If you have followed this series of reports from a writer’s life and working practice, you may have wondered – during the longish pause since the last installment – whether the Maker in my head had fallen silent for a while. It happens. At any rate I understand that it happens, in many if not most writers’ lives. Not, for better or worse, in mine. (Maybe my Maker could do with a vacation. It doesn’t get one. Or maybe a Maker never needs a vacation, but I’m the one who needs one. I never feel in need of a rest, though: my Maker-in-the-head and I are a happily tireless team, two oxen, as it were, pulling the plough at the same steady, unyielding tread.) So: no, no creative pause, rather a relentless, blissful output which has left no time for dispatches, till now.
During the summer, The Woodstock Players premiered three new full-length plays of mine, Hitler’s Therapist, I Won’t Bite You, and Rex & Rex; my new novel, Justice, was published in June by Dr. Cicero Books, and the British edition, from Skyscraper Publications, was launched in London in July. During the rehearsals of the plays, I felt inspired – rehearsals now seem to have this effect on me, year in year out – to write new plays, and I produced three full-length ones, I am Your Own for Ever, Alice in Rehab, and, begun during the performances of I Won’t Bite You, in which on some nights I played the wordless walk-on part of a brutal prison guard, and completed in recent months, my latest effort: My Name is Peter Van Wyck.
I also began a new novel, largely to try and stem the pointless outpouring of novels and plays – I say to stem it, but really only to slow it down, because there is no stemming it altogether – by setting myself the task of writing a novel set in tribal Afghanistan (the book is called Warlord), an environment I know absolutely nothing about and which I’m finding it mercifully hard to research.
And much of my potential working time (shoehorned in around my fulltime teaching) is now claimed by my editorial functions at Dr. Cicero Books, for whom I am editing a number of new novels by a wonderful range of authors, as well as copy-editing my own novel, Who Was That Lady?, due out in June. Re-acquainting myself with this book has been the most gratifying experience of my writing life – a span now closing in on 50 years. My fellow-editor at Dr. Cicero has long been telling me that That Lady is the best thing I’ve done, and I’m discovering – re-reading your own book after an interval is usually like reading a totally strange new book written by someone else (which in an exact sense is always true, since we are scarcely the same from day to day, let alone year to year!) – I’m discovering that I (more precisely the Maker, not I) wrote a book at the very pitch of my capacity for invention, both on the small scale of sentence-by-sentence wit and on the larger structural level of plot. The book is long – it’ll be close to 700 pages – which makes the consistent quality and the formal coherence even more surprising to me. I wrote a kindred book 25 years ago, called Richard’s Feet, which achieved for me whatever standing I have in the literary world: a small standing, but the book won the literary prize which was at the time the second most valuable (in terms of cash) in the UK, and the praise it garnered helped find me the jobs I obtained at American universities and, finally, the post as Professor of English that I’ve held at the City University of New York for what will soon be 18 years. Richard’s Feet was a kindred book to Who Was That Lady? insofar as it described the arc of a life through many adventures and several countries; both books turned out the same length, around 280,000 words (That Lady is a few pages longer than the Feet) which, since none of my other books are even half as long, makes them seem like the twin towers (alas a perilous metaphor but inescapable) of my output, separated by a quarter of a century. Richard’s Feet was the book I learnt on; learnt to write a long novel on, as one might learn horse-riding on the forgiving back of a particular horse: I took 12 years to complete it. It was preceded by a short novel, Cley, which I adapted from a screenplay of mine that almost reached the screen but never did (it was cast, the hotels were booked, the director prepared, and then the money vanished). The Feet — still available online, incidentally, in second-hand copies from Amazon and other sites such as abe.com – was a sequel to Cley; I knew it would be long; that was all I knew when I began it. The 12 years it took owed part of this span to a lack of time, as I worked on other jobs, teaching and script-writing. The places in which the book was written, ranging across the world from Britain to California to the Far East, make a travelogue in itself, and in these places a few months or even a year purchased by teaching were dedicated to the book. I think the actual writing probably occupied five years out of the 12. Often I doubted I would get it done; and would anyone care if I did?
