I have often been asked why in my family four of us turned out to be writers. My brother Paul is both a novelist and travel writer, as I am. We both write essays. I write poetry as well. My brother Joseph, as a Peace Corps volunteer in Western Samoa, wrote a novel in 1983, Black Coconuts, Brown Magic. Peter, our youngest brother, is an Arabic translator of note, but he has also written several books about Saudi Arabia and the Middle East.
George Orwell in his essay “Why I Write” offers several major reasons, putting aside the need to earn a living, why one chooses to do so, which includes motives as banal as sheer egotism, vanity, the desire to be talked about, the need to prove to your teachers who snubbed you in childhood. He suggests that loneliness has a lot to do with it. (“I think, from the very start my literary ambitions were mixed up with the feeling of being isolated and undervalued,” writes Orwell.) Were we lonely and undervalued? All children are, to a degree, even in large families. Maybe especially in large families. There is also the compulsion to remember, to want to remember, in a very real way to need to remember, to record.
Let me mention that not everybody in my family writes, and it is far from the defining identity among us. My older brother Gene, 57, a 25-year partner in Baker & McKenzie, the world’s largest law firm, is an international lawyer and has won medals for trade cases from the then-Soviet Union and the Republic of China. A painter, he took his undergraduate degree from Pratt Institute. My sisters, Ann Marie and Mary, both married and each with two children, are a secondary schoolteacher and a registered nurse, respectively. All of us are college graduates, and three have further degrees.
I remember my first attempt at fiction. It was a short story, typed on yellow rectangular paper, when I was in the seventh grade. After school my friend Angelo Corrado and I ran over to his house to use the typewriter. My saga, unnamed, was the story, illustrated with cartoons (another early fascination), of a magical breakfast food, and there was in it enough of a pubescently cheeky, if not slightly risqué, even perhaps scatological theme for his mesomorphic older brother, a shadowy oaf who never spoke to me and only to Angelo in Italian, to rip it up one day. While this does not rank in the realm of literary losses with Hemingway’s leaving A Farewell to Arms in the Gare du Nord or T.E. Lawrence losing The Seven Pillars of Wisdom, it hurt.
My first style was characterized by a lot of odd archaisms, exclamation marks, negative participles (“...grasping, lurching, crunching over the leaves, cruel Grippo made his way onward, ever onward...”) and was remarkable for the amount of hyphens I used. I loved hyphenating words. So I would hyphenate “him,” for example, and make it “hi-m” if it came, as often I made sure it would, at the end of a line. Or “them” would become “the-m.” It was also important to keep my right-hand and left-hand margins the same width. Turgidity was one of my most singular failings. I had taken four years of Latin by the time I graduated from high school and was given to verbal pyrotechnics, Ciceronian and orotund, even writing letters home from the one time I went to camp. Fathom sesquipedalian letters about making lanyards and swimming!
What makes a writing style? I have often told my students that it is not incidental to your face, your religion, your name, your schooling, your friends, what you eat and dream about and fear, and so many other variables. Is it coincidence that Steinbeck writes differently than Dickens or Gerard Manley Hopkins or H.G. Wells or G.B. Shaw? Not at all. Style is the autistic stir of language in us and is as mysterious as the ocean and the endlessness of space. Subject matter itself dictates style. I know that in writing Darconvilles Cat (1982), my longest novel, the very subject, disappointment in love, led me into the encyclopedic style and pedantic humor with which I wrote it, because satire is a verbal genre, an aspect of comedy that involves ridicule and a snobbish height, a persona of disdain necessitating the antic and the ironic and the sneering. I fancy I have a toolbox of several styles, making me to some an artificer as opposed to an artist. I find I can ventriloquate various voices when writing poetry and can conjure rabbits from a multiplicity of hats. My brother Peter’s prose has always been unobtrusively fine, even when he was in high school. His books, bright with crystal prose, can accommodate all kinds of arcane and Arabic lore without his having to descend, as often I do, into dark cellars in order to pull out some tool of medieval allusion or antediluvian rhetoric.
Authors to me, even as a boy, were heroes. No one could match them for daring or drama. I believed that they alone were the true pilgrims of the Absolute. I owned and treasured—no small thing in a family of eight — a biscuity little book, Fifty Famous Americans, thumbnail sketches of our country’s illustrious dead, which I read from cover to cover, flashing past the lives of certain secular leaders, great explorers like Daniel Boone and Kit Carson and soldiers like George Washington and Ulysses S. Grant, figures whom I admired but who had small share in my ontological reality, only to pore over once again the lives of Washington Irving, Herman Melville, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and my fixation, the raven Edgar Allen Poe, whose terrifying neuroses, like his fascination with black cats and the fear of being buried alive, took all my attention. I wrote a sonnet once, the octave of which ran:
Love, O what if in my dreaming wild
I could for you another world arrange
Not known before, by waking undefiled,
Daring out of common sleep adventure strange
And shape immortal joy of mortal pain...
Art resembles that, you know — the kind of dare