The first novel I ever wrote was about a boy who sneaks aboard a pirate ship. I was in third grade, in Mr. McMahon’s class at Serrania Avenue Elementary School, deep in the heart of the post-World War II paradise known as the San Fernando Valley.
It was in this fertile land that babies boomed, along with the blast of rocket engines being tested at Rocketdyne. Nestled between the Santa Susana and Santa Monica mountain ranges, this piece of Earth extends 25 miles east to west, 13 miles north to south. It was “discovered” by the Spanish expedition under Gaspar de Portolá in August of 1769.
The Spaniards, of course, encountered the native inhabitants, who called themselves, simply, the people. The Spaniards called them Fernandeños, for they had decided to name this valley after King Ferdinand III.
In the latter part of the 1940s, returning servicemen came back from fighting Hitler and Tojo and staked claims in the housing developments of the Valley.
One of them was Arthur S. Bell, Jr. During his service in the Navy he met and married a beauty named Rosemary, and after the war built a house for them in Woodland Hills—yes, built, as he had learned the carpentry trade—and had a couple of boys. He went to law school at USC. After graduating he began his practice. All was going according to plan when his wife announced a little “surprise.”
They named the surprise James Scott. Scott is a family name, all the way back to James Winfield Scott who fought with Sherman in the Civil War.
The neighborhood in which young JSB grew up was teeming with kids. The neighbors all knew each other. They came out on summer evenings to sit on a stoop outside the Koteki household to drink beer and smoke and talk, as the kids played all around them.
Even as night fell, we kids rode bikes without helmets or helicopter parents watching our every move. We played hide and seek, kick the can, hit the bat. But not spin the bottle, which was forbidden to children of our age, but was whispered about as a pastime of the teenagers. It involved kissing girls, so I was not at all interested in becoming a teenager. Girls had cooties.
But I was talking about my first novel. It was written on my big brother’s notebook paper, three holes on the side. Four pages in all, including illustrations.
When I showed it to Mr. McMahon, he said, “This is a good idea.” Later that day he announced to the class that “Jimmy Bell wrote a book. It’s this big. You can look at it after school. I’d like each of you to take a week and write a book, too.”
I was already influencing a generation of young writers.
It is a tragedy of minimal proportions that this early work of literary genius is lost and will not be among the papers I leave to the University of Southern California (which may mean just leaving them on the table at the Trojan food court). But it’s in my head, and I can see it even now. The first illustration was a boy, barely more than a stick figure, climbing the anchor chain to get aboard a ship.
The boy’s name was James Green.
James, because that’s such a wonderful name, and evidence of my incipient desire to live vicariously through the adventures I was making up. Green, because that was my favorite color, for it was the color of the togs of both Peter Pan and Robin Hood, two of my heroes.
Peter Pan, because he could fly and fight pirates.
Robin Hood, because he could laugh and shoot arrows and sword fight with Basil Rathbone. Also because he could win the heart of Maid Marion, who was played by Olivia de Havilland in the movie, and who I was in love with. Or, I guess, had a crush on, considering my tender years. After watching The Adventures of Robin Hood, I concluded girls did not have cooties after all.
My friend Christopher Vogler, author of The Writer’s Journey, a standard text for screen and fiction writers, would say that all this was my “call to adventure.”
I think he’s right, because Peter Pan and Robin Hood never left me. They are with me still.
So there I was, writing an adventure story about a boy on a ship, sensing even then that this was what I wanted my life to be about—going on adventures, and what better way to do that than write story after story where I could live my dreams?
Do you remember your first attempt at writing a story? Tell us about it. At that time in your life, what did you dream of doing someday?