her disabled brother. She and her husband also ran a dry-cleaning store when dry-cleaning was not a safe business to be in. In fact, it burned down once, and her husband likely died from the affects of the toxic chemicals involved in his work.
I didn't know what to expect at Grinnell. I knew it was academically excellent. And I knew that a representative from Playboy magazine had come to speak at the college a couple of years before and been greeted by a couple dozen nude protesters, men and women. No doubt about it, Grinnell had a reputation for being liberal. It was also a hotbed of opposition to the Vietnam War. I knew these things concerned my parents, especially my mother. When they dropped off my things, my roommate, a shaggy-haired guy from Brooklyn, was hanging a neon Stroh's beer sign in our window. My mother cried all the way back to Ames.
Luckily, that roommate didn't last long. I soon found a wonderfully gentle roommate from Rochester, New York, and a room in a coed dorm. He was my roommate for the rest of my Grinnell experience. His mother was an English war bride, and he introduced me to the children's book author, Arthur Ransome, which I'm sure had an influence later in my writing career.
College was a challenge for me. While other freshmen were out losing their virginity (if they still had it) with each other and upperclassmen, smoking dope, and dropping acid, I stayed in my room or walked into town for vanilla Cokes at the old-fashioned soda fountain or visited Ollie or walked the railroad tracks that cut the campus in two, going north out of town. I was, and am, terrified of the drugs many of my fellow students were using. That is not to say I don't enjoy some drugs. I love caffeine and beer and wine and, for a while, I loved smoking cigarettes.
Aside from feeling socially out of place, I found the required reading overwhelming. Luckily, through my new roommate, I fell in with a small crowd that included poets and writers. One member of that crowd was a little Irish-American woman from outside Chicago who introduced me to beer. I fell in love with her, and beer. My love for her didn't last, but my love of beer has survived.
Unfortunately, I didn't know what I wanted to study. Grinnell College was expensive, and not knowing what I was doing there made me feel guilty. Mainly I took English courses, and I didn't like them. I hated being told how I should feel about what I had read. I still do, even by the authors themselves. When I read a book, it is no longer the author's. It is mine. And I hope those who read the books I write feel the same way. In fact, if they are so moved, they may replace my name on the cover with their own.
At the end of a very unsatisfying first year of college I found a job, through friends of my family, at a camp for diabetic children in Ohio. Off I went, again on my bike, to Ohio, via the house of my girlfriend outside Chicago. Our relationship, such as it was, was waning. I found that I loved her noisy, chaotic, incredibly funny family more than her. The bike trip was grueling and thankfully I have forgotten many of the details. I do remember sleeping in a couple of cemeteries. I stayed one night in a monastery near the Mississippi River. I still cringe at the memory of semi-trucks passing me at ungodly speeds. Getting around Chicago was grueling. When I finally got within striking distance of Cleveland (with no time to spare), I took a bus east to the crossroads where Camp Ho Mita Koda was located. I felt as if I was cheating, so I got on my bike and pedaled the last mile into camp. It was quite a dramatic entrance, and nobody guessed that I hadn't biked the last hundred miles or so. I never told them.
That was the summer I discovered that I loved working with kids. Being around kid energy made my heart feel warmer, like my stomach after drinking hot tea with honey. I loved working with the staff, some of whom had been there many years. I especially loved teaching diabetic kids to swim. Many of these kids were learning to regulate their own blood sugar and learning to give themselves insulin shots. They practiced by injecting oranges with saline-solution. Before they gave shots to themselves, they would sometimes practice on one of the counselors. I didn't mind—much—and I learned the ins and outs of giving shots.
I went back to Grinnell after that glorious summer a bit more focused and energized. Unfortunately, Uncle Sam had me in his sights. The Vietnam War was still raging, although everybody believed it was running out of gas. The draft had become a lottery (based on birthdays), and in the interests of fairness college students were no longer exempt from serving. It was televised, but I didn't watch, certain that I had nothing to worry about. I should have worried. My birthday was the fifth one chosen—number five in a year that conscripted young men with numbers around one hundred. I was stunned. How could I go fight in a war I thought was wrong? I had been against the war since 1968! Living in Sweden had solidified my opposition to the war.
