By: Ken Wells
I became a journalist at 19, a published novelist at 50. Despite the long span between those two events, they spring from the same inspiration: growing up in a storytelling family on the banks of Bayou Black, La.
My dad, Rex Wells, was an only child and had moved with my grandparents to Cajun Louisiana from backwoods Arkansas near the end of the Great Depression. My grandfather, William Henry Wells, grew up with four siblings on a hardscrabble farm near the tiny town of Des Arc, and by the time my dad had come along, he’d ditched farming for coon hunting, trapping, catfishing and moonshining—anything to distance himself from the direct influences of drought and the boll weevil. They lived far from town along a primeval river bottom in a wood shack with a dirt floor, a wood burning stove, coal-oil lamps and an outhouse in the back. My dad got his first .22-rifle when he was 7 years old and roamed the woods rather freely, often alone. By age 10, he was an expert fisherman and could skin any fur-bearing critter. These skills he acquired from my grandfather Willie, who was also an expert at tending his still, running whisky, taking allnight coon hunts with his prized black-and-tan coonhound, Ole Henry, and violating all manner of game laws to put a little extra food on the table or cash in the piggy bank.
This life spun off a fair number of stories and since my grandparents lived with us on and off over the years, my five brothers and I got a good download of their 19th-Century-like Arkansas every night. And after Grandpa Willie dispatched grace—halfheartedly mumbling so that nobody but God could understand anything but the “amen” part—we would tuck into Granny Wells’ squirrel stew and dumplings or my mother’s Cajun gumbo and listen to the adults swap tales.
Everybody had a story.
My dad ended up marrying into a big, gumbo-cooking Cajun clan named Toups. From my mother, Bonnie, we would get stories of hurricanes, floods and family plantations lost in long ago murky times on the bayous. If Grandma Toups was around, we’d hear hair-raising tales of the Loup Garou, the Cajun version of the werewolf. Dad, a U.S. Marine, spent three insane years of combat in the Pacific. He didn’t talk much about the fighting. But he loved to tell the story of how, before the Japanese ruined his life by bombing Pearl Harbor, he’d gone on a goodwill tour around the world as a spit-and-polished captain’s aide. In Australia, he discovered that almost every eligible Aussie man was already off fighting the Germans. To be a handsome leatherneck parading around with the service’s best uniform in a nation of under-attended women was a thing he never got over. I loved that story as much as my mother hated it.
The prize yarn-spinner of them all, however, was Grandpa Willie. He had a million stories, but the one that stuck out was the tale of the monstrous splay-footed coon that had mystified every serious coon hunter along the Bayou Des Arc bottomlands by outrunning and outwitting packs of dogs, generally avoiding getting treed and always, somehow, slipping away if he did get treed. Fellows would set out traps and find them sprung in the morning, that coon’s signature splay-footed track mucking up the ground all around, as though he were taunting people.
Since coon hunting in those parts was an enterprise taken as seriously as stock trading is today, that coon took on a mythic aura, and Grandpa Willie resolved to dedicate his life to adding the critter to his hide collection. After much raccoon detective work (“I had to think like a coon,” Grandpa Willie was fond of saying), he figured out that coon’s nocturnal feeding habits.
One night, he and Ole Henry, camped out under a giant hackberry tree and waited for that sly ole coon to come to them. He did, and as he warily slipped down from the branches at dawn, satiated on hackberries, Ole Henry waited until that coon was on an exposed part of the tree trunk. Then he went to bawling. The startled coon froze long enough for Grandpa Willie to switch on his carbide headlamp, get a bead on the critter with his .22 and shoot him dead. It was not just a good shot but pretty much a miraculous shot, to use a cliché of modern sports parlance, with the game on the line. Grandpa Willie figured that if he missed a coon that canny, he’d never get another crack at him.
That coon weighed 30 or 40 pounds or, if Grandpa Willie had had enough beer,
50. By the time I graduated from high school, I’d heard the story of the splayfooted coon and Ole Henry so often that I’d throw up my hands in a crucifix formation, as if I were warding off a vampire. Yet the truth is my biggest regret is
that I never taped Grandpa Willie so that I could listen to the story over and over again, and make my daughters, who pretty much grew up in the Yankee suburbs, listen to it, too.
