For a period of time, my oldest son raced dirt bikes. As a result I spent a lot of time at race tracks an hour north of Manhattan, which isn’t upstate, but is so different it might as well be. At that time I was working on a novel, COURTING DISASTER, which didn’t sell, but from which I took the character, Chuck Jones, who went into THE FICTION CLASS. I felt Chuck would have an evangelical background and so while my son and his friends lumbered about with chains and tires and so forth, I sat in a chair and read Billy Graham’s autobiography, which was very long, but interesting. I can safely say I was the only person at the track reading, (except for a man who was always reading books on conspiracy theories), but people were friendly and, to a person, when they came up to me, seeing the length of the book, they would say, WAR AND PEACE? That always struck me funny. As though there was only one long book in this world.
A lot of Will’s racing took place right after 9/11. You could watch soldiers parachuting off into the fields while the dirt bike races were going on. This was Republican country. The boys who raced, and they were all boys, were the sorts of kids who would join the army. Many of them did. They all loved guns and hunting, but although my liberal sensibilities were ruffled, I always felt in good hands when I was with them. I suspected they would do a better job of defending the country than I would. They were so physically strong it astounded me. (My son used to take great pleasure in handing me the dirt bike and then walking away, laughing uproariously as I struggled to keep it upright.) These guys were also idealistic and poetic. The track smelled strongly of motor oil and one of the guys looked at me once and said, “It smells better than candy.” When they said the Pledge of Allegiance before the races began, you felt every single word.
I was thinking what a blessing it was to be forced out of my comfort zone. My natural habitat consists of libraries, book stores, Starbucks, Central Park, the Metropolitan Museum. I love those places. But for a period of time, it was a race track, and I think I’m a better writer for it. How about you? Have you ever wound up anywhere unexpected?