You may find it strange that I find it strange that after some thirty-odd years of writing I’ve finally found that I can write out of my own life. It didn’t happen on purpose, it wasn’t something I’d planned, but when I began working on a new project—a novel based on an unproduced screenplay I’d written a few years ago, a script that found its origins in a small event from my wayward youth—I found that I started drawing heavily on schools and colleges I’d attended, people I’d known and things, legal and otherwise, in which I was involved.
(A footnote here: the screenplay remains unproduced because its two protagonists are men in their fifties, and the target audience for most movies made today are males between the ages of ten and fifteen. Had I placed my heroes in their still-youthful thirties, even that would have shot it out of the demographic.)
It has been said by more than one sage and holy fool that the Russians are very secretive people. As someone descended on both sides from Russians, I suspect that my tendency towards secrecy and privacy resides somehow in my genes, along with a taste for caviar and borscht. Out of a combined sense of discretion and an aversion to “using” people I’d known and cared for as characters in my fiction, I’ve nearly always held back. What’s happened, though, is time.
Amazing thing, time. Because once a few decades or three have gone by, the people I’d known have grown more dimensional in my imagination and thus have somehow moved beyond being a few broad strokes into becoming characters. And I find this has happened, as well, with places. Schools and colleges I’d attended, places where I’d worked, can now step into my fiction, with some combined traits, of course, but to those who know me recognizable landmarks.
Many young writers, of course, write out of their own life, or at least what they’d like their life to be. From the start I wrote out of someone else’s life, which may well have contributed to my difficulties in finding publishers for twelve years. My first novel-length work was set in Dublin in 1940. Writing something so utterly unmarketable anywhere but in Dublin of 1940 was not a daring step; it was utterly absurd. No one (to no one’s, save my) surprise wanted to publish it. My second one was set in Dublin in 2012 (back then, far into the future, the joke being that Dublin hadn’t changed much since, well, 1940.) No one wanted that one, either. The influence of both James Joyce and Flann O’Brien was like a fever I couldn’t quite kick, at least not until I spent a year teaching Joyce to my high-school seniors. Once that was over I was ready to move on to my next round of unpublishable masterpieces.
In fact I forget—or prefer not to remember—what my third, fourth, fifth, sixth or succeeding six novels were about, but I do know they were not set in America and drew exactly zero from my life. Altogether I wrote twelve books before my first book was sold.
My first published novel was set in Russia, the South of France and Paris in the 1930s and 40s, and finally in London of the Seventies; where, in fact, I actually had been living. And what happened to my protagonist, though heavily filtered through the screen of fiction, was much closer to my own experience. This was paydirt, after a fashion (though I was paid by my first publisher the princely sum of £850).
The four novels I published subsequently were also not, strictly-speaking, autobiographical. But with the one I’m working now I simply can’t avoid it. Some commentators have viewed the 2008 presidential election as an end to the Sixties, and part of me has to agree with them. In a way, my novel serves the same purpose. Although it’s in some quarters fashionable to reject the Sixties as a time of hedonism and misdirection, I actually found them my formative years. I saw Bobby Kennedy speak on a Riverdale, NY street corner when he was running for senator from that state. I was asked to leave a prestigious prep school a few blocks from there, and years later was invited to take my leave of a small Baptist college in the Midwest where I could not possibly, under any conditions, fit in.
I met the blind composer Moondog on 54th Street, H. Rap Brown outside the Apollo Theatre, and one Saturday night Abbie Hoffman offered me an ice-cream cone in exchange for a tab of acid. At the Eatery on First Avenue I met old soldiers from the Abraham Lincoln Brigade of the Spanish Civil War, and hung around with a man who’d worked with Che Guevara in Bolivia. I nearly toppled over Sonny Barger’s Harley when he’d left it parked in the middle of the sidewalk, and walked quickly away when I saw him warily eyeing me from a doorway. I handed out flyers for Andy Warhol for the opening of the Electric Circus, and met people who were putting the place together for him, including an ex-Green Beret who was rigging what in Vietnam had been a killing machine, but that for Andy would become part of the circus that spun above the heads of the dancers. I saw Jimi Hendrix, fresh from Monterey (i.e. one or two days after his famous appearance there), play in a West Village club seating maybe a hundred people, and the next day chatted with his bass player on Bleecker Street. I saw Ornette Coleman play at the Vanguard, Thelonious Monk at the same venue, and sat two feet away from Bill Evans as he also played a set at the Vanguard, as well as a dozen other jazz musicians who’ve now become legends. I saw Phil Ochs at the Gaslight, the Who twice in club settings (ditto with the then barely-known Led Zeppelin), spent an hour with Ten Years After as they rolled and smoked joints, and had an Orange Julius with Don Preston, Frank Zappa’s keyboard player. I literally collided with two famous musicians: Ginger Baker of Cream and Charles Mingus in what appeared to be a caftan.
It was also in that decade that I saw the Clear White Light; and I don't mean the L.A. rock group with a similar name. But that’s another story, also touched upon in my work-in-progress. This isn’t name-dropping—being in the right place at the right time: that was what the decade, for me at least, was all about. Most of all, it was great, harrowing fun.
Seeds were planted in those years for me: tastes in music and film, in politics and attitude, that have ripened over the decades. And when one evening on the campus of that Midwest college that soon would see the last of me, when something else was buried in the earth, it took thirty years before two characters in a novel could dig it up and see if they could redeem their lives once and for all.
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