The Boy Who Wore White Stockings

I had a rare literary experience recently.  A friend of mine, Peter Skala and his wife, Barbara, came to dinner, and they brought with them a recently published book about Peter.  The book is written by Peter’s long time friend and business partner, David Hutt.  Barbara has written a self-published autobiography, My Life as Me, which I have read, and I was eager to read the ‘sequel’ about Peter.  Briefly, Peter was born in Austria in the mid 1920’s; his mother was a well-known actress; his father was a business man, so he came from a comfortable middle class.  As you know, the 1930’s were a time of political and social turmoil in Austria.  Peter’s family had Jewish connections which were a distinct liability in Austria at that time, so Peter, who is Christian, and the rest of his family fled to the US.  Peter, en-route to the US, spent a year in the UK as a teenager.  He went to school in New York and joined the US Army, where he became an officer whose German language skills were put to good use in General Patton’s army.  He later went to Yale (my alma mater), worked as a key manager in several large multi-nationals and became a successful head hunter.

I have posted the following review of The Boy Who Wore White Stockings on Amazon:

This book is a captivating historical biography. David Hutt decided to write a biography of his friend and business partner, Peter Skala, but, in addition, he has included an examination of Peter’s genealogy back for about two centuries. This reminds one of The Hare with Amber Eyes, and like that story, it often makes fascinating reading from cultural, political, sociological, perspectives. Mr. Hutt is clearly a skilled, and dedicated researcher, and while the output of his research captures the reader’s attention, the linkages between the genealogy and the biography are somewhat tenuous, except when Peter’s grandparents arrive on the scene. In The Hare with Amber Eyes, it was the netsuke that made the inter-generational connections.
For me, there were three parts of this book: the genealogy, Peter’s childhood/boyhood, and Peter’s early adulthood. (Will there be a sequel about the rest of Peter’s adulthood? One hopes so!) One disappointment about the section on Peter’s childhood/boyhood, is that one hears the voice of Peter himself too infrequently. I know that Peter would have pungent comments about many of the events which are reported.
The section on Peter’s early adulthood, with particular emphasis on his war-time experiences makes fascinating reading, and his voice is there.
David Hutt is clearly a very talented researcher and writer. I am certainly ready for the sequel!

Peter is a very clever man with a pungent, ironical sense of humor.  Faced with any controversy, he will come straight to the point.  For me, it was quite interesting to read about the environment in which he grew up, because it gave me a sense of how the character I know came to be.  Briefly, in the past, he has talked about his experiences in France during the Second World War, but this biography includes some episodes of which I had known nothing (including how he captured a German general and obtained the surrender of a German platoon without firing a shot!)

I’m afraid that the chances of a sequel are fairly slim.  The Boy Who Wore White Stockings ends just before Peter met Barbara. I suspect that David Hutt doesn’t want to stand between Peter and Barbara in writing about what happened next

Writing Skills

This is a post which I put on the Blogging Authors’ website a couple of weeks ago:

Having read plenty of good and bad literature, written five novels, observing myself as a writer, and thinking about the craft of writing, I have formed some opinions about the skills that good writers have.  Not all the skills below are mine; some are still aspirational.  But, I’ve progressed (somewhat painfully at times) from being a story-teller to an award-winning author.

First of all, a writer has to enjoy writing.  Writing is a lonely, unsociable business – perhaps best suited to introverts, and it isn’t always fun, but one has a special feeling of creative accomplishment when a passage seems just right.  Though, of course, one can feel pretty frustrated when one can’t seem to get it right.  On balance, one should enjoy the work.

Perhaps it goes without saying, but one has to have a good command of the language in which one is writing: grammar, vocabulary, syntax, spelling.  I think that, by definition, good writing is good literature which makes the most effective use of language.

