Early scribblings

By Erica Kornberg
Updated November 19, 1993 at 05:00 AM EST

Take a look at this excerpt from Stephen King‘s most recently published story: “Jhonathan was at the mountain and was just going to wish for a knife to kill the witch, when he heard a voice in his ear, ‘The first witch cannot be peirced. The second witch cannot be periced or smothered. The third cannot be periced, smothered and is invisable.”

Okay, what’s going on? Has King’s chronic productivity finally melted his brain? No, you’re just reading “Jhonathan and the Witchs,” penned when the little ghoul was only 9.

In First Words (Algonquin), editor Paul Mandelbaum has culled the kiddie scribblings and dribblings of 42 writers-to-be, including Norman Mailer, Joyce Carol Oates, William Styron, Amy Tan, and William S. Burroughs. The fun lies, of course, in discovering similarities between these authors’ mature works and their kid stuff. Gore Vidal explored a favorite adult theme: duality, quite literally, in a tale of a boy whose friend calmly admits he’s turned into a werewolf. From 9-year-old Paul Bowles, who went on to set his obsessed characters in far-flung lands, came Bluey, the frenetic diary of a travel-mad imaginary character, written entirely in headlines.

Michael Crichton, on the other hand, abandoned his early, faux-literary style. The author of such stark blockbusters as Jurassic Park, he wrote cryptic, puzzlingly understated stories as a teen. Says Mandelbaum of one of these efforts, “Crichton indicated to me that not even he understands what it means today, if he ever did.”

In compiling the book, Mandelbaum wrote to 170 authors, most of them Americans. Half responded, but of those only half again could locate their early works. The writing that did survive for posterity came from a variety of locales: John Hersey retrieved his from a scrapbook his mother kept; Ursula K. Le Guin found hers in a footlocker in her attic. Then there was Maxine Hong Kingston. “She sent me her juvenilia right before her home — and the novel she was working on — burned in a fire,” says Mandelbaum. “Of course I’m pleased, but I bet she would have rather had her house.”