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What books/authors have influenced your writing?
This is a tough one. I’m 70 and have a lousy memory, so the short stories and books I recall reading begin with those I was exposed to in an English Lit class in high school.
It was supposed to be an English class—grammar, punctuation, the usual high school English. The teacher hated that kind of class and concentrated on writing and literature for the four years I had his class. He bought each of his students a paperback copy of Louis Untermeyer’s Treasury of Great Poems, and he required that we memorize at least parts of many of them, from Chaucer to poets of the 1950s.
The book was packed away when I went off to college. I didn’t find it again until I was over 50. It was like finding an old friend or unexpectedly recovering memories of my youth, memories of friends who had died, and memories of friends I haven’t seen in decades.
When given the book, I was a teenager, confused, unsure of myself, and loaded with angst. Like many teenage boys of the early 1960’, I dreamed of sex but rarely worked up the courage to ask a girl for a date, even when everyone else knew the young lady was eager for me to ask her. No wonder we were confused; sex at that time was never mentioned. Married couples on TV used twin beds, and sex education was a 1940s movie about syphilis.
The Elizabethan poets struck a chord with me. Shakespeare’s sonnets—“Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day, thou art more beautiful and more temperate,”—Marlowe’s, “Come live with me and be my love, and we will all the pleasures prove that hills and valleys, dales and fields, and all the craggy mountains yield,” still stick in my mind, as does Ben Johnson’s, To Celia (“Drink to me only with thine eyes, and I will pledge with mine. . . .”). Does anyone under 55 remember the ancient tune for that poem?
If the Elizabethans struck a chord, the Cavalier poets struck up a whole damned symphony orchestra. Right there on the page was proof that I wasn’t the only guy thinking about sex all the time, although I still felt that I was the only one without a chance of ever engaging in it. Some of the Cavalier and Restoration poets we read about were chaplains and still had multiple mistresses, while I hadn’t even gotten up the courage to kiss a girl. I can still quote Herrick’s, To Virgins to Make Much of Time, and Upon Julia’s Clothes, although I had to refresh my memory of Lovelace’s, To Althea From Prison. It’s the one with the last stanza that begins, “Stone walls do not a prison make, nor iron bars a cage . . . .”
In my high school senior year, the local ministers condemned the movie, Tom Jones. It was the best recommendation a movie ever had. I saw it six times and read Fielding’s novel, The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling. The light humor and biting social criticism were a delight. I’ve had difficulty writing anything but comedy ever since.
Tell us something you hate doing. Why?
I’ve volunteered to make telephone calls for candidates I support during some election cycles. I’m normally something of an introvert. Calling people I don’t know and doing it when the call will probably be inconvenient for them makes me cringe. I’m simply not up to the kind of rejection. On a day I made 110 calls before noon, 97 of the people weren’t home or didn’t answer, three that answered were wrong numbers, two hung up as soon as I spoke, four listened politely and asked that they never be called again, five listened to my spiel, and one elderly woman talked about her bad back and her daughter’s foot problems for ten minutes.
I’m not sure how irritating voters helps a politician get elected, but I haven’t met one that wasn’t keen to have dozens of people doing it. Frankly, I’d rather be trimming the feet on an angry bull than making those calls (I was a veterinarian in a large animal practice for 19 years).
Share a funny incident in your life.
Butter in the Vacuum Cleaner
,BR> I took a day of vacation some years ago when we lived in Kansas City. It was one of those “use it or lose it,” things. Two of our kids were still in high school and my wife Cheryl was an office manager at a local company. I’d given Cheryl a bread maker for Christmas and the kids had developed a taste for crusty home-made bread for breakfast. When everyone had left for work or school, I saw that the kitchen floor was covered with bread crumbs.
