Tuesday, January 14, 2014

How Jane Austen Changed My Writing Life

Even though you'd progressed to your early thirties, your approach to writing fiction in general and the novel with specificity focused more on plot turns, twists, and yes, in some cases, even contrivances.

At the time, two of your pals were Day Keene and Robert Turner, both of whom had stories published in the legendary Black Mask Magazine, in all probability one of the major platforms for hardboiled and noir mystery fiction.  You'd heard both of them telling gritty stories about a man they referred to by his last name, MacCampbell.  Often, instead of his first name, which was Donald, Keene and Turner threw in adjectives such as "That bastard," or "That son-of-a-bitch."  

As things worked out, you never got a chance to publish Keene, who died way too soon at age sixty-five, in 1969, just as you were approaching the status of being able to walk into a meeting, say you wanted a particular project from a particular author, and got the okay.

Keene was directly responsible for you meeting MacCambell, when he came to California to visit is writer clients and troll for others such as you.  MacCampbell was called the king of the paperbacks, a literary agent who, in his New York Times obituary, was credited with having written over three thousand contracts for his client authors, including a few for you.

You were seated in his suite at the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel, because, in MacCampbell's view, the New York publishers had ruined the Beverly Hills Hotel, and the Bel-Aire was too precious for him.  An Ivy Leaguer (Penn and Harvard), MacCampbell did not go for precious.  "If," he told you on that first day, "you make enough and you have to come to New York, I'll put you up at the Drake.  New York Hotels can become precious, too, you know."

This was after five minutes of Q and A, the process of an agent,deciding to take on a new client--or not.  "What sort of a fellow are you, anyway?"  MacCampbell asked.  "You've been here--" he shot a glance at his watch, "--ten minutes and you haven't asked for a drink.  What am I to make of you?"

"It's a bit early for me."

"Ho,that's rich.  It is never too early for a writer.  Are you a writer or not?"

You assured him you were.

"Keene tells me you're pretty fast on you feet.  Turner says you have an engaging style.  You say it's too early for you.  Whom am I to believe?"

"Believe Keene,"  you said.

And in its way, here came a conversation that led you to the kinds of discoveries of which you mean to discuss.

"Keene does one a month, you know?"

You knew.

"Turner isn't as fast, but then, he has television.  Are you up to one a month?"

You assured him you were.  Then you asked if you might have a drink.

"Keene says you drink Jack Daniels.  Is that right?"

Keene must have been thinking of someone else, but you nodded.  An hour or so later, you lurched through the lobby, looking for a coffee shop.

Years later, when you were in New York for a sales meeting of the publishing house where you were editor in chief, you visited him in his office.  "Why,"  you said, "don't you write a book for me?"

"Why ever would I do that?"  he said.

Thus was born another of your ventures into the plot-driven, action paced narratives related to what has been called The Golden Age of the Pulps and paperback originals.  MacCampbell's work, a combination memoir and how-to, was called, Don't Step on It; It May Be a Writer.   The front cover has a bug-like creature, somewhat out of Kafka's Metamorphosis.  If you look with care, you can see a picture of the then you, hunched over a typewriter.

Your focus in those days was not limited to noir fiction, but it did hold your attention.  Only later, after you'd moved through publishing jobs, turned down the offer to come to New York to run Pinnacle Books, and remained, of all places, at a scholarly publishing house, until you in effect walked the plank into enough teaching to provide subsistence income, while trying to get back what you felt you'd burned out of yourself with those novels-a-month, did you put yourself into the crucible under which you lit your own fire.

Some of the credit must go to a former student, then a teaching mate, Digby Wolfe, who knew drama, made you see drama, and forced you to watch for the hidden traces of what you will now call layered composition, a gradual escalation of internal risk for the main characters.

You write these lines now with tonight's lecture on narrative and free independent discourse in, of all things, the novels of Jane Austen.  So many of the beginnings of modern narrative can be found in her work.  Even though she was never among your favorites because of her choices of story, you so admired the inner life she gave her characters that you have come back to her again and again.

"You are not to use that term 'free independent discourse' in front of a literary agent or writer.  You will say (and think) interior monologue.  And we will begin to study the deft way in which Ms. Austen conflates first and third person narratives with interior monologue."

The students are scribbling furiously, nodding.  Most of them are here because they wish to not be English Lit majors for a time, but writers of story.  Who tells the story?  you ask.  And they look at you with the intelligent eyes you might not have recognized, back in the day.

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