MY BROTHER AND SISTER
I had one brother, Lee, who studied science and was very intelligent, and one sister, Mary, who looked a lot like Liz Taylor. They were much older. People used to mistake them for my parents, which irritated them a lot. They told people I had been left behind in one of the hotel rooms where we lived. Mary also told me, when I was about five, that I had once had a twin brother called John Henry. Our parents couldn't afford two babies, she said, so they tossed a coin. John Henry lost. Mary said that my grandmother had turned John Henry into a lampshade. She proved this by showing me a leather lampshade in grandmother’s living room. Even at age five I didn't believe the story, but for years I did think my parents had given up a twin brother for adoption.
MY EARLY YEARS
I worked at my father’s hotel desk from age nine, renting rooms and listening to the stories the patrons told each other. One man, who only had one eye, told me he had lost the other eye in a fight with a grizzly bear. He had a picture of the stuffed grizzly in front of a trading post in Alaska. One of the hotel clerks painted a mural on the wall of an Aztec princess being sacrificed to the sun god. It was a great painting, but the princess was naked from the waist up and looked a lot like my sister. My mother made him paint a brassiere on the picture and my father fired him. Next to the mural was the skin of a six-foot-long rattlesnake. My father told people he had caught it in one of the rooms.
There were never any children in the hotel. Because it was in a tough area, few of my school friends was allowed to visit me. I spent most of my time with cowboys, railroad men, truck drivers and packers. At the end of our street was a giant fruit-packing factory. Assembly lines clanked all day. Because the packers put only medium-sized fruit into the crates, anything too large or small was free for whoever wanted them. Sometimes we ate cantaloupes for breakfast, lunch and dinner. I can hardly bear to look at a cantaloupe today. Before we moved to the hotel, we lived in a house with three fig trees in the yard. During the fig season, we ate them three times a day. If you squeezed a ripe fig, long, thin black insects ran out of the hole at the end. My mother created a recipe for pickled figs that was one of the most horrible dishes ever invented.
Once, when I was watching the hotel desk, the police arrived to arrest a bank robber in one of the rooms. He wasn't there at the moment, so the police crouched at my feet and waited for him. The desk was as high as my chest and formed a little enclosure. When the robber came in, I handed him the key and after the man went upstairs, the police charged after him. My mother later found teddy bears in his room. The robber had broken out of prison and was going home to see his kids. She felt so bad about this, she sent the teddy bears and some money on to the children.
Another time, the military police came in to arrest a soldier who had gone AWOL from Yuma Test Station. I knew and liked the man, and so I quickly phoned up to his room and told him to go out the fire escape. For years I worried about being sent to jail for this. I was nine years old.
My parents had almost no sense where cars were concerned. We always seemed to buy automobiles that broke down and cost a lot of money. For a while we had a huge, black Hudson that sucked up gasoline like a sponge. One day, when my mother was driving back from Mexico, all the bolts holding a wheel broke at once and the wheel went rolling off into a ditch. Fortunately, the car only went 25 miles an hour so we weren't hurt.
MY BROTHER LEE
My brother Lee was every mother's dream. He was good-natured, clean, easy to control and a certified genius. This was in the days before the Teach Your Baby to Read movement, but my mother was ahead of the curve. From the time Lee was able to focus, she gave him books. She taught him the alphabet before he was able to say Mama, and she devoted her life to filling his mind and encouraging his progress. Lee was the perfect recipient for this attention. He read everything he could get his hands on. At night he hid under the covers with a flashlight and devoured more books until Mother had to pry his fingers off the covers. By the time he got to first grade he knew the names of the capitals of Europe. He could identify the differences between a stegosaurus and a triceratops. He could draw a map of the solar system with all the planets plus a few asteroids.
You'd think this would make him a hit with teachers, but when he got to first grade his first teacher produced a globe and said, brightly, "Who can tell me where Afghanistan is?" Lee put up his hand. Hell, Lee could not only find Afghanistan, he could tell you its gross national product. The teacher looked down at him and snarled, "You don't know where Afghanistan is. Put your hand down." This was the first time in Lee's short life he'd met someone who was not thrilled by his eager mind. More than that, he was considered a threat. Only the teacher was allowed to supply answers, and she became furious when someone tried to upstage her. Lee was an exceedingly shy boy. He'd been raised in a protected environment and nothing had prepared him for such rejection. For the rest of the year and the year after that and the year after that he asked no more questions. It soon developed that he was a very slow reader. It was as though he had to force his eyes to creep across the page.