After starting college, I succeeded in flunking out after just two semesters. That, and because I was broke, inspired me to apply for a part-time reporter’s job on my weekly hometown newspaper. It was offering $1.87 an hour. Until then, it had not occurred to me that you might get paid for telling, or at least writing, stories. Given that I had completed high school English with at least a B average and came from a storytelling family, I considered myself reasonably qualified. The most pointed question I was asked by the editor-owner was whether, as a fellow named Wells, I might be related to “Catfish Willie” Wells, another moniker Grandpa Willie had earned, because of his knack for catching lunker catfish that lived down in the muddy waters around the Main Street Bridge in the nearby town of Houma. Grandpa Willie’s record was 51 pounds on a cane pole. And whenever he caught a fish over 30 pounds, he’d ring up the newspaper and ask, “Wanna take my picture?” Usually, they did. But if they had more pressing stories, Grandpa Willie, a man with perhaps an inflated sense of catfishing’s importance in the universe, would take matters into his own hands. He’d put his lunker cat into a rusty washtub in the ratty trunk of his rusted green Chevrolet, drive over to the newspaper office and wander up the wooden stairs to the second-floor newsroom with the fish slung over his shoulder, dripping slimy catfish water everyplace.
They took his picture, all right—I’m guessing to get rid of him.
So the question of my relationship to Catfish Willie was a loaded one. But in our part of Cajun Louisiana, where 95 percent of the surnames were French, we happened to be the only Wellses in the phone book. I could not easily dodge the answer. Yes, I confessed, Catfish Willie was my grandfather.
The editor looked at me, smiled and said: “If you’ve got half the gumption of your grandpa, you’ll probably be good at this job.” You could say I got my first job on the back of Grandpa Willie’s fish stories.
I guess storytelling took, though it took a while for all of its manifestations to show themselves. I published my first novel in 2000, at which point I’d been a newspaper journalist and magazine freelancer for more than three decades. I’m far from the first newspaperman to try his hand at more “literary” pursuits. Hemingway and Twain both spent time on newspapers before winning worldwide adulation for their fiction. As a still relatively obscure Southern novelist, I don’t claim to share their prodigious gifts, or worldwide adulation. But we do have something in common: love of storytelling in all its forms and the realization that stories have the power to enlighten, entertain, move and transform.
I exonerated myself in college with an English degree and a master’s degree at the University of Missouri’s highly respected School of Journalism. This training was indispensable to my career. Yet if you put me under a hot light, I would have to concede the influence of my family, Grandpa Willie, and dad in particular, profoundly shaped and influenced my life as a storyteller.
“In the same way a person becomes a master coon tracker or squirrel skinner, a storyteller’s success depends not just on some natural inclination, but in a commitment to master the terrain.”
It took me a while to understand what, exactly, they passed on to me. But I eventually came to realize it was their work ethic and their voice of authority. They told stories about what they knew. My dad and Grandpa Willie were men who worked very hard at honing their backwoods crafts, skills now of little interest or use to the modern world. They could talk about these things with a kind of spare eloquence because they understood them intimately and intricately. At some point, I began applying these principles to my writing. In the same way that a person becomes a master coon tracker or squirrel skinner, a storyteller’s success depends on their commitment to master the terrain, to ratchet up their powers of observation, to work very hard at their craft.
I don’t think my father had all this in mind when he moved us from town to a small bayouside farm in the country when I was 9 years old. He just wanted his sons to grow up in a place where we could roam the woods freely, learn to hunt, fish, handle a boat, set a trap and skin critters for pelts we could sell to the fur buyers, or edible ones that we could cook for supper. Back in 1957, Bayou Black was a narrow alluvial ridge stretching for about a dozen miles along the serpentine waterway that gave the community its name. It was essentially a Cajun sugarcane farming enclave, with most of the land–including thousands of acres of woodland, marsh and swamp just off the ridge–owned by the sugar company, where my dad worked as a payroll clerk. These were the days when anybody could hunt anywhere. If you loved to hunt, fish and swamp stomp, Bayou Black was the best spot for it on earth.
One of our near neighbors was a woman named Annie Miller, who would become regionally famous by starting the first-ever commercial swamp tour. She became known as Alligator Annie, thrilling tourists by calling 12-foot alligators up out of the swamp to her boat and feeding them raw chicken parts out of her hand. She was by far the most interesting person I’d yet met in my young life. She ran a reptile menagerie where she kept all manner of snakes, which she sold to zoos and biological research houses. The first time I recall seeing her, she was standing in her concrete floored snake pens out behind her house with about a dozen serpents coiled around her neck. I could only stand there and gawk. My snake-phobic, deeply Catholic mother made the Sign of the Cross. Annie also kept a cussing myna bird for a pet and was training an otter for a Walt Disney movie.
My parents and Annie became fast friends and pretty soon Annie, whose snake business was somewhat constricted because she and her husband Ed had to do all the collecting themselves, had a brilliant idea. “Rex,” she told my dad, “you’ve got all those boys with all those hands. Why don’t y’all start collecting snakes for me?” For five or six years running, Rex and the Wells boys became the chief live snake wranglers for Annie Miller. She paid us 50 cents a pound for king snakes, chicken snakes and other nonpoisonous varieties, and 10 cents a piece for garter snakes. Once we caught 130 garter snakes in about two hours. Another time, Annie wanted a cottonmouth and we delivered a whopper with the help of a long-handled contraption my dad had built in the sugar company’s machine shop.
