I am a creature of habit. Writing, for most of my life, has meant making marks on paper with ink. Pretty retro, I know, but for about 100 days a year I have no choice: as a fire lookout in a New Mexico wilderness area, I spend most of late spring and summer in a tower without electricity. There, I rely on either ball-point pens and spiral-bound notebooks or my Olivetti Lettera 22
, the classic portable typewriter of foreign correspondents in the 1960s and '70s. It's a beautiful machine, both elegant and rugged; I've packed it up my hill for nine seasons running, some years by mule. I like the hammering sound it makes, as if writing were not that different than building a piece of furniture, and maybe just as useful.
When I began writing Fire Season, I assumed I'd compose the first draft entirely on the typewriter. This seemed in keeping with the spirit of the book, which celebrates an anachronistic job and way of life. An artist friend of mine had even given me a giant roll of paper, and I thought I might just type on it in one continuous scroll, like Kerouac did in writing On the Road — except I'd skip the part where he popped a bunch of speed.
I did write the first 25 pages on the typewriter, but the scroll was extremely cumbersome. I was moving paragraphs by cutting them with scissors and fastening them to new sheets of paper with masking tape. I was thinking too much about the logistics of getting words on paper and not enough about the words themselves. Then, for a few months I ceased writing altogether while my father-in-law battled with cancer.
My wife and I traveled east to be with him. Alex was often trapped in bed, and sometimes I'd sit with him and talk about baseball, his youth in Canada, and what exactly I was trying to do with my book. He knew I wasn't writing at all, but I sensed his subtle effort to keep the book alive in my head. He was thoughtful that way without drawing attention to his thoughtfulness.
While we nursed him on his way to death, my birthday arrived, and my wife made my favorite childhood dinner of turkey tetrazzini and German chocolate cake. Three generations of us sat around the dinner table, one last joyful gathering, Alex in his wheelchair, and when the meal was over, he nodded to one of his sons to bring me my gift. It was the machine on which I now write this: a MacBook Pro, the first laptop I'd ever owned. "You're writing a book," Alex said. "It'll be easier if you join us in the 21st century."
The very next morning he died in his sleep.
It took me a month and a half to resume writing, but once I did, it was a breeze. I abandoned the typewriter and stuck with the Mac, writing 60,000 words in six months, many of them while lying in bed. (Try that with a typewriter.) All the raw material was at hand in my lookout diaries and copies of my typewritten letters to friends; I just had to sit surrounded by them long enough to get the stories onto the page, then sharpen them, polish them — a much easier task on a screen. I wish Alex were here to tell me what he thought of the result. I wish he were here for a thousand reasons more important than my book. He'd probably laugh to look at me now, blogging. I can almost hear him. "There's no honor in being a techno laggard," he'd say. "It's the work that matters, not how it gets done."