The original jacket.
May 23, 2013
I thought, well, a little extra dough never hurt anybody, especially as I was teaching for a mere pittance—lunch included, as the headmaster announced when he placed a contract in front of me—at a private school outside of New York City at the time. I enjoyed my students, the coffee was free depending on which headmaster was in charge (and we went through a lot of them in a short time), that free lunch was astonishingly horrible, but there were additional perks: because I’d graduated from the same school seven years earlier I was on a first-name basis with some of my former teachers, who I could see were sometimes tempted to report me to the headmaster for loitering in the halls or smoking between classes at my very own desk. And, best of all, I could teach whatever I liked, meaning I could introduce eighth- and ninth-graders to Hamlet, stories by Tolstoy and Nabokov, novels by Graham Greene, and, for the older students, Under the Volcano, Mrs. Dalloway and for a two-semester junior-senior seminar, James Joyce, including Ulysses, which today would probably get me fired. I taught modern British drama, and we read Stoppard, Osborne, Pinter, Storey, and others, and watched film adaptations of The Servant and The Caretaker. Nobody much cared, as long as the kids were being kept in the classroom, in their seats, relatively calm, and not running in frantic hilarity on the property, designed by the eminent Frederick Law Olmstead, in an adolescent version of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.
The dough came by way of an offer to prepare a group of men to pass the verbal part of the examination for what are known in polite New York City circles as sanitation workers, and, to most of us, garbage men. It’s the kind of hook that turns into a mediocre movie (cast Cameron Diaz in the lead: born into wealth, she lives on the Upper East Side, graduated from Spence, has never shared a damned thing with anyone, needs work, finds this job; give her a love interest in the class, maybe Benicio Del Toro, sitting sullenly in the third row, pen in mouth, have her sacrifice that love for his career as a trash collector, add a song to run over the end titles, and, boom, you’ve got a movie. A $145 million movie, with a sequel when a few years later he becomes mayor; and then a third sequel when he realizes how much he misses the garbage you can actually pick up and toss in the truck as opposed to the crap you sling around when you’re a politician). Or it could become a weepy, first-person prose narrative of some 80,000 words about a struggle with self, loss, other people’s detritus, and hope. You will get neither from me. It wasn’t that bad, and nobody shed a tear.
Because it’s a civil service position, an exam was required (there’s also a physical exam, which I’ll get to later), and like the SAT it involves both math and English skills. What these have to do with hauling people’s crap off the ground and into a truck is beyond me, but I suspect elevator operators also had to take a similar test, back when there were elevator operators. And they also got paid a whole lot more than I did as a teacher and, I’m afraid, as an aspiring writer.
The course was offered one evening a week at St. Francis College in tony Brooklyn Heights, something of a commute for me, but the pay for this one-off job made it worthwhile, and you could get a decent deli sandwich nearby. I was given a sample exam and saw that it was actually very close to the standard SAT verbal examination, a smorgasbord of multiple-choice questions. My classroom was a duplex: on one level were my students; on a higher level, a kind of platform, were Jesus Christ and me. Because St. Francis is a Catholic college, every room had a large crucifix attached to the wall directly behind the teachers, in my case, a Jewish teacher. But so was Jesus. So I was in good company. Member of the tribe.
It was a mixed group: mostly Spanish-speaking and African-American men (one of whom dressed in the classic couture of the Manhattan pimp, replete with wide-brimmed hat, big sunglasses and shiny not-quite-real teeth, and I loved how he walked in like a rooster just after a morning in the hen-house, all hips and diddlitude), with a few Italians thrown into the mix. Let’s just call it New York.
One of my Italian students had just gotten off the boat from Naples, and, by way of translator, brought his 80-year-old grandmother in from Queens to translate in her flowered dress, white hair and orthopedic shoes. He wasn’t going to pass the test, but I was definitely going to teach him something about the English language. What was great about these students—what made the course worthwhile for all of us—was that they were thrilled to be in a classroom with a teacher, because, I suspected, their past experiences weren’t all that great. I saw a lot of detention, suspension and expulsion in those faces before me, and because I’d had my share of detentions during my one year at the now-notorious Horace Mann School in Riverdale, I was determined to see them all hanging off a garbage truck on a 92-degree Manhattan day, raking in the serious salary of a New York City civil servant. They called me either teacher or professor or sir. One of them was called Jésus, and I simply called him Jesus, like the fellow on the wall. Once lucky, right?
