A few years into my professional writing career, I rediscovered the book, which had recently been reissued by Purple House Press.
Much more recently, I discovered the author himself, the charming Edward Ormondroyd. After several attempts, I managed to get his attention and asked if I could interview him.
I continue to be surprised whenever I find that someone whose work I loved in a younger day has almost no or literally no online presence—barely a photo and nary an interview. But then I get excited because it means maybe I can be the one to help change that.
As is the case here. For Edward kindly agreed to an interview and generously shared a richer tableau than I could’ve rightfully asked. (Then again, I did ask a lot, to which Edward wrote “Cry you mercy, sir! Forty-one questions!”)
Here are his (approximately) 41 answers (among them, another reminder that a rejection is not always the end):
When and where were you born? Where did you grow up?
1925. Wilkinsburg, PA. From age 5 to 12, Swarthmore, PA. From 12 through high school, Ann Arbor, MI. I’m still growing up...I hope.
What was your childhood like?
Suburban, mildly affluent, for the most part idyllic. In those Depression days children were not densely scheduled as they now seem to be. Once chores (lawn mowing, carrying out the garbage, weeding) were done, I was free to roam with my friends through a landscape much more accessible than any comparable one now.
Did you have a favorite book as a child?
I loved so many that it is impossible to pick a favorite. All of A.A. Milne. Kipling’s Jungle books and Just So Stories. Treasure Island and A Child’s Garden of Verses. Heidi. Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn. Later I came under the spell of Arthur Ransome—in fact, I’m still under his spell.
What kind of student were you?
Pretty backward in arithmetic, but pretty adept in other subjects. When math became more interesting, at the algebra stage, I began to catch on and catch up. I was a dud in sports (but a good swimmer).
What were your feelings about serving in WWII? Did you see combat?
I couldn’t wait to join up. It wasn’t patriotism so much as allure of a great adventure. I joined the Navy as soon after high school as I could (1943). It was an intense learning experience for a well-bred, well-educated, sheltered boy to be thrown in with roughs and rowdies, Southerners still sore about losing the Civil War, older men, kids from the working class, from farms, from big cities. And I loved being at sea.
I never saw combat in the sense of being involved in the great Pacific naval battles, but my ship, a destroyer escort, was close astern an aircraft carrier when the carrier was hit by a kamikaze and caught on fire. The fire could not be controlled and the ship had to be abandoned after the aviation gasoline and ammunition locker exploded. I was on the bridge as a scared and horrified witness of the whole disaster. It was enough action to last me a lifetime.
What was your college experience?
I was one of the horde of veterans that poured into UC Berkeley on the GI Bill. The administration had to set up a circus tent to process us through and the line of applicants snaked around several city blocks. I majored in English literature. I was so hungry to know that I wanted to take every course in the catalog. Except for an intense spell of depression, for which I could not account (nor can I now), I had an exciting and enjoyable freshman year.
As a sophomore I acquired two roommates, a physics major and a public health major who was a refugee from wartime Vienna. We rented a third-floor apartment, sharing the rent of—hold on to your chair—$32.50. We called the place Heaven’s Cellar. We did our own cooking, most of it edible, and lived very well on our government stipends of $65 a month. We even had jug wine (one dollar a gallon) with dinners and thought ourselves immensely sophisticated. I later returned to library school at Berkeley and took an MLS degree.
Folk songs were all the rage; it was the time of Burl Ives, Richard Dyer-Bennett, John Jacob Niles. Classical music was a shared interest, too. I joined the staff of the campus literary magazine and published a story and a poem. Of course went to the home football games to cheer the team, whistle and howl at the drum majorettes, and make indelicate gestures at our opponents, especially Stanford. It was one of the happiest times of my life.
What was your first job after college?
Nothing in my education prepared me for a white-collar job and I had no interest in becoming a member of academe. The chronology of my work experience is hopelessly mixed up in my memory but my first job was in a paper processing plant, one of the many small factories in the western end of Berkeley. I learned to operate a cutting machine and joined a union. Later I clerked in a bookstore. I thought of it all as a way of subsidizing my career as a writer. I was writing not-very-good stories and keeping a journal. I learned to play the recorder, which in later years led to a position in a Renaissance band. A shortage of sailors led me to ship out for a time as an AB seaman with Standard Oil—tanker runs from the refineries of Richmond to Alaska and Hawaii. This was so lucrative that I could live on my savings for long periods without working at all. It will be no surprise that after library school I got a job as a librarian.
