Ever since I was a boy growing up in the small farming community of Shelbyville, Indiana, I have believed in the power of a great story. For my eighth birthday, my grandparents gave me a copy of Charles Major’s novel The Bears of Blue River and it changed my life.
The Bears of Blue River novel was written in 1900 by the Shelbyville native. It follows the adventure of 14-year-old Balser Brent as he and his family face the uncertainties and joys of life as one of the first white settlers in Indiana in the early 1820s. In particular, I’ve always been fascinated by the chapter in the book called The Black Gulley in which Balser faces down a mysterious magical bear, at night, in the terrifying Black Gulley. What particularly captured my attention was the author’s need to preface the chapter with a disclaimer that “…the fire and explosion occurred in the place and manner described.” While that disclaimer fascinated me, it wasn’t until decades later that I would learn that his disclaimer was entirely accurate.
As a young boy, I read and re-read that book until the hardback cover and pages were worn and tattered. I visited the locations where various scenes took place, imagining myself as Balser, defending my community from the onslaught of marauding bears and other wild animals. Boyhood gave way to middle school and the discovery of sports, music and new friends. Then came high school years, filled with girls, parties, cars and the sport of wrestling. My interest in Balser and his adventures, while not completely extinguished, took a back seat to newer, more fascinating pursuits.
College at Indiana University exposed me to new genres of literature – both domestic and international. I quickly settled on pursuing an English degree and never looked back. The end of college brought two life changing occurrences in my life – the first a discovery and the second a decision. Near the end of my senior year, I met the love of my life, Pam Hutson and we’ve been best friends and partners on the odyssey of life for the past thirty-five years. The decision I made was to forgo a Master’s Degree in English in favor of a more practical law degree. The fact that my parents insisted on this course of action played no small part in my decision. In retrospect, they were probably right.
After a couple of years, Pam and I married, finished law school and began a series of jobs. Our employment took us to fascinating places, including Indianapolis, Chicago, Amsterdam and Charlotte – our current home.
During our time in Chicago, a beautiful baby boy named Mason joined our voyage. He was followed four years later by his Dutch-born brother, Arthur. While we were a young and growing family, we strived to maintain the love of travel which Pam and I first experienced in the late 1980s with a six month journey through Southeast Asia. While living in Amsterdam, we packed up the boys for trips to Paris, London, Italy, Greece and Spain. Eventually, we journeyed further to places like Indonesia and South Africa. Our mantra, no doubt repeated until our sons tired of hearing it, was “Our home is where our family is.”
Then boys grow up and boys move away. As they always have –and should. Hard as it is for parents to accept.
Being avid movie watchers, Pam and I have spent many nights in front of the tube with the latest DVD. Too often, Pam had heard me say, “I could write something better than that!” Understandably tired of hearing this, she finally responded: “If you can write something better than that, then why don’t you do it?”
Intrigued by this proposition, I thought about what I’d like to write and my mind wandered to the past. When thinking about the type of story that inspired me, I began to feel nostalgic for the 110- year-old novel, that is all but lost outside of Central Indiana.
I came back to my old story, The Bears of Blue River and adapted it into a screenplay. Certain that Hollywood producers would be queuing immediately to make my movie, I soon learned the bitter truth that all writers must face at one point or another. There is vast difference between writing (what we feel) is a great story and selling that great story. After about a year of disappointment, I set my screenplay aside and moved on .
In the summer of 2011, while watching Woody Allen’s movie Midnight in Paris, I had an epiphany. I still loved literature, reading and writing. Just because I didn’t get a Masters in English directly after undergrad didn’t mean that door was forever closed.
At the age of 54, I embarked on a Masters in English at The University of North Carolina Charlotte. There, I was inspired by some of the most, thoughtful, stimulating educators I’ve ever had the pleasure to learn from. In between linguistics, literature, philosophical studies and other challenging coursework, I had the good fortune to enroll in a summer school class – Writing a Young Adult Novel. Among other things, this class required the students to outline an entire adult novel and write the first chapter.
I relished this opportunity to take on a large scale project like my screenplay again. But what to write about? The previous winter, my younger son, a high school wrestler like his old man, had a unique experience. During the course of his wrestling season, Arthur was twice matched against girl wrestlers. I began to think about this experience from the girl wrestler’s perspective. What must she be thinking and feeling – participating in a sport in which her gender is dramatically underrepresented? Is she afraid, defiant, angry, confident, proud, or thankful? Maybe all of the above? Something else?
I finished my summer school assignment and set my project aside as the demands of fall course work moved front and center. When it was time to begin study for the final Master’s Degree exam, I learned that a student has an option of writing a thesis in lieu of taking the exam. I floated the idea of a young adult novel as a Master’s thesis and the UNCC English Department accepted my proposal. I set to work and this novel is my finished product.
What started with an adventure story that fascinated a boy for years has come full circle in my novel Reversal. Just beneath the surface of my brave protagonist Kayla’s story, roam bears and a pioneer boy and his family from the long past.
As I get older, I tend to think more about the past. My own past and the pasts of all the individuals whose lives have touched mine. But I also find myself looking forward – to the lives and loves and learning that I envision for my sons and for the children who may follow them. Now, who wants to read a good story?
“Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards.” – Soren Kierkegaard
“The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” ― William Faulkner