But when I broached the subject of nouns, verbs, subjects and objects, they were baffled. They just wanted to haul other people’s shit into a big noisy, stinking truck that was going to hold up crosstown traffic for an unforgiveable amount of time. But they also knew this was a gateway to some decent money and eventually a pension. And you never know what you’ll find in the garbage pails of New York City. (Some very well-off people, do, though. Those cast-off stuffed animals stuck to the front grill are only the icing; people dump Eames chairs and oil paintings, while those on the verge of divorce get into fights, and in a moment of high drama toss old, exceptionally-expensive gifts—the Basquiats and the Warhols, the I. Magnin furs and the Cartier rings—in the garbage, and they get carted off the next morning to the great democratic, out-of-state dump of the landfill.)
I ran off sample tests from the SATs, handed them out and shook my head over their results. They had no idea what this was all about. They didn’t live in a world with grammar, they lived in a world of asphalt, basketball courts, slices of pizza, and shared cigarettes on a Brooklyn stoop. They needed me, and I was being paid to give them a leg up in the world. Once I realized that I wanted to quit. This was a losing battle right from the start.
“So, what, can we cheat or somethin’?” one of my students said, and I thought, well that’s an excellent idea, just make sure you’re not cheating off the guy scratching his head right next to you, something some of my private school students learned the hard way. Once they understood that such behavior could get them barred from ever taking a civil service exam again in the city, they all looked up at me with expectant eyes. They needed this job. They needed me to help them get it. So we began with simple sentences. “John called his father from a phone booth on Sixth Avenue.”
“Called his father what? Scumbag?”
“That’s not the point. John is the subject. Called is the verb. Father is the—”
“Guy doing twenty-five to life in Attica for selling crack.”
“Okay, let’s start over. Let’s do it your way. John’s father is in Attica.”
“Shit, man, that’s hard stuff.”
“John calls him.”
“And asks for the name of his dealer.”
We were actually getting to the grammar of the thing. Context didn’t matter: all they knew was that X did something to Y on a familiar street. That’s what they knew, that’s what they were headed for if they passed the exam. The same old sidewalks they’d walked for years, except now they’d be picking up garbage for far more than I was paid teaching well-off kids in Westchester. I wasn’t going to teach them Shakespeare or Joyce or Nabokov. I was going to launch them in their careers.
It was, I recall, a six-week course. Most had had lousy experiences with teachers (and possibly any authority) in the past, so they appreciated a guy who’d honed his skills on hardened middle-schoolers who kept me on my toes each day. I wanted to see each and every one of these men succeed, and I understood that this test had nothing to do with their skills as rubbish haulers. But I was going to get them there.
On the last day I informed them that they were also required to carry 200 pounds of dead weight a certain distance. They didn’t have a teacher for this, so we determined that the desk in front weighed a fair amount, and every one of them hefted it over his head or onto his shoulders, ran up and down the hallway, and went home to rest before his exam.
“Anything else?” one of them said in our last moments of class.
“Yeah,” and I glanced over at the suffering Jesus. “You could always pray.”
March 24, 2013
A screenwriter once said to me--actually he was the person who first adapted The Blue Hour (and it was very nearly turned into a feature film)--that a successful film adaptation of a novel must be true to the poetry of the story, though not always to the plot and characters.
What I'm finding interesting as I adapt the book is that, yes, I've been true to the "poetry" of the novel, but I've basically turned it inside-out. No longer is the bereft young man the main character; now it's the detective, who is driven by his own demons and haunted by a trauma from his own past. And the vanished woman, who in the novel is depicted in several flashbacks, now is brought more to the forefront as the protagonist of her own storyline.
The Blue Hour is the only one of my novels I've reread, and though it speaks very much to the time when it was written--the late 80s--I don't find it a depressing task. I think it holds up pretty well as a kind of mystery/thriller/detective hybrid.
My short story, "Gone," which will appear in the Delmarva Review this autumn, also plays with this theme of a missing person, again in Paris, but with a very different angle and twist.
March 11, 2013
Adapting one’s own novel can often be fraught with unforeseen dangers. The first (and foremost) one is that even if it’s been years since you published it—even if you haven’t cracked it open since the last time you’d done a reading from it (and remember how long ago that was?)—you’d written it, worked with an editor, corrected the galleys and sent it on its way. It was frozen solid. Nothing was going to change it, because, well, in your eyes it was perfect. This was the story you wanted to tell, and you did it to the best of your ability. Done deal.
