I majored in Sociology at Rutgers-Newark (1967-71), and don’t think I’d ever considered becoming a fiction writer until I was a senior there and took my first creative-writing class. And I enrolled in it only because I’d taken every Sociology course that was being offered and had to fill out my fall schedule with something. The course was taught by a young, exuberant, nurturing instructor in the English Department named Elizabeth White, who later became a dean at the college; there were probably 20 students in the class. The fiction that I wrote and submitted was strongly influenced (I’ll say!) by Ray Bradbury’s stuff—a series of fantasy stories all with the same magic-boy protagonist named, I’m embarrassed to recall, Tommy-John Whitewater. I don’t remember a thing about the stories, except their reception, which seemed, to me at least, rhapsodic, and kindled my thinking seriously about fiction writing, prose fiction writing, as a goal, if not a career. Till then, honestly, it had never occurred to me.
Since I was 8 or 9 I’d written stories, but they were stories for the home-made comic strips (“Be-Bop McCarthy,” “Harry Drebbs, Secret Agent,” “The Blue Bug”) that I labored over, ferociously, in the evenings and on weekends. It was a great blow when, at last, I faced the cold hard fact that I wasn’t ever going to be a decent (much less a great, my only goal) narrative cartoonist; I didn’t know it at the time, but my failure to develop drawing chops was pretty basic and pretty fatal: I had no spatial sense, plus my hand-eye coordination pretty much sucked. What made my life’s first great disappointment bearable was—well, actually it was two things.