Notes on a Writing Life

October 14, 2019
NOTES ON A WRITING LIFE | 4

 Dear All,     

As I set off to do a series of readings in bookstores of Without Her, in Miami and Key West and in San Francisco and Berkeley, I’m thinking about the difference that writers experience between the private and the public in a writing life.  

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     You start off shut in a room with a typewriter or a computer and probably a stack of notebooks and ideas scribbled on pieces of paper.  You have a small idea, just the gleam in the eye of an idea, and you almost dread to write it down.  You are wearing clothes you threw on in a hurry – in my case old shorts or jeans and a shirt I think of as my “work shirt” bought in a New Mexico thrift shop and now full of holes.  You sit at a desk, or table, you stare out of a window, you drink coffee, or tea, you may walk up and down the room; but the important thing is, nobody sees you, you are invisible, completely private – unless there is a CCTV camera somewhere outside your window, that is – and you are alone with this small germ of an idea that may or may not grow into a story, poem or even novel. It all feels intensely private.  You begin to write, and you are immediately outside of time.  You only move back into time when you begin to feel tired, or hungry, and your back starts to ache, and you need to move.  If you run into somebody after a morning, afternoon or day such as this, you look at him or her with surprise, as if at an alien. You almost don’t exist as a person.  Sometimes people have knocked on my door when I’m writing, barefoot and disheveled and probably wild-eyed, and ask me, “Did I wake you up?”

I like reading to real people in bookstores and libraries: they are our public, the readers, the ones we all need, and a writer can see in their faces and hear from their murmurs or laughter what they enjoy about the book. It all happens in the present moment, it’s spontaneous, it’s unpredictable and real. 

     At the other end of this process, months or years later, there is the public face of the work on view, and you are in a bookstore, holding a book in your hand, presenting it to the world.  In between, the writing, the waiting, the angst, the sending out, the waiting again, the plans with publishers (you hope) and the eventual sending out of a printed book into the reading world.  All this can happen while you are still in your old clothes, your hair unbrushed, your face in its natural state.  It happens out of sight, online these days, on the telephone: somewhere else.  And then there are the readings, that you are glad to have, that you even look forward to – and fear.  Because now there is just you and the book, out there, with an audience of two or twenty or more, it doesn’t matter.  You have had to think about your clothes, even buy new ones – I think of Virginia Woolf and her anxiety about “dresses.”  You have to look presentable, because people will take photographs and there you will be for years to come, visible at this or that event, preserved online.  You worry about this more than you worry about the book. Because at this point, the book has grown up and left home.  It is a separate thing, an artifact, something that you and your agent and your publisher have made together, with an attractive jacket design and kind remarks made by other writers – its godparents – to send it out dressed and ready into the world.  The book has no worries.  It’s you that wakes up at three in the morning to worry about whether this jacket goes with those pants and if you should have your hair colored and some new lipstick and what about shoes, elegant or comfortable, new or old?  Or should you have some kind of “reading uniform” that involves no decisions at all?

     Once upon a time, writers did not appear in public with their books. Now, we go around with them on show, or even without them, ourselves on show.  I like reading to real people in bookstores and libraries: they are our public, the readers, the ones we all need, and a writer can see in their faces and hear from their murmurs or laughter what they enjoy about the book. It all happens in the present moment, it’s spontaneous, it’s unpredictable and real.  This, in an era of the fake, the remote, the inhuman, is valuable in itself.  

     I like book clubs too, especially if they invite me to meet with them: last winter a book club in Key West made up of 18 men invited me to talk about my novel The Lost Love Letters Of Henri Fournier and invited me to lunch afterwards, and it was huge fun. That was a first for me, and knocked out any assumption that book clubs are mainly for women.    

     So, I’m looking forward to being out in public, however briefly, with my new novel.  I like the fact that my book is a real, solid artifact, to be held in the hand or read in bed or on the bus or on the beach – (yes, it’s available on Kindle and Audiobook too, but for me the book is the real thing ) - and that we’ll be together again, out in public, it wearing its fancy jacket, I wearing mine.  

Affectionately, Ros

UPCOMING EVENTS

WITHOUT HER, BOOK SIGNING & READING

TUESDAY, OCTOBER 15 @ 6:30 PM // Books & Books, Coral Gables

265 Aragon Ave, Coral Gables, Florida

TUESDAY, OCTOBER 22 @ 7PM // Book Passage, Corte Madera, California

Corte Madera Book Passage, San Francisco,
in conversation with Delphinium fiction editor, Joseph Olshan.

