Printed here with the kind permission of The Gale Group. This essay
appears in Contemporary Author, Volume 207 with family photos not reproduced here.
Is a writer—is any artist, for that matter—born, or made? Or is it some near-random combination of chance and drive that shapes the person?
My mother married my father in part because she was drawn to his family’s stability, that his still-married parents had lived in the same house they’d bought upon moving from Minnesota to the San Francisco Bay area when he was three years old. She, daughter of a much-broken home, envisioned a secure life, in a house bought and paid for, with decades of raising children and getting to know the neighbors. Instead she got a string of rentals and a man with itchy feet—or, as family rumor had it, one who read his way through a library and then moved on.
We moved so often when I was young, it wasn’t until high school that I entered the same school in September that I’d been in the previous June. By then, I’d more or less given up on the tedious process of making friends, since libraries were always nearby, and books were much better companions anyway. So for most of my childhood, in Santa Cruz and San Jose, California, then the suburbs of Tacoma, Washington, I lived in a community of fictional individuals—those of Walter Farley and Marguerite Henry and Albert Payson Terhune; Ray Bradbury and Robert Heinlein and Isaac Asimov; Rosemary Sutcliff and Madeleine L’Engle—plus biographies of pretty much everyone, travel books, teach-yourself Esperanto, you name it. I even read Dickens, whom nobody had yet told me was boring. So as we migrated up and down the West Coast, I was at home, because there were always libraries.
I am a writer, because I love and have been nurtured by books.
My mother was born in San Francisco, as was her mother before her. My grandmother remembered camping in a tent in Golden Gate Park after the 1906 quake, waiting for the flames to subside. My grandfather, who had been in his twenties, always told us that had he been a good, law-abiding Christian, he would have been killed in his bed. But because he was out at an all-night poker game when the quake struck, he came home to find a brick chimney dropped neatly across where his sober, more virtuous self might have laid down.
My grandfather’s name was Robert J. Dickson, known inevitably to all as Dick. He came out from Chicago after a year of university, when his eyesight began to fail and his doctor suggested a more active style of life. (This seems to have been a common prescription in the ill-lit nineteenth century: Richard Henry Dana’s experience on a sailing ship, written up as Three Years Before the Mast, also began with a spell of blindness caused by study.) Dick’s modicum of higher education qualified him for the nickname “Doc,” particularly during the needy years of the world-wide Flu epidemic following the First World War. Dick raised peaches and white asparagus in the Sacramento river delta, and married a woman seventeen years his junior, Florence Adderley, in 1920. Their two children were Mary Jane, born in 1922, and Robert J. Junior, in 1925.
The Adderleys were minor English gentry who had migrated to the Bahamas in the seventeenth century. Over the next three centuries, the family gave rise to planters (read: slave owners,) a sponge diver, a privateer, an unlicensed whaler, and eventually a CBE, KC, and Speaker of the House of Assembly in Nassau. One branch ended up in San Francisco. When her parents separated, my mother was more or less raised by two English aunts, maiden ladies who took their toast with marmalade, drank tea shipped in wooden chests from England, and never, ever contemplated applying for American citizenship. Mother graduated from San Mateo High, and started at UC Berkeley before finances demanded that she take a job at Macy’s in San Francisco. When the war came, she took work making delicate and essential vacuum tubes—Rosie the Riveter in miniature.
My father’s people were more of a hodge-podge, so that he claimed to be a little of everything including Czechoslovakian, which last delighted me as a child although I suspect it was coined for that very purpose. As Disbrows, the family was in the New World by 1719, so that I could claim to be a Daughter of the American Revolution, were I so inclined. His family came from Minneapolis to the Bay Area, he interrupted his college career at Redlands in Southern California to enlist in the Army, fought his war in the South Pacific, and married my mother upon his return. His list of employment reads a bit like that of a stereotypical mystery writer, from nurseryman to real estate agent to gas station attendant to itinerant furniture repairman, but he never wrote anything more involved than letters, and sadly died before he could hold his daughter’s first book in his hands.
I was born in Oakland, California, across the bay from San Francisco—we lived in Walnut Creek, where my father worked for a nursery, but Oakland held the nearest Kaiser hospital. My sister was seven years older; my brother, three years younger than I, was born in Walnut Creek; when he was small we moved to the beach community of Santa Cruz, the first house and town I can remember. In the summers we would stand alongside busy Mission Street and shout, “Tourist go home!” at the passing cars. On warm afternoons, which near the ocean would more likely be in May or September than in the actual summer months, we would walk down the hills to the beach. Fifteen years later, when I moved to the Santa Cruz area as a college student, I would be constantly taken aback by coming around some corner or driving up some street and finding myself on familiar ground. My daughter, in 2002, lived across the street from a hillside where my tricycling brother nearly shot under a car in 1958.
The beach claimed by us locals was on the other side of the wharf from the glitzy Boardwalk, or if the tide allowed, along the bank of the San Lorenzo River south of the bright lights, where the water was calm but the scum and scraps from the upstream tannery a seagull-attracting annoyance. We did venture onto the Boardwalk sometimes—for the Fourth of July fireworks, certainly. I was a whiz at the game of skee-ball, but the only Boardwalk ride I really enjoyed was the ever-magical merry-go-round, its steam calliope, all parts visible, blasting out music as the shiny horses went up and down and the bigger kids stretched out to catch the brass rings. The town itself was away from the beach: Woolworth’s with its cheap temptations and its soda fountain with my mother, the darkly fragrant United Cigar shop with my father (who confused me by calling it the “hot stove league,” although there was no stove I could see, just magazine racks where he bought Astounding and Argosy, John D. MacDonald and the Doc Savage stories, along with those paperback novellas printed in a delightful, back-to-back format which meant that both covers made for a new beginning.) And always, the library.