Upon being drafted, the discussions I had with my father became even more acrimonious. He told me that I would go fight or he would disown me. I told him I would go to Canada before I would fight in Vietnam. But there was another option. I could try to earn conscientious objector (C.O.) status, even though it would be almost impossible to do after receiving my lottery number. After all, the first thing they would want to know was why I hadn't declared myself a C.O. before it was certain I would be faced with fighting.
I was sent induction paperwork. A chartered bus took a couple dozen boys from the area to Fort Des Moines for physicals. I was so scared I had a hard time peeing into a cup. Doctors looked up my rear and poked around my balls and took blood and listened to my heart and thumped on me and evaluated my hearing and examined my eyes—and pronounced me fit to serve.
In a panic, I got the information I needed to apply for c.o. status. I let my schoolwork suffer as I wrote the required essays explaining my beliefs. Describe the beliefs which are the basis for your claim for classification as a conscientious objector. Explain what most clearly shows that your beliefs are deeply held. I was haunted by what I had to think about and explain. I had to write six essays altogether, and they were very difficult.
I was determined not to become a fraudulent conscientious objector. Some Quaker friends offered to write a testimonial about my pacifistic religious beliefs (I was not, and am not, a pacifist—even though Grandfather Talbert was raised a Quaker). I contemplated self-injury, something that wouldn't be too difficult to live with but that would make me unfit for service. I listened to Arlo Guthrie's "Alice's Restaurant" with cynical worldliness and went for the truth. I was against the Vietnam War, not all wars, and I would leave for Canada the day after my C.O. status was denied. I had even chosen Calgary, mainly because it is a university town near mountains. I practiced giving oral answers to questions I expected from the required interview with the Ames draft board. Several members of the draft board had known me since I was a little kid.
The sources I sited in making my case were pretty audacious. I quoted from The Trial of the Catonsville 9 by radical antiwar activist and former-priest, Daniel Barrigan. I quoted from Mao Tse-Tung's Little Red Book, which I had bought in Stockholm and that was considered subversive in the United States. I wove in existential reasoning from The Plague by Camus. I listed influential books, such as The Ugly American, Manchild in the Promised Land, Death at an Early Age, and The Grapes of Wrath. I used Thoreau's words from his essay "On Civil Disobedience." I held up as role models for living within decent moral boundaries the Nearings, an elderly counterculture couple who wrote Living the Good Life. I even quoted from avant garde educator A.S. Neill in his book, Summerhill.
I was nervous as my father drove me to my meeting with the draft board. During the interview I was forthright and honest. I was respectful but firm. Judging from the stern faces I sat across from, I was sure I had blown it. Hello, Canada, I thought on my way back to Grinnell.
When I got their letter, they not only granted my C.O. status, they waived the requirement that I perform alternative service. I was relieved, but by then my academic year at Grinnell was in shreds and I decided to transfer to Iowa State University that fall.
Something began to haunt me almost immediately after my relief. Who went to Vietnam in my stead? Certainly, somebody ended up going who would not otherwise have gone. They had a quota of men to send off to war. I tried to console myself with the thought that whoever was called up because of my C.O. status had the same chances I had to become a C.O. But what, I wondered, if that man wasn't as articulate as me? Or had a fulltime job that interfered with the time it would take to write the essays? I'd had the luxury of being a student, even a bad student. Wrestling with this guilt, and the estranged relationship I had with my father, eventually led me to write The Purple Heart.
Life in a large university wasn't as overwhelming as I thought it might be. Being anonymous within a large university setting isn't all bad. I spent that first year sampling different courses that would possibly lead me toward a major. I tried Outdoor Education, Child Development, Forestry, Elementary Education, and Journalism.
It was while taking a couple of journalism courses that I began working for the student newspaper, the Iowa State Daily. It came out Monday through Friday and had a circulation of twenty thousand. Not bad.
I became a friend of the editor-in-chief and wrote a couple of amusing editorial page columns for him. At least I thought they were amusing. Up until then, humorous writing had not been my forte, but I saw so much about student life in a large university that was absurdly funny that I couldn't help myself. He liked them. He published them. The response was so good, he offered me the position of editorial page columnist. I went from being a mediocre journalism student to writing about whatever I wanted, in any way I wanted, twice a week. Quite a coupe. And I loved it.
