“Would you like to go get a hamburger?” Without a doubt these were the most important words I’d ever heard. “Sure,” I said, and thus began the partnership that has defined and consumed nearly fifty years of my life. At this time, in the early 1970s I was a freelance writer, living in the heart of Chicago, just a short walk from Fuller & Dees Publishing, where Daniel Quinn was the executive editor. (See Providence.)
It was no great surprise that I ended up in the writing business. I’d been born into it, starting life on the North Shore of Lake Superior in what is now Thunder Bay, Ontario, in 1938, the granddaughter of the city’s newspaper publisher and daughter of its star writer/photographer. In 1947 we left Canada for the United States, and a few years later ended up in my mother’s small hometown, the landlocked farming community of Pollock, South Dakota. In 1955, the year I went off to college, the new Oahe Dam reconfigured the Missouri river, flooding the remains of the old town, which had been moved in its entirety to higher ground, and in this new Pollock my father started a weekly newspaper. All through my four years of college my summer vacations were spent in the newspaper office.
However, after graduation I had no inclination toward journalism. Rather, I took my literature degree and teaching credential across the country from Illinois to southern California, where for two years I presided over a classroom, doing my best to teach seventh- and eighth-grade kids the basics of science, math, social studies, and , oh, yes, English, which was the only subject I could approach without having to spend every evening poring over the teacher’s guide to help me get through the next day’s lesson. I could not have imagined when I left California, eager to get as far away from the classroom as possible, that a few years later I would be in Chicago writing and editing teacher’s guides for a major educational publisher, creating the lesson plans other teachers might devour as I had. A few years and another publishing company later, I decided that life in a cubicle was not for me. I became a freelance writer.
Well, I became a freelance writer with one foot always in the temp secretary service door. But I had friends in the writing/acting/sound production/advertising business and soon discovered a whole new writing world. Print was okay. But what was more exciting, and what I turned out to be good at, was audiovisual. Filmstrips, radio drama, audio cassette programs. I was hooked on sound. It was this skill that got me in the door at Fuller & Dees, a print publisher suddenly involved in a project that required an audio cassette writer, and I became a regular on the list of Fuller & Dees freelancers. Though the cassette program fizzled out, I worked on other projects, which put me on the annual Christmas party invite list, which ultimately led to that hamburger invitation by Daniel, and about four years later, to our wedding March 6, 1976.
By this time Daniel had left his last publishing job and, with a colleague, we had started our own company to write and produce educational materials. It was an exciting and precarious time that ultimately faded away as we realized that creating educational materials was something we did very well. Marketing them was another story. The end of this foray into business left Daniel free to begin writing his way into the book that, 13 years or so later, became Ishmael. During these last years of the 1970s, I bowed out of the remnants of my freelance career and, thanks to my actor friends, landed at the Goodman School of Drama as the assistant to the Dean. If I had to have a day job that would support us while Dan worked on version after version of his book, this was more than ideal. My first task on my first day was to phone Karl Malden, that year’s graduation speaker, to let him know who would pick him up when he landed at O’Hare. I was almost struck dumb when the famed actor answered the phone himself!
Fast forward to 1979. After the death of his father Dan had a small inheritance, and we said, “It’s time to get out of Chicago! Away from all this ice and snow!” Where to? Texas was out–who’d want to live in Texas? His ex-wife lived in Arizona. No way would we go there. Which left New Mexico–The Land of Enchantment. Dan flew out on an exploratory mission, bought a used car, poked around a bit, rented us a house in Santa Fe, drove back to Chicago, and within a few weeks we were packed up and headed west, arriving in Santa Fe just in time for an unexpected autumn snowfall! We were in the desert all right, but, we’d neglected to take into account the 7,000-foot elevation of our new home. We also had not reckoned on the Santa Fe real estate prices. What had seemed like a huge windfall to us, now was looking pretty meager. Nevertheless, we kept looking and the summer found us in Madrid (pronounced MAD-rid), a tiny former ghost town midway between Santa Fe and Albuquerque, the owners of a remodeled mining shack turned general store and “living quarters.” Luckily for us, our new next door neighbor was a master carpenter who raised the roof, added a wall of south-facing sun-drenched windows, and turned a cubby-hole of an attic lined with rabbit skins into a multi-level carpeted loft retreat worthy of a Chicago penthouse. Oh, yes, and we added a modern convenience that was in short supply at that time in Madrid–an indoor bathroom!
