Jill McCorkle's first two novels --- THE CHEERLEADER and JULY 7th --- were published on the same day, and she hasn't slowed down ever since. She's the author of five New York Times Notable Books, as well as short stories that have been anthologized in numerous literary journals. Her latest novel, LIFE AFTER LIFE (now available in paperback), is about the residents and staff of Pine Haven Estates, a retirement facility in Fulton, North Carolina. As their lives become intertwined through their present circumstances, their pasts and, in some cases, their deaths, a bigger picture begins to develop --- one that celebrates the beauty and wisdom of later life. Here, in her Holiday Author Blog, Jill makes another interesting connection between past and present. She traces her love of writing and storytelling back to a Christmas gift she received when she was seven years old: Danny O'Day, a ventriloquist dummy.
In 1965, when I was seven years old, all I wanted for Christmas was right there in the big fat Sears catalogue: a Jumpin’ Jiminy, which was a little trampoline that I knew was probably too small for me even as I requested it, and Danny O’Day, a ventriloquist dummy who came with an album that would teach me how to be a ventriloquist. It was the era of lots of bath-time stocking stuffers: Crazy Foam and Fuzzy Wuzzys (soap in animal shapes that, when left to dry, grew soapy fuzz that you would wash off next time and again and again until you got the little prize hidden within). The Jumpin’ Jiminy was as disappointing as I had feared it might be; it was the size of an average tire, and I did not soar way up into the air as the kid in the advertisement seemed to do. However, Danny was all that I had dreamed of, and I set him up immediately, playing the album over and over and practicing our routine.
The Miss America the year before was Vonda Kay Van Dyke, who had won her crown with the most unusual talent they had ever seen. She was a ventriloquist. Already a fan of Shari Lewis and Topo Gigio, who I had seen on "The Ed Sullivan Show," I was enthralled both by Vonda Kay’s talent, as well as her last name, assuming she must be kin to Dick Van Dyke, whom I was in love with both as Rob Petrie and Bert in Mary Poppins.
I propped Danny on my knee, my hand up his back to pull the string that would move his mouth while I worked to keep my own lips perfectly still. I liked turning his head to look me in the eye, loved the control of speaking for two people at once. He agreed with everything I said. The album was teaching me how to handle those difficult consonants like B and M. The secret of ventriloquism is all in substitution. M’s become N’s and B’s become D’s. I spent weeks staring in the mirror to make sure my mouth stayed perfectly still while saying the phrases: “The doy dought a dasketdall” or “Nany nen nake noney.” Even after all the pecans and clementines and Hershey’s kisses that had filled the toe of my stocking were gone, I recited these lines. Even after my Fuzzy Wuzzy was no longer recognizable as a poodle and most of the fuzz long swirled down the drain, I practiced singing things like “We Ain’t Got a Darrell of Noney” or “Dicycle Duilt for Two.”
Even when other interests got my attention, Danny had a prominent seat there on the toy box, his arm casually thrown over the back of a stuffed dog. I had gotten a little weary of hauling around 10 pounds of hard plastic when I had discovered that I could also put words in people’s mouths with pencil and paper. I loved making up stories and I loved watching television. I watched everything and watched as late as I was allowed to watch. Among my favorite things to watch (and there were many) was “The Twilight Zone,” a show I had a real love-hate relationship with. I couldn’t NOT watch it, but then I was often terrified by what I saw. I was afraid to go under my bed for fear I'd roll into the fifth dimension. I was chilled by the thought of an evil boy who could read the minds of everyone in town; there was a boy who lived near me who seemed a likely candidate, and so I vowed never to make eye contact. And then the kickers --- first the Talking Teena doll, who ultimately kills a very young Telly Savalas, and the ventriloquist whose evil dummy takes over his body.
After this, I was afraid to be with Danny when all alone. He had to sleep inside the toy box. I don’t recall giving him away, but must have; and yet, I have thought of him often and wished that I had maybe held onto him. Even in recent years, when tempted to replace Danny on eBay, I know not to go there, know that I would be fine until that first night home alone with him.
And yet, the Christmas morning when Danny O’Day landed in my arms, it was love at first sight. There were no scary imaginings clouding my adoration. I thought I could be the next Vonda Kay and meet her cousin, Dick. (Didn’t happen.) I thought surely the next year would bring a bigger and better trampoline that could launch me skyward. (Didn’t happen.) I thought I would always love making words come out of someone else’s mouth (yes), but it is much easier to carry a pen than a dummy in a suitcase.
I think of Danny O’Day as one of my earliest characters; moving his body and head to look natural is not unlike moving people across the page. Pulling the string to move his mouth while concentrating on NOT moving mine was a lesson in authorial distance and striving for realistic speech so that those sentenced to watch my shows believed in him. I think the other reason I remember the Danny O’Day Christmas so vividly is that I was caught between truth and fiction myself. I had not yet admitted that I thought Santa Claus might be my parents --- an admission that would come before the next Christmas rolled around. I preferred to pretend, to pull the string and allow my words to be spoken by another. I still prefer that. Nerry Christnas!