A Writer's Story

MICHAEL RUSCOE is an author, journalist, teacher, and Pop Hero Media’s Vice President and Chief Creative Officer. His adventures in storytelling began in kindergarten with E.B. White’s classic children’s book, Stuart Little.

 

“Even all these years later, I can still remember it clearly,” Ruscoe said. “The best part of the day was when the teacher read us a chapter of Stuart Little—and the worst part was when she finished the chapter and made us wait until the next day for more. Years before ‘binging’ meant ‘consuming a story in its entirety in one sitting,’ I would have sat on that floor for hours listening to her read that book. White’s style of writing had me absolutely spellbound, although I wouldn’t realize that until much later. At the time, the five-year-old boy was simply lost in the story.

“To me, White’s story was poetic and beautiful and charming,” he said. “It informed so much of the rest of my life. The Little’s family unit instilled in me a strong sense of family that I carry to this day. The book painted a romantic picture of New York City that, I think, helped drive me there as a grad student. And the way the Littles simply accepted the fact that their second son arrived in the form of a mouse—no questions asked, it was all cool, they just loved him for who he was—I think there’s a message of acceptance and tolerance there that influenced my beliefs forever, and that message is one that’s vitally important for children to hear today.”

 

As a boy, Ruscoe was rarely without a book in his hands. “My mother was a voracious reader,” he said. “There were always books in my home. Whether those books were bought at school fairs, checked  out from the library, or picked up at the mall, I was never without something to read. And I was incredibly lucky that my childhood coincided with the construction of a new library in my hometown. It was a beautiful, sparkling new building, and I spent more hours than I can count lost in the aisles there.”

 

What kind of books did he read? “To say my tastes were somewhat eclectic is kind of an understatement,” he said. “I remember there was a short-lived TV show based on the old Ellery Queen mystery novels. I loved the show, so naturally I began reading every Ellery Queen novel I could get my hands on. I loved the way the authors of the books challenged the reader—in Ellery’s voice—to solve the mystery before the big reveal at the end. I don’t think I ever got a single one right. But the books were still wonderfully written, and lots of fun!

“I remember reading a lot of Kurt Vonnegut, because in the early- to mid-70s, it was very cool to read Vonnegut,” Ruscoe said. “The books had the added benefit of being absolutely brilliant. I also loved reading Mark Twain. And I distinctly remember that I started reading James Bond novels by sixth grade. I can still picture myself toting around a paperback copy of Goldfinger, always hoping that the teachers wouldn’t see the near-naked woman covered in gold paint on the front cover. I was afraid they would take it away from me!”

 

Ian Fleming’s iconic spy novels and the 007 movies were among the many books and films that helped create a symbiotic passion in Ruscoe’s boyhood years. “I loved movies,” he said. “I still do. Everything from silent comedies to Golden Era classics to modern, big-budget extravaganzas. I can’t get enough of them, and that started in my earliest years. I remember when I was a kid, we’d get the TV Guide every week, and the first thing I would do is flip through the movie listings to see what was on that week. My absolute favorites became anything starring James Cagney. Public Enemy, Yankee Doodle Dandy, City for Conquest, and my favorite, Angels with Dirty Faces. I also kept an eye out for King Kong, Godzilla, and Yellow Submarine. Just as it was with books, my taste for films was all over the place, but I loved them all.

“I didn’t realize it at the time, but my fascination for cinema made me a better reader,” Ruscoe said. “I was a kid before the age of cable TV and VCRs. When you saw a new movie, the only way to relive the story afterwards without actually going back to the theater was to get the paperback tie-in to the film—either the novelized version of the screenplay, or the original book upon which the movie was based. I’d go see a new movie once, and then read the story over and over again in paperback.”

 

In the meantime, Ruscoe’ imagination was fueled by incredible stories, both fantastical and from real life. “I was obsessed with comic books,” he said, “comic books packed with superheroes, and colorful, larger-than-life stories filled with amazing characters performing all kinds of heroic deeds. Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko and the astounding Silver Age of Comics—the newsprint of those comics formed the fabric of my childhood. At the same time, I was watching Star Trek on TV, and without knowing it, I was learning about the important social messages that could be weaved into stories from genres like science fiction. And all of this was going on against the backdrop of watching men land on the moon—a treasured memory that I might someday pass on to grandchildren, a story about what humankind can accomplish when they dedicate themselves to a seemingly unreachable goal.”

