It’s a common question asked of authors, and especially authors of fiction: Where do you get your story ideas from? Charles Martin partially answered that question by publishing River Road, a collection of stories from his childhood, teen, and college years.
River Road is the neighborhood where he grew up in the 1970s and 1980s. It is not unlike the neighborhood where a lot of us grew up in the 1950s, 1960s, and later. His experiences are more than familiar; his childhood was much like my own and like millions of other boys growing up in America, and especially the American South.
Martin wrote a few of these stories in high school and most of them in college. What emerges from them now is one writer’s beginnings. If you’ve read Martin’s novels, you can find the man in the child by reading these stories.
He writes of playing with a friend in a sandbox and digging a hole intended to each China; how he was caught stealing and the experience of terror while expecting a neighbor to call his mother; his career objective to be a cowboy; how a bully (himself) got unforgettably bullied; the laugh-out-loud experience of a full bladder while your mother is trying on clothes; when a fishing expedition goes awry and a man who doesn’t know how to swim saves a boy who doesn’t know how to swim; the fine art of stealing tangerines from a neighbor’s tree; what chewing tobacco can do to a boy’s stomach; ordering books from the monthly reading club at school, not to actually read the books but to have the most number of books with sports heroes; fishing with his grandfather and how his grandfather cut his hair; when your father is your football game referee and he calls penalties fairly; the theft of his favorite bicycle; and more.
These stories all describe the commonplace, not unusual experiences of boyhood, with its joys and sorrows, and triumphs and humiliations. They describe growing up and all the stories we live (or live down) to survive to adulthood.
Martin includes “An Open Letter to My Boys,” which should be required reading for all of us, and “Random Rules for Writers,” which includes such advice as “Don’t use eight words when two will do.”
If you read River Road, you will smile and laugh, occasionally cringe in recognition, and shed a tear in memory. In those things, it is much like a Charles Martin novel, an experience to be grateful for.
Top photograph: a view from River Road, Jacksonville, Florida.