The Santa Cruz Public Library was a tall, dark-shingled Aladdin’s cave of riches, which I remember draped with vines although I suspect that later imagination provided that decoration. I still have a small pin, brass and blue enamel, given me by the summer reading club when I was six. And in first or second grade, The Hobbit must have swum into the edges of my ken (although I cannot have been old enough to read it, and don’t recall my parents reading it to me) because I can remember as if it was yesterday sitting in the sunny classroom and composing a story about a small creature that lived under a hill, illustrating each extra-wide line of the pulp paper with small, precise drawings of mysterious figures and round red doors set into grassy hillsides—and remember too the hot humiliation of failing the assignment because the illustrations had taken me so long, I ran out of time to do the text.
Thus the writer’s first lesson: Finish the story.
Forty years later, it is a lesson I am still learning. The temptations to decorate, to revise and tinker with a horribly bald and incomplete manuscript instead of bashing through to The End is perpetual, but the mantra that runs through my mind every day of writing a first draft is: Finish the thing, then see what’s there.
One of the great pleasures in being the sort of writer I am, in having published The Beekeeper’s Apprentice, is looking up during a signing and seeing myself in the back row. The book, which begins with the heroine fifteen years old yet easily capable of meeting the great Sherlock Holmes as an equal, is the story I wish I had when I was twelve or fourteen. Fantasy, affirmation, a hint of romance, a dash of adventure: along with those shy girls in the back row, I am Mary Russell. Or I was at that age, in my mind.
In truth, I was socially inept, physically awkward, excruciatingly shy, and always an outsider. We moved north to Washington state in 1961, and although we did our share of camping in state parks and going clamming on the wide ocean beaches, and I spent two summers in the camp on what used to be Spirit Lake before Mt St Helens erupted, mostly I sat with my nose in a book. My after-school hours in fifth and sixth grades were spent (when not reading) either in the company of a girl who alternated between using me as an audience for her renditions of West Side Story ballads (?I’m So Pretty? warbled while primping at the mirror) and creating devious ways to torment me, or else in the privacy of my room, where I had constructed an entire universe out of plasticine clay, horses and people, dogs and houses.
Picture, if you will, a small, neat house in the early 1960s, overlooking Puget Sound, that inland sea on top of which giant rafts of logs head down to Tacoma’s foul-smelling paper mills and Japanese freighters come to load up, while below the surface nuclear submarines and pods of Orca play. Dash Point is a small community astride the road between Tacoma and Seattle (little changed thirty-five years later, although the Richardson family probably couldn’t afford to live there now) with Janet’s general store, a Presbyterian church, and an elementary school of six classes and a hundred students. When it snows, the steep road looping down to the water is closed to all but sledders, and in alternate summers the town hosts a fund-raising Dock Dinner barbecue. The town’s public hall is perched halfway up the hillside, a place where the PTA and volunteer fire department hold their meetings, one room of which has walls covered with padlocked cabinet doors. Behind those doors, revealed at odd hours during the week, is the Dash Point Public Library, its limitations overcome by regular transfusions and exchanges with the main branch in town. A regular visitor—in fact the daughter of the part-time librarian—is a tall, gawky ten year-old with cropped hair and a squint (for she will not get her first glasses until the following year.) She surveys the new books, hoping for something as compelling as The Black Stallion or The Diamond in the Window, or that biography of Thoreau she read recently in which the young Henry speculated about the oddity of his sister “making” a bed, as if with hammer and saw. Today she finds nothing so appealing, but takes down a book she has enjoyed before, about some teenagers who have marvelous adventures in the sea, including having a foot trapped by a giant clam. She makes out the card with her name, Laurie Richardson, in round, upright script, and heads up the hill and through the blackberry-lined shortcuts to her house. Past the garden with the hateful bee-swarming hydrangea that makes lawn-mowing such a hazard, over the front lawn, in the door past the eight-foot grand piano (taken long ago by her father as commission in a real estate deal, its size for years determining which houses they could rent and which would be too small.) Up the stairs, past her high-school-aged sister’s cubby, into the room she shares with her younger brother, the nicest room in the house with a panoramic view of the Sound and Whidbey Island. But the view is not of interest to young Laurie. Instead, she settles down on a high stool near the tall, deep plywood shelving unit her father has built, reaches for the crudely modeled figures of grey-blue clay, and enters into the world of her imagination.
I thought of it as an extension of the Walter Farley stories, the Black Stallion and Island Stallion series brought to three-inch, sticky life, every figure the dreary color of the much-reworked clay. It was, without a doubt, a strange preoccupation for a child—had it been the 1990s instead of the 1960s, I would surely have been in therapy and subjected to a regimen of mood-relieving drugs. As it was, those long hours of fitting the figures onto the horses’ backs and imagining the sensations of riding free, were my first excursion into telling myself stories.
I occasionally wonder, particularly when I’ve been talking to a group of kids, if I would have become a writer earlier had I actually met such an alien creature. But these were the days before book tours and author interviews, before schools brought in artists of various flavors to demonstrate the attainability of such ways of life, and the only person I knew associated with the world of books was a neighbor girl whose photograph appeared in a children’s book on Hawaii. As far as I was concerned, it was God who put the books on library shelves, not mere mortals. Slow learner that I am, it didn’t occur to me to write my own stories until I was in my thirties.
Moving more or less yearly is not conducive to an even education. The differences in curricula meant that I repeated several subjects (I can still diagram a mean sentence) while others (states’ capitals, for example) eluded me entirely. My parents separated for two years, during which time my mother and I lived in Saratoga, California, a wealthy community (except for us) on the outskirts of San Jose, nestling into the Santa Cruz mountains in which I would live as an adult. The Beatles roared into the scene while I lived in Saratoga, the Vietnam war got into gear,
In the summer of 1967, while the hippies were flocking into San Francisco with flowers in their hair, I was headed in the opposite direction. My mother and I rejoined my father and brother in a house at the southern end of Tacoma, where I attended a high school fed by nearby Fort Lewis (this at the height of the Vietnam war) where I was the weird kid with long hair and gold-rimmed glasses, Army jacket with green-for-ecology peace patch on the shoulder, the school’s only hippie. High school found me more interested in science fiction than science, reading novels than writing papers, and my lackluster grades hardly encouraged counselors to seek me out with the stimulation of college dreams.
