Strange as it may seem, as a preteen my favorite movies were love stories rather than westerns, horror films, detective stories, adventures and musicals. The relationships between everyday people have always keenly interested me. I use movies as a reference here because reading books was not a pastime by most members of my family.
When I told a ninth-grade English teacher, Miss Watkins, I had no interest whatsoever in diagramming sentences and conjugating verbs, she kept me in after school everyday, wiping out my sports activities, until I became so infuriated that I started studying English grammar just to get back at her...and went to the head of the class. I couldn't stand the sight of that woman then. Now of course I love her. She was an angel in disguise.
At around twelve years old, one of my favorite places was the Lamar Theater in Memphis. I had an afternoon paper route—Press-Scimitar—which was the largest route in the district, so I always had the money for a children's ticket. It had recently gone up from ten cents to twelve cents. That was the price for kids under twelve, and I could still pass for that age.
Most of my acquaintances and classmates sat in an area consisting of three or four rows near the fire exit on the left side of the theater. They liked it there because they could chat with each other and eat popcorn and candy during the movie. I usually sat alone in an area on the right side about half way back from the screen. I never ate during the movie, and the last thing I would've done was to talk to someone. My mother told me when she took me to movies as a baby and held me on her lap, my eyes were glued on the screen and I never uttered a sound.
Once the movie began, it was second nature for me to give the story my full attention. I didn't really watch a movie, I lived it. I virtually went into the story and became an invisible character. I was there with them as the story unfolded. When the movie was over, I had lived another life in a different world, a different location, with the characters on the screen. I felt I had grown as an individual because of that experience.
Most of my male acquaintances were attracted to Lana Turner, Hedy Lamarr or Rita Hayworth, but I had fallen in love with Greer Garson. She was my type. I saw her with Ronald Colman in “Random Harvest” and knew no other female could take her place. She had all the attributes for the love of my life.
Movies were my fictional “real-life” world. Why would anyone want to read a novel? See the movie. Live it. All the way through high school I never read a novel. Somehow, for book reports in English class, I was able to find a movie version of the novel. Aboard the battleship New Jersey in the Navy, someone left a copy of Mickey Spillane's “I, the Jury” in the photo lab. Spillane was considered the king of pulp fiction. I started it and it held my attention. It was fun. It was the first novel I'd read.
Later, at Ford Island in Pearl Harbor, still in the Navy, someone gave me “30 Days to a More Powerful Vocabulary.” I got hooked. I fell in love with words and learning new ones. That one book changed my life. For English 101 in a night class at the U. of Hawaii, I wrote a term paper titled “Thomas Hardy's Agnosticism,” read some of Hardy's work and loved it. Got an A+ on the paper and was told I should consider writing as a career. Later, for the final test in an intermediate French class, I wrote an epilogue for one of André Gide's novels and again was told I should consider writing professionally.
Also at Ford Island where I spent the last two years of my four years in the Navy, I violated my own rule about watching the movie instead of reading the novel. The movie, “From Here to Eternity” was popular and the story took place in Honolulu. I saw it, and because of my new interest in words and reading, I then read the novel. It was my kind of writing and I devoured it. Coincidentally, they started making a film of another novel, “The Caine Mutiny,” on a ship that was tied up only yards from the photo lab where I worked. Every day I saw Humphrey Bogart, Fred MacMurray and Van Johnson walk past the photo lab en route to boarding the ship on which scenes from the movie were made in the ocean near Pearl Harbor. The book was popular and I read it too.
And that brings up an important point. I didn't just read those novels. I lived them. I virtually entered the stories and circulated among the characters, “listening” to the dialogue and the inner monologues, “seeing” the expressions on the characters' faces, and “hearing” their voices. In “The Caine Mutiny” there's a letter the dying father of the main character, Willie Keith, writes to his son. That letter emotionally affected me so much that I remembered it long after finishing the novel, and yet I don't recall it being mentioned in the movie. I could be wrong.
What I'm driving at is this: many readers simply expose themselves to the words a novelist produces. They slide their eyes over the font that makes up the words and thoughts a novelist puts on a page. Some even claim that their ability to read a novel quickly actually permits them to more fully understand the writer's intention. I think that's BS. Brings to mind the man who just won the hot dog eating contest: 62 hot dogs with buns in 10 minutes. I believe readers who skim an author's work cheat themselves. They'll never know the lives they missed “living.” You derive from a novel what you put into it. I hope you won't skim my stories. When I wrote them, I lived them. I want you to live them. It took me a few years to get around to it, but when I was 21, I decided I wanted to write a novel. I've written several. Enjoy them. Live them.