ABOUT ME

THE BASICS

I was born on October 19th, 1947 in the hospital at March Air Force Base just outside Riverside, California. My father, Norman, was a career sergeant who'd served as an aircraft mechanic and infantryman in the Philippines campaign early in the war and was taken prisoner on Bataan. My mother, Agnes, was a nurse at the hospital where he was sent to recuperate after the war was over.

Until I was fifteen, I lived on or near a number of Air Force bases in this country and in Germany. My sister, Patricia, was born in 1950 at Travis AFB.

Until I was six, I wanted to be a fireman. Between six and twelve, I wanted to be a paleontologist. When I was twelve, I decided I wanted to be a writer. I still haven't outgrown that.

I made some occasional stabs at writing and submitting manuscripts in my twenties and thirties. When I turned forty-seven, I decided to start writing things more regularly. I've been doing so ever since.

THE BOOKS

My first published novel was Lightning Time, which came out in 1997. I don't remember why I decided to write about John Brown and the Harper's Ferry Raid. All I recall about the idea for that book is that I wanted to write about a close family, the Worths, having just finished writing about a totally dysfunctional clan in my unpublished story Persistence of Vision. The most interesting part of writing Lightning Time was doing the research on John Brown, and trying to figure out who he really was and what he had intended to accomplish by his attack on the arsenal at Harper's Ferry.

About that time, I wrote Grandy Thaxter's Helper (2004). That book came to me in a funny way. I was looking over the new picture books on display in a library where I worked occasionally, and I saw one whose title made me think it was the Grandy story. Instead, it was some lame thing about a dog barking. "Okay," I thought. "I'll write it." And I did, in about two weeks. But it took nine years for it to finally be published.

After Grandy, I didn't have another book accepted for publication until 2002. I just kept writing and sending things out. Finally, Delacorte took my novel Vampire High, and it came out the next year. If you want to know how I got the idea for that one, go to FAQs.

Most recently, I've finished a novel called Smoking Mirror about a young man who meets the artist Paul Gauguin in Tahiti and becomes his friend. It's due out in 2005. That one got started when an editor called me from Watson-Guptill publishers and told me they were starting a new series of novels for young people called the Encounters in Art series and asked if I would be interested in doing one. This turned out to be the hardest job of writing I've ever done. My first manuscript was so bad it was unpublishable. It was so bad I apologized to the editor for wasting her time and tried to quit. But she asked me to talk to a new editor she was hiring to help with the series, and she basically refused to discuss that possibility. So I did it over very differently and it worked. At least it's very much better than it was.

I like to work on more than one thing at a time, usually. At present I'm working on a novel about the Spanish-American War, a sort of comic science fiction story set in West Texas, and another novel for the Encounters in Art series. It will be a sort of ghost story told by the American painter John Singer Sargent. Whether any of these will ever see the light of day remains to be seen. My job is to write them, and take my chances. I try not to worry too much about whether they get published or not.

THE REST

Other things about me: I've been married twice and divorced once. I have an adopted son, Philip Rostonovich, who's an animator. My wife JoAnn and I are both librarians. I live at the southern end of San Francisco Bay. In politics I'm a liberal, in religion a high-church Episcopalian. My ancestry is Norwegian on my mother's side (hence the Viking ship on my webpage) and my father's family came out of every bog, coal pit and smuggler's cove in the British Isles.

Here's an interview I did for the Riverside Public Library, which is in the Sept/Oct 2005 issue of Public Libraries.

If this all seems a bit too dull to use in your report, go to my other autobiography, which is much more interesting and a complete lie.

FAQs

  1. Where do you get your ideas?

    I have no idea. And neither, I think, does anyone else, really. J.R.R. Tolkien was grading papers one afternoon, thoroughly bored, and suddenly he wrote "In a hole in the ground there lived a Hobbit." Why? Tolkien couldn't have told you. But he went on and created Middle Earth from that one line.