But when you decide to adapt it into another medium all kinds of things get in the way. Sure, you can stick with the original characters and storylines, and you can even lift some of the dialogue, if you wish (though this is a more complicated issue to be touched upon below). And then, as you reread your book, you realize that much of it was texture and color and, especially, mood. And that once you extract the primary storyline there’s not much left. Take away the armature from a sculpture and the figure falls to pieces. And all you’re left with is this wire approximation of something human.
When my third novel, The Blue Hour, was first published, in 1989, there was a great deal of film interest in it. It’s a natural, after all: the wife of a young man in Paris goes missing, and alongside an amoral (but dogged) detective, the main character discovers that his wife has been trapped in a kind of underworld, a parallel place to the one inhabited by him, his employer, colleagues and friends. It’s the Orpheus story, and in order to save his wife he must deal with the gods of the Underworld and descend into this dark region to bring her back to his world.
The producer who eventually optioned it was also a writer, and he stuck to the original story, going so far as to use my dialogue in the screenplay. The problem with this is that my two main characters in the book are Hungarian, and nearly all the characters speak French. So my dialogue, though obviously in English, reflects in its rhythms and colors the sense of a foreign language being spoken. Putting it into the mouths of actors would have made it sound mannered and unnatural.
For various reasons we got close to seeing the film made, we had most of the casting completed, a director attached and financing in place, but in the end it fell apart. Over the years I’ve now and again considered doing something with it on my own (after all, I own the original material, and thus for me it’s a free option), and only recently have I begun to see how it could work. Setting it in Paris is a non-starter; and having Hungarian lead actors isn’t going to happen, either. But setting it in Los Angeles (where, as one character says in the script, people come to lose themselves and become someone else), and making the detective—I think the most interesting character in the novel—the protagonist, is the solution.
But what about that storyline…? A wife who disappears is a perfectly good hook. But, as with any good procedural, the detective needs to be uncovering layers of plot and deception, and in the novel that’s pretty much in the background, as the young husband was the original focus. So as I write the script I’ve come up with a primary storyline that is both cinematic and suspenseful, and I’ve assigned the lead role to the cop—a flawed man driven to find this man’s young wife before something horrendous happens to her. More than the static armature of the script it’s something active that drives the characters toward the climax of the film. And so the screenplay has achieved independence from the novel; it has become its own entity. I have created a monster, and soon it’ll be free to roam the countryside of the imaginations of others.
February 28, 2013
Just back from a trip out west, and three meetings in Los Angeles with people who've read several of my scripts. One of them looks like a potentially interesting (and I hope fruitful) project, while the idea of adapting my third novel, The Blue Hour, was brought up at two companies. So, because I do love screenwriting, as well as for legal reasons, I'm setting aside my work on The Memory Thief novel, and working solely on screenplays. The legal issue involves certain concepts I've invented for the book that may be used for a movie script, and which for now, at least, I'd like to keep closely within the author-producer loop. And, frankly, legally I can say nothing more about it.
But adapting The Blue Hour has so far been interesting. When it first came out in, I think, 1989, there was a lot of film interest, and I eventually settled on a writer/producer who would adapt it, attach talent and other elements, and bring in financing. My final approval of the script was written into the contract, as well.
We came very close to seeing this become a movie, but in the end, for reasons I won't go into here, it wasn't made, though some very big names circled the project, and some were actually attached to it. The novel takes place in a hot Paris summer in the late '80s, and the main characters are Hungarian. I'm now transposing (and in a sense translating) it all to Los Angeles in the present day, and making the detective the main character. It's built around the Orpheus myth, where Orpheus has to descend into the Underworld to bring his wife back into life.
In a sense, it's the first resurrection myth, and in Orpheus and Eurydice's case it didn't actually work, due to Orppheus's impatience and lack of faith in the gods of the Underworld. Jean Cocteau made a movie of it, set in the last year or so of the German Occupation of Paris, and like all myths it has an ageless resonance. Of all my early books, it's the one I've reread more than once.
The story is very simple: the wife of the young assistant to a filmmaker has vanished, and an amoral detective named Cuvillier is in charge of the case. He's the worst kind of human being, but he's the best kind of detective, who lets nothing go until he's solved a case. To me, now, he seems the more interesting character; hence, he'll be the protagonist. Just American, this time.
Adapting my own work is nothing new. When my first novel, The Man from Marseille, was first published, I was hired to adapt it for an independent film company in London which had just wrapped its first feature starring a young Liam Neeson. All of the principals in the company were TV veterans (and in one case, is still very active there), and they'd seen earlier scripts of mine sent by my agent at the time. It took almost a year of development, and hopes that Jeremy Irons would take the starring role, but in the end the project became too expensive to make, and the company dissolved.
