The Writing Life: Jim Lehrer

By Jim Lehrer
Sunday, December 23, 2007

There I was, sipping a Christmas martini at a Wichita, Kansas steakhouse that had once been a railroad freight depot. I glanced out the window at the old Union Station, now the local cable television offices. That stately gothic structure of gray granite and concrete had been in and out of my sights since the earliest days of my life in Wichita, where I was born.

My eyes drifted to the exact spot on the elevated tracks 10 yards away where, at age 12 on a Christmas afternoon in 1944, I waved at several Marines from a paused troop train. My dad, who'd been a Marine in the 1920s, had taken my brother and me to bring cheer and encouragement to the servicemen on their way to California and war.

And suddenly I had one of those lightning ideas -- an early Christmas gift for myself.

What if a young marine had a love-at-first-sight experience with a canteen volunteer during a stop at Wichita? Maybe it lasted only a few minutes. But things happened. Things that changed both of their lives forever. The marine becomes a flamethrower operator, hits the beach at Peleliu or Okinawa. Maybe he'd been a baseball player and dreamed of someday playing in the majors. Maybe the girl was a singer. Very religious. Both were very young. Very inexperienced. Could and would they find each other after the war?

And I scribbled in a notebook as my mind raced.

That's what writing is like for me. My latest novel, Eureka, also had a Christmas angle to its launch. I was walking through a big antique show at the Omni Shoreham Hotel in Washington when I spotted a small cast iron toy on a shelf in a dealer's stall. That triggered the notion of a man buying an expensive antique toy fire engine and then maybe a BB gun, a football helmet and, finally, a Cushman motor scooter exactly like the ones he had wanted for various Christmases when he was a kid. His family couldn't afford them at the time, but now he can.

A walk through the battlefield at Antietam led to No Certain Rest, a tale of finding the remains -- today -- of a Union officer whose death in 1864 appeared suspicious. A lecture at a Thai resort triggered the creation of my Methodist bishop in The Special Prisoner. He had been a B-29 pilot in World War II, was shot down, taken prisoner, brutalized by the Japanese and now, through a chance meeting, forced to live through it all again.

My 17 novels have been launched by a variety of fleeting thoughts and images such as these.

Passing recollections of my own 1950s experience as a Trailways bus depot ticket agent in Texas gave birth to White Widow, the story of a bus driver who has a love affair with a passenger in his mind only (but with major consequences in his real life). My service in the Marines formed the basis for The Phony Marine, a novel about a Washington clothes salesman who poses as a Marine and wins a Silver Star for heroism in Vietnam.

Six of the books -- the seventh is due next spring -- are about the adventures of a good-guy, one-eyed lieutenant governor of Oklahoma. Two others feature a band of retired CIA officers who occasionally come down from their comforts in the West Virginia Panhandle to help out old Washington friends. Another is set in the Kansas City Union Station (I love old train stations) and a state mental hospital in the '20s and '30s. There's also one about a panel of journalists who throw a presidential debate for what they believe is the good of the country. And another . . .

There will always be another.

That's because I follow my own advice to wannabe writers. Keep bottom on chair. Very few days pass without my fingers being placed around a pencil or on a computer keyboard, stringing some words together. I work on my books early in the morning, on weekends, on planes and trains -- almost anywhere I have access to a computer, a notebook and a few free minutes.

Yes, I have a day job with demands. Yes, I have a family and a busy personal life. But my stories are critical to who I am and what I do. A life without writing is simply not an option.

I am blessed with having worked in daily journalism for more than 40 years, an experience that has forced me to arrange words in some kind of semi-coherent way and made writing a completely natural act. I have often said -- only half joking -- that I could write at 5 in the morning, hung over, underwater, hanging by my thumbs.

In sum, I am a most happy writer. There are ups and downs, of course, but never those black periods of anguish and despair that often go with the fiction territory. I thoroughly enjoy every step, small and giant, from a first idea to and through publication -- even the exhausting book tours!

Not every one of my lightning flashes results in a published novel. Some sit for months, even years, as notes or rough drafts before being revived or picked at for later use in some character or description of place or much needed turn of plot.

But I am delighted to report that the Wichita Christmas memory has resulted in Oh, Johnny, a novel now in the final editing phases.

I don't know when the next flash will come or how it will turn out but I have no doubt there will be one -- and another and another. And I will always happily follow the light. *

© 2007 The Washington Post Company