Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Chester Campbell - A Writer by Fate


Chester Campbell was born in Nashville in the midst of the Roaring Twenties. As a boy he dreamed of roaring off into the wild blue yonder, but you'll find out below the fate of that dream. He has been writing for more than sixty years in areas such as newspapers, advertising, speeches, public relations, magazines, and mystery fiction. He lives in Madison, TN with his wife and an eleven-year-old grandson.

A Writer by Fate

Unlike many of my fellow authors, I didn’t know I was going to be a writer from the time I first learned what those squiggly lines on the page were all about. Though I enjoyed reading suspense/adventure stories in The Saturday Evening Post and Liberty magazines as a teenager, I never gave a thought to writing anything myself.

My circuitous trek through the literary landscape began with one of those random quirks of destiny. I graduated from high school in 1943 when things were getting pretty ugly in Europe and the Far East. After flunking the Navy’s pilot trainee physical (underweight), I beefed up with bananas and milkshakes made with raw eggs—Salmonella being a foreign term back then—and passed the Army Air Corps exam. But they wouldn’t call me to active duty until I was eighteen at the end of November.

By the time I got into the Aviation Cadet program, they didn’t need as many pilots or bombardiers or navigators, so they shuffled us from one base to another like pawns on a chessboard. Stationed at Randolph Field outside San Antonio near the end of the war, I worked with another cadet who had spent a year at Yale before going into the service. One day he told me that if he had it to do again, he would study journalism. For some reason, that resonated with my psyche. Maybe it was like my mother always said, “If Chester’s going to do anything, he’ll have to do it with his head because he doesn’t like to get his hands dirty.”

After my discharge from the Army, I joined many of my buddies in signing up for college under the GI Bill. My research showed journalism schools were typically junior and senior programs. I enrolled at the University of Tennessee, intending to transfer after two years. Fate intervened again, and by my sophomore year, UT had instituted a reporting course. The associate editor of The Knoxville Journal, a morning daily, took a year’s sabbatical to teach it.

The following year, a full journalism curriculum was added, and the editor invited a few of us to come to work at the newspaper. It was a good source of cheap labor, since we were only allowed to make a minimum amount and stay under the GI Bill. But I got both a formal education and invaluable on-the-job experience. It was during this period, in 1948, that I read Horace McCoy’s They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? and No Pockets in a Shroud. Both involved murders. No Pockets dealt with a newspaper reporter.

While going to school fulltime days and working fulltime nights, I sat at my little portable typewriter in the basement of my fraternity house in spare moments and banged out a murder mystery. It featured a reporter solving a murder case. I’d like to say it was published and I became a big success. But I don’t like to lie. For me, publication didn’t come for another fifty-four years.

The path of my writing career wriggles like a snake. I left The Journal in 1951 to go on active duty with the Air National Guard, winding up in Seoul as an air intelligence officer in the Korean War. Back home in 1953, I signed on as a reporter for The Nashville Banner. I followed that doing publicity for the local mayor, free-lanced a bit for national magazines, and wrote speeches for the governor.

After that I started Nashville Magazine, a slick paper monthly, which was a bit ahead of its time. After nearly seven profitless years, I moved on to writing advertising copy and another stint at public relations. I wrote a Cold War spy novel in the sixties, which languished with a New York editor for six months before he gave up trying to sell his colleagues on buying it. I didn’t know I should have kept sending it out.

The last eighteen years of my business life were spent as a trade association manager, responsible for, among other things, putting out a bimonthly magazine. On approaching retirement, I told everyone I would write novels when I departed the business world. And write I did. Starting in 1990, I turned out a book a year for several years, mostly post-Cold War thrillers. My experience with agents during that period is another story, but suffice it to say nothing sold.

My writing slowed when my wife’s Parkinson’s Disease worsened. She had a bad surgical experience and went into a nursing home. After her death in 1998, I took a Holy Land tour that led to the writing of Secret of the Scroll, my first Greg McKenzie mystery. I got a three-book contract from a small press, and the eighth book I had written since retirement was published in 2002. It was a long apprenticeship.

After writing two more for Durban House, Designed to Kill and Deadly Illusions, I switched to Night Shadows Press for the fourth McKenzie book, The Marathon Murders. My first Sid Chance mystery, The Surest Poison, will be published by Night Shadows in April. Both series feature Nashville PIs. The McKenzie books deal with a couple in their sixties, an age group I feel notably qualified to write about.

If I have any claim to fame, it’s that I stand as a shining example of the value of persistence. I had rejections galore and unproductive agents to spare, providing ample opportunity to chuck it all along the way. I never thought of quitting. Since those early days at UT, I’ve considered myself first and foremost a writer, and I expect to continue it until they slide me into the incinerator.

If you’re game for a more lengthy version of my sixty-year odyssey with the written word, you’ll find it under “Reflections on My Writing Life” at http://www.chesterdcampbell.com/Reflections.htm


10 comments:

Vicki Lane said...

That's an inspiring and admirable saga, Chester!

Joyce Lavene said...

Great story, Chester! Writers are a tough lot!

Jen said...

Thanks for the great story Chester. Excuse me for being short here, but I'm headed over to hear more! So glad you never gave up.

Ken Lewis said...

You know something, Chester? I've heard stories of writer's stick-to-it-tivness before, but you, my friend, have just totally redefined the term! What a great, inspirational piece.

Chester Campbell said...

Thanks Vicki, Joyce, Jen and Ken. It has been a fun journey. And I'm still enjoying the ride.

Earl Staggs said...

Always a pleasure crossing paths with you, Chester. You've certainly traveled an interesting and full one in your life so far.

And the best part is, it ain't over yet.

Chester Campbell said...

Amen to that, Earl. If I could just get this computer to act right (DSL modem, actually), life would be a lot sweeter.

TheWritersPorch said...

What determination you have shown!
That was a truly inspiring journey you took me on, thank you, Chester!
I lived in Nashville myself for thirty years, still have grown children there.Keep at it, you know what they say;
" a writers a writer, right to the end"
Carol

Kaye Barley said...

Chester - you are amazing! This is indeed a great story and you truly are an inspiration.

Thanks for being a guest, and I hope you'll come back often.

Pat Browning said...

Chester,

You've had a full life, and it's still going strong. Glad you didn't decide just to rest on your laurels. (-:

The new Sid Chance book sounds great. Good luck with it.

Pat Browning
ABSINTHE OF MALICE
Krill Press 2008
authorsden.com/patbrowning