My mother, of course, hated this sideline, considering every snake to be poisonous and a mortal danger to her sons. It didn’t take long for word to reach my mother’s big, extended, superstitious family that Rex had his sons… trafficking in serpents! One day, when Dad was away at the sugar mill, my Grandma Toups appeared at our farmhouse bearing a small jug of some secret liquid. We learned what it was when, conspiring with my mother, she lined all six of us boys up on the front porch and sprinkled us with Holy Water she’d brought from St. Joseph Catholic Church up in Thibodaux—all the while saying a prayer and declaring, in her Cajun accent, “dem snakes not gonna get you now, chers!”
Anyway, you see what I mean. When I started to write novels, I didn’t lack for material. I just had to tone down my childhood some, because nobody would really believe the truth.
I owe some storytelling debts to my journalism as well. I don’t think I would’ve developed the discipline to write novels without first having learned to write complex, long-form narrative nonfiction drawn from my early reporting years. To write—often under stupendous deadline pressure, in crowded, noisy newsrooms or in the messy aftermath of wars, storms, earthquakes and various other disasters that I’ve covered—taught me how to focus even in the midst of chaos.
I work on my novels five days a week on the train going back and forth to work–about 50 minutes each way. Making the train my office was perhaps the pivotal breakthrough in my novelwriting ambitions. Until then, I’d wandered around for six or seven years with a half-done novel in my briefcase, telling myself that I would make time to finish the thing sooner or later. But between family obligations, work, travel and sanity, finding
the time proved impossible. When I moved from London to New York in 1993 to take a job on Page One of The Wall Street Journal, I settled in the suburbs and began commuting by rail. A day or two into this, observing that the route was not particularly scenic, I realized I would be spending a lot of time on this train. I bought a $999 laptop and though it took awhile to gain traction, I realized that I had finally found the schedule that had eluded me all those years and that neither the cell-phone jerks behind me nor the loudly gossiping secretaries in front of me could keep me from my stories. In this I learned another valuable lesson: writing is 10 percent inspiration and 90 percent perspiration.
In October 2006, I left the Journal after 24 years to take a job as a senior editor and writer with Portfolio, the Condé Nast startup dedicated to illuminating the world of business. It wasn’t easy to leave the good ole WSJ, but I’d always considered myself something of a magazine writer and editor at The Journal. Why not try being a magazine writer and editor on a real magazine?
As for the subject matter–business–I accept that there is a certain stripe of journalist who cringes when hearing the B word. Business is all about earnings reports, accounting contrivances, price-earnings ratios, etc., etc. In other words, business is B for Boring. In some cases, perhaps. But unless you’re living under a rock, you’d have to conclude that, outside the Iraq War, it is probably the fundamentally most important story of our era. The terms hedge fund, private equity, derivatives, e-commerce and subprime have all entered the public lexicon pretty much within the past decade— subprime within the last year or two. The global triumph of the capitalist model, for all of its shortcomings, is one of the compelling stories of the century. Markets don’t just drive commerce; they influence culture, politics, art and science. We are living in a period of unparalleled wealth creation, and a period of growing disparity between the superrich and the impoverished. If grand narrative, underpinned by the human condition, is what you seek to write, there is no more fertile field than business and commerce.
In the December issue of Portfolio, Ali Wolfe, one of the bright young writers that I edit, came to me with a quirky idea. In a conversation with a billionaire, she’d learned that numerous well-known members of the hedge fund set were investing vast sums of money in longevity research and its fringe cousin, the quest to “cure aging.” Digging deeper, she discovered that people who had more money than they could ever spend in this lifetime were funding research and technology that would allow them to spend considerably more time with their fortunes. True, that’s a business story. But it’s also a story of cutting edge science, the cult side of medicine, religion, and the tempestuous politics of aging.
I don’t think about this very much when I’m riding the train into work, my head down, tapping away on my laptop, buried deep in a story about a lonesome bayou that is, metaphorically at least, about as far away from the glitz and thrum of Manhattan as you can get. But when the train stops, I put away my laptop and dive into my day job, working with first-class writers in an energized environment from an office set high above the neon glitter of Times Square. And when the day is over, I settle into my seat on the train, pop open my laptop again, and dive back into the luminous swamp of my fiction-writing life.
My two lives don’t conflict. One cleanses my palate for the other. The only complication is when I arrive home and my wife asks me what’s new at the office. I always ask, “Do you mean 4 Times Square or New Jersey Transit?”