In a way, The Blue Hour is an easier adaptation. It's very straightforward, and in the book the plot is the armature for the texture of the prose, the atmosphere, the omens, the sense of dread, the city caught in a nightmare. It was great fun to write, and I can say it's turned out to be great fun to adapt. It's always been a "movie" book and I'm hoping this time we'll actually get there.
January 25, 2013
What is the working title of your current/next book?
My latest book—published in November 2012—is Airtight, from Thomas & Mercer.
The working title for my next is The Memory Thief, based on my own screenplay, set in the near-distant future when memories have become commodities and the government owns them upon your death (to be processed, analyzed and tagged for any leads to terrorist attacks). The main character is the former head of the Memory Division at the LAPD, having dealt with memory-stealing over a period of years.
It’s something a little different for me, a combination of noir and science fiction.
Where did the idea for Airtight come from?
Airtight really came out of a forgotten incident from my college days in the 60s. Watching Quentin Tarantino’s Jackie Brown many years later suddenly brought it all back to me, and I thought, well, that’s a movie. So I wrote it as a script before I turned it into a novel. Back in the day, two friends and I cut a deal for some $400 worth of grass and hashish with a dealer in Cincinnati, Ohio.
We took a bus there, did the hand-off, returned to the college and processed what was obviously very low-grade weed. Apart from selling the odd nickel bag here or there, it went nowhere. The stuff was horrible. Offering it up for sale would be like trying to sell a bottle of $3 wine to Robert Parker. So, because we couldn’t keep it in the dorm for fear of being busted, we buried the remainder in Mason jars on campus.
All these years later I saw the plot in my mind. Change grass to heroin, and have two old college friends who have been aged out of their jobs as ad man and attorney run into one another at a jobs fair in New York. Deep in debt, they remember the buried narcotics. They’ll dig it up, bring it back to the city, sell it to a dealer and make a fortune. That’s the story. Except the dealer has a little surprise in store for them.
What genre does your book fall under?
It’s being marketed as a thriller, but I’d say it was more dark-comedy/crime/caper. Actually, all of my books are literary novels but they share certain traits with genre fiction.
What actors would you choose to play the part of your characters in a movie rendition?
There are three main characters. George Clooney and Brad Pitt are the exact ages of my protagonists, and, really, who wouldn’t be happy with them. Though I’d be equally happy with, say, Jeff Bridges and Philip Seymour Hoffman. And the third character, in either case, the dealer Ray Garland, would have to be played by Samuel F. Jackson. It’s a role tailor-made for him.
What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?
Mad Men meets Easy Rider when two unemployed professional men about to lose everything dig up a hidden stash of heroin worth millions from their college days.
Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?
It was represented by my agent and published by a real, live publisher.
How long did it take you to write the first draft?
Approximately one year.
What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?
Though I haven't read it, I’m told Scott Smith’s A Simple Plan is somewhat similar. Also, I was thinking of the movie The Treasure of the Sierra Madre for the sheer existential irony of the thing.
Who or what inspired you to write this book?
As I stated above, it was a memory, which blossomed into a story, which turned into a screenplay, which turned into a novel. Here’s the opening to it:
October 16, 1970
It began as a river of electricity working its way up his legs, into the pit of his stomach, through his heart and settling in his head, where it would cook and bubble for the
next eight hours, wreaking havoc with the primordial life that clung to the corners and corridors of a subconscious that had eluded parents, teachers, counselors, and physicians for all of his eighteen years. In time he would come to pinpoint it on the map of his life: it was sometime between “To a Skylark” and “Ode on a Grecian Urn” that he went quietly out of his mind.
Outside, the wind wove through the leaves and branches like fingers of bright tin, twitching toward a sky so azure that it became a line from a familiar song or a photo he’d seen a million times before. Messages were being sent to him from the trees, rumors from another world, telegrams in unfamiliar languages. Climbing the venerable old oak outside the window, a squirrel with a cigarette butt in its mouth turned to him and said, “Bird lives, man.”
All the pointless details of his surroundings oozed with consequence, begged for interpretation: the chalk in the profes- sor’s hand, the brushed-chrome knob on the door, the tortoise- shell clip in the girl’s hair in the seat in front of him. He drew nearer until he could see the individual brown hairs emerging from her scalp, a flake or two of dead skin, and wondered, if he looked any closer, whether he might see her skull and beneath it her brain throbbing with dreams of escape as vivid as his. For a moment he nearly put his hands on her to reach inside and take hold of what she was thinking, seize her thoughts and confront her fantasies in all of their wriggling, frantic glory.
