Saturday, December 1, 2012

Hampton Fancher and "The Plaza of Death"

In the 47th in a series of posts on 2012 short story collections entered for The Story Prize, Hampton Fancher, author of The Shape of the Final Dog (Blue Rider Press), reveals how snatching a copy of Death in the Afternoon from a library launched his writing career.

Terms like “dyslexia,” “learning disability,” and “attention deficit disorder” were not in use when I was an adolescent; what I heard was lazy, uncooperative, and incorrigible. I’d flunked the 3rd grade twice, had gone to six different schools, and was in the 7th grade for the second time when the older sister of a friend of mine told me I was an asshole but said it might help if I read a book.

She gave me a novel called The Conscientious Objector. I had no idea what “conscientious” meant and couldn’t pronounce it. It was about a young American soldier over in Korea who didn’t want to fight. At one point he got a pass to go to into town and somebody told him to make sure “to get laid.” He got laid. I’d never heard “laid” used in that way and it moved me. Until then I had no idea books could be sexy.

I wanted to read another one, with more sex maybe, but it took a while and it happened by chance, walking by a library. I’d had no experience with a library, wasn’t sure how it worked, the checking out of a book, so I stole one, shoved it through the bars of the men’s room window.

It was called Death in the Afternoon by Ernest Hemingway and it changed my life. Two years later, in 1954, I ran away, caught a Greyhound from L.A. to Phoenix then hitch-hiked to New Orleans and a month later to Galveston where I caught a freighter to Barcelona and wound up in Madrid.

Bull fodder
I tried to write a story about three bullfighters who die the same day of three different kinds of death. The best thing about it was the title. I worked on this story on and off until I was eighteen. I also illustrated it. Sent it to Hugh Hefner and got a rejection slip, but with a handwritten note. It said they had recently published a bullfight story and they had no interest in “The Plaza of Death,” but that they liked the illustrations and encouraged me to continue drawing.

Writing started with reading. The joy of my solitude was to read and in the romance of that, try and write what I read. I became a poor, but earnest student of William Burroughs and Joseph Conrad, Dostoyevsky, Walker Percy, Nathanael West. I’m still doing it. It’s never stopped.