The Maker in the head cared. I cared, and for the writer to whom writing is a calling the reward that a good paragraph brings is always enough to sustain you through the tedium, the shame, the self-loathing, the embarrassment and the disappointment that learning a writer’s trade bring with it, as you stare at what you’ve put on the page. But a good paragraph! If that doesn’t clothe you as nothing else does; if that doesn’t give you a skin a last, an identity – giving you mere pleasure is nothing: I say if that doesn’t give you a skin to turn the shapeless mess of your personality into a person who has lived and returned to tell the tale, you’ll never stay the course of a writing life. That may sound like the bad news – I mean the quantity of boredom, frustration & self-disgust you may have to weather on the long road to a true voice – but the good news is that if the good paragraph rewards you as richly as in my description of it, above, there is no pleasure in the world like it. It is the world, because it allows you entry, allows you to live, to believe in your own life. If the good paragraph gives you no less than this, you will probably persevere. And if you persevere you will – I say you will, not you might – become the writer you want to be. Whether anyone else likes what you produce is another matter altogether, and not your concern. The approval of others, whether it’s your mother or the Nobel prize jury, is still nothing compared to the intrinsic reward a good paragraph brings – if you’re truly a writer.
I persevered. Richard’s Feet was my reward. And now here’s the new monster-book, its twin. This one didn’t take me 12 years. It took 4 months, almost to the day. Ridiculously little time; but that same year I produced 6 other novels as well, and I was on a roll, to put it mildly. Still teaching, but squeezing in writing time: before breakfast, and on Wednesday, my free day, all day. And I was ready. The work was ready, simply waiting to emerge at a turn of the spigot. I’d being paying my dues as a practitioner and student of the craft during the intervening 25 years since the Feet, and during the 12 years of writing that book, and the dozen years of writing that preceded it. Close to fifty years of seeking to understand how to craft a narrative. The Maker in the head, a very Saturn of a schoolmaster – severe, requiring patience and hard work and a preparedness not only to wait for worldly reward but perhaps resign yourself to never receiving any, and then, only then, rewarding you – smiled at last. I was ready for him, and he for me.
Similar in length and scope, Who Was That Lady? is a different book from Richard’s Feet in many respects. Both are first person narrations – hard to sustain for 600 pages and still intrigue and enchant the reader – and both narrators are, in differing ways and to differing extents, fools and dupes. (What else can a narrator be? An all-knowing narrator is an utter bore.) But Richard Thurgo in the Feet is a dark, violent, serious person (more fool he), while Roley Watkins in That Lady is a merry soul, not unlike Bertie Wooster in P.G.Wodehouse’s wonderful novels. Poor Roley just has no Jeeves to sort out his life and deflect the interfering Aunt Agathas of his world. Roley is part of a duo of psycho-therapists who invent a new form of therapy that sweeps the world. But of course… therapist, heal thyself! It doesn’t help Roley to see his own life clearly. And whereas Richard’s Feet is largely set in Germany, permitting me to explore my fascination with Germany, from which my mother escaped before the Holocaust could claim her, and the German language itself; and as Justice, my newly published novel, allowed me to explore the Italy of my childhood, and the gorgeous Italian language which was one of its gifts to me; so Who Was That Lady? offers me a narrator raised in Paris by an adoptive Parisian mother, a background which at last let surface the French which has been my constant sub-text in the head since my education in New York at the French Lycée there – all my life, French has run under my words like a sound track audible only to me, but ensuring that everything I say feels like an instantaneous translation from a French original (it was my first school language) and I – the self you see and hear — one of those bewilderingly quick United Nations interpreters barely a syllable behind the speaker. Roley Watkins also spends six years in the Far East, during the 1980s, where I sojourned while writing Richard’s Feet, at the same period – now providing not only material for That Lady but a hand stretched from one book to the other across the two poles of my working life like the miniature, horizontal lightning of a crackling electrical current.