I seem to have had a certain grasp of language even in my teens. During my first year at Franklin Pierce, I wrote the following paragraph, a homesick fifteen year-old putting her longing into words:
San Francisco, as I last saw it, was enough to stir the heart of any native Californian. The scene was movingly beautiful. I can remember it as if I saw it just yesterday. It was from the freeway leaving the city, looking down through the tall, intricately woven expansion of the Golden Gate Bridge. The angular outlines of the downtown buildings were softened by a light gray fog. The mist cleared over the water, letting the morning sun shine down onto the bay. Alcatraz, foreboding yet lonely, protruded from the clear surface of the blue-gray water. An ocean liner slowly made its way past the tiny sailboats on its journey to the ocean. The scene slowly disappeared behind the hills surrounding the bay. The last things to be hidden from sight were the tall, proud pillars of that beautiful bridge.
This sentimental paragraph garnered an A, with the teacher’s comment that the word selection showed it to be “quality communication.” Still, an ability with language hardly amounts to a full-time university scholarship, and there was no way the family could manage to put both my brother and me through college. In the end, I more or less backed into university, when the aunt with whom I lived after finishing high school insisted I keep myself busy by enrolling at the local junior college.
It is extraordinary, how often in life ideas and teachers reach out and grab a person. A teacher by the name of Norman Miller—overworked, under-challenged, perpetually rumpled, the very essence of curmudgeonly—was my own encounter on the road to Damascus. This gruff individual taught logic, philosophy, and religious studies, and was the first to suggest that religion was a passion that could permeate all life, a drive like any other, not some ethereal wimpiness. Typical of Miller was the debate staged between him and a philosopher whose difficult belief it was that all matter was illusion. Miller’s response was to pick up the nearest chair and heave it at the man, which rather ended the debate.
Unfortunately, the provisions for the study of religion at a junior college in the 1970s was limited. However, just down the road was the shiny-new University of California campus at Santa Cruz, which had a program in religious studies. I applied in 1973, was accepted as a junior transfer, and spent the next two and a half years in ecstasy.
On the surface, it was a ridiculous choice, leaving me unprepared for any real employment. But I loved the study of religion, in which I perceived the blend of human yearnings and passions intertwining with rationality and observation. Religion was the way the human being sang with his or her entire being, the way we confronted the universe and tried to find out place in it. The subject chose me, and I could only go with it.
Anaïs Nin came to speak at Santa Cruz, and Houston Smith and Henry Chadwick. I studied Chinese language and Russian spirituality, Jungian archetypal psychology and Alchemical symbolism. I labored in the campus organic garden, planting red cabbages under the guidance of a garrulous and nearly incomprehensible Sikh, and wrote bad poetry about the experience. I read Lao Tse and Jacob Neusner and Carl Jung and Frank Waters, all of whom had something to say about the human religious experience. I wrote a thesis project on the role of the fool in Western culture, drawing on the New Testament and on American Indian Trickster mythology. I read and listened and talked, and I was at home.
In other words, a typical liberal-arts education from what was already known as the University of California’s “touchy-feely” campus. A BA that took me seven years (since I was working my way through) and left me with the first university degree in my family. One that was completely worthless in terms of employment, yet which has, oddly enough, proven to be the basis for everything I now do.
I never took a course in creative writing, never signed up for any English class other than the basic requirement. If I had, no doubt what I write now would be very different. Instead, I followed my interests, and when I had fulfilled my Bachelor’s requirements, I turned to graduate school, again staying close to home and applying to the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley.
The GTU is, as the name indicates, a union of the various graduate schools —seminaries— that have taken root on “holy hill” to the north of the UC Berkeley campus. It is a tree-shaded residential area with one incursion of student life, a short block of shops, cafes, and bookstores surrounded by shingled houses and god-talk. The GTU is an independent organization that utilizes the staff and facilities of the individual church schools to put together its academic degrees. In other words, if you wish to enter the ministry, you go into a seminary; if you want an academic degree, you go into the GTU. I affiliated myself with the Episcopalians, the Church Divinity School of the Pacific, but headed more deeply into academia, with the idea that my BA had given me a sense of the world’s religion, but now it was time to look at my own heritage.
I spent seven more years doing a three-year Master of Arts degree, somewhat slowed by work, marriage, the raising of children, the renovation of houses, and round-the-world travel, about all of which I will say more later. Gradually, I found myself drawn to Old Testament instead of New, although I took Koiné Greek and attended classes in New Testament, church history, and Patristics. What really interested me was the tracing of roots and themes: how a phrase or image can be traced through the millennia.
There is a phrase from the Sufi mystic Rumi, referring to God as the thread that runs through the pearls of the world’s religions. That thread is what drew me, tracing that quivering high-tension line of energy that begins in one place and comes out in another, thousands of miles away, millennia removed, changed but recognizable.
For example, in the Old Testament, the personal, or covenantal, name for the God of Israel was Yahweh, but there are other names as well, prominent among them forms of ?El.? For a long time it was assumed that El simply meant ?god,? which indeed it does. However, with the 1928 discovery of Ugarit in northern Syria, it became clear that El was also a god, king of the pantheon, a bearded and remote male who hands down decrees from his tented throne. This figure contributes his own vocabulary to the poems and descriptions of the Hebrew Yahweh, winding through the Hebrew Bible’s concept of God as El Shaddai and Elohim, before ending up on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel with Michelangelo’s visualization of God as all-powerful and bearded.
Similarly, one finds a thread of God as female. Yahweh is male, invariably referred to with the masculine pronoun, yet images of the feminine persist, so that the Hebrew God is described as crying out in birth, or acting the midwife for “his” people, or comforting the people “as a mother comforts her child.” But the thing that interested this MA student most was the other side of the feminine, that which at ancient Ugarit was personified in the goddess Anat, close sister to India’s Kali. Anat loves warfare, lives for slaughter, exists for the joy of meeting soldiers in battle, and her attributes, phrases from her hymns, became linked with Yahweh; when the people Israel needed a vocabulary to describe the wrath of God, one of the sources they drew from was that of the violent goddess.
