James D. McCallister

author of the Edgewater Chronicles

My Writing Journey — Part 3

As established in the first part of this ongoing series, my introduction to literature began with Poe, which stoked in me a taste for the macabre. In the mid- to late-70s, was there a more well publicized and successful go-to person for such material than Stephen King? Nope.

Stephen King

And so, that’s where I went: Carrie, Salem’s Lot, The Shining, and the big dog, The Stand, were all hugely entertaining and inspiring to me. King’s characters seemed to live and breath their horrors. I read, and re-read, these books several times, none capturing my imagination more than the apocalyptic and multi-character scope of The Stand.

In fact, I can still remember my first time reading King’s 800 page opus, back during a family weekend trip to Hilton Head—how I recall the feel of the sunlight on my arms in the backseat as I held the weighty tome, my eyes tearing from one chapter to the next, from one character’s POV to another . . . truly, a golden childhood memory. And once The Stand was over, I felt sad to leave the gripping narrative behind. (Thirty-five years later, a similar sentiment would be made to this author about not one but both of of my thus-far published novels, an humbling feeling of achievement.)

Of the book itself: Brilliant, I thought. But I didn’t know why, only that someone had had what seemed an immense amount of inspiration and imagination to have come up with such a sweeping tale of humanity’s last stand against the forces of evil personified in the book’s villain, Randall Flagg, the Walkin’ Dude—the very idea of this satanic character’s boot-heels clicking along the dusty side of a western road still fills me with dread.

The Stand

At the time, 1978, this cover really bugged me—I thought it was a blatant ploy to look like Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader fighting each other. Hadn’t happened yet.

In any case, what struck me about this novel, besides its seeming awesomeness, was King’s deft ability to keep my interest through the pacing of the story, the way the threads and individual character journeys were all leading to a point of narrative convergence. Later, when the unexpurgated edition was released, I’d find its expanded pages dedicated to character building to be too much of a good thing, however, and would in fact refuse to finish reading it—heresy, perhaps, except in that maybe I simply wanted to cherish the memories I had of the original published text, I suppose. And, in 1990, I’d moved on to many other fields of interest besides Stephen King books, and didn’t have time to revisit childhood affectations. Since then I’ve tried to re-read the book maybe one more time, but again didn’t feel the pull necessary and quit after a chapter or so. Some memories are best preserved under glass, perhaps.

Eventually I moved on to other serious writers—I’d started perusing the Sunday New York Times that came to our school’s library every week, in particular the Arts & Leisure section, and the Book Review. I paid attention to the literary novels of the day rather than the bestsellers, but I’d read my share of those, too—my mother had a decent collection of mass market paperbacks, many of which held very little interest, but I’d read a could of trashy examples like Sidney Sheldon and a few pages here and there in others looking for ‘good parts’ appealing to an adolescent boy’s sense of libidinous curiosity.

More importantly (well, maybe not at the time), I’d begun to develop a sense of literary versus commercial in terms of quality. I would argue that King falls more on the side of populist ‘literature’ than truly vital literary achievement, but in terms of the individual narrative elements—character, POV, dialogue, and general mise-en-scene—his writing seemed leaps and bounds better than the more pedestrian entries I perused on my mother’s bookshelf.

So, I’d covered sci-fi, fantasy, horror, and titillating bits and pieces of Irving Wallace and Danielle Steele—what lay ahead but the giants of literature? I began to take on material like Conrad, Kafka, Fitzgerald, Hemingway, O’Connor, Welty, Kerouac, with a side-emphasis on New Journalism icons like Tom Wolfe and Hunter S. Thompson, rock music biographies, and pretty much anything to do with the late 60s hippie movement, which I’d missed but held endless fascination on any number of levels.

As for what was literarily current, and that, like King, seemed to bridge the divide between popular and literary fiction, John Irving’s The World According to Garp landed for me in a big way, and continues to inspire me to this day. (See the book-within-the-book format of Fellow Traveler.)

