The Joy of Family and Writing

Just like Bud and the Watson kids, I was born in Flint, Michigan. I grew up in a family of five children — two boys and three girls. We all excelled in school and were very involved in youth theater; I didn't know at the time, though, that I would become a writer. I was always a very good reader and a good writer, but when I was in school there was a different emphasis placed on writing. It wasn't creative writing.

After high school I went to the University of Michigan-Flint for one year and then got a summer job on the assembly line at General Motor's Fisher Body plant. The money was very good, so I didn't go back to school right away. I ended up working there for 13 years, hanging doors on big Buicks. The job got pretty boring, but my factory partner and I came up with a plan: instead of taking turns, so each of us would hang every other door, we each would hang every door for half an hour while the other took a half-hour break. I used my time to write in my journal. Writing took my mind off the assembly line. I hated being in the factory. When I was writing, I forgot I was there.

Finally, my wife Kaysandra (whom I had met at a sports event in Hamilton, Ontario) took a leap of faith. She suggested that we save and budget and make it possible for me to leave the factory and devote myself entirely to writing. That's when I started really working on The Watsons Go to Birmingham — 1963.

I got the idea for the book from a trip I took with my own family several years before. Kay's sister had moved to Florida, and we decided to drive there. Just like in The Watsons, she had a plan, every step of the way, and I thought, "No, no, I want to see if I can drive twenty-four hours in a row." To keep myself awake, I started thinking about this family (who later became the Weird Watsons of Flint.) The Watsons Go to Florida was my first version. Once they got there, though, the story just kind of died. Then my son brought home the poem "The Ballad of Birmingham" by Dudley Randall, about the church bombing. That's when I knew I wanted the Watsons to go to Birmingham instead. I finished my manuscript and entered it in a contest for new young adult authors. I didn't win, but an editor saw something special in the Watsons, and my book was subsequently published nonetheless!

When I started Bud, Not Buddy, I wasn't sure what it was going to be about. For a political science class I had begun doing research about the sit-down strikes in the 1930's at Fisher Body. In the meantime, I went to a family reunion and started hearing about my grandfather, Herman E. Curtis, and his band called the Dusky Devastators of the Depression. These were the first seeds of the book. Originally, my grandfather was the 10-year-old orphan in the story. But then Bud kind of emerged as the narrator, and the story took off from there.

As you can tell from my books, family is very important to me. The Watsons is based a lot on my own family when I was growing up. Kenny is kind of a combination of myself and my brother David, and Joey is a lot like my sister Cydney. (As a matter of fact, that little girl in the photo on the cover of the book is her; and the couple is my parents!) Lefty Lewis and Herman E. Calloway, although fictionalized, are based on my grandfathers. (The real Herman E. Curtis actually had a great sense of humor.) And I have my own children. My son Steven, now grown-up, was my first reader and typist for The Watsons, and my daughter Cydney wrote the song "Mommy Says No," that Kim sings at breakfast in Bud, Not Buddy.

I have a riot when I write. I laugh. If I knew it was this much fun, I would have started when I was 4. I love it.