During my time at the GTU I also co-taught a course on “Women and Leadership in the Early Church,” which looked at the roles of women in the first centuries of the Christian movement. But in the end, I chose as my thesis topic, “Feminine Aspects of Yahweh,” digging into the textual roots of the question. Had I not had other obligations, I would no doubt have persisted, going on to a PhD involving six languages and countless trips to hot and fly-blown archaeological sites, and my published works would have borne titles such as “Problems in Ugaritic Phraseology” and “Elephantine: God’s Wife or Wishful Translation?” instead of A Grave Talent and The Beekeeper’s Apprentice.
But our choices are molded around our circumstances, and by the time the MA hood was lowered around my neck, I also had two small children and a husband nearing retirement age. Entering a lengthy PhD program would have been irresponsible.
For some fortunate individuals, higher education is a period unto itself, a time when close concentration on the joys of the ivory tower is uncluttered by such concerns as bills and diapers. For many of us, particularly women, this is not the case. We put ourselves through, or do it in the corners of our lives free of other responsibilities, occasionally brushed by the wistful speculation of what it would be like to attend school full time, or to live in a dorm, or to hang around after class and drink a beer instead of returning to care for an infant or cook a meal.
Still, it is not granted to many young women to interrupt her graduate studies for a honeymoon in Papua New Guinea followed by a six-month tour across the southern Pacific Ocean, from Ayer’s Rock to Machu Piccu. I had not intended to marry, and neither I think had he, but we are, as I said, shaped by our circumstances, and when, some months after graduation, I took a day off my job as manager of Kaldi’s Fine Coffees and Teas in Los Gatos to visit a professor whom I hadn’t seen for some time, and found our conversation entering interesting avenues, well, marriage seemed a good idea. Twenty five years later, it still does.
Noel King was born in what was then India, is now Pakistan, in 1922. His family were Anglo-Indians, his father employed by the railroad to lay telegraph line across the northern face of the country, as far as Lhasa in 1924. After the war, Noel entered Oxford, then did a higher degree at Nottingham, and was ordained in the Anglican Church. He spent the next fourteen years in Africa, setting up programs in Religious Studies first in Accra, Ghana, then in Makerere, Uganda. He came to the newest campus of the University of California in 1967, hired again to begin a program in comparative religion. That is where I met him.
We married in 1977. Our daughter was born three years later, a son three years after that, and I found, somewhat to my surprise, that I liked being a mother. Aside from the sheer physical fascination of infants, I never cared much for the babies of other people, and often thought their children more irritating than compelling; fortunately, however, I found my own two a source of endless fascination and intense amusement, particularly when they became old enough to communicate verbally. They are young adults today, and still make me laugh like no other people can.
My son turned one as I was writing my MA thesis, “Feminine Aspects of Yahweh” (an academic exercise considerably enriched by the recent personal experiences of childbirth, nursing, and the nurturing of small children.) While the children were small, my work was within the bounds of the farm—raising food and children is a full time job, and I was well and truly entered into the householder life. I volunteered at school, sat on various committees, became a leader of La Leche League, helping new mothers figure out how to juggle all the elements of their lives. And, because my husband was raised in colonial India when servants were a way of life, and is far better with a concordance than he is with a circular saw, for me the householder life involved not only shovels, kitchen stove, washing machine, and canning jars, but also Skil saws, framing hammers, paintbrushes, and electrical drills. How To books sprang up like mushrooms beside my volumes of textual criticism and feminist theology. I became, quite literally, a home-maker.
Building was an unanticipated satisfaction, the creation of shelter and comfort, the externalization of an idea, a joining of muscle and mind. I will admit that I never grew entirely comfortable with either plumbing or electricity, both of which can leak with disastrous results, but I did everything else, from putting up track shelves to installing a pantry in the kitchen and finally designing and building a two-story addition on the old farmhouse. This last involved everything from the ground up: foundations and framing, windows and insulation, sheetrock and siding. We built it so the kids could have separate rooms—and so I could have, in Virginia Woolf’s words, a room of my own (although the attendant five hundred pounds a year Woolf includes in her essay would have to wait a bit.)
Ironically, in marrying a peripatetic man, I found what my mother did not: stability. We have owned three houses in all these years, plus a house in England to which we go occasionally. Each has had its own strong personality, each was suited to our time of life then.
Our first house was on the side of a redwood-lined creek in Santa Cruz, small and quirky, a typical cabin with rooms added on over the years, with a deck perched over the water and a dirt road above. We heated with a wood stove, brought our daughter home to the house, and soon realized it would never do for an active child, much less two.
So we moved, to an eighty year-old farmhouse on two acres of rich Pajaro Valley soil, with an orchard, a field, and a separate house for the grandparents who had semi-retired from the Pacific Northwest. For fifteen years the kids ran wild there, gobbling raspberries off the bushes, racing after our Irish Wolfhound, collecting brown, white, and pastel blue eggs from beneath the chickens, picking green beans and apricots, whacking down the nuts from the old walnut tree every October. All summer the kitchen was fragrant with jams, catsup, chutneys, applesauce; at holidays the walls bulged with relations.
Now we live on the top of a hill overlooking that same Pajaro Valley, above the Monterey Bay summer fogs, a mile from the epicenter of the big 1989 earthquake. The house is quieter, surrounded by live oaks and a few redwoods, visited by coyotes, hummingbirds, and red-tail hawks. We go regularly to England, where we have family, and maintain the yellow-brick terrace house in Oxford, one street in from the River Isis, within sound of the bells at Christ Church.
Settled as a home-maker I might have been, but travels have always been a part of my married life. I married at twenty-five and set off almost immediately for an England so freezing the gas in the wall-heaters refused to glow anything but a sullen red, so jammed with pre-Christmas traffic the imperturbable London cabbies threw up their hands and made for the pubs, so near mid-winter the sun barely rose above the horizon before it was setting again. London in December opens one’s eyes to the bleaker aspects of Dickens.
