Happy to present yet another post in the series When Writers Read Kids’ Books. This one comes from Barry Grills, whose new memoir, Every Wolf’s Howl, is just out from Freehand Books. I love what Merilyn Simonds says about the book: that it “celebrates the human need for wildness and the courage to live an authentic life.”
Here, Barry writes a post unlike any other I’ve had on the blog to date. It’s about the fact that his parents didn’t read to him when he was a child. And somehow, the writing bug persisted inside him anyway. Thank you Barry for this wonderful contribution.
I have no recollection of my parents reading to me when I was a child. In fact I am quite certain it did not happen.
My brother, a world class guitarist, discussed this with me a few months ago, when I was visiting him out west. He maintains this missing rite of youthful passage reflected a preoccupation in our household with music. Both my parents played the piano. Of an evening, visitors joined them around their old upright Heintzman and sang their hearts out after the dinner dishes were washed and put away. My brother and I had voice training when we were young enough to be sopranos. My brother’s musical gifts were on display dozens of times when our family had company. My brother and my parents and I all sang in the church choir at one time – in four-part harmony. My father was a tenor, I sang bass, my brother’s voice had not yet changed and he performed alto. My mother was a noted soprano. Except for my brother’s changing voice, I wonder if we might have formed a barbershop quartet.
My brother talked recently about how unfair this preoccupation with music must have seemed to me back then, when I was so passionate about books and being a writer. I waved his concerns away. We are what we are; a fact of which I am glad. As I write this now, I am relieved I did not have to give a reading in my parents’ living room at age fifteen, the year when I began to write stories every day after school and on weekends, in the same fashion that my brother was called upon frequently to perform a song or two. It would have felt dreadful, I think, to stand in front of glazed gazes reading deeply flawed, uncrafted work that experimented with far too much. At fifteen, my writing flipped between octaves in much the same way my singing voice had floundered a number of years earlier.
My parents gave me a few books when I was a child. Inevitably, they were little covers of popular television programs: Zorro, The Lone Ranger, Roy Rogers. But they did not read them to me. Later, I found my own materials to read, from friends, from teachers. I read Two Years Before The Mast at a young age, Robinson Crusoe, Treasure Island, Huckleberry Finn, Tom Sawyer. In my family’s culture at the time, a varied collection of books was difficult to find and my parents weren’t motivated to persist.
So I read adult books as a child. And this, I think, is one of two things that happens when the culture of being read to doesn’t take place. First of all, one reads adult books. Second, one develops a cultural family history based on oral tradition.
Instead of reading children’s fiction and, later, young adult fiction, people who have no experience of lying in bed – the covers tucked up to their chins, someone sitting on the edge of the mattress, turning the pages of a great story that will change their lives – move quickly to adult books. The seeds of the writing bug for me were sown in the first years of my teens by novels by Ernest Hemingway, Robert Ruark, Evan Hunter, Herman Wouk. Then, by the time I began to write myself, I devoured everything I could find by John Updike and Ray Bradbury. I wanted to write like John Updike because he was so wickedly clever. As for Ray Bradbury, I would ponder the beauty of his writing and wish to emulate it.
There was, though, someone who told me stories. He made his stories up. My uncle. He would build a large bonfire down on the river where he lived and sit there with my brother and me, spinning incredible yarns, as he poked endlessly at the embers, about how he survived Custer’s last stand, or how, as a private detective, he’d brought to justice a gang of truck hijackers. He would make these up on the fly; they were wonderful stories. I wrote a short story about my uncle and his stories, adding a male character in puberty who thinks he’s too old for such stories, calling the story “Waiting For Unc”. Although it was never published, an editor at a New York magazine wrote me a long letter of encouragement when I was around eighteen. And encourage me it did.
And my older son, David, who reads to my granddaughters with his wife, Rachel, most nights, reminds me that I told him and his brother stories whenever we travelled anywhere by car. My favourites were The Iliad, The Odyssey, and elements of The Aeneid. He claims he and his brother loved these stories tremendously. He remembers Agamemnon the most, because Agamemnon wouldn’t listen to the people he should, like Cassandra, for instance. And he liked the story about Discordia showing up at the wedding feast uninvited, carrying her golden apple.
I suggested Richard Adams’s Watership Down when David and I talked. His daughters, Emma and Lydia, would like it, I said. This book too began its history in print form as a story told on car trips to a young, appreciative audience.
Oral tradition. And adult materials. For me, at least, these were the kinds of stories I read and heard as a child. Sometimes I miss the children’s books I will perhaps never get to read. Then again, we are what we are.
One footnote, though. When I was in my early twenties, I managed my brother’s band for a time. I lived with some of its members in a large house where the band could also rehearse. Some nights, after everyone retired to their respective rooms for the night, one of the comedians would call out: “Bawwy, would you wead us a stowy?” Chortles, chuckles, guffaws. I would read them a story. Something like Erskine Caldwell’s “Warm River”, which is one such occasion I remember.
The musicians in the other rooms would fall asleep to an adult story. Yes, we all lived there for the music. But literature wormed its way in anyway, slipping between the notes, refusing to be shut out. Just like it did at home.
Barry Grills’ stories have appeared in numerous literary journals and magazines, including Quarry, Grain, and the University of Windsor Review, as well as various anthologies, including Best Canadian Stories. He is also the author of three cultural biographies from Quarry Press on the lives of Anne Murray, Alanis Morissette, and Celine Dion, as well as an updated Celine Dion biography, co-authored with Jim Brown. He is a past chair of The Writers’ Union of Canada and the Book and Periodical Council, and he has been both a federal election candidate and a municipal councillor. He currently lives in North Bay, Ontario. His memoir, Every Wolf’s Howl, has been published by Freehand Books this autumn.