This Writer's Life #1

Lately I’ve been asking myself how I actually became a writer. In some ways this question has come up because I turned forty this summer, and I am feeling that I can statistically figure on having less days left on this planet than I have already spent. This is a strange thing to think about, and it has caused me to go through the motions of a mid-life crisis of some kind—no sports cars or affairs with students. Really, it’s just made me a little more reflective. It’s almost not worth saying, but it has been a long strange trip from my teenage years in the wet hipness of Portland to my life here in the dry, un-ironic desert mountains of Southern Utah. Since I’m not naturally open to the obligatory soul-bearing required of most creative non-fiction (hence my orientation to fiction), but I thought I’d undertake this process as a simple inquiry into a few of the things that I really loved when I was younger and how those formed my artistic foundation. Furthermore, since I’m not particularly secure in the thought that anyone besides me is interested in this journey, I’m going to spill it out into the blogosphere. Mostly, I feel compelled to do this exercise in self-reflection because it gives me some reason to polish the ideas a little and keep my head in them a little bit longer than I would if I was just thinking them through on a walk or while cleaning the kitchen, which is my duty tonight.

When I was in about to head into the third grade, my best friend's father invited me and a number of the neighborhood boys to see the newest James Bond movie. This man’s name was Marc Berry, and he was an accountant for the Dammasch State Mental Hospital. It’s more accurate to call it an asylum, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest was filmed there, for more reasons than the gentle, saturated light. The Dammasch has a really dark past, but Marc Berry was really pretty close to the best kind of person you could imagine. He took all of us kids in his VW bus down to the Multnomah County Library, arranged kick ball tournaments with brackets and awards ceremonies. He was a big cyclist and signed us kids up for the MS Bike-a-thon one year, complete with a months worth of training for the long ride that took a whole Saturday to finish. Later, after his divorce, Marc Berry’s brother shot him in the face over a dispute concerning the disposal of their parent’s estate, which included a very nice home in Malibu, California. It was obvious to me, long before I set out to be a writer, that Marc Berry’s life was nowhere near ordinary.

007Back in August of 1977, Marc Berry made a pronouncement that was time for “the boys” to see The Spy Who Loved Me. It was his sincere desire that we become initiated into the masculine world this way and not through the banality of organized sports (except kickball). He felt like this was a necessary rite of passage. Mr. Berry loved movies, all kinds of movies. Previously he had taken us to see Darby O’Gill and the Little People and The Apple Dumpling Gang. We had no idea than what this matter of The Spy Who Loved Me was going to mean to him, to us, and to our parents, who were, at best uncertain about our going. I should say that it was our mothers who seemed to be uncertain. It was easy to convince our fathers, and in the end a number of the fathers and about ten of us kids piled into vans and station wagons and made our way to the Valley Theater, purchased our bushels of popcorn and coke, unaware that our minds were about to split wide open.

The Spy Who Loved Me came out in 1977, which is very important because most other little boys of the day were obsessed with Star Wars. I was okay with Star Wars—I’m not a hater. We could say that I have a fond affection for the whole franchise, but it is not in my DNA like Bond was (or rather as Bond would become). What matters is that this point of departure from the norm marks a major fork in my life: one direction led to the comfortable common place nerdiness of boyhood in the 70s, the other plummeted into a dangerous vermouth-soaked international world of intrigue and and cold ward frisson. If I had followed the droids to Tatooine I would have become one sort of person, a good person, but completely unlike the person I am today. Instead, I skied over the edge of the Swiss Alps with Mr. Bond and never looked back.

(Yes, nerds. I know that the actual jump was shot in Nunavut, Canada).

In my creative life, I keep coming back to The Spy Who Loved Me for no good reason. It’s not a direct thing (I don’t for example, write or read thrillers), but it was more the tone and the hugeness of it. Like so many things from my childhood it sort of pales when I return to it, unlike Kubrick's 2001 or Lean's Lawrence of Arabia, which I recently watched again with my family on our forty-inch LCD screen. The quality of the restoration was better than when I saw it in the theater. I can only hope for the Blu Ray.

But I digress. The big change for me involved what happened after that fateful screening. After our MI6 baptism, the kids in my neighborhood became regular attendees of the James Bond Film Festival at the Guild Theater in Portland, Oregon. Once a year, this great old time theater (they used real butter on their popcorn) would run sequential double features of the Bond films for a few weeks each Fall.

spy_who_loved_me_2By the end of that first year, I was hooked. At the ripe old age of ten I could tell you how 007 liked his martinis, what his preference for wine and champagne were, that he preferred his caviar, like his revenge (on ice). I could rattle off the names of the Bond girls and the henchmen. I even knew the acronyms: S.M.E.R.S.H and S.P.E.C.T.R.E. My Uncle Bob found this so endearing that he would fling questions at me during Thanksgiving dinner when he thought I might not have my crib sheet with me. One time he caught himself off guard when the correct answers to his parade of Bond trivia questions were Pussy Galore and Holly Goodhead. Uncle Bob blushed deeply, and I thought my Aunt Joan was going to choke on a cranberry.

After I'd seen each of the films three or four times (Let me remind you that at this time VCRs were still the size of suitcases) I delved into the books, which weren’t common in new editions, so we headed down to Powell's Books, which unlocked an entirely new world for me. Powell's was not yet the juggernaut of hipness it is today, but it was a great place to find old paperbacks for a couple of bucks. I gathered up yellowed copies of Goldfinger, On Her Majesty's Secret Service, and so forth, effectively cleaning them out.

If I had actually been more perceptive I might have noticed the sly grins of the cashiers selling boozy misogynist cold-war spy novels to a thirteen-year old in a Chewbacca t-shirt. I only suspect that this happened because, from my perspective now, I understand how this world of book store/record store approval works. I participate in the behavior myself as an English Professor who loves to catch students sneaking a few pages of unassigned Günter Grass or Cormac McCarthy when no one was looking.

What James Bond did for me was start me into the world of obsession, which I think is important for an artist of any kind.

Next Installment: How reading Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight made me quit comics.