After three weeks, my new husband and I parted company, him to Africa and Pakistan, me to close up my rented apartment in Santa Cruz and await visas. Ten weeks later, having heard not one word from him since we had parted at Heathrow, not knowing if his plans had changed, if his mind had changed, or he’d even made it out of the subcontinent in one piece, I set off across the Pacific, washing up a day or twenty later, hugely jet-lagged and queasy from an airline breakfast of near-raw Australian steak, in Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea. In that state, nothing much would have surprised me, including find myself at the hot end of the world without a clue of what to do next, or where to go. It was rather like a dream, in which getting off the plane to find my husband waiting at the terminal was less a relief than a part of a natural, if confusing, sequence of events. But then, much of my life has felt like that.
Moresby itself was unrelenting, hot and crass and plagued by crime. It was a joy to head for the highlands, up into the misty reaches of a land where one could still meet individuals who recalled the arrival of the first white face, a land where the Bird of Paradise flitted, where men donned formal leaf aprons, elaborate head-gear, and face paint to embark on the repair of a bridge, where pigs were used as currency, where a third of the world languages—languages, not dialects—were born.
We stayed at missions, mostly Catholic and Lutheran. As an introduction to a foreign culture, it was a dramatic as a person could ask for, a constant surprise, from the gas-run washing machine to the smoke-scented string bags used to carry everything from yams to babies. I studied Pidgin English with a woman named Yasiame, who lived near the mission with her two children, although I never met her husband. She wove me a string bag from bright wool I sent her from Australia, with some old kina coins woven into it; when I put it to my face, I can still smell the highlands in its fibers.
We stayed in the highlands for a month, flying in and out of tiny air strips, hitching rides with locals to pig kills and the colorful ceremonies called sing-sings, seeing how the Christian church interacted and intertwined with local belief and custom, learning how utterly foreign yet similar people can be. When we left, we spent another week in the Sepik River area, exploring grass-swamps in a boat carved from a tree and powered by outboard motor, gaping at Haus Tamborans (spirit houses,) and twitching from chloroquin. Then back to Moresby, and on to Australia.
The next months saw us island-hopping across the Pacific, spending a month in Australia, then to New Zealand, followed by Tonga, the two Samoas, Tahiti, and Easter Island. Because we were going to spend some time in South America, I had been working my way through a Spanish grammar I picked up in Melbourne, which made for tremendous confusion in French-speaking Tahiti, but helped somewhat after that. Easter Island was incredible, unreal, provocative—and cursed with the worst airport I have ever seen, a swirl of heat and shoving and bureaucrats with guns, run by the Chilean military with more concern for homeland security than the sensibilities of tourists. Still, the great stone heads stand looking out across the now-barren landscape, with the half-cut statues lying still in their quarry.
Santiago, La Paz, and Lake Titicaca; the Spanish colonial Cuzco and the Inca capital of Machu Pichu, Lima’s desert archaeology and the tensions in a country on the edge of a revolt, the foul air and tumult of Mexico City.
Santa Cruz seemed bizarrely calm, on our return.
I returned to the GTU, my husband to his responsibilities at the university. And eighteen months after our daughter was born, we packed up and moved to northern India for a six month stint at the Punjabi University.
Travel with a small child is an experience. Worries and labors are increased a hundredfold, of course, from figuring out how to dry cloth diapers in the frigid climate of the lower Himalayas to keeping the shopkeeper’s affectionate hand (which you have just seen being used to blow his nose into a gutter) away from your small blond daughter’s rosy cheek. However, joys are magnified as well—doors are opened, hearts poured out, the traveler becomes something far more than just another tourist. Cooks and tailors allowed her (and us in her wake) to wander freely through their jealously guarded realms. Airline clerks miraculously conjured up adjoining seats in sold-out flights. Hardened civil servants melted. The Dalai Lama dandled her on his knee and made her chortle. I recommend taking a child along, if your nerves are strong enough.
Two years later, my MA granted and my career as a writer but a shape on the distant horizon, we took both children to Israel. There, too, hearts opened. An Italian woman atop Masada took one look at the blue-eyed boy riding on my back and the curly-headed girl clutching my hand and exclaimed, “You are so brave!” A stern Palestinian gardener allowed the kids to pluck his roses. The eyes following us were gentler, and certainly more interested, than they would have been, had we been intruding as two mere adults.
But what do a much-uprooted childhood, a love of theology, travel to distant places, and the establishment of three homes have to do with the Laurie R. King entry in Contemporary Authors? If my husband had not been so near to retirement age, I might well have gone on into doctoral studies, become a Biblical scholar, and had a far different entry. Or if back in high school my math teachers had been more encouraging, my other secret passion might have taken root, leading me into architecture, in which case a Laurie King biography would have been found in another series entirely. Or if life had tugged just slightly harder in another direction, I might have pursued the mysteries of birth, and plunged into the joyous obscurity of a midwife, known only to those whose babies she had caught.
Instead, in September of 1987, when my daughter was in her second grade classroom and my son off to his preschool three mornings a week, I sat down with the Waterman fountain pen I had bought on the Oxford high street the summer before and wrote on a canary pad the words, “I was fifteen when I met Sherlock Holmes, fifteen years old with my nose in a book as I walked the Sussex Downs, and nearly stepped on him.”
And like that, I was a writer.
Where does this drive for fiction come from? How does a person who had expressed no recognizable urge toward story telling since her sixth-grade immersion in the plasticine land of make-believe sit down and write an entire novel in a month? And then have the good sense to rewrite it so it was better, then continue on and write another, and a third—before any publisher expressed the faintest interest? And how long would I have gone on, I often wonder, how many unsold manuscripts would I have produced before giving up on the idea of writing and getting a real job?