The original title of my column was "Talbert's Zoo." I tackled such subjects as what to do when your roommate entertains (and is entertained by) guests of the opposite sex in your shared room. I wrote about Watergate, sex, how much I hate football, how winter in Iowa builds strong character, and how to make friends by dialing wrong numbers. I even reprinted the short story I wrote for my family, back when I didn't believe in Christmas presents. And then I changed the name of the column to "Country Candor" for reasons I have long forgotten. It included a picture of me in bib overalls, long hair, glasses, smirking at the camera. So much for anonymity.
In one column, I got national coverage. Written in January of 1976, it began innocently enough.
I have long been an admirer of several columnists.
In fact, it was a cause for concern with one of my
high school friends that I always read Donald Kaul [of the Des Moines Register ] in the morning before the sports page. And that wasn't the worst of it. But I never had the heart to tell them I always read the comics next.
Besides Kaul, who has since packed off to Washington, D.C., to make his cryptic comments in the shadow of the Washington Monument, there is another columnist I have always admired. This columnist is the only one I know who can make the workings of a washing machine take on the appearance of World War II. Of course, this columnist could be none other than the one, fortunately for us, and only, Erma Bombeck.
She is to the housewife what deodorant is to the armpit.…
And then, after a few paragraphs of poking fun at the way she pokes fun at her teenaged son, I decided to empower her son by having him write a book called Raising Parents Without Tears. Of course, the section I chose to highlight had to do with sex. I have her son hand her a pad of paper to write down any question she's embarrassed to ask aloud. Let's pick up the column there.
I've always believed that parents should be told the truth about sex. There are so many things they either don't understand, or else try to hide from. So I wasn't surprised when the pad was pushed over to me with the question: "Is it true that adults can have sex after marriage?"
I looked at Erma's embarrassed face and said, "Erma, sex is not the sole property of teenagers.… I am your son. Obviously some thing happened between the time you were married and the time I entered your life that caused me to be born. That something is called…"
"Dishpan hands?" she timidly offered.
"No, Erma, it is called sex.… After all, how else could you have had a son and a daughter?"
She gave me a furtive look. "By eating from the same fork as your father," she replied.
I let the matter drop for the time being. It is frustrating to raise parents. But if they know you care about them and that you love them, they normally turn out all right.
Someone sent her that column, and she replied two weeks later in her nationally syndicated column. I was sent copies from all over the United States.
I get a lot of mail from teenagers. Some of it is even signed.…The ones who really scare me half to death are the kids who have their own columns and can fight back.
One of them is Marc Talbert.… Marc [reveals] what for years parents have tried to suppress—the fact that children raise their parents.
After quoting from my column she ends:
C'mon, Marc. Fight fair. Whenever young people want to win one, they go for the parental Achilles heel … their reticence to discuss s-e-x (especially with the kids who wrote the book!).
Parents are changing. We really are. We're more open now than we have ever been. Why, on my dorm application for Nyack College, beside the word sex, I filled in "FOR."
In writing several hundred columns, not only for the Iowa State Daily, but for the Ames Daily Tribune and the Cedar Valley Times (in Vinton, Iowa)—sometimes four separate columns a week!—I learned to enjoy the power of writing, the way it could make people think and laugh and even get angry—the way it made me think and laugh and even get angry. I got fan mail and my share of hate mail. My mother and dad got crank calls (I didn't have a phone in my dorm room). I got a cream pie in the face from a student who became a close friend. The seed Mr. Forssman had planted back in high school was now a sapling almost big enough for my ego to climb.
While at Iowa State I zeroed in on what I wanted to do. I minored in journalism, which I figured I could always do part time. I was then torn between majoring in child development (there was a wonderful Latvian professor who invited me to take several of her masters level courses, which I did and loved) or elementary education. I decided to become an elementary school teacher, to teach children not subjects.
While I was at Iowa State, I continued to work at Camp Ho Mita Koda, eventually becoming waterfront director. I loved it, but unfortunately was introduced to smoking by a dear friend who worked there with me. I took it up with a vengeance and, in truth, loved it.
During my first year of teaching a combined fifth-sixth grade combination in Marshalltown, Iowa (between Ames and Grinnell) I decided that I needed a physical outlet for my frustrations. I had a lot of frustrations. Not only did I have to prepare two lesson plans each day, one for fifth grade and one for sixth grade, several disturbed kids had been mainstreamed into my class. One was in fifth grade and could not spell his own name. I had one who smiled only when he hurt another kid. And then, partway through the year, a girl who had been sexually abused for years by her father (who was in jail) was placed in my classroom. I also had the student who inspired Toby —a bright, wonderful boy whose parents were both retarded.
