I'll never forget the first time I met Martin Litvin. I was a junior in high school and he had just published his widely acclaimed Black Angel, the story of Sukey Richardson, a slave. The story was set in my hometown of Knoxville and our history teacher brought Martin in to lecture our class.
I remember walking into class and wondering where Mr. Rosine had dug up this character. He was a tall man, made to look squat by his shaved head and his thick, animated eyebrows. The voice didn't fit the shell at all. It was a high pitched, squeaky voice that rose a couple of octaves whenever he became excited about his subject. It was a voice that I would come to appreciate and look forward to hearing.
Many years went by since that day and although I'd see Martin sitting in the Galesburg Library or doing a half hour public access show on cable TV, I never really had any contact with him at all. I went about my life, writing articles here and there for the Zephyr and the Knoxville Journal, and for the most part, avoiding things that Martin had written. I just never took the time.
In 1995, I got an unexpected call from Martin. He'd been reading some of the things I'd written for the Zephyr and he wanted to talk to me in person. I wasn't sure what he and I could ever talk about but I agreed to the meeting nonetheless.
I drove to his home outside of Wataga not knowing what to expect. I knew that he had published several books and I wanted to be published someday, but I couldn't imagine anything else that we might have in common. When we met, he offered a hand, a firm grip that surprised me. ''Hello, I'm Martin Litvin,'' he said in that voice that quickly becomes imbedded in your brain.
I told him that I had sort of met him before and I explained that he had lectured my high school history class some 21 years previous. He stared at me for a few seconds, and then said, ''You asked a question that day about my book. You asked something about if they were going to make a movie out of my book!'' I was flabbergasted at his memory!
Actually I had asked if there was any chance they'd shoot the movie on location here in Knoxville (I've got a pretty darn good memory too) and he had said that shooting here would require too much work in tearing up Main Street and removing power lines and other things that wouldn't have been around in the 1860s. But that one memory sparked my friendship with Martin, a friendship that I wish would have lasted a lot longer.
His proposal that day took me by surprise. He wanted someone to write his biography from the time he was born until the time he went off to college. He wanted it to be from a third person point of view, not his own, because he didn't want his readers thinking he was an embittered old man over what had happened in his youth. He offered to pay me and have the book published plus give me a cut of the profits from its sale. There were a couple of provisions however. First, I was to tell NO ONE, not even my wife, what I was doing. Second, he had to approve every word that I wrote for accuracy.
That day began a year long journey that gave me insights to a man that few people knew.
Martin insisted on regular meetings so that he could tell me stories of his childhood. I feel privileged to have been his audience for stories of his growing up on Pleasant Avenue in Galesburg and how his father ran an auto parts store on West Main. He spun tales of Galesburg during the depression and how he entered into a business of his own, servicing peanut vending machines throughout the city. His memory was sharp and he recounted every detail about how he had won a part in a high school production of ''Arsenic and Old Lace.'' I'd go home from our meetings wondering how I would ever fit all those wonderful stories into any kind of coherent narrative.
Martin had a dark side as well. His mother, to whom he was totally devoted even 50 years later, died of tuberculosis when he was very young. He blamed his dad for her death and the hatred he held in his heart for his father carried far beyond just her death. He blamed him for his deaf brother and every other misfortune that occurred during his youth. At times it seemed that he wanted his biography to be nothing more than a campaign to destroy his father's reputation.
Still, his recollections were fascinating. He told of how his father served prison time for fencing stolen automobiles out of his auto parts store. He claimed (and though he could not substantiate these claims, I have no reason to doubt him) that his father was used as Al Capone's double.
My favorite time that I spent with Martin was when I would pick him up and we'd go driving in Galesburg. He had once said that he didn't drive because it would be too dangerous. ''I have all these (fictional) characters running around inside my head, just waiting to be put into one of my novels and I could never drive a car with them inside my head.'' Instead, I'd pilot the car and he'd sit on the passenger side, guzzling cold Pepsis (despite his diabetes) and point out sites in Galesburg where Al Capone had run bootleg booze. He would point to a store in downtown Galesburg and launch into a litany encompassing the store's origin and how its owners started the business. His details were so clear, I could almost close my eyes and picture the below-street level shops on Main Street and the Orpheum Theater in its glory days. Martin spent a good number of days there with his mother Sylvia which may account for his fervent work in its restoration.