Many writers in my own genre come into print by a similar path, finding in writing a second career after a decade or two practicing law or journalism or raising children. Some writers, of course, begin in college, with a degree in creative writing, learning the skills and never looking back. For others of us, writing is a little like going to a foreign country to learn a language. At first, one listens, gradually absorbing nouns and verbs, taking on the patterns of grammar (or storytelling) and thinking about the means of expression. Eventually, however, the urge to say something grows too strong to deny. And on that day one speaks out, or takes pen in hand.
I had, of course, been producing words in considerable volume all during the years of college and graduate school. Even though the sort of writing produced for a class in, say, Church Fathers has a different aim from the sort which builds a novel, the ultimate aim is that of communication. And there is no doubt that, as with the journalist who turns novelist, being accustomed to produce words regularly makes a person less intimidated by a blank page than most. Too, the study of Bible as a text emphasizes the importance of words, each word, as well as the rhythm of language and the subtle purposes behind the story one is telling.
Perhaps if I had undergone formal training in the writing of fiction, I would write in a very different way. Like taking a language in school, learning to write in a program naturally stresses the structural aspects of creating fiction, whereas learning by absorbing, imitating, and transforming comes more slowly. I, on the other hand, am one of those who write without an outline, with only the vaguest idea of what the story is about or where it is going. This is not a system for everyone—many writers need a visible outline of where the novel is going before they feel comfortable with sitting down to page one. Others of us merely shove ideas and images around in the back of our heads until either looming bills or internal pressures conspire to drive us to pen or keyboard.
In any case, whether through ignorance or inclination, when I sat down to write about my new imaginary friends in what became The Beekeeper’s Apprentice, I felt as if I were setting out in an uncharted system of caves with a questionable flashlight in hand. (Truth to tell, I feel the same every time I begin a book, although after fourteen times, it is a sensation I have come to anticipate.) This is the story of a young woman, just fifteen when the book opens, who meets the retired Sherlock Holmes on the Sussex Downs in southern England, impresses him with the sharpness of her eyes, wits, and tongue, and becomes first his apprentice, then his partner. She is, one might say, a young, female, Twentieth century version of the Great Detective; the two mix like oil and vinegar.
I wrote the book in September and October of 1987, penning (literally, with that Waterman fountain pen) the core 280 pages in 28 days, a pace I have rarely matched since then. At the beginning of 1988 I began sending it out to publishers, collecting a fair number of rejection slips over the next two years before it occurred to me that I could either write or send, but not both. In 1989 I found an agent, Linda Allen in San Francisco, the first professional to look at my work and see it as—well, my work.
But before I got in contact with Linda, I wrote another Russell and Holmes book, called A Letter of Mary, which eventually became the third in the series. And when that was finished and the publishing world was not beating down my door, I changed times and locations to write A Grave Talent, a contemporary novel about a world-rank woman artist—a “female Rembrandt”—who is being investigated for the murder of three young girls. As luck would have it, this third book was the first to sell, in December 1991, to be published by St Martin’s Press in January, 1993.
A Grave Talent was the first in a series of (at present) four books concerning Kate Martinelli, a homicide inspector with the San Francisco Police Department. A year later, The Beekeeper’s Apprentice came out; two weeks after its publication, my editor called to announce that A Grave Talent had been nominated for the Edgar award for best first novel by the Mystery Writers of America. My then-fourteen year old daughter and I went to the awards banquet in New York in May, where I was completely stunned to hear my name announced as the winner. The only thing I’d ever won in my life was a box of brandied cherries at a community Bingo game in the Dash Point town hall, a prize quickly confiscated by my parents as I was only ten at the time. As I write these words, Edgar sits brooding from the corner of my bookshelf, at his side the later prizes I have won, including the beautifully carved Creasey dagger, a stolid bust of a scowling Nero Wolfe, and the certificate noting that in October, 1997, Laurie Richardson King was granted the honorary degree of Doctor of Humane Letters from the Church Divinity School of the Pacific, my old seminary.
One of the purposes of this essay is to attempt an illustration of how one person became a writer, and how her life had formed her work. In that vein, I would like to take a closer look at the writing itself.
The Martinelli Books
Following the publication of A Grave Talent and The Beekeeper’s Apprentice, I continued to alternate the exploits of Russell and Holmes with the somewhat less frivolous stories concerning Kate Martinelli. The Martinelli books, which are written in fairly straightforward American English and in the third person, are often classified as police procedurals, for the simple reason that the main characters are cops. In truth, I was one of the many writers surprised to be told that her novel is actually a mystery. Genre classifications (“He is a mystery writer; she writes horror”) are more for the convenience of booksellers and the publishers’ sales reps than any true description of what is inside the covers of a particular book. Jane Smiley, Ron Hansen, Michael Chabon, and other “literary” writers have all produced crime fiction, whereas some of my books lodged in that category are only suspense by the most generous description. The hat of “mystery writer” does chafe occasionally, but for the most part I am comfortable with it.
In any case, A Grave Talent, featuring as it does a homicide detective and some dead bodies, was called a mystery. And although I had not thought of it as the first in a series—indeed, by the time I finished the book I was more than ready to heave Kate and the rest of them off the Golden Gate Bridge—my editor was interested enough in the cast of players to ask for another. So a topic I had been pushing around in the back of my mind for some time came into play: What would a holy fool look like in twentieth century America?
The holy fool is by his (or occasionally her) nature the product of a rigid society. His function is to embody chaos, to throw the concrete structures of feudalism into question, to let in the creative forces of disorder. It can be a dangerous game—fools were regularly locked up or beheaded for their chronic impertinence—but a necessary one. Who but a fool would speak the truth to a king? The religious elements of foolishness are myriad, from the antics of Zen masters to the declaration by St. Paul that he is a fool for Christ’s sake, chiding the church in Corinth for their self-aggrandizement (I Corinthians 4.) And since the fool is by nature the product of a tightly controlled social order—Lear’s fool only exists because of the nature of royal power—I asked myself, could such a creature function in a society such as that of contemporary California, where chaos rules and the means of tweaking the powerful are many and varied?
