Friday, 15 June 2012

A Writer's Tale

For me it's mostly a question of rewriting. It's part of a constant attempt on my part to make the finished version smooth, to make it seem effortless. A story I've been working on - "The Train on Track Six," it's called - was rewritten fifteen complete times. There must have been close to 240,000 words in all the manuscripts put together, and I must have spent two thousand hours working at it. Yet the finished version can't be more than twenty-thousand words. (James Thurber)

I've recently come across an edition of "The Paris Review" which has an interview with James Thurber. Although in the interview he says he polishes his drafts up to 15 or more revisions before they are in their final form, his literary voice comes across just as strongly in this interview when unpolished; it has the same wry amused look at the world. This is what he has to say about his memory, which was prodigious for recalling all kinds of minutiae:

Well, you know it's a nuisance-to have memory like mine - as well as an advantage. It's . . . well . . . like a whore's top drawer. There's so much else in there that's junk-costume jewelry, unnecessary telephone numbers whose exchanges no longer exist. For instance, I can remember the birthday of anybody who's ever told me his birthday. Dorothy Parker-August 22, Lewis Gannett- October 3, Andy White-July 9, Mrs. White-September 17. I can go on with about two hundred. So can my mother. She can tell you the birthday of the girl I was in love with in the third grade, in 1903. Offhand, just like that. I got my powers of memory from her.

Sometimes it helps out in the most extraordinary way. You remember Robert M. Coates? Bob Coates? He is the author of The Eater of Darkness, which Ford Madox Ford called the first true Dadaist novel. Well, the week after Stephen Vincent Benét died - Coates and I had both known him-we were talking about Benét. Coates was trying to remember an argument he had had with Benét some fifteen years before. He couldn't remember. I said, "I can." Coates told me that was impossible since I hadn't been there. "Well," I said, "you happened to mention it in passing about twelve years ago. You were arguing about a play called Swords." I was right, and Coates was able to take it up from there. But it's strange to reach a position where your friends have to be supplied with their own memories. It's bad enough dealing with your own.

In this little extract gives a wonderful anecdote about a cartoon of his:

INTERVIEWER: You say that your drawings often don't come out the way you intended?

THURBER: Well, once I did a drawing for The New Yorker of a naked woman on all fours up on top of a bookcase-a big bookcase. She's up there near the ceiling, and in the room are her husband and two other women. The husband is saying to one of the women, obviously a guest, "This is the present Mrs. Harris. That's my first wife up there."

Well, when I did the cartoon originally I meant the naked woman to be at the top of a flight of stairs, but I lost the sense of perspective and instead of getting in the stairs when I drew my line down, there she was stuck up there, naked, on a bookcase.

Incidentally, that cartoon really threw The New Yorker editor, Harold Ross. He approached any humorous piece of writing, or more particularly a drawing, not only grimly but realistically. He called me on the phone and asked if the woman up on the bookcase was supposed to be alive, stuffed, or dead. I said, "I don't know, but I'll let you know in a couple of hours."

After a while I called him back and told him I'd just talked to my taxidermist, who said you can't stuff a woman, that my doctor had told me a dead woman couldn't support herself on all fours. "So, Ross," I said, "she must be alive." "Well then," he said, "what's she doing up there naked in the home of her husband's second wife?" I told him he had me there.

INTERVIEWER: But he published it.

THURBER: Yes, he published it, growling a bit.

There's also a wonderful anecdote about his editor, Harold Ross, at the New York Times. He had a strict attitude regarding "low comedy", and four letter words:

Ross had a neighbor woman's attitude about it. He never got over his Midwestern provincialism. His idea was that sex is an incident. "If you can prove it," I said, "we can get it in a box on the front page of The New York Times."

Now I don't want to say that in private life Ross was a prude. But as regards the theater or the printed page he certainly was. For example, he once sent an office memorandum to us in a sealed envelope. It was an order: "When you send me a memorandum with four-letter words in it, seal it. There are women in this office." I said, "Yah, Ross, and they know a lot more of these words than you do."

When women were around he was very conscious of them. Once my wife and I were in his office and Ross was discussing a man and woman he knew much better than we did. Ross told us, "I have every reason to believe that they're s-l-e-e-p-i-n-g together." My wife replied, "Why, Harold Ross, what words you do spell out."

I also love this story about the difference between the novelist and the humourist:

Hervey Allen, you know, the author of the big best-seller Anthony Adverse, seriously told a friend of mine who was working on a biographical piece on Allen that he could close his eyes, lie down on a bed, and hear the voices of his ancestors. Furthermore there was some sort of angel-like creature that danced along his pen while he was writing. He wasn't balmy by any means. He just felt he was in communication with some sort of metaphysical recorder. So you see the novelists have all the luck. I never knew a humorist who got any help from his ancestors.

