A Novelist’s Turning Point, Mid-Atlantic (Summer 1997)
Even from the farthest reach of the dock on New York’s 53rd Street, the Queen Elizabeth 2 was too long to photograph. I couldn’t, with a wide-angle lens, get the whole ship into the frame at once. So I shot it by halves, the front and then the back, not sure what I’d do with two mismatched ship halves when I got home.
This ship, the QE2, is the last of the world’s transatlantic liners. The Cunard press kit had described it as three football fields long. I don’t measure things in football fields. I keep score in numbers of words, copy-inches, books. It’s as a writer that I was heading to sea, and not only as a travel writer with a notebook, but as a novelist bringing along a manuscript that had been too long in progress. I was running late, by years, in getting another book out, felt pressed, frustrated, discouraged. I planned to look at the manuscript, away from my usual life, see where I stood with it. (Working aboard the QE2 was an idea that had also occurred to Francis Ford Coppola, Ray Bradbury, and other writers I would soon meet toting manuscripts on this voyage.)
But there was still another reason for my taking this trip: I am approaching the anniversary of my 25th year as a freelance writer, two and a half decades typing out of one little office or another in the outer fringes of Raleigh’s downtown. This crossing was to be both a celebration and, optimistically, the start of my career’s second half, another 25 years.
I wanted to spend a week living the writer’s life the way it’s supposed to be, working onboard ship in a grand, leisurely way …And heading for new territory. My destination on this voyage was the country of Wales, a place I’d never been. There, I was to research an article on the struggle of the Welsh people to keep their language alive. I sympathized with their cause; after so many years of writing for publication, I’d come to wonder how much of my own voice was alive.
The ship set sail at midnight; my husband Bob Dick, a Raleigh psychologist, and I joined the other passengers crowded along the deck rails. With the feel of New Year’s Eve, we watched the long Manhattan skyline slide past, the lighted towers of the World Trade Center, the Statue of Liberty with torch alight.
…Then to the cabin, which looked exactly as I wanted it to: in the style of the golden era of liners earlier in this century. The walls were wood-paneled; there was a dressing table with a round Art Deco mirror, a spray of blooming orchids. I could settle in, wrap up in one of the QE2 bathrobes we found in the closets and, at some point, take out my stack of manuscript. Pure indulgence: this was being a writer the way it would be if Lauren Bacall were playing the part.
First day: the sky bright, the wind brisk. The swells rolling past were an even blue, whipped at the top into whitecaps. Some young Italian boys were playing deck tennis with a couple of American girls. The ship had the feel of a summer morning in childhood: step out your cabin door and play. People were shopping at the shipboard Harrod’s, taking the waters in the lower deck spa, sitting before PC’s in the computing class, listening to the chamber music quartet. Outside the ship’s library, readers had settled into armchairs along a long sunlit corridor that looked out on the water. I walked, tried to see everything.
A lunch of cold lobster and fresh pineapple, followed by creme brulee. Bob was downstairs in the weight room working out;I drank a second cup of tea, looked out at the water. The manuscript I’ve brought is my memoir of a winter I spent in India, during an outbreak of Hindu-Muslim rioting and bombing. It’s a strange hybrid book: nonfiction, structured like a journal, yet written in scenes like a novel. My agent sent the first eighty pages to several publishers who rejected it, saying: “What is it? Where would you shelve it?…”
I’d thought after I published my first novel Revelation that everything would become easy. It hasn’t. Market niches and “big” mass market books are a larger factor in what the major houses publish now. …Perhaps more important, my own style of writing has, in fits and starts, gradually changed. After so many years of matching anybody’s style, from Cosmopolitan to The Mother Earth News, and doing it almost reflexively, I find I can no longer count on myself to whip out a few pages the way someone else wants it. It’s a change that scares me: writing is the way I’ve always made my living.
Heavy seas woke us in the night, the room swinging. In the morning: a touch of seasickness, a staggering sweaty moment in the stairwell on the way to breakfast. I bought a pair of those little wristbands that are supposed to help. They did.
Then to a lecture on Wales, the country that is the theme of this crossing. Welsh historian Dr. Geraint Jenkins talked about how the people of Wales were for years not allowed speak their own language: they had English forced on them, and then began to adopt that foreign language. And yet, he said, they remained themselves. “We have our own personality and our own character …Wales has still clung on.”
The Welsh have begun to reclaim their language, which surely is what I am doing in my writing. I’m troubled, though, that I don’t seem to have any choice in the matter. It is happening, no matter what I do.
Captain on the loudspeaker: we’ve traveled 644 miles since yesterday, passing the southernmost limits of the ice fields. “The QE2 will be steaming safely clear of the ice throughout the afternoon.”
On a tour of the ship’s galley, I met a novelist who intends to finish his new book on this six-day voyage. Peter Joseph–dark, intense, typed pages protruding from his back pocket. His novel is about Matisse’s crossing these same waters on the Mauretania, titled Matisse in Deep Water. The QE2 is rich with good details for his story. “Are you a Southerner,” he asked, as we compared book notes. “Your accent is smothered,” he said, “but it’s still there.”
Next day–I’m losing track of the days, and I’m not working on my book, I’m thinking about it. I’ve resolved to hold off writing, to think as long as I need. Easier to do here than it would be at home.
A lecture by science fiction writer Ray Bradbury: I remember my excitement when I first read a story of his in high school. Yes, he is working on a new novel on this cruise, he said, while waiting to go onstage. And he has written on this ship before. On an earlier crossing he got an idea for a new novel the night he boarded. He saw a passenger in a hallway, “some sort of English lord,” a man whose face had been “horribly destroyed.” Bradbury was so upset by the thought of a man losing his face that he burst into tears. And then he began writing. He finished the first 100 pages of A Graveyard for Lunatics on that voyage, working at night on a soundless typewriter.