I thought it possible, and wanted to write a novel about what such a person would look like. Thus it is, in To Play the Fool, that Kate Martinelli meets a homeless holy fool named Brother Erasmus, an escapee from the author’s undergraduate thesis. Erasmus lives in three worlds: among San Francisco’s poor and homeless, to whom he ministers; inside the ivory-tinged walls of Berkeley’s Graduate Theological Union, where he embodies the rich contradictions of the Christian message; and among the tourists of Fisherman’s Wharf, showing them the neediness beneath their wealth.
As I began to write Erasmus, I found an unexpected side of the man: He speaks only in the words of others. He preaches, orders breakfast, and answers the questions of his interrogators entirely in quotations, a challenge to a writer I do not think I would care to attempt again. It was a book I thought would be too quirky for the taste of most readers, but I have been pleased to find that its popularity remains steady, and for some readers, Erasmus’s story is their favorite.
Kate’s next outing, With Child, involves her in the lives of two teenagers, one a homeless boy, the other the daughter of her partner Al Hawkin’s new bride. The book received several nominations, either despite or because of its being less a mystery than the story of Kate’s personal involvement in the lives of the two young people. Written at a time my own children were entering the dark undergrowth of adolescence, it is also a mother’s reflection on the vulnerability of the young—a recurring theme in the novels.
Kate’s latest story, the fourth, is Night Work, which immerses her in the worlds of women’s shelters, leather bars, Kali worship, and bride burning (Just a typical outing for a San Francisco cop….) It plays with the idea of how far a woman can go to defend herself and her own, and uses as its theme the figure of Kali, the Indian goddess who glories in bloodshed, whose wholesale slaughter of men and monsters lays the groundwork for rebirth and healing. Kate the cop has to believe that it is wrong for a woman to lay violent hands on an abusive man; Kate the woman isn’t so sure.
The Russell Books
In the meantime, the Russell stories were also making their appearance. This is a very different kind of a series, not only because they are written in a formal, even ornate British English, and in the first person, but because of their style and humor. Early King reviewers, in fact, found it difficult to be sure that the Laurie R. King of A Grave Talent was the same one credited with The Beekeeper’s Apprentice, an ongoing problem of categorization which eventually gave rise to the sales flyer produced by Bantam proclaiming, ?What Laurie King writes next is always a mystery!?
But indeed, the two authors are the same, although readers continue to believe in the opening sequence wherein my intrepid UPS delivery woman deposits the Russell manuscripts on my doorstep, leaving me to decipher and transcribe them. It is, I generally assure such innocents, but a literary device, done to explain how one Laurie King comes to speak in the voice of Mary Russell—and to collect her royalties.
The series opens when our heroine is fifteen, which may explain in part the popularity of the books with bright adolescent girls. Mary is mature beyond her years, brilliant enough to get the better of The Great Detective, and if the attentive reader begins to suspect a certain degree of electricity between the girl and the considerably older man, well, only the most devout Sherlockians have been offended with how it all turns out. The book was chosen by the American Library Association as one of their notable books for young adults, which honor I cherish.
As mentioned already, the book I wrote after Beekeeper was actually the third in the series, A Letter of Mary. As I was writing Beekeeper, it became increasingly clear that the relationship between my two detectives was not going to be that of mere intellectual and professional partners, but rather a partnership in every aspect of their lives. However, because I had no idea how I was going to get them to that point, I put aside the next to write the third instead. Then, once I had seen what their marriage looked like and the balances and compromises it entailed, I could go back and write the story of how they reached that point. It is, incidentally, a method I occasionally resort to within an individual book: If I am not sure where the story is going, I skip forward a chapter or five and write a scene I am certain about, after which I have a clearer picture of what I need to do to get there.
A Monstrous Regiment of Women opens in the waning days of 1920. Mary is on the eve of her coming of age when she meets an old friend and is introduced to a woman religious leader in London. Mary is already feeling torn between her desire for a feminist independence as an Oxford intellectual on the one hand and a greater commitment to the always-difficult Sherlock Holmes on the other; meeting Margery Childe only brings the conflict into greater contrast. In the course of the book, Russell spends considerable effort in tutoring the woman on the feminine aspects of God to be found in the Bible, overlooked because of translations and expectations.
A Letter of Mary finds Mary’s decision made, and the duo married for nearly three years (and no, I do not intend to write about the Russell-Holmes honeymoon. When it comes to those two, dignity is paramount.) She is working on an academic paper, Holmes is (as often the case) bored with inactivity, when to their Sussex house comes an archaeologist friend from their time in Palestine. She brings Mary a papyrus document, apparently written by Mary Magdalene, who refers to herself as a disciple of Jesus. When the archaeologist is killed, the duo is launched on an investigation that may or may not hinge on the potentially transformative, even revolutionary effects the Magdalene’s letter would have on Christiandom.
The fourth Russell (The Moor) takes Mary and Holmes to Dartmoor where, with The Hound of the Baskervilles echoing in the background, they investigate a suspicious death and a smattering of supernatural sightings. Holmes describes to Russell the discovery of a body, a discovery suspiciously akin to a former Holmes adventure on Dartmoor. Mary responds:
“No! Oh no, Holmes, please.” I put up my hand to stop his words, unable to bear what I could hear coming, a thundering evocation of one of the most extravagant phrases Conan Doyle ever employed. “Please, please don’t tell me that ‘on the ground beside the body, Mr Holmes, there were the footprints of a gigantic hound.’”
He removed his pipe from his mouth and stared at me. “What on earth are you talking about, Russell? I admit that I occasionally indulge in a touch of the dramatic, but surely you can’t believe me as melodramatic as that.”
I drew a relieved breath and settled back in my chair. “No, I suppose not. Forgive me, Holmes. Do continue.”
“No,” he continued, putting the stem of his pipe back into place. “I do not believe it would be possible to distinguish a hound’s spoor from that of an ordinary dog—not without a stretch of ground showing the animal’s loping stride. These were simply a confusion of prints.”