Garp2

The book I read, first Pocket Books edition, 7th printing, April 1979.

Besides its Dickensian plot covering the life of author T. S. Garp, from his comic and tragic conception (the bastard son of a dying aviator ‘raped’ by Garp’s mother) to his writer’s journey and family travails, his fear of the ‘Undertoad’ and eventual growth as a human being, and all of it leading to his shocking and untimely assassination, Garp resonated with me on any number of levels: its dark comedy, the sexual curiosity and confusion of its title character, the richness of the narrative, in particular through its inclusion of Garp’s attempts to become a writer: The Pension GrillparzerVigilance, a short story; and the first chapter of his novel, The World According to Bensenhaver. How the character’s story seemed to carry with it a sweeping sense of Time and Place, of the cultural and sociological moment. Of this writer’s journey, I thought, both Garp and the author of Garp, whose own literary path seemed to mirror that of the title character. How the book truly made me want to be a writer myself. To go to Vienna, or as in the film adaptation, New York. (“I want to go to New York and become a real writer,” Robin Williams-as-Garp declaims in George Roy Hill’s mostly-okay and on-the-nose film adaptation, all of which I found to be somewhat less rich and interesting than the novel, a common issue with film adaptations.)

John Irving's movie cameo as the wrestling referee, an apt metaphor for the original author of the source material

John Irving’s movie cameo as the wrestling referee, an apt metaphor for the original author of the source material

On another level, and while I’d had a wonderful father and mother who provided for me, I’d also found out that I had another, biological father whom I’d never known, and about whom I wouldn’t know anything until much later in my life. I didn’t realize it at the time, but subconsciously I responded to the idea that, like Garp, I’d never know the man who was my actual father. That would change, and be a good thing ultimately, but at the moment, Garp’s sense of mystery about the nature of his conception and birth held a great deal of fascination with me.

Starting with his next big bestseller, The Hotel New Hampshire, I’d go on to read a number of Irving’s later novels, and continue to enjoy his work to this day—despite some dodgy reviews, I found Last Night in Twisted River to be a rollicking and enjoyable read. Then again,  I hadn’t read Irving in a while, and found myself comfortable in his narrative arms, like I’d run into an old friend I hadn’t seen in a long time, so the reviews didn’t matter, only the experience of absorbing the book.

John Irving

John Irving

As I got closer to my college years, however, and I began writing my own short stories and working for the high school newspaper, I dreamed of writing novels like The Stand and The World According to Garp, the process seemed out of reach—I couldn’t imagine what it would take to actually write an entire book, much less populate it with intriguing, delineated characters, complex plots, and resolutions that made me weep or the hairs on my arms stand at attention. I thought I had a better shot at becoming a filmmaker, somehow—that in my growing obsession with films I had a better grasp of storytelling, and of writing: after all, I’d been working on scripts for my M*A*S*H project at 13, I knew so much about the technical end of things, and I lived and breathed movies, seeing two or three almost every weekend (and once VHS became available, watching my favorites again and again until I knew shots, editing and dialogue by heart).

Movies.

I talked to my guidance counselor, first about studying media arts, but he said that it looked as though the program at USC was going away and that I should pick something else (it wasn’t true, but the guy was a drunk and a nitwit, and one of many people throughout my life proffering purported ‘wisdom’ I should’ve ignored). So, what else would allow me to write? Journalism. My grandmother was probably right, anyway. Movies. Novels. Maybe I could get a j-school degree and become a film critic. Maybe if people like me were not meant to achieve such high-minded accomplishments, I could at least become a journalist.

Once I got to USC the next year, however, I found out that Media Arts was alive and well, and after a couple of semesters made my way around the curving hallways of the Coliseum classroom level from one side to the other, a key decision and step along the path of my writing journey.

Next time: Writing Screenplays and Making Movies.

Part 1

Part 2

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About dmac

James D. McCallister is a South Carolina author of novels, short stories, and creative nonfiction. His latest novel Let the Glory Pass Away releases in January 2017.

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