When it came time to put his biography on paper, I found how passionate about his work that he was. My first chapter came back to me completely re-written. He wanted me to adopt his style which I resisted. By this time I had read several of his books and stories (much of his fiction was based on fact), and I thought his style was much too dry for my style. I received the first chapter in the mail and a phone call the next day.
''Good MOOOOORRRRRning, Jon! Did you get my corrections?''
''Yes, Martin, but I didn't write this!''
''Sure you did. I just corrected a few things.''
''Martin, I don't even recognize this!''
''Those are your words, Jon.''
''Well, maybe a few of the 'thes' and 'ands,' and I think I wrote a few of the 'he's' 'hims' 'weres' and 'wases,' but the rest of the words sure aren't mine.''
And so it went. We'd butt heads over the littlest of things. The one thing I remember the most is a cliché that Martin insisted on using. There was one little line in the book that said, ''back to the drawing board.'' I resisted using the cliché and inserted the word ''proverbial'' before ''drawing board.'' Martin didn't like that word and he'd cut it out, and send it back to me.
On one visit after ''proverbial'' had appeared and disappeared from the manuscript a half a dozen times, Martin came to the kitchen with a very small scrap of paper. On it was the word ''proverbial.'' He had taken a pair of scissors and meticulously cut the word from my manuscript and was handing me the amputated remains. ''I don't want to see this word EVER again!'' he practically screamed at me. I took the manuscript, determined to be as bullheaded as he was, and crossed out ''back to the drawing board.''
''And I refuse to have MY NAME on such a tired cliché!'' I shouted back. To this day, I'm not sure how the final product ended up, but I'd be willing to bet that the cliché stands and that the word proverbial doesn't appear anywhere in the manuscript.
Martin was extremely proud of the way he could write and not use the same word twice to describe something. The man was a walking, living, breathing thesaurus, but sometimes he took it to extremes, and once again we clashed. In describing his birth, I had used the word ''doctor'' a couple of times on the same page. I had alternated ''doctor'' with ''physician'' to avoid repetition. This wasn't good enough for Martin. He changed a few more ''doctors'' to ''mediciner,'' ''MD,'' and ''medicine man.''
Needless to say, we argued over the use of a term that is usually reserved for describing a certain member of Indian tribes. I think I may have actually won this one.
Martin told me a multitude of stories regarding his Jewish heritage. He seemed to be proud of his religious upbringing in one breath, bragging that he was the only prairie-Jewish author in the world, and in the next breath, gobble down a pork tenderloin sandwich at the Gizmo on Knox's campus. Once when I brought up this contradiction, he glared at me and said, ''I'm diabetic too, but I still drink Pepsi, don't I?''
We became more and more comfortable with our friendship as the biography neared completion. When I delivered the finished product, he told me it was even more imperative that my identity remain secret. And, he had my next project all lined out for me. ''I want you to do the biography of Mary Allen West.'' This time, I resisted as I had just taken my first teaching job and my time would be limited. He mentioned it only once after that, telling me that he had most of the research done, and then ended up publishing it himself.
Phone calls became fewer and fewer. I received a letter from Martin telling me that he had reconsidered his biography and that he was going to do an extensive re-write of it, putting it into first person so that it could be an autobiography. I don't know what made him change his mind and he never confided the reasoning behind his decision. I signed documents from his lawyer which relinquished my rights to the work and looked forward to the final product.
The last time I spoke with Martin was when he called me to check up on me. He had just gone through a hospital stay and was not doing well. His eyesight was failing and I believe he had just had a toe or something amputated. He asked about works in progress on my part and I told him that I was still working on the same novel that's been on my word processor for the last fifteen years and he offered words of encouragement to finish it. I hung up not knowing that it would be the last time I would ever speak with him.
I learned a lot from Martin Litvin. He taught me history that could never be learned from a book. He taught me about writing from the soul. He taught me about overcoming obstacles that are placed in life's path. He taught me how to painstakingly research a subject to the point of being sick.
And he taught me that two very different people can still share a friendship if both people are willing.