The story goes something like this:
Around 1911 my grandfather (and namesake) left what was then known as White Russia (now Belarus, more or less) for New York City. Though he'd contemplated taking his family to Paris, which, had history been otherwise, would have been great fun (and now I'd be sitting on the métro chewing on a baguette instead of being on the Massachusetts coast writing this), he'd also heard that French people stood on railway platforms screaming "Juif, Juif!" as Jews from Eastern Europe alighted for their new lives. The spirit of the anti-Dreyfusards was still strong, it seemed. (And then, of course, one has to consider that had he decided to settle in Paris, he and his family would have been deported to Auschwitz and I would not be sitting here at all.)
In any event, soon after my grandfather's arrival in New York, my great-uncle Abrasha followed. According to family legend, a combination of cold hard facts and the Russian propensity for embellishment and myth-making, Abrasha in New York drank a lot of whisky, played a lot of cards and slept with a lot of women, before, like someone out of Chekhov, he grew weary of it all. My grandfather (who had belonged to a singularly Jewish contingent of the Tsar's calvary in Pinsk) gave him some advice: "There is going to be a revolution in Russia. Go and fight. Then you won't be so bored."
So Abrasha went back to Russia, fought in the Revolution (with a capital R, moreover), and returned, renewed in spirit, to America. To become a screenwriter in Hollywood.
Well, it's one way of becoming a writer. I mention all of this because I've been reading a biography of John Cheever, and am gripped by it, as I often am by biographies of writers. Maybe it's because I'm one, too, and it's always bracing to see that other, better, authors have made the same mistakes I make over and over again. Cheever interests me not so much because of his superb short-stories, but that many of the characters in his stories are based on people I'd known and seen and sometimes just heard of. For a few years he lived on the estate where my school was located, in Scarborough, New York, the same estate where years earlier Richard Yates lived (and he went to the same school as I did), and drew his inspiration from the myriad executives who walked down Revolutionary Road to the train station each morning, their wives and children, their affairs and hopes and shattered dreams. The other interesting thing about Cheever is that he lived two lives. But then most writers do. So I should say that Cheever led three of them and leave it at that.
But what also interests me is seeing when a writer actually becomes a writer. I'd been asked this in interviews, and it dawned on me that I had decided to become a writer very early on. When I was six years old I'd leaf through the pages of the New York Times Book Review and the now-defunct Saturday Review, and look at the photos of the authors in their ties and jackets, with their intense gazes, the inevitable cigarette either between or in the vicinity of their lips. For me, who also grew up in a home where books and writing were much revered, they were what Mickey Mantle and Jackie Robinson were to other kids. I had no desire to chew tobacco and play third base; but I knew that I wanted to be a writer. In short, I wanted to grow up and smoke.
A few years later I began to associate the profession with the weekly television appearance of Rod Serling. As entertaining as The Twilight Zone was, it was Serling who made the most impact on me. He was a writer, he smoked and, even better--though back then I wouldn't have been able to find the vocabulary for it--he had the flinty gaze you get after that dangerous second martini. Simply put, he was very cool. I only later learned that Serling died at the age of fifty, beaten and ruined by the network that had once nurtured and paid for his talent.
How long did my aspiration last? Not very. I seem to remember wanting to be, more or less in this order: an astronomer; a zoologist; a rabbi; a gynecologist; a spy; a lawyer; a musician; a rock star; a rock star; a rock star (this went on for a few years); and then finally I came full circle and decided to become a writer. I was twenty-three and needed a life, fast.
And so I must jump ahead many years, to a gentleman's club in Mayfair, London. Before this I had written twelve novels in twelve years and had no luck finding a publisher for any of them. My thirteenth, though, found one, and my agent in London invited me for drinks at his club, an establishment named for the 18th century playwright and poet Richard Savage, notorious for having murdered a man in a tavern, shared poverty with Samuel Johnson, and who eventually died destitute in a Bristol jail. Clearly I was slow to take a hint.
My agent wore a monocle on a silk ribbon around his neck, and took his gin-and-tonic without ice. Sunk in a deep leather chair, he pulled a letter from his pocket. "The editor's a good chap. He wants you to look over some questions he has about your manuscript." There were three pages of them. "Can you deal with these, d'you think?" he asked, and I assured him that I would not only deal with them, but also set my hair on fire and jump from Tower Bridge into the Thames if it meant getting published, even though I can't swim.
A few days later I met with my editor in the same room where Lord Byron's memoirs were thrown into the fire by his publisher. The house was still run by a member of the founding family, and was located in the same building it had been since 1766 or thereabouts. Famous people had walked up that famous staircase, and lithographs of them adorned the walls: Jane Austen, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Byron, of course, and many others. I felt lucky to have made it to the top without tripping and tumbling to the bottom.
The first question my editor posed to me hadn't been in the letter. It came out of nowhere. "It's the ending of the book," he said, gazing at me. I waited. "Well," he went on, "to put it bluntly, it simply doesn't make any sense. Not to me nor to anyone else who's read it." It was like having someone sit and listen to you talk, and then reveal that he doesn't speak a word of your language.
He stared at me and waited for a response. "I can change it," I said with all of my American confidence (and a tablespoon or two of my Russian madness). "I have an alternate ending. I just...wasn't really sure of it."
But I didn't have an ending. I was stalling for time. Three seconds later time had run out. I told him my alternate ending, improvised in the moment as though it were a few genius bars of jazz, Charlie Parker in another inspired moment. I had actually broken into a heavy sweat, just like in the movies. "Brilliant," my editor said, and a week later I signed a contract that brought me the equivalent of around $1500. I had become an author. I had learned how to save my skin with my imagination and a handful of some well-chosen words.
And I had just given up smoking.
Causes J.P. Smith Supports