Wednesday, Oct. 30, 1996
Hooray! Andy Holding, the contractor who lives on a houseboat, turned up after all. He arrived last night at 7 p.m., wearing a yellow pullover and looking very much like Gatsby, or rather like Robert Redford playing Gatsby. Verifying numbers, he swept his tape measure around corners as if it were something alive, or else a lasso, or maybe a yo-yo (the way yo-yos in the hands of clever boys seem to halt in midair before diving or looping). Together we went upstairs to look over what real estate agents like to call the Master Bath. The subject was tile, tile, tile. In the ruined kitchen the subject was window frames and soffits. (Soffits! Did I know what these were before the kitchen ceiling came crashing down?)
All this makes me think of Edith Wharton. The truth is I am not in the least like Edith Wharton–nor is this the blazingly self-evident literary judgment it may appear to be. Edith Wharton liked to build and renovate houses. She liked planning villas and gardens. I presume she was even interested in topiary. (I, as it happens, have a black thumb.) I always envy writers who live in organized spaces and beautiful rooms, writers who have file cabinets, writers who have e-mail, writers who have faxes, writers who hire cleaners to scrub toilets and vacuum, writers who can write in the morning and go out to dinner in the evening, writers who have the courage to throw out their mail unanswered, writers who ignore manuscripts sent by other writers, writers who travel (without getting sick on the plane), writers who drive cars, writers who dress well, writers whose gutters and leaders are cleared, writers without a leak in the roof or an animal in the attic, writers who escape clutter and chaos.
Sometimes I try to picture the writing rooms–they are probably called “studies”–of the Very Famous. I see perfect ceilings without cracks. I see broad desks; perhaps two broad desks. I see cherrywood shelves where the books are classified by subject. I see an assistant who answers the telephone. I see high advances from publishers and extensive sales. After that, a kind of darkening sets in; I cannot imagine those rooms or those lives.
I write in a dim snug cell on a table with a single drawer that I have used since I was eight years old, a child’s hand-me-down from my brother. There are heaps of books all over the tiny floor; you have to step over or around them. There is a carton to save letters in. There is a second table on which my old Smith Corona rests (the first electrified generation). Until not long ago I was devoted to a favorite fountain pen, but nowadays nothing is so archaic or so hard-to-find as an ordinary bottle of ink. No matter: There is the splendid polymer-point Expresso. (It streams the words lucently, it never skips or blots; it thinks.) I have no defense against humiliating publisher’s advances. Two hours ago a graduate student from the Columbia School of Journalism telephoned to ask to do a writer’s profile for a class assignment. He admired my work, he said. Apparently he wasn’t referring to anything in print; last summer he’d been to see my play, in a small off-Broadway theater. “If I tried to get someone Big,” he explained, “they wouldn’t want to squander their time.”
The Master Bath, so-called, abuts my little workroom (I write close to the cloaca), where my table is under tarpaulins and the walls have been demolished to accommodate the plumbing. Andy Holding is going to rebuild those walls, and then–who knows? With a flash of his serpentine tape measure the room will widen, the desk will broaden, the books will order themselves by subject-matter, and I’ll begin to write and sell like Edith Wharton, with advances to match.
And then will my black thumb turn green, and my white hair brown again?