Author draws on youth to spin tale of fighter pilot’s son
April 12, 2005
MISAWA AIR BASE, Japan — After four years at this northern Japan base, military spouse Corynn Gilbert says she has a better sense of what her dad experienced growing up as the son of Col. Everette Lance Marcum, a decorated combat fighter pilot.
But even more revealing is dad Lance Marcum’s first book, “The Cottonmouth Club,” told through the eyes of a smart-aleck 11-year-old Air Force brat forced to spend the summer of 1963 with Louisiana-bred country cousins.
“I had to ask my dad, ‘Did this really happen?’ ” Gilbert said while paging through the new hardback he’d signed for her. His answer: “‘You’ll never know.’”
Marcum, a sixth-grade teacher in Fair Oaks, Calif., didn’t follow in his father’s footsteps. But what he learned living under his dad’s nomadic roof is learned all over again by protaganist Mitch Valentine. The book is fiction, but “so much of it is his life growing up in the Air Force,” Gilbert said. “It’s also about being a kid without really having a home.”
Marcum did, periodically, spend time on the Louisiana farm where his mother grew up. And he did initially feel superior to his hick cousins, Gilbert said, as does the book’s character Valentine, who’s lived in cosmopolitan locations with his cool fighter pilot dad. But eventually, Gilbert said, Valentine comes to envy their stability and sense of family.
The novel’s intended audience is readers 10 and older but Marcum said he also wanted to remind adults of their childhood. Also, he said, those with a military background should relate to some of his memories. For example, “Driving cross-country with Dad was quite an experience. … I’d once watched him fly an F-100 Super Sabre, one of the hottest jets in the world, putting it through high-speed climbs, dives, loops, and barrel rolls with supreme skill. But put Dad or any other fighter pilot behind the wheel of a powerful car and you’ve got a demolition derby ... Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride.”
Writing at a pace of about 12 hours per finished page, the 328-page novel took about 11 years to complete, Marcum said, including four years writing it and another four trying to get it published. He read chapters to almost 1,000 of his former students, getting their opinion on what was funny, phony or stupid. After 87 rejection letters, mostly from agents, Marcum said, he gave up. But one girl told her teacher to keep trying; the student’s aunt had a best friend at New York publishing house Farrar, Straus and Giroux. One day Marcum came home to find a message on his answering machine: “We want to publish your book.”
His advice to aspiring novelists: “Don’t make the mistake I did ... to sit around for years and be a wannabe. Sit your fanny down in the chair and start … putting words on paper. Until you do … it’s not going to happen.”
And, he advised, don’t give up. “That’s how I’m signing my books to my students,” he said: “ ‘Never give up on your dreams.’ ”
Marcum’s dad, who was high school buddies with Chuck Yeager, died in 1973. “He would love to read this book,” Marcum said. “It would bring back so many memories.”