NOTE: Michael B. Pinkey lives in a little blue house near the Arkansas River and is known in the area for his gardens, piano playing and massive outlay of accumulated dross on recycling-pickup day. We caught up with him while he was in his front yard watching bumblebees through a magnifying glass, and had the following exchange:
Q: “Pinkey” is an unusual name--is it English--?
A: No--although my great-great-grandmother was British, of the royal house of Spencer. And there are “Pinkey”s who hail from England--those outfits that offer to provide you with your family history and coat of arms always steer toward England when hailing me with their services. But my family name was originally Lithuanian; when my great-great-grandfather emigrated to America to escape the rampages of the Czar, immigration officials chopped the name down to “Pinkey” for their own convenience. I grew up with no one in my family knowing what the original name was, but years later my dad discovered it in old church records in the coal-mining country of Pennsylvania. My family was in the coal-mining business until my great-grandfather, after spending a week picking slate (the first job given to boys when they began to be moved underground into The system), never seeing the sun, only to have his measly wage confiscated by his mother “for the family,” decided “to #@$%@#! with this” and lit out on a bicycle the next morning and joined the army. So, my branch of the Pinkey family became an Army bunch--my grandfather was a career NCO in the army, and my father was a West Point graduate (Class of ‘45) and a career officer--colonel--although Dad reports that there are still an awful lot of “Pinkeys” in the phone books of Pennsylvania’s coal country.
Q: And the original name was--
A: Pinknoras. So the records say. Me, I’ve never met or heard of a “Pinknoras” in my life, and suspect that they may all have been rendered into “Pinkeys.” Any of them out there, probably relatives. Maybe they owe me money.
Q: So, then, why did you write your first book, Stray Not Beyond?
A: Well, I inherited a warehouse full of paper, and I got tired of making paper airplanes.
A: No. And Stray Not Beyond isn’t really my first book. The first book I ever wrote was called Goon the School Teacher and I wrote it when I was eight, 108 pages, all in pencil on lined notebook paper, with illustrations, and “book design” carefully copied from the Walter R. Brooks FREDDY THE PIG books, which I highly admired. I still have it. It has continuity problems.
Q: FREDDY THE PIG, eh?
A: Yeah, the first book I ever enjoyed actually reading was a Freddy the Pig book. I was dragged kicking and screaming into the world of reading--I still remember when my mother began to hound me about “reading the words” while I was looking through my comic books. Now all of a sudden it wasn’t good enough to just look at the pictures, but I had to hear, “Are you READING it TOO???” What a pain this gave me! Interfering with my elementary and long-established COMIC-BOOK enjoyment! It used to irritate me tremendously to have her come walking through the door and announce, “I brought you another book from the library.” And then she’d make me try to read it! Out loud, to her! My young soul was sodden with resentment at these intrusions upon its inner being...until one day when I was eight she brought home Freddy and the Baseball Team From Mars--that was the book that Did It. After that I began to read everything I could get my hands on--I was living on an Army base in Germany at the time, three years with no television, tough on a little kid grown accustomed to his “Mighty Mouse” and “Popeye” and “Lone Ranger,” so the imagination-stimulating effects of reading were heightened within my mind by that. So, my entire lifelong love of books and literature all started with Freddy the Pig. And the odd thing is, years later, the first book to bear my name in any way was Overlook Press’s The Wit and Wisdom of Freddy the Pig, which lists me as one of the co-editors. So the circle, it runs around--grab that brass ring! Don’t give up the ship! 54/40 or fight! Over the river and through the woods--
Q: AND--about STRAY NOT BEYOND--?
A: Oh...oh, yeah. Well, that’s a whole different story. I wound up working as a newspaperman in North Carolina--I was in the Marines, and working for the Public Affairs Office at Cherry Point where, I might add, I received a very good, basically 1920s-style old-fashioned education in writing, editing, proofing, press-releasing and newspapering in general. As is well known, all newspapermen have a secret desire to write a novel, and I was no exception, but it remained a vague, theoretical idea, resulting in nothing more than a few piles of pages which trailed off into uncertainty, until I had the privilege of visiting author and humorist H. Allen Smith at his home in Alpine, Texas, in February of 1974.
Q: H. Allen Smith--?
A: Yeah, I’d been reading his stuff since I was 12, ever since randomly picking up LOST IN THE HORSE LATITUDES at a library because it had drawings of horses wearing glasses and smoking pipes on the spine. Smith, you know, was one of the original two contestants at the first Terlingua, Texas, chili cookoff in 1967--his book THE GREAT CHILI CONFRONTATION is a hilarious record of how it came about and, of course, now it has grown to be a huge annual event which attracts thousands of people. And Smith’s first bestseller LOW MAN ON A TOTEM POLE is what gave that phrase to our language. RHUBARB, the millionaire cat that inherited a baseball team...? Well, anyway, when I met him he had moved away from New York to a mountaintop in the wilds of west Texas, and was glad to have my wife and me come for an hour one afternoon on our way back from Mexico. It was a real thrill for me to be in that home, to walk into his office where the typewriter sat from which he had wrought better than thirty books over the years--and I was real struck to see his own personal collection OF those books, all specially bound in red leather, on their own shelf. Well, after that visit, after seeing the house that writin’ built and getting to actually visit with the famous writer himself, my desire to write mySELF a book took real fire. As soon as I got back home I started blazing away at the typewriter. I started two or three story lines, which all petered out after only a few pages. Then one day I rolled a page into the machine and wrote the first sentence of what would become STRAY NOT BEYOND, and it took hold. I thought it would take me a year to write it. It took ten. And then I let it lie in a desk drawer for another fifteen years before getting it out and revising it for publication. I was tired. But now there the book sits for all to regard--STRAY NOT BEYOND! For sale today! Tell all your friends! Scrawl www.straynotbeyond.com on sidewalks with glow-in-the-dark chalk! Have your mayor declare a STRAY NOT BEYOND da--
Q: Can you tell us something about the book?
A: Well, it has pages. Pages covered with words. It’s also a book with several different levels of meaning, a philosophical novel disguising itself as a humorous horror-mystery-fantasy, and another level deeper than that which I prefer to let the reader discern, or not, as each case may be. It was hard to write, because I didn’t make it up, but rather had to let it present itself in its own time and in its own way, and sometimes it just wouldn’t move. Sometimes for a long time...I still remember the thrill of finally typing THE END and knowing that it was, indeed, properly so.
Q: What do you say to people who may think that your depiction of North Carolina and its citizens is, let’s say, unflattering?
A: Well, first of all, I placed the story in North Carolina because it has to do with tobacco, and North Carolina is a tobacco state. Personally, I lived in North Carolina for more than three years--in fact, I started the book while living there--and think it is a beautiful place. But as far as the town of “Otterwood” as described, and some of the characters to be found therewithin, I’ve run across towns like that and people like that all over the country. In fact, right here in this neighborhood there is a guy just down the street who--say, you want something to drink?
Q: No, no thanks—I’ve got a bus to catch, and that sun’s a’slantin’. But, thanks for talking with us here. Let me ask you, though--is everything you’ve told us really true?
A: Sure. All true. Every word. All except for the part about the warehouse full of paper.