Like, I daresay, every writer, I started out as an all-devouring reader. I learned to read young, at three or four, and I actually remember the moment the light bulb went on that all those letters my folks were always encouraging me to sound out went together to make words. That the same letters in the same order always made the same words was a fact I found somewhere between miraculous and hilarious. Before I stumbled upon that secret I'd been able to recognize my name, my brother's and sisters' names and our home address, but only as symbols. Squiggles on a paper bag told us which lunch was whose, but it would have seemed the same if the bags had been decorated with drawings of us. Then came that light bulb moment, when I realized those letters, if you sounded them out, didn't only mean me, they said my name.
After that I was unstoppable. I read all our kids' books, to myself, to my folks, to anyone who'd listen. (Luckily my sisters were younger, and thought this was a treat, not an annoying-older-sibling eccentricity.) Also cereal boxes, milk cartons, junk mail - mostly those were full of words I didn't understand, but by God I sounded them out.
At six I was taking books to the living room, curling up on the couch, and being told by my mother to put down that book and go outside and play. Luckily I was a jock, so that was no hardship, but deep inside I liked reading better.
At nine, having gotten my library card long since, I was checking out six books at a time from the cozy local library in my Bronx neighborhood. I re-read my favorites more than once. In truth, more than twenty times. I mostly checked out unfamiliar books, but I also had some in heavy rotation. Three I remember: Abigail Adams, Girl of Colonial Days, by Jean Brown Wagoner; David Starr, Space Ranger, the author of which I knew as Paul French, but who was in fact Isaac Asimov; and Bill Bergson Lives Dangerously, by Astrid Lindgren. Lindgren was more famous for the Pippi Longstocking books, but I had no time for Pippi. I was a fan of Bill, who, with his pals, saved their whole town from evil bad guys when the grown-ups didn't buy the idea that anything untoward was even going on.
From the above you can see what kind of kid I was. Adventure and action were what it was all about, with characters who were a little off-base. The books above starred kids, which was a definite plus, but I didn't make it a requirement.
This was my situation when I came across an old hardcover copy of Howard Pyle’s The Merry Adventures of Robin Hood.
We'd recently moved. The college professor from whom my folks bought the house had added to the rambling place a genuine wood-paneled library, four walls of bookshelves punctured only by windows and doors. He couldn't take all the books to his new apartment and promised he'd have the ones he was leaving hauled off to a thrift shop with the furniture. My folks offered to save him the trouble: the library was one of the attractions of the house but the books we owned couldn't fill it - yet - so he might as well leave his behind and we'd go through them at our leisure, keeping what we wanted and dealing with the thrift shop ourselves.
I want you to know, dear reader, that none of those books saw a thrift shop until decades later, after my folks died and I, um, dealt with the thrift shop myself.
The books he left were an eclectic and interesting batch. Biography, history, geography, fiction. No kids’ books per se, but I'd moved on to adult books by then, at least the ones the librarian let me check out.
Perusing the professor's shelves one day, I found a slightly shabby, oversized leather-bound book: The Merry Adventures of Robin Hood, by Howard Pyle. ‘Adventures’ - that sounded good to me. The book was gorgeously illustrated and the style seemed poetic to my childish ear (though I think now it was probably only flowery). Each chapter was a different adventure and the prose was fairly dense, so I savoured it a chapter at a time before putting it aside to digest what I'd read. Because I was that little jock, I also took to climbing trees between chapters and shooting invisible enemies with invisible bows and arrows.
When I came to the penultimate chapter, for the first time in my already-long reading career, I was filled with sorrow. After I finished that one, and the one after it, there wouldn't be any more.
That was extremely unfair, I thought. There really needed to be more. And then, the question that changed my life: Why hadn't Mr. Howard Pyle written any more?
What was the revelatory nature of that question? It was the first time I understood on a conscious level the relationship between an author and a book. I knew about Paul French, Astrid Lindgren, Jean Brown Wagoner. But until I wondered why Howard Pyle was leaving me high and dry like this when he could have just gone on, telling me more of Robin Hood's adventures, I hadn't fully grasped that putting a story into a book was a deliberate choice someone made. Paul French had written a whole series of books about Lucky Starr (nee David); Astrid Lindgren had given Bill Bergson up for other characters. And Howard Pyle had decided not to tell any more about Robin Hood. A new light bulb went on: people decided whether to tell stories, and about what. They were grownups, but who cared? I could decide to tell stories, too.
I didn't know any Robin Hood stories. I couldn't add to the book that I so desperately didn't want to end. This was the final puzzle piece I didn't yet have: that stories were made up. I thought you had to 'know' them to write them. But I did know other stories. So I started writing the ones I knew: essentially, everything I'd ever read, or seen in the movies, or on TV. My teachers and parents, recognizing a live one when they saw it, encouraged me to write down new stories, too, from out of my head. Wow, you could do that? Just make stuff up?
So that's what I do now. I've published fifteen novels and four dozen short stories. I made 'em all up. Because that's what an author does with a story. Make it up and write it down for other people to read. How cool is that?
And maybe one of these days, I'll get back to Robin Hood. He and his merry men must have had a couple of adventures that haven't yet been told. Somebody, I think, really does need to tell them.
SJ Rozan has won multiple awards, including the Edgar, Shamus, Anthony, Nero, Macavity, and Japanese Maltese Falcon. She's published thirteen books and fifty short stories under her own name and two books with Carlos Dews as the writing team of Sam Cabot. SJ was born in the Bronx and lives in lower Manhattan. She teaches writing in the summer in Assisi, Italy (www.artworkshopintl.com) Her newest book is Sam Cabot's Skin of the Wolf. www.sjrozan.net
Sam van Zweden was Writers Bloc’s Online Editor from 2013 - 2015. A Melbourne-based writer and blogger, her work has appeared in The Big Issue, Voiceworks, Tincture Journal, Page seventeen, and others. She’s passionate about creative nonfiction and cross stitch. She tweets @samvanzweden.