All my life, like so many of you, I wanted to be a writer. A writer of novels, those loose jointed free wheeling tales of… ah, there was my problem. I believed I had no tales to tell. I was under no illusion that the story of my life would interest anyone. (How wrong I turned out to be… and one day I will write, not all, but choice selections from it, and I will call the book The Last Showboat. At this very moment, this story becomes a film, but I digress. I am a first rate digresser.) I also suffered the idea that I lacked imagination. I did not have stories telling themselves in my head. I did not sit in open air cafes with a leather-bound notebook and look arty as I scribbled away with an unusual pen. In fact, an idea never entered my head until I faced the empty page on a typewriter and then I began to type. I forced myself to type. Anything. Everything. And out came stories. Stories I had no idea were there.
So to publish my first novel, to have it accepted by a real publisher, was astounding.
My first book was called China Blues. A confession. At the time, I was thrilled to be in print but rather hesitant about the book’s merit. Besides English via Harper Collins in England and Doubleday in the U.S., it went into eight other languages and I still felt slightly uncomfortable about it.
Years passed, a whole slew of them, and my little publishing house Eio Books insisted on reissuing it. To reissue meant I had to read it again. I went unwilling into those pages. What a complete turnaround. All these years and all these varied books later, I’ve reread it as if I had never read it before. And my hesitancy vanished. So much so, I felt I would write about it here since it’s so much as if I were reading the work of someone else. We forget what we’ve said and how we’ve said it. Our perceptions change. Our tastes. Our experiences. And with all that, I found it a wonderful read, full of color and pace and character. I wrote it, and yet I wanted to know what happened. It made me laugh again. It worried me. I cared about the people trapped on those pages, people who could only live again if someone read the words written about them. And the story made me cry. Eventually, as it did the first time round, it broke my heart.
Turns out it’s also topical. The dangerous (even now) mingling of races, in this case a lily white woman of privilege and a Chinese man of true grit, all set against the background of San Francisco in the 1920s.
It was optioned in Hollywood by the famous production team of Zanuck and Brown. It was expected to go places. But like all stories, it suffered a twist in its own tail that shunted it off its high rolling track onto a spur. It’s waited all these years to be read again. The people at Eio Books believe that. Now I believe it too.
When it was first offered by my agents for sale, it went into auction… meaning more than one publisher wanted it. I’ll never forget what one editor said. She said it was a modern day EMMA. And it is. I find myself quite proud of it, so proud I hope it finds a new audience in this new world.
Here’s another chance for Lizzie and Li and Kit and Fearless O’Flooty. Show ’em what you’re made of, my lovelies.
Publisher’s weekly said: “”Offbeat, unruly characters and vibrant atmosphere spill over the pages of this promising first novel set in San Francisco during Prohibition… Bootlegging, the Tong Wars, smoky speakeasies, inept mobsters, and the Teapot Dome scandal zigzag through these pages like streaks of lightning. The Jazz Era leaps to life.”
I didn’t believe it then, but I believe it now.
A writer sits alone. Or in my case (as well as Proust’s), reclines alone. If someone chanced to pass by, they might think us doing nothing. They might even think us alone and lonely. Our lives seem so motionless, so lacking in adventure. But they would be wrong. A writer’s life is lived as vividly as Oscar Wilde’s life was lived. When the character pushing out from under my hand is afraid, I am afraid. When ill, I feel ill. Her or his sights and sounds and smells are mine. For so long as this new book takes to write, I live thousands of years ago as well as in the Now.
A writer tries to catch all this in netted words.
In China Blues, my first ever published book (Harper Collins and Doubleday and whoever else in whatever language, plus a new edition coming soon), it’s 1906 in San Francisco and I race through the streets as the city burns. Then, older, I live in the city as it is in 1923…a spoiled rich girl caught up between the Chinese tongs and white bootleggers. In my second novel, Chasing Women, it’s the last few months of 1929. I’m a New York City reporter, working alongside Damon Runyon ringside as I write the only sport’s column in town penned by a woman…but I have to use a name that could be a man’s to do it: Teddy O’Rourke. As Teddy, I’m caught up in a killing that comes much too close to the man I love/hate, a fellow reporter after the same scoop as me. In the as yet unpublished Walks Away Woman, it’s last week or this week or next week and I live in the suburbs of Tucson, Arizona. My kids are grown and away, my husband has a woman in town. I watch the soaps. And then one day I set down the groceries I’ve just bought, walk past my car fading in the beating sun, and stride out into the desert to die. Amazing what a despairing housewife can find alone in a world of heat. In Houdini Heart I am part of me, the part that feels small and lost. And I’ve done something very very bad. Knowing there’s little time left me, I’m holed up in a once grand hotel in Vermont writing one last book for better or for worse and then…then, things begin to get very strange. Am I haunted by what I’ve done or by the failure of a life poorly lived, or is it the hotel I hide in? Great artists have been here before me. Alfred Hitchcock, H.P. Lovecraft, Louise Brooks, Shirley Jackson. Is it their art that threatens me: better truer art than mine? Do I go mad or merely madder?
Bloody hell. My life as a writer is crowded with event, with people who use my mouth to speak and my heart to feel. Sometimes it gets so crowded inside there seems no room left for me. Whoever that is.