When did you realize you’d like to write books?
By the end of high school I knew I wanted to write—but I didn’t know what to write about. The idea of writing a book, let alone a children’s book, didn’t occur to me until I found myself composing David and the Phoenix in college. I’m still surprised that it happened. It was as if the choice made me rather than the other way around.
What inspired you to write David and the Phoenix?
As I explain in the foreword to the reprint of David and the Phoenix by Purple House Press, I was walking on the Berkeley campus when a vision flashed in my mind of a large bird hurling itself out of an upstairs window and becoming entangled in a rose arbor below. It’s a complete mystery to me where that came from. Alpha Centauri, perhaps? That the bird might be the Phoenix might have been suggested by a scene in T.H. White’s The Sword in the Stone, which I had just read. I was familiar with the Phoenix legend [i.e. that there is only one at a time]. My bird’s character may have been suggested by Major Hoople, a fat and pompous character in a newspaper cartoon called Our Boarding House. Perhaps the notion of David riding the Phoenix’s back came from The Wonderful Adventures of Nils by Selma Lagerlöf, in which a very small boy is carried to various adventures on the back of a goose.
from the 1957 (first edition) jacket
I know it was your first published book but was it the first book you wrote with the intention of publication?
Thereby hangs a tale of coincidence, mystery, and irony. I wasn’t consciously thinking of publication when I began David and the Phoenix. An intriguing idea had come to me and I was having fun seeing what I could do with it. I think my main motive was to amuse two dear friends, Shirley and Josh, who eventually became the dedicatees. Of course, publication did become a goal as I proceeded, but I was totally in the dark as to how one achieved it. At last, here was this thick completed manuscript—now what?
Here’s the coincidence part. Just about this time I somehow learned that Follett Publishing Company in Chicago was launching a contest: previously unpublished writers could submit their juvenile manuscripts and the winner would not only be published but awarded a substantial cash prize. I sent in my book, and after a long period of hopes and fears, got it back with blandly-worded regrets.
Now began the seven-year period that I think of as the years wandering in the wilderness. I didn’t know that I could have gone to the public library to be supplied with a plethora of publishing information—names and addresses. So yet again it was…now what?
Not long after the return of my book, I got a very nice note from a very nice lady. (Would that I could remember her name, to thank her or her memory for this kindness and a later one.) She said that she had been on the panel of judges for the Follett contest, had liked my book very much, and wanted to see it published; send it to—and she gave me the names and addresses of some juvenile editors. I thanked her and duly sent off the manuscript to the suggested editors. It was duly rejected by each one.
At a party I met a young lady who told me she was off to New York shortly in the hopes of becoming a literary agent. “Exactly what I need!” I said. She read my story, said she loved it, and set off. And vanished. She never got in touch with me, I didn’t know how to get in touch with her, and the rest, as they say, is silence.
Then there was the delivery service. It didn’t attempt to sell your book but for a fee would deliver it to three publishers’ offices. I retype the manuscript from the carbon copy and sent it off. A very long silence, at the end of which I wrote to ask what was up. The apologetic answer: they had lost the manuscript.
While poor David and the Phoenix wandered in the wilderness, I was busy writing between or during jobs. Having written a children’s book was all very well, but I thought a real writer’s goal should be the Great American Novel. I went through a lot of literary turmoil to discover that I didn’t have the chops for the Great American Novel, or even an ordinary American novel.
Then something amazing happened. Years after her first note, the very kind lady wrote me another. She said she had been waiting a long time for my book’s appearance on some publisher’s list and was disappointed not to find it. [She recommended some agents and I selected one at random.] It was the turnaround moment.
Muriel Fuller knew her stuff and had a great sense of humor. She liked David and the Phoenix, I liked her, and we were in business forthwith. She began collecting rejections, too, but because she could talk directly to editors she also began to get valuable suggestions. The most cogent was that the manuscript was too long. She agreed. I probably balked at first but was finally persuaded to get out my chainsaw and scalpel. The story was cut by at least a third and I had to admit that the leaner version was the better one.
Ms. Fuller finally sold it—to Follett, the very first publisher to have rejected it seven years before. Not only that, she placed it in a Sunday school magazine for children, name and denomination now forgotten. Best of all, she sold it to the Weekly Reader Book Club.