Like soup left too long on the stove, the air in the room simmered up a texture, rippling as though thick with ghosts and lost souls, the echoes of those who had passed into some other world long ago. Sounds took on a hollow, uncertain quality; words lost their meaning. The faces of those around him faded into something he could only call the uneasy past: They were not where he was, nor would they ever be. They were a moment or two behind, then a minute, then five, ten, until, like passengers waiting on a railroad platform, they passed as a blur while he glided to his destination.
Man, he said to himself, who made this stuff?
Be sure to look out for the next installments of The Next Big Thing next week, February 1st, for blogs by authors Kat Yares (http://katyares.blogspot.com ), Allison Chan-Beaulieu (http://allison-chan-beaulieu.tumblr.com ), and Doug Solter (http://dougsolter.blogspot.com ).
January 9, 2013
I just read this, quoted by Roger Ebert on Twitter. It's by Quentin Tarantino: "When I'm writing a movie, I hear the laughter. People talk about the violence. What about the comedy? 'Pulp Fiction' has such an obviously comic spirit, even with all the weird things that are happening. To me, the most torturous thing in the world, and this counts for 'Reservoir Dogs' just as much as it does to 'Pulp,' is to watch it with an audience who doesn't know they're supposed to laugh. Because that's a death. Because I'm hearing the laughs in my mind, and there's this dead silence of crickets sounding in the audience, you know?"
The reason why I quote it is that this is exactly how I felt when writing The Blue Hour, my third novel. It's a dark novel—a nightmare, in a way—that takes place in perhaps the most beautiful city in the world, Paris. Little of it features the usual tourist spots; this is outlier country, the canals and deserted garages, the crummy little bars and cafés that somehow manage to stay in existence in this Starbucks universe.
I remember telling my agent at the time that I laughed a lot when writing this, and he had to admit (though he hated to) that he laughed, as well. Making him complicit in my little gothic tale of a lost woman. Now go see "Django Unchained," please.
January 1, 2013
I'm often asked how I look back at my older titles, and what I think of them now. After all, they were all written (and published) over a period of some thirty years, and each was a result of a particular interest, influence or state-of-mind at that time. As I was preparing the titles prior to Airtight for republication, I decided not to alter them in any way, even though I had the opportunity to revise as much as I wished.
Had I taken this to heart I'd be rewriting every other line, I knew, and so I left them alone. They are exactly as they were first published, even The Man from Marseille, which, though I was asked to "Americanize" the spelling and punctuation, I decided to leave as it was first published in 1985. I'd spent many years in England, and this reflects the time I'd lived there. Some of the references are now dated, some of the people mentioned or, due to tough UK libel laws, alluded to are now dead or less known to US readers.
I think of all my back titles, the two that remain alive for me are The Blue Hour and The Discovery of Light. The Blue Hour is a nightmare of a tale, an updating of the Orpheus myth, set in a feverish Paris and involving a detective so utterly amoral and yet so completely superb at his job. I had tremendous fun writing this rather dark tale, setting it in the less-seen quarters of Paris, the canals and underground garages, the eastern districts of the city where bent cops can mingle with the dregs of society. I couldn't be happier seeing this available once again, and I hope, after all the film interest it had back then (and it was almost made, after all), that some filmmaker will see its cinematic potential.
The Discovery of Light was in many ways my breakthrough book. It was first published by Viking Penguin, earned me more of an advance than all of my previous titles put together, and had some nice reviews in the press. Basically, it's a contemporary mystery about a crime writer and his wife, who has either committed suicide or been murdered. Because of her intense interest in the paintings of Vermeer, these canvasses become a kind of portal into his understanding of his wife, while they also seem to create a murder tale set in 17th century Holland.
The book was chosen as a Barnes & Noble Discover title, and went into two printings in paperback. As I've mentioned in an earlier blog on my website (www.jpsmith.org), I wrote this at an especially difficult period in my life, and though I haven't looked at the book since it was published (I don't as a rule reread anything I've previously published, which can be a depressing habit!), I see it as a kind of way out from those difficulties, a portal, once again, into another world.
Which isn't to say that my other titles mean less to me. Each reflects a state of mind and thus plants it firmly in a time and place. Body and Soul and Breathless have had their fans and good reviews (and bad reviews, but that goes along with the profession), and there are things in each that I like very much. Breathless was my attempt to write a novel about a woman and from a woman's point of view, and so like most novels it's a kind of experiment, a stretch into regions not automatically within reach, just as the novel I'm working on now is way out of my usual comfort zone, a dystopic piece of speculative fiction set in a Los Angeles of several years from now. And sometimes, when you step out of that comfort zone, you achieve more than you would settling back into the familiar and the comfortable.
