My father and mother spent their childhoods on rural Texas farms and in neighboring small towns. Like so many others after World War II, their lives soon shifted to the city, in their case, the suburbs of Fort Worth in the 50s’s and 60’s. My sister, brother and I spent our childhoods in a neighborhood of nearly interchangeable ranch-style houses that were each filled with kids we knew from school and church. Scouts, church camp, the Texas Boys Choir, and the Fort Worth Rodeo and Fat Stock Show every year.
Often I skipped school to go to downtown Fort Worth where I spent the day browsing through dusty second-hand bookshops and going to movies. No afterschool group activities for me, no baseball or team sports. One time my father took me to a high school football game and was embarrassed when he saw that I’d brought a book. I was pretty much a loner until the summer I became an apprentice at a theater called Casa Manana, where a different Broadway musical was produced every other week.
Theater gave me the idea that I could leave Fort Worth for New York City and find a different life. More like me. I saved $300 and moved there to the upper West Side one January. I didn’t even own a coat.
Eventually, it wasn’t the suburbs I missed but those rural farms and small towns where our grandparents and families lived. Those places were home. We had spent summers and vacation times there and that felt like the place where everything began. The holiday rituals, the family Bible with all the births, marriages and deaths listed. Mother’s Day, which was Memorial Day at the cemetery. We took flowers out there every year to place on family graves.
Family stories led me to become a writer. Stories about the ones who came to Texas from Mississippi and Hines, Georgia, before that, and Wayne County, North Carolina, before that. Or Murfreesboro, Tennessee, from Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, where my 10th great-grandfather built a presbyterian church identical to the one he and his sons had left behind in Omagh, Northern Ireland. He and my just-as-many-times great-grandmother and their family are buried in that churchyard in Paradise, Lancaster County. Their farmland was beside the church. I heard the clip-clop of an Amish farmer’s horse and wagon on the other side of their headstones on the day I discovered them. In that churchyard, I had found a sense of connection. I knew who and where I had come from.
Acting classes taught me about writing and storytelling. Soon I was in writing workshops at CCNY and Brooklyn College. I wrote novels. Novel #3 was finally published, Square Dance. The nearest one to my own story, the mythology of rural Texas farm and small town life that had been passed down to me.
Once Square Dance was published, the producers who optioned it for film let me have a go at writing the adaptation. That script led to more screenplays for several independent films and a slew of movies for television, including The Interrogation of Michael Crowe, which earned a Peabody Award. I taught writing at Drexel University in Philadelphia and finally became a tenured professor at Kutztown University of Pennsylvania.
Now I live in the southwest of England and Central Florida, where I’m working on a novel set in Texas during the Dust Bowl years.