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The author on Christmas, 1978.


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Oberpfalzer Kunstlerhaus German retreat

Grandpa Huck and Wookies

When I was in the first grade, Grandpa Huck asked me to tell him stories.  Saturday afternoons he set a tape recorder on the coffee table, handed me the microphone, and sat back and waited for the magic to begin.

It didn't take long for me to get going.  Drawing on Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee, Mark Hamill and Harrison Ford, I passed on ancient tales about Transylvanian castles and bloodthirsty werewolves and Jedi Knights who once cut the galactic skies in their X-Wing fighters. 

Grandpa Huck and the author, Ashtabula, Ohio, 1978.

The old man was a good listener.  He shook his head and widened his eyes, let out a ghastly no! or triumphant yes! as each story took its unforeseen, dramatic turn.  I had all the mechanics down, and when it came time for the resolution, I stopped, sipped my root beer, and smiled devilishly.  This just about killed him.  Tearing at his silver locks from the pain of suspense, he finally shot out of his chair and demanded to know what happened next.  Nothing I did for the rest of the week gave me as much pleasure as these critical moments. 

I was a master storyteller at the height of his craft, capable of taking even the oldest of ears to places they’d never been. 

Thirteen years ago, when I was plagued with doubt about quitting my job and going to graduate school for Creative Writing, I dug out these old tapes upon the advice of career counselor Barbara Sher.  In her book I Could Do Anything If I Only Knew What It Was, she writes that, "Childhood offers the first important clue to your life design, to the discovery of what you'll be happiest doing and what you'll be best at." 

Ms. Sher couldn’t have been more right.  As the editor of four national legal journals for what is now a division of Reuters News Agency, I had it all: salary and benefits, office with a window, flextime... you name it.  Yet I was miserable.  I was a writer, technically, but was I really writing?  It wasn't until I popped in those tapes that I began to understand what I needed to do.  Hearing that eight-year old boy talk his way through London fogs and Tatooine deserts, remembering the old man pacing the floor and wiping his brow, I suddenly knew that writing, real writing, was a way to experience that same joy I once felt from keeping gramps on the edge of his seat.  I wanted to tell stories again.  I grew up writing.  Earned my undergraduate degree in it.  And after two years, I would be sidetracked no more.   

Jamming in Dad’s basement, Ashtabula, Ohio

So I went to Temple University, listened to every piece of advice Joan Mellen offered, and picked up my M.F.A. in Creative Writing.  Then kept at it.  For years.  “Love of work,” as Raymond Carver wrote.  “The blood singing in that.”  Along the way I learned the importance of hard work and revision.  And started seeing the value in my life experiences.  Mine were not Hemingway’s, killing lions in the African grasslands.  Nor have they been, at least so far, Melville’s (I still feel guilty hooking a worm).  It was Star Wars.  And the Ashtabula harbor.  And wishing I were Superman so I could save the pony-tailed girl in my Algebra class, the one who never knew my name, from a sudden, and inexplicable, tidal wave.  These common, middle-class, middle-American materials, when cooked in the same stew, create a mythology of a specific time and place, and one in which an eight-year-old boy can believe KISS is calling to him, personally, through a 45 record (as he does in “Contact”).

For years, I have revisited this world again and again, dozens of poems and stories rooted in backyard baseball and Lake Erie; John Rambo and the Karate Kid; my sister’s ‘78 Nova; the Busy Beaver where my father allegedly ran into Chewbacca the Wookie (he was buying drywall).  And of course, Grandpa Huck, popping up where you’d least expect him, forking in butterscotch pie at the diner the day John Steinbeck passed through our town in his infamous camper, or in my poem, “Matinee,” riding with the Apple Dumpling Gang.     

My first book of poetry, Mud Cakes (winner of the 2010 Melissa Lanitis Gregory Award), collects 48 of these adolescent-inspired poems, some new, others  previously appearing in The North American Review, Antioch Review, Rattle and Reed Magazine, among other places.  Published together for the first time by Bona Fide Books, they form a narrative, of sorts, of not only my own adolescence, but hopefully yours as well.  If nothing else, it’s a work for those of you who appreciate that George Lucas had it right the first time: Greedo, in no way, should shoot first in that cantina scene.  As I told poetry editor Darren Jackson in my upcoming interview with Grist: The Journal for Writers, I know for a fact that I wasn’t the only kid on the block who heard Budweiser’s “bring out your best” jingle echoing in my ears every time I ran with the football.  Nor do I believe I was the only teenage boy in America who tiptoed downstairs after midnight to catch a pair of boobs on Cinemax.  Mud Cakes is all of our stories, really, set to the soundtrack of Bon Jovi and “Where’s the Beef?”

It’s my hope that many of you find something of your own life mirrored in Mud Cakes.  Or, at the very least, see why I’m still, after all these years, talking about werewolves and Jedi Knights.

It’s what I know.  And love.

For more about Mud Cakes, please read here

Jason Schossler