Authors Are Oddballs
Yes, authors are oddballs, but they’re survivors, too.
With me, it began in my childhood, when I had to survive my brother, gym, Teddy Roosevelt, and Miss Kiess.
When my brother, who was three years older than me, came toward me, I didn’t know if he would kiss me or hit me, and he didn’t know either. He was a creature of impulses. In a playground once, for no good reason, he hurled a brick at me, probably to scare me and not intending to hit me. But hit me he did, and I ran home screaming in pain, with a big lump on my forehead that they rushed me to a hospital to have x-rayed. Fortunately, there was no fracture, just pain and a lump. What my parents did to my brother, I don’t know, but it was probably severe.
Gym was a horror because I was nearsighted – the first in my class to wear glasses – and a bookworm, too. My world was up close: books, toy soldiers, and an elaborate castle that I made out of sheets of cardboard stolen from my father’s laundered shirts. That huge world out there, where boys my age played football and baseball, was risky and dangerous; out there bad things happened. My father, a great outdoorsman, disapproved of my behavior. He told me how Teddy Roosevelt as a boy was a weakling, easily bullied by other boys, until he went out West, toughened up, and came back physically strong and self-assured, a man. He told the story so often that I yearned to get a photo of Teddy, tack it to a wall, and hurl darts into his toothy grin. Lacking both the photo and darts, I never did.
And finally, Miss Kiess. She was my music teacher in seventh and eighth grade, a dry little tight-knit woman in her fifties, who put the good music students in the back rows of her classroom, and the poor ones in front, where she could keep an eye on them and police their warbling. Unable to read music or sing on key, I of course was in front. Detecting a false note, she would single out the culprit (usually a him and often me) and make him correct his singing. She usually called me “boy” or “Browder.” rarely by my first name. Though intelligent and sensitive, she was mean and sour, with a wry sense of humor. Once she told us how, when growing up in Texas, she fell into some quicksand. Obviously, she survived, but I became convinced that God put that quicksand there for a purpose, and lamented that it hadn’t done its job. (Beware of abusing a budding writer; we will take our revenge, as I am doing now.)
Yes, authors are survivors, albeit with scars, but maybe we all are, too.
So what makes writers really different? We cannot not write; it’s in our blood and bones. While other people in their off hours socialize, drink, laugh, gossip, do drugs, have sex, and make love to their mobile devices, we authors sit at our desk or computer, scribbling or typing away. And we’re oddball in other ways, too. Take me, for instance. I’ve never owned a car, a television, or a cellphone. I manage my computer, but with misgivings and suspicion (the feeling is mutual). Ours is not a friendship, more of an armed truce. And yet, we need each other, desperately.
So what am I writing?
These days, nonfiction about New York, and historical novels set in nineteenth-century New York. Though I was born and raised in the Midwest, and went to college in Southern California, I am a committed New Yorker, convinced that this crowded, noisy, expensive, and nerve-racking city is unique. It’s where you can lose yourself or find yourself, think and learn and grow. It’s intense, diverse, creative. Not for everyone, but for those who need it to become themselves. For them, a sign that once dominated the Staten Island ferry terminal says it all: NEW YORK. IS THERE ANYWHERE ELSE?
So of course I write about it; how could I not? About weird and wonderful people like Eliza Jumel, the prostitute’s daughter who got to know two former kings and a future emperor. And the cosmetics queen Helena Rubinstein (“Beauty is power”), and Quentin Crisp, the self-styled Stately Homo of England, both of whom truly realized themselves in the city that never sleeps. And sinister people like the vicious lawyer Roy Cohn, and the serial killer David Berkowitz, who terrorized three boroughs. They were all very real New Yorkers and left their mark. And I also do fictional characters in the nineteenth century: a penniless street kid turned pickpocket who yearns for better; a respectably raised young man who becomes a male prostitute and falls in love with his most difficult client; and the strange friendship of a dapper young bank robber and the detective hired by the banks to apprehend him.
When not writing I do other things, and here again I’m a bit of an oddball. For years I hiked, both in the city’s parks and along the Palisades, those towering New Jersey cliffs that line the Hudson River. And for a real challenge, I hiked upstate in the vast stretches of Harriman Park, where, if I went on a weekday, I would be the only one on the trail, alone in a wilderness (though not designated such) with nothing to look at but trees and the blue sky overhead. I also watched birds through binoculars, an obsession that used to strike the unafflicted as just plain weird, until the rise of the environmental movement redeemed it in their eyes.
And I looked at more than birds; weird again. What other word is there for someone enamored of mushrooms (to look at, not to eat), who bonds lovingly with Hairy Parchment, Jelly Tooth, and Worm Coral, with Stinkhorn tipped with smelly green slime, and the exquisite but fatal beauty of Destroying Angel? What drew me to these oddities? Wonder, a deep feeling of awe in the presence of the natural world, this teeming life-force all around us, this magic, if only we would look: the irrepressible Big Mama from whom we come, and to whom in the end we return. So awesome, so inviting, and so smothering is she, that I flee back into my other obsession, my writing, and into the man-made wonders, and the noise and confusion and excitement, of the city of New York.