Writers are always advised to write what they know. I don’t disagree, but think that it’s how you come to know about something that matters. I once took a class from Roger Welsch, the renowned folklorist. He advised us not sell ourselves short on what we knew, recalling a previous student flummoxed by her lack of worldly experiences upon which to draw. Dr. Welsch gave her an assignment. “Think of something about your family that you find interesting.” The girl came back with the following tale: Her grandmother and grandfather lived in a small Nebraska town where everyone knew each other. It was in a time when people talked over the back fence and hung their laundry on a clothesline. Every week the girl’s grandmother washed her husband’s pajamas and hung them on the line. When they were dry, she neatly folded them and placed the PJs in a dresser drawer where they remained until the next week when she removed the clean, unworn pajamas, rewashed them, and again hung them on the line. Why did she do this?
“Well,” the girl told Dr. Welsch, “my grandpa slept in the nude and my grandma didn’t want anyone to know.”
“It’s hard to make up stuff that good,” Dr. Welsch told his student.
So, she did have something to write about, even though it wasn’t drawn from her own experience. She’s not alone. Frank Herbert created the world of Dune, J.R.R. Tolkien the inhabitants of Middle-Earth, J.K Rowling the wizard’s school at Hogwarts. My next book, Treasure of the Blue Whale, describes a town and a time period that I never knew. Don’t blame me for such presumptuousness. Blame Alastair MacClean. When I was a teenager, I loved books by MacClean, the Scottish schoolteacher who wrote The Guns of Navarone and other adventures. His tales of mountain-climbing commandos, nuclear submarines, and double agents were concocted without actual experiences. He did not learn about such people and things by scaling Matterhorn, doing battle with Blofeld, or splitting an atom. He went to the library. Afterward, he didn’t write what he knew; he knew what he wrote.
A few years ago, when I lived in San Francisco, I picked up my wife from an appointment in Pac Heights. When I pulled up to the curb, she was waiting alongside a very old man. “This is Zane,” she told me. “We’re giving him a ride.”
Zane got in the car and introduced himself. “Thank you for your kindness,” he said. “In exchange, you will get a really good story.”
Zane was 90 years old and Nisei—born in America—the son of a Scotch-Irish mother and a father who was Issei—born in Japan. He’d gone to high school in San Francisco, graduating in 1942 just a few months following the attack on Pearl Harbor. Not long thereafter, Zane and his parents were shipped off to an internment camp in Utah. He spent a year there before being allowed to enlist in the Army.
“I moved to New York City after the war,” he told us. “I lived there for twenty-six years. I was a dance instructor.” He offered to give my wife and I free lessons. He said the rumba was easiest and we’d start there.
Zane’s home was in an assisted living facility not far from the Golden Gate Bridge. The sidewalk fronting the building was steep and we offered to help him to the door. “I can make it,” he assured us. “Have you heard of Michael Jackson? He did the moon walk. I can do the moon walk, too.”
And then he did.
“He was interesting,” I said to my wife as we drove home. I was already planning the book I would write, one currently in progress.
“Yes he was,” she replied, “he was very sweet. And his story…can you believe it? Why, you just can’t make up stuff that good.”
Steven is the past recipient of the Mari Sandoz Prize for Fiction and the author of over fifty scientific and literary publications that have appeared in Event, The Black River Review, cold-drill, artisan, The Long Story, and the anthology From Eulogy to Joy. In 1998, he was the guest editor for Cabin Fever, the literary journal of the Cabin Literary Center. He is the author of Howling at the Moon, a Best Books of 2010 selection by USA Book News as well as an Eddie Hoffer Finalist.