The easiest question is usually the most complicated. A couple years ago I published my first novel, The Terror of Living, and as part of that process I gave several interviews. Interviews are always fun. The questions make you think, usually for the first time in a year, on the themes of your work, on where the characters came from, on the goals you were trying to achieve.
In summary, they help summarize the novel in a way. They pull back the curtain a bit and shine a light on the inner workings of novel writing. The gears and sprockets, the little springs that some times go flying into the air under all that stress. These are the types of questions you begin to expect as an author, and they are good questions. They are thoughtful, well meaning questions that fly like arrows toward the bull’s eye.
Of course they are not alone. Often interviewers temper some of these questions with a lead-in or conclusion to the interview, either winding up to the larger subjects of theme, voice, character, etc., or they help bring the interview to a close.
One question I have received quite a bit now that The Carrion Birds nears publication is whether I, as a writer, always wanted to be a writer. The quick answer (and the one I always gave in the past) has been to say that no, I wanted to be a marine biologist and it was only through electives during college that I discovered I had a talent for writing. This is the brush-off. This is the: let’s move onto the next question so I can get at the meat of theme and character and why exactly I did shoot those horses in my last novel, or make that one character so damned demented.
I’m sure this answer has satisfied many interviewers and convinced a few readers, but it’s not the whole truth. I believe now that by dashing off something quick I was doing the reader and myself a disservice. I wasn’t being honest, and I think the honest answer about whether I always wanted to be a writer says more about writing or how I, as a writer, see the world than any of those other questions on theme and character ever were able to dredge up.
The truth is that as a kid you don’t say, I want to be a banker, or an airplane pilot, or a fireman and then forget about it—inwardly holding this life goal foremost in your mind. You say these things and then you go out and you do them. You act them out the way all kids do, getting out your parents’ calculator and all the money from the Monopoly game in the closet. You spread your arms and circle the dinning room table, imagining barrel rolls and complicated maneuvers only an ace like you can handle. Or you put on the red hat, you open up on the fire and hold your hand to your face simulating the heat that comes rolling up off the blaze, singeing eyebrows and turning your fellow firemen away in fear. You do all these things because this is how we are. This is human nature and so to say that I wanted to be a marine biologist is not the truth, not entirely.
There’s a small cloth bound book in the hutch at my parents’ house. The cloth, green with small Christmas trees, is glued around what must have been the remains of a mac and cheese box. It’s probably been there for twenty-five years and will probably be there for another twenty-five. The pages inside are lined in one-inch intervals, while the opposing page shows my early attempts at self-portraitures (not that there has been much of a history.) Each portrait, done in crayon, refers to the lined page that precedes it. In one of these two line essays I stutter off my reasoning for being a scuba diver, in another I say how I want to be an astronaut, in the next I explain why I want to fly an airplane. The following picture is of a jumbo jet, lined all the way back to the tail with porthole windows, and in the front cockpit I gave my circular, stick-figure head a prominent grin and room enough to show me waving from within. It is probably my best work. The book, after all—is only six-pages.
I mention this to show that marine biology has not always been my goal. It was adaptation that brought me to this plan. First off, it’s very difficult to get flight hours in as a seven year old. But scuba on the other hand was just a step away from snorkeling. So that is what I did, taking my mask and fins down to the local lake and diving for watches and lost change beneath the docks. Once coming face to face with what was probably a ten-pound catfish, but in my eyes, appeared out of the murk like something a hundred pounds heavier and surely a hundred times more dangerous. It was a fun way to spend my summers and much better than spreading my arms and running around the table till I became dizzy.
There’s a certain amount of imagination that goes into these acts. The everyday life of a kid wouldn’t be the same without it. But look, I’m not the one that will say as you grow up you lose those powers. I believe you mature. Your mind starts going to other place and your imagination diversifies. You don’t secret away your goals. You go do something about them. You picture what it will be like to win the race, kiss the girl, beat the shit out of that damned Crazy Birds app. You start doing something about it. First in your head and then outwardly in the world.
And so when I came to college as a young man completely blind to the fact that every college didn’t support the most awesome job of all time: marine biology, I started to diversify. I’d been imagining this life for myself for so many years—snorkeling, taking scuba classes as soon as I turned eighteen, applying for reef research in Hawaii—that to hear it wasn’t an option for me was not acceptable.
What was acceptable was to go back to the basic plan. Imagination. Dreaming up a reality slightly different than my own. This is where writing came in. This is how things began to shift, one continental shelf slipping beneath another and pushing the second up.
In that first year I decided to transfer. I would get my pre-required courses out of the way and then be a prime candidate for a college elsewhere. I would transfer to a college with a degree in marine biology. What happened was probably about the same as all those poor Grey’s Anatomy fans who later, after twelve years of pre-med, medical school, then residency find the hospital is not filled with McDreamies, McSteamies, or whatever other vain mid, early-life crisis they’ve been looking forward to. (Sorry, I hang around hospitals way too much, but that’s a story for another essay.)
I found biology, oceanography, and chemistry to be numbers and data. I found that we spent much of our time in dark classrooms looking at charts off a projector, or in labs trying to make the liquid in the vile go from yellow to blue without turning it green. None of which excited me in any form close to diving for nickels beneath the public docks.
Like those misguided fans of Grey’s Anatomy my real interest wasn’t in the numbers and charts but in the emotional hiccup I used to feel in the lake by my house, coming face to face with a ten-pound catfish and shooting for the surface, scared but happy as I scrambled from the lake onto the dock with what seemed, at the time, to be treasures rescued from the deep.
Writing lets you do these things. It lets you dream of alternate worlds that do not yet exist and maybe never will. Do I regret my choice to give up on marine biology and go into writing, first poetry (where I toyed with the cadence of words and sentences,) then nonfiction (where I learned to identify the make up of a particular argument), and then finally fiction (where I found I could simply make up anything.)
No. I’ve never regretted it. I make up things for a living now. I dream up all those dramas in my head and I certainly don’t need a medical license to do it.