Dead Writers

Last Sunday I was walking with my friend Kathleen Sharp, a nonfiction writer. She said if I could pick any dead writer to discuss my work with, or use as a sounding board, who would it be? I immediately asked if I could have two writers, and knowing my proclivity for always wanting more, she agreed. I tried not to think too long about my answer; otherwise I would never have picked one let alone the two I had asked for. There are a lot of dead writers who are in one way or another great.

But there are some I wouldn’t want to discuss my work with. Hemingway, for instance. He’d leer while tearing it apart. Though I would like to spend a drunken evening with him. And Fitzgerald? I think we’d end up talking about him and it would turn into tearful self pity. I considered Nabokov because I am a fan and he wrote a wonderful series on the great novels: Lectures on Literature and Lectures on Russian Literature. I highly recommend these two books. But Nabokov pinned butterflies to boards and I wasn’t sure if he’d do the same to me.

I finally answered, Raymond Chandler and Jane Austen. Kathleen looked surprised. She could understand Chandler, but Austen? Actually I could understand Austen better that Chandler. But once I said both names out loud I knew I had made the right decision.

Jane Austen has a sly wit and is a writer of manners. I am egotistical enough to identity with her. I think of myself as a mystery writer of manners in a society without manners.

I imagine Jane and me sitting in a tea shop looking out a fogged window at Bath Street and the curved sweep of white stone buildings. We are in her time. She points out a handsome slightly pompous looking man and whispers, “Mr. Darcy”. Then she leans across the table, her plain face bright with intensity, and says, “Mrs. Ann Radcliffe is much more successful that I, wouldn’t you rather talk to her?” And I inform her that nobody remembers Mrs. Radcliffe, only her Jane Austen. She beams.

But would I dare give her my work to read? And if I did what would she think? Could she understand this ruthless century of mine? A hard glint in her assessing eyes lets me know that cruelty, betrayal and murder are things she knows only to well. She tells me what she once told her sister. “Pictures of perfection as you know make me sick and wicked.” Stirring her tea she adds, quoting from her novel Emma, “There are secrets in all families, you know.”

And, when I ask, what is the best advice she could give me? She relates what she had told her publisher. “I must keep to my own style and go on in my own way.” She looks up from her tea and smiles slightly. “So should you, Melodie.”

And Raymond Chandler? Well, I know we wouldn’t discuss plot unless to joke about how we both hated it and had chosen to write in a genre that demands it. Yes, that would create a bond. As with Jane Austen, I would be in his time.

Chandler and I drive in a roadster past the lounges, bars, up into Beachwood Canyon and down to Central Avenue. In Pasadena we glide down the quiet streets lined with stately homes and the less than stately people who reside in them. Southern California looks new to me again. Without saying a word he has helped me. The past is always present in mysteries.

On Hollywood Boulevard he looks bleakly around and says, “There is something about the literary life that repels me, all this desperate building of castles on cobwebs, the long-drawn acrimonious struggle to make something important which we all know will be gone forever in a few years, the miasma of failure which is to me almost as offensive as the cheap gaudiness of popular success.”

I say, “But your works have endured.” He shrugs and asks if I’d like a drink.

We settle in a dark lounge in a red leather booth. He orders gimlets. But Chandler is nervous and wants to get home to his wife. He needs to know what’s on my mind. I down my gimlet and, embarrassed, ask how to keep the poetry in my prose and still sell?

“A long time ago when I was writing for the pulps I put into a story line like, ‘He got out of the car and walked across the sun-drenched sidewalk until the shadow of the awning over the entrance fell across his face like the touch of cool water.’ They took it out when they published the story. Their readers didn’t appreciate this sort of thing—just held up the action. I set out to prove them wrong. My theory was that the readers just thought they cared about nothing but the action; that really, although they didn’t know it, the thing they cared about, and that I cared about, was the creation of emotion through dialogue and description. The things they remembered, that haunted them, was not, for example, that a man got killed, but that in the moment of his death he was trying to pick a paper clip up off the polished surface of the desk and it kept slipping away from him, so that there was look of strain on his face and his mouth was half open in a kind of tormented grin, and the last thing in the world he thought about was death. He didn’t even hear the death knock on his door. That damn paper clip kept slipping away from his fingers.”

I smile and we order more gimlets. He calls his wife. I definitely picked the right writers to help me.

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