Found in Translation

Royce Buckingham ’89 is a lawyer and best-selling novelist who has written, among other works, young adult spy thrillers and “children’s monster novels.” In this essay, Buckingham answers the age-old question, “What can a college graduate do with an English degree?”

By Royce Buckingham ’89

Royce Buckingham
Photo courtesy of Royce Buckingham ’89

It’s been 25 years since I graduated with a degree in English literature from Whitman, and I’ve been asked to reflect on how it prepared me for life as a working fiction author and attorney. I suppose it starts with the college’s general premise: “A Whitman liberal arts education offers great breadth over specialization …” More specifically, Whitman’s English Majors’ Handbook states, “Whatever else students of English call ourselves, we are first and foremost readers and writers.” So, presumably, I graduated a broadly educated reader and writer. But that’s not a profession, it turns out. So how is that degree turned into a career? In my case, it went something like this:

When I attended Whitman, I lived on the fourth floor of Jewett Hall and then in the Sigma Chi house. They didn’t have the Writers House back then – I believe it arrived five years after I departed. I’d have loved that. I played baseball, switched majors, made lifelong friends and had lots of fun. I even went to England for a term – what better place to study English literature? Given where I find myself now, the English degree seems an obvious choice, but back then, I really had no idea what I wanted to do.

So I landed in law school at the University of Oregon. While there, I audited an undergraduate creative writing class in my spare time (very spare). It was then that I wrote the first fiction piece I would have published. It sold for $20 to a literary magazine, which was sort of crazy-cool, because the piece was actually a horror story. Literary horror – who knew? I was excited about my big $20 sale, but it would take more than 13 years after that little victory to sell my first novel, “Demonkeeper,” to Penguin/Putnam.

I have to admit that it was difficult to keep the faith during those “aspiring writer” years. I was a young prosecuting attorney, I married a reporter who was covering an arson I was handling, we had two boys, and I was writing until 2 or 3 in the morning. At least I was awake to help with baby bottles and to take calls for late-night search warrants.

“Demonkeeper” debuted in 2007. Right out of the blocks there was a movie deal with 20th Century Fox. Sam Fell of Wallace and Gromit fame was slated to direct. All very exciting! And then… they never made the movie. My follow-up middle grade book did not do big business, and I was dropped by my publisher, Putnam. In there somewhere I also got a gig writing a fantasy storyline for an Xbox video game for Microsoft. Exciting again! But that project didn’t get made either. Aaaugh!

It took years to get picked up by another publisher (St. Martin’s Press), and when I did, they asked me to write in entirely different genres – a young adult spy novel (“The Terminals,” 2014) and an adult legal thriller (“Impasse,” 2015). That bumpy transition was a soap opera, but not unusual in the publishing industry. Indeed, I once found myself alphabetically seated next to fantasy bestseller Terry Brooks at an author signing, and it turned out he had also been a lawyer/author. He had some advice. “Don’t quit your day job until you’ve been on the bestseller list. Twice.” Duly noted. And I am still a prosecuting attorney.

The funny thing was that, while all that was happening, two of my books actually did become bestsellers with yet another publisher, Random House. However, that delightful development happened in an entirely different country. It seems the Germans love my middle grade monster tales and medieval fantasy stuff. I can’t deny it is fun to see one’s own book on the German bestseller list sandwiched between “Game of Thrones” and “Fifty Shades of Gray.” But I am unable to enjoy that fame much here at home. Instead, I mostly get lots of David Hasselhoff jokes.

My most recent U.S. middle grade novel, “The Dead Boys,” is currently on the 2014 Washington Librarian’s Sasquatch reading list for best middle grade novel (wlma.org/sasquatch). It’s set in my hometown of Richland, Wash. There have been other awards and interviews (NPR was the coolest), but the best was getting invited to speak at the Washington Librarian Media Association’s annual conference by Roz Clarke Thompson ’90 (who is married to my friend and fellow attorney Jon Thompson ’90). Talk about a literate audience. Roz was voted Washington Teacher-Librarian of the Year in 2013, by the way. While at the conference, I saw five Whitman graduates who were teacher-librarians, including Margy Malico Van Dyke ’90, and three published Whitman authors, including Sydney Salter Husseman ’90. I know of at least three Whitman graduates from my era alone who are published children’s authors, including Joni Sensel ’84, and others who have published nonfiction and memoir work. (When I interviewed at the prosecutor’s office in 1993, my interviewer, Kathy Walker ’73 said, “I see you went to Whitman. Me too.”)

I’ve now written nine novels, five for the U.S. and four for Germany (Random House translates). So that’s (not a math major here) more than one book a year since “Demonkeeper,” while still working as a prosecuting attorney. My sons are now nine and 13, and my wife is a working professional who runs ultra-marathons, so it’s been hectic. But good. That’s been the journey. So far. And there is no doubt that being a broadly educated reader and writer has made the dual career of author and attorney possible. I’d add that English literature is also the study of how to craft stories, a valuable tool whether presenting a factual case to a jury or just making stuff up to entertain one hundred thousand German kids.