I grew up in the rolling hills of central New Jersey in the late 1950s and early 60s at a time when housing developments began to fill up the farmlands but there was still enough space for a boy to wander, dream, and even get safely lost in the woods. Early on in one of those summers, I found a baby mockingbird in the middle of our road. I took it home, fed it, and cared for it. It grew and learned to flutter, sing, and fly. It was my constant companion for a couple of months, during a period when I was still a kid but could sense that things were getting more complicated. Near the end of that summer, when I went on vacation with my family, I left the bird behind. When I returned, it was gone.
In the following years, I went to junior high, high school, and then off to college in upstate New York. I worked summers on a road crew and for a year as a greenskeeper’s assistant. Then I went to graduate school in Michigan, where I prepared to be a scholar and critic of literature, though mostly I found myself admiring the act of creating literature, the doing of the thing itself—as well as admiring the woman who would become my wife. Soon after, we got married and moved to the Washington D.C., area, where I started writing stories in the mornings and painting houses in the afternoons. While most of those stories still clutter my drawers, a few—as well as some essays—were published and have reaAnna: A Daughter’s Life, a memoir in journal form, which was a New York Times Notable Book of 1993. That was followed, in 1998, by The Shooting of Rabbit Wells, a memoir about a young man I knew in high school.
It wasn’t until forty years after that summer with my bird that I thought of the experience as something to write about. One day, our second daughter, a grade-school kid at the time, found a sick baby bird in the yard, brought it into the house, and put it in a shoe box full of cotton. In her frightened and hopeful eyes I recognized my own childhood feelings, and my old story came flooding back. That story, remembered and imagined, is Wings.
I got the idea for my next children’s novel, Clarence Cochran, a Human Boy, while rereading Franz Kafka’s The Metamorphosis. I thought, What if I invert Kafka’s story about a salesman who turns into a bug? What if, one evening, a young cockroach wakes up and finds himself turned into a miniature boy? The idea amused me, as did the possibilities for humor in presenting cockroach life as the norm and human beings as odd and even a little disgusting. (Belly buttons, for example, really are peculiar!) Then, since I was turning everything upside-down, I thought, Why not turn Kafka’s dark themes of alienation and ostracism into an affirming story for kids and parents about compromise, understanding, and our capacities for change and goodness? That, at least, was the plan. And carrying it out—imagining our plucky little hero, his cockroach world, and the challenges he faced—was fun and unpredictable, with twists and turns I didn’t expect, right up until the end.
Today, I teach in the writing program at Johns Hopkins University, and I live in Hyattsville, Maryland, with my wife, Beth, and my daughter, Emma.