Dispatches | May 17, 2004

I have spent the last fourteen years of my life studying and teaching creative writing, and I have heard countless stories of how other writer’s careers began after reading that one great novel: Jane Eyre, Moby Dick, Great Gatsby, or The Old Curiosity Shop. I have always wished that I had a similar story, but the truth is that my early reading was comprised of trashy books.

In grade school, students needed a note from a parent to checkout Go Ask Alice. This made the anonymous diary of a fifteen-year-old girl battling drug addiction irresistible. Since my mother worked part-time in the school library, the note was waived. My mother said, “What the hell. It couldn’t be any worse than what your brothers are up to at home.” My friends’ mothers were not as obliging and for the short time that I possessed the book I was popular. Over taco pie in the school cafeteria, I read aloud the scene, which Alice accidentally eats an acid-laced piece of candy while babysitting for a neighbor. We had no idea what acid did to you, but we knew that it was something horrible since Alice ended up in a mental hospital. A few weeks later she was dead.

Judy Bloom’s Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret wasn’t nearly as bleak, yet parental permission was still required. It was the first time I questioned a text’s accuracy. Each night Margaret, a sixth grade girl, prayed to God, her friend and confidante, for breasts. When he did not answer her prayers, she stuffed her bra and to stimulate breast development and did “special” exercises with her friends. They stood in a tight circle, pumped their arms and chanted, “We must, we must, we must increase our bust.” As far as my friends and I were concerned, the library could have their embarrassing book back. The last thing we wanted were big tits that would slow us down on the softball field or basketball court. We also didn’t want to be teased. At eleven, Mary Turner already had knockers. In our coed gym class, everyone would stop their ball-handling drills to watch her dribble down the court, three balls bouncing up and down instead of one.

From there, my reading took a turn for the worse. For a short time, Harold Robbins was one of my mother’s favorite authors, and consequently mine. Most of my early knowledge about bad sex came from his melodramas of lust and excess. The Carpetbaggers, a bestselling 60s novel loosely based on the life of Howard Hughes, was loaded with sex, violence, wild Hollywood parties, and drug abuse—all forbidden fruit for a twelve-year-old. When my mother refused to let me take this book to school, I honed my skills of narrative compression for my classmates by reducing the epic story to a few steamy scenes.

When I exhausted Robbins’ cannon, which took awhile, I began reading the popular books of the 70s—Jaws, Papillon, The Godfather, and The Exorcist. These books were made even more popular by their blockbuster film versions. However, I soon discovered that something was lost in the translation. While the opening scene of the movie Jaws is sufficiently scary, the first couple of pages of the book are haunting. A young woman goes out for an early evening swim in the ocean. As she nears a buoy, perhaps her turnaround point, she feels a firm tug at her leg and reaches down to discover warm blood flowing from her limb truncated at the knee. The reader shares in her long moment of panic—the terror she must have felt—before the shark returns to finish her off. (For years, I feared going into the water-swimming pools, rivers, lakes and the ocean.) The movie version ruins this moment by switching to the shark’s point of view. From beneath the water, the viewer sees the swimmer’s legs dangling like tantalizing bait and hears the pulsing music. For most of the movie, we are meant to marvel at Steven Spielberg’s mechanical aquatic wonder.

But my guiltiest pleasure was Judith Krantz, an author who I thought expertly blended fashion, sex, and affluence. As a high-school student attending a 1-A, WPA-built school on the Missouri/Arkansas line, a place with conservative Southern Baptist vibes, I miraculously found a copy of Princess Daisy in a used bookstore. At the time I felt isolated from the “real” world and needed the fantasy of Daisy Valensky, a blonde beauty who is the daughter of an American movie goddess and a playboy Russian Prince. Her fairytale life of aristocrats, parties and priceless jewels goes off the rails for a while but I never feared that she would win it all back plus some. I believed that if Daisy could overcome great obstacles so could I; all I needed was Daisy-like tenacity and resilience, a lesson that still resonates today.