The Life and Times of E.E. King
Or What I was doing while I wrote Emily Finfeather.
(In which the author discusses inspiration, Ray Bradbury, Buck Rogers, egrets, monarchs and how to know when it’s safe to release baby squirrels.)
The Feathernail and Other Gifts (The Adventures of Emily Finfeather I) was the first book I ever wrote. When I was finished it, I read it to Ray Bradbury, my mentor. It was perhaps his favorite of my works because, like most artists, he’d been an outcast as a child.
Ray had never liked school, an emotion I share. (Not that I’m comparing myself to Ray. Hating school doesn’t make one a genius.) He was an autodidact… libraries were his university, Shaw and Shakespeare his professors.
When I read him the opening section where Emily is picked on, he teared up.
“When I was eight,” he said. “The kids mocked me for collecting Buck Rodgers comic books. So I burned them.”
Flame licked Buck’s red boots and snaked up his cat suited flying form, engulfing him in a red sea. One, two, twenty Bucks silently screamed as they ignited, rockets and worlds reduced to ash and memory. Ray stood before a black lifeless pyre. After Buck’s demise he was more accepted.
“But I became depressed and wondered why. I was miserable for weeks. Then I knew,” he cried, the memory of that fictional death as vivid as it had been eighty six years before.
“I had burned Buck! I was depressed because I had burned Buck. These people were not my friends. My friends would not have told me to burn Buck!
“I determined to never again let other people influence me or my work. They told me not to write science fiction.”
Most people seeing childhood’s reflection in the rearview mirror remember a carefree time. Twist the telescope toward the past, and things become smaller and prettier; a tiny halcyon summer, endless games of hide ‘n seek and ice-cream. They forget monsters under the bed, bullies, nights made sleepless by fear of the unknown and the terror of death. Ray never did. Of course he never grew up either, but most artists don’t. Perhaps it’s that inability to forget that leads to brilliance or madness. Ray, luckily, was solidly on the former side of that divide, but he remembered everything.
Following your heart, speaking your truth, and writing daily was Ray’s recipe for writers. Every time he saw me he demanded, “Have you written today, Evie?” and I knew I had always better say, ‘yes.’
Evie, by the way is my nick name. My full name is Elizabeth Eve King. Evie is short for Eve, which is odd, because Evie is longer than Eve.
During this time, 2009, I was the art and science director for a nonprofit in South Central LA, Esperanza. What does that mean? What did I do? Well, art and science of course. I painted very, very large mural (131’ x 44’) on the site of our new project Mercado La Paloma, 3655 S. Grand Street.
This is it:
It’s there still, if you’re in LA, and want to stop by. “It was called “A Meeting of Minds,” and pictured Albert Schweitzer, Albert Einstein, Leonardo da Vinci, Rosa Parks, Eleanor Roosevelt, Aldous Huxley, George Bernard Shaw, Mahatma Gandhi, Charles Darwin, Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King Jr., Cesar Chavez, Ann Frank, Lucille Royball Allard, Rita Walters, Sister Diane Donoghue and Bruce Saito as well as a lot community folk and everyone who worked for Esperanza. The idea was to present the market place as an ideal world.
I painted Huxley having tea with a sweet, needy, but not very bright child. I feel slightly guilty about it. I can’t imagine what they would have to talk about, stuck in a perpetual tea party in downtown LA.
Maybe there’s an afterlife where painted figures confront their makers. Whistler meets, not his mother, but the painting of his mother. Modigliani, prince of vagabonds, dances with hollow eyed, long necked beauties. Picasso is confronted with monsters, two eyes on one side of cubed faces. On dark nights, when I have nothing better to do, I worry that Huxley is going to give me hell …. But I digress.
At Esperanza I also taught afterschool art classes and started a garden project.
The children and I began planting milkweed in the narrow swaths of dirt between sidewalk and street. The strip of dirt was 115’ long by 3.5’ wide. Such unused strips of land, line the streets of almost all neighborhoods.
Before After (Me in the background looking stern)
We grew a variety of wildflowers, herbs, succulents and vegetables as well as installing mosaic pathways, bird baths and bird houses. But our focus was milkweed, the host plant for monarch butterflies. What if we could make the streets a walking garden and create a migration path for monarchs in the heart of the inner-city?
It worked for a while. The kids experience, metamorphosis in Monarchs, lady bugs, Gulf Fritillaries, and Cabbage Whites. They became enthusiastic horticulturalists and budding entomologists, schooled in the semi-arcane, daily wonders of life such as parthenogenesis and simultaneous hermaphrodites.
“Snails must never be lonely,” Adali (age eight) explained to Ashley (age nine), “because they are boys and girls together.” It changed the entire vibe of the community.
And now I’m going to share my great idea with you. You can steal it if you like. I wish you would. Say it was your idea. I’m too lazy and selfish to push it. You could do a TED talk, get grants, make it real! It would cool cities, aid a beleaguered species, create environmental stewards in the inner-city and make metropolises more magical. This is the idea:
If every stretch of unused dirt, parkways, medians etc. were planted with milkweed, monarchs would inhabit our streets. Plant milkweed in all the empty lots, snippets and jots of land you can. Be Jonny Milkweed seed. Milkweed needs little water or care and proliferates with the abandon of licentious Mormon rabbits. It is completely drought tolerant. It can grow almost anywhere, and once established needs no care. Because you’d be planting in areas only inhabited by garbage and weeds, there are no problems with displacement of species. There are no species to displace.
