“I am, and ever will be, a white-socks, pocket-protector, nerdy engineer, born under the second law of thermodynamics, steeped in steam tables, in love with free-body diagrams, transformed by Laplace and propelled by compressible flow.”
Speaking of atom bombs and Representative Velde, among other such contemporary items, do you think—as some people have been saying—that the young writer today works at a greater disadvantage than those of preceding—uh—generations?
Hell no, I don’t. Writers ever since writing began have had problems, and the main problem narrows down to just one word—life. Certainly this might be an age of so-called faithlessness and despair we live in, but the new writers haven’t cornered any market on faithlessness and despair, any more than Dostoyevsky or Marlowe or Sophocles did. Every age has its terrible aches and pains, its peculiar new horrors, and every writer since the beginning of time, just like other people, has been afflicted by what that same friend of mine calls “the fleas of life”—you know, colds, hangovers, bills, sprained ankles, and little nuisances of one sort or another. They are the constants of life, at the core of life, along with nice little delights that come along every now and then. Dostoyevsky had them and Marlowe had them and we all have them, and they’re a hell of a lot more invariable than nuclear fission or the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes. So is Love invariable, and Unrequited Love, and Death and Insult and Hilarity. Mark Twain was as baffled and appalled by Darwin’s theories as anyone else, and those theories seemed as monstrous to the Victorians as atomic energy, but he still wrote about riverboats and old Hannibal, Missouri. No, I don’t think the writer today is any worse off than at any other time. It’s true that in Russia he might as well be dead and that in Youngstown, Ohio, that famous police chief, whatever his name is, has taken to inspecting and banning books. But in America he can still write practically anything he pleases, so long as it isn’t libelous or pornographic. Also in America he certainly doesn’t have to starve, and there are few writers so economically strapped that they can’t turn out work regularly. In fact, a couple of young writers—and good writers—are damn near millionaires.
But satire when it descends to populist jeering – that’s to say when it flatters the babbling blockheads rather than lambasts them – becomes a boorish, toothless and, on occasions, even a dangerous thing. There was a signal example of this last week in the wake of 17 police cars swooping on a suspect bus travelling along the M6 in Staffordshire.
So – it’s a difficult business and just because I, about to start my 14th novel, have had loads of them published before, doesn’t mean I’ll have another one published. In 2002 I finished the first couple of drafts of my 7th novel State of Happiness. My then publisher Sceptre, the literary imprint at Hodder, didn’t want it. I’d had a feeling they wouldn’t and had – again – written it out of contract with an assumption it probably wasn’t for them. The trouble was, it wasn’t for anyone else either. The six main publishing houses my agent went to, all of whom had editors who’d said to her “Please can we have Stella Duffy’s next book?” turned it down. It wasn’t what they expected. I wasn’t writing a book like the last book. I have never written a book like the last book. They wanted a book like the last book. Publishing likes that. A box, a hook, a rope to keep you on, tie you in, and fair enough. As I said, it’s a business. Eventually Virago bought it and I’ve now been with them for almost a decade. That book, the one we couldn’t sell, has been one of my most successful. State of Happiness was my first Orange long-listing, it was the book optioned by the Danish company Zentropa, it was the book on which I was paid well to learn to adapt to film with a brilliant director guiding me, and it’s the book I re-wrote again this year for the producers to take to Cannes and am still waiting to hear what next. Nothing is wasted, but it can feel bloody hard in the middle of it.
The sophisticated and relatively opaque machinations by which central banks keep economies afloat may make the Spanish Empire’s inflationary foibles look quaintly naive. But in fact the fine-tuning of monetary policy—the delicate juggling of interest rates, money supply, and other financial mechanisms so that an economy keeps expanding at a steady, manageable rate, without excessive inflation, unemployment, debt, or boom and bust cycles—is still a work in progress, as the ongoing economic woes in both Europe and the United States demonstrate.
I, Robert Louis Stevenson, Advocate of the Scots Bar, author of The Master of Ballantrae and Moral Emblems, stuck civil engineer, sole owner and patentee of the Palace and Plantation known as Vailima in the island of Upolu, Samoa, a British Subject, being in sound mind and pretty well I thank you in body:
In consideration that Miss A. H. Ide, daughter of H. C. Ide, in the town of St Johnsbury, in the County of Caledonia, in the State of Vermont, United States of America, was born, out of all reason, upon Christmas Day, and is therefore, out of all justice, denied the consolation and profit of a Proper Birthday;
And considering that I, the said Robert Louis Stevenson, have attained an age when O, we never mention it, and that I have now no further use for a birthday of any description;
Dinner at home just the two of us
Dinner with friends
Dinner with friends in cities where none of us lives
via Lists of Note.