The first thing I ever wrote that I was truly proud of was a letter to my father. I wrote it to him on Father’s Day. I can’t remember how old I was, maybe 17? It’s all so nebulous, that period of my life. What I remember is how moved I was writing my thanks to him and how he responded to that letter. He came to me, tears in his eyes, letter in his hand, and gave me a big hug and thanked me.
I remember him looking at me a little incredulously that day, like he couldn’t believe what I’d written. Not the content, which I think he already knew, but the way I expressed it. Hell, it surprised even me. He let my stepmom read the letter, and she came to me with tears in her eyes. I already knew that words were powerful conduits through which we can convey meaning and emotion — I just never knew I had that ability.
I give my mom most of the credit for my love of literature, but my dad was always encouraging me and appreciating my stories. I shared an account of a near-death experience on my sailboat with him, and he raved for weeks and months and years about how much he loved my telling of that adventure. He has encouraged me from the beginning. I look up to my father — have always thought of him as a real-life superhero — and so writing became a way to make him proud.
My dad was my best friend for most of my childhood. I knew this early on and celebrated it and bragged about it. How many other kids considered their father their best friend? I didn’t know many. But I would get up at the crack of dawn during the summer months to go farming with him. I would sit on his lap and steer his pickup truck. I would dip into his tobacco when he wasn’t looking. I would lean out the truck window and throw up soon after. I slept on the floor of the bathroom while he showered, back when I was five or six years old. I remember it like it was yesterday. He would hold his jeans by the waist, jump up in the air, and shove both feet through at the same time, all before he hit the ground. My dad could fly.
I fell in love with my wife Amber while talking about my dad. We were at dinner. Amber and I had just met that morning, had spent the day together out on a boat I was captaining at the time. The couple that owned the boat were sitting with us on the patio of this restaurant, and Amber was doing her psychologist trick of asking pointed questions and forcing us to answer them in turn. She asked who our hero was, and when it was my turn to respond, I started talking about my father. I got choked up. Amber reached under the table and squeezed my hand. She told me about her father. We fell in love.
It’s weird to be so close to my dad, to consider him my best friend even today, and realize that most of my books are about losing a father. My parents got divorced when I was eight or nine years old. My dad moved into a house down the street, and so began a life lived between two homes. A life of every-other-weekends. Often it was every weekend. We spent a lot of time together. It wasn’t like he was off on another planet, but you would never know that looking over my body of work.
The first book I ever wrote was about a girl named Molly who lost her dad. She spends four entire novels trying to find him, to be reunited with him. Juliette’s strained and distant relationship with her father is a central theme in Wool. The final scene of that book was written fairly early in the process — I think while writing part 2 of Wool. All of that plot and adventure culminates in what she decides to do on the final page. And then there’s Sand, where a father’s disappearance tears a family apart, where his absence looms larger than the night sky.
I don’t think any of this is an accident. I love my dad. I missed him. I think I spend a lot of time writing about how much I missed him. We didn’t have to be dysfunctional for that to motivate my art. We just were who we were.
One of my fondest childhood memories I have of my dad was during this freak snowstorm in Monroe, North Carolina. My dad knew people wouldn’t drive carefully enough with the roads covered in snow. So he threw a chain into the back of his pickup, grabbed two pairs of work gloves, bundled me up, and off we went, driving aimlessly around town. Sure enough, we came across cars in ditches, the owners stranded. This was before cell phones. Way before. Dad would pull up and tell these people that he’d have them out “in a jiffy.”
He’d let me out, and the two of us would spin the locks on the front tires to put the truck in four-wheel-drive. I was so proud that I knew how to do this. I was probably ten or twelve years old. I’d tug on those too-big gloves and wave him back as he put the truck in reverse and eased down into the ditch to line up with the front of the stricken car. He’d hand me the chain, and I’d dive down under the bumper, looking for something solid to wrap it around. I felt like a real man under there, with the grease and the mud, studying the hidden bits of machinery that make cars move. Dad would inch forward until the chain was tight; the truck would lurch and growl; but we always got the vehicles back on the road. My dad could do anything.
But it was what he did next that taught me my biggest lesson — it’s the thing that makes me strive to be like him every single day. The owners of these cars would fish a few bills out of their wallets, sometimes every bit of what they had in there, and try to pay my dad. And he always refused. Waved them off. Threw that chain back in the bed of the truck with a clack and rattle, knocked the snow off my jacket, told me to get back in and to mind the mud on my boots, and then we were off again, looking for someone else in trouble, not a care of our own between us.
I don’t thank my father enough for inspiring me to be a better person. I write about him in all of my books. Always missing. Always distant. But that wasn’t how he lived. He was always there and still is. I guess even with all that time together, it was never enough. And that’s what I write about.