So much for my current editorial life. Back to the Maker’s apparent delight in force-feeding me new plays. (I certainly don’t need to produce new novels, since after Who Was That Lady I have five more due out between now and 2019. This is why I’m looking to the impossible project that is Warlord to choke the novel-springs and limit the flow. In reality this may be a doomed strategy; but my editing duties for Dr. Cicero Books may do the job.) I’ve still got yet another play completed last year and waiting in the wings, due for the Woodstock Players in September: this is Nero at the Movies, a play about what happens when the Emperor Nero gets hold of a movie camera and decides to film his murderous life and career to a script commissioned from the playwright, Seneca, using his imperial court as the actors. It’s a play that, unlike man of my recent ones, requires a huge cast. 28 characters; cast of 24, This should be a lark, and an appalling task (getting even 6 people together at the same time is hard enough, in our busy lives).
The first of the recent plays to be born was I Am Your Own For Ever – Iago’s words to Othello in Shakespeare’s play. This one came out with a bewildering sense of certainty, even by my Maker’s standards. Remember, please, those of you who’ve read earlier installments of this column; and be aware, please, newcomers: of the origins of this ‘Maker’ phrase. I have very little sense of guiding my own fictions – most if not all writers have this experience, and surrender to it in time even if they began, as I did, as would-be control freaks in their own creative life (a futile project, thank goodness – how dull and limited our fictions would be if we wrote them ourselves!); once I’d surrendered to the Maker in the head (in the spirit, really, and in the heart, but finally, as their interpreter, in the head) I discovered who I was, what my voice was. I say I discovered it, but I don’t really know, even now, who this person is, or these various persons, responsible for the work published and performed in my name. (I wish it weren’t in my name, and that all work – mine and that of anyone else who feels as I do — were announced as simply being by the Maker.) My knowledge of anonymity is entirely through creative work. Before I surrendered to it, what I knew of self was a wrestle to prize selfhood from chaos, which is a form of anonymity but not a very comforting one. I Am Your Own, which the Maker gave me at such bewildering speed even at my current accelerated rate, is a complex dance for 12 characters. It squeezed itself into the world during two to three weeks of brief moments here or there.
And what about re-writing, I hear you cry. Don’t you ever edit? When I was learning the craft I spent forever editing and re-working – that’s what learning is, after all. After 50 years, for better or for worse, you reach for the tools and the wood – I once watched an elderly carpenter at work and the wood appeared to flow into his hands as if by telekinesis or the work of a friendly poltergeist – you reach for them and they’re there along with what the Maker wants you to do with them. For 48 hours after drafting a passage it’s still molten and you return to it (I always do) to see what can be improved, amplified, or cut. After 48 hours it’s set – set, not in the sense that it can’t be improved (anything can) but because you can no longer judge from inside the ongoing inertia of the work with its ongoing search for the next moment. You might say that it’s precisely from outside that immersion in the forward movement of a narrative that you can judge best. Not in my experience. We live in a very puritanical culture, where editing is regarded as infinitely superior to the errors of a spontaneous original. Of course: who would want to privilege error? But there’s another way to look at it. ‘Error’ is in fact a part not only of spontaneity but of a true creative process; strictly speaking there is no such thing as error. (Allen Ginsberg: ‘First thought, best thought.’ But our current culture is deeply opposed, even bitterly opposed, to such an idea, and prefers what it takes to be a proper disciplinary canon of procedures, applying industrial no-fault models and algebraic or engineering models to a process – the creation of an art-work – that when it is true to beauty is obstinately irregular, asymmetric, incommensurate, incongruent, ill-disciplined and unexpected, conforming only to the rhythm of the human imagination. Truth to beauty cannot be schooled; it can be learnt, by the soul’s exposure to beautiful art. The rest is freedom.)
