I think we can safely blame it on Margaret D’Ascoli, though I suppose Henry Wadsworth Longfellow may bear some responsibility as well.
Mrs. D’Ascoli was my eighth grade English teacher, Longfellow was the author of—among other things—the epic poem, Evangeline, about which we had to write a critical essay. When the day came for the papers to be handed back, the class was awash in anxiety. Mrs. D’Ascoli was one tough cookie, and an even tougher grader. She walked through the aisles returning the essays to everyone but me, then went back to the front of the room and stood before the class until the rustle of papers ceased. Holding one last paper in her hand, she said, “As you know, I always give grades for both style and content. I have here a paper to which I have awarded not two, but three A’s: one for style, one for content, and one for something I cannot begin to explain to you. Then she handed me my essay. There was a silence like death, followed by excited whispers. I wanted to crawl into a hole and quietly die from embarrassment.
It wasn’t until later, on the walk home from school, that I felt excited, and it wasn’t because of the three A’s. It was because, at an age when you know with absolute certainty that you’re a totally worthless speck in the universe, I’d learned there was something I could do better than anyone else I knew: I could write.
Ever since then, writing’s been my “meal ticket.” It was my ticket out of a chaotic and sometimes frightening family in a steadily deteriorating neighborhood in Yonkers, just over the New York City border. It was my ticket to scholarships for an undergraduate degree in English, and then a graduate degree in journalism. It carried me through a series of jobs and ultimately, at the tender age of 30, to an appointed position in the Carter Administration. Much as I loved that job, one of the best things that ever happened to me was the election of Ronald Reagan, who promptly fired me and forced me to choose between holding a job and becoming an author. I chose the latter.
Over the years, and under a different name, for Will North is a pen name, I’ve written more than a dozen non fiction books. Somewhere along the line, I also became a ghostwriter—for an American President, a Vice-President, a famous mountaineer and explorer, a team of Everest climbers, a group of dinosaur-hunters, and a pioneering doctor, among others. I also wrote a series of off-the-beaten-track guidebooks to the place I love most in the world: Britain. Then, one day, fiction showed up like an unexpected guest and the stories kept coming. The greatest joy of writing fiction is that every day is a surprise: I seldom know what my characters are going to demand of me. Mostly, I just try to listen to them and do what they say. They never cease to amaze me.