I am often asked, ” What are the really famous writers really like?” People seem to be fascinated more by the private lives of these writers, than by the works that made them famous. Some writers I know only from a study of history–other writers I have known personally because writers who publish often attend the same parties, traffic in the same places.
William Faulkner was a lonely man who liked horses. He was short and always baggily dressed. He had a down-slope mustache that made him seem gloomy. I cannot recall a time when he was not drinking. When “under the influence” his speech was incomprehensibly slurred. When sober, his gooey southern accent and pitchy voice was hardly understandable. He was shy around women but never indifferent to them. A literary merit I carry is that one day when we met in the lobby of Random House Publishers, he was sober and admired my work. He was dark inside himself, and secretive, and did not always look at you when you spoke. His fingernails seemed uncut, and grimy.
Marcel Proust wrote in a room fully lined in leather . He composed Swan’s Way while lounging on a comfy divan, munching creamy bonbons while crafting his sentences. It was said that he used a quill pen and ink pot. Surely not a word processor. He was always meticulously coiffed and manicured and when he waddled from the studio, some said he was “a fop, a dandy”. We never met. He was long before my time.
Ernest Hemingway was a consistently unpleasant man. Behind his blustery macho he may have been a timid soul, but” Papa ” eventually became what he appeared to be. When he was in New York he worked out at George Brown’s gym. He believed himself to be a splendid and tough fighter. I would watch him mix it with Brown for three rounds. Brown was a light-heavy and a champion boxer. He was also a strong puncher. During one workout Hemingway began mauling and fighting dirty. Brown warned him, “Cut it out.” Hemingway kept kidney punching, butting, and elbowing Brown. “Don’t do it again,” Brown warned him. Hemingway shoved and rammed Brown into a corner, battering him, scraping gloves across his eyes, stepping on his feet, hitting him below the belt. Brown slipped the punches, skipped aside, then hit Hemingway with a power-driven hook, knocking him out of the ring. People jumped out of the way to let him sprawl across the chairs. Hemingway bellowed,” Dirty fighting.” He was booed.
James Joyce sang opera before he began writing. Although three-quarters of his readers can only understand about half of his work, he was a fanatic about every word he wrote. When he completed his book Ulysses, he insisted that it be printed in France, by a printer with a staff of absolutely non-English reading type-setters. He demanded this so that not one carefully distorted sentence would be conventionally grammarized; not one deliberately misspelled word, corrected. In his later years, when he was going blind, he wrote on a large blackboard in huge colored chalk letters.
When I was visiting Frank Yerby, in Cannes, he told me the way he often wrote. He was a wealthy man and rather than withdraw research books from the library, he would photograph the pages with a miniature camera. He would develop the film and then do his research at home. He used nine months setting up the novel (outline, scenes, storyline ) and take about three months to actually write it. Before was submitted to the publisher and handled by an official editor, he read it to his mother-in-law. She was an elderly woman and, I believe, Haitian. Her English was not fluent. She would listen to him read it to her. If she shook her head he would examine that portion; if she nodded, he would let it stand. He trusted her instincts, her deep, unlanguaged response. Yerby’s record of bestsellers and bookclub selections establishes his judgment in choice of editors.
The last time I met Mario Puzo it was at the Fairmont Hotel in San Francisco. He was still gambling heavily and having trouble with one of the Godfather scripts. Before I could sit down to ask how he was, he told me,” I have diabetes and have to stop drinking and smoking cigars. My blood pressure is frightening. I can hardly see and I’m about 100 pounds overweight. I’m in real bad shape.” He waited for my response and I said, “So nothing’s changed, huh?” He laughed,” Neither have you, Bishop. You’re still all sympathy and all heart.” Later on I ask him what he enjoyed most about all his money and fame. He said, “I hate socks. Now I can go anywhere without wearing socks and no one dares call me a slob.”
I can only write about the writers who are fixed into history and some of the writers I know. On the surface they may appear egocentric and eccentric–but all writers are only like all people. Once we honestly estimate our own peculiarities, our own idiosyncrasies, then historic figures and famous writers will be brought into the reasonable focus of being “just people.”
(first published, Sunday, November 4, 1984 the Manhattan Mercury)
@1984 Leonard Bishop