Influences, Part One: The Early Years

I knew I wanted to write in July of 1987.  I didn’t know it consciously at the time– it took a while for me to really catch on to what my brain was doing.  I was ten-years-old and I was at the Capri Twin Theater to see RoboCop. It was probably too intense and graphically violent for a ten-year-old, but talk to my Aunt Jady about that because I wanted to see it and she’s the one who took me to the movies that night. 

robocop

When the movie was over and the credits rolled, I was struck by the words “written by Edward Neumeier and Michael Miner”.

Someone had written this movie.  I had never before thought about movies having to be written. At that age I didn’t understand a thing about screenplays, all I knew was that books were written. Movies too? Who knew?  I figured if you wrote for the movies it couldn’t be that different from a novel.  As I reflected on the movie, I wondered, “How did they describe RoboCop’s movements?  How did they describe the shootouts? Did they really write all of those cuss words?”

I still think about the movie and how its authors wrote everything. I think about that night at the Capri nearly every time I put myself to the task of writing.

My introduction to literature came, mostly, by way of the movies.  At a young age I saw Psycho, The Birds, Dracula, and Frankenstein.  I watched a lot of James Bond.  All of those had literary sources.  I also watched a lot of The Twilight Zone, a good number of its episodes were based on short stories. It amazed my young mind that I could watch Superman or the Super Friends and then pick up a comic book and be entertained by their further adventures.

Aside from comic books, there are three early influences which still impact my writing: Sid Fleischman’s McBroom’s Ghost, Washington Irving’s The Legend of Sleepy Hollow and Arthur Conan Doyle’s genius detective, Sherlock Holmes.

McBroomsGhost

McBroom’s Ghost, with wonderful illustrations by Robert Frankenberg, is a storybook my mother used to read to me.  She was probably happy when I was able to read it on my own.  I requested it so much, before I could even read, I could quote it by heart, page by page. It was funny, it had a mystery and it was completely absurd. I could also see my family, and my home, in the story. I could relate to them.

The McBroom family lived in the middle of nowhere, as I did, almost. I lived in the country, several miles from the city. The McBrooms were a large family unit, with the parents and all the children. It was just my mother, my brother and I, but my grandparents lived next door with my mother’s two youngest sisters, and I had an uncle, aunt and cousins just down the road. So it felt like a large family to me.

The McBrooms were not rich, either. They were poor, rural people. My family never went without any of life’s necessities– there was always a roof over our heads, food on the table, we were always well-clothed and shoed– but I was aware of the money being lean, at times, from eavesdropping on the adults’ conversations.

I saw my family and I in the McBrooms, in how they laughed and interacted with each other. That struck a real chord with me, how I could connect on a personal level with a story that was so crazy.

My formal introduction to The Legend of Sleepy Hollow wasn’t until I was in kindergarten. There I was in Mrs. McDonald’s class (E—I—E—I—O) and we watched a filmstrip of Disney’s adaptation of Irving’s story. I couldn’t get enough of it. I literally held my breath as my teacher flipped through the images, and after it ended I hoped she would rewind the cassette tape and start it all over, again.

Sleepy Hollow was a fascinating town. This was history, a time far removed from my own. I wanted to explore the town, meet its odd characters. I wanted to know that world, what that time period was like. The Disney animators had as much a hand in casting a spell over me as Irving’s recited words– the scenes were vibrantly spooky, and I ate it up. Ichabod Crane and the Headless Horseman (who I thought was the coolest thing in the world) stayed with me. They haunted me, but in a good way.

Everywhere I went, everywhere I looked, I was in Sleepy Hollow. In my elementary school, in the hallway leading to the cafeteria, hung a reproduction of Grant Wood’s The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere. Whenever I found myself there, I stared at the painting and I imagined it was the superstitious schoolmaster fleeing the ghostly Hessian. I wanted to be in the world of that painting, too, and explore it. I loved Colonial America as much as I loved Victorian-era London.

I discovered Sherlock Holmes on television in 1984. Starring Jeremy Brett (the definitive Holmes in my humble opinion), The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes was part of the Mystery! programming on PBS. I became obsessed with Sherlock Holmes. I was a pint-sized version of the sleuth for Halloween one year. I made walking sticks from old pieces of plumbing pipe and imitated Brett’s exaggerated use of it as he strolled.

I couldn’t get enough of Holmes, or Brett as Holmes (I still watch reruns of the show). Sherlock Holmes supplanted the Lone Ranger as my hero. He was more important to me than Captain America or Indiana Jones. Superman and Batman could not hold a candle to the supreme detective’s keen intellect. Even now I envy those deductive skills. I made-believe I was a cowboy or a cop, but I wanted to be Sherlock Holmes for real.

When I finally began reading on my own, I read the usual stuff a child would read. Comic books, Scooby-Doo, the Berenstain Bears, whatever my mother and aunts bought me. I was always attracted to the Halloween stories, though, anything that seemed mildly creepy was up my alley. It was around the age of five or six that I watched The Fog, my first horror movie. Count Dracula and Dr. Frankenstein soon followed and, because my mother has always been a Hitchcock fan, so too did Norman Bates and all those damn killer birds.

Movies introduced me to great literature, but great literature introduced me to the possibilities of the imagination. All the stories I had read up to a certain point, about ten or eleven, had been rather sedate, G-rated and suitable for consumption by the masses. When I discovered a collection of Sherlock Holmes stories in our local library, I actually discovered nirvana.

Yes, Doyle’s stories are rather G-rated, but, to quote classic cinema, “It’s a hell of a thing, killing a man,” and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle killed people left and right. “The Adventure of the Speckled Band” was one of my favorite episodes of the Sherlock Holmes TV show, so it became the first “grown-up” story I read on my own as a kid. With that story, I left behind the likes of The Mystery of the Pirate Ghost, Thor and Hawkman.

I had begun an incredible journey, and I could go anywhere.