This fifth instalment of The Maker In The Head, is occasioned by the release of Carey’s new novel, Who Was That Lady?
On October 16, the Kindle version of the book is the subject of a Bookbub promotion and is available free on Amazon for 5 days. That’s to say, Part One is free – the e-book version comes in 3 books, which are all available from Amazon. Carey will be reading from the book at Bard College’s Bard Hall at 5:00 PM on Friday October 17. Everyone welcome!
The Maker has been the subject of some attention recently, ever since my new novel, Who Was That Lady? (previously mentioned in Roll in The Maker in the Head IV), came out this summer and readers who have reached the end of its 700 pages have been reporting back. The psychologist Leon Festinger‘s investigations into what he called ‘effort justification’ suggest a tendency to like anything into which we’ve invested a large amount of time. I believe it applies to reading long books, and if so this is good news for those of us who like to write epics.
In fairness to the book, some of the reports on ‘That Lady’ do seem to go beyond the pleasure conferred by effort. A most excellent celebrity (and old friend, I should confess, in the interests of full disclosure), Eric Idle of Monty Python fame, declared it a masterpiece in the knowledge that this m-word and his name would appear side-by-side on the book’s cover, and that he would have to stand by it for ever, God bless him. This is more than either sustained effort or old friendship requires. Other enthusiasts can be found among the reader reviews on the book’s Amazon page, and if only I can find some way to exceed my usual ceiling of 70 or 80 books sold, it will be time to break out the bubbly. (My good friend John Froud likes to describe his books as selling ‘in the several,’ a term I’ve gratefully adopted.) But ah that sweet m-word: at least I’ll always have that. It’s been 30 years since anyone chose to use it in public about my work, and on that first, glorious occasion it was uttered by a most distinguished person, Mary Ann Caws, the President of the Modern Languages Association, in her speech to the Association at the end of her term as President. The event took place on what I recall as a kind of faux paddle steamer moored (for no reason I ever understood) off San Diego, where I used to teach literature and creative writing at the University of California. My then girlfriend was known to Ms Caws, and I found myself invited on the short trip the ship took around the bay. As the President reviewed her career and her favorite books, I was staggered to hear her mention my novel, Richard’s Feet, as a ‘masterpiece of dislocation.’ It was the only book by a living writer that she cited. My usual readership of 78 people did not, so far as I knew, include this wonderful scholar and critic — who to this day I’ve never met. Astonishingly and most wonderfully, she came to Woodstock on Saturday of last week, to take part in an event at the Kleinert-James Gallery, where at last I ambushed her and delivered my 30-years-belated thanks.
It’s not, of course, that as its recipient you have to take the m-word seriously. It’s a ticket to ride in one location only — on a dust jacket, a ticket without which you barely make it to the Barnes and Noble fiction shelves. Over-used hardly even describes the word: it’s sullied, flattened, lying prone in the gutter of literature. I remember a great many years ago seeing with distress a huge hoarding in Bristol (the Bristol in my native UK) which announced ‘Paul Theroux’s Latest Masterpiece,’ as though in his hands masterpiece was simply another word for ‘book.’ I felt ashamed for literature, for advertising, for the culture and for myself, who had no expectations of seeing that word attach to my person, and now couldn’t even dream of it without distaste. No offense to Mr Theroux. But no-one, not Theroux, not Dickens, not Tolstoy and not Shakespeare, simply produces their ‘latest masterpiece.’
But back to my new book, of which I never quite knew what to think, and am suddenly eager to believe that it is indeed the worthy effort that writer friends say it is, one of them willing to call it my ‘crowning work’! How lovely to slip on the costume, crown and all, for a few moments in the costume bay of life, and pretend to be a king, before returning to reality. And thank God for reality and a life which has convincingly ensured that I cannot believe my own publicity for more than those few moments.
