I believe I was what now would be called hyperactive. All my life I've been skinny and have had the appetite of a weasel--that is, I eat my full weight in food each day. But no, eating was not my favorite activity as a child--just an incidental one (food goes in, life goes on). What I liked to do was play ball (base-, foot-, basket-) and roam the swampy woods behind our development near Peekskill, New York. I was sort of Huck Finn-ish, I guess.
What books influenced you most when you were growing up?
I didn't read much as a child. But the earliest books I remember reading on my own were animal stories, not WINNIE THE POOH and suchlike, which I didn't read till I was much older, but realistic tales in which dogs, foxes and deer lived their mysterious and heroic lives. I also became enamored of World War I fighter aces and their bi- and tri-winged airplanes. So I read about them too.
Did you write stories when you were growing up?
No, I didn't write stories at all. Didn't even know one could write stories till I was in college and took a creative writing class. As a child and young adult I wanted to be a musician.
What audience did you have in mind for your career as a writer - adult or children?
I write for everyone who can read, but my audience has been exclusively adult until now. The Human Fly collects some of my adult stories that, because of their subject matter or whimsicality, might be thought to have special appeal for young adults. This is pretty exciting for me because I myself was once a young adult. Now, of course, I am an old adult.
If you didn’t write as a child, then when did you start writing and what inspired you to start?
As I mentioned above, a creative writing class got me going. But so too did a literature class in the modern short story, where I discovered Flannery O'Connor's "A Good Man Is Hard to Find" and Conrad Aiken's "Snow," among others. I was, as they say, blown away. Quite simply: poof!
What was your first job when you graduated from college?
I was twenty-one years old and I found myself, quite inexplicably, in a classroom, teaching junior high English. I didn't have any experience or training as a teacher, but learned on the job. And I must have learned well, because I am still teaching, albeit at USC.
How soon after that was your first book published?
My first story was published--in The North American Review--four years later. Three years after that, while I was a student at the Iowa Writers' Workshop, my first story in the slicks (big-time magazines that you find on any newsstand) was published. The story, "Heart of A Champion," which has a whole lot of fun with the old "Lassie" TV show, was published in Esquire, and appears, for your delectation, all these years later, in THE HUMAN FLY AND OTHER STORIES. My first book, a collection, was published shortly after I finished my Ph.D., just four years after that. And my first novel, a crazed and joyous monster in excess of 500 pages, appeared a couple years later. I'm now working on my twenty-second book of fiction, a novel.
When was it published?
My first book was accepted on the third bounce. But I had published many, many stories by then, and most of them had been rejected a number of times. If you believe in yourself and the quality of your work, and if you persist, you may get lucky. As I did.
Do you focus on fiction or nonfiction? Which do you prefer? Do you find one easier than the other?
I only write fiction because fiction is magic. I never know what any story will be but just let it carry me from the initial idea and first sentence on to wherever it wants me to go. However, especially for longer works, and especially for those set in the past, like THE ROAD TO WELLVILLE, for instance, I do the very same sort of research of factual material we have all done, at one time or another, to address the dreaded term paper (and please forgive me, those of you who have been compelled to write on THE TORTILLA CURTAIN or GREASY LAKE or any of my other works). To me, fiction is subversive, secretive, a one-on-one opening up of minds between writer and reader, and it is, above all, fun.