“Do you mean to tell me…” I began slowly.
“Yes, Russell. There on the ground beside the body of Josiah Gorton were found”—he paused to hold out his pipe and gaze at the bowl, which seemed to me to be drawing just fine, before finishing the phrase “—the footprints of a very large dog.”
I dropped my head into my hands and left it there for a long time while my husband sucked in quiet satisfaction at his pipe.
Holmes, it will be noted, does from time to time get the better of Russell.
One of the pleasures of The Moor for its author was encountering the eminent Victorian Sabine Baring-Gould, real-life squire of Lew Trenchard manor in Devon, author of hundreds of books from pot-boiler novels to lives of the saints and natural histories of werewolves, composer of hymns such as “Onward Christian Soldier” and “Now the Day has Ended,” and collector of folklore and traditional songs. When I came across the man, first through his books and later in an article in Smithsonian magazine, I knew I just had to have him. I was immensely pleased to find that, if I hurried, I wouldn’t even have to interfere with the date of his death.
The next book in the series, O Jerusalem, takes place out of sequence, going back five years to the time of The Beekeeper’s Apprentice, to present in greater detail an episode referred to only in passing. Here, Russell and Holmes travel to what was then called Palestine, during the early days of the British mandate over the country, to investigate a problem for Holmes’ mysterious brother Mycroft, who is something to do with British Intelligence. This is 1919, when General Allenby governed the country, T. E. Lawrence was struggling for Arab rights at the Paris peace talks, and decisions were being made that continue to reverberate to this day. One of the more interesting challenges in writing the book was precisely that sense of reverberations: A 1919 conversation about the hopes for peaceful cooperation among Christian, Muslim, and Jew rings loud to a reader in the year 2000 who knows that those hopes would be continually dashed. On another level, because the book is set when Russell and Holmes are still master and apprentice, her internal speculations concerning the nature of their relationship allows the reader a small and superior smile—at least, the reader who had met the series already.
The most recent volume in the Russell saga is Justice Hall, with links to the characters of O Jerusalem that serve to explain the latter’s out-of-sequence publication. When the two Bedouin “brothers” who guided Russell and Holmes through Palestine appear in England in 1923, they are under decidedly different guise. Justice Hall concerns the British aristocracy, and the dreadful injustices that occurred during the Great War. It also permitted the author to create a pair of glorious houses, giving full rein to her architectural fantasies. (A typical letter to one of my antiquarian bookseller friends began, If you could have any half dozen books in your library, what would they be?) But the book goes on to examine the burdens that go with such riches, the responsibilities to family and king that cost a young man everything.
The seventh Russell will appear in spring of 2004, and will be set in India.
In 1998, after publication of The Moor, I reluctantly said good-bye to my beloved St Martin’s Press editor, Ruth Cavin, and moved to Kate Miciak at Bantam Books, which had been doing my paperbacks all along. My first book there was also my first stand-alone novel. A Darker Place (published in England as The Birth of a New Moon) is the story of Anne Waverley, an expert on modern religious movements who occasionally consults for the FBI by going undercover into religious communities—groups the media invariably condemns as ?cults?—to help judge their stability and internal security. Here, she encounters the movement ?Change,? a movement using the language and symbolic activities of the medieval alchemist to speak its spiritual truths. I wrote the book to explore the question of how a religious movement becomes mainstream—Christianity, after all, began as a lunatic offshoot of Judaism, which itself was at least in part a radical re-working of Canaanite beliefs.
A second stand-alone, Folly, came out in 2001. In it Rae Newborn, a woodworker with a long history of severe depression, goes to a deserted island in the northern reaches of Puget Sound to rebuild a house, and ends up rebuilding her life. The physical process of building, from clearing ground and laying the building’s foundations to raising the walls and roof, is mirrored by the story of Rae’s building recovery. It also allows the author to flaunt her familiarity with the minutiae of load-bearing two-by-fours and eight-penny nails.
Toward the end of Folly a character is introduced named Allen Carmichael. He is a minor player in the book, but is central to Keeping Watch (2004,) which marks the first time I’ve written a novel with a male protagonist. Allen is a Vietnam vet who finds his purpose in the rescue of abused children and their mothers: He gets them away, he hides them, he finds them new lives. In the course of his work he rescues a young boy who turns out to be more than he appears, and we enter into the question of how a killer is made, what forces have to conspire to make a child pick up a gun.
In this account of the novels, I have attempted to show the number of places at which the author’s former lives have surfaced in her fiction: an undergraduate study in alchemy here, a BA thesis on the fool or a Master’s thesis on the feminine aspects of God there, a trip to India, the hands-on experience of housebuilding and a childhood spent in the Pacific Northwest and a close familiarity with Oxford and an intimate grasp of a parent’s nightmares—why, there are even brief mentions of breastfeeding babies and canning fruit (in A Grave Talent and Keeping Watch.) It is truly extraordinary how often the interests of an author and her characters coincide….
This is less a case of the old rule for beginning writers, ?Write what you know,? than it is a matter of building on, and with, what fascinates the author. In fact, the primary thrust of a book may well be something about which I know little or nothing at all—the art world, modern religious movements (?cults,?) and Vietnam are just a few. I tend to use the things I have done or studied as background, to lend dimension to the story or to characters.
One of the unanticipated side-benefits of writing about religious matters has been that my novels are taken seriously in some interesting quarters. Several of the books are required reading in English courses scattered across the country, Folly is being used in a psychology class to illustrate depression, and in the spring of 2002 I spent a week as writer-in-residence at Hanover College in southern Indiana, a small school with a strong interest in matters theological.
But, as I asked at the beginning: Is a writer born, or made?
And as I answered at the beginning, yes. An innate love of language and storytelling may lay a foundation, but opportunity, a breadth of experience, and above all a stiff-necked refusal to bend to the voice of harsh reality, are essential.
I love my job. Never would I have believed, when I was a dreamy child, that one day I would be paid to tell myself stories.