The fact that I had no idea that anyone might see this book as my best effort still puzzles me. Who Was That Lady? was born in the midst of a strange carnival of productivity, during 2005 and the early part of 2006. I’d just seen the second night of Spamalot on Broadway — thanks to the kindness of that selfsame Eric Idle, the author of Spamalot - and I had come home, ungratefully wondering if I couldn’t do as well myself, in the musical comedy genre. (I can’t, or haven’t been able to so far, but I sat down and wrote the book and lyrics for a musical, which is still around and currently being revised by the third composer to tackle it. This was ten years ago — and the three scores have taken up all that time, two-and-a-half scores rather, since Jimmy Roberts (wonderful composer of I Love You, You’re Perfect — Now Change!) and I are only at the end of Act One in his new, hugely improved version.
But here’s what happened next, in 2005. I hadn’t written a novel in some time, and owed the world and myself the fourth and final novel in a quartet of which the first three volumes had been published a while back. I had taken two quite separate 300-page stabs at this final volume, and abandoned both. So I thought I would warm up with some other story, just to get myself going. Do a bit of throat-clearing. Some throat-clearing: seven novels (none of them the final book of the unfinished quartet) followed in short order, within a year.
My diary shows that on May 8 I completed the book and lyrics for the musical, which I’d begun on April 17, and then began a novel on May 9 and finished it on July 4, began another on July 5 and finished it on July 30, began the 700-page Who Was That Lady? (temporarily called A Perfect Innocent, and originally That Was No Lady), on July 31 and finished it four months and eight days later on December 8, began Justice (published last year) on December 9 and finished it on January 15, 2006, began a fifth novel, called Personal Assistant, on January 16 and finished it on February 25, and began no.6, Clear to Kill, on February 26, at one point writing it alongside no. 7, As An Unperfect Actor On The Stage, while I researched Britain’s wartime Special Operations Executive for Clear To Kill, and completed Clear To Kill on March 29 and As An Unperfect on May 8. As the year came around, May 8 proved to be a Monday, the day of the Sony Awards for which the BBC had generously flown me from New York to London in honor of my nomination in the radio drama category (doubly generously since I didn’t win).
While I visited British friends and relatives over the preceding weekend I saw the May 8 anniversary coming at me as I scribbled the final pages of the last book on trains and in spare bedrooms, and I slowed down, as if coasting into a petrol station on the last fumes of my tank, so as to write the very end of book 7 on the 365th day (I had thought it would turn out to be six books but another one popped out unexpectedly at the end, the last puppy of the litter), to lend a neatness or completeness to the whole surprising venture. It certainly should have felt like the last fumes of inspiration, but instead I felt oddly wired, like a marathon runner who both longs to stop, as he or she breasts the tape, but who also feels programmed, almost compelled, to continue — the body no longer able to grasp the idea of ‘stop!’. I felt as if I could go on indefinitely (I had no subject in mind, but neither had I always had one when launching myself at each new novel, the day after finishing the previous one), and all that prevented me from starting another book was a sense of the pointlessness of filling up the void with novels, especially when I had no agent and no publisher (they’d melted away since my last creative burst, years before), no public, and no expectations of any of these. Indeed it’s only after nearly 10 years of fruitless search for an agent, let alone a publisher, that the books have begun to see the light of day. And thank goodness I still only have seven to offer at this point, rather than seventy.
As I reread what I’ve written here, I suppose it might be striking that I simply ‘finished’ each book, in a matter of weeks, instead of proceeding to a second draft, and an editing process helped along by readers. Instead I edited as I went along (contrary to universally recommended practice), since I find that all changes made after 72 hours – whether days, weeks or years later — disimprove as much as they improve, and although my rule of thumb is that I find half the new edits worth keeping and the rest no better than the first draft, I’m soon no longer sure which are the good edits and which the bad. Other people’s edits are no better. So I simply write, look back a few pages at what’s recently written, fiddle with them a bit and keep on going. During the 12 months in which I wrote the 7 novels I was teaching university classes fulltime; my writing time was before breakfast every day, plus all day Wednesday, my free day.
