Interview by Ed McManis
In Stephen Davenport’s short memoir, Ninety-Day Wonder, he takes us on deck of the USS Vermillion post WWII, and shares his two-year stint as reluctant commissioned officer. While Davenport, college graduate, just under 6’ 6”, tight end and accomplished athlete, might have looked the part of a Commander, he was more Ensign Pulver than John Paul Jones. Now ninety-three, he shares his frank recollection of his discomfort, ill-fit, and near disastrous mishaps calling the shots for his ship and crew, many who were tagged the Greatest Generation. He also recounts becoming a newly-wed, and his first years with his sweetheart, Joanna. (Steve and Joanna are now in their 70th year of marriage.)
Davenport is also the author of a trilogy of novels about Miss Oliver’s School for Girls: Saving Miss Oliver’s, No Ivory Tower, and The Encampment. Davenport, a lover of literature, master storyteller, and erstwhile Head of School, writes daily. As he states, regarding why write at 93? “I think the question should be reversed: What would motivate me not to write? I can’t come up with an answer. Plus, at my age, I’m in a hurry. I’m going to be dead soon.”
What was the impetus for this memoir Ninety-Day Wonder?
I’d been telling these sea stories for years. All my students had to do to get me to stop blathering about Hamlet or The Great Gatsby, or whatever was the subject of the day, was ask me questions about my time in the Navy. I knew exactly what they were doing, how they were winding me up like their own special toy, and I knew I should resist, but I love telling stories. One of the many aspects I loved about being a summer camp director was telling the campers stories after supper. I’d just make them up. No need to be realistic. Kids want to believe. They want to laugh; they want to be scared and they care a whole lot less about happy endings than grownups think they do. But my sea stories were not made up. They are true, remembered vividly. Imprinted. And, believe it or not, not exaggerated. People kept telling me I should write them.
About a year ago, I wrote a very long memoir in which I put everything I could remember right up to now. That included the story of my two years in the navy. But everyone knows the market doesn’t want an everything-you-can remember-memoir. It wants a single arc, a focus. You know, like how Mary became a track star with only one leg? So, I simply ripped the story of my two years in the Navy out of the manuscript and made it into a separate little book. And because I’d been telling these stories for years, not writing them, it was natural for me to want to make an audio book as well as the print and electronic. I suspect that when I wrote the Ninety-Day Wonder section of the long remember-everything-that-ever-happened memoir, there was a transcript in my head of the way I had been telling these sea stories for years. I do know the words came to me without much effort on my part. I simply copied them down.
I loved recording the book. I went to a wonderful recording studio, Live Oak Studio in Berkeley, which records audio books as well as music. I expected only technical expertise, but what I got from the person who recorded my voice was direction similar to what an actor gets from the film or play director. I was in a little soundproof room with a mike only inches from my face and earphones so I could hear the director/technician, a guy named John Ward, say from another room whatever I needed to hear, like “Let’s do that part again. Your voice drifted off at the end of the sentence.” He was great to work with. I’m writing a novel now, in first-person narration. I intend to “be” that narrator and work with John to make an audio of the book. If I can’t sell it, along with the print and e-eversions, I’ll self-publish it and get rich and famous all by myself. I’ve got plenty of time. I’m only 93.
What were some of the challenges with getting the book published?
I didn’t even consider traditional publishers. I assumed Ninety-Day Wonder, at only 92 pages, was too short for commercial publishers. Since then, a fellow writer, who writes history and biography told me he is sure publishers who focus on military subjects would be eager to publish it. He may be right, and I might look into that someday.
I’ve had mixed experiences with traditional publishers. In 2005 I had a wonderful agent, a man named Robert Ducas, who was shopping the first novel in the Miss Oliver’s School for Girls Saga, Saving Miss Oliver’s to the big publishers. I didn’t hear from him for several weeks. I didn’t want to bother him, so I waited another week and finally after my wife urged me, I called him. His wife answered and told me, “Bob died three weeks ago,” I was heartbroken. I’d come to like him very much, a sweet-natured former newspaper guy. Heartbroken too for selfish reasons. Its harder to find an agent than to find a true statement from Trump.