December 16, 2012
I was recently asked in an interview what I was working on next, now that Airtight is out, and thought I’d blog on the project, albeit coyly, as a work in progress is sometimes killed in the process by talking about it too much. I’ve recently finished a new screenplay, Rouge Incorruptible, and hope to see that go out to development executives and producers sometime in January, but I’ve also begun a new book whose genesis lies in another script entitled The Memory Thief.
Although I’m not much of a fan (or even reader) of science fiction, the script is set in the not-too-distant future and could be classified as a dystopia. The story is built around the concept that memories can be deleted (which will certainly be possible in the near future through pharmaceutical means), which led me to the idea of memories being stolen, which took me to the even more outrageous hook that upon our deaths our entire memories become the property of the federal government. The equipment both to delete and scan memories are made by the two biggest manufacturers of motion picture editing machines (for what are memories if not movies that, as we age, we constantly edit?). The memories are then filtered for tags, mentions of terrorism, bombs, etc., so they can be cross-referenced and plots that are still being formed can be aborted. One of the government slogans, displayed everywhere, is: REMEMBER: FORGETTING IS A FEDERAL CRIME. And, yes, Godard's Alphaville is an influence on my approach to the subject.
At one time (in my script), scraping, the term used for memory-editing, was legal, as common as cosmetic surgery and undertaken in pristine clinics in Beverly Hills and Bel Air: wives used it to erase bad memories of first marriages; returning vets used it to erase trauma, as did survivors of childhood abuse. Once it became illegal it went back-alley. Which is where the script begins, when a woman whose memory—or part of it—has been stolen walks into a nostalgia store in Hollywood to find the ex-head of the Memory Crimes Division at the LAPD, now retired at the age of 35. Why retired? Early onset Alzheimer’s (renamed for the novel). So this ex-top-memory-detective is losing his own memory while he tries to help this woman find hers.
You gotta have a hook, as they say in the film business, and I figure I have plenty of them.
A number of film people have read the script, and undoubtedly more will see it till either someone buys or options it or it lingers as a pitch. But the concept stayed with me enough to want to develop it as a novel, to use the same characters in a different series of relationships; to write, in a way, a parallel story to the one in the screenplay. Beginning to write this wasn’t easy, as this kind of speculative fiction is a bit alien to me. But a few years ago I read, more out of curiosity than anything else, the British writer China Miéville’s The City and the City, a detective novel set in an unnamed Balkan country in which the main city is overlaid by another, so two realities exist in the same place. Two populations, two cultures, languages, and so forth, and the detective is trying to solve a murder.
I thought it tremendously thought-provoking, and because it was based in a graspable reality (think of any major Northern Irish city with its Protestant and Catholic populations, accents, customs and political beliefs) and not, say, on a planet with weird creatures that I wouldn’t believe in even for a second, I began to sense the beginnings of The Memory Thief: to make it absolutely credible in a future Los Angeles (chosen because people come there to become someone else, and because movies are, as I mentioned, a kind of commodified memory), where the ex-detective, a Brooklyn transplant, is just like every detective we’ve ever met in the movies, the woman who comes to him the mysterious femme fatale figure we've all seen before, and the world they live in a place where the purloined memories of movie stars are shown in private homes for an invited public. Memory as something you can buy, sell, steal, and lose. That’s what it’s all about.
December 6, 2012
The Man from Marseille was the thirteenth novel I’d written, and the first I published. I wrote it after we moved back from England and were living in Rockport, Massachusetts. Until then my agent in London, the late David Bolt, had begun to despair of me, and some of his despair is in the character of the agent in Marseille. This time, though, he felt I’d finally written a work he’d be able to place, and he did so very quickly, to the venerable old house of John Murray, on Albemarle Street in Mayfair, best known for being pretty much everyone’s publisher back in the 18th and 19th centuries, but especially Lord Byron, whose archive belonged to the Murray family. Until it was sold a few years ago, it was the oldest publishing house still in private hands (and in the same family, as well).
The book was accepted coincidentally with our return to London for several months, so that a few days after our move I was sitting opposite my agent in the Savage Club in London, named after a poet known for having been a convicted murderer who died penniless in prison. We drank warm gins-and-tonic and discussed the manuscript.