MY SISTER MARY
All my mother's energy was centered on Lee and so, when my sister Mary was born, Mother was too busy to pay much attention to her. Mary was very intelligent, too, but she was a girl. Girls were discouraged from acting clever. They were supposed to look pretty and smell good, so they would be chosen as wives. Mother spent a great deal of time encouraging Lee, and Mary was left to find things out for herself. As time went by Lee earned top grades and prizes, while Mary was left in the shade. Then I came along.
Mary immediately latched onto me. I, too, was neglected by Mother, but I had a devoted older sister who thought she'd found the best toy in the world. She spent hours talking to me and finding things to entertain me. Then, when I was six months old my sister came home from school with measles and gave it to me. I almost died. I wasted away like a plant someone has forgotten to water. My growth was stunted for many years.
Mary was devastated. She believed it was her fault. She felt God was punishing her for some sin. She knew that she'd been named for my mother's baby sister who had died of typhoid. For years Mary assumed this meant she, too, would die young. She believed that her name was given to doomed children who were cursed from birth. Thus, when I got sick she believed that her bad fortune had infected me.
When I recovered, Mary set about trying to make it up to me. I didn't walk until I was three. This was partly because my development was stunted, but partly because I had a willing slave to carry me around. Mary taught me to read and made up stories of which I was the hero. She drew picture books in which I starred. What child wouldn't get an inflated ego with this kind of attention?
It's fascinating how small events can have a long-term effect on children. Lee had been devastated by a quite ordinary rejection in first grade. Another child would have shrugged it off. Mary had already assumed she was of no importance compared to her brother. When she -- as she thought -- almost killed me, it confirmed her belief that she was evil. Ever after, when someone hurt her, she assumed it was her fault whereas I, with my fattened ego, got angry and swore revenge. We were three children with the same parents, background and intelligence, and we had three entirely different personalities.
THE KIDDIE KOOP
My mother had a special, trendy kind of crib that was popular in the 1940s. It was inspired by the Skinner box, a device invented by the psychologist B.F. Skinner, and consisted of a wire cage on legs. It was a lot like a chicken coop, except that it had a mattress in the bottom. The top swung over and could be padlocked shut so no one could get at the baby, and of course the baby could not get out. This device was called The Kiddie Koop.
Lee and Mary spent their first years in the Kiddie Koop. They were both so good, the top never needed to be fastened down, but I was a completely different breed of cat. I couldn't walk, but I could crawl. I pulled myself over the top and fell to the floor. Then I set off exploring on hands and knees.Mother locked the top down. Mary sat outside and cried. She suffered a lot more than I did. I was merely furious. I burrowed into the mattress, pulled out all the stuffing and worked on the wire bottom until I had made a hole. Then I dropped down and set off exploring. Mother lined the bottom with a chunk of wood and locked me up again. This was the first skirmish in a life-long struggle for control. I clearly remember being given a baby bottle, of deliberately unscrewing the top and pouring the milk down the sides of the Kiddie Koop before my mother's horrified eyes. I could not have been older than three. Mary was so upset by the Kiddie Koop that when she grew up, she chopped it into little bits and burned it. I was sorry about that. I was sure it belonged in a museum.
MY FIRST YEARS IN SCHOOL
Due to Mary’s devoted teaching, I arrived in first grade able to read at the eighth grade level. I had one mental flaw no one understood at the time: I had no concept of left and right. All my letters and numbers were in mirror writing, and my handwriting was terrible. I didn't seem able to hold a pencil correctly. For this reason I failed the first three grades. No one knew what to do about it, although everyone agreed it was another example of my pig-headed determination to get my own way. Now this condition is identified as dyslexia.
Both my brother and sister had skipped several grades because of their intelligence. When I arrived at school the new principal had a completely different approach. His belief was that all children had exactly the same intellectual potential. No one should be allowed to skip a grade because that would be unfair to the others. We would all study the same things over and over until the slowest child understood before we would be allowed to go on. I wish people would stop using kids as guinea pigs for their social experiments. This man blighted my education.