51 Tamal Vista Boulevard, Corte Madera, California

THURSDAY, OCTOBER 24 @ 7:30PM // Mrs. Dalloway's, Berkeley, California

2904 College Avenue, Berkeley, California

TUESDAY, NOVEMBER 12 @ 6PM // Books & Books, KEY WEST

533 Eaton Street, Key West, Florida

Notes on a Writing Life

September 14, 2019
NOTES ON A WRITING LIFE | 3

 Dear All,     

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Having been grounded by a fall from a horse in Dorset (not the horse’s fault – entirely my own) and landed flat on my back, I’ve had time to think about my early writing life, and the publication of my first book “A Day To Remember To Forget,” as my latest, “Without Her” makes its own way in the US.  

When I look back on those early days as a writer, I see a trajectory like that of a roller coaster (a thing I detest, in fact, and did even as a child – who wants to be swooped up and down till they feel sick?)  Early success, even relative success, tends to go to your head, you think to yourself – ah, I’m off to the races now – and assume you’re going to have one book published after another in smooth succession.  Wrong.  

It may have been something to do with the notion that appeared in the seventies that women could do anything and everything. We can, of course, but not all at the same time.  When I began to be published, there were the role models all around: the Margarets Drabble, Forster and Atwood for a start; they all had families, didn’t they, they all wrote successful books, they did it what’s more with an apparently effortless grace. I think now that it’s nearly impossible to concentrate on anything else when you have small children to attend to, especially writing a half-way decent novel. Perhaps these icons of women’s writing think this too.  But in the early seventies I lived in a sort of commune – a very small one, basically two couples and two children – so I could hand my baby to someone else and at least go for a walk, or into town. We were committed to self-sufficiency, which meant getting up early to dig the earth and root out the persistent thistles that thrived in our rich black midlands-of-England soil.  We ordered the Whole Earth Catalog from California and set ourselves to be home-growers of everything that would take root.  The digging at dawn now seems to me a form of masochism, but anyone who was around in the 1970’s will recognize the theme.

I lived a kind of double life at that time – digging, child-minding, making beer, wine, pate, bread and anything else I could think of from scratch, then dressing up in my boots, hat and maxi-coat from Biba and setting off to London by train.

I lived a kind of double life at that time – digging, child-minding, making beer, wine, pate, bread and anything else I could think of from scratch, then dressing up in my boots, hat and maxi-coat from Biba and setting off to London by train. There, I visited my editor at Macmillan, the wonderful Caro Hobhouse of many books and parties fame, drinking too much wine along with her illustrious dinner guests at her flat in Camden. I pranced around London feeling like the bee’s knees, as we say in England, and went home with a hangover to take care of my children, vegetable garden and half-finished house.  

In those days, I could only justify shutting myself in the room we called the library to work if I knew everyone could hear me typing.  (I’d read somewhere, though, that on Israeli kibbutzim members who were writers were given time to write, once they had done their chores; I claimed the same right). So I typed, hard, rarely stopping to think, until it was time to fetch my daughter from her play school and retrieve my son from whoever was looking after him.  Eventually, I realized that if I was to continue as a writer I would have to pay someone to come in the mornings and do all the things I would otherwise be doing – give the baby his bath, wash a pile of dishes, clean the house and make lunch.  She – Mrs. Bedford, a woman older than me, who appeared like a beacon of sanity in our disordered hippyish lives – was my salvation.  I owe her, more than anybody, for my writing career at that time.

So yes, women can do everything, but we don’t have to. I wasn’t even going out to work, I had other adults around, I was relatively privileged in this respect. But writing does take time, and when I read somebody’s remark about prayer, that you need several hours of silence and meditation in order to pray for a couple of minutes, then the same has to be said for writing. My early books suffered from that fevered rush, that obligation to be heard typing. I didn’t think much about what I wanted to say, I was so relieved to have said at least something. After two more novels, Macmillan dropped me, even though Caro had generously offered me her house in Majorca so that I would have more time to write.  Guilt, small children and an acre of thistles kept me from accepting her offer, and I was out on my own again, with my agent Richard Simon trying to find me another home.

The reward of getting older is that you have time. You don’t know how much, in terms of length.  Life may end next week, or in twenty years. You may have lost that fast, furious, desperate urge to write. But you can at least spend time thinking, or what passes for thinking as you stroll, swim, look at the sky or lie in the bath-tub, and take gently the time you have. Or as you lie around with an ice-pack to your back, waiting for recovery, that comes slowly these days after a yet another fall to earth. 

Affectionately, Ros