I started writing when I was in junior high, mostly fiction and poetry, but even then I wrote short plays. The town I grew up in, Trussville, Ala., had a library with a dedicated staff who did the very best they could with what they had. But they never had enough. I was never without books to read as a child, but when I graduated to adult reading, the pickings were slimmer. There was a great demand for Harlequin romances at our library, and the staff dutifully catered to that demand with stack after stack of paperback Harlequins. But when it came to Literature-with-a-capital-"L" the demand was, perhaps, not as strong. So while the selection was respectable enough, it wasn't exactly comprehensive.
I would be lying if I said that I read every book in the Trussville library because I did skip all the Harlequin romances, but I would say I made a substantial dent in the literature section. I read books in junior high the way some people drinkobsessively, one book after another. I read to learn about the world outside Trussville, and I read because reading made me feel more like myself. I don't know how else to put it. I simply felt more real the more I escaped into other worlds because in those other worlds I would sometimes glimpse characters, or even just gestures of characters, that reminded me of who I thought I was.
I did not, however, read with much discretion. Once I found an author I liked, I read every one of his or her books all in a row. I read Winter of Our Discontent, for example, and then every other John Steinbeck novel all the way through The Wayward Bus. I did the same with plays. I read Major Barbara and then I read every single George Bernard Shaw play. Then I read Tennessee Williams. Then I read Shaw again because I really loved reading plays, I discovered, but there weren't any other playwrights on the shelf besides Williams, Shaw and Shakespeare, and Shakespeare was too hard. Shaw I loved, though. Shaw I devoured. I honestly had no idea what he was getting at a lot of the time, but I knew he was getting at something. And I knew whatever it was was a lot bigger than whatever it was Williams was getting at. And that was what mattered to me. It wasn't Shaw's style or his wit that appealed to me most; it was his willingness to engage in a pertinent dialogue with his audience and to go out on a limb and posit an opinion. It was his willingness to write topical plays that unabashedly argued for change that drew me to him.
I don't want to paint myself as some sort of barefoot prodigy, walking the red-clay trails of Alabama with Man and Superman in one hand and a dead squirrel in the other. I went to a school with four walls and a roof (for three years I went to school in a trailer, but that's another story). But I do think that the writers I encountered haphazardly as a kid had a profound impact on me and on my writing, even today. Sometimes I wish I had had more plays to choose from growing up, but other times I'm happy that my sensibilities were formed the way they were. It turns out the ideas I formed as a teenager have served me pretty well as an adult. I want to write plays thatno matter how they're dressedengage my audiences in a pertinent, complicated, extended dialogue. I want to write something that some kid in Trussville, Ala., might pick up some day and read and think, "Hmm. How about that?"
I'm happy to report that the Trussville library has added a new addition and is now twice its former size. They've also expanded their collection to include a play by me. I couldn't be happier.