“You’re going to be meeting with your editor on Friday,” he said, peering at me through the monocle he wore on a ribbon around his neck. “Here’s his list of changes.” Four single-spaced typed pages fell from his hands into mine. Some were line edits, but the big one was the ending. “Be mindful that the ending could be a deal-killer,” David told me.
I met with my editor and another senior editor in the same room where an earlier Murray had burned Lord Byron’s memoirs in the fireplace, fearful of scandal and lawsuit. “It’s the ending,” my editor said. “It’s a problem. We don’t understand what you’re getting at.” I’d been warned this would happen, mostly by my wife, who perspicaciously came to the same conclusion once I’d finished it. She was utterly baffled by my final page.
So I began to improvise. “I actually did have a different ending,” I lied, because this was about as close as I’d ever gotten to getting published, and didn’t want to screw it up. They waited for it. And then I told them the ending that is now part of the book. I felt like Charlie Parker on a bad night suddenly coming out with a musical phrase that left the audience gasping in admiration. It was just…there. I’d sold it, and to this day I have no idea where it came from. I was offered an advance of £900, half on signing, half on publication, and I was happy to accept it. I’d become a published author, and I’d had to travel 3000 miles to do so.
My editor was intending to put me up for the Booker Prize, back then bankrolled by a sugar company, Tate & Lyle, its ceremonies televised on prime-time TV. This was back when writing, and publishing, really did matter. However, I was unqualified to be a contender for the prize, as I was a citizen of neither Britain nor the Commonwealth, though the writing had fooled them all. It reads as though someone from England, or someone who had lived there long enough to learn, had written it. I fell into the latter class, and when it was reprinted this November by Thomas & Mercer, I insisted that the original spelling and punctuation remain; for that is how it was written.
When I wrote The Man from Marseille I was somewhat under the influence of the French writer Patrick Modiano, the majority of whose many novels deal with a narrator or main character who is in search of his or her past, which to a large degree is what the novel is about. The narrator, Alex Ostroff (named after a dentist in Wellesley, Massachusetts, whose sign I once spotted in an office window), is the son of two elegant, albeit raffish Russians who have moved from Russia to Nice, thence to Paris during the German Occupation, during which time Alex is witness to what are clearly a series of criminal acts and activities. Charming, immensely good-looking, they are nonetheless so down at heel that they’ll do anything to achieve respectability and solvency. Including murder.
Alex is the repository of their lives, but he’s also been instructed never to tell anyone about them. So that as you read the novel you have no idea if it’s all true, half-true, or a fiction created to protect Alex and the memory of his family. Some references, especially to the British TV and publishing scenes, are now dated (and when I’d used real names in the manuscript—John Gielgud, Tom Stoppard, Anthony Burgess, Clive James, and so on—I was warned off by Murray’s legal counsel that even a mention in a benign way of an actual name could give rise to a libel suit; so everyone is now disguised, but still recognizable, I think. Even Ian McEwan); but I think its merit lies in its transparency, the sheer breeziness of the narration, which contributes to the slightly sinister notion that you’re being seduced, embraced and ultimately lied to.
A few months later we addressed the question of the cover. My editor and I both agreed it should be an old photograph, so we separately began researching. He went to the BBC Hulton Picture Library, back then a huge repository of photos dating back a very long time, and found a photo of a French colonel—or at least a man identified as such—walking along a boardwalk in the South of France. He looks more like a bookie or a small-time crook, and in a funny way he fits the image of Felix Dumont, whose role in the book is of dubious legality. I suggested that we add a mustache to the man in the photo, and if you can get your hands on the original St. Martin’s Press (or John Murray) edition, you can see how it’s been inked in. We had a book, we had a look, and, because it came out in a country with both regional and national presses, I was reviewed all over the place, sometimes even positively. (My first review ever, in the venerable Times Literary Supplement, was a bit lukewarm, and I remember reading it while waiting to enter the Russell Square Underground to take the tube back to my hotel and being very pleased, at least, that I’d been noticed in such a place.)
The week the book came out I was in London, and my film/TV agent called me up to her office for more warm gin and some business. There was serious film interest in the project. Dino De Laurentiis was interested in purchasing the rights for Paramount; and an independent film company based in London, just now wrapping their first feature starring lots of well-known character actors and a young man named Liam Neeson, was just as interested. My agent said, “If you go with Paramount, that’s more money for you and me, but no guarantee you’ll ever get a film out of it, and, should it actually get greenlighted, absolutely no guarantee the film will resemble to any degree what you’ve written here. If you go with these three young men you’ll write the script, and if they like it they’ll make it. They do one project at a time, they all are very successful TV producers, they’ve read lots of your scripts and they want you desperately to do this.”
