I wonder, are writers born with the gift of lying…uh, natural storytelling on paper, or is it inspired by some event in our lives?
In my opinion, a lot of it has to do with our interest in reading and gathering a lifetime of stories. Anyone who’s heard me speak knows I grew up in rural Chicota, Texas, where the old men up at the store loafed on the porch and talked about the world while I drank RC Colas and listened in silence.
My maternal grandparent’s little frame farmhouse had two bedrooms. Back in my larval stages, I slept with my mother in the room with two beds. My grandmother slept in the other. Being country folks, we turned in with the chickens and after lights out, they talked quietly in the darkness while a soft breeze and the call of a whippoorwill flowed through the rusty screens.
And I absorbed every word from every one of those old folks.
I think all those stories planted a seed that morphed into the obsession to spin my own fictional tales. Choosing what to write about might have been hard for some budding authors, but not for me. I fell into mysteries before migrating to thrillers and now, westerns both traditional and contemporary.
Looking back, my life and ultimate genre choices came from books and movies. Stephen King can point to the comics and horror movies he read and watched as a youngster. I’d bet a dollar to a donut that John Grisham writes law thrillers because of his profession, though I imagine he always wanted to be an author. Louis L’Amour wrote his westerns because he loved cowboys, honor, and the west.
Mine came from different sources.
I guess I was pretty malleable back in 1963 when the Old Man took me to see a movie that significantly impacted my life. Y’all likely know the story that started with Earl Hamner Jr.’s novel and eventually became the successful television series, The Waltons. The original movie, though, was filmed in God’s Country, the Grand Tetons in Wyoming, and featured Henry Fonda and Maureen O’Hara.
In Spencer’s Mountain, Clay and Olivia Spencer are the fourth generation of a family living on Spencer’s Mountain in the Snake River Valley. Though a solid family man with high morals, Clay distains religion while Olivia raises their nine children in the church. They live with his parents, and he promised to build her a dream palace on the mountain to replace their small house.
Their goals are redefined when Clay Jr. is the first Spencer to ever graduate from high school at the top of his class. He wants to continue his education so he won’t have to work in the quarry like his father, but money is issue. Clay Jr.’s teacher, Miss Parker, and the newly arrived Preacher Goodman, do what they can to help him achieve his goal.
An engaging, yet simple movie, but here are my similarities. Dad promised to build mom their dream house, but due to financial difficulties, it never happened. I went to college to become an architect (they helped and I paid the rest), the Tetons are my favorite place to visit and I was once offered a principal’s position in nearby Jackson (which I turned down when I found they had the lowest income and the highest cost of living in the state). I was the first on Dad’s side of the family to graduate college. I live by Clay Sr.’s moral code, though up until I met the Bride I wasn’t much of a churchgoer. I was inspired to read and write by teachers who took an interest me. Clay and I love to fish, especially for trout, and like him, I don’t mind a drink or two…
So, did that movie become the foundation for my life, like the often-seen framing structure of the Spencer house? Did that story spark an interest in becoming an author? Houses and the land are always significant items in every book I write. Hummm….
Before we recline on the couch while a doctor lights a pipe and takes notes, let’s look at another significant movie in my life, Junior Bonner.
One of Director Sam Peckinpah’s lesser successful novels, this rodeo picture skewed me into an entirely different direction the year I graduated in 1972.
Junior Bonner is an almost over the hill rodeo rider. He first appears on the screen taping his injuries after an unsuccessful ride on an ornery bull named Sunshine. He returns to his home town to ride at the annual Fourth of July Prescott rodeo in Arizona to find his brother Curly, a disreputable real-estate developer, is bulldozing the family home in order to build a trailer park. Junior’s womanizing father Ace, and down-to-earth, long-suffering mother, Elvira, are estranged. Ace dreams of emigrating to Australia for once last chance at finding his fortune, but he’s broke.
Junior eventually floors his arrogant brother with a punch and bribes rodeo owner Buck Roan to again let him ride the bull that broke his ribs, promising him half the prize money. Buck thinks he must be crazy, but Junior actually manages to pull it off this time, going the full eight seconds.
Junior walks into a travel agent’s office and buys his father a one-way, first-class ticket to Australia, asking for it to be delivered with the line, “Tell ‘em Junior sent you.” The film’s final shot shows Junior leaving his hometown, his successful ride on Sunshine continuing to put off the inevitable end of his rodeo career.
After seeing that movie a couple of times, I launched a brief, unsuccessful rodeo career that ended when a doctor taped my own ribs after being thrown (familiar, huh?). “You need to find another job, kid. You’re not too good at this one.”
The movie, Junior Bonner, also taught me pacing, style, dialogue, and action. There are tiny moments in that film that have made their way into my work. If you haven’t seen it, buy the blue ray and listen to the comments, especially about a scene involving a typewriter. It’s an education in filming, directing, and character motivation.
I think both of these films helped me see my work cinematically as it progresses through the evolution of a manuscript. Reviewers often comment that my novels have a cinematic quality, and the comes from watching well-crafted movies.
You won’t get that with today’s super hero pablum.
What I am good at is collecting ideas and writing, and I have the feeling those movies, experiences, teachers, mentors and friends have all guided me toward my success. Oh, and don’t forget those early books I read like The Old Man and the Boy by Robert Ruark.
Now that book truly did change my life and sparked a dream to write novels.
The Two-Ton Albatross by William C. Anderson, Nothing Lasts Forever by Roderick Thorp (eventually filmed as Die Hard), Leaving Cheyenne by Larry McMurtry, and Recollection Creek by Fred Gipson, and dozens, if not hundreds more, established a solid path to writing.
So the question is to published and budding authors alike. Do you have a movie or book, or a combination of both, that sent you on this interesting and frustrating road?
Oh, and I have a follow up. Is there a movie, or book, that mirrors your life?