It was undoubtedly the longest creative gestation period I’ve ever experienced.
At least in rudimentary form, the idea for my new novel, The Woman in Black, came to me almost 40 years ago. I had recently seen a handful of short video documentaries about the young actors who had come to prominence in the 1950s. The videos consisted of some archival footage, some interviews with the actors’ colleagues, and a few short snippets of film from their movies. These little films weren’t terribly informative — they were fairly gossipy in nature, aimed at fans rather than serious students of cinema — and I found them more interesting for their nostalgia value than anything else. But for some reason, possibly because I came of age in that exact time and place, and in a show business family — they stuck with me and tickled my writing nerve.
Looking back, I think it may have had more to do with the subterranean, quasi-Oedipal drama of confrontation taking place than any serious examination of acting technique. There was resistance on the part of the Hollywood establishment to the style of movie acting that came to the fore after World War II, and resentment of the manners and attitudes of its practitioners. It was a classic generational struggle fought out in the combat zone of acting. The new coterie of actors were perceived by their seniors as a threat, and a challenge, and perhaps an implicit rebuke as well. Largely trained in New York — frequently at the Actor’s Studio under Lee Strasberg and his associates — inspired by Konstantine Stanislavsky and Michael Chekhov, these young Turks brought the training of the Moscow Art Theater first to Broadway and then, more disruptively, to Hollywood. And in the process upset a lot of people who regarded the newcomers as Bolshevik upstarts. Director Henry Hathaway was so offended by Dennis Hopper’s refusal to accept a line-reading that he effectively, albeit only temporarily, sidelined the young actor’s career. On the set of Guys and Dolls, a disapproving Frank Sinatra insisted on referring to Marlon Brando as “Mumbles.” He must have found the man’s very presence a sort of insult.
Looking back over my four books, I can see that a sublimated, often hidden, portrayal of generational conflict — of disapproving older people contending with rebellious younger ones — has always provided some of the narrative fuel. I wasn’t especially conscious of this as a theme while writing, but in retrospect it seems undeniable. And so I think it’s more than possible that that element may have played a role in my finding this particular arena provocative.
As did, secondarily, the elusive nature of a certain species of actor, artists who so disappear into their roles that even their intimates aren’t sure who the real person underneath all those masks might be. And as did the era of the 1950s, the decade in which I came of age, so bland on the surface and yet so rife with the tensions that were to explode within a few short years.
And so, for whatever combination of reasons — we never really know where inspiration comes from — the setting, the period, and the professional arena had me in their grip. The bare bones of the story came to me fairly quickly, as did the central character. He was a vivid presence. I could see him, I had a sense of how he talked, I knew how he occupied space in the world.
But what I didn’t know, and what I couldn’t figure out, was how to tell the story. The challenge was technical, almost mechanical. The way I conceived of the prospective novel involved so many disparate points of view, so many observers seeing different and often even contradictory aspects of the same person, that it seemed utterly impossible to devise a form that could accommodate them all. I toyed with the story from time to time — my fascination with it never waned — picking it up every few years, making notes, turning alternate strategies over in my head, taking a stab at the opening pages, trying this approach and that. But I could never crack the narrative nut.
And then, about two years ago, while thinking about something else entirely — probably something as prosaic as what to have for lunch that day — my eye fell on the late Jean Stein’s West of Eden, a book on my shelves that I’d not got around to reading (and still haven’t, but damn it, I plan to!). And the solution came to me in one of those sudden flashes you can’t anticipate or plan for: Write the novel as a fictional oral history! Make the existence of all those different points of view the point of the exercise, the alpha and omega of the framing structure. As soon as I thought of this approach, I felt a confidence about starting. Of course I understood right away that I wasn’t setting myself an easy task: Inventing all those characters, and finding all those independent voices, and giving them all something to say, was going to be a challenge. But it was the kind of challenge that’s a pleasure to confront. It’s part of the fun of writing.
So almost four decades after getting the first tickling intimation of this novel, I finally started writing it. Perhaps because it was so long overdue, the work proceeded quickly and smoothly. In the end, I came up with 37 different relatives, friends, and associates of my central character, all offering their testimony. I let them speak for themselves. And they proved a talkative lot. They all saw my protagonist differently. They all had stories to relate. And unsurprisingly, perhaps, they all wanted to talk about themselves as much as about the ostensible subject of the book.
That’s show business for you.