I was still active and well known in the National Association of Independent schools, which the fictional Miss Oliver’s School for Girls would have been a member, if real. Saving Miss Oliver’s had a built-in audience easy for me to reach. So, I self-published and the book sold pretty well. Later a wonderful independent publisher, West Margin Press, offered to publish Saving Miss Oliver’s and its sequels No Ivory Tower and The Encampment. My books were in very good hands until the parent company, Ingram, sold West Margin Press and all its titles to a large publisher which I will not name. Ingram notified the chief of West Margin Press after the sale. I was heartbroken for her and her wonderful staff. How would you like to get a phone call and be told out of the blue that the business you have nurtured to success has already been sold and you and your colleagues don’t have a job? Like several other authors published by West Margin Press, I felt abused also. Those are our books. We wrote them, they came out of our heads – and our talents. But we have no control of them. They’re just out there in space. The big company is doing almost nothing, if anything at all, to market the Miss Oliver trilogy. I asked for the entertainment rights to The Encampment back because I wanted to write a screenplay of it. Their answer: “We never give up our rights.” Period.
I grew up in Riverside, CT where Mr. Harcourt, Mr. Brace and Mr. Farrar lived. They were my parents’ friends, often in our house for dinner parties. What they had in common, along with a tweediness in their attire, was their love of books. It would take more time we have in this interview to list all the reasons publishers then were more willing to risk losing money on a book they admired than publishers are now.
You posit, wistfully, that if no one was allowed to be drafted or to sign up for the military until they were 90, there would be no war. With the current world situation, do you think there will ever be peace among nations?
No. I hate to say that, so definitely, but I don’t. Which is to say I lack the hope that is supposed to spring eternal. It is why I’ll be happily reading a book, or watching a movie, or just being still, and suddenly start weeping.
When did you know you wanted to be a writer?
In the seventh grade of the Riverside public school. We had a very good teacher, Miss Henry, who happened to be very heavy. There was a big crack in the cement walk outside the entrance. During lunch hour when everybody was supposed to be out in the school yard, I, eager to be a wise guy, sneaked back into the classroom and wrote a story on the blackboard about how the crack got there because on her very first day of employment, several centuries earlier, Miss Henry fell down there. I knew that when lunch hour was over and Miss Henry saw the story on the blackboard and wanted to know who wrote it, none of the girls would tell and every boy in the class would shout I DID. But Miss Henry was too cool for us. She glanced at the black board and showed no reaction. In fact, she used an adjacent section of the blackboard to teach us how to perform some function of arithmetic. This and other lessons went on, all on the black board right beside my elegant prose, until the end of school when the bell rang at twenty minutes after three. Miss Henry turned to me then and said, “This is a good story, Stevie, but you spelled cement wrong. It starts with a c not an s. Its hard to be a wise guy when you are addressed as Stevie, but Miss Henry was a good teacher and she stood right there in front of everybody and said it was a good story. Who was I to argue?
Your previous three novels revolve around a private school for girls: Saving Miss Oliver’s, No Ivory Tower, and The Encampment. What inspired this trilogy?
First of all, I had spent a lifetime in schools like the fictional Miss Oliver’s School for Girls. In fact, as a kid, I’d spent my high school years at Pomfret School, a boarding school. I knew the territory. I had a wealth of story telling material from living the life of student, teacher, head of school, board member, alumnus and consultant. And a powerful urge to tell those stories. Then too, everything that can happen to a person can happen in a boarding school. Boarding schools are like ships, closed environments. The long sea journey is like the long semester of a boarding school. The tension around whatever drama is unfolding is like a spring compressed more and more, so that when it is finally released there’s all that energy. And, though the one kind of school I’ve never worked in is a girls- only school, I added that dimension for the extra energy around feminism. I gave the school a cause that made it imperative that it survive. Seven lines in on the very first page of Saving Miss Oliver’s I describe the school as founded by a woman, designed by women, run by women, with a curriculum that focuses on the way women learn.