I asked what she suggested. “I say go with the independent company.” So I met with them at the Park Lane Hilton a few days later. They were shooting the final scenes of the film there, and when I stepped out of the lift—sorry, elevator—it was onto a floor where the shooting was taking place, a space filled with very happy young people all devoted to getting their film made. I felt like I’d ascended to heaven. I wanted to be in their world.
We met and discussed the script, some possible locations and casting ideas. They wanted Jeremy Irons to star as Alex's father. They knew him, liked him, worked with him, and felt they could get him attached. And so I flew home and got to work. It’s a difficult book to adapt, in that it’s primarily a series of extended flashbacks, which never work well in a medium designed always to move forward. We spent a year going back and forth over drafts, and finally the project became too expensive for them to take on. Lots of very old cars, very old costumes, very pricey locations. So it never became a film, but months later it was published in the US, and earned me my first review in the Sunday New York Times Book Review, something which has never happened since.
But I’m pleased that it’s back in print. We all have a great fondness for our firstborns, and this goes for first books, as well.
December 4, 2012
Body and Soul, my second novel, began as an experiment in improvisation; not the safest route to take for that risky second novel, but take it I did. Prior to that I’d written a very long (600-pages+) thriller entitled Yesterdays. I sent it to my agents in London and in NY, and both came back with enthusiastic reports. They both felt it could be a bestseller, and my New York agent said that he was left trembling by one particularly excruciating chapter (which I promise I will use once again, all these years later, probably in my next novel, as it really is bone-chillingly effective. Or at least I hope it still is).
It was seen by a number of editors, and when the man who would eventually edit Body and Soul saw it he understood at once what I was trying to do. “You are trying to write a bestseller, yes?” he said in his Austrian accent. “Who wouldn’t?” I replied, and he said, “But you know what? You don’t need to do this. Just come down off your high horse and write something from the heart.” And though Yesterdays really was from the heart, I thought I’d set it aside and begin Body and Soul.
I’ve been a jazz fan since I was, oh, maybe fifteen or so. I went to school with a very cool guy who divided his time between his divorced parents’ homes in Manhattan and Westchester, and who had been studying jazz drumming since he was much younger. He smoked like a fiend (it would eventually kill him), but he introduced me to this especially American art form. Though I looked thirteen, he could pass for twenty-seven, divorced and a seasoned drinker, so I tagged along when we went to the Village Vanguard, the Village Gate, Slug’s on East Third, the Five Spot and wherever else someone amazing was playing. Among others, we saw Ornette Coleman and his trio, Bill Evans and his trio, Dizzy Gillespie, Yusef Lateef, Roland Kirk, Jaki Byard, and many, many other great names in jazz, including a glimpse of Miles Davis standing outside the Village Gate trying to hail a taxi.
We heard some astonishing music, and I was hooked. Until then I’d listened almost strictly to classical music (which I still love), had a brief folk phase (Phil Ochs, Tom Paxton, Pat Sky, Eric Anderson, et al. at the Gaslight Café in the Village), and was about to start listening to some serious Chicago blues, which would bring me into rock, and eventually place a bass guitar between my hands. After that I just wanted to be a rock star. But, until this day, jazz has always been an important part of my life.
When it came to Body and Soul, I decided to write a novel about a Polish jazz pianist, Jerzy Wozzeck (yes, for all those opera lovers who recognize the last name, I chose it very purposefully), who, while Poland was still under Soviet domination, comes to Paris to make his fortune. And because this is a whole new world for him, he has to improvise, just as he does every night at his club on the Left Bank of Paris.
So I decided to write the novel in the most improvised way I could, influenced by a number of French authors who were very successfully mixing genres: the policier, the crime novel, and the literary novel. I wanted the book to feel like jazz, with all its steps and missteps, its flatted fifths and subtle harmonies.
It was a risky effort, because second novels that don’t succeed often mean the kiss of death to one’s writing career. But I decided to take the risk, and in many ways it led the way to my writing the darker, more nightmarish The Blue Hour. But my experience publishing Body and Soul with Grove Press, whose books had been so important to me over the years (Beckett, Pinter, among many others), and working with a fine editor whose son I coincidentally had taught many years earlier, was altogether rewarding. That, plus a nifty book jacket and some canny marketing, helped give this a boost at a time when that dreaded second title is often thrown to the critics for a serious drubbing.