I was put into a circle with all the other children and we began the adventures of Dick and Jane, Spot, Puff and Little Sally. Slowly we worked around the circle. Each one of us read the same page. The real sticking point was a boy called Henry. He was bigger than the others. He had no hair, and his skull was mottled like a grapefruit. Henry cheerfully said the first thing that came into his head -- dog, chair, lunchtime, hungry -- and the teacher complimented him. If Henry didn't get it right, we had to go around the circle again with the same page.
Henry was never going to read the book. He couldn't even recognize the alphabet, but after five or six times the teacher took pity on us and let us find out whether baby Sally found her red ball on the next page. Henry was good at one thing: He could copy any picture you gave him. I brought him my Donald Duck comics and admired how he could reproduce them. Henry and I worked together because we were the two outsiders. He was at one end of the learning curve and I was at the other. For some reason that made us friends.
I finished the first grade reader in two days and asked for something else. "You have not finished the book," the teacher said, firmly. "You're trying to make trouble. Sit down and turn to page two." It was the same kind of thing that had happened to my brother, but I was a far different child. I had been the star of dozens of dramas written by my sister. I had learned that if someone said no, it merely meant you were off the hook and free to do as you liked. I shut my mind to the teacher and daydreamed. Every now and then someone would nudge me and I would read the page. The rest of the time I was queen of a distant country with magic powers and adoring subjects.
This daydreaming pattern was set in first grade and it grew until it took over my life. School was intolerably, excruciatingly boring. I learned various ways to pretend sickness so I could be sent home. Vomiting on the front steps of the school was good. I could manage it if I drank spoiled milk before leaving home. My mother never threw anything out, so it was quite easy to find sour milk.
LATER SCHOOL YEARS
Every year we learned the same things: How to diagram sentences, American history up to the War of 1812, addition and subtraction and more addition and subtraction with long division thrown in as a treat. The lessons inched ahead and I went off into a daydream the minute I sat down.When I was eight my father had a heart attack. He had to find easier work and for some unfathomable reason he thought managing a hotel was easy. We moved to Yuma, Arizona, on the Mexican border.
The temperature there was over 120 degrees every summer. It rained about as much as it does in the Sahara Desert and when the wind blew, dust storms turned the sky dark at noon. Sand burrowed under doors, through window cracks, and into your eyes and mouth. When it did rain, hordes of crickets poured out of the Colorado River basin and turned the streets black with insects. Cars slid back and forth on them. It was not a promising place to run a hotel.
The only important building in Yuma was an old prison. It was said to be the worst prison in the West. The cells were carved out of solid rock. The doors were made of iron. If you managed to escape, you had to jump down a cliff into the Colorado River, which was full of quicksand. If you didn't get swallowed up by quicksand or swept away by the water, you climbed out into a blisteringly hot desert whose inhabitants were the Yuma Indians. The Yumas did not like trespassers, so your chances of getting past them was about zero.
At some point, the state decided the prison was too horrible for criminals. They closed it, and the town turned it into a high school. It made a good school. It made you think seriously about studying and no one ever played hooky. Eventually, the town built a real school with bathrooms and windows and other fancy stuff but to this day, the high school football team in Yuma is called the Yuma Criminals. I went to Yuma Middle School and our football team was called the Juvenile Delinquents.
In fifth grade I had a teacher called Mrs. Wolfe who was very kind and encouraged my studies. For the first time I had no desire to play hooky. Unfortunately, in sixth grade I had a teacher called Miss Clairidge. Every afternoon she read to us about Soviet prison camps, about people getting tortured or shot in the back of the head or about prisoners killing kittens and puppies, and making them into soup. When Miss Clairidge ran out of these stories, she told us about her summer vacations at the Chicago stockyards. Miss Clairidge loved visiting the stockyards. She described how the animals moaned in fear because they could smell the blood of their slaughtered companions. I began to have nightmares. I didn’t like school anymore.
This was during the Cold War and we used to have atom bomb drills at the school. We practiced hiding under desks with our hands over our eyes. If I got up very early on certain days, I could see the flash of atom bomb tests from Yucca Flats in Nevada. One of the games my friends and I played was called, Who do you want in your bomb shelter? This was based on the belief that when the bomb did drop we kids would emerge into a world full of free stuff. We would run amok in supermarkets, jewelry stores, and rich people's mansions. We walked around J. C. Penney's and picked out things we would loot when the time came. Sometimes we talked about which movie stars we would invite to share our shelters and sometimes we chose historical figures. A variation of this game was called, Who would you kick out of the bomb shelter?
