Twenty years ago, when I finished my third novel about my childhood in Hawaii, I realized, somewhat forlornly and certainly with a sense of panic, that I’d come to the end of my own particular tall tale. I’d reached, so to speak, my present self, and I began to cast about anxiously for a subject. In the end, it was a good thing. It compelled me to leave my childhood. It forced me into the world. I had to make up things. In an author’s note accompanying Nostromo, Joseph Conrad wrote that years earlier in the Gulf of Mexico, he heard a wisp of a rumor about a man who was said to have stolen single-handed a boatful of silver. He heard no other details. Thirty years later, while rummaging in a second hand bookstore, he happened upon a shabby edition of a memoir written by an American seaman. In the book — the adventure itself takes only three scant pages — the sailor claims to have once stolen a boat heavily loaded with silver. Nothing to speak of, writes Conrad, but the curious confirmation of the few casual words heard in my early youth evoked the memories of that distant time, a time when everything was so fresh, so surprising, so venturesome, so interesting — there still was in the world something to write about.” This may seem like a hard lesson to those of you who aspire to write, but I am afraid that it is true: one of the things that you will both require and employ is time itself.
Upon reaching this stage of experience, a writer is fortunate if lost anecdotes, forgotten stories, memories idly stored rise mysteriously to the surface — mysterious because you inevitably ask — why this particular story? And why now? Henry James wrote: Possible stories, presentable figures, rise from the thick jungle as the observer moves, fluttering up like startled game, and before he knows it, he has fairly to guard himself against the brush of importunate wings.
My book In the Cut arrived by way of Raymond Chandler and Sherlock Holmes. While I was writing the last Hawaiian novel, I read every mystery and thriller I could find —- books about detectives in Bombay and judges in Stockholm, as well as the American classics that came to form the genre known as Noir. I read certain books when I am writing because I do not want to be distracted, and I do not want to be corrupted. If I were to read Faulkner while I am writing, two things are bound to happen: I will begin to doubt my own work, quite understandably, and I will, unconsciously and sometimes even consciously begin to parody a writer’s style, even to insert some of his words and phrases and rhythms into my own work. I’ve learned over the years that it is best to read something utterly disparate from the book that I am writing —- memoirs of the French Revolution or books about Sri Lankan amphibians.
With In the Cut, I wanted to take the traditional American crime story, and turn it upside down. I wanted my crime fighter, my dissolute, tired, cynical detective who is typical of the genre, to be a woman. And I wanted my female character to survive at the end of the book. As it turned out, the detective in In the Cut is not a woman, and the heroine does not survive, but I did not know that then. I knew that in order to write the book, I would have to do research, something I had never done before in writing fiction. My imagination is vivid; but I needed facts. I even needed impressions. I never intended when I began to write In the Cut that it would be narrated by a dead woman. When I came to write the end of the book, there was no other possible resolution than her death; and once I accepted this, I cried for days. I tried later, when writing the second and third drafts, to change the book so that the story is told by Franny as she is dying, but it would not do. In this kind of detective story, it is essential that the heroine be in the dark, which of course was not possible at the end of my story. By the time of Franny’s death, she knows everything. And so do you.
My next book, One Last Look, came to me in the streets of Calcutta where I lived for a year. The novel that I wrote about the Second World War, The Life of Objects, first seemed possible one afternoon at tea with a displaced countess in Berlin. As a writer, it is most gratifying that life prevails —- interferes, placates, distracts, inspires. It would be unbearable if it refused us the solace available to each of us — that is, the solace of memory. Despite a writer’s efforts at disguise, his subject will and must remain himself.
Although it is logical to assume that my novel, The Big Girls, was the result of my experience teaching in a womens’ federal prison, the book was already finished when I began to teach in prisons. I later taught at Island Academy, which is the high school for incarcerated men and women on Rikers Island in New York. The young people in class, some of them arriving straight from jail, are continuing their education as part of the terms of their parole or probation. I doubt if a book of my own will come of it. They, however, are writing their memoirs.