While I took care of the store downstairs, selling t-shirts, postcards, ice cream, and miscellaneous collectibles to the tourists and nails, crowbars, and other necessities to the locals Dan settled into his writing space upstairs, and continued to work on “the book.” I was thrilled to be fulfilling a childhood dream, garnered from the pages of one of my favorite series of books for young girls. I owned and operated a “charming little store.” The dream and the reality, however, didn’t quite match up, and a couple of years later I was equally thrilled when a fellow merchant, who owned the town grocery store and wanted to expand, bought our inventory and ultimately precipitated me back into my real world. He was an ex-ad man from New York City and wanted a place to advertise his business, to reach beyond the confines of our small eclectic eccentric community. “We need a newspaper,” he said. “I’ll get the advertising and you guys do the rest.”
So we did. The first issue of the North Fourteen News (so named because Highway 14, the scenic route between Santa Fe and Albuquerque was Madrid’s main–and only – thoroughfare) appeared on April 27, 1983. Dan created the masthead and all the ads and did the layout and I typed all our stories on my trusty Smith-Corona portable. We had a couple of bad photos and some clip art from a batch of antique magazines. It was printed at Kinko’s in Santa Fe on three sheets of 11″x17″ paper, so that, folded in half we had a 12-page paper on sale for a dime! We were off to a great start. Even better, when we dropped some papers off at Pete’s Restaurant, our go-to spot for enchiladas and burritos, about 20 miles south in Cedar Crest, we learned that the merchants there had been talking about the need for a local newspaper. One of them owned an aged desktop typesetting machine that was a step above my typewriter. So our staff and our territory expanded overnight, and our next issue was tabloid-sized, printed in Albuquerque on real newsprint. Over time people came and went. My brother, who had taken over the family paper in South Dakota and bought a couple of papers in neighboring towns, loaded his van with some of that extra equipment, brought it to New Mexico and helped us set up a real publishing operation, complete with a computer that fed data into a giant machine and spit it out as photographic type. As our territory expanded, the paper got renamed to The East Mountain News, and Dan and I were joined by veteran newsman/photographer Hap Veerkamp and novice writer C.J. Harper as the core of the newspaper. (See Beyond Civilization.)
The newspaper was a success, but it was an exhausting business for me. We covered a territory the size of Rhode Island, which included parts of three counties with 11 volunteer fire departments. There were homegrown meth labs blowing up, major arson fires, and regular drug busts because we were on the main route between the Florida and California. This was not a typical small town paper, but with any weekly newspaper, there are no vacations! Besides, city folks that we were at heart, we’d begun to yearn for bright lights. Dan had accomplished what we’d come to the desert for–the book, now in its seventh incarnation and called Another Story To Be In, was finally complete in a way that satisfied him. New York publishers didn’t agree. But it was time for a change, so we sold the paper, sold our house, and, advised by a former Austinite, headed for the city, assured that Austin was the place to be in all of Texas.
Turned out she was right. Unbeknownst to us, Austin was home to a major national educational publishing company, which, at the time we arrived was hiring writers to work on a social studies program that required an audio cassette program in order to be approved by the Texas Board of Education. Out of the vast number of writers and editors in Austin who applied for the few jobs available, I was the only one who had any experience in writing audio programs for school kids. That audio specialty honed years before catapulted me into what became a full-time editorial position, which had a side effect that would have to be described as “providential.”
