A few years ago I was asked in an interview what I wanted to be when I grew up. I responded immediately: "Someone else." In the second grade I was diagnosed as (in the parlance of the day) "retarded." Perhaps I was marginally autistic, certainly ADHD, and absolutely dyslexic. I didn't understand people at all and, candidly, I could be explosively violent.
As a result of all this, I was left to myself a great deal and slowly I began to read, and as I began to read and write I also began to understand people. Most of my early social skills were learned from books. My guess is that my writing, which began early, was an attempt to refashion the world and the people around me into ways that made sense—at least to me. (And gave rise to comments from Ben Jones, when telling of the unexplainable and horrific crime at the center of my first novel, like: "All people wanted is a reason that made sense, even if it made no sense."
I finished my first novel when I was sixteen and not attending high school very much, which I suspect was their choice as well. By the time I was nineteen I was beginning to have my poems and short stories accepted in magazines. At twenty-one and still an undergraduate at Reed College in Portland, Oregon, I started my publishing company. Though I continued to write, I generally stopped trying to publish my own work. I wrote six or seven novels in my twenties through my forties, all prior to The Never-Open Desert Diner, which was my first published book—at age sixty-two. I have often thought that writing was how I achieved my goal of growing up to become "someone else." I have become many "someone else's," one of which is Ben Jones, and in the process became contented if not always happily myself.
While Lullaby Road is offered as stand alone novel, in many ways it is a sequel to your first book - The Never-Open Desert Diner. Did you mean for Ben Jones to be the main character in a series of books from the start, or did the idea for the second book come later?
By the time I completed the book, but before it was published, I sensed there was more to tell—more to the story—and thanks to Crown, I had a chance to do that with LULLABY ROAD. Still, my vision is not as a series, not even as a trilogy—rather a triptych (which is a term usually associated with visual art) that exists as (3) separate panels, where each panel can be appreciated alone, but when attached in sequence provide a larger, single work, a panorama if you will.
As the plot centers around the desert, the "desert rats" who live there and driving a big rig, I wondered what your experience was? Have you actually driven a big rig? Have you spent serious time in the desert? If not, what research did you do to make it feel so real?
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I went to a program in Boston at Pine Manor College, the Solstice MFA, where Dennis Lehane is the Writer-in-Residence. They accepted me. All the others to which I applied rejected me; and yet, it turned out to be the best program for me because my instructors, like Sterling Watson, Sandra Scofield, Venise Berry and Jaime Manrique looked at what I was trying to do and then simply worked with me NOT to change what I was doing, but to help me do it better. I wouldn’t trade that MFA experience for anything. It challenged me to throw away everything I thought I knew and become a beginner again—at 57. No one expects a surgeon or an accountant or an attorney to simply wake up one day and start operating, or defending a client or whatever. You work. And work. And learn everything you can about writing in every way you can from everyone you can. I am still learning. Still failing. Still adding tools to my tool box.
Good question. I am working on a memoir, as well as two other novels and a collection of short stories/novellas. One of the novels is the third Ben Jones, but if LULLABY ROAD does not do well I might not have a publisher. Of course I will write it, but it might take a backseat to the memoir. As the Zen Master said: We’ll see!