Considering the similarities between writers and criminals–they both refuse to work normal hours, both have psychological hang-ups, and both end up ultimately locked up alone in a room–it is not surprising that authors, like thieves and murderers, are often infected quite young with their particular predilection. Novelists such as Jane Austen, Lee Smith and F. Scott Fitzgerald already had books under their belts by the time they were 18, and during his childhood years, Paul Bowles composed everything from diaries written by imaginary characters to a pseudo-opera and a daily newspaper featuring dispatches from “foreign correspondents.”
Published by Algonquin in a revised edition this fall, Paul Mandelbaum’s First Words exhumes the juvenilia of some of this country’s most famous literary figures, including Amy Tan, Michael Crichton and Stephen King, and North Carolina favorites like William Styron, Allan Gurganus and Clyde Edgerton. Excerpted below is an introduction and childhood work by Jill McCorkle, a native of Lumberton, who made her professional debut at the young age of 25 with not one, but two, novels, The Cheer Leader and July 7th. McCorkle’s talent for blending the comic and the tragic is evident even in these very early selections from her work.
“I wrote my first story, ‘The Night Santa Failed to Come,’ when I was in second grade,” McCorkle recalls. “From then on, writing was a favorite activity, particularly if I could peddle the finished product to my parents. My profit lasted only as long as it took me to mount my bicycle and ride to what we called ‘the little store’ and then disappeared in a little brown paper sack of Mary Janes and Bazooka gum.”
“The summer after second grade my father brought home a huge wooden crate; it had originally housed a knitting machine delivered to a local textile mill. It was supposed to be a storage shed, but he had no sooner cut and hinged a door before I moved in: pallet, tea set, dress-up clothes, my own fishing gear (another favorite activity), bricks for a faux fireplace and bedding for my cat. He gave in. His tools remained crammed in a small storage room. My mother sewed curtains for the new playhouse. This became my writing place, and over the next four years much of my time was spent there. The house was sometimes opened to others as a sort of neighborhood playhouse. (‘Rumpelstiltskin’ was a popular production.) But for the most part it remained a private place for me, and one of my biggest sources of inspiration: a huge black and white tomcat named Shon-Ton (the result of my misunderstanding the pronunciation of a French cat’s name on a television program). People didn’t ‘fix’ their cats in those days and so Shon-Ton was always sporting a few minor head wounds. The recuperating cat proved to be a wonderful audience for a long time.”
“My motivation when writing these stories was to get a laugh or a tear. I had to have a response. ‘The Twins’ was written on this wonderful cool and rainy afternoon when I was experiencing what I’d call now an enjoyable cleansing kind of melancholia, but then knew only as wanting to cry and needing to force it. Being a great fan of Eugene Field at age 7 and 8, I had learned that a child’s death can guarantee total sadness, and I followed from there.”
The Night Santa Failed to Come, 1965, age 7
Santa looked very sad and said to his wife, Rudolph is no where in sight. What can I do? I don’t know, said his wife that is a problem. I just can’t go tomorrow night then. It was a real foggy night. Santa told the deer and elves that they could not go. Then a little elf, named Doppy, said “why can’t we have a search party.” “O-K,” said Santa. But they could not find him. Then Christmas night at 7:00 no Rudolph. 12:00 no Rudolph. It was the night after Christmas no Rudolph at all. Then Rudolph ran in and said, “Santa I heard you before Christmas eve say I can’t go.” “Oh Rudolph I could not go because I did not have you.” “Well Santa its O-K. Look” in ran all the children from different lands–Texas, Lumberton, the North Pole and every where. “Rudolph where are your shoes?” “I lost them. May I have some for Christmas?” “Yes you can, Rudolph.” Come on boys and girls get your toys and candy. Then they went home and said thank you. Then Rudolph told him about it. After that Rudolph was always on time and one time he came in July. He saw some cotten plants and thought it was snow but if he did come to early sometimes He was always there on Christmas night all so.
Shon-Ton, 1966, age 8
I know a cat whose name is Shon-Ton. His fur is Black and White. He’s always having lots of fun and going off at night. And when he gets the chance–straight into the house he will prance. Don’t ask me why I watch this cat or how I have the time. I’ll tell you right this minute because this cat is mine.
The Twins, 1966, age 8
There once were a set of twins that were happy all day long. Whenever the other was gone, the other was right along. Then one day the little boy got an evil sickness and died. The little girl she cried, when she lost her twin. She wouldn’t eat. She wouldn’t play until she was frail and thin. Then early one morn she was put out of misery and pain. And in the heavens there she lived with her brother once again.
In the morn there was a note by her bed that said, “Take & keep” and under it there was a butterfly that was dead. There was a flower from the springtime and a tear that she had shed.