Thinking I could get some brownie points with Cheryl, I dragged out our canister vacuum cleaner and vacuumed the kitchen floor. As I finished, I saw that the counter tops were also loaded with breadcrumbs—breadcrumbs just waiting to fall on the floor. I removed the metal wand from the vacuum and started cleaning up the crumbs on the counters with the end of the vacuum’s hose. It worked great. I was wondering why Cheryl didn’t clean the counters this way, when I reached behind a big box of cereal with the hose to get at any crumbs hiding behind it. A yellow streak followed the end of the hose as I pulled it back toward me. The yellow streak was a stick of butter that had been left out on the counter. It was a warm fall day, and the oil from the butter had soaked through the wax paper wrapping. The butter was riding on a film of oil as it was raced after the hose. I tried to pull the hose faster as I flailed with my foot trying to turn the machine off. With a couple sickening glug, glugs, the butter disappeared down the hose.
I finally got the machine turned off and looked down the hose. I couldn’t see anything. I took the hose off the machine and checked that end. I could see a yellow streak going all the way into the vacuum bag. I pushed and poked at things that looked like they might release the top of the machine so I could take the bag out, but nothing would release the top.
That vacuum cleaner was Cheryl’s baby. I needed time to time to find out how to open the machine, or come up with a reasonable sounding story. The look I got when I asked ladies at work how they removed butter from their vacuum cleaners suggested I’d need a good story. The vacuum bag would probably smell after a day or two, so I put the vacuum in the basement where it was cool.
That gave me a few days, but I eventually had to tell Cheryl what happened. Changing the bag was fast and cheap, but I had to buy a new vacuum hose. That cost $80. One good thing that came from the fiasco was that no one asks me to help clean the house anymore. I’m not even allowed to use the vacuum cleaner without supervision.
When you are in writer mode, music or no music? If music, do you have a playlist?
I prefer quiet when I write. It makes it easier for me to concentrate. The only exception might be Bach, especially organ and keyboard music or cantatas. The regular beat has been shown to help people focus and stay on task.
Have you ever had one character you wanted to go one way with but after the book was done the character was totally different?
In a book I’m working on now, a character that started out as a small-town con man, otherwise known as a horse-trader, the character became so interesting and helpful to my protagonist, I had to change him from the antagonist to something more ambiguous. I shouldn’t have been surprised, for as Dr. Johnson noted, a scoundrel must be charming.
Doc’s Codicil is a mystery told with gentle humor. It tells the story of a veterinarian who teaches his heirs a lesson from the grave.
I gritted my teeth and cursed. They were wasting my time, the time of the other four men in my crew, and expending all this effort to go in a circle, from and to their pen.
It occurred to me that most would see this differently if the calves were people. We’d call the calf trying to back up the “Leader” and those pushing his sorry butt forward “Followers.” Leaders and Followers apparently see things differently—something drilled into me every other November.
Come to think of it, it’s in November and December that we hold our national celebrations to honor wishful thinking and bad judgment. After our biennial celebration of the political non sequitur in early November, we save the rest of the month to contemplate our diets and most of December to think about our budgets. Looked at it that way, these calves were paragons of reason compared to the folks I’ve known.
Maybe, people are the only species dumber than cattle. A historian might be forgiven if he thought Homo sapiens preternaturally talented when it comes to grabbing stupid ideas and running with them. I have to admit, I haven’t been good at weeding the good from the “bat-crap crazy” either. Sometimes, it seems my life has been a series of virtuoso performances in the “stupid” genre, ranging from garden-variety dense to flaming-fruitcake nuts.
I should have guessed I was getting help in this department, but I have two doctorates, so no one expected me to see the obvious.
He’s part of the last generation of rural veterinarians who worked with cows that had names and personalities, and with dairymen who worked in the barn with their families. He’s also one of those baby boomers, crusty codgers who are writing their wills and grousing about kids who can be damned condescending at times.
Gary practiced bovine medicine in rural Wisconsin for nineteen years. He then returned to graduate school at the University of Minnesota, earned a PhD in microbiology, and spent the next nineteen years working on the development of bovine and swine vaccines.
Doc's Codicil is the bronze medal winner of Foreward's INDIEFAB Book of The Year awards, humor category.
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