Independent schools are by their nature breeding grounds for highly emotional, very political struggles. That’s good story telling material. The head has to keep the different constituents centered, loyal to the mission and loyal to each other. But the parents, who pay the tuition frequently have a different agenda than the students. The board, the faculty, and the alumnae usually want the school unchanged from the one they attended. It goes on and on. And there are always star faculty members with more autonomy than in most professions. These are people who radiate the power of their brilliance. Every day, they close the doors of their classrooms and perform as they want to. At the heart of Savimg Miss Oliver’s is the struggle between the legendary teacher Francis Plummer, loyal to the former head, and the brand new, young head of school. It would be a spoiler to say who wins. My own experiences in these environments and those of my peers provided a trove of stories, much more material for telling the truth about humans than anyone could fit into only three novels.
What was the biggest revelation /lesson for you writing the Miss Oliver’s books?
That they were case studies. That every serious novel is a case study of something – operating much like case studies business school professors challenge their students with. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, for instance, is a case study of how actual experience can change our beliefs, concepts we take for granted. In Huck’s case, his sharing an arduous trip down the Mississippi on a raft with an enslaved person who passes every test of decency and courage, changed Huck’s inherited opinion that Black people were inferior, and slavery was morally acceptable.
When I finally understood that Saving Miss Oliver’s is a case study around institutional resistance to change, I designed and facilitated several very successful case study workshops based on Saving Miss Oliver’s for current and aspiring school heads. In Saving Miss Oliver’s, a young, male head, Fred Kindler, is brought in from the outside to succeed the beloved, charismatic, Marjorie Boyd whom the board had finally got up the nerve to dismiss after almost thirty years. The only way the faculty, the students, and the alumnae could be loyal to her is to hate Fred Kindler. The preparation for the workshop was to read Saving Miss Oliver’s. At the workshop, the assignment was for each of the breakout groups was to act as an experienced head coming up with advice and a list of action steps for Fred Kindler.
I got the idea for the novel from remembering a lecture I gave to the students at a ten-day workshop for aspiring and first year heads of school about being aware of what issues need to be faced before signing on as a new head of school or even seeking that position. Just as I was finishing, a young woman who had accepted the head’s position at a well-known girls’ school just days before, stood up from her chair weeping and fled the room. She was the successor to a long-time, much-admired head who had been resistant to change. The school was in a rut, but the rut was a comfortable one for the faculty. Her mandate from the board was to modernize the curriculum and remove several mediocre teachers. I advised her to go back to the board and explain to them how difficult politically the mandate was and to give her a lengthy time period to get the change in motion. But the problem was too big. She was let go in February of her first year in the job What the board should have done was to appoint an interim head to get the change in motion in one or two years and then bring in a new head.
The third book in the Miss Oliver trilogy is titled The Encampment and deals with a homeless veteran. What motivated you to write this book?
Outrage and sadness. I live in Oakland. I can’t go anywhere without passing people who, in the richest country in the world, sleep in doorways, on sidewalks, under bridges. How can this be? Why do we let it happen? Years ago, I walked out of a Best Buy store carrying a brand new computer I had purchased and came across a middle-aged man who was weeping. I could tell he was trying to stop, but he couldn’t. He just couldn’t. I asked what was wrong. “I just lost my job,” he said. “I can’t pay the rent. I have nowhere to live, nowhere to go.” He was a professional baker. Now he was a derelict. Forced to live outdoors. I can’t imagine the fear. Another time, while taking a walk, I passed a young woman holding the usual, depressingly familiar square of brown cardboard with just the one word on it: HOMELESS. I always wonder where homeless people get the markers to write that word with. I gave her five dollars. “Thanks,” she said. “Today I won’t have to turn any tricks.”
Years ago, when I was a little boy my older cousin who had fought all the way across France and into Germany in WWII, took my brothers and me camping. We tried to get him to talk about his war experiences. He never did. His horrors weren’t fit for our young ears. But he did casually mention that the following weekend he would go to someone’s funeral. A look of amazement came across his face and he murmured just loud enough for us to hear, how strange it’s going to feel to be at a funeral for only one person at a time.
