Ifirst found Snoopy in Paradise, California, the tiny town in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada Mountains that was later erased by fire. As children in the late 1960s and early ’70s, my sister and I spent our summers there with our grandparents. We found it to be perfectly named. “We’re on our way to Paradise,” we would say, and “We’ve been in Paradise all summer.”
After the fire, which swept through 45 years after my grandparents left for Nashville, my sister searched the net to see if their house had been spared, but the street was gone. Everything was gone. The sharp detail with which I can remember that house is overwhelming to me now: the room where my grandparents slept in twin beds, the room where I shared a bed with my sister. I remember the cherry trees, the line of quail that crossed the back lawn in the morning to the ground-level birdbath my grandmother kept full for them, Family Affair and the Watergate hearings on TV.
My grandmother had a stock of mass-market Peanuts books she’d bought off a drugstore spinner. Titles like You’ve Had It, Charlie Brown and All This and Snoopy, Too were exactly my speed. I memorised those books. I found Snoopy in Paradise the way another kid might have found God.
Influence is a combination of circumstance and luck: what we are shown and what we stumble upon in those brief years when our hearts and minds are fully open. I imagine that for Henry James, the extended European tour of his youth led him to write about American expatriates. I, instead, was in northern California being imprinted by a comic strip.
When the morning newspaper came, my sister and I read the funnies together. Always Peanuts was first. My formative years were spent in a Snoopy T-shirt, sleeping on Snoopy sheets with a stuffed Snoopy in my arms. I was not a cool kid, and Snoopy was a very cool dog. I hoped the association would rub off on me.
That was pretty much the whole point of Charlie Brown’s relationship with Snoopy: the awkward kid’s social value is raised by his glorious dog. Anyone could see what Charlie Brown got out of Snoopy, even when Snoopy was blowing him off – he raised Charlie Brown’s social stock. But what did Snoopy get out of it? I’m guessing it was the loyalty, the dog-like consistency that people want in a pet, which of course makes Charlie Brown the dog. I had no problem with this. I would have been thrilled to be Snoopy’s dog. I was already his student. Snoopy was a writer, and it was my intention to follow in his path.
Did I become a novelist because I was a loser kid who wanted to be more like the cartoon dog I admired, the confident dog I associated with the happiest days of my otherwise haphazard youth? Or did I have some nascent sense that I would be a writer, and so gravitated towards Snoopy, the dog-novelist? It’s hard to know how influence works. One thing I’m sure of is that through Snoopy, Peanuts creator Charles Schulz raised the value of imagination, not just for me but for everyone who read him.