By Brian Kaufman
How do people end up as writers anyway? There isn’t a universal answer. The question, analogous to “How the hell did I get here?” seems worth rumination. My personal response has many facets, like a diamond. Or a 20-sided game die. A lot of my early efforts were mirrored later in my adult writing.
I began making comic books at the age of five. I didn’t fully grasp the written language, so these early stories were pictures with random words here and there. I “read” these stories to neighborhood kids, who seemed to like them. Most concerned the adventures of my beloved stuffed dog Lipoo (pronounced Lee-pooh; young Brian’s pronunciation of Winnie the Pooh). My stories were almost all war tales—Lipoo, armed with a flintlock pistol, would take on tanks or battleships single-handed.
When I was eight, I decided to run away from home. My mom found me packing my fishing pole and asked how I intended to live in the cruel world. I explained my plan—crafted on the fly—and she could not hide her amusement, though she tried. I knew right then I was a pretty good liar.
At nine, I wrote my autobiography (since I had already accumulated life’s answers). I didn’t have that much to write about. Go figure. So I fleshed out the chapters with colored pencil drawings.
The desire to illustrate my stories remained (though my talent for drawing has yet to arrive). But when my daughter Tiger was a young girl, I wrote a series of Princess Tiger Stories—reworking classic fairy tales, and my drawings were funny in an inept sort of way. (One favorite was a reworked Hansel and Gretel, wherein Princess Tiger lectured the witch: “If you don’t want kids to eat your house, don’t make it out of cookies and candy, you stupid witch.”)
No Story Idea Dies.
Ten years old now. Inspired by a Bruce Catton book, I wrote a history of the Civil War. I covered the events leading up to the war in two handwritten pages—I wanted to get to the battles as quickly as possible. I gave up on the project after a few chapters. Much later, I did publish a Civil War book. Dread Tribunal of Last Resort is a novel about a young couple caught under the wheels of history.
Fifth or sixth grade. Having read a biography of Roy Campanella (the great Brooklyn Dodgers baseball player), I wrote different versions of my future baseball career, stats included. Someone who runs the hundred-yard dash in fifteen seconds makes a poor outfield prospect. But those who can’t play coach . . . or write. I published The Fat Lady’s Low, Sad Song a few years ago. The novel was a tip of the cap to my early baseball fantasies.
Seventh grade, now. Denise, a classmate, wrote a page and a half of a story and, upon hitting a dead end, asked me to finish it. The result was The Island Prison—a story about a class field trip that foils a Russian military plot to destroy America. Good thing those kids stopped the invasion! (Laugh all you want—Hollywood made two versions of Red Dawn.)
I CAN Write.
My English teacher, Miss Lesko, asked me to read The Island Prison to all her classes—my rock star moment. I’d written a story, and people listened with interest. From then on, my sports daydreams were practice scenes for books I would write.
When I turned sixteen, I got a driver’s license and began dating. In one of my life’s most influential moments, I took a girl to a local drive-in. A horror movie was playing, and I hoped she might slide a little closer if it was scary enough. The movie was George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead, and the film did not have the effect I’d hoped for. She put on a sweater six minutes into the film (August in Cleveland—not very cold).
The movie gave me decades of nightmares. I was already a fan of Lovecraft and Poe, and the movie cemented a lifelong literary infatuation with horror. In 2010, I wrote my take on zombies with Dead Beyond the Fence—a zombie apocalypse story set in Fort Collins.
At seventeen, my father kept tabs on me at college through a professor friend. Horst asked me what I wanted to do after graduation, and I told him I would be a writer. He gave me this sound advice (try to read it with a slight German accent): “Sleep with as many women as you can. Drink as much as you can. And get into as much trouble as you can. This will all help you.” It did.
At college, I decided to buckle down and write a full-length novel. My chosen subject was the Alamo. As often happened when I was young, the story accelerated, and the finished “novel” was only seventy pages long. By then, I was a sophomore, working at the Jack in the Box burger stand to pay tuition. My creative writing instructor was the great James Crumley (the excellent mystery writer).
He used to come through the drive-thru after a night in the bars, and he recognized me from class. “The world needs a good Alamo story,” he told me, and late-night bar goggles or not, I believed him. Years later (by now, you get the idea), I wrote The Breach—a novel about the Alamo, told from the Mexican point of view.
In my case, those early writing adventures laid a solid foundation for my adult writing. How about you? Did you have a “rock star moment” that changed your perception of the future? Did a movie scare (or thrill) you into the pursuit of your genre?
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