The school was next to the town's hog packing plant, which reeked most of the time of burning hair and blood and from which tortured sounds came at all hours of the day. I made the most of it by getting animal parts for my class to dissect as we studied the human body. Lungs, stomachs, brains, hearts. The plant's foreman got to know me well. The most successful body part were eyeballs. I loved teaching these kids about their bodies, especially when we got to what was euphemistically called Human Growth and Development—sex education.
By and large, the joys of teaching were overshadowed by the frustrations. My outlet, I decided, would be running. This meant that the smoking had to go. One evening, after running my first mile, my lungs hurt so badly it wasn't hard to quit cold turkey. I never smoked again, and continued to run longer and longer distances. My lungs hurt less and less.
The next year I got a job teaching in Ames at the school I had first gone to when I was in first grade. The principal I worked with was the principal I'd had as a kid. I taught fifth grade and loved it. I had continued writing two columns a week for the editorial page of the Ames Daily Tribune. My kids loved bringing me their parents' reactions to what had appeared in the previous day's newspaper. They saw that I actually did in my columns what I asked them to do in their writing. They were especially happy to report mistakes.
Even though teaching in Ames wasn't as frustrating as teaching in Marshalltown, I ramped up my running. I started training with a serious marathon runner, who became a close friend. We traveled to a couple of marathons together, where I ran my personal best of two hours and forty-five minutes in both races.
My running buddy's wife was concerned about how running made her husband stiff. She suggested that we take adult ballet classes with her as a way of limbering up. A husband and wife team, Bob and Myoko Thomas, both former principal dancers for the Joeffry Ballet in New York, had just opened a dance studio in Ames, his home town. My running partner lasted a couple of months. I was hooked. It was bittersweet to know that if I had been exposed to dancing as a boy, it might have become the center of my life. In spite of being relatively old and stiff, and as addicted to running as I had been to smoking, I enjoyed ballet tremendously.
Teaching and running and writing newspaper columns were a wonderful combination. But I was barely able to make ends meet. I took a job as a front desk clerk at the fancy new, high-rise hotel in town. One summer I flew to Homer, Alaska, to be the deckhand for an uncle who was a commercial salmon fisherman. It was a magnificent adventure but, unfortunately, it was a slow year for fish.
And I was lonely. I didn't have much time to socialize. I hadn't yet met a woman with whom I wanted to spend my life. Several older relatives, I learned later, suspected I was gay. All that changed the summer I went to New Mexico to visit my parents (who had moved to Los Alamos soon after I had graduated from Iowa State University).
I loved running in the mountains around Los Alamos and Santa Fe and, through an ultra-distant runner in Los Alamos, met the owners of a small running store in Santa Fe. They took a liking to me, hot-shot runner from Iowa that I was. They had also taken a liking to a young Santa Fe woman who was dominating distance races in New Mexico and surrounded states. They thought we should meet. They arranged for me to do a training run with her starting at the famous resort, the Bishop's Lodge, in the foothills just north of Santa Fe. For me it was love at first sight. She had (and has) such kind and gentle eyes. We chit-chatted and stretched a few minutes and then she proceeded to run me into the ground. I followed her up the Big Tesuque Canyon, watching her cute red shorts grow smaller and smaller as she pulled farther ahead. Her name was Moo Thorpe. It still is. And now she's my wife.
We ran several more times that summer. As I got to know Moo better, I found out that she worked construction during the day and trained for marathons in the early mornings or evenings. She had graduated from Middlebury College in Vermont with a degree in geography and had been interested in solar house design. She decided to learn it from the ground up, joined a crew, and began digging ditches for footers. She bought tools and was soon promoted to framer. She bought more tools and was soon doing finish work. By the time I met her she could do it all, which came in handy when we built our own adobe house. At the time, I could barely pound a nail in straight.
I went back to Iowa to teach, knowing that it would be my last year there.
We met at Christmas back in New Mexico, and again at the Chicago Marathon that spring.