Currently Monarch’s migratory patterns are at risk due to habitat loss, climate change and Monsanto poison. However, if you plant Milkweed they will come. Just imagine a cities heart beat pulsing in tempo to the rhythm of orange wings.
As I say it worked for a while, but after I left Esperanza the garden became weedy, and was destroyed by an overzealous clean-up crew. But, the fact that it existed, even for a while, was magic.
To quote the end of Island, By Aldous Huxley, “The work of a hundred years destroyed in a single night. And yet the fact remained—the fact of the ending of sorrow as well as the fact of sorrow.”
I know it’s a bit grandiose; to compare a two year garden with the ‘work of a hundred years,’ but Island was one of my ‘epiphanic’ books and I recommend it. It’s a masterpiece of paradise lost and found, or was that Milton?
I’m climbing off my soapbox now and returning to Ray Bradbury.
One day I brought Ray a chrysalis. He was thrilled.
“Did you know that the butterfly effect came from a story I wrote?” He said. “It was the one where destroying a butterfly changes the future, now it’s in the lexicon.”
I miss him. I will always miss him. And somewhere, somehow I hope in one of those other dimensions that quantum science tells us is less than the width of a butterfly’s wing away, Ray is reading over my shoulder saying, “A bit thick, needs cutting.”
I hope so.
During this time, 2009, I was living in Playa Del Rey, above the beach in Los Angeles. I was part of a writer’s group about six miles away in Venice. I would bike to the group down a steep hill and take the beach path to Marina Del Rey. Then I’d curve up through a Eucalyptus grove where, ninety feet above, egrets roosted. It was a rookery, and one day while biking home I spotted a stranded baby egret. Perhaps it’d attempted flight too soon. Perhaps it’d fallen. Most likely it’d been pushed out of the nest by older siblings. Being the baby in a family of four girls, I could relate. It looked like a mini pterodactyl, with huge beak and giant feet. Much to the dismay of parents, boyfriends and roommates, I have always had an inability to ignore desperate animals. I got off my bike and approached the egret. It nervously shuffled away, so I took off my sweater and threw it over its head. I grabbed its beak and, wrapping it up like a bird burrito stuffed it into a plastic bag. Then I biked home fast as I could.
“Iggy,” as he soon became known, survived the trip. He was followed by Couscous and Milo. Iggy and Cousie were great egrets, by great I mean big. Milo was a lesser egret, although he’d have resented that nomenclature. (I refer to Iggie and Milo as males and Coussie as a female, because that’s what they seemed like. However, unless you dissect an egret, or catch one in the act of laying eggs, or coitus, there is no way to determine sex.)
Every week I would go to the docks near our house, buy live bait from the local fishermen and cut them into bite sized chunks for the birds. It wasn’t pleasant, but it was nowhere nearly as nasty as the live eels I carried around Bali for a week for Balinese egret orphans.
At first we kept the birds in a tarp covered drum room, but after a week or so, when they were bigger, they moved to an outdoor cage. By that time the drum room smelled like a guano factory.
The cage had been built in the back yard by my long suffering husband out of 2 x 4’s and chicken wire. It had housed everything but chickens; chinchillas, squirrels and an occasional crow or pigeon. It had a brick, to prevent burrowing, and was a masterpiece of architecture, if you have very low standards. It was about eight feet high and twelve feet long.
When I brought home the egrets the cage was already occupied by four orphaned squirrels. The squirrels had been infants when I’d got them, the cutest little rodents ever. They’d progressed from being nursed every four to six hours in a closed, blanketed cat cage inside the house, to subsisting on a diet of grains and nuts in a blanketed cat cage inside the outside enclosure. When squirrels can crack walnuts they are large enough to release. This is a very useful fact, and you should commit it to memory. Then, if you are ever stranded on a desert island with a cage of baby squirrels, and a box of walnuts, you will know when it is safe to let them go.
These squirrels were ready to go. I’d cut a hole in the enclosure so they could get in and out as desired, but had seen no reason to evict them until the arrival of the egrets. Now however the time had come. When the squirrels were out frolicking we moved their nest box (cat cage) onto the roof of the enclosure. When they came back and discovered that they’d been moved to a penthouse they were not happy. They screamed at us and the egrets for three nights straight before accepting their fate. The egrets got very little sleep.
Thus began the magical summer of egrets. Iggie was the dominate one. Coussie was afraid of heights, not a good quality in a bird. She consistently overshot the landing strip, our patio, and usually crash landed into the door of the drum room. She was the antidote to Jonathan Livingston. She could fly up. But when she looked down she got very woozy. The first time she made it up to the telephone wire, about one hundred feet over our yard, she froze. Night was falling and egrets (many birds) can’t see at night and have to roost. Iggie flew up and demonstrated the ease with which he, and therefore she, could glide to safety. But when she looked down, she (metaphorically) turned green. He tried to show her how to descend a nearby wall. He even pecked her toward it and almost got her down, but at the last minute she freaked and scrambled back to the wire. Finally, as darkness descended Iggie flew down and grumbled his way into the enclosure. Coussie didn’t come down till morning.
I also had two kittens and I have pictures of me cradling both babies together on my lap. It was in this magical place that I wrote Emily.
And each day at work in my South Central Art and Science class I’d tell the kids tales of Emily while they worked. They loved the story and it was a sure way to keep quiet. This was a good thing because I suck at discipline. They became quite obsessed with the adventures of Emily and would fill other kids in on any missed sections. Some of the story in my short story collection Another Happy Ending also began as tales told to the children at Esperanza. And this dear reader is the tale of the writing of Emily Finfeather.