I clean my house only for parties. I’m an expert shopper at Thrift Village and Goodwill. My friends are used to the words, “Can’t. I’m on deadline.” I have written, collaborated on, or ghosted 158 books, according to the Library of Congress (I haven’t kept track), and most people have never heard of me. In other words, I’m just another writer.
I’m not silly enough to think that anyone would be interested in my life because I’m the one who lived it. But over the years I’ve discovered that people are interested in almost anything someone is willing to give them information about. Arnold Bennett made a good reputation and a better living out of telling people about making china and running a hotel, along with a variety of other activities, and quite a number of contemporary mystery writers have followed his lead. And so I’m emboldened. If readers can be intrigued by the workings of a hotel laundry, why wouldn’t they have a mild curiosity about the workings of a hack writer?
I use the word “hack” advisedly. It means I can write anything I need to, and that’s something I’ve grown proud of over the years that I’ve been writing vocabulary exercises, encyclopedia entries, and books that have been on Oprah. Not the Book Club, and no, I didn’t get rich. I’ve had reviewers call me an “icy woman” (interesting euphemism) and a “major playwright in the making.” Those two both happened to be wrong, but other reviewers have been more perceptive.
Being a hack writer is like being a cowboy. It’s a job, a way of life, and an identity. Few people actually like the life. We would prefer to be nonhacks, that is, writers who make a living writing their own stuff. But since that’s not under our control, and since we could give up writing about as easily as eating, I suppose you could say we love our jobs. We take comfort in identifying with hacks of yore. Hard-drinking men with their hats pushed to the backs of their heads who sat in newspaper offices curling their lips at superfluous commas and swearing at misplaced modifiers. Hard-smoking women in harlequin glasses who wrote the society news with an irony that the innocent saw as wit. Helene Hanff, author of Charing Cross Road and the goddess of hack writers.
“Ten cents a word, that’s what they pay me. Oh, how they weigh me down.”
I can’t take credit for that little paraphrase. One of the writers on a recent project sent it to me in an e-mail. Oxford University Press was offering that princely sum twenty-five years after I was first paid it for my work. Name another occupation for which the rates haven’t gone up in a quarter of a century. (Warning to employers: Hack writers will work for that rate only when they are desperate or are actually doing the job for love.)
But this isn’t going to be a book of generalizations about writers and writing. I’ve been doing a lot of writing about history lately and I’ve learned one thing: The truth is in the details. So here’s the very first detail of my writing life. When I was a fifteen-year-old in Oklahoma City, my tenth-grade English teacher, Mrs. Weber, handed me back a short-short story I had written for a class assignment. She said, “Have you ever thought about being a writer?”
I never had. I liked to draw, so I had thought about being an artist. Also, my father, grandfather and one uncle were artists. It was, along with preaching and teaching, a family tradition. I liked science, so I had thought about being a scientist. In fact, what I’d liked was the chemistry set I asked for and received for Christmas of my tenth year. I had a perfectly wonderful time with it and none of my siblings actually had to have their stomachs pumped–for that. Even at ten I was an absurdly linear thinker, so I put those two preferences together and decided I should be a botanist. (My later studies in women’s history revealed that I was not the first girl to think that way.) In high school, I was told that girls could not be lawyers, which immediately set me on that career track. Thank God for Mrs. Weber.
She was a strange person, by the way. An attractive woman in early middle age, she was married to a military man, a devoted follower of the extreme rightwinger General Walker. My mother told me years later that she heard Mrs. Weber stand up at a teachers meeting and describe a dream in which Jesus was being sucked down into the mud by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. And yet, Mrs. Weber’s reading list for tenth-grade English included not only Catcher in the Rye and Grapes of Wrath–in Oklahoma, remember–but One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. And some years after I graduated, she was forced to resign from another school when she wouldn’t change the list.