It was a year when love was blossoming in my life. It was also a year in which death frosted the edges of my happiness. The close friend who had thrown a pie in my face in college died in a plane crash, going with her family to Colorado for a long weekend of skiing. She had asked me to go with them. I had planned to go and then couldn't get away from teaching at the last minute. Her father was the pilot. Her brother also died, as did two other students at Iowa State, both track stars. Her mother asked me to speak at her memorial service.
Ollie Canvin died. Not long after her death a great aunt of mine, someone I felt very close to, started a slow descent into poor health and death.
And then, as if that wasn't enough, a student of mine died in a car crash that spring. Her death was difficult for me to deal with. It was difficult for my class. I looked for help in the library. When I found nothing helpful for me or my students, I promised myself that someday I would write a book for kids about death. I listened to my students. We cried together. We mourned together. We processed. What I learned from my students became the foundation for my first novel, Dead Birds Singing.
I moved to New Mexico and looked for teaching jobs. Opportunities were scarce, and paid even less than what I earned in Ames. Luckily, through my father who was working at Los Alamos National Laboratory, I learned of a job opening at the lab for a writer/editor. It paid twice what I'd earned as a teacher in Iowa. Perhaps it was time to give writing a chance. I got the job on the strength of my editorial-page columns.
I was really good at writing columns for the editorial page. I wasn't so good at writing straight news. And that was my first assignment at the lab. I was to be a reporter for their in-house weekly newspaper, covering human-interest and unclassified scientific stories for lab employees and (hopefully) Congress.
I have always enjoyed the company of scientists. Growing up with an accomplished scientist will do that to a person. But I found it difficult to write the kinds of stories I was being asked to write. In spite of my unhappiness at Los Alamos, Moo's and my love grew and we were married the spring after I moved to New Mexico—at the Bishop's Lodge, which, it turned out, Moo's family owned. We gave our families two weeks notice to minimize the fuss. They took it as a challenge, especially my mother. A fuss was made by all, and Moo and I had fun too.
Luckily for me, Ed Knapp, a family friend from Los Alamos became the Director of the National Science Foundation. He didn't like the speeches that were being written for him. He wanted to hire a speechwriter who could make him sound like himself, only better. He asked me if Moo and I would move to Washington, D.C., so that I could help him out. I agreed to try it for a year. Moo was a good sport about agreeing to this, never having been one for big cities or the east coast.
We packed up a few of our things and our dog Jiggs (half rottweiler and half blue heeler) and made our way to the nation's capitol. We stayed with friends for a week while Moo (who had become a real estate broker the previous year) found a home for us to buy in Arlington. It was a perfect fixer-upper, on a park with a trail that went to Mount Vernon in one direction and Fairfax in the other. It was also within running distance of my office, which was one block west of White House.
I pictured myself running through the Arlington National Cemetery, across the Key Bridge to the other side of the Potomac, past the Lincoln Memorial and Vietnam Memorial, turning north at the National Academy of Sciences and then east to the building the National Science Foundation shared with the Secret Service.
My office was in the Director's suite. From it I often saw the comings and goings of President Reagan's motorcade as he tootled around. The Director's administrative assistant was a wonderful Jewish lady who'd grown up in Birmingham, Alabama. I'd never before heard a Jew speak with a Southern accent. Under her perky, generous guidance, I was introduced all around and began writing speeches.
It was an incredibly fun job. The people I worked with were all leaders in their particular fields of science. Washington, D.C., is full of experts on anything one can imagine, and the National Science Foundation was teaming with brains and knowledge.
In fact, I ran to work in the mornings … around the cemetery, having quickly learned that it was considered disrespectful to run past the gravestones. It was a hot and muggy summer, and the smog was often so thick and so heavy that I could see only the top of the Washington Monument. I would shower in the Director's private bathroom or, if he was holding early meetings, in the locker room in the basement. I could always tell Secret Service agents from National Science Foundation scientists. The dark blue suits of the Secret Service agents were invariably a couple sizes too small. The scientists' suits tended toward tweed and were usually on the loose side. After showering I would discuss policy with various experts and then write speeches. Happily, the speeches made the Director sound more like himself than if he'd written them himself—which is a good definition of the art of writing speeches.
