There's a great line by Eudora Welty: "It had been startling and disappointing to me to find out that story books had been written by people, that books were not natural wonders, coming of themselves like grass."

 

I couldn't disagree more.

 

I can pinpoint when I decided to become a writer: the day in 1967 when I pulled one particular novel off a shelf in the Albany (N.Y.) Public Library.  I was eight years old. This wasn't the moment I fell in love with books; that had happened long before, as soon as I taught myself to read (yeah, I was one of those kids).  No, this was when it sank in that you could actually make stories up for a living.  You could get paid to make up stories? How cool was that?

 

The book was called The Wonderful Flight to the Mushroom Planet, and the author was named Eleanor Cameron. The illustrations were by Robert Henneberger, black-and-white line drawings that I can still call to mind. The paper was thick and creamy. 

 

It opened like this:

 

"ONE NIGHT after dinner when David was reading Doctor Dolittle in the Moon, and his father was reading the newspaper, and his mother was darning socks, his father suddenly exclaimed: "Well, now, that's very odd!"

 

How old-fashioned and sexist this sounds to our modern ears. Does anyone darn socks anymore?  But I, an eight-year-old in 1967, was hooked by the very ordinariness of this world.  Two boys around my age answer a mysterious classified ad in the newspaper: "Wanted: A small spaceship about eight feet long, built by a boy, or by two boys, between the ages of eight and eleven. The ship should be sturdy and well made, and should be of materials found at hand." So they build a small spaceship out of scrap metal and lumber and bring it to the wizened old man who placed the ad, who turns out to be a two-thousand-year-old alien named Tyco Bass. He needs them to fly to his home planet - a tiny planetoid that's actually Earth's second moon and is invisible unless you have the right filter on your telescope - to save his people. 

 

I must have read it twenty times.  I still recall the dreamlike intensity, the way I disappeared into the story. (Nothing compares to the power of a children's book.)  I gave it to my friends, and pretty soon a bunch of boys in the third-grade class at the Loudonville School were reading it and the four others in the series. This was our "Harry Potter."

 

Then I wrote Eleanor Cameron a fan letter, in care of her publisher, Little, Brown.  I was stunned to get a reply from her a month later, a long chatty letter signed in bold green ink.  I wrote right back, asking all sorts of questions: Where'd she get the idea? Where'd she get all that cool science detail?  I told her I wanted to be a writer. For the next several years, Eleanor Cameron and I corresponded. She suggested books she thought I should read about how to write stories; she even sent me copies of her own books.

 

Only now, looking back on this, do I realize why the first publisher I ever sent a query letter to was . . . Little, Brown.  When I published my first novel, I wrote Eleanor Cameron a letter thanking her, and to my astonishment, she wrote back.  She was still alive!  She told me she was coming to Boston, and naturally I invited her to my house for dinner.   When she protested, I told her it was the least I could do: after all, she'd made me a writer.


Editor's Note: Joseph Finder is the award-winning author of Killer Instinct and the forthcoming thriller Vanished. Finder will be joining us on Center Stage on August 31st to field questions and discuss his work.
Message Edited by PaulH on 07-30-2009 08:33 AM

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