    And that, I think, is the really important thing about ideas: We seem to be the only species that has ideas for their own sake, or that creates anything for the pure pleasure of creating. When I was in grade school, the definition of human was "tool user". Then it was discovered that some chimps salivate on sticks to pick up termites and eat them, and that snow monkeys in Japan sometimes use rocks to crack open shellfish, and that there are ants that trim a bit of leaf to provide themselves with shade, so "tool user" didn't work as a definition of what makes us different. But no chimp or snow monkey has ever been observed trying to paint a picture or act out a story. It is our imagination that makes us human.

  2. Okay then, where did you get the idea for Vampire High?

    I was getting ready for work one morning and I was thinking about something Ken Kesey had said to the effect that every novelist should try his hand in each of the major genres as part of his training. I thought, "Well, I've always wanted to write a horror story. But the only horror stories anyone is reading these days involve vampires, and I don't like vampires. All that self-pity and morbid sexuality are annoying. I mean -- and I really did think it exactly this way -- surely there must be some decent chaps among the vampires. They must go to high school -- and suddenly I saw the kids of Vlad Dracul walking silently up and down the marble halls, and I was off and away.

  3. Do you write every day?

    Not really. I should. It only takes one day away for the channels to start getting clogged. Then it takes three or four days of writing to really get the flow back. But I work part-time. I have a wife and friends and things to do. Writing every day isn't possible for me. But I write most days.

  4. When did you decide you wanted to be a writer?

    When I was twelve. Thirty-five years later, I got down to business.

  5. What took you so long?

    When I was forty-seven I realized that all the ideas I'd had for books and plays were going to stay ideas unless I wrote them. But the larger answer is, it takes a long time for some people to get strong enough to become writers. It's hard work, with absolutely no guarantees of success. None.

  6. You seem to be succeeding. What did you do right?

    I've had some luck, but I couldn't say what I did right. What I can talk about is how I survived psychically while I was beginning. First, I worked out a relationship with my unconscious that seems to work for both of us. One important part of this was discovering that, while my unconscious worked slowly, it also worked on more than one thing at a time. So when I came to a place where I couldn't think of what happened next, I tried writing some of the other ideas I had. Usually in three or four days I was back at work. And when I found myself stopped with that piece, I tried the first one again. If it wasn't ready, I went on to something else. I got about four things done in one year that way.

    Another thing I did was to try to get "one on the gun and three in the air." That's an artilleryman's phrase from World War One. When the French 75s were banging away as fast as they could, they were firing so fast that there would be three spent shell casings flying backwards overhead while the fourth was leaving the barrel. I tried to get three manuscripts in circulation while I was working on a fourth. The benefit of this was that I had so many things out there, when they came back with rejection slips, it hardly mattered. I just looked up where to send them next and mailed them off. Then I got back to work on the fourth thing.

  7. Is there a lot of money in writing?

    Not when I do it. At least, not so far. And that's typical. The last I heard, there were about three thousand self-supporting free-lance writers in the United States. That's out of a population of a quarter of a billion. Their average income is about thirty thousand a year. And that figure is skewed upward by the handful of writing superstars who make huge amounts.

  8. What's the best advice anybody ever gave you about writing?

    It's not advice about writing, specifically. It's a quote from John Paul Jones the Revolutionary War hero. He said, "No captain can go too far wrong who puts his ship alongside that of his enemy." He proved that by engaging the Serapis, Britain's newest frigate, with the Bon Homme Richard, a ship in such bad shape that only three of its cannons were safe to fire. And he was leaking. But somehow he won, captured Serapis, and sailed home on her while Bon Homme Richard sank. What I mean is, anything can happen if you take your chances. And that's truer in writing than it is in anything else I know of.

  9. What advice would you give someone who wanted to be a writer?

    Just write. Don't worry about the odds against ever getting published. Just do it. Writing is like weight-lifting. You can't bench press five hundred pounds on your first day. Your job is to build up your writer's muscles. It takes years. But the good news is, even bad writing helps. Just do it and don't worry about the results.

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