The Encampment is about two female students, seniors, who secretly take risks their parents would not permit them to take to help a homeless Iraq war vet with PTSD. They break rules, including stealing warm clothing for him, and bringing him into the dorm during a blizzard, the punishment for which is automatic expulsion from the school. In the first drafting I only had the story: the triggering action when the kids first come upon the homeless man and then what happened. When I began to understand that what those kids were doing and how their parents and the school were reacting, I realized that when we make any kind of progress toward justice, the younger generation leaves the older generation behind. So, I wrote another chapter and put it at the very beginning.
In that chapter, head of school, Rachel Bickham, looks out over the campus from her office. She’s been in office for 16 years and wears the beloved school around herself like a coat, but she is beginning to ask herself, Is this all? Then she sees her daughter and her daughter’s roommate, both seniors, walking across the campus toward the gate that leads off campus onto the road into the nearby town. They are going there to get ice cream cones, but what they and Rachel do not know is that they are about to meet the homeless man. Their lives, and Rachel’s will be changed forever. The last paragraph of the first chapter implies the whole arc of the story. “It was Saturday afternoon, and they were free to go – but only as far as the village of Fieldington – a very safe place. Rachel had a sudden desire to join them, as if to experience the world with them, seeing in it what they saw, would also calm her emptiness, but of course that was her imagination being overactive, and besides, she didn’t think she should intrude. Instead, she watched then until, likes ships slipping over the horizon, they were out of sight.”
Do you see any relief for the homeless situation?
Yes, but it will be slow. Americans seem to get to solutions finally, motivated by a combination of practicality, selfishness, and sympathy. Homelessness is wrapped into the system, connected to issues that in turn are connected to still other issues. Primary to homelessness are the high cost of housing, NIMBYism, zoning laws, and I think also the very American, and almost always incorrect assumption that if you are poor and downtrodden its your own fault.
What role/responsibility do you think the government has toward resolving homelessness?
A big one, in partnership with private enterprise. I think the concept, which got so much energy from President Regan, that government is the problem, not the solution, is harmful. The government is us. Government gets big things done, solves big problems that private enterprise and philanthropy cannot get done alone. A nation that cannot house its own citizens? If that’s not a big problem, then what is?
At your age, 93, what motivates you to write?
I think the question should be reversed: What would motivate me not to write? I can’t come up with an answer. Plus, at my age, I’m in a hurry. I’m going to be dead soon.
What would be your top three tips for beginning writers?
1. Write every day, if you can, even if you have the time for only a few sentences. 2. Develop a thick skin and seek skilled and very harsh critiques of your work. 3. Read read read. Only good books. No Shlock. If you like shlock, get over it. Don’t read like a reader, a consumer. Read the way carpenters read architects’ plans. What keeps the roof from falling down? How does this novel work? How’s it built.? Why in this point of view, why this narrative voice? – and so on.
Who had the biggest influence on your writing style?
When I was very young, listening to my mother read to my brothers and me, A.A. Milne. Winnie The Poo; Tigger, Heffalump, Eeyore the thistle eating donkey who was most happy when he was most morose. Who wouldn’t want to write words like that? Later, two writers whose styles were opposite: Hemingway, for all the white spaces, the underwriting; Faulkner, for the rumble – the way many of his sentences roll forward toward the verb, then retreat, going back part way toward the subject, then roll forward again toward the period at the end. Like the tide coming in on a beach.
What are your all-time top five novels?
The Transit of Venus, by Shirley Hazard, Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf, Farewell to Arms, By Hemingway, Beloved, by Toni Morrison, The Natural, by Barnard Malamud. (Don’t watch the movie. The changed happy ending contradicts the whole, legend-based premise of the novel and renders it into pure—you guessed it—shlock.)
About the interviewer: Ed McManis is a writer, editor, & erstwhile Head of School. His work has appeared in more than 60 publications. He says, “Steve Davenport has been a mentor, friend, writing colleague, and fount of wisdom for Head of School issues. Steve has kept the best of the Greatest Generation values alive and is that rare person who has the empathy, creativity, and insight to share these values across multi-generations and in his writing. He is a treasure. And a pretty good tennis player, too.”