My good friend and wonderful writer, Rose Tremain, has urged me to write more slowly. I would; I’d love to; but I’ve forgotten how. As I always say, it’s not at all like eating or walking more slowly. As the words arrive — in my case not torrentially but certainly steadily, and without a block of any kind — if you don’t use them you lose them. When I reread any of the seven books, I have no sense of wishing I could polish, cut or add to them; it’s not that I think they’re wonderful, let alone perfect; to me they read like the best I could do, and I still feel I would make them worse, and would have made them worse at the time, by re-working them. As some Americans so stoically say: it is what it is.
As you’ll see from the diary chronology above, I let no grass grow under my feet between novels. Finish one then start another the next day, was my only rule. Get up, take a shower (nothing like running water to stimulate inspiration — the Greeks knew this and connected water with creativity), sit down and work — 6:00 or so — until time to make breakfast. I often had no idea where I was headed with the new book, but as I mentioned this wasn’t always the case; although none of the books are remotely connected, several times I picked up old, long since discarded threads. I like to think the Maker might have granted me an entirely new one if I’d needed it, but I also wanted to take some of those lost threads, those loose ends of ideas faultily begun or never begun at all, just toyed with, and try and tie a bow at last. The first of the seven was entirely fanciful, although I’d always wanted to write an unsolved murder story (and the book turns out to be full of them, as well as a whole contingent of unapprehended murderers, each with a single, separate murder to his, her or its name); the second picked up a book I’d drafted and abandoned ten years earlier — I decided not to even look at the first draft but completely re-invent it, which happily provided me with the ending I could never previously find; the third was Who Was That Lady?, which grew from purest fancy after seeing a man at a party whose noble head and whose profession — I was told he was a psycho-therapist, but of no school known to my informant – led me to the alarming project of inventing an entirely new form of therapy (I’d written so many Freudian or post-Freudian therapists, those sweetly absurd people – enough!), which was all I had to go on when I began; book 4, Justice, was pure invention again, but launched by a sentence I read in a newspaper review of a book about 20th century European history, which mentioned that five years after World War Two, every single Italian police chief elected under Fascism was still in place (this sentence was all I had to start with, but I also had Italy and my childhood there, like a perfume sealed into a bottle and never opened onto my writing before); then came Personal Assistant — a chance meeting on a Polish bus gave me the basis for the story — and Clear To Kill — a story about wartime assassination which I’d been longing to write for years – and As An Unperfect Actor On The Stage, a story about amnesia (I’d always longed to do an amnesia story) for which I only had the location and the opening instant. Personal Assistant took flight from the tale told me on the bus by a young Polish boy who’d visited America; Clear To Kill I’ve always wondered if I stole from some forgotten movie — I’d been longing to tell it — about an assassin parachuted into enemy territory, who becomes more and more sure that his intended victim is in fact innocent and that the traitor he’s supposed to kill is someone else — but he goes ahead and kills the intended victim anyway, as he is insistently and repeatedly instructed to do; and for ‘As An Unperfect,’ set once again in Italy, all I had was a view – blazing sunlight, a thunderous sea and a beach before you, and behind you a cliff face and houses, steep and claustrophobically close, and no memory of who you are and how you got there.
(Very different stories, each one. My actor parents always talked about ‘coming out of a new box,’ every time, surprising your audience and yourself, although as actors they had less control over what that new incarnation might be, and usually had to wait for an interestingly surprising offer; their generation of actors rarely initiated projects. The only thing preventing a writer, painter or sculptor from changing direction is past success and the fear of disappointing the audience. I count myself fortunate – I’ve never had enough success to encounter this fear, and now, even if I was ‘discovered,’ I’m too set in my contrarian ways. Besides, consciously ‘branded’ art surely isn’t art at all.)