It occurs to me now that maybe it wasn't a good idea for my parents to leave a small girl in charge of a hotel with a bar on one side and a liquor store on the other. But the experience certainly taught me independence. By now my brother and sister were in college. My parents were busy, so I was pretty well on my own.
At night I explored the roofs along Main Street. I could jump from the hotel to the top of the liquor store and go on to the movie theater. There I opened a trap door and slipped down to watch free movies. I also spied on the bowling alley and the American Legion Hall. At ground level I scampered from the Catholic church at one end of Main Street to the Brown Hotel at the other. The Brown Hotel was a brothel. I had not the slightest idea what a brothel was, of course. A large woman in a pink slip lounged on a sofa outside. I didn't think this was strange at all. When I wasn't exploring, I played cribbage with the old retired railroad men at the hotel. The lobby was always full of truck drivers, salesmen, cowboys and sometimes even more exotic creatures like circus folk and Grand Old Opry singers. We never had the important stars. They stayed in better hotels, but the less important people were just as interesting.
With all this freedom, I became completely wild. School had rarely offered me anything but boredom. Life outside, exploring the hobo jungle along the river, watching the assembly line at the fruit packing plant and observing quickie weddings at the chapels that lined the road from California, was far more interesting. In seventh grade I learned to play hooky. I got away with it for two years. After that I was thrown out of high school for bad behavior.
Clearly, I wasn't learning much in an official sort of way, but I was reading on a grand scale. The hotel had a library composed of the stuff people left in the rooms. First, the magazines: Argosy, True, Esquire, The Saturday Evening Post, The American Legion Magazine, The Police Gazette and many detective and cowboy magazines whose names I don't remember. This was the heyday of the short story. These magazines were also full of true adventures and war stories. Some of America's top writers got their start here. There was one particularly lurid publication called See with great covers. One I remember was of a man swimming away from a horde of giant rats. You could always count on See for quality art.
What is notable about these magazines is that although their covers were sleazy, the contents were often excellent. Ernest Hemingway, C. S. Forrester, Roald Dahl, J. D. Salinger, Kurt Vonnegut and John Steinbeck were published in them. My mother made an effort to weed out publications unsuitable for my eyes, but she always missed a few. The Nudist Monthly had entertaining photographs of people playing volleyball. True Confessions was loaded with fascinating descriptions of sin. Compared to today, it was all pretty innocent.
The hotel also had a good collection of paperback novels. Ah, the covers of those 1950's novels! They lured me into more than one piece of literature. The cover of The Sun Also Rises had a Spanish girl in a low-cut blouse with her skirts pulled up around her thighs. Nowhere in that book will you find this scene, but the artist's job was to grab your attention. Catcher in the Rye had a teenage boy and girl swimming naked. Tobacco Road had a pair of hillbillies ogling a scantily-clad girl in a pig-sty. I worked my way through Tennessee Williams, Maupassant, Victor Hugo, Faulkner, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Hemingway on the promise of those covers. I got a better grasp of literature from that hotel library than from a Master of Fine Arts program at a top university.
I was now a full-time hooky player. I left home in the morning, turned aside and went down to the Colorado River where I could play with the children of Illegals who didn't go to school. I sneaked into the gardens of the Sanguinetti House, which was a mansion I used in The House of the Scorpion. The Sanguinetti House had the only green grass in town. Peacocks wandered over its lawns and parrots screeched from cages. There was a tile fountain and hedges of flowers I could hide behind. I went back there as an adult to check up on the accuracy of my description and found it was exactly as I remembered. Except that it was small. When I was a child, it seemed to go on for miles.
One day, as I was walking along a back street in Yuma, I found four pages that had been ripped out of a book. The print was small and the paper was edged with gold like the pages of the Bible. I knew they had come from something very good. I was shocked. No one in our family would treat a book that way. My sister had told me, when I was small, that books felt pain and if you marked them up with pencils they would cry.
