Dreaming of a Novel (American Way)

We all have dreams. Bobby Kennedy dreamed of things that never were and asked why not?  Martin Luther King Jr. dreamed of getting to that mountaintop, hoping to hear freedom ring. My daughter dreams of healing the sick and feeding the poor. All big, noble dreams. My dream, ever since I was old enough to read, was to write a novel. Not just write one but to have one published. I dreamed of walking into a bookstore, seeing my novel on display, leafing through the pages and recognizing that the words I was reading were words that I wrote. In bookstores I would go to the G section of the fiction shelves and try to imagine my rubbing spines with Robert Graves, Graham Greene, and William Golding, just to the right of Fitzgerald, Faulkner, and Forster in the F section and to the left of Hawthorne, Hemingway and Huxley among the H’s. This was overly ambitious for an adolescent. But the books I was reading—about hot rods, baseball, and Hardy Boys mysteries—seemed like something I too might be able to write one day.  Then I read Herman Hesse, J.D. Salinger, Philip Roth and began to see that my dream was more of a challenge.  These guys could write!  They knew how to tell a story. And then along came Melville, Dostoevsky, Kafka and Joyce and my dream began to show cracks. I loved what I read, I was excited by their way with language, but I had strong doubts about my own ability to be in their league.  And if I couldn’t measure up to the best, to play in the majors, did I really want to flounder around in the minor leagues of literature?

I didn’t have an answer, since I hadn’t tried writing a novel. So, during my freshman year in college I decided to give it a shot.  I gave it my best effort, but came up short….by a few hundred pages and some seriously inept plotting.  It made me aware that what I needed was experience. I went to Europe one summer, joined a Civil Rights march in Mississippi another. I traveled across the borders to Tijuana and Toronto, hitchhiked from New York to L.A., went down to New Orleans for Mardi Gras, had my heart broken by at least two coeds, and got into a few car accidents. By my senior year, I put my experiences into a second novel attempt. This time I completed it but put it away, because it was too heavily influenced by writers I admired.  I knew that I needed to find my own voice, not imitate anyone else’s.

After college I joined the Peace Corps and wound up teaching in Ghana. I had read that William Faulkner wrote As I Lay Dying, which was one of his favorite novels, in six weeks, while he worked the night shift at a post office. It was a short novel of just 60,000 words, and I challenged myself to see how many words I could write in six weeks. I had a story in mind and taped a blank page on the wall to chart my progress. Six weeks later I actually completed my novel, which was double the words of As I Lay Dying, but not even a fraction as good. But that was OK, I was learning by doing.

When I left Ghana I spent eight months traveling the world before returning to New York, where I decided to start a new novel about a young man having adventures in Africa. I wrote hundreds of pages, entertaining myself along the way. But I got stuck for an ending. My character was having one escapade after another, but there wasn’t much of a plot, and eventually I ran out of gas.  I began writing for magazines and that soon became a full-time job. I put aside my dream of getting a novel published and moved to California, where I began doing Playboy interviews. I interviewed Barbra Streisand, Luciano Pavarotti, Marlon Brando, Truman Capote, James Michener, Al Pacino. One followed another, and before I knew it, I had found a profession. And some of these interviews turned into books. It was heady stuff, to see and hold these books. But they were all nonfiction. My dream was to write fiction.

During these years I was told about the National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship in Fiction. What they required was a fifty-page submission. I dusted off the first chapter of the African novel I never finished and sent it to them. Eight months later I received a letter of congratulations and a check for $12,000. I celebrated by buying a very expensive pipe made by W.O. Larsen, purveyors to the Royal Danish Court,  and made a vow not to smoke it until I published a novel.

I then decided to write a novel about a middle-aged actor who had once reached the heights of his profession, only to fall mightily. He lost his first marriage, and his second, but had three kids from both whom he loved and wanted to stay connected. I met a young man at a dinner party who said he was starting a general interest magazine called Ego. I suggested he consider serializing a novel, the way magazines did in the past with Charles Dickens, and how The New Yorker did so with Truman Capote and Rolling Stone with Tom Wolfe. He liked the idea and asked if I knew anyone who might be willing to write a novel on monthly installments. I smiled and told him about Catch a Fallen Star, which is what I was calling my novel.

For the first three issues of Ego magazine the opening chapters of my novel appeared on light blue paper stock with some striking illustrations. This was thrilling. The Larsen pipe on my desk was always in view, and I couldn’t wait to fill it with tobacco and strike a match.  But then disaster struck. The dot.com money that was financing Ego dried up and the magazine folded. My half-baked novel suddenly had no champion. As Maureen O’Hara said to John Wayne in The Quiet Man, “I want my dream!” I licked my wounds, recovered from the disappointment, and kept writing.

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