Thurber never took himself seriously, unlike some of the other writers he came across:

I can remember calling on Frank Harris -  he was about seventy then-when I was on the Chicago Tribune's edition in Nice. In his house he had three portraits on the wall - Mark Twain, Frank Harris, and I think it was Hawthorne. Harris was in the middle. Harris would point up to them and say, "Those three are the best American writers. The one in the middle is the best." Harris really thought he was wonderful.

Once he told me he was going to live to be a hundred. When I asked him what the formula was, he told me it was very simple. He said, "I've bought myself a stomach pump and one half-hour after dinner I pump myself out." Can you imagine that? Well, it didn't work. It's a wonder it didn't kill him sooner.

Well, the characteristic fear of the American writer is not so much that as it is the process of aging. The writer looks in the mirror and examines his hair and teeth to see if they're still with him. "Oh my God," he says, "I wonder how my writing is. I bet I can't write today." The only time I met Faulkner he told me he wanted to live long enough to do three more novels. He was fifty three then, and I think he has done them.

Then Hemingway says, you know, that he doesn't expect to be alive after sixty. But he doesn't look forward not to being. When I met Hemingway with John O'Hara in Costello's Bar five or six years ago we sat around and talked about how old we were getting. You see it's constantly on the minds of American writers. I've never known a woman who could weep about her age the way the men I know can.

Thurber was a writer, but not one of the serious, big novelists, who rather looked down their noses at what he did:

I don't believe, as Thomas Wolfe did, that you have to turn out a massive work before being judged a writer. Wolfe once told me at a cocktail party that I didn't know what it was to be a writer. My wife, standing next to me, complained about that. "But my husband is a writer," she said. Wolfe was genuinely surprised. "He is?" he asked. "Why, all I ever see is that stuff of his in The New Yorker." In other words, he felt that prose under five thousand words was certainly not the work of a writer . . . it was some kind of doodling in words.

Thomas Clayton Wolfe (October 3, 1900 - September 15, 1938) was a major American novelist of the early 20th century.  While acclaimed when alive as one of the most important American writers of equal quality to F. Scott Fitzgerald, Hemingway, and Faulkner, Wolfe's reputation has been "all but destroyed" since his death... He is often left out of college courses and anthologies devoted to great writers.

James Thurber, on the other hand, is still cited and read. An anthology of his best pieces - "James Thurber: Writings and Drawings" was recently published, with an introduction by Neil Gaiman, who says:

This book, the one you are holding, The 13 Clocks by James Thurber, is probably the best book in the world. And if it's not the best book, then it's still very much like nothing anyone has ever seen before, and, to the best of my knowledge, no one's ever really seen anything like it since.

It was funny in strange ways. It was filled with words. And while all books are filled with words, this one was different: it was filled with magical, wonderful, tasty words. It slipped into poetry and out of it again in a way that made you want to read it aloud, just to see how it sounded. I read it to my little sister. When I was old enough, I read it to my children.

Some years ago, my son Roy, my late partner Annie Parmeter, and myself spent an enjoyable hour or two every week reading various books out loud. Michael Morpurgo's book "Why the Whales Came" is an excellent book to read out loud. But I think our favourite was "The Thirteen Clocks". If I was on a desert island, this slim volume would probably keep me sane. Neil Gaiman again:

Something very much like nothing anyone had ever seen before came trotting down the stairs and crossed the
room. "What is that?" the Duke asked, palely. "I don't know what it is," said Hark, "but it's the only one there ever was." (James Thurber, the 13 Clocks)

Listen: it has a prince in it, and a princess. It has the evilest Duke ever written. It has Hush and Whisper (and
Listen). Happily, it has Hagga, who weeps jewels. Terrifyingly, it has a Todal. And best and most marvelously
and improbably of all, it has a Golux, with an indescribable hat, who warns our hero that

"Half the places I have been to, never were. I make things up. Half the things I say are there cannot be found. When I was young I told a tale of buried gold, and men from leagues around dug in the woods. I dug myself."
"But why?"
"I thought the tale of treasure might be true."
"You said you made it up."
"I know I did, but then I didn't know I had. I forget things, too."

Every tale needs a Golux. Luckily for all of us, this book has one

The 13 Clocks is not a fairy tale. It's not a poem, it's not a parable or a fable or a novel or joke. Truly, I don't know what The 13 Clocks is, but whatever it is, as someone else said of something else at the top of this introduction, it's the only one there ever was.

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