I first learned about reading grown-up books from a burning adolescent curiosity to learn about the real world. I would go into my father’s den when he was at work, not to learn about him but to learn more about life, love, women, and the many other topics in the novels he had by D.H. Lawrence, Ernest Hemingway, Oliver Goldsmith, Gustav Flaubert, Joseph Conrad, and others. Later in life that I realized these were mostly masculine books, collected by this reserved man who had fought in World War Two.
The idea of my writing really had a feminine genesis. The notion that a normal person could write came first from my older sister, who concocted wildly imaginative tales from the material of our surroundings, who invented new religions, and who crafted fantasy worlds as easily as a genie. And the idea that I could write my first novel, Gospel Prism, came from my lifelong friend, the famous journalist, Marie Colvin, who forcefully told me, in 2010, to “write the damn book,” because she was tired of reading just my well written letters and emails, and who told me there was more than enough material in my eventful life for a few novels.
Marie and I had met in 1975 and had been intimate before we became lifelong friends, so she spoke to me then with the authority of a deep personal understanding and the confidence of a person who knew writing and books. It was the final nudge that I needed to know that I could write a novel. I was just going to eschew the mechanics and get all I could out on the page and then attack the re-writing with her help as an editor. Our starting point for one theme of the novel was the love of literature that Marie and I had always shared. Few people know that she was a bit of a bookworm. I began with her notion that my novel would discreetly pay homage to some of the great literary works that would then become templates for each of my chapters.
We decided that I should apply those stories not to my career on Capitol Hill, nor to my travels of the world, nor to my too interesting love life, but to the short stint I had done in a minimum-security prison as a result of the politically motivated US House of Representative Post Office investigation. Gospel Prism would become a kind of “Shakespeare, Dante, Milton, Whitman and others go to prison” novel. I would also say, Cervantes, whose great novel is the guide for my first chapter, but he had already been to prison on his own. I felt that paying homage to Cervantes in particular was fitting, since there is a way in which every novelist is essentially writing a reference to Don Quixote. So I began to apply my reading to my writing.
I had seen the mafia men who were prisoners make a deal with the incarcerated rabbi in order to smuggle contraband into the prison in his inviolable kosher shipments. If that was not like The Merchant of Venice, I was a very poor reader. I had also known some fellows on the inside who were very much like Peer Gynt and one who was a veritable Hadji Murad, from the Tolstoy novella. The writing came easily. I would wake up every morning at 5:00 AM and just write what I could. For the first two weeks I had to more or less force myself two write for three hours a day. After that the words and characters on the page spoke to me, and the novel took on a life of its own. Soon I was writing for ten, twelve sometimes sixteen hours a day. I began each session with an email to my good friend, to tell her what I had written and would be writing.
Marie had also given me the promise that she would take my book to the agent or two who had been petitioning her to represent her in the telling of her colorful life story. I took my first three chapters to her in London in 2011 and she discussed them with one of those agents. She often gave me very broad editing and writing suggestions, at one point telling me to cut one third from the first chapter and simply saying I would know which third. By 25 January 2012, I had a completed manuscript. I immediately turned to writing my second novel, which I would later finish in nine months and which would apply the novels of Charles Dickens to a story based loosely on the experiences from my successful political career. For some ineffable reason, on 22 February 2012, instead of writing to Marie, I Googled her name only to find an eleven-minute-old story of how she had been killed in Syria.
At the funeral her sister, Cathleen Colvin, told me that among the very few things Marie had taken to Syria in her small backpack was my “big honking manuscript.” Cat then sent that macabre document to one of those agencies Marie had contacted. They assigned their in-house editor to work with me, primarily to place the chapters firmly in a narrative thread suggested from The Pilgrim’s Progress, by John Bunyan, who had also been to prison. I had been fortunate in this, since my original impulse had been just to get the novel onto the page without worrying about outline or content. With these edits and Marie’s, I was able to establish order over the work later. Then, when that agency dropped me, I had a much better novel, one that an independent publisher decided to publish. I recommend that any writer “just write,” as it is easiest that way and is always useful even as only an exercise. Return to it later with fresh eyes or to have someone competent look at it. But let it flow at first.
(c) Gerald Weaver