With no reputation to potentially damage, I simply forged on during that year. Even when I already had a start, an Ariadne-thread leading me into the labyrinth of a novel, I still had to charge in like a Theseus unafraid of the distant bellowing of the minotaur that devours writers and their stories in mid-stride. Charge in; hesitate and you might never enter. So I left no day without pages written, for 365 days, without, it seems, an entirely wrong turn. And without drying up. This plenitude had in a sense been in store, perfectly preserved, freeze-dried – it was years since I’d written a novel, my true calling. Years spent teaching and establishing a financial base for parenthood (I’ve helped to raise seven children). The story-telling appetite was banked up, the muscles rested, ready. I do look back at that writing year in some wonderment. But at the time it was just a daily rite, mysteriously accomplished without seeming to encountering an obstacle. The books vary from the farcical to the dark, each time changing key, changing tone as radically as possible before beginning a new novel.
And surely some infinitely forgiving guardian angel was looking down on me; just as this or another angel looked down on me this summer, as I rode 10,000 miles on my Harley, seven-and-a half weeks traversing the country from Woodstock to the Pacific coast and back (the southern route going out and the northern route coming back), without harmful incident. My riding companion, on his own Harley, was blessed by the same good fortune. (It was of course an indescribable, magical feast of a trip, a feast for eyes and smell above all, and my website, careyharrison.net, carries a blog-report of the entire trip, with daily photographs; it’s under ‘The Latest,’ if you scroll all the way back to the start of the blog.) My lifelong good fortune prevailed on the road, as it did ten years ago at the computer, tapping out my litter of seven puppies.
Reality did finally take over, in the form of refusals from literary agent after agent (including both my previous agents, the US-based and the British). Good fortune dried up. I think the total number was between 80 and 90 agent-rejections until I found my dear current agent, and publisher-rejections galore, certainly 50 or more. One for the record books, perhaps. This is where patient persistence is the only option (despair is fortunately not in my vocabulary), and has been all my life. Eventually the gloomy weather breaks and the sun shines through. I do recognize that by the time most writers have been treated to even a fraction of the rejections I’ve endured (similarly 30 years ago, until I finally found a publisher with faith in me), they’ve fatally fallen out of love with their rejected work, and take up something else. (The accordion, I usually say. It’s a forgiving instrument.) Rejected authors often end up hating and destroying their work, when enough people have rebuffed it; unrequited passion goes soon cold when your soul is laid so bare. But I never had anything else I wanted to do with my life, other than write. This has turned out to be a blessing, despite the lean times. The publisher who had faith in me, 30 years ago, soon retired from publishing, sick of the industry and its decay into dumbness. After three books in the UK — only the long one, Richard’s Feet, found a home here in the US — I went into hibernation, to emerge 10 years ago with my cicada-children, all seven of them. (There was also one more early novel, Freud, which derived from a BBC TV series I wrote – the series wound up on Masterpiece Theater — that Penguin published in Britain, and Viking in America, supposedly. I’ve never seen a copy of the Viking edition. A colleague once purchased a copy of the Penguin version in the airport at Alexandria — the one in Egypt. So it goes with our orphaned children. They wind up anywhere.)
And now the novels are coming out into the light at last, thanks to a small imprint called Dr. Cicero Books, Brazilian in provenance, which opened an American office and publishes wonderful, strange, challenging fiction and poetry.
Patience, says the Maker in the head. Pazienza. It will come around.
Thank you, mighty Maker. I’m grateful and at peace. And now… now I thought that with the publication of Who Was That Lady? I could take a back seat as far as huge projects were concerned. If I’d listened harder I would have heard the Maker’s laughter.
As I set out on the monstrous bike ride, a monstrous novel-project arrived from the Maker. 1500 pages long; five entirely separate 300 page novels, each one set at a different historical period and in a different country, with different characters, but all five novels gradually bleeding into each other — not quite in a David Mitchell mode, but more alarming, morphing slowly into a finally 120 pages of pure carnival.
More of this next time.
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.