The Serpent Box Back-Story

The story of Serpent Box is about a single beam of light. It's not about a man, or a book, or how fate and luck and God and hope conspired to bring about imaginary places, memories or lives. The story of Serpent Box is the story of the journey of light.

It began with a boy. A photograph of a boy. I was sitting about a stone's throw away from the very spot where Jack London was born, looking at a book of silver-gelatin portraits. They were beautiful photographs of Appalachian people, people whose faces I could never forget, taken in places I'd thought no longer existed - hollows and backwoods kinds of places. All black and white. I turned the pages slowly and saw before me this boy. He was small, maybe nine or ten years old, and he was skinny. He was holding a jar of clear liquid in one hand and in the other, a handmade box with a large rattlesnake inside. The title of the photograph was Boy with Serpent Box and Poison Jar.

The boy wore on his head a foam baseball cap with the words Praise Jesus on the front and he had that look in his eye you see in the faces of child-soldiers. It's a look that says I know something you don't know. I've seen things you've never seen. I wanted to know what those things were. This boy, he was saying something to me. He was saying: I know you.

So I began reading about him. Not him individually, but his people. Holiness people. People who handle serpents and drink kitchen lye and strychnine to prove that what Jesus says in the bible is true. I didn't believe it at the time. I thought it was fake. But I kept reading, because the more I read the more I believed that it was true. In Mark 16 Jesus says those who believe in Him will be protected from deadly things. And it seemed true. Because people really did get bitten by snakes and drink lye.

I could not get the image of this boy out of my head. I knew I had to write about him but what did I, a New Yorker transplanted in San Francisco, know about rural Appalachia? What did I know about God and the Holy Ghost? What did I know about writing? Nothing. I had never written anything before. A story or two. A few computer game scripts. But nothing of any moral or social significance. I was wholly unprepared to write a novel about faith and God and a little boy with strong convictions on both.

But then I received an incredible gift, from the same person who gave me Appalachian Portraits, the book with the photograph of the boy. This person, Jonny Belt is his name, put his hands on my shoulders, the way a friend might hold you when telling you that you have a drinking problem, and he said that I must write. It wasn't an off-hand remark and I didn't take it as one and he gave me the name of a small writer's workshop called the Writing Salon.

Armed with a single short story I enrolled at the San Francisco Writing Salon and soon discovered how much I didn't know about writing fiction. I was humbled but undeterred. I still held the image of that snake-handling boy in my mind's eye. I felt the pull of him. I knew I could never truly understand his world but it occurred to me that I might be able to understand his heart. I began to read the King James Bible, thinking that if I could understand Jesus I could gain insight into the snake-boy. The bible was beautiful and mysterious and wise. I read it daily, and I read about Holiness people, and all the while I was writing little stories that began with promise then sputtered and died.

Again, something happened. I was participating in an online writing workshop run by Zoetrope All-Story. They sponsored a contest whose grand prize was an all expense paid trip to a workshop in Belize. I had just completed the first story that I was willing to let other people read, so I entered it in the contest. I didn't win. But I got a from Adrienne Brodeur, the editor-in-chief, who liked my story so much that she wanted me to come to the workshop in Belize. Zoetrope All-Story is Francis Ford Coppola's magazine and the workshop was being held at his private retreat on a jaguar preserve near the Guatemalan border. I was struck, simultaneously, with two remarkable twists of fate.

I have always been a great admirer of Mr. Coppola. As a boy I was profoundly moved by his films, specifically Apocalypse Now. The contest and the subsequent invitation seemed to be part of some grand plan. But there was something else about this opportunity I simply could not ignore. Several years earlier, while camping on the prairie at the foot of Devil's Tower, Wyoming, I encountered a strange prophet, a nomadic man, who wandered into my campsite and regaled me with stories and wisdom and a very bizarre declaration. He told me that I would one day go to Belize.

That promise didn't make any sense to me at the time, but I saw it as yet another sign that I was on a path that would lead me to some sort of truth about myself. Was I a writer? What is a writer? What is this feeling that wells up inside me when I see the face of the snake child? The answer was in Belize.

The 1999 Zoetrope All-Story Short Story Writer's Workshop was held at Blancaneaux Lodge, a beautiful resort on the Privassion River, a brutal three hour drive from the airport in Belize City. In attendance were two dozen writers who had achieved various degrees of success. The faculty included Melissa Banks, Pinckney Benedict and Terry McMillan. I was intimidated and paralyzed with fear. We work-shopped a story I had recently written that was a big, over-reaching mess, but the feedback I received was fairly good. Melissa and Pinckney were both very kind and encouraging to me. But it was Terry McMillan who, inadvertently I think, changed my life forever with few words.

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