His speech was, like my stateroom, exactly what I wanted. He told the audience how in 1929 when he was 12, he “fell in love with the future,” and began collecting Buck Rogers spaceman comic strips. “All the kids in fifth grade made fun of me.” And so he tore up his collection, then regretted it. Doing that, he said, “I killed myself. I killed the future. I listened to the damn fools.”
He returned to Buck Rogers, whatever the other fifth-graders might think. When his big break came, years later, it was because of boyhood passions he’d held onto. Director John Huston, on reading a Bradbury story about a dinosaur, called to ask if he’d like to write a screenplay, in the same spirit, about a white whale.
On deck, midway through the voyage: my manuscript in my lap, the sounds of deck tennis behind me, the passing waves pure navy blue. The thought of actually writing–doing the thing which has been for me a way of life–makes me want to sob.
Skimming a few pages, I jotted a note: cut to the chase faster, make it more visual, more concrete. …Then pushed it aside, took up a novel of Doris Lessing’s, Summer Before the Dark. I was too restless to read, moved to another chair that got more sun. Still couldn’t settle; I gave up and started walking the deck, up and down steps, through hallways, out again into the air, covering many lengths of football field.
…And came unexpectedly to a stop before the door of the computing center, deep in the ship’s interior. The room was quiet, between classes. I sat down at a PC, got out my notes, started to type: I’m in India, my city Varanasi has erupted in street fighting, been shut down by police and military troops. A million people forced indoors day and night. After six days, I’ve decided to break curfew, go outside; I’ve been assured that foreigners are safe. “Stepping out the gate in front of the flat,” I write, “I looked up and down the empty road. I felt tentative, as if I were testing the ground to be sure it would hold me….”
Breaking curfew–that, I realize, is what I’ve begun to do in my writing. Stepping outside of confinement to see where that leads. …A great stirring of talking and laughing behind me: the computer class had arrived. I’d written only three paragraphs. Yet I felt exultant. It wasn’t because of the plain sentences I’d gotten down. Instead, simply by recognizing what I was doing, I felt as if I’d “broken curfew” in my work, taking a step toward freer expression.
Dinner: carpaccio, kiwi sorbet, duck a l’orange. A very good red wine. …And Francis Ford Coppola, we finally realized, was eating only one table away. I’d thought that man looked familiar. Big and bearded, the famous screenwriter and director was supervising the dinners of the two children who were with him. He seemed to me a man who wanted his privacy, who did not want to be noticed.
Next morning: lying in bed, reflections of the water outside racing across the ceiling. I could understand Coppola’s wanting to be left alone. My first novel Revelation has a raw emotional intimacy that was painful for me. The story of a troubled minister, it is fiction; yet that minister’s cast of mind is close to my own. Delicious as publication of that book was, I also came to feel as if my brain had been laid bare. As one reader said to me with a teasing grin, “we know you thought those thoughts.” I’ve since half-consciously wanted to pull the drapes around myself.
But then I discovered it’s impossible to write a memoir and maintain more than a minimal privacy. The new book would have to be far more revealing than Revelation, with its mere hints of my inner world. This made me angry, I resented it; but decided to proceed anyway. With a sense that I was doing violence to myself, I began the long work of dismantling the habits of guardedness, fearing of course, as I still do, that I might reveal myself only to find no one interested.
Staking out the lounge outside the dining room, I’d waited almost half an hour, when Coppola, in flowing Hawaiian shirt, arrived for lunch. “Hi,” I said, getting to my feet, careful not to block his way, in case he wanted to bolt and run. Could I speak with him, I said, waving my notebook as a credential, about writing on board the QE2? Was he working on a script?
With weary patience, he gestured us to two chairs, plopped down the sack holding his laptop computer. He has been writing on this voyage, he said, as he has done on this ship before.
Outside the window, fog hung thick over the water. A somber cello played from the speaker in the corner of the room. The father of the Godfather movies settled back in his chair. On this same ship, he said, he wrote sections of Godfather III. This trip, he’s adapting John Grisham’s novel The Rainmaker.
He likes to work by day at the gaming tables downstairs in the casino. They’re the perfect height; and the process of the writing: “it’s like a game.” The ship is a place, he said, “in which you can have privacy, a chance of not being interrupted.” I looked up from my notes. So passengers haven’t been pestering him? “Only you,” he said, with an amused smile.
“I’ll let you go,” I said, half-hoping he would defend his privacy.
“No, no,” dismissing the idea with a wave.
At that point, Bradbury, formal in coat and tie, stopped to say hello. Coppola had a question for him he’d been meaning to ask: what were his favorite science fiction movies of all time?
“Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” Bradbury began, “it’s flawed, but the closing minutes are transcendent, with hope for the future….”
Bradbury went on to his table, and Coppola to his. I went for a walk. Outside, the fog felt damp and oddly warm, the ocean moving in big grey swells. New York’s bright skyline, its publishing offices, were more than a thousand miles behind us.
Like Coppola, I decided, I’m going to put aside my privacy, enough to tell an unguarded story. Like Bradbury, I’ll stick by what I love, even if the other kids laugh. Like the Welsh, struggling to save their language, I am going to speak in my own voice. In the coming 25 years, I will tell stories that are peculiarly mine: the ones that rise, irrepressibly, to the surface, weird as sea creatures. I’m going to write those stories, whatever shape they take, whatever they cost me. I’ve half-known this for a while. Out here in the middle of the ocean, I can look back and see that, some time ago, I crossed a line, steamed into this territory that is new and, at the same time, home.