Fourteen days until I fly to Canada to begin a two-week writing course in Banff and I’ve done no work on my manuscript in months. None. This troubles me enormously but I can only see scraps of time between today and when I get on the plane. Scraps like now, when I have one hour before I need to leave the house for a doctor’s appointment, child collection from school, farewell other child as he heads to camp, and make dinner and on. That’s no way to work on a novel, a minute here, a minute there. So it seems that the time I am in Banff will be the time I begin again on this neglected project. I’d hoped to arrive with something shinier, polished, fresh in my mind, but it’s not to be. No matter how much I try to tidy and control life it mostly does as it chooses.
But strange things happen. Last night I was reading a book so sweet and easy and happy I could barely finish a single page for boredom. I dropped it on the floor without even bothering to mark my page, knowing I’d never come back to it, and picked up the next book on the pile, a book I’d bought only because it’s a classic and I feel I should have read it by now. I don’t like the cover, and the type is tiny. But I needed to have a few more pages in my head so I could sleep, so I began.
I won’t tell you the name of the book because it’s idiotic that I haven’t read it. I’m sure I’m the only woman in the Western World who hasn’t. The thing is, it made my heart race. After a few paragraphs – not even one whole page – I couldn’t lie down. I sat up, my breath became shallow and quick, and I felt my eyes widen.
Maybe the writing thrilled me because what had come before it was so pedestrian. Maybe. But I suspect it would have made me feel the same way regardless of its predecessor. I heard the voice instantly. I knew what era it was immediately. And because the voice was clear and without guile I just knew this woman would find herself in trouble.
‘It was a queer, sultry summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs, and I didn’t know what I was doing in New York.’
So when I did finally sleep, I felt excited about the idea of sitting down and trying to write something even a tenth as poetic and strong and enticing. I can’t write like this, of course, but the joy in trying suddenly came back to me, the point of it, the intensity of it.
Then, in the morning, when I had a small window in which to do other work, I came upon an interview with a writer called Paula Fox. Again, it’s idiotic that I haven’t heard of her until now. She’s eighty-eight and has written scads of adult novels and children’s books. Her work was largely forgotten and out of print until 1996, when Jonathan Franzen wrote an article about Fox in Harpers‘ and she was ‘rediscovered’. Fifteen years later, I read her words in Paris Review, and am inspired afresh for entirely different reasons.
Fox had an appalling start in life. She was rejected, neglected, directionless, without confidence or carer. She knew from a young age, however, that she wanted to write and had a particular talent with words. Life didn’t allow her much opportunity to act on this, but she did the best she could. She describes spending time abroad and the wonder of being able to write: ‘My husband and I went to Greece with our two children. We spent six months there and it was the first uninterrupted time I’d had in forty years. I was deliriously happy. I didn’t have to do anything except cook dinner, and worry about vipers.’
I’ve ordered two of her novels to take with me to Banff, as companions. I won’t cook a single meal, and I will not be worried about vipers. So while I’m away I have no excuse but to work as hard and deep and well as I can.