For a time I had gotten away with writing without context. I of course ignored advise that I use my experiences from my childhood. When I wrote a novel that got published – that event that nearly all who write think will change their lives forever – I let my characters spring into life as if born as adults.
The novel had three main characters – the hero, his friend, and his girlfriend, and many side characters, many of them beautiful women since the novel was set in late sixties Bangkok, in a time of wild erotic happenings and cloak and dagger things, and constant assassinations - so much going on that neither my new agent nor the editor who accepted the book for publication seemed to notice that no one in it had had a childhood. The main character was me, living by my wits. The girlfriend was Marcy, an American who had dropped out of an Antioch Colete work-study program in Tokyo to work in a night club and had come to Bangkok with a CIA man who wanted me dead. Actually my twin brother was in Bangkok then too, working for a Defense Department agency geared to helping Southeast Asian armies work over their countries’ peasants. I was clearly on the other side, which made me and my brother to a considerable extent enemies – not unlike how it had been when we were children He didn’t appear in the novel, neither as child nor man, though so many of the people I knew in Bangkok had cameos. And I kept things moving so fast that neither the agent the nor the editor noticed that no one in the book could have had a childhood since no one in the book had a family.
I got away with this once, but soon afterwards – while living in a claustrophobic Middle Eastern place – I could not do it again. I had signed a contract, and took more advance money, to do another novel, using the same agent and with the same editor. It seemed to me a fitting sequel to the last book, but the opening chapters were sent back by the agent with angry letter. He did not question that the writing was mine, but he just could not believe the life I was portraying. It was as if I had made a clumsy attempt to make up an implausible story. Although this was a novel, although this was fiction, it still had to be more believable than what he had seen. The background of my main character – who happened to be in his mid thirties like me then, and who had done the same things I had done – was so unconvincing, he said, that the story was clearly based on nothing real.
And then the agent said he wondered why in the narration there was nothing at all about where the character had come from, nothing about his childhood, family or background. I did not think then that this was a significant question, though I did remember what Berta had said in Manila about my Florida childhood stories. Now, it seemed, the agent and editor were as off-base as Berta.
Actually this lack of a family of origin was the only part of that novel-in-progress not based on fact. It was only later I realized that the manuscript could not possibly have rung true to the agent, for in life there can no such gap. And maybe that was why the rest of the story seemed artificial to him too.
But where was the public, I asked myself, for anything so uninteresting as my family?
It was much later that it became clear to me that at that time I had not been writing so much because of what I needed to say as because I wanted to keep on having work published. I needed to be A Writer. Strange, I had thought, that this agent, who enjoyed a great deal of success with works that were commercial, should think I was getting it wrong.
The character in my book whom the agent said was not believable, the one who seemingly had sprung to life fully grown, had traveled to the heart of Borneo on the Kapuas River in a time of ritual cannibalism. He had been in insurrections in Angola, Haiti, Cuba, Greece and Malaysia, even though he was not a soldier and not really a war correspondent and did not work for any intelligence service. He had somehow crossed Africa alone from Khartoum to Fort Lamy, traversing a thousand-mile stretch for which maps showed small villages but no roads. Most recently, although he had a poor sense of direction, he had flown small planes for recreation in areas – Lebanon, Cyprus – where you might encounter anti-aircraft artillery if you went a few moments off course. At various times he had already, before coming to the Middle East phase, lived in Slovenia, Greece, Thailand, Hong Kong, Singapore and the Philippines – as well as the, to him, equally foreign Indiana and Georgia. And, after leaving a boozy, gray, socially correct college, he had gone through a rapid career in wire service journalism, then put in nominal Army time as a draftee while continuing as a newsman, and then gone on to independent adventure. And this was only the start of what had happened – jail in Mississippi in the Civil Rights time, for example, and an unexplained, even to himself, period moving between the Canary Islands and Malta
These were matters already dealt with in the opening chapters of that autobiographical novel I was writing. But there were so many other matters that were not in it.
Without a family, the character in the book again could not have a twin brother, like the author’s twin brother, who was in the C.I.A. and worse. He could not have a first cousin, maybe it was two or even three first cousins, who, like the author’s cousins, had killed themselves. Nor did he, like the author, have a cousin who had been an armed kidnapper, nor a cousin who was in and out of battered women's shelters and had been fucked and beaten by her brother from the age of 7 until she was 16. He did not have a father who as a child had been left with governesses at Christmas while his parents toured Europe. And he did not have a mother who had spent a crucial part of childhood in courtrooms where her father was on trial for political shenanigans. And he had not been raised being told he was slow and stupid. And, moreover, without a family there were no family drug and alcohol problems.
And my character had not spent the summers of his formative years in grandiose, quite beautiful and intensely formal mountain houses where most in these houses, isolated from other human contact, spoke with fake British accents. And he did not have a father who published light personal experience books about big happy families of regular people, nor a grandfather who wrote well-received sexless novels – writing that was so important that no others in the family, it was understood, need ever write anything themselves.