Because the National Science Foundation is at the cutting edge of whatever is going on in the scientific world, I had a very early version of one of the first personal computers. The word processing program was quirky and cumbersome, but I learned to use it. Because many of Ed's speeches had much of the same content, I found the computer a wonderful tool for "personalizing" speeches, cutting and pasting chunks of various speeches.
Fun and challenging as the job was, I soon realized that I was going to have time on my hands when the Director was out delivering the speeches I wrote. I remembered the children's book on death that I had promised myself I would write one day. I asked Ed if he would mind me working on a novel in my spare time. He was delighted to give his OK.
Was writing speeches in Washington, D.C., good training for writing a novel? Yes, I think so. As Ed and I have since joked, too often Washington speeches are as much exercises in fiction as novels.
So, between speeches and on my runs in the morning and in the evenings and on weekends I wrote and wrote and wrote what became Dead Birds Singing. It was tricky, because Moo and I were often busy working on the house or seeing the sights around Maryland and Virginia.
Having never written a novel, and having never been told how to write a novel, I invented a method that I have used for each of my novels. I start with a subject. That evolves into a big question. For A Sunburned Prayer that question is: What is faith? For Double or Nothing that question is: Is there such a thing as magic? For The Purple Heart that question is: What is a hero? For Star of Luís that question is: Who am I? For Dead Birds Singing that question is: How can life go on after the death of a loved one?
Of course there are many, smaller questions that pop up in my books. I never want to answer any of them. Questions in books are for each reader to answer. I simply want to frame them, from the protagonist's point of view.
So I write my books for my protagonist, always, not the people who read my books. I can't write for people I don't know. I get to know my protagonists well enough to have conversations with them in my head, to ask them questions and listen to their answers, to picture them, to learn about their lives before the book and after the book is over.
For Dead Birds Singing I outlined what I wanted to happen, chapter by chapter. I soon learned that, at a certain point, the characters started telling me what was going to happen and often refused to do what I expected them to do. The point at which I lose control of a book is the point at which it becomes totally alive. I no longer make outlines.
It was great to finally have a manuscript of a book in hand. Moo, always my first and most honest reader, liked it. What then? I had no idea how to get it published.
As it turned out, we had become friendly with a young couple across the street from us. They were the only neighbors who were our age and childless. Munro Magruder worked for the publisher Little, Brown and Company as a regional representative and had just been offered a job at their corporate headquarters in Boston. His wife, Virginia, was especially interested in children's books. One evening, over dinner, I got brave enough to tell them that I had just written a children's novel. They agreed to read it. Luckily, they liked it and Munro took it with him the next week to Boston and gave it to Betsy Isle, the woman in charge of children's books, with his recommendation. She put it on top of her slush pile (a literal pile of unread manuscripts) and, as luck would have it, took it with her the next day to a conference. Late that night she read it in one gulp. I had a contract within two weeks.
At the end of our year in Washington, D.C., we sold our remodeled house for a handsome profit, loaded up Jiggs and a couple of Indian blankets we'd bought cheaply (because nobody knew what they were worth in Virginia), and headed home. Moo began to truly relax after we crossed the Mississippi. So did Jiggs. I didn't relax as much because I was going back to work at the lab.
Fortunately, I was moved from the News Bulletin to the writing team responsible for the Los Alamos National Laboratory annual report, Research Highlights. I wrote articles for the general public on such things as computer models for tracking pollution over complicated terrain; using radio collars to track elk in the wild; many-body systems; and the development of simple, natural engines as alternatives to complicated internal combustion engines. I enjoyed the quality of the writing I was allowed to do and the more thoughtful pace. I also loved sharing an office with Pat Metropolis. She and I often got in trouble for laughing too much (what is too much laughing?). She helped me with my spelling and I helped her with lead sentences.
And I continued to write novels for children. Dead Birds Singing was enjoying success in the United States, Japan, Norway, Denmark, Great Britain (and the Commonwealth), and Spain. I wrote Thin Ice, a difficult book in light of the standard of success Dead Birds Singing had established. I cut down on my work at Los Alamos, going four-fifths time and then three-fifths time. When I got down to two-fifths time it was evident that I should quit. I did and began to write full time. Pat Metropolis decided to retire a short time later. We remain close friends and no longer get into trouble for laughing.
