Enter Leo Bebb

I WAS READING a magazine as I waited my turn at a barber shop one day when, triggered by a particular article and the photographs that went with it, there floated up out of some hitherto unexplored subcellar of me a character who was to dominate my life as a writer for the next six years and more. He was a plump, bald, ebullient southerner who had once served five years in a prison on a charge of exposing himself before a group of children and was now the head of a religious diploma mill in Florida and of a seedy, flat-roofed stucco church called the Church of Holy Love, Incorporated. He wore a hat that looked too small for him. He had a trick eyelid that every once in a while fluttered shut on him. His name was Leo Bebb.

I had never known a man like Leo Bebb and was in most ways quite unlike him myself, but despite that, there was very little I had to do by way of consciously, purposefully inventing him. He came, unexpected and unbidden, from a part of myself no less mysterious and inaccessible than the part where dreams come from; and little by little there came with him a whole world of people and places that was as heretofore unknown to me as Bebb was himself. I have no doubt that, as in my earlier novels, I had to do more hard work than I now remember. I had to figure out names for people that seemed to suit them and to explore possible relationships between them. I had to search my memories of the South where they lived so I could get the look and the feel of it more or less right and the country way they some of them had of talking. I had to worry about plot, about what scenes to put in and what scenes to let the readers imagine for themselves. All of that. But in the case of Lion Country especially—the first of the four novels I wrote about Bebb—what I found myself involved in was a process much less of invention than of discovery. I had never written a book that seemed so much "on the house." It floated up out of my dreaming so charged with a life of its own that there was a sense in which almost all I had to do was sit back and watch it unfold. Instead of having to force myself to go back to it every morning as I had with novels in the past, I could hardly wait to go back to it; and instead of taking something like two years to write as the earlier ones had, it was all done in just short of three months.

-Originally published in Now and Then

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