The summer after sixth grade, my goal was to read The Complete Works of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle from cover to cover. It was over 1000 pages long, but I was so fascinated by his stories about Sherlock Holmes and his faithful sidekick, Watson, that I didn’t care how long it took me to finish. A few months later, I discovered Edgar Rice Burroughs, H. G. Wells, and Jules Verne and spent many hours in the portable extension of the Dublin Public Library reading their fascinating tales of the imagination.
It was during my Doyle/Burroughs/Wells/Verne phase that I decided I wanted to become a writer. Using the hunt-and-peck two-fingered typing method on our ancient Smith-Corona portable typewriter, I banged out several attempts at a novel–none ever longer than ten pages. Each bore an amazing resemblance to War of the Worlds. When it became clear, even to me, that I would never become a novelist if all my books were just first-chapter ripoffs of War of the Worlds, I shelved my dream of becoming a writer and allowed sports and rampant adolescence to occupy most of my time and thoughts.
The summer after I finished seventh grade, we moved from California to Tempe, Arizona, and my sports career revved up. At McClintock High School, I played football and basketball and ran track. My writing was limited to weird and rambling parodies of short stories or poems or weird and rambling (and funny, I thought) notes to my best friend, Brad Dowden, written in the margins of his American history book, which I borrowed everyday when I couldn’t find my own.
Although I still read lots of fiction (except most of what was required in my English classes, especially any book that resembled Charles Dickens’ incredibly boring novel, Great Expectations) sports continued to dominate most of my time. By my junior year, football and track were my best sports, and I began to think that maybe I’d have a future in at least one of them. A football injury made my senior track season too mediocre to interest any colleges, but I was good enough in football that a few Division I schools offered me scholarships. After making a campus recruiting visit to its beautiful campus nestled at the base of the Wasatch Mountains in central Utah, I decided to leave the Arizona desert for the Land of Deseret and play football for Brigham Young University. Playing college football was the thing to do in my family. My parents could have never afforded to help me or my brothers with college, and, fortunately, all four of us got scholarships: Mike to the University of Northern Colorado, Bill to the University of Texas, and Pat to Central Missouri State University.
Being an athlete made high school life fun and earned me a college scholarship, but it also overshadowed my old dream of becoming a writer because, as far as I knew, it was impossible for anyone to be a writer and a football player. In high school and college, I read a lot, got decent grades, wrote when I was required to, but never had the guts to write what I really wanted to write, never had the courage to ask a teacher or professor for tips on how to improve my writing, never entered a writing contest, and never pursued my dream of writing books.
My life changed when I got married. My wife, Elizabeth, came from a family of artists and writers, a family about as opposite mine as it could possibly be. Her mother was a professional cellist, her maternal grandmother and great-grandmothers were noted artists; her father’s mother was a writer and editor, and her father’s grandmother, B.Y. Williams, was the author of 7 books of poetry and poet laureate of Cincinnati in the 1920s and 30s. Her family’s home, like mine, was filled with books, but unlike mine, many of the books in their home were written by people they knew or were related to. Elizabeth and her family valued the fine arts with the same passion that my family valued sports, and it was her influence that finally got me started on writing.
By the time I was 24 and teaching high school English full-time at McClintock High (my alma mater!) I started working seriously at writing, spending many nights, weekends, and holidays pounding out stories and articles on my new electric Smith Corona typewriter; that year, I had my first article published. When I was 25, I landed a summer job as a writer for The Arizona Golfer, and the next summer, I started writing a humor column for The Latter Day Sentinel. The following year, while still writing the column, I sold a few freelance magazine articles, but I had also received more than 100 rejections.
With each acceptance and even each rejection, I learned something new about writing. I kept at it and have kept at it all these years. Since then, I have published hundreds of articles, a handful of short stories, a few poems, and fourteen books. Some of my recent books are a biography of a Newbery Medal-winning author, Presenting Mildred D. Taylor (Twayne 1999) and a historical novel for teenagers, Mississippi Trial, 1955 (Dial 2002). In the summer of 2003, Dial published my nonfiction book, Getting Away with Murder: The True Story of the Emmett Till Case (Dial 2003). I’ve published four books since then; my next book is a children’s book about an African American baseball player named Larry Doby.
Though, unfortunately, I have outgrown being an athlete, I suppose I have never quite outgrown adolescence: I loved high school and all the goofiness and angst and growing up it involved, and that’s probably why I spent ten years as a high school English teacher and why I still read and write stories about teenagers. I hope to keep it up long after my own teenagers have grown up and started raising teenagers of their own.