By then I had an agent, who had been recommended to me by Richard Peck. My wife's real estate broker had shown him property in Santa Fe and she suggested that I contact him. After reading several of his books and loving them, I called him with my heart in my throat. He had no idea who I was, but was most helpful and kind. He is my mentor. Our friendship is as close as any I have experienced. My kids call him Uncle Richard, and he dedicated his Newbery Award-winning book, A Year Down Yonder, to our family.
I was now being published by Dial Books for Young Readers, who brought out Toby, The Paper Knife, Rabbit in the Rock, Double or Nothing, and Pillow of Clouds.
I met Brinton Turkle, illustrator and author of the Caldecott Honor book Thy Friend Obedia, at a group book signing in which he sold two books and I sold one. I joked afterwards that our friendship would not have survived if I had sold more books than him. We became fast friends, and he enriched my life and my family's life considerably. I still miss him, a year after his death.
During the late 1980s, a local children's bookstore owner and I organized a conference at the Bishop's Lodge called "The Courage to Write for Children." We brought to Santa Fe writers and illustrators we admired. It was unique in that we wanted our speakers to stay for the entire weekend, to interact not only with conference participants but with each other. Many of those we invited became friends: Richard Peck (of course), Katherine Paterson, Rosemary Wells, Brock Cole, Gary Paulsen, Steven Kellogg, Will Hobbs, Graham Salisbury, Jennifer Owings Dewey, Susan Jeffers, Jeanne Whitehouse Peterson, Betsy James, and Brinton Turkle (who many people thought was already dead). I invited Willa Perlman and David Gale, both editors of mine (for The Purple Heart, A Sunburned Prayer, and Heart of a Jaguar). The conference never made much money, but when it began to lose a lot, we quit the conference business.
It was during this time I began to occasionally teach Children's Literature and Writing for Children at the University of New Mexico Graduate Center (and me with no graduate degree!) and at the College of Santa Fe. I enjoy teaching college almost as much as I enjoyed teaching fifth grade. Fifth grade questions tend to be more interesting and challenging.
As the last century drew to a close, I wrote Star of Luís, my novel about crypto-Jews in New Mexico. Although contracted for, it was not welcomed at Simon & Schuster. My agent placed it with Clarion, where it was edited by Katherine Paterson's long-time editor, Virginia Buckley. Soon after, I changed agents and, with the help of Avi, placed my next two books (The Trap and Small Change ) with Richard Jackson, an editor/publisher I had long admired. He was the editor who "discovered" Judy Blume and Gary Paulsen and a host of other heroes of mine. He was a dream to work with but, unfortunately, was in the midst of moving from DK Ink to Simon & Schuster. These books went out into the world and immediately disappeared. It was heartbreaking and difficult to accept.
While working on my books for Richard Jackson, Avi's organization, Breakfast Serials, published a serialized novel of mine, The Best in the World. It has appeared in dozens of newspapers across the country, and continued to pop up here and there.
Next I had the honor of working with photographer Barbara Van Cleve on my first nonfiction book about girls who live and work on ranches. Holding the Reins was inspired by my love of her book, Hard Twist, a photo essay about women ranchers. Why not a book about their daughters? I asked her. Research for our book took Barbara and me to Montana, the area straddling Utah and Colorado, Wyoming, and northeastern New Mexico. We profiled four girls, in four different locations, working four different kinds of ranches, each one during a different season of the year.
Throughout all of this book whoop-la, my wife and I had two daughters, Molly and Jessie. We take raising them very seriously. We have tried to provide a stable, nurturing home in the foothills north of Santa Fe. We have done our best to show our daughters the world—taking them around the American West, to New Zealand, Tasmania, the Cook Islands, Austria, Italy, Germany, and to several parts of Mexico. We have many more places to explore with them. I never knew before how full of love my heart could be. Being a parent is > the most impossible and most important thing I can imagine doing. It has opened up the world for me in strange and wonderful ways. And my wife and I have met some of our closest friends through our kids—dropping them off at preschool or coaching soccer or coordinating overnights. One's emotional home is wherever one raises children.
I am proud to say that my books have always been critically successful (published in Germany, Columbia, and France, in addition to the countries that published Dead Birds Singing). Unfortunately such critical success has never translated into enough money to help support my family consistently. Perhaps I was too pig-headed in my approach—not nimble enough in my talent—or maybe not talented enough—to succeed in a highly competitive business of children's books. I really don't know. I do know that publishing for children has changed in the twenty years I've been in it. Risk-taking is more calculated. Trends are exploited until every drop of blood has been squeezed from them. Author's names have become brand names and are often marketed more than the books themselves.
