One of my favorite Stephen King anecdotes was the one about the time a woman asked him, in a pretty condescending tone, why he wrote horror stories. His answer was, “What makes you think I have a choice?” I love that because it helps me feel better!
Years ago when I was first embarking on my public writing journey, as in announcing to my family that I was now writing young adult fiction, my father’s reply was “Why can’t you write like Saul Bellow?” First of all, I should have expected that kind of response, knowing my father! My second thought was, “Well, I’ve never read Saul Bellow.” I realize I may be missing a large part of my literary education by never having read him, but there it is. I guess in the end, once school lets out permanently (and we lose “required reading” lists), we read what we like. As they say, so many books, so little time.
But my father’s question has stayed with me since he asked it, and I frequently ask myself something close to the same thing. How is it that I write Young Adult novels about ghosts? How is it that I write Young Adult anything? What happened to me and my writing ability, that I never figured out how to produce some sort of Great American Novel for grown-ups? You know, the kind of book that will be taught in school or in college, and make it onto the greatest-books-of-all-time lists. Why don’t I produce that kind of important work?
Why, indeed. And should it matter?
When I was a kid, books basically saved my life. Well, books and the Beatles. But since there’s no rock and roll talent hidden within me, I started writing. As a child writer, I naturally wrote about children. My Bic pen and I wrote about children and ghosts, children and mysteries, and children and fantasy. As I got older, my characters got older. In high school and college, my stories involved characters who would have been my peer group. Then I grew up and found out that my characters still involved high school or college kids. What? What happened? I spent—and do spend—most of my time reading mysteries. Adult mysteries. So how is it that when I sit down at the keyboard with a story in my head, my characters are all youngsters with dreams in their hearts and the kind of hopes that sometimes diminish as we get older? Am I trying to hang onto my younger years? I sincerely hope not! I wouldn’t go back to those times for a trillion bucks. But somehow my writing lingers there.
Back when I was trying to market my work as a YA writer, my book sales were, oh, close to imaginary. I didn’t have a clue, and since I wasn’t with one of the big New York houses, I really didn’t have a chance with most bookstores. Then, years later, along came Terri Reid and self-publishing and all of a sudden, I had readers! A lot of that was due to Terri telling her readers about me, which is a favor I can never repay, and I am forever grateful. All of a sudden I had people actually writing to me and asking when the next book was coming out, and that is something that I never expected to have happen. EVER. And funnily enough, even though I still think of my work as Young Adult, the people buying the books are more in my own personal demographic. How cool is that???
And so I don’t write like Saul Bellow, and I know I never will. (I can know that even if I’ve never read him. I know I’m not writing what anyone could call “literature.”) But I write what I can write and much to my surprise, I have readers. I am considering branching out to a more adult series in addition to my Bridgeton Park Cemetery books because I’ve always wanted to try my hand at a murder mystery. Just what the world needs –another mystery book writer! HA! But I may do it—just to do it—and if my sales never go above, say four books sold in one year, well at least I tried it!
I sometimes do wish I had been born with whatever it is that produces real literature, but I wasn’t. My particular toolbox is in a different department, and that’s okay. At least I have a toolbox!