Author Writes for 2 Age Levels With Ease
In Theodore Taylor’s latest novel, “The Hostage,” the narrator is a 14-year-old boy who works on his father’s fishing boat near Vancouver, B.C. It is an adventure story that questions whether it is morally right to capture a live killer whale for a marine park.
Taylor’s next book, “To Kill a Jumbi,” which he mailed to his publisher this week, is a suspense novel set in Las Vegas, Chicago, Atlantic City and St. Thomas. It is about a nude dancer in a Las Vegas show who, during an attempted rape, disfigures the face of a Mafia hit man who then seeks revenge.
Since he turned to writing books full-time 18 years ago, Ted Taylor has built a successful writing career, alternating between books for adults--both fiction and nonfiction--and books for young adults.
For Taylor, switching back and forth adds “zest” to the writing experience.
“The change of pace is a challenge, and it’s also fun to do it that way,” he said. “I’d hate to be tied down writing only books for young people, so I mix it up.”
Taylor, a 67-year-old Navy veteran of both World War II and the Korean War, has no problem making the change-overs.
“Basically, the attack on the story is the same,” he said. “I try very hard to get an action hook to open it . . . and then you’re talking about exposition and developing the characters for the first third of it; the other two-thirds I call my action chapters. But the attack on both is the same, except in the young adult fiction I’m not involved in heavy breathing and certainly not as much blood, if you’re talking about the suspense stuff. It’s a gear-shifting. I rather like it, and I don’t find it difficult to do.”
Taylor, who has written 40 fiction and nonfiction books, has lived in Laguna Beach for 27 years.
Home is a two-story, white board-and-batten house hidden in a lush grove of sycamore, oak, elm and eucalyptus trees. Taylor lives there with his wife, Flora--a former children’s librarian--and their newest addition to the family: an 8-month-old golden Labrador named Hyra, a “blind dog school reject.” Taylor recently picked up the animal from a guide dog school in Northern California where he did research for his 1981 young adult novel, “The Trouble With Tuck” (Doubleday).
The Edenic setting of the Taylor house two blocks from busy Coast Highway makes for an ideal writer’s hideaway.
“It’s total privacy; for a writer, you couldn’t ask for a better place,” acknowledged Taylor, seated on a brown leather couch in his office with Hyra at his feet.
The airy room, sandwiched between two brick patios, is cluttered with books and memorabilia. The walls are plastered with framed book covers, a movie poster for a 1973 Dean Martin-Rock Hudson western, “Showdown” (Taylor wrote the screenplay), and photographs taken during Taylor’s 15 years as a Hollywood press agent, story editor, production assistant and associate producer.
A tall man with a deeply etched face and a white mustache that gives him a grandfatherly demeanor, Taylor reminisced about his writing career that began at age 13 when he was paid 50 cents a week to write a high school sports column for the Evening Star in Portsmouth, Va.
Taylor’s newspaper career as a general assignment reporter was interrupted for service in the Merchant Marine and the Navy during World War II. Called back into service during the Korean War, Taylor used his spare time to write his first book, “The Magnificent Mitscher"--a 1954 biography of World War II carrier group commander Adm. Pete Mitscher.
Taylor ended his Navy duty in the Caribbean where he met director George Seaton, who was filming a William Holden movie. In 1955, Taylor moved to Hollywood to work as press agent for Seaton’s production company.
Taylor, his first wife and their three children moved to Laguna Beach in 1961, and for the next decade he commuted to Hollywood, where he worked on such pictures as “The Sand Pebbles,” “The Detective” and “Tora, Tora, Tora.” By 1970, however, he was tired of both the commute and the movie business. “It was fun--and I had fun--but the glitz wore off after a while,” explained Taylor, who quit to write books full-time.
It was through his work on motion pictures that Taylor began writing books for young adults in 1966.
When he would get home from the studio about 8:30 p.m., his two oldest children would still be awake and they would pump him with questions about what he had done during the day. He recalled: “I thought, Jesus, if my own two kids are this interested in how motion pictures are made, I thought other kids would be, too.”
The result, which he says he cranked out in his spare time, is “People Who Make Movies” (Doubleday), a behind-the-scenes look at how films are made. After the book began circulating in school libraries around the country, mail from young readers began pouring in.
“I couldn’t believe it,” he said. “You write an adult book and you get a few, but I got about 3,000 letters from that book: Here’s an audience of people I had never even thought about writing for. Most of the letters were from girls wanting to know how to get to Hollywood, or how to find an agent, but the important thing was it was being read.”
His first young adult novel, “The Cay,” was published by Doubleday in 1969 and won several national awards. Later made into a movie starring James Earl Jones, the book is about a blind, caste-conscious boy who is stranded on a Caribbean key with an old West Indian black man after their passenger ship is torpedoed in 1942.
The initial idea for “The Cay” came from a Coast Guard document Taylor had read years earlier while doing research: a one-paragraph account of the sinking of a Dutch ship and an 11-year-old boy who drifted into the night on a life raft and was never seen again.
Many of Taylor’s novel ideas come from the pages of newspapers.
His 1987 thriller, “The Stalker,” (Donald I. Fine), which is partially set in Orange County, grew out of two newspaper stories: a story about diplomatic immunity and the murder of a woman student in the parking lot of Saddleback College.
Taylor, who credits his early years as a newspaper reporter as being invaluable preparation for researching and writing books, speaks frequently about writing to students in high schools and colleges.
“I think the key is research,” he said. “I keep insisting when I go out and talk to kids about the possibility of a writing career that you have to research, research, research; write, write, write; and re-write, re-write, re-write. They think once you write it-- bang-- you did it. But after six times the story is better than the first time.”
When he’s not deep-sea fishing on a friend’s boat, Taylor’s day begins at 6:30 when he and Flora take Hyra for a walk on the beach. (Taylor met Flora during a walk on the beach after his divorce in the late ‘70s.)
By 8:30, they’re back at the house and Taylor heads for his well-worn Olympia manual typewriter. (“I have no intention of getting a computer, either.”) Although he doesn’t have a set quota of hours for writing, he usually doesn’t knock off until 4:30. It generally takes him five months to write a young adult novel and six months for his adult fiction.
Taylor, who writes as many nonfiction books as he does fiction, said the writing project he has had the most fun working on in recent years is “The Cats of Shambala” (McGraw-Hill), a 1985 nonfiction book he wrote with actress Tippi Hedren, who lives on a 180-acre big cat preserve.
Taylor still marvels at the thought that he has actually stepped into a compound full of big cats while researching the book.
“It was a real kick,” he said. “Being a writer takes you into all kinds of things--and things you never expected to get into.”
As Hyra stretched and then padded out of the room, Taylor mused about the writing life:
‘I haven’t made these astronomical sums like (novelist) Tom Clancy, but I’ve enjoyed a very steady income and very good living, and I’ve done a lot of interesting things simply because I do write. And this is what I tell these kids in the schools.”
Books & Authors runs every other Saturday in Orange County Life.