It was the fall of 1990. I had just wrapped up a big project and, with nothing to do, had started to thumb through a stack of magazines that had been making the rounds of the office and collected on my desk. Idly glancing through the classified ads in one of them, my eye was caught by an ad for writers. It announced The Turner Tomorrow Award. I wish I had clipped it or copied it. I don’t remember the exact words, but it promised a prize of half a million dollars for a novel that offered “creative and positive solutions to global problems.” Aha! At lunch time I zipped out of the office and home to wave the magazine at Dan. “This is it,” I said. “It’s your book, it just needs to be a novel.” (Ever since the beginning I had been saying that this book should be a novel, and Dan had always resisted, thinking the ideas wouldn’t be taken seriously in novel form.) I immediately called the number in the ad and signed Dan up to get the contest rules in the mail. Time was crucial because the deadline for entries was the end of December, but Ishmael was completed and in the mail on December 6, 1990. The contest information said winners of the competition–four “awards of merit” of $50,000 each, along with the main award–would be notified on or before May 20, 1991. For almost six months we went about our business, Dan submitting stories to magazines for publication, me working on yet another textbook revision. We didn’t dare speculate on the outcome of the contest–just moved through the months acting as if there was no such thing as the Turner Tomorrow Award,
On Sunday afternoon, May 12, as was our usual custom, we spent a couple of hours at our favorite watering hole. When we got home Dan stayed in the parking lot to replenish the leaking oil in our aging car, and I started up the stairs to our third-floor apartment. Halfway up, I heard the phone ringing and rushed the rest of the way. We had no answering machine, and Dan was expecting a call from a writing client. I picked up the phone just in time. The caller asked for Daniel Quinn and said, “This is Michael Reagan from Turner Publishing.” The name didn’t register with me at all. I thought it was the client Dan was expecting to hear from, and called down to him that he had a phone call from a guy named Michael. When Dan got to the phone, what he heard was “This is Michael Reagan from Turner Publishing. The judges have chosen your book as the winner of the Turner Tomorrow Award and some of them want to meet you. Can you fly to New York tomorrow?” My book the winner?! Fly to New York?! Tomorrow?! Meet the judges?! Absolutely!
Between one moment and the next our lives had been turned upside down. The next day, when Dan arrived at the hotel room where the judges were waiting, he was greeted at the door by one of his favorite writers, Ray Bradbury, who asked, “Will there be a Son of Ishmael?” “I don’t think so,” Dan replied. Little did he know.
After the official announcement of the awards in June, there were rafts of publicity, interviews, travel. But I stayed in my job until the end of August, when I quit to revert to one of my earlier career modes–manager, travel arranger, gatekeeper, and master of whatever else needed tending to, which only increased after Ishmael was published in January of 1992. During the years between 1992 and 1997, Daniel wrote Providence, The Story of B, and My Ishmael in the midst of traveling, speaking, answering letters from readers. I kept everything on track as we published a quarterly newsletter and a guide for teachers (The Ishmael Companion), and in the mid-ninety’s connected with Alan Thornhill, evolutionary biologist and computer master, who moved us into the modern age by setting up the first incarnation of this website. His acceptance to the faculty of Rice University also meant our introduction to Houston, and in 1997, while Dan was on the My Ishmael book tour, I moved us from Austin to the unique brand new loft we’d discovered in the heart of the Montrose District. Just beginning its rejuvenation, this area was at least a second cousin to the neighborhood we’d left behind in Chicago when we started our westward journey 18 years earlier, vowing never to live in Texas!
In the first year of the new century, I realized that I had done and been almost all that I imagined for myself from an early age and more, but something had been lost along the way. It was time to get back to that–the itch in my fingers that long ago had me drawing in the margins of my textbooks and notebooks, and designing and making clothes for dolls and paper dolls. As it turned out, it wasn’t pen and pencils that my fingers found enticing anymore–it was paint. You can find out about that at RMQabstracts.com.
My first paintings were done in 2001 and Dan was my first viewer, just as I was always the first reader of anything he wrote. Most of what I knew about painting I absorbed from watching him at his own painting, and the day he looked at what I’d been laboring over for weeks and said, “Now, that’s a painting!” was the day I knew I could do this for real. For sixteen years I called myself a painter. I had a solo show, sold some paintings, got very involved with the Houston Visual Arts Alliance, was juried into a couple of shows in 2017, and became part of the Sawyer Yards artist community, sharing a studio with another artist. In that year I produced two series of paintings that I think are my best. The first are very bright and cheerful. The second are dark and deeply mysterious. These, I think, may be my last paintings.
Daniel, on whom I counted to give names to most of my paintings, called one of these “The Night of the Dark Moon,” and I gave another the title “The Beginning and the End.” And so it was. Daniel died a couple of months later, and I have not painted since. I’m not sure I will again. I’m not ready to throw away my paints, but they’ll go into hiding. Painting seems to me now like another life, almost a mirage. It’s time to get back to the real thing. There’s a book that only I can write. And now that I’m settled in my new apartment in a senior living complex, just half an hour from the Montrose District in time but a world away in ambience and attitude, that book, which I’m tentatively calling Living with Ishmael, is well on its way.