I regret my lack of success—especially for my wife, who has supported me all these years, and my children who have seen me struggle, often not very gracefully. I am somewhat consoled by the fact that I have always followed my heart in choosing the big questions I ask my protagonists to explore. And I have refused to write for anybody but my protagonists. That their struggles apparently don't appeal to many people bothers me. But I wouldn't ask them to change to please the world any more than I will ask my daughters to change to please the world. I value integrity and, from my point of view, the world at large isn't very pretty. My daughters are magnificent, just the way they are. And so are my protagonists—for whom I will never apologize, and will always defend.
My role in our family soon evolved into that of the house-husband. Writing came second. Of course this was difficult for me. I was used to making sense of the world through writing. My conflicted feelings—wanting to be a good father and husband and also a successful writer—led me to seek the help of a psychotherapist. Luckily for me, she is a Jungian analyst, someone attuned to the power of each person's subconscious. Depth psychology is not supposed to make life easier, although it often does. Its value is in helping people integrate those parts of themselves that live in dreams and shadows with those parts of themselves that live in wakefulness and light. Sometimes the result is wholeness, an integration of all parts of a person's emotional being. Most often, such integration results in a healthy tension between who we are and what we want the world to see. My Jungian therapist helped me discover within myself the fact that I cannot deny the writer who lives inside me.
So, I continued to write and to be the house-husband. My world revolved around driving kids to school, to gymnastics, to fencing, to singing lessons, to violin lessons, to guitar lessons and doing the shopping and cooking (which I love) and grabbing a few minutes to write here and there. As I approached fifty, my wife encouraged me to consider studying psychotherapy not just for myself but to become a psychotherapist for others. My therapist had talked often of the Pacifica Graduate Institute, outside Santa Barbara, California. Its program was unique, she told me—focusing on depth psychology as defined by Carl Jung and James Hillman. Joseph Campbell's personal library is archived there, and its program is designed for people like me who have careers and families.
At Moo's suggestion, I visited Pacifica, applied, and was accepted. I am now in the middle of earning my master's degree in counseling psychology, with a depth perspective.
How has this affected my life? Going to school at Pacifica one long weekend a month, reading scores of books, and writing many papers is the equivalent of psychological boot camp—where you are psychologically taken apart and put back together in a stronger way. Where will that lead? Who knows?
Going to Pacifica has also deepened my commitment to writing books of importance. I continue to work on novels and nonfiction books. But I have also returned to writing poetry that has the same visceral energy of the poetry I wrote as a boy. Each poem is a gift. It wells up from the gut and is transformed by my more open heart and my more compassionate soul. When I write poetry, I park my brain somewhere out of sight but within walking distance. Like real life, I sometimes have trouble at the end of the day finding my brain, just as I sometimes have trouble finding my car in the crowded parking lot of a shopping mall.
I love being a writer. I love being a writer for children and young adults, to set up my own office. I am proud of the books I have written. I am eager to see what future books are born of my writer's brain. I still hope someday to be able to make a living at writing. But I also hope to practice psychotherapy for children and young adults. Looking back on my life, I see I have layered my interests and careers—letting my need to write merge with my love of working with children, letting my need to nurture emotional and intellectual growth in others merge with my own emotional and intellectual growth.
I have long believed that as we grow we do not abandon those stages we grow beyond. In me there will always live the ten-year-old boy with the widow's peak that is like a second set of eyebrows. I will always carry with me the joys and wounds of my teenage and college years. There will always be a bit of the editorial page columnist in what I write. I will always be the rebellious son, the runner, the almost-dancer, the teacher, the husband, and the father. Life has become more complicated, richer, more nuanced and beautiful as I've grown older. I wouldn't have it any other way.
I will write what I must write. And I will strive to be content, knowing that I have been true to myself and to those I write about. And, lucky me, I have a soul mate for a wife and two daughters who bring out the best in me and who also help me face my shadowy side. I have friends and family and the many characters from my books to share this journey with, to help me along the way.
It's been quite a journey, and looking back as I have to write this short autobiography, I feel as if I've just gotten started.