And bear in mind that the greatest danger of returning to a narrative work-in-progress to view it ‘objectively,’ after giving it some ‘distance,’ is that contrary to what is universally believed, there is more objectivity in the initial forwards-moving wave of the creative impulse – the first draft – than there will ever be again. Only atop that wave, and only once, does the creator hold in head and heart and soul the rhythm that is the true, objective, criterion by which he or she best decides when to move off a topic and on to the next. As in boxing, it’s not the big punch that lands the knockout, but the rhythm of punches; when a reader praises a line, it’s usually because the reader was seduced by the preceding lines, not the line itself; and in returning to edit a passage, most writers are tempted to remove fluff, faff, pudding, triviality, and unnecessary mess, leaving only the jewels. But how little objectivity there is in this! Jewels are only jewels in the light of their setting; joints work not by bone alone but by bone separated by cartilage; and, most ‘objective’ of all considerations, the economy or dynamics or reading requires regular rest-moments within a paragraph, when maximum attention is allowed to lapse. And here’s the problem: it is beyond the wit of man or woman to add deliberate neutralities – which would be a truly ‘objective’ proceeding – even though this is always imperative in creating beauty. The only time such ‘rest’-notes come naturally to the creator’s mind is in atop the wave, creating the original rhythm. Fail to trust this and you will undermine even the very best blooms in your paragraph by trimming to the chase, only to find the prey, beauty, vanished.
But to return to the play I wrote with a title borrowed from Iago. Writing it was a bizarre experience: I began to realize that I was writing the very play I should have written almost 50 years ago, the very play I would like to have written immediately following my first play – but didn’t know how. I couldn’t have written it then. And it seems so sweet to me now to have been gifted with it at this (relatively) late stage. Never too late. But most surprising all the same. In subject matter – the dance of multiple romances – and in tone, it is exactly the play I might have written in 1966 if I’d had the capacity. I’m happy that I didn’t, because things come best in their own due time, and premature ability is often a prelude to premature decline, unless you’re Mozart.
The impetus for the story of I Am Your Own For Ever derives from a real event. Shortly after graduating from college in the UK, my first play was seen and noted by the National Theatre, and I was offered a job there which included auditioning actors for small parts in the resident company. One of my first picks was Clifford, a lovely, reedy Welsh actor with a touch of Sir John Gielgud. Clifford, little did I know it, was on the verge of a breakdown which arrived when he was carrying a spear – literally – in Laurence Olivier’s celebrated Othello. Clifford, standing at the back of the stage while Othello (Olivier) and Iago (Frank Finlay) played one of their most impassioned scenes, suddenly decided that they were in fact talking about him: about Clifford, not about domestic matters on the island of Cyprus. He walked downstage and stood between Othello and Iago, so that they would realize the game was up and that he, Clifford, knew what they were really discussing. Olivier and Finlay realized nothing of the sort, of course, but moved away, startled and bewildered. Clifford followed them and once more stood in between them. The actors moved to the other side of the stage, attempting to continue the scene. Clifford followed. Finally someone had to remove Clifford from the stage; and someone else – it was me – was deputed (deputized, indeed) to take Clifford home. Clifford never returned to the stage, at the National or elsewhere. I remained in touch with him; he required lengthy treatment and, when I last saw him, was well medicated and living a life of improbable amorous complexity. In 2012 I had finally begun a long-meditated novel which employed Clifford’s deliciously bizarre onstage breakdown as a starting point (and pursued the central character’s life in directions of my own devising, rather than Clifford’s, although still distantly inspired by my old friend). This spring I suddenly realized – and how absurd it seemed to me that I should ever have missed this! – that what I should be writing was not a novel called I Am Your Own For Ever but a play. I had the opening scene, after all: a production of Othello. For reasons you will discover if and when we stage the play locally, or if you read the play (it’s the only as yet unperformed play in the second volume of my new plays, published this year), this scene from Othello occurs twice more, in different guises and with a changing cast, during I Am Your Own For Ever, and theater itself is the ruling metaphor of the play even when it is not the play’s setting.
If I had been able to write the play in 1966 (or rather ’67, following Clifford’s quietly spectacular public meltdown), would it have changed my life and career? Possibly. But catching a different bus in the Waterloo Road, at any time in my life, might have changed it just as much, or as little. Why even speculate? And my life has been so fortunate that it seems blasphemous, to me, to toy with alternative pasts. In any case, the plays I wrote after my first effort were all staged to enthusiastic reviews, and when my stage playwriting career faltered, in the ‘70s, it was replaced by a scriptwriting career that lasted thirty years and enabled me to help raise seven children. Could one ask for more? At long last I returned to writing for the stage, having meantime become a novelist, my dearest dream, and out popped, among other plays, this perhaps stillborn child of my imagination of four decades earlier. Part of it is in blank verse; as are parts of The Emperor Nero; as were parts of Magus, the play with which The Woodstock Players was launched in 2010. I’m not sure I could have brought any of this off, or would have dared to try, when I began as a playwright.
