Frequently Asked Questions
You have stated that much of your writing is autobiographical. How much?
In its earliest form, Paperboy started out as a memoir. There is only one character in the book, Mr. Spiro, who does not come directly from my childhood. Some have called the book an “autobiographical novel.” I think that’s accurate for all my books.
Copyboy is slightly more fictional in nature, but I did make a solo trip to New Orleans when I was 17. I did work at a newspaper in my teens. I did meet an interesting family on the Louisiana Gulf Coast. I did survive a hurricane that ravaged New Orleans.
Manboy is created around the events in Memphis on April 4-8. I was there amidst the chaos and sadness.
Mr. Spiro says in Paperboy that more truth can be found in fiction like a painting can hold more truth than a photograph. I think I’ll just leave it at that.
Why did you wait until you were 60 years old to start writing fiction?
I often ask myself the same question, but I’m glad I did. There’s no telling what I would have come up with if I had started writing fiction at a younger age. I think there’s something to be said for letting the pot simmer, even for 40 years.
You had a long career in newspapers. Do you think that helped or hurt your writing?
A little of both. Journalism is all about telling and not showing. Fiction is exactly the opposite—show don’t tell. I had to retrain myself in some ways. On the other hand, newspaper writing is about sitting down at a keyboard and not getting up until the job is done. There’s a lot to be said for learning to keep your rear-end in a chair until you’re done with the day’s work.
Stuttering is a central theme in your books. Why?
Easy answer. It has been a central theme in my life. I did pass out on one occasion while trying to say my name. I did get embarrassed at a fancy restaurant and lose my spaghetti dinner in front of everybody. I did keep a thumbtack in my pocket and would jam it into my palm anytime I had to recite or read aloud in class. The stuttering in my books is certainly not fiction. I am still on that journey.
Do you still stutter?
Yes, but I don’t pay much attention to it anymore. I like to say that I have found my voice. Fluency to me means saying anything I want to say at any time I want to say it. By that definition, I am fluent, although at times I may sound a little out of the ordinary.
You have said that you don’t think of yourself as a writer of “books for young people.” What do you mean by that?
I consider myself a teller of stories that all ages can enjoy. I believe readers can absorb my books at different levels. Paperboy discusses Voltaire and the German philosopher Martin Heidegger. Copyboy explores Friedrich Nietzsche. Manboy brings us around again to Hemingway with a dash of J.D. Salinger.
I understand that books have to be categorized for the marketplace and for library shelves, but when a writer starts aiming a story with a certain age group in mind, there’s a tendency to “write down” to the audience. I never want to be guilty of that.
I heard Maurice Sendak say in an interview that he wrote and illustrated the books that he wanted and let other people figure out “all that other (stuff).”
Your books are set in the late 1950s and 1960s. Do you do much research in those time periods?
Since I essentially “lived” my stories, I count a lot on my memory. It intrigues me that I can recall certain days from my younger self like they happened yesterday.
However, I did do extensive research on Hurricane Betsy for Copyboy. The narrative of the story tracks the storm almost by the hour from its origins in the lower Caribbean all the way to its landfall in New Orleans. I poured over United States Geological Survey maps of the lower Mississippi River delta for hours. After I completed Copyboy, I made a trip to southern Louisiana to validate my memory of 50 years ago. I didn’t need to change much.
My neighborhood in Memphis described in Paperboy is accurate down to the block and the names of the streets. One Memphis reader challenged me on the route number of a Memphis Area Transit Authority bus. We agreed to disagree.
The five days of April 4-8, 1968, in Memphis, as related in Manboy will never leave me. I felt as it was happening that I would write about it one day.