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Memoir Story

By Boulder Colorado Writer Paul Levitt

I grew up in Newark, New Jersey, which at the time was a lovely garden suburb of New York City.  We played stickball and touch football in the streets, basketball in a neighbor’s driveway, baseball (both hard and soft) in the school yard, and stoop ball with a pink Spaldine.  Our teachers, except for the man who taught gym classes, were all well-educated women.  I never remember a child who couldn’t read, write, spell, and outline a sentence.  When my family moved to Los Angeles, I was heartbroken to leave Newark and my friends behind.  My mother was equally distressed; she cried copiously at the train station.

Los Angeles in 1948 was just experiencing a mass immigration from other states.  When we saw a car on the highway with a New Jersey license plate we honked and waved; the people in the other car did as well.  The sudden influx of people from all over America created tensions, especially racial and religious.  I can remember ethnic fights that took place in junior high school, and I recall the overcrowded classrooms, where a great many students could barely read.  The teachers were not nearly as good as those I had studied with in Newark.  To keep myself occupied, I turned to reading plays from my sister’s theatre books and playing basketball.  Although we were living in a duplex, my father gained the owner’s permission to put a backboard and basket on the garage.  Shooting baskets became an important part of my life.  By the time my parents bought a house in the San Fernando Valley (North Hollywood), I was ready to compete in high school, where I eventually won a few awards and a scholarship offer to play for UCLA.  Instead I chose to attend the University of Colorado at Boulder, where I majored in philosophy and learned to ski.  I found the powder snow more alluring that a sweaty basketball court.

As an undergraduate I enjoyed writing dialogue for my own pleasure, but never completed a play.  That part of my life began when I had already become a tenured professor at the University of Colorado at Boulder.  During a sabbatical in England, I wrote The Norwich Incident, a play that a London agent sold to BBC Radio.  The sale of that play launched my playwriting career, which lasted until the budget for radio drama was radically cut.  Wishing to continue both scholarly work and creative, I turned to fiction.  Five published novels later, I am currently trying to sell three more; as well, I have launched a novel about the Jew catchers of Berlin in the early 1940s.

Part of my good fortune in finding a position with the English department in Boulder was my election to department chair.  At the time, English was considered a service department and scholarship and creative work were actively discouraged.  I changed the climate by reducing teaching loads and rewarding publication.  To my surprise, I found administration to my liking, enough so that I continued with it after my two terms of chair had ended.  For seventeen years I codirected the university’s academic writing program, which gave me a great deal of satisfaction.

My tenure in the writing program reinforced my commitment to clear and graceful prose.  I trust that all my work, scholarly and creative, bear the mark of good writing.  I am often asked why I write historical fiction.  My answer applies to all my writing.  When poring over a sentence, I am transported to another place.  A chemical reaction in my brain effaces the world, leaving only the rhythms of my words and the fancies of my imagination.


Compiled/Published by LeRoy Chatfield
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