I know that there are some writers who don’t bother to plan a novel: they have the whole thing in their heads at the start.  That wouldn’t work for me.  I have to create a time line, define the characters, their personalities, strengths and vulnerabilities, their interactions.  If there is a message I’d like the reader to take away, I have to plan how I’m going to let him or her find it.  Then there are settings and events; some of them should be surprising to keep the reader’s attention.  And the whole package has to be completely believable to the reader, even if the synopsis sounds a little far-fetched.

A fertile imagination is essential to a writer of fiction, and it comes into play at every stage of the writing.  The plan, the characters, the principal events should all be imaginative.  The descriptions of particular events and characters’ actions should be slightly unexpected.  It is the unexpected which keeps the reader’s interest.  A novel where every turn of events is predictable is boring.  But at the same time, the unexpected must be credible: if it’s not, the reader loses interest.  I use a technique I call ‘leap-frogging’ to build up to what would otherwise be an incredible event.  For example, in my latest novel, there a catastrophic fire in which several hundred people are killed.  But before that catastrophe, there is a related fire in which only four people are killed, and before that, there are major concerns about safety violations.

The writer has to have real empathy with his characters – even the evil characters.  As one writes, one has to feel what his/her character is feeling.  Not just imagining the feeling, but actually feeling it.  If one actually feels it, one can describe it more accurately.  I remember that recently, my wife came home from work, and found me sitting at my PC with tears running down my cheeks.  “What’s the matter?” she asked.

“Henry’s son was just killed,” I explained.

Finally, I think the author needs to think about leaving the reader with multiple levels of messages.  If one thinks about examples from great literature, it is seldom just about human nature; there may also be sociological, philosophical, and religious messages, as well.  One has to plan the development of those messages so that the reader gradually picks them up.  Gradual assimilation is far more effective than being told at the end, “And the moral of this story is . . .”

Instilling a Need to Read

In the Daily Telegraph, about 10 days ago, there was an article by Jonathan Douglas, Director of the National Literacy Trust (, a “charity that transforms lives through literacy”.  The first two sentences in the article caught my eye: “Reading for pleasure at the age of 15 is a strong factor in determining future social mobility.  Indeed it has been revealed as the most important indicator of the future success of the child.”  This finding is the result of research carried  out by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development.  The research examined education and reading as factors in promoting social mobility.

I suppose many parents who read the article would readily agree with this conclusion.  Douglas said that the research distinguished between different motivations for reading: whether the reading is the result of parental carrots and sticks, or whether it is entirely voluntary.  The research suggested that those who read for their own pleasure have a desire to “engage with stories, texts and learning.  Reading for pleasure therefore reveals a predisposition not just to literature, but to the sort of lifelong learning that explains increased social mobility.”

Douglas goes on to talk about different formats for reading.  By way of example he points out that emails typically use different language than a written letter.  He says, “Analysis so far on the  impact of digital literature is that it can play an important role in building core literary skills, but there is an ongoing debate about whether it conveys the same benefits as reading a physical book.  Initial research in the Unites States would appear to suggest that it doesn’t.”

Douglas points out that there are differences between boys and girls in terms of their reading for pleasure.  “In Britain, girls read more and have  more positive attitudes to reading than boys.  This is not a universal phenomenon. In India, by contrast, it is the other way around, though that may have more to do with questions of gender and access to society.  In Britain, it is about gender and attitude.  The reluctance of boys to read for pleasure seems more social than biological.”  A recent study by the National Literacy Trust found that reading for pleasure was not something that “boys wanted to be seen doing.”

Douglas argues that reading for pleasure will result only from teenagers having access to books that interest them. “If that means car manuals or books about football for boys, then so be it.”

On the subject of classical vs. modern young adult fiction, Douglas says, “There is a balance to be struck, and this goes to the heart of the current debate about whether a canon of classics needs to be imposed on teenage students in our schools.  Some say that this proposal is wrong and the way to get them reading for pleasure is to give them complete freedom to choose.  Others say that without a knowledge of the classics, they are being failed by the education system because the will miss out not only on great literature, but also on a vital part of their own cultural identity and heritage.”

What is your view?