By this time, Ruscoe was showing a knack for reading and writing in school. “It was just something that came naturally,” he said. “I was passable in all the other subjects; I could get good grades if I worked hard enough. But I was always a strong writer as a kid, and my reading level always tested at least a couple of grades ahead of my classmates. I didn’t pay much attention to it. It was just something I could do. If someone had offered me the chance to trade that skill for the ability to hit a baseball more effectively during recess, I probably would have taken it. I’m glad I didn’t. But I would have at the time.”

 

Through the years, Ruscoe developed as a student writer, and upon graduation from high school, he thought his career path was obvious. “I was a film major as a college freshman,” he said. “I wanted to make movies. I wanted to write and direct, and maybe act some, since I had been in several plays in high school. A hero of mine was—and still is—Charlie Chaplin. I admire his genius, his passion, and his ability to infuse the smallest scene with tremendous emotion. I was lucky enough to take a class on Chaplin in high school. We read his autobiography, which remains one of the most influential books of my life.”

It wasn’t long before Ruscoe realized, however, that a life in film wasn’t his true calling. “Through my freshman year, I was cranking out all kinds of writing outside of class—playing with the craft, experimenting with it, having fun. The vast majority of it wasn’t particularly good, but I didn’t care. And I got one of the best pieces of writing advice I ever got that year. It came from a classmate. She told me, ‘Look, you’re not a prodigy. You have to work for it all the time, just like the rest of us.’ Even now, with decades of professional writing behind me, I live by that piece of advice every day.

 

“It became obvious, for a number of reasons, that filmmaking wasn’t going to be my destiny,” Ruscoe said. “But I was beginning to get a sense of my potential as a writer, and where that might take me.” Ruscoe had family in the newspaper business, and the idea of becoming a reporter fascinated him. He transferred schools, became a journalism major at Southern Connecticut State University, and at the end of a summer internship, was offered a full-time job as a reporter at the Bridgeport Post-Telegram.

 

“I loved that job,” he said. “I started as a beat reporter in a rural town that you wouldn’t think would generate a lot of news. And in the grand scheme of things, it didn’t. But it was filled with a distinct and fascinating assortment of characters, and without realizing it, I discovered that they were where the real stories could be found.”

 

By the end of his tenure with the Post-Telegram, Ruscoe was covering the state courthouse in Danbury, Connecticut. “There were some moments of high drama,” he said. “Very high drama. And back then, we all wrote two stories a day, plus a Sunday feature each week, and these stories included everything from the most deadly dull Planning and Zoning Commission meetings to murder cases that made national news. We cranked out copy all the time. It was the most valuable training I’ve ever had as a writer, and I wouldn’t trade it for anything.”

 

Still, Ruscoe was driven to telling stories of his own, and he left the newspaper to attend graduate school at Brooklyn College of the City University of New York, majoring in English and creative writing. There, he wrote his first novel, Save the Busters. “I looked at a bunch of grad schools, but Brooklyn was really the most appropriate,” he said. “Besides having a wonderful creative writing program, it allowed me to fulfill a dream that I had since childhood—the dream of living in New York City. Nothing can compare to the energy of living in the city. It drove me to write. And I came into the city, and the BC program, with the seeds of the ideas that would become Save the Busters. Since the novel’s plot was centered on a baseball team that moved from its home, leaving a trail of heartbreak in its wake, Brooklyn was the perfect place for me to live and study as I wrote it.”

In Brooklyn, Ruscoe also began teaching his first college courses in writing, something he would wind up doing for the next 30 years. “Being around young people, getting to talk to them about writing—the opportunity to do that is a gift to be treasured. I’m tremendously grateful for having had the chance to do that, and to every student I’ve had through the years. They’ve taught me far more than I’ve ever taught them. Many of them turned out to be strong writers themselves. But after taking my classes, a lot of them would tell me that, while they still didn’t like writing, they no longer hated it and feared having to do it. These students told me they felt as if they had a measure of control over their writing process that they didn’t have coming into the course. I think those were my greatest victories as a teacher.”

