George Plimpton has long been a hero of mine. His willingness to put his body in play to tell a story is what good journalism is all about. That he did it with a mix of physical talent, intelligence and self-deprecating elitism (he possibly invented the oxymoron) made his stories all the more important, and riotously funny. One of my favorite Plimpton stories is My Last Cobra: Stalking the Wild Prevarication. The following is a little ditty to give some background on THE LIZARD KING. I named it with the Paper Lion in mind.
My Last Necktie
When I was a boy growing up in southern New Jersey we traded reptiles the way other children trade baseball cards. We did it in part because the Fisher brothers did it, the two older boys who rode minibikes and shot BB guns and were allowed to build a large turtle complex in their backyard out of concrete and chicken wire. A frog got you a box turtle, a couple of box turtles might get you a fence swift, but nothing could buy you a snake. If you had a snake in our world you were a god. The day I brought a five-foot long kingsnake to school in second grade I became king of the whole school, and for more than a day. Everyone wanted to see what I had in my pillowcase--my friends, the older kids, teachers from other classrooms. I was called down to the principal's office because of my snake; the principal and the office secretaries wanted to see it, too.
Reptiles became everything. I hunted for them after school and on weekends. I asked for books about them for my birthday and for Christmas. I wrote a paper called Snake Locomotion and submitted it so often between fourth grade and senior high school that anytime I was writing a school essay my father called it Snake Locomotion. I won a writing award my freshman year at Penn State for a story about my pet Burmese python Socrates, called The Big Gulp. The next year Penn State selected the python story for their best-ever collection of student writing. Socrates helped get me into law school.
It is very likely that The Lizard King's important character, Ray Van Nostrand, Sr., imported Socrates, and certainly Ray imported other reptiles my mother bought me on my birthdays. Ray was working for Mario Tabraue then, before Tabraue was sentenced to 100 years for crimes involving murder. Interviewing Ray and Tabraue twenty-five years later offered a sideways peek into a world running parallel to mine as a boy.
In many ways, true crime stories for adults are what reptiles were for me as a boy. They hold a promise of violence, of mystery, and a strange, almost embarrassing fascination. Reptiles (and amphibians) are also a lot like childhood. They can be mud-loving, sticky, unpredictable, violent, honest, and most dangerous when you try to let them go. By the time I started work as a lawyer in Washington, DC I had forgotten all about Socrates. I tried to forget that what I loved as a boy was story writing, tried to convince myself that moving a pen as a lawyer was the same thing as being a writer.
Childhood rises up from time to time, and most of the time, I think, we stomp a foot and chase it away. One day I decided not to. I let it crawl onto my wingtips and up my Brooks Brothers pant leg. I quit my law firm and, after ten years trying to find what I cared about, I was writing The Lizard King. --Bryan Christy