I sat down to read the lost pages. They were about a little girl who was supposed to take care of her brother's rabbits while he was on a trip. She had forgotten to give them water. When her brother returned, all the rabbits were dead and he was furious.That was all. I turned the pages around, trying to find the title of the book, but there was nothing. I was devastated. What happened to the little girl? Did her brother forgive her? How could anyone forget to water rabbits? The writing was so good I could see those poor little bunnies and the girl crying and her brother -- Tom was his name -- shouting at her. I had to find out what happened next.
I decided to do a very dangerous thing and go to the public library. I went up to the desk, held out the pages and said, "Please tell me what book those came out of. I didn't do it." The librarian certainly knew I was playing hooky. "These pages," she said, squinting at the tiny print, "are from Mill on the Floss by George Eliot. Do you want the rest of the book?"
“Oh, yes," I said. So she took me to the adult part of the library -- children in those days weren't allowed into the adult section -- and found me Mill on the Floss. I sat down to read. Thereafter, when I was tired of watching quickie weddings or hobos jump off the train, I went to the library. It was cool and had a drinking fountain, no small thing in Yuma. I worked my way through Pride and Prejudice, Jane Eyre, David Copperfield and many others. And that librarian never turned me in.
Nancy was born in 1941 in Phoenix. She attended Reed College in Portland, Oregon, earning her BA in 1963. Instead of taking a regular job, she joined the Peace Corps and was sent to India (1963-1965). When she returned she went to Berkeley and sold newspapers on the street for a while, then got a job in the Entomology department at UC Berkeley and also took courses in Chemistry there. Restless, again, she decided to visit Africa. She and a friend tried to hitchhike by boat but the ship they'd selected turned out to be stolen and was boarded by the Coast Guard just outside the Golden Gate Bridge. Nancy was forced to buy an airline ticket. She spent more than a year, living virtually alone, on Lake Cabora Bassa in Mozambique, monitoring water weeds. Next she was hired to help control tsetse fly in the dense bush on the banks of the Zambezi in Zimbabwe. Part of the time she spent in the capital, Harare, and there met her future husband. They married a few weeks later (in 1976) and now live in Menlo Park, California. They have a son, Daniel, who is in the U.S. navy.
Nancy's honors include the National Book Award (Children's Literature) for The House of the Scorpion and Newbery Honors for The Ear, the Eye and The Arm, A Girl Named Disaster and The House of the Scorpion. She is the author of eight novels, three picture books and a number of short stories. Her books have been translated into 26 languages.
How I Became a Writer
I started writing when I was 40. By that time, I was working on tsetse fly control in Zimbabwe. I worked in the field until I was eight-and-a-half months pregnant, in an area full of terrorists. I thought that after I had the baby I was going to sling him on my back and go back to the war zone and work. Didn't work out that way! I had Daniel I had to stop work as a scientist. I got very depressed just sitting at home. Even though I adored my baby, I was used to going around having fun, and I wasn't having fun anymore. Then, when Daniel was four, I was reading him a book by Marjorie Forster, and I thought, 'Wow, I can do this!' And I sat down and wrote a short story. That's when I started being a writer. I got the Tarzan books and studied how Edgar Rice Burroughs kept the pace going, because he was really good at that. And I studied Stephen King. Although Burroughs wasn't that great on character, he was great on pace and adventure, and King is very good on character as well as pace. I read the same book over three times to see how it was put together. That's how I trained myself to write.
It was dead easy to sell things in Africa. They were desperate, so I was spoiled rotten. I could write anything and they would publish it, pay me immediately, and give me royalties. It was lovely... But I wanted to get published in the US...Eventually I sent a story to the Writers of the Future Contest, and it won one of their four yearly prizes. They were very good to me. They picked me out of Africa and flew me to the US. I was able to see my mother and my family, who I hadn't seen for years because we couldn't afford the airfare. They had a writing workshop taught by Orson Scott Card, and we were there for a week. I was kind of in shell shock because I hadn't been in the US -- I hadn't been in cities -- for a long time, and this was Hollywood! And I was not used to being in the public eye at all. I was absolutely terrified, shaking all over. Algis Budrys was very fatherly, telling me to calm down. I won the Gold Award, and I just did not know how to react to it. I was completely floored.