Strange as she was, Mrs. Weber was a beacon. I can’t say she was my favorite teacher. That was Mr. Waltman, my debate coach. In my junior year, he found himself with both his A-team and his B-team made up of girls, and he ate Tums like candy for the next two years. All four of us adored him. But Mrs. Weber was my first reliable source of knowledge of books. My parents were very smart, and my mother was a teacher, but they had other things on their minds, like raising five children on a minister’s salary. Mrs. Weber ostensibly taught English, but actually taught books and to me books were miraculous.
I can still remember–and I’m not lying, I really can–the moment I learned to read. It was a moment, not a process. I couldn’t read, and then I could, just like that. To imagine how that could happen, you have to understand that I did not know how to read at all when I entered the first grade. My mother did not teach me and wouldn’t let anyone else teach me (There was no Sesame Street at the time.) and she had a very good reason.
First, you should understand about my mother, Frances. She was a wonderful woman, pretty and sweet, kind and smart. She also had a will of iron. (I just tried to avoid that cliche and couldn’t. It placed itself at the end of the sentence like a roadblock and resisted all my efforts. I could say she had a will of steel or solid granite, but that would be a distinction without a difference, an obvious attempt to avoid the obvious.)
Mother was born in western Oklahoma to a strong, brave woman who opposed her narrow, brutal family. Olive Stauber fell from a wagon when she was a girl and was severely injured, unable to walk. A chiropractor and his wife in a nearby town took her into their home so that he could give her longterm treatment. After two years, she was completely recovered and had decided to become a chiropractor herself. Despite the protests of her god-fearing, fundamentalist mother, Ida Stauber, she went to college and then to chiropractic school and eventually became the town doctor. She married and had four children with a dapper, intelligent, shell-shocked World War I veteran, Edward Tracy, who eventually had to leave his family and move into the backroom of the newspaper office where he worked because the children made sudden noises and movements.
The relevance of all this will become clear in a moment, or rather, in about two paragraphs.
Left to raise her children by herself, Olive Tracy turned to her best friend, Ruth Sadlo, for help. The two women provided Olive’s four and Ruth’s one with a kind, loving, and enlightened upbringing that ended when Olive died at the age of thirty-three. Before she died, Olive begged Ruth to take her children, and Ruth agreed. But Olive’s death devastated Ruth, and while she was in a state of collapse, Inez went to the courthouse and got custody of Frances, Eddie Joe, George, and Bill Henry Tracy. She took them out of the town where they were growing up and back to the dirt farm she and her husband had scratched out of the Oklahoma red dirt. The first night they were there, her son, Olive’s brother, shot five-year-old Bill Henry’s puppy because its yapping was keeping him awake. It was a sign of things to come. All of this happened because the children had a government pension check coming every month because of their father’s disability. Grandma Stauber and two of her sons’ families lived on that check.
My mother escaped five years later when she went to college at sixteen and met my father. Now here’s the connection. My mother wanted to give her children a “normal” childhood. She wanted it with a desperation born out of longing for the mother she lost at eleven, disgust and outrage about her grandmother and thankfulness for the happiness and sense of belonging that she found in my father’s family after they were married. She wanted us all to be well educated, and she very much wanted one of us to become a doctor, but more than that she wanted us never to be unusual, which to her meant strange and lonely.
My parents were both very smart and, understandably, produced a batch of what were then called “gifted” children, but my mother saw that classification as a danger. It was in the interests of normalcy that my mother did not teach any of us to read before we entered the first grade. She wanted us to play outside with each other and our friends. She let us make “dugouts” in the backyard, holes large enough to put boards over and use as clubhouses. When we got tired of the dugouts, she let us fill the holes with water and cover ourselves with mud. We rode bikes everywhere, even after my brother Mikie knocked himself out two or three times. I got into a fair number of fights, usually with boys I considered bullies. She and my father gave us more freedom than today’s children could imagine. But we were not sent to special schools or encouraged to think of ourselves as remarkable and