About the Author

John Cook

I am a sixty-six year old retired educator. I worked for California State Hospitals and then transferred to the California State Prison System, where I worked for Corrections. My case load was composed of violent, assaultive, sometimes psychotic, always behaviorally disordered wards, in both the hospitals and the prisons. The hospital inmates were mentally retarded. The State Prison wards were not.

I am a born alcoholic. My genetics are derived from my Scotch, Irish, and Cherokee Indian ancestral forebears. Once I started drinking, it just swooped me up. I started going to A.A. meetings forty one years ago. I was twenty five years old at the time. If I hadn’t done that, I would have been dead a long, long time ago.

I’ve had two major relapses, one after five years of sobriety, another one after seventeen years. Both relapses lasted two years. I didn’t stop going to meetings during those relapses, but, rather, worked my way through those stages of my recovery, drinking while attending meetings. In the end I got sober again, both times. I currently have ten years, ten months, and sixteen days of sobriety.

I’ve worked as a lifeguard, both in public pools and at the beach, swimming instructor for the water phobic, and as a fire fighter in the foothills of La Canada next to Pasadena, Camp Two, right behind the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Our country’s brightest scientific minds work there. An oddball group of eccentric misfits, many of them smear shit on the walls of the stalls in the bathrooms. This was true for the female bathrooms as well. I was given this information by a man who was a janitor there. He had to clean those shit smeared walls. He was very bitter about this.

Being a firefighter was a hell of a job. I lived in the fire camp with the rest of the crew. Every morning we were loaded into the back of our fire camp trucks and were taken out to work in the mountains surrounding us. The trucks were quite large. Benches were secured to the floor inside the back of the truck for the crew to sit on. The top was covered with a canopy that was stretched out drum tight and then tied down. The Captain and his driver would take the lead in the caravan of big trucks and go winding their way up these narrow roads that had been carved into the side of a mountain. The other trucks followed behind. We worked on whatever firebreak the Captain had chosen for that day. Many times the roads were so narrow that the outside wheel of the four wheels in back hung out into empty space, leaving only three wheels connected to the road. It didn’t bother the driver. But it sure bothered his passengers.

The work was the most physically demanding work I have ever done. It was something primal, something for someone with the strength of a horse and the brain of a mule. I’m not sure the words exist to adequately describe the toll it takes on a man to perform such work. But we did it, all right, and we were proud of ourselves for being able to take it.

I fought fires whenever and wherever they occurred. One time I and my platoon were almost burned alive when we were fighting a fire on the side of a hill. The flames were beneath us burning around the base when suddenly a strong wind kicked up, instantly blowing the fire into a tunnel that went up the hill and over our heads. We all took one horrified look at the flames and then took off like a pack of scalded cats. We were only able to escape by running into an area that had already been burned. We stood there in the embers, our feet cooking inside of our boots, shaking with fear and grinning at each other. It had almost gotten us but we had escaped. It was a rush. Despite the danger, fighting fires was hugely exciting and I always looked forward to the fires. I was using and abusing drugs and alcohol during this time, but I worked hard and I did my job. In spite of the incredibly strenuous labor, I had a wonderful time.

After graduating from college I put my diploma in a box and forgot about it. I moved to the beach and started working construction. When not working, if I wasn’t drunk, I went surfing, diving, and spearfishing. I did that for ten years, drinking heavily the whole time, never letting a day go by that I didn’t get drunk. Eventually, needing the money to support a family and a drinking habit, I started my own landscaping business. My drinking escalated dramatically after that. Who was going to fire me, you know? My intake was six, six packs of beer and a fifth of whiskey per day. I drank this much, every day, non-stop, for a number of years. Of course I learned a lot about life during this time. But the time came when alcohol could no longer teach me anything without killing me in the process. The trick was getting out with what I’d learned before I died. It was a very close thing. But, by some miracle from above, I made it.

When I was in my mid-forties I decided I was tired of swinging a pick. Besides, there were no benefits that went with my profession as a self-employed contractor. I went back to school. I earned two teaching credentials. One qualified me to work in high school, the other certified me to work in institutions. Loathing the regimentation that accompanies regular education, I chose to work in institutions. Things were livelier there. My students were all violent, loud, and behaviorally disordered. Some of the retarded ones chased me around the work tables trying to bite me while my co-workers stood by and hollered the words, run, run, at me, laughing their heads off, having a little sport at my expense. I never had so much fun.

