Friday, April 10, 2009

MAX BYRD - A Wizard of Words

A Wizard of Words

The kids of the Dublin High School classes of 1960 and 1961 knew Max Byrd was smart. They all knew that he could write well and speak well. But somehow they lost touch with their classmate when his father was transferred to a new job. This is the story of a young man who left Dublin in 1959. With the lessons he learned in halls of old Dublin High School ingrained in his brain, he graduated from one of the nation's top universities and taught at two more of the country's most well respected institutions of higher learning. Along the way, this affable man has written more than a dozen books on subjects ranging from literature to mysteries to historical novels and many more essays and articles.

Max Byrd, son of Allan and Rubye Byrd, was born in Atlanta, Georgia in 1942. His father was an accountant for the Veteran's Administration. The Byrd family transferred to Dublin in 1954 and lived in a home on the hospital grounds. Max, like most of the kids of his day rode his bicycle to school, a fairly long ride to the old high school on North Calhoun Street. While Max was in school at Dublin, he was a member of the Latin Club, and in his final year as a junior in Dublin, he represented the school in the boy's declamation competition. He was a member of the debate team and garnered a medal at the state competition. Nearly fifty years later, he still retains vivid memories of "Board of Education," a large wooden paddle wielded by the very stern principal, D.R. Davis. Max and most every one of his era remember the iconic, stern, but excellent, math teacher, Woodrow Rumble. "The class I remember best from Dublin High was Latin. "The study of Latin set me on the right track for learning to write English," Byrd said. In his junior year, Max was president of the Latin Club.

Just before the beginning of his senior year, Max and his family moved to Arlington, Virginia. A scholarship from Harvard University was all Max needed to embark on an outstanding career in education and journalism. Excelling in his studies at Harvard, Max was awarded a fellowship to continue his studies at Cambridge University, Kings College in England. Max returned to Harvard, where he obtained his Ph.D. in English.

While he was at Harvard, Max developed a life long friendship with classmate and fellow writer, Michael Crichton, author of Jurassic Park and The Andromeda Strain, among many other best selling novels. Byrd owes a lot to Crichton, whom he considers as a writer "who arranges facts into fiction better than just anybody else." Chrichton, who began writing his novels at Harvard, encouraged Max to write. He admired his friend's dedication, energy and willingness to take risks.

Gore Vidal influenced Byrd in his historic fiction novels. Max owes a personal debt to Oakley Hall, the founder of the Squaw Valley Writers Conference, an organization now headed by Max. "I wish I could say that I was influenced by John Updike," Byrd said, "but he is so wonderful a writer of English prose that I can only look up and marvel."

Dr. Byrd crossed the long-standing crevice between Harvard and the nation's third oldest university, Yale University, where he was offered a position as Associate Professor. Max was awarded the Younger Humanist Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Humanities and an award from the A. Whitney Griswold Fund for the academic year 1974-75. His first book, Visits to Bedlam: Madness and Literature in the Eighteenth Century, won him many accolades. In 1976, Byrd edited and published Daniel DeFoe, A Collection of Critical Essays.

In 1976, after six years as an associate professor at Yale, Max made the life altering decision to leave the hallowed halls of the Ivy League and seek his life's goals out west in California, the native home of his wife. While serving as an associate professor at the University of California at Davis, Max began publishing books on English literature. His second work, London Transformed: Images of the City in the Eighteenth Century, a study of English writers he dedicated to Walter Jackson Bate, who inspired him as a beginning writer. From 1977 to 1988, he served as editor of Eighteenth Century Studies. In 1985, Dr. Byrd wrote and compiled Tristram Shandy, a scholarly analysis of The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman by Laurence Sterne.

In 1981, Max Byrd was promoted to a full professorship at UC Davis. He taught 18th-century British literature and occasionally freshman English. Byrd struggled with the concept of teaching college students to write fiction. He sees the greatest obstacle to teaching writing is that so many students don't read anything. It was in that same year when Max began to publish a divergent genre of books than his usual scholarly, literary writings. He began writing detective novels back at Yale in 1973. His first published novel, California Thriller, was the first in a series of Mike Haller mysteries. The Private Eye Writers of America awarded him their first ever Shamus award for the Best Paperback Original Novel.

The success of his first novel led to the follow up Haller mystery Fly Away Jill in the fall of 1981. A third novel, Finder Weepers debuted on book stands in 1983. Target of Opportunity, a suspenseful novel set in World War II, was a "Book of the Month" selection in 1988. His final mystery novel, Fuse Time, was published in 1991 and deals with a terrorist bomber in Los Angeles.

At the suggestion of his publisher, Bantam Books, Max began to write historical novels. His first novel dealt with Thomas Jefferson and the years he spent in France, years which changed Jefferson and the United States as well. Max felt at ease writing about Jefferson and his second subject Andrew Jackson because of his undergraduate studies at Harvard in American History and Literature. Byrd grew to admire Jackson, whom he sees as "routinely underestimated and misunderstood by historians." His third historical work novelizes the life of Ulysses S. Grant, who Byrd believes to have been "a remarkable man, remarkably rich and a man who lived a dramatic life." His latest book, Shooting the Sun, (2004) traces the life of the eccentric 19th-century English genius Charles Babbage and the Santa Fe Trail.

During his years of active writing, Max spent five or six mornings and evenings writing seeking to write a minimum of three to five pages. Byrd sees writing as a lonely business and one which you have to be obsessed to succeed.

In 2004, Max Byrd quit teaching. He told an interviewer with the Sacramento Bee that "retired" seemed so old and that he planned to keep on writing. Max is a frequent reviewer of history books for the New York Times. He also writes for American Heritage magazine and the Woodrow Wilson Quarterly. He plans to be the Carnochan Lecturer in Humanities at Stanford University next spring.

Max and his wife Brookes live in California. They have two children, Kate and David. His most vivid recollection of Dublin is the Carnegie library (Dublin-Laurens Museum), the Martin Theater and the beginning of Bellevue Avenue. He enjoyed the football games on Friday nights as well. Max Byrd hasn't been back to Dublin since he left more than forty-seven years ago.

P.S. Max, if you read this, you are always welcome to come back. The library and the theater are still there. And yes, the football games are still as exciting as they were when you left. I hope you gave me a good grade on this article.

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