Growing up with an alcoholic mother and a father in prison, I had a hard scrabble childhood. Told I wasn’t very bright and would never be able to go to college, I turned inwards and depended on myself. Three things delighted and fascinated me: languages, writing, and music.
I taught myself French and Italian as a child, the first two of seven languages I would eventually be proficient in. I started writing stories when I was six. And I fell in love with music.
One Christmas I received a record player as a gift and bought the cheapest LPs I could find in a Payless Drugstore—knock-off labels offering performances copied from foreign radio broadcasts. I taught myself to play the piano, practicing on instruments at school and in churches.
As a teenager, I scraped together the money to buy an ancient upright. I played by ear but eventually taught myself to read music. When I graduated from high school, I went against the advice of the school counselors and applied to the University of California in Berkeley where the tuition was $58 a semester for California residents. At first I majored in drama, then switched to music. By the time I graduated, I knew I didn’t have the talent to be a first-class composer. Immediately after graduation, I enlisted in the army, was sent to language school for Vietnamese, and my career as a spy began. It lasted thirty-five years before I retired as early as possible to write fulltime. One result of that career was my novel, Last of the Annamese.