After I Am Your Own For Ever I wrote, as I mentioned earlier, two more full-length plays this year, and both have a relationship to I Won’t Bite You, my formidably long, scary, challenging and exhausting one-woman play so brilliantly performed by Holly Graff this summer. Simultaneously, the play was being rehearsed in the UK by the British actress, Tara Dominick; Tara decided to drop out – and the production itself expired as a result – after finding the material too brutal. Brutal it is, featuring two monstrous cases of sustained abuse, inflicted in turn on a woman and, many years later, her grand-daughter, Dorothea Farber, who tells the tale of both horrors in I Won’t Bite You, and who has, in her turn, become a killer. I promised to write Tara a less forbidding one-woman show, and I did: this is Alice in Rehab, a comedy set in a lunatic asylum (I know – another charming prospect, right? – but it really is a much lighter piece than Bite You) and featuring a woman who has surrounded herself with a gallery of imaginary friends and relations.
The final play, My Name is Peter Van Wyck, that demanded to be written this year, was born during the performances of I Won’t Bite You while, as I mentioned earlier, I was sitting offstage waiting to make my entrance as a non-speaking character (you might almost say a ‘spear-carrier,’ as poor dear Clifford literally was in Othello all those years ago). Listening to the terrible tales Dodie Farber has to tell in the play, and especially listening to Holly Graff’s superbly vivid and caustic rendering of them, was almost more than my spirit could bear (the tales, though purely imaginary, seemed singularly real to me as their creator), and the only way I found that I could stand to be there was to write my way through them, listening for inspiration from Holly’s words but also dreaming up another story. In I Won’t Bite You, the perpetrator of the first acts of sustained abuse (these occur in Holland during World War II) is a young man called Peter van Wyck. In Bite You he is never caught and punished, although he is seen briefly again, years later, before vanishing once more. Into what future? I felt called to write his story, and My Name is Peter Van Wyck is that story, narrated by the Jesuit priest van Wyck ultimately becomes, after half a lifetime of horrific adventures. The men and women who partake in van Wyck’s life and dreams are played by one woman and one man taking many parts, much as Freud believed: that our life is a shadow play reviving the ‘primal scene’ of baby, mother and father, over and over.
And now? I’m hoping that the Maker in the head, while puzzling over my Warlord novel like a tiger with an indestructible, infuriating heavy-rubber toy that will not yield to his teeth, will morph – at least part-time – into the Editor in the head, so that I can continue to devote my attention to the books and plays (by other people) that I’m preparing for publication, as I hope I will be continuing to do for many years to come. My own output needs no addition. (When I completed the 7 novels, none of them connected, on the 365th day, in 2005, I felt there was no reason not to simply continue, and produce seven a year to the end of my life. But what would be the point, I reflected. No publisher will match that output. And a handful of good novels is as much as any writer need aspire to. Two is ample; one, indeed, will do.) As it is, I have 5 plays awaiting production and 6 novels due to be published. I have not so much outlived myself (though maybe that too) as outwritten myself. And very pleasant it is. I am the tiger with a heavy-rubber toy – but also a whole freezer-full of genuine meat to keep me supplied well into the future.
May that future be no less kind to you, dear Reader!
Carey Harrison is British-born, the son of the stage and screen actors Sir Rex Harrison and Lilli Palmer, and was raised in America. He has divided his life between the UK and the US, writing and teaching on both sides of the Atlantic. He is currently the artistic director of the Woodstock Players theater company, and is Professor of English at the City University of New York. Harrison is the author of close to two hundred plays for stage, radio, film and television, and 16 novels; his work has won numerous literary prizes and been translated into thirteen languages.