Different authors write for different reasons—for all sorts of different reasons. I write to preserve my memories and to pass them on—to whomever might want to remember them with me. Which means that everything I write is autobiographical—not in the form of memoirs, but autobiographical, nonetheless.
Some people don’t want to tell their memories to anyone—their memories are “sacred.” I remember one such person—an elderly lady from East Prussia, which no longer exists.
What used to be East Prussia now is divided between Poland, Lithuania and Russia. In 1939, before the German invasion of Poland opened World War II in Europe, the population of East Prussia was 2,500,000—with 85% being ethnic Germans. The territory was part of Hitler’s Third Reich. When Germany lost the war in 1945, the entire ethnic German population was expelled by the victorious Red Army. Among those expelled was this elderly lady, who ended up in California in the early 1950s.
After we became friends, I asked her to tell me her story—what happened to her during the War and then in its aftermath. All she would say—with tears in her eyes—was that her husband had been a soldier in the German Wehrmacht (Regular Army) and he died in the War, and that she had not remarried. She wouldn’t say anything more about her family—whether or not she had children or relatives who had survived.
“My memories are sacred,” she told me. “I will not tell them to anyone. They will die with me.”
I’m different. I don’t want my memories to die with me. When someone I have known dies, part of my sorrow is that most of their memories have died with them. Most people don’t leave behind, when they leave this world, long diaries or extended memoirs or annotated albums of photographs or audio-videos or carefully-crafted CDs of their lives. And after a few years, even what memories they have left behind are stored in a box and stuck in a closet somewhere, and forgotten. Their memories died with them, in effect. I don’t want that to happen in my case.
So I write novels—historical novels, which are really my own history; romantic fantasies, which are the romances I lived or wish I had lived; tragedies, which entail the sad things that have happened to me or to my loved ones during my life.
More than anyone else, my mother, who lived to be 103, liked to read my novels, because she knew where everything was coming from: who, what and where I found inspiration for the tales I was telling. Also, my two brothers, my sister, and some of my cousins who grew up with me in the Texas Panhandle—they know, they too recognize my inspirations.
I put a disclaimer at the beginning of each novel: “Names, characters, places, and incidents are either a product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously.” Which is true. But the starting point for each character’s story and the incidents in that character’s life are someone I have met or something I have witnessed.
Why do I say, “I don’t want my memories to die with me”? Because maybe—just maybe—I have learned something during my seven-and-a-half decades of living. Maybe—who knows— maybe I have some little bit of wisdom to pass on. Maybe—it’s possible—I have an insight worth giving to others. Presumptuous of me, I realize that. But I like to listen to people who have lived a long time tell me their life story. I learn from it. I think every person’s life story is unique and worth preserving.
“Dad, you can’t make this shit up!” as my daughter used to say, after telling me her latest adventure or some crazy thing she had just witnessed.