By chance do you still have the rejection letters?
I collected them for a while, then discarded them all. There was nothing to be learned from their bland, [similar] wording. [They were] printed up in advance, of course, and I can understand and appreciate why. Still, if some editor had scrawled on a scrap of paper “We don’t like your story and wouldn’t dream of publishing it,” I would not only have saved the letter, I would have framed it!
Which job from the list above was your day job while writing David and the Phoenix?
I believe most or all of it was written while I was being supported by the GI Bill. Sorry to be so vague, but it all happened more than half a century ago.
Do you remember how long the book took you to write?
It was not written in a single stretch of time. Other matters intervened at least twice. Let’s say, all in all, about six months. A major revision made at one editor’s suggestion must have taken another month, at least, because all the decisions I had to make were not easy.
Did you write it longhand or by typewriter?
I wrote it in longhand first ([probably pencil because the first ballpoint pens were so frustratingly unreliable) and then typed it up when the cross-outs, interlineations, and marginal additions threatened to make the whole page incoherent even to me. Of course, the typed version would be put through many revisions, too. I wrote all my books this way.
Do you remember how you reacted when you learned it would be published?
No, but I must have been elated after all those years of wandering in the wilderness. I think I also had a naive conviction that I was on the brink of fame and fortune.
Did you do signings or other appearances to promote the book?
No, in those days it was the publisher’s job to promote a book, not the author’s. I have since done signings but under only the most local of circumstances, and not in the interest of promotion.
What was the reception to David and the Phoenix from reviewers, teachers, kids?
I never read any reviews of the book—they were published in newspapers and periodicals that I didn’t subscribe to or didn’t even know about. No one clipped them out to send to me. The local Bay Area reviews must have been positive because the Commonwealth Club of California awarded me a silver medal for the best juvenile of 1957. I had to give a speech at their annual literary awards dinner. (Terrifying!)
I began to hear from teachers, and occasionally still do, who enjoyed reading it to their pupils, whose letters they would include along with their own. The most heartening responses are from now-middle-aged readers who tell me how much they loved it as kids, and how much they look forward to sharing it with grandchildren, nieces. and nephews.
Was there ever talk of turning David and the Phoenix into a film? If so, what happened? If not, would you like that?
Oh yes, lots of talk, mostly by graduates of film school who fantasized about making a film but didn’t have the necessary contacts in the industry. Ten years or so after publication, a caricature of a Hollywood [producer called and] offered me $10,000 for the rights. “Ask for more,” a friend suggested. I did, and that was the end of that. I might have suspected a put-on except none of my friends would have been capable of such a prank.
The [following] story is so amusing that my wife Joan still tells it to general hilarity at dinner parties. Disney wanted to make it into [one of] its trademark animated cartoon[s]. [When they first called, Joan thought it was a promotional call for Disneyland, said “We’re not interested,” and hung up. The Disney person, now puzzled, called back and said they wanted to make a movie.]
The money on offer was, by industry standards, stingy. [Plus] Jill Morgan, my new publisher at Purple House Press, and I simply didn’t like what Disney does with its “properties.” On the very brink of the deadline, a young man burst on the scene begging us not to sign with Disney. He had loved David and the Phoenix since he was a boy and was determined to organize a film himself and do it true to the story. He was in the industry and had plenty of contacts. So convincing was he that we told Disney no and gave him our blessing.
He has aroused a lot of interest wherever he’s taken it, but at the end of seven years has still not found someone to put up the money. I would like a film to be made, but only if the spirit of the book is kept in the transition.
As a coda, a more upbeat story: Bruce Coville formed a company called Full Cast Audio to record dramatic readings of children’s books in which the author reads the narrative parts and actors read the dialogue. He invited me to record David and the Phoenix. It was a fascinating—and exhausting—process. The company has since succumbed to the economic downturn, but the recording is still available, and occasionally outsells the book itself.
By the way, my favorite of my books, Time at the Top, was made into a movie for TV by Showtime. When I read the script, I was so appalled at what had been done to my beloved story that I have never been able to bring myself to watch it.
Note: The only authorized publisher for Edward's books, including David and the Phoenix and the newly-released, first-ever combined edition of Time at the Top (1963) and its 1975 sequel All in Good Time, is Purple House Press.