Monday, August 12, 2013

My First Time: Bill Roorbach

My First Time is a regular feature in which writers talk about virgin experiences in their writing and publishing careers, ranging from their first rejection to the moment of holding their first published book in their hands.  Today’s guest is Bill Roorbach, author of Life Among Giants, which has just been released in paperback by Algonquin Books.  He’s also written several books of nonfiction (including Temple Stream and Writing Life Stories), a collection of short stories (Big Bend), and the novel The Smallest Color.  His next novel, coming in Fall 2014, is Storm of the Century.  His short fiction has appeared in Harper’s, The Atlantic Monthly, Playboy, and lots more places, such as on NPR’s “Selected Shorts.”  He was a cake judge on Food Network, but only once.  Visit him online at and

My First Desk

December 1958, age five, I sat on Santa’s lap at Shopper’s World near Boston and asked for a desk.  “A desk!” Santa boomed.  “Ho-ho-ho-ho-ho!”  This was the real Santa, mind you, and Shopper’s World one of the first shopping malls in the world, and likely he hadn’t had very many requests for desks.

Riding home, my mother deliciously to myself, we saw an open truck full of ice cubes, which would have been delivering from an ice plant.  “That’s why you don’t eat the ice at the grocery store,” Mom said.  “Dirty, dirty.”  Nearer home, which at the time was Needham, Massachusetts, she asked: “Why on earth did you ask Santa for a desk?”

“Well, I want to be a writer.”

My mother corroborated this story often.  Santa, the ice, having her to myself.  And that at five, I knew I wanted to be a writer.

Where could the idea of being a writer possibly have come from?  The idea that there was even such a thing as a writer and not just firemen, cops, and teachers?

Well, Mom read to us (eventually there would be five of us), all the usual kids’ books—Curious George, Danny and the Dinosaur, and Yertle the Turtle all came out in 1958—but passages from whatever she was reading, as well, and whole chapters: Dr. Zhivago, Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Please Don’t Eat the Daisies, Lolita.  Of these I recall Breakfast at Tiffany’s best.  I liked that girl on the fire escape.  She just seemed nice.  And the Japanese neighbor, who my mom made very wise and funny (unlike Mickey Rooney in his awful turn in the movie, who in playing him bucktoothed and slanty-eyed, mocked him)(though Audrey Hepburn rescued the movie, and then some)(But the movie came much later, and I didn’t see it until after college).  And it must have been Mom who made me aware that Truman Capote as writer had created Holly Golightly, thought her up out of his imagination and maybe some experience of someone like her.  And Boris Pasternak, all that winter horror, snow, snow, snow!  That’s what I remember.  And Nabokov—lord knows what Mom made of that book, but she just loved the language and read bits to us like poems.  There was a big dog in Please Don’t Eat the Daisies.  I loved that.  And a big family that seemed so real.  Or maybe, as some new-age types have insisted, I was a writer in another life.  I hope I wasn’t Theodore Dreiser, that’s all I have to say.

Anyway: sure enough, Christmas morning (probably 5:30) when we kids opened the doors we’d sealed the night before and charged into the living room, there was no doubt Santa had visited, in fact proof: huge boot prints in the flour we’d left on the hearth, along with the fact that he’d eaten the cookies we’d left, and drunk the glass of milk, and taken away the carrots for the reindeer.  More importantly, there was my desk.


Just exactly like the one I’d seen in the Sears Roebuck catalogue, only this one made by elves.  Solid oak, a mini-rolltop complete with mini cubbyholes and a matching chair you spun taller or shorter on a huge screw, dizzy fun.

In subsequent days, Dad set the thing up in my room and I put pencils and pads of paper and paperclips and erasers and carbon paper in the cubbies.  Oh, I lived at that desk, my first, my very first of dozens to come, and I wrote and wrote and wrote and wrote.  No idea what—nothing survives—but of course novels and stories and plays.  All with dogs and very nice girls and music in the sentences and very snowy winters.

When we moved to my next and enduring hometown, New Canaan, Connecticut, in 1959, the desk came with.  I remember it in its new spot in my new room better than I remember the room.

Recently, I read at the New Canaan Library.  During the Q and A after, a woman only a little older than I said, “Bill, I am Janet Lindstrom, and I was your second-grade teacher.”

I recognized her, because even 50 years later she looked exactly as old as she had back then.  She told me later she’d only been 21 that first year teaching, not really so much older than the kids.  In front of everyone at the reading, she said, “I remember you very well, Billy Roorbach.  You never wanted to go outside for recess.  You wanted to stay in and write.  You would hardly do anything else!”

When we cleaned out the old family house after my mother died, so that my dad could go live with my brother Doug and his family down in Atlanta, I found the old desk in one of the attics.  The swivel chair had gone missing (and in fact I think I have a memory of its falling apart during a spaceship game), but the desk!  It was perfect.  So very tiny.  I could carry it easily.  I brought it home to Maine and my daughter, Elysia, used it till it was time for a big-girl desk, which in turn is getting too small.

But up in the attic of our barn the little old Sears roll-top desk sits waiting for whatever grandkid might ask for one, because you never know who’s going to be a writer, or how early they’re going to start.

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