My next-door neighbor, Janet Benton, author of the excellent novel Lilli de Jong, asked that question of the readers of her blog a few months ago (https://janetbentonauthor.com/blog/.) I’ve been pondering it at red lights, grocery store lines, and waiting to be reconnected to the internet ever since. Today’s post is an attempt to take a stab at an answer.
If you ask me, “Why do you write, Jack?”, you might as well ask me why I eat, or why I breathe. I can’t help myself. I don’t know what I think until I have written the thought down on paper. The notion of making up stories and chronicling events has been a part of my make-up since early childhood. Like many of you, I published a neighborhood newspaper, however short-lived) on an old black Royal typewriter rescued from someone’s trash when I was seven or eight years old. I must have been less than nine-years-old when I wrote a “play” based on a Classic Illustrated comic book version of The Tale of Two Cities, as I recall. I asked my mother for the fare and took the streetcar down to the local CBC affiliate station on Jarvis Street in Toronto. Shy, introverted, self-conscious little Jack handed it to the receptionist, who kindly told me that she would pass it on. As far as I know, it never appeared on the CBC! 🙂
It was in high school, though, that I fell in love with the inestimable power of words. I can still remember the day, as though it were just yesterday when I was transfixed and transported to Long Island as I read the last paragraphs of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby: “Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgiastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter–tomorrow we will run faster, stretch our arms farther…and one fine morning–“
“God, I want to write like that!” I exclaimed to my fifteen-year-old self. “I want to put words together like those that move readers, that make them believe in the green light and stretch their arms farther.”
After that, the seeds of a novel, or actually, of many novels, were germinating in my fevered mind every time I read one like To Kill a Mockingbird; Johnny Got His Gun; Look Homeward, Angel; Franny and Zooey; or The Power and the Glory, among so many others.
Retirement turned out to be the occasion for some of the seeds to sprout finally and emerge as my first novel, Beginning Again at Zero (http://www.lulu.com/shop/jack-saarela/beginning-again-at-zero/paperback/product-22899604.html) about which many of you have said kind words. The seeds of that project were sown back in 1971 when Diane and I saw the movie version of Wilhelm Moberg’s The Emigrants and Unto a Good Land.
The late, great sportswriter Red Smith is purported to have said, “Writing is quite simple; all you have to do is sit down at your typewriter and open a vein…” Frederick Buechner adds to that, “For my money, the only books worth reading are books written in blood…” My newest project is a second novel, Accidental Saviors, about which you will be hearing perhaps more than you wish in the next few months. Reading and seeing movies all these years about the horrendous plight of the Jews in Nazi Europe during World War II, like Schindler’s List and Sophie’s Choice, is what opened my vein to write that book. The pain I feel for them in my own blood I will try to transfuse into my readers’ veins.
The novel won’t be all blood and pain, however, I promise. My two protagonists are based on two actual Finnish historical figures, Felix Kersten and Algot Niska, who happened to be in Germany just as the war was erupting in 1939. Though they didn’t set out with this in mind, each became an “accidental savior” of the lives of countless, perhaps thousands by the end, of Jews trapped in Germany.
One writing mentor advised me that a writer’s aim is to make a similar thing happen inside the reader as happened to you in writing. Though by no means 100% admirable, Kersten and Niska inspire me to be more courageous, more cognizant of, and possibly more willing to advocate for, those in my world today who are oppressed or marginalized.
When they get to the last page, I hope that to make the readers of Accidental Saviors be that way, too.
Until the next time, dear Reader, cherish each moment of this unique and finite day.