The writers whose lives interest me most are either long dead or have led lives not typical of writers. Yet it evidently helps readers to know about writers. A writer whose works I’ve recently become acquainted with, Jodi Picoult, writes a lot about herself on her web page, posts candid photos, and I’m guessing this helps readers connect with her books.
Megan McCafferty, author of Sloppy Firsts, Second Helpings, etc., started a retroblog—her diary from age ten through twenty-something, in part, I gather from reading a review in Salon.com, to separate herself from her characters (meganmccafferty.com/retroblogger/ ).
There’s nothing about my life that will enhance the experience of reading my novels. To the extent that they’re autobiographical, they’re not so in any direct way. Flaubert said of Madame Bovary, “Emma, c'est moi.” In the same sense, I’m all the characters in, say, Rigoberto and his two wives: Rigoberto Calderón, Carmen Noble de Calderón, Juan the apprentice and Bernardo the curandero. Like personages in dreams, all the characters in a novel are the author.
Still, I think it helps to know where an author came from, not to read his or her works but to put you in touch with him as you would with a performing artist whom you can see in the flesh. Celebrity is an inappropriate concept for writers, usually, but feedback is a workable one.
So, here are some of the accidents of my life that I believe helped form me:
I’m the last of five children, my oldest sibling twelve years older than I, the closest in age six years my senior.
My mother died when I was six, an accident of her life I can’t blame her for but have never fully accepted: I never got enough of her.
My father had an extensive library, and I read constantly growing up, though since college television has cut into my reading time.
I was raised a Catholic, going to parochial schools and an all-boys Catholic prep school.
I graduated from the University of California, Berkeley, back when it was the consensus best university in the world. This is a humbling experience: you may have been a whiz in high school, you were no big deal on that campus.
I live in Ashland, Oregon, which is an interesting small town, with a world-class repertory theater and a satisfying mixture of foresters, bohemians, geeks, artists and coupon clippers.
I married (and divorced) three times, all interesting women, and fathered five children. All of these have shaped me.
These authors’ works have most informed my own writing:
Elmore Leonard, whom I put first because I’ve read him most recently. There is no one better at catching the flavor of places and peoples through using their patois.
Thomas Mann, whose Joseph and His Brothers is the nonpareil of epic novels, indeed, may be the best work of prose fiction ever written. (I consider Shakespeare’s plays to be poetry.)
William Faulkner, whose apocryphal Yoknapatawpha County was in my youth as familiar to me as any place I’ve ever lived, and who made me realize what power words have. Faulkner’s short fiction is matched only by Mann’s.
Ernest Hemingway, whose The Sun Also Rises surpasses any novel I’ve read in the way he put words down on paper; for a large part of my formative years I read this book every eighteen months or so.
Albert Camus, whose novel, The Plague, touches my heart beyond any prose I’ve read.
Carlos Castaneda, whose first four books (fiction? non-fiction?) blew out the corners of my imagination.
Aeschylus, whose Oresteia made me understand what drama is.
E. E. Cummings, who demonstrated that a seemingly mined-out convention, the sonnet, could be fresh and new in the hands of a master.
W. B. Yeats, whose corpus is the standard by which I judge all modern poets.
Here are some other likes and dislikes:
To cook: it’s the bead game, it’s a challenge, it is manic and relaxing at once. I bake all my own (sourdough) bread and make a mean soufflé.
My favorite movies: Black Orpheus and Shoot the Piano Player, with 8½ Some Like It Hot, Treasure of Sierra Madre and Chushingura not far behind.
My favorite music: almost anything but Rap and the heaviest of Rock and Roll—Allison Kraus to Denny Zeitlin, with Chopin, Beethoven and The Beatles thrown in for good measure. But if I were shipwrecked with the work of just one person, it would have to be Bach’s.
Writing is both a therapy and my compulsion. In 2011 I published eight novels, some started back in the Eighties, four completed last year, two started and finished in 2011. For a list of extant works, click here.