Stephen Sondheim said he’d have trouble if you asked him to write a love song, but no trouble at all if you asked him to write a love song about (here I’m inventing the details) a woman in a green hat sitting alone on a bar stool in a dive on 54rd Street at 5:45 p.m. on a Thursday and repeatedly glancing at her cellphone.
I’m horrified when my writer clients tell me the hoops they have to go through to pitch an idea to the New York markets, the tiers of editors who have to approve it, the way writers are forced to shape a pitch to match editors’ attempt to depict a reality they’re inventing. “A second-rate boxer,” a London Sunday Times editor would tell me on the phone. I’d call a boxing magazine to get a suggestion, call the man to ask him if he’d cooperate and the date of his next fight, then call the editor back to assign a photographer. (Actually that was one of the rare stories that had to be rewritten. “It’s reported,” the editor told me on the phone. “It needs to be written.” That’s all.) Usually the story went into the magazine or paper with not a comma changed, not a fact checked as far as I knew. Oh, a subeditor once called me for an extra line to fit the space.
So once upon a time I was spoiled as a journalist just as I’d once been spoiled as a fiction writer. Since I wasn’t used to generating ideas I stopped writing when I moved to the U.S. and the requests for my writing dried up. (I did other things: eleven years in under- and grad schools, years of writing psych research papers in that awful clunky pseudoscientific jargon psychologists use—nearly as bad as the impenetrable stuff English Lit majors at Berkeley turn out these days. Enough to stop anyone writing decently.)
I’d written nothing for years apart from a few radio perspectives and an unsold piece about trying to learn Russian, until Jay Jenkins called and told me he wanted to republish Waiting for the Sky to Fall, which of course required a new intro from its not-yet-extinct author. (He added republishing Aubade seemingly as an afterthought.) He suggested a website, a website needed a blog, which needed content in case anyone ever wanted to read it. I’d thought of blogging before, maybe calling it The Psycho Therapist, but blocked on the issue of confidentiality. What my clients tell me stays told only to me. I don’t like the idea of using even disguised clients to illustrate therapy issues. I don’t even like the idea of discussing therapy issues. I’m too involved in the day-to-day details, working in the trenches. (Which is one of the reasons I have GRUNT tattooed on my left calf.)
And I was trained not to talk about myself. MORE TO COME
Socialite Elizaveta Stackenschneider was a fervent admirer of Dostoevsky, a frequenter of her Peterburg salon, but in her diary after his death she called him “a petit bourgeois … the most profound thinker and a writer of genius … he will always regard 6,000 rubles as a vast amount of money.” At the time 6,000 rubles was enough to buy a year of decent living in Peterburg.
Based on what it bought for me, the most money I ever earned from writing was the £100 advance I earned on the British edition of Aubade, less 10% agent’s commission. Five years later I earned more for a few days’ part-time work on the pieces I wrote for the London Sunday Times Magazine, and it was never enough. But everything in my life followed from, depended on, that first £90. Without it I would probably have gone mad.
I once mentioned to a university lecturer friend how that first advance had bought me sanity. He didn’t approve of the way my writing had evolved or of the superficial man he judged I’d become, and thought my contribution to literature would have been greater if I’d stayed in Northern Ireland. (I doubt if misery and lack of insight would have been an easy sell.) “I can see nothing of Aubade in you,” he sniffed. I told him I’d take sanity any day.
I can see why an 18-year-old equated success with money: with, for example, enough to eat. And I can see now why I had no hope of achieving the modest financial success of British authors who managed on a book club sale here, a BBC adaptation there, once in a blue moon maybe even (a house!) film rights! The best bet was a staff job on a newspaper with novel writing on the side. Nobody spelled out to me the basis for my limited financial prospects, why I wasn’t going to sell book club or film or foreign rights in Catholic countries: I’d written a book about a subject that was too disgusting for the mass public to even mention, that described a relationship that was illegal, feelings you should be ashamed of even if you admitted to yourself that you had them. And how could anyone get their head around the book being written by a 16-year-old boy? What were the publishers thinking?
Very few of my readers were primarily seeking literary fiction (even those a small group then as now). My readers were closeted queer men desperate to have their feelings and identity validated or their existence at least acknowledged. I heard from only a handful who dared to write me carefully worded letters. The sad thing to me now is that I wasn’t able to think this through, to feel validated myself because I’d given a gift that meant a lot to strangers. I was too busy scraping a living.
One of the reasons I have eleven tattoos is my need to remind myself that behavior can have irreversible consequences. It was a time when I seemed headed for serious trouble. The first tattoos were an attempt to right myself; the others reminders that I wasn’t out of the woods.
A few months after Aubade was first published in 1957 I received a letter in an airmail envelope forwarded from my publisher’s office, addressed to “Kenneth Martin, Author of Summer Holiday.” The enclosed letter from a U.S. fan, though it didn’t mention a book title again, was about Aubade, months before the U.S. edition was published. It seemed the British edition was being sold under a different title, probably under plain cover by mail or in big city dirty bookstores. (I once asked the proprietress of one of these London holes in the wall in the Charing Cross Road, where Aubade was displayed prominently along with heterosexual porn, how it was selling. She was wary about my motives, so I plucked up the gall to tell her I’d written it. “How could you write a book like that?” she asked, eyes bulging righteously.)
I showed the letter to my agent Julian Jebb, and he pointed out that it didn’t mention “Summer Holiday.” “Would you like to see the envelope?” I asked. “Yes,” he said. I admitted that I’d thrown away the envelope. I’m not sure he believed me, though he told my publisher, who said I must be the first author to be pirated across the Atlantic since Dickens. (The firm had been Dickens’s first publishers.)