With the help of the award money from the Writers of the Future, we moved back to the United States, but we were still dirt poor even though Harold had a fellowship at Stanford... For a while I also worked at Stanford in the genetics department, maltreating fruit flies. These were utterly ugly deformed flies, with eyes coming out of their heads and wings out of their stomachs, and they'd stagger around. My job was to get them to mate so they could continue the line. Fruit flies do a little mating dance, and if they don't have it they're not interested, so I would be there with a toothpick, wiggling the male -- I was a fruit fly pimp! Plus they gave me these carcinogenic chemicals to work with, to help deform the flies, and the chemicals ate the gloves off my hands. I began to think, 'This is not a career option. I've got to do something else.' After I quit and the lab director told me he wasn't going to give me a recommendation, I went home, devastated. My son was bouncing up and down by the mail box -- I had gotten a letter from the National Endowment for the Arts, saying they'd awarded me $20,000 for Do You Know Me? They had never awarded it to a children's author before, and I'd sent them my first children's book in this country. That saved my bacon. And I've been a full-time writer ever since.
I did a bit of writing as a kid. We had a ratty typewriter, and I put out a little newspaper of my own. I made a cartoon strip and stuff like that, but that was just for fun. Later on, one of my first jobs was putting out a weekly newspaper for the Parks Department in Phoenix. When I wrote an article, and if it got even slightly creative, the real editor would knock it all out and make it as dull as possible. But it did teach me not to take my writing too seriously, because it's going to get cut to ribbons anyway. So I never had the feeling my writing was deathless literature. (That was useful later on. I don't mind doing rewrites and messing around with my work.) I went into science, partly because my brother's a very good scientist. I thought this was the thing I should be doing, and I was good at it -- just not as good as he was. He's the sort of person who could work for years and years keying out a particular kind of slime mold and be perfectly happy. I can do that for about half a week, and then I have to go out and party or something! I didn't have the application.
The writer always is an outsider. I started out as an outsider as a little kid because my parents were so old when I was born -- they were a generation earlier than the other kids' parents. And I was born a lot later than my brother and sister, so I spent most of my childhood alone. I started reading really young. My parents were bookaholics and had a huge amount of books around. We had all the classics -- French literature, Shakespeare, myths -- plus all the popular hit books of 1920, and all my mother's children's books -- very Victorian books her mother had had, published in the 1890s, politically incorrect books that were wonderful reads. I loved H. Rider Haggard, and at one point my aunt gave me all the Tarzan books. Those were great! I also started reading science fiction very young. My brother brought home Astounding Science Fiction -- whatever science fiction magazines were around, he brought those home. Then the very first Ace Doubles. So that's how I got into science fiction. My sister didn't read it much, but I really took to it.
We started out living in Phoenix, where my father ran a tavern, but his boss and his boss's wife got murdered, so he got nervous -- he had a heart attack from nervousness -- and wanted to move somewhere tranquil. We moved to Yuma, where he became a hotel manager. (Of course a hotel is a lot of work. You never really relax.) It was sort of a run-down hotel, the oldest in town. It had guests like old retired railroad men, fruit tramps who'd come through every year and pack cantaloupes, cowboys. The circus came through once a year. We had second-string Grand Old Opry stars, and the second-string rodeo people all covered with scar tissue. It was a really interesting place to be. I would stay up till midnight every night listening to these guys tell stories. Then I was wasted the next day in school. I didn't intend to be a writer, but it was a great background. There were all these exciting things going on!
I had a very active fantasy life. I made up lots of stories, and when I got to school I never really fit in. I got thrown out of a couple of schools at a certain point -- from a Catholic school for putting salt into pies for the visiting priests when I was supposed to be putting sugar. Then I was sent to a Presbyterian school to straighten me out, but in the middle of winter we had a riot: we threw the head mistress out into the snow, locked her out, and then we went wild -- broke into the Coke machines, unrolled all the toilet paper, and then stood on the roof, took off our shirts and waved them and invited the boys over from the boys' dormitory. It was about then that I was sent home from that particular school! The older I got, the more I fit in. I liked college a lot, but even so I was always a little bit to the side, not really in with the rest of the people. I probably never fit in until I got to Berkeley, where I worked in the entomology department (which is what prepared me to go to Africa). I liked it because everything is acceptable in Berkeley, and that was really exhilarating. I was there around 1967-68, during the Vietnam protests and the real hippie era, so anything went. I was taking lessons in the chemistry department, and you could smell the tear gas wafting across from Sather Gate. I used to take part in the demonstrations, watch the National Guard, stuff like that. I lived in a Berkeley commune at that time. Everybody in the commune was a misfit, so we all got along together really well.