 

After completing his post-graduate work, Ruscoe indulged another passion of his when he became the author and editor of Baseball: A Treasury of Art and Literature. “That book will always be one of my proudest accomplishments, and I’ll always be grateful to the publisher, Hugh Levin, for the chance to have worked on it,” Ruscoe said. “The history of baseball itself is a long, continuous story of American culture. From labor disputes and drugs abuse to the advancements made during the modern civil rights movement—a movement that started when Jackie Robinson first took the field for the Brooklyn Dodgers—baseball reflects who we are, for better or worse. By telling that story with a showcase of some of the greatest baseball art and literature ever created, working on the book not only let me take a really deep dive into the game I love so much, but it helped me learn invaluable lessons about the publishing industry.

Beyond that, whenever I get into any baseball debate, I get to say, ‘All right, everyone here who has a book that’s part of the permanent collection of the National Baseball Hall of Fame Library, raise your hand.’ That ends the argument every time,” Ruscoe said with a grin.

 

During his career, Ruscoe was also a writer and editor for Weekly Reader, the news magazine for school children. “Best job I ever had,” he said. “I worked with some of the most talented, creative, and passionate people I’ve ever met. The entire country was our classroom, and our job was to get kids across America interested in reading and writing. I also got to travel to classes from Connecticut to Chicago to Las Vegas to Los Angeles and visit some of our readers and see the difference our work was making in their lives. It reminded me of the way E.B. White fired my passion for reading with Stuart Little back in kindergarten.

Weekly Reader was a wonderful place to work, and I was incredibly proud to be a small part of something that was a national institution going back to the 1920s,” Ruscoe said. “It breaks my heart that Weekly Reader didn’t survive our country’s shift into the digital era. I believe that if our society is going to survive, kids everywhere need to be encouraged to read and write and think from as early an age as possible.”

 

Following his stint at Weekly Reader, Ruscoe taught college classes, worked as a freelance writer, and completed his novel You’ll Do Anything. In that book, he introduced the world to Mark Flynn, the “Stray Cat,” who might be the spy genre’s most unusual secret agent. “Certainly, You’ll Do Anything is inspired by my love for Ian Fleming and 007,” Ruscoe said. “And people can enjoy it as a simple spy thriller if they like. But I hope there are readers who recognize and follow Mark’s struggles on a deeper level, and appreciate what he goes through just to get out of bed in the morning.

 

“I love Mark,” Ruscoe said. “He’s a unique character. Whether his world is really one full of danger and mayhem, or whether that world exists solely in his mind, he still fights the good fight. He takes punch after punch, but he keeps moving forward. He’s one tough son of a bitch. You may not necessarily want him as your next-door neighbor, but if you’re in trouble, you want him fighting for you.” You’ll Do Anything will be available from booksellers soon, and the further adventures of Mark Flynn will be released in sequels as the Stray Cat Files series continues.

 

Today, Ruscoe pours his passion for story and his expertise with the written word into Pop Hero Media, where he can not only help the company create content of its own, but help writers of all levels of experience tell their stories through the craft. “Everyone has their own stories,” he said. “When we meet each other for the first time, we get to know each other by telling our stories. When we want to know about what’s happening in our communities, in our country, in the world in which we live, we read stories. These stories are full of fascinating characters, some heroic, some dastardly, and some in between. These characters have intricate, elaborate conflicts and complex, ongoing plot lines. The stories of our world inform us, and the stories you tell yourself determine your life: the career you pursue, the religion you follow, the way your raise your kids, and the people with whom you fall in love. Once you recognize the power of story in all of our lives, you’ve unlocked a fundamental truth of human existence.

 

“In Stuart Little,” Ruscoe said, “Stuart drives off in his miniature car, with no idea of the kind of adventures that might lie before him,” Ruscoe says. “It's a bittersweet and beautiful moment, and White’s description, like all of his writing, was succinct, clear, and perfect:

 

Stuart rose from the ditch, climbed into his car, and started up the road that led toward the north. The sun was just coming up over the hills on his right. As he peered ahead into the great land that stretched before him, the way seemed long. But the sky was bright, and he somehow felt he was headed in the right direction.’

                                                                                 --E.B.White, Stuart Little

 

To me, that’s what writing feels like,” Ruscoe said. “You start with an idea, and as you stare at the blank pages, the way seems long, indeed. But keep writing, keep telling your story, and just like that brave little mouse in the first book that I came to love so much, you’ll be headed in the right direction.”