My middle school years were rough. We had moved from Fort Smith, Arkansas to Fort Worth, Texas during the summer between fifth and sixth grade. My father had returned from a four-year stint away, so we had a whole new family dynamic to deal with, not to mention the culture shock of switching from an Arkansas elementary school (where I would have gone to sixth grade had we stayed there) to a Texas middle school where the day was broken up into periods and I was expected to go from classroom to classroom for each one.
One of my Saturday afternoon traditions during those days in the late 1970s was to sit down and watch the weekly Tarzan movie on channel eleven. Most were black and white and featured actors like Johnny Weissmuller, Buster Crabbe, Lex Barker, and Gordon Scott in the title role. Week after week, Tarzan had to save Jane, save the jungle, or save something, using both his intellect and his brawn. The one thing I always wanted to see but never got to was the story of how he got to the jungle in the first place. That never seemed to be the subject of any of those movies. Tarzan was always there, swinging through the trees with Cheetah and pausing to give out that patented Tarzan yell. I was always envious that he was free to roam the jungle, that he could converse with and was friends with the animals (most of them anyway), and that he got to wear as little clothing as possible (which probably influenced my later choice in a certain part time job I took which was the subject of my novel Life Models).
I would occasionally accompany my mom to the Hulen Mall in southwest Fort Worth, which was still fairly new in 1978. The only store I really liked to go to was the B. Dalton Bookseller. I wasn’t yet a big reader, but I did read outside of school assignments. Walter Farley’s The Black Stallion was an early favorite of mine. But I did like to browse the book shelves, and it was there that I found a shelf full of black paperback Tarzan books with titles that seemed more interesting than any of the movies I had watched: Tarzan and the Jewels of Opar, Tarzan at the Earth’s Core, Tarzan and the City of Gold, Tarzan and the Leopard Men, etc. Each book had a little red number in the upper right hand corner of the front cover and on the top of the spine. I did a quick scan and found number one, Tarzan of the Apes.
I was lucky enough to have had enough cash in my pocket to buy a copy of the book (the list price was less than two dollars), and I took it home and dove into the story. For the next several years, I became a constant reader of author Edgar Rice Burroughs. When I had finished his 24 Tarzan books, I moved on to the John Carter of Mars series and then to his other works, The Land that Time Forgot, the Carson of Venus and Pellucidar series, among others. I also branched out into fantasy books by other authors featuring characters like Doc Savage and Conan the Barbarian. And yes, I started writing fantasy stories of my own, amateurish and derivative of Edgar Rice Burroughs, but doing this taught me a lot about writing (mostly that I loved doing it).
The one thing that bugged me the most about my choice of books was that almost all of them were written before I was born. Edgar Rice Burroughs had died sixteen years before I was ever thought of. I was in high school when I ran out of new Edgar Rice Burroughs to read, and other fantasy authors like Anne McCaffery and Piers Anthony had failed to spark my interest. Two of my English teachers talked very highly of an author named Stephen King who wrote mainly horror, although he did dabble in fantasy later on with his Dark Tower series. I took a chance on him when I bought my first ever new release hardcover fiction book, Different Seasons, in 1982. I have bought and read almost every Stephen King hardcover since.
From there, my reading tastes have stayed in fiction set in our contemporary world with a few exceptions, and my own writing could be classified as mainstream. I do have to confess that writing has been difficult these past three months as events in the real world more closely resemble apocalyptic science fiction than realism. If last year someone had written a novel featuring a global pandemic and race riots, readers would have had trouble suspending disbelief.
And it is partly because of this state of current affairs causing a desire to escape into another world that I have begun reading a very highly regarded fantasy series, one that is in the process of being adapted into a television series on Amazon Prime right now. I am currently over six hundred pages into the first book of The Wheel of Time, The Eye of the World, and am enjoying it so much that I feel confident in committing to reading the entire series, even though it contains fourteen books (fifteen if you could the prequel which is considerably shorter than any of the fourteen main books), something like 11,000 pages, and over four million words. It remains to be seen if my writing will turn to fantasy, but I can think of worse things that could happen.