Towards the end of my tenure as a Special Education Teacher in Corrections, I entered U.C.L.A.’s writing program. I wanted to see if I could write. Well, that’s not exactly true. I already had a pretty good idea that I could write. But I wanted to see if I could become a good writer. And so I enrolled in U.C.L.A.’s graduate program for creative writing.

It was the acid test. I worked as hard at writing as I did as a firefighter, usually spending between thirty and forty hours a week on homework. I earned straight A’s and was nominated for the Kirkwood Prize. I finished the Program at U.C.L.A. and then the prison closed. This came as a shock. No one really believed they would close the prison. My intentions were to use my new found knowledge to advance the cause of literacy. But the bean counters put us out. I took my retirement and have been writing, pretty much daily, for the last eight and a half years.

As far as recreational time is concerned, I have very little of it. But, when I do have the occasion to indulge myself, I like to go surfing. Also, if time permits, I swim long distance at the gym. The rest of my time is spent writing, going to A.A. meetings, and taking care of my little two acre ranchito.

I suppose I should list reading as a recreational activity and at one time I would have done so. But now the lines are blurred. Ever since I learned how to read as a writer, a work factor has been added to the fun that reading always was. So now only part of me reads for fun. The other part of me works at the same time, rewriting the text, paying close attention to the author’s aesthetics as I understand them, comparing my own, individual style to that of the author. Like Hemingway, who is my constant model, I condense the text and re-work the meter as I read, something he called tightening. For myself, this revisionary process is an absolute necessity.

I have been addicted to reading since I was in the first grade. My father was the pastor of a high desert fundamentalist church. He was a young man at the time of his occupancy of the pulpit. He was highly skilled at working with his hands, something he hated to do. But, in spite of this great distaste, he built the church and the parsonage from the ground up.

It was an Assemblies of God church. It allowed no liquor, tobacco, facial make up, rock and roll, dancing, or television. There was nothing for a six-year old kid to do but listen to the wind and watch it blow dust down the road. This desert bleakness had an impact on how I understood the world. Later on it added a certain ascetic clarity to my aesthetics. Of course, being only six years old, I was too young to know about such things. So instead of knowing about them in terms I could articulate, I felt them instead.

And then I learned to read. Oh, glorious ecstasy. The world was laid at my feet. I have been reading voraciously ever since, even during those times when I was very drunk, sometimes even in a blackout. This had its advantages. If I read a book in a blackout I could read it again as a brand new thing, not being able to remember having read it in the first place.

I think I can honestly say that alcohol never interfered with my reading, unless it got down to where I was too drunk to see the words on the page. At that point I would set the book down and content myself with my thoughts. As a writer, however, I am quite certain it would interfere with my work.

My favorite author is Ernest Hemingway, who was, in my opinion, killed by alcoholic madness. Nonetheless, alcoholism or no alcoholism, he is the standard by which I gauge my work. No one else is as good as he was, although there are many excellent writers out there who do things that he did not. Rick Bragg comes to mind. He wrote the book Ava’s Man. It is quite possibly one of the world’s most redeeming and beautiful books. And so, while I appreciate these other writers for their unique gifts, when you scrape away the dross, Hemingway emerges as the best.

Why did I write my book? I wrote it because I wanted to prove to myself that I could be an actual writer. Once the book was written and published I had the satisfaction I required. I was a writer. What follows now is the matter of impact. How much impact will the book have? The number of people who read the book and what it does for them is a very large part of that equation. So, too, is the matter of sales, although aside from its financial impact, the relationship between sales and art is a nebulous one. Van Gogh is the clearest example of this principle in action that I can think of.

Quite apart from sales, impact is also determined by the amount of good the book adds to the total repository of good that is present in the world and adding to its betterment. That is one of the most important reasons I have for writing. I want, very much, to contribute whatever I can to the repository of good that is present in the world. In my drinking years I contributed so much that was bad. This does not mean I consider writing to be some kind of penance. I have never thought of it that way and I never will.

There is a great deal of material I am still working on, much of it close to the final draft. One such project is the novel I have been working on for the last six years. Once it is printed in the format used in book publication, the novel will be between sixteen and fourteen hundred pages long. I intend to issue it as a four part series. Alongside the novel I have somewhere between thirty and forty short stories that are close to completion.

I also have ideas for, let us say, another hundred short stories and several more novels. I expect to keep writing until I am dead. I hope that is a long ways off, say another forty years. That’s a nice, round figure. It gives me the time I will need to get a lot of work done, but not all of it.

Like Hemingway, I consider work to be innately purposeful. Also, like him, I see life as a fine thing that is well worth the fighting for. And, lastly, like Hemingway said of himself, I am now competing against the clock.

Tick, tock.