I’m not sure Julian believed much of what I told him, including the story of my secret adoption which I’d just uncovered. “Kenneth, is this true?” I remember him asking more than once. Maybe he thought I wanted attention. The publicity over Aubade in England had died down, and I’d realized how little impact my book, or a half-page newspaper feature about my split personality, accompanied by a double exposure photo, had on the memory or even initial attention of the great British public. (Even though I gave good copy.)
I should have kept the envelope, documentary evidence that I wasn’t lying. Why didn’t I? I’ve always had a blithely indifferent disregard for cause and effect, consequences. And “You don’t care what people think” I still hear time and time again. Well, I think I do, but apparently not as much as most people. Perhaps because there have been plenty of times when I couldn‘t afford to care what people thought. Evidence has built up that my luck is terrible, that time after time a chain of unlikely coincidences will ensure that I’ll be found out in every evasion or lie. But I never learned. Which is why, at an advanced age, and even when the stakes are great, I need help reminding myself that behavior has consequences.
Which means I might as well have called this post The Years of Not Writing. Isn’t most (all?) good writing a response to what our betters have written? “The paradox is that the more indebted the artist,” Joseph Brodsky wrote, “the richer he is.”
I remember doggedly working my way through Dostoevsky in Penguin Classics when I was 20, living my own version of Raskolnikov’s life on the streets of London, not Peterburg. (His name is tattooed in Cyrillic on my neck.) I’ve heard writers talk about their immediate connection to Dostoevsky, but at that age I read to make sense of the sentences, nothing more. I’d have needed help to appreciate his wild comedy of tragic humans in extremis.
At least I had an idea that I was missing something important, a residue of that bookworm child back in Ulster. What followed in my twenties was a classic defense: When I realized that I couldn’t match my early success, I stopped respecting what I knew I couldn’t do. Or mostly convinced myself that it wasn’t worthy of respect. As a journalist in London I read only for information. I read about books.
As a student in my thirties in New York I took literature courses for a requirement or an easy A. I knew what to say about the books but I read without pleasure. Though I remember one day sitting on a bench in the sun on the Columbia campus, grinning ear to ear as I turned the pages of One Hundred Years of Solitude. I’d rediscovered that good books can be fun, which means that reading had become a chore. But Solitude is the most accessible and instantly rewarding of great books, daring a reader not to be delighted.
After I moved to San Francisco in 1981 I tried to make up for the years in school by “living,” a lot of it repetitive and wasteful. I’ve calmed down a bit, but I can rarely focus on a book for more than 90 minutes. Part of the trouble always was that I thought something great was happening someplace else and I’d better go and find it, though I rarely knew where to look.
What got me back to reading was my rediscovery of Europe after the years in school. For a while I wanted to be an old man in Prague, where I’d first been in 1968 to cover the Russian invasion, 30 or 40 years later maybe wandering on the islands in the Vltava with a big dog. So I gravitated to the language and its literature. Russian language and literature were just a hop away, and I’ve stayed there, feeling like that 20-year-old struggling in a London night class with the Russian alphabet on the flimsy pages of a textbook imported from Moscow.
Fiction leaves you behind if you don’t keep up, though not as far behind as poetry leaves you. These days I tend towards nonfiction, towards what I can or could do. I’d still rather read Brodsky on Mandelstam’s poetry than try to truly read the poetry, but Nadezhda is totally my cup of tea.
After Aubade was published I rejected it; when it was first republished a quarter century later I acknowledged its worth. After I wrote Waiting I defended it; now I’m wary about telling my new publisher how I really feel about it.
I can’t think of myself as an adult when Aubade was first published. Just turned 18, my editor Jack McDougal treated me as an adult, listening with apparent respect to my spoutings about Art and Literature and all the great books I was going to write. I can only think he hid any doubts because he truly believed in my talent, and he’d made it clear he wanted a second book as soon as possible. In truth I was whistling in the dark, hiding my fears and misgivings, though I knew how difficult writing had become for me. I reacted against Aubade’s raw emotionality. It told too much about me. I was a teenager, I wanted to be cool.
As I wrote Waiting I had to believe it was going to be a success, which entailed it being a “good” book. After the literary success of Aubade I wasn’t trying to attempt a commercial potboiler. (Just as well, since for years I remained remarkably naïve about the basic concerns of the popular reading public: when a Sunday Times editor told me he was assigning me a story about a miser who’d died with a lot of money in the bank because people always liked to read stories about money, it was news to me.) When I wrote Waiting, I was in the position I’d been in writing Aubade, except I lived in a room in Goldhurst Terrace, London, rather than Dufferin Avenue, Bangor, Northern Ireland: penniless, rejecting what little help anyone offered, with no options I was aware of except to become a successful writer. In Dufferin Avenue, I believed absolutely in what I was writing (or did I? some nagging memory just surfaced); in Goldhurst Terrace I used sleight of mind to ignore my doubts about the quality of what I was writing.
The respectful or enthusiastic reviews of Waiting outnumbered the bad, but secretly I took the bad to heart, because Aubade‘s ecstatic reviews were missing this time. But I stubbornly hid my doubts; if I downplayed Aubade’s qualities, Waiting might seem less disappointing. So when someone introduced me to the playwright Terence Rattigan at a party as “Kenneth Aubade Martin,” I corrected him with “Kenneth Waiting for the Sky to Fall Martin.” Either way, Rattigan barely acknowledged me.
Over the years I started to assume that Waiting’s bad reviews were valid. I circled the book for a long time before I picked it up again after 50 years. I’ll finally admit that reading it was an excruciating experience. I can’t forgive those characters for their bored indifference to the mind’s riches. Today I have young therapy clients who feel the same ennui, and I can understand and empathize with them. But I find it hard to forgive myself for writing that book that reflected the way I once felt. I’m not sure why.