“Who is your favorite author?” the TV host asked me on the air.
I just blinked.
“My favorite author?”
Sometimes, as a writer you will find yourself as a guest on TV shows and radio shows promoting stuff.
You’ll be on a television set that is an exact duplication of a family room. Except, of course, this family room has nuclear studio lights that cause third-degree sunburns and damage to the human cornea.
Beside you is a perky female morning host whose sole job is to promote your book on the air. These hosts, amazingly, manage to promote hundreds of books just like yours without having ever read a single sentence in their lives.
They do this by asking questions which make it sound as though they’ve read your book. But you know better.
Namely, because when they shake your hand they say in a sincere voice, “Thanks for being our show, Randy,” even though your name is, technically, Sean.
A favorite questions TV hosts often ask writers is: “Who’s your favorite author?”
Which is a solid TV question because, in most cases, your answer will buy the host a full three minutes, which allows them time to check their phone, scroll Instagram, and think up other insightful and intelligent questions such as, “How old are you?”
Usually, I reply that my favorite author is Gary Larson because I am a perpetual 10-year-old boy, and I think Gary Larson is a genius.
My response often causes television personalities and English majors to furrow their brows, because most literary folks can’t place the name Gary Larson.
Gary Larson is the illustrator and creator of “The Far Side” comic strip, once syndicated in 1,900 newspapers in the U.S. He is not often paired with Steinbeck and Hemingway.
Which is why the talkshow host simply smiles at me, then moves on to the next guest who will talk in-depth about stir-fry cooking, accordion maintenance, or crafting your own monogrammed toilet paper.
But the actual truth is, if I had to name my earliest literary hero, I would probably tell you Wilson Rawls.
You might not know who that is. So allow me to tell you.
I was in grade school when our teacher read “Where the Red Fern Grows” aloud. A novel about a boy and his coonhounds.
All students in our class were sniffling because it’s a heartrending book. I was the redheaded kid, crying harder than Kimberly Rogers. Which is saying something because Kimberly Rogers even cried during the Pledge of Allegiance.
Through the years, I got older, but “Red Fern” never did. I have read this book maybe a few hundred times. I can quote sections by memory.
“If a man’s word is no good, he’s no good himself.”
“…I could have heart-to-heart talks with my dogs and they always seemed to understand.”
“People have been trying to understand dogs ever since the beginning of time… You can read every day where a dog saved the life of a drowning child, or lay down his life for his master. Some people call this loyalty. I don’t. I may be wrong, but I call it love—the deepest kind of love.”
Rawls had no formal education. He grew up on a family farm in Oklahoma. He fell in love with the printed word and wanted to be a writer.
Then came the Great Depression. Rawls bounced around the country, living on railcars, working odd jobs. He was a grunt worker. A laborer. He lived in tents. Shaved with borrowed razors. Lived in Hoovervilles. He went hungry. Rawls went to prison in 1933 for stealing chickens to keep from starving.
And somehow he managed to write “Red Fern” in spite of it all.
When he first submitted his manuscript, he was middle-aged, and the editors laughed at him so hard their eye sockets bled.
I can just imagine a rural man clad in denim, rough hands and tanned neck, walking into a fourth-floor publishing office downtown. I can see him presenting a stained manuscript about coonhounds to a bunch of academic stiffs.
His manuscript was turned down, of course. It was riddled with misspellings, grammatical errors and no punctuation. No publisher would touch it.
But then the “Saturday Evening Post” magazine took a chance on Rawls. They published “Red Fern” in serial form. They paid him a pittance. And it became one of the best successes the magazine ever had.
As a high-school dropout, I relate to this man. As a dog lover, this man is my spiritual mascot.
Moreover, Rawls could have done anything after his success. But you know what he chose to do?
He spent the rest of his life traveling to schools to encourage kids to read and write. And I am one of those kids he encouraged.
I never met him, he died when I was a boy. But I wish I’d known him.
If I’d met him, I know what I would have done. I would’ve shaken his hand with both of mine. I would have probably reacted like Kimberly Rogers when I thanked him for altering the life of a middle-aged 10-year-old boy.
And then, I would have mustered all the courage I had and asked him who his favorite author was.