When I got to writing professional fiction, it just seemed like my whole life had been a preparation for that. It has been! I just wanted to live life with a capital L. I wanted to see everything that was out there. I didn't really have serious career plans or options at all. As a kid I wanted to be an explorer, so I got a whole bunch of books about photography on expeditions and how to survive in the wild, and I trained myself to be an explorer. As an adult, I wandered around the world and people would come out of the woodwork and take care of me. Innocence works -- it usually was quite wonderful.
At a certain point, I ran off to Africa in search of love and adventure. I had already been in the Peace Corps in India, then come back and lived with the Hari Krishnas for a while. When I left Berkeley, I spent some time in a regular job with the highway department, training the road maintenance crew on the good bugs vs. the bad bugs -- when to spray, when not to spray. But I got promoted beyond my level of capability, from field work (which I'm good at) to administration (which I'm terrible at). I began to get pretty bored, and I wanted to run off to Africa. I was 30, had $500 in traveler's checks, and I got a ticket on a freighter going to South Africa. I had a list of entomologists there, and my grand plan was to walk to the nearest one and ask for work. At that time all you could find in the library were really old books on Africa, so I figured it was like going back in a time warp. I got to Cape Town, and of course it's very modern, extremely beautiful. I didn't really know much about apartheid, which was in full swing back then. But I did walk to the nearest entomologist and ask for work.
The first job I had was collecting Solfugit, which is an arachnid -- they're big, ugly spidery things but they're not really dangerous. There was a group of them living beside this airstrip, and my job was to go out on the airstrip and collect them, all the while looking up to see if anything was landing. (This was why it was the job nobody else wanted.) You'd see a shadow pass overhead, and then you'd run like hell for the bushes! Eventually I got offered a wonderful job in Mozambique, doing water chemistry and entomology. It was probably the best job I've ever had. And Mozambique is where I got to really know Africans and picked up a whole lot of stories. I had an insane lab technician who gave me most of the stories that ended up in The Ear, the Eye, and the Arm...
I wrote about Africa because I knew it -- I'd been living there 17 years -- and I didn't know the United States anymore. The first book I wrote while in Africa was about California hippies because that's exotic and the Africans liked that. But when I wrote it I realized I'd forgotten what it was like, and I didn't really have a feel for American language patterns any more. That was when I realized I had to write about Africa. Do You Know Me? was for little kids. The Ear, the Eye, and the Arm was the first 'big' book -- I made a thorough study of African mythology, religion and customs to make sure I got all the facts right. Then I did A Girl Named Disaster (I even have a bibliography on that one, because I intended it as an African Studies book.) In between, I wrote The Warm Place. That one was more popular in Africa than it was in the US. I retold certain Bible stories and Talmudic stories from an animal's point of view. It's fantasy, but it's a small book and has some religious aspects. It's not a bad book, but people remember the books that get awards, like The Ear, The Eye, and the Arm and A Girl Named Disaster...
I don't read much fiction now, except fiction that doesn't raise any static to what I'm writing. If I'm trying to read a book (even a really good one) while I'm writing, my brain will just reject it, and I can't pick up the plot. So I wait till I'm in between books to do my reading. Then I'm fair to the book, I can understand it, and I do a lot of reading. Not many children's books, though, except ones by people I know and like. When I was growing up, I read C.S. Lewis and Roald Dahl. I love Dahl's outlook; there's nobody nastier! He's the one who said, 'Children are little beasts, and you mustn't forget it.' He liked children but he didn't have any illusions about them.
Lately I've been going out and giving talks all over the place. It's not natural to me. It makes me so nervous I get sick. But it's good business. And I like to meet the people. What worries me is that I have fans among kids. Kids will come up to me and say, 'I have read your book three times and I'm patterning my life on your book.' I know what a wasted character I am, and I don't think my advice is that good. (Don't listen to me -- please read some other book!) I don't really want to be responsible for them changing their lives, although I don't think I teach them to do anything truly awful.
One of my main themes is self-reliance, the ability to compete against odds and to beat them. A lot of kids' books have somebody who learns to come to terms with some dreadful situation, and it's all about them continuing to suffer at the end of the book. I don't want to write 'victim' books. I want a triumph, a hero or a heroine, and that's what I write about.