August 14, 2019
NOTES ON A WRITING LIFE | 2
As my novel WITHOUT HER is now out in the US, I’m having a vacation in England, with periodic interviews on the phone with radio station across the Pond. It’s been interesting and fun – good questions and much enthusiasm for the book. We’ve discussed the limits of friendship, sex after 50, the role of memory in friendships, the origins of my story, my characters – and so on…
I’m writing now from Dorset where my family have been coming for nearly every summer since World War 2 – so I’m back again in my original home, and loving every minute of it. The hotel in the photograph here, called Knoll House, is one I stayed in with my parents and grandmother when I was 6. It’s where I wrote my first story, about some children who stayed in a marvelous hotel and went to the beach every day. I remember lying under a pine tree on my stomach, writing it and drawing pictures of the children all holding hands.
Much later, I discovered that Virginia and Leonard Woolf came here early in the 20th century, with Clive Bell and Lytton Strachey; there is a photograph of them standing under what looks like the very same pine tree, with the sea in the background. There are also photos of Virginia and Clive in swimsuits on the beach just down the hill from the hotel, and the whole party of the Bells and Woolfs and friends sitting in the sand-hills. Apparently, the village was known as Bloomsbury-on-Sea as Vanessa Bell several times rented a cottage here.
I also found out that Enid Blyton, who was the Judy Blume or J.K. Rowling of my childhood in England, came here with her second husband, always had the same table in the restaurant with a view of the bay as well as the same room, number 40, and based her Famous Five books in this place.
I think back again to the earliest days of wanting to be an “author.” Why does a child suddenly want so urgently to write? Many of us do write stories when we are young – but life, school, work, lack of opportunity or lack of continuing interest may get in the way. “Author” for some reason sounded better, grander to me then than simply “writer.” My main aim was to have the same effect on other people as real authors’ books did on me – to transport them into the scenes and situations I imagined. I suppose it is a power trip, in part. (I also wanted to be a magician, but turning solid things into other solid things to amaze my friends turned out to be very hard work, and the tricks showed, embarrassingly. Better to write, and convince them that way, perhaps.) But coming back this year to the place where I thought up my first story and lay on my stomach under a tree to write it, reminds me that this urge, to begin, to make, to do it, never really goes away.
I’m sorry to say that the narrator of the story ( I still have it - my mother kept the manuscript) when being told that they will all have to leave the hotel because other people are coming to stay in their rooms, ends her tale with the ungracious remark, “Oh, silly old other people!” Not an admirable thought – but honest, heartfelt, and probably more realistic than if she’d said piously, “Oh yes, of course.”
I’d grasped the fact that I could use my own life, our life, as a starting place, and embroider, or exaggerate as I chose. So there are seven children in my story, a number we never achieved. And every time a child makes a suggestion – “Let’s go out in a boat! Let’s climb that cliff!” the adults exclaim immediately, “Oh, good idea!” How often does that happen in real life? In fiction, you can have it the way you want…