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Norman Mailer and writing notes


Harlot’s Ghost is one of the best lessons I have had in novel writing.

In the first chapter he creates a setting, tosses in several hooks and fills in some background detail about each of the principal characters … Mailer sets his stage.

I like this as it relates to ‘driving blind.’

‘On that moonless night in March, returning to the Keep, I took the road from Bath to Belfast, the road that goes by Camden. In every cove was fog and it covered one’s vision like a winding-sheet, a fog to embrace the long rock shelf offshore where sailing ships used to founder. When I could no longer see anything at all, I would pull the car over; then the grinding of the buoys would sound as mournful as the lowing of cattle in a rain-drenched field. The silence of the mist would come down on me. You could her the groan of a drowning sailor in the lapping of that silence. I think you had to be demented to take the coast road on such a night.’

And so Mailer goes on, setting up the danger of black ice, then later skidding. The protagonist calls his wife who had had a premonition. It intrigues me that all the towns have British names; is this the same across the Eastern Seaboard of the US of A?

‘The road had become a lie. It would offer traction, then turn to glass. Driving that car by the touch of my fingertips, I began to think once more that lying was an art, and fine lying had to be a fine art.’

The protagonist in Harlot’s Ghost is pre-occupied with thoughts about skullduggery. He hits ice and nearly loses it because instead of concentrating on the road he is thinking about his wife and mistress.

‘Driving that car, my heart in my teeth, and the road ice in my ice-cold fingers, I knew all over again what Chloe gave me.’

And more:

‘On a night of driving so unsettled as this – sleet on the cusp of freezing – there was no way to meditate for long.’

And then:

‘My car went into a severe skid, much longer now in memory that it takes to tell. The wall of forest on one side strutted up to me, and my front end yawed when I spun the wheel, whereupon car and I rushed viciously across the lane towards the other wall of pines at the far shoulder, now suddenly the near shoulder. … I was looking down the road at the turn I had just come out of. Then, as slowly as if I were in a whirlpool at sea, the road began to revolve. Interminably.’

Idea: Boy in alien captivity, aliens seek out his girlfriend to create a breeding pair.

Mid-morning, bright, arming up, our first Spring morning, a BBQ is possible. Friends call from Lewes, they are coming down to the seaside playground. I offer lunch. We do a 90 minute tidy up, Zozo joins in cleaning the windows. I make soup with defrosted stock (a minestrone base without the meat). I add swedes, turnip, sweated onion and garlic, and three kinds of beans. Yum. The mums confer over what the children will eat, I learn that various parts of the Pizza would be rejected so we opt for backed potatoes with assorted fillings instead.

My idea of reading and note taking while supervising the kids is shot to pieces, but it feels great to have these spontaneous visits. I might even have spent an hour or so in the garden starting to rake in six months of compost into the boarders; perhaps when Darlingest and the kids are away (when I ought to be writing).

I ought to be writing

The schedule for the year had me writing ten hours a week then for a day each weekend; I doubt I’ve had more than six hours in any week, none with the kids ill and me in bed.

Notes for JTW from the Eastbourne Herald

25 year old killed when his car careered into a block of flats. Thrown from his car when it mounted the kerb, sliced away part of the wall of the flats and landed on its roof. treated by paramedics at the scene of the accident but died. Returning from a St Valentine’s weekend with his new girlfriend. 6.11 at Bexhill. Regular at a nightclub. Hung around with the boy racers as a teenager. Family and friends laid flowers at the scene of the crash. Second fatal accident at this spot in three months.

(Nutter who gets planning permission by ‘forcing’ accidents)

Fire-fighters used Acro jacks to secure the house. Residents had to be dug out of their homes. Lost control of the high-powered limited-edition Vauxhall as it passed from the 40 mph limit into the 30 mph zone and entered a right hand curve on the downhill stretch of the dual carriageway. The car hurtled off the road, demolished a 30 mph sign and a tree, flew down a steep bank above the pavement and into the front of the flats. Cartwheeled into the air and came to rest on its roof 20 feet further down.

Fire-fighter tried cardio-pulmonary resuscitation as the dying driver lay in a pool of blood …

Flash memory

Guys on a motorbike who ran into the back of Mr Laing, crashed, then ran off. One was hurt, but wouldn’t let me catch up with him, to ensure he was OK and perhaps take him to hospital. Other grabbed his bike and sped off.

Drink drive liar

Two lagers and shared a bottled and a half of wine. Erratic driving. Made up an excuse/justification. Banned for three years. Fined £400, paid £55 costs.

(Lewes Courts)

JTW Woman wins Porsche three days after passing driving test by doing a handbrake turn and stop in a marked area.

More from Mailer

‘I was misrepresenting myself to myself. I was not writing it for presentation, but for myself. Such self-deception is analogous to looking in the mirror and not meeting one’s eyes.’

This last phrase takes me into a world of my own, the possibilities of a short story, or its aptness in describing someone who has lost all sense of who they are or the capacity to see themselves for who they are.

I need to buy time

Research traffic accidents. National Newspaper Depository. TRL. School of Geography, or Cranfield ?? Road Safety Campaign Charities. Various motor museums and ministries. Drive the routes. Decide on the location for the story, the North East, Cotswolds or South Coast.

TV ‘Taken’ and film ‘The Bride’ – neither any good, flicking between the too and turning to ‘Harlot’s Ghost’ I just about entertain myself after Darlingest and the kids have gone to bed.

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