I read, the other day, about some famous author who had made it a habit to get up and write for two hours every morning of his life, by which method he had accumulated an impressive list of masterworks. It is typical of me in my present state and age, that I cannot remember the name of this author, but that really doesn’t matter. I have begun to ask myself what would it be like if, lacking any particular subject, I just sat down and began to write whatever came into my head, which I imagine must be somewhat analogous to the experience of the aforesaid great author.
So, be warned, this is the occasion.
Come to think of it, I have done this before. Years ago I dreamed up a strange sentence which I wrote down, imagining it to be the beginning of a novel. As a matter of fact, I did write a novel arising from that first, bizarre sentence. I stood up on a chair a few minutes ago to reach up to a high shelf on which the sole remaining copy of that unpublished novel now rests, along with dozens of other half-finished, unregarded, scrappy manuscripts of one kind or other. Unfortunately, because of my present state of both mind and body, I was unable to complete my search, for instead of being able to pick out the manuscript from my disorganized files, I suddenly realized that if I persisted I might well topple off the chair, so that, not for the first time in my life, I should recognize that discretion is the better part of valour.
I have forgotten the exact sentence with which I began that novel, but I went something like this, “If Collette Davidson had known what would happen when she visited her husband, Joe, in the local jail, she would never have taken her son, David, aged nine, with her.”
What followed immediately was something to this effect: the wardens in the local jail took a fancy to son David, and agreed to undertake his care, provided she for her part would agree to go into a neighbouring room and undertake certain acts that they might demand of her. I remember a subsequent scene had Collette sitting on a bus as she left the jail, complaining to the woman sitting beside her that she should never have left her son with those men, because they had raped her.
I also remember that I carried this fantasy on through maybe 40,000 words, showed it to a man who was my agent at the time, who showed it to a publisher of his acquaintance, who reacted enthusiastically as to its quality, and urged me to carry on. At that point, finding myself trapped in a totally unlikely plot, I began to think I should rescue this off-the-top-of-my-head process, and impose some order on all this. I did that, imposed on the plot some sequence that I recognized as more or less normal, and was told after submitting the completed novel that it just didn’t meet the standards of the same publisher who had previously been so enthusiastic. In other words, my attempt to impose order on the plot had ruined it.
Well, at least that novel did get to rest under the eye of a publisher, however briefly, which is more than can be said for most of the other half-dozen or more novels I have written in my eight or nine decades of scribbling. Indeed I can think of only one other that even got to be circulated among publishers: it was an effort I made to write a real pot-boiler; an agent I had at the time in New York loyally sent it around the publishers of cheap trash --- publishers of bestsellers, in other words --- and although it elicited some friendly comments, none of them wanted to stand behind it.
The rest of my novels have never seen the light of day even in the narrowest meaning of that expression. Most I have just consigned willingly to the scrap heap. Of only one do I wish I had been rather more determined to try it out on publishers. It was a longish novel arising from my lifetime interest in the dramatic life of Captain James Cook who discovered for Europeans the country in which I was born, New Zealand. Since I was a scribbler by nature I had always harboured a secret desire to invent my own Captain Cook. Such a thing if it could be pulled off would have the peripheral advantage that Captain Cook is of importance in the history of almost all the English-speaking peoples and most of the countries they inhabit, including Britain, Australia, New Zealand, and even Canada, where in the years before he embarked on his great voyages, he had already made his name as a cartographer by having mapped the coasts of Newfoundland, and, in addition, having guided the Royal Navy up the St Lawrence river carrying General Wolfe’s army for the attack on Quebec. All this would be good for sales of any significant book on the subject of Captain Cook.
My son Thom, who had embarked years before like a laser beam on achieving a career as a screenwriter, worked with me in tandem writing the first drafts. He is exceptionally strong on plot, which I am weak on. I thought I could hold my own on the production of the actual prose, so we made a good team. The actual plot was quite complex. It revolved around the assumption that Captain Cook had never been assassinated by the Hawaiians, but had, in league with a few trusted senior members of his crew, staged a phony death to enable him to settle for life with a Polynesian maiden of his choice. Immediately on the crew’s return to the United Kingdom, the Royal Navy invested the huge emotional capital of Cook’s selfless and heroic death into creating the myth of the world-straddling adventurer and explorer. Ten years later, when letters began arriving in London from Cook, begging to be rescued from his self-imposed incarceration among the savages, the Admiralty were not prepared to disturb their hugely successful myth-making. Instead, they hired a man, Molesworth Phillips, who had been an officer in Cook’s crew, and was now drinking himself to death in Ireland, to embark on a similar small ship with the instruction to seek out Cook and solve the problem in the generally understood fashion. This action had become over the generations the most closely guarded secret of the British Admiralty, known to only one man at a time, handed on from the director of Intelligence to his successor.
There were a lot of intriguing sidebars to this overall plot, many of them involving actual personalities from Cook’s crew who in our novel undertook purely fictionalized events, enabling us to draw in many interesting historical figures. For example, Phillips was married to a sister of Fanny Burney, the woman novelist and member of the Blue Stocking Society, famous for its close relationship with Samuel Johnson (Fanny also being a sister of James Burney, a lieutenant on Cook’s crew and later a rear-admiral). Also, a young man called Trevanan was a midshipman on the crew, and a friend of James King, who commanded the return to London after Cook’s death, and collaborated with King on producing the hugely successful account of the voyages. Trevanan later went to join the Russian navy, under the guidance of an Admiral Greig whom the Russians employed to whip their Navy into shape. In Moscow, before dying in action for the Russians, he married the widow of Thomas Bowdler, whose versions of Shakespeare texts gave the word “bowdlerize”, to the English language. We used these historical figures shamelessly to build a plot that began with an investigative journalist in Boston travelling to Baie St Paul on the St Lawrence river to interview a retired British rear-admiral, a descendant of Admiral Greig, as to whether Trevanan had ever left any journal that might confirm or deny something the journalist’s drunken father had been told by a story-telling Polynesian vagrant who hung around Boston Common, leading to…..I think you must have an idea of what our historical whodunit was about, by this time.
We never got it into shape to send to a publisher. I was fussing over plot details, and Thom had to pursue his screenwriting obsession, and somehow, our masterly mystery fell between our two stools. Or should I say, fell into a file so high on my shelves that I will never be able to get it down again.