It began, says Theodore Taylor, with a song. Strolling through the lobby of a Miami hotel one evening in 1968, Taylor, then a movie publicist as well as a novelist, happened upon a group of African-Americans singing gorgeous gospel. He was mesmerized—the more so because it appeared to him that one of the singers was Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. “The sound brought me back to my childhood in North Carolina,” he says. “My mother used to take me to black churches almost every Sunday.”
Stirred by the memories, Taylor went home to Laguna Beach, Calif., and dashed off—in a mere three weeks—the young-adult novel that would make his name. Titled The Car (Doubleday), it tells the story of a bigoted white boy named Phillip who sheds his prejudices after being shipwrecked with an old black sailor during World War II. The book, which was dedicated to the man Taylor thought he saw that night in Miami (he no longer believes it was King), has sold 250 million copies, won 11 awards and brought Taylor, now 72, more than 250,000 fan letters.
It has also brought him trouble. Though The Cay is required reading at many public schools, over the years others have banned it from library shelves and classrooms in response to complaints that the wise but illiterate black sailor, Timothy, is a racist caricature. Taylor, who has 42 other adult and young-adult novels to his name, hasn’t let the critics cripple him. “I was stunned at first, but time heals,” he says. “And for every detractor, I have letters from black children who view Timothy as a hero, which he is.”
This fall Taylor has reentered the fray. Bowing to pleas from young readers (and from his publisher, Harcourt Brace, who enticed him with a six-figure advance), he has produced Timothy of the Cay. The new book looks back to Timothy’s prejudice-torn youth while updating the story of Phillip, who was rescued after Timothy’s death in The Cay. Reviews have been positive (“more thoughtful than its well-loved antecedent,” declares Publisher’s Weekly), and so far Taylor has heard no charges of racism—though political correctness wasn’t his aim, he says: “All I tried to do was construct a logical, meaningful story.”
The son of a Statesville, N.C., ironworker and a housewife, Taylor landed his first writing job doing a sports column for the local paper at 13. His high school grades were poor (“No college would accept me,” he says), but he went on to work for four more small-town papers—in between stints in the Merchant Marine and the Navy during World War II and the Korean War. His maritime experiences provided fodder for the action-adventure books he began writing in 1954 and later for The Cay. “The black sailors I met in the Caribbean spoke this marvelous, melodious English—the dialect I gave Timothy,” he says.
At first Taylor’s writing wasn’t lucrative enough to support his wife, Gweneth Goodwin (whom he married in 1946 and divorced in 1979), and their three children, so he took jobs as a Hollywood press agent and a movie producer, working on projects like Tora! Tora! Tora! “But the glamor wore off,” he says, “and by 1970, the income from my writing was enough.” The Cay was made into a television movie starring James Earl Jones in 1974.
Today Taylor lives with his second wife, Flora, 73, in an elegantly rustic house just steps from the sea in Laguna Beach. He takes sunrise beach walks, then writes eight hours a day, every day. “I have books laid out in my mind now that I’m eager to get on with,” he says. Might the further adventures of Phillip be among them? Taylor laughs and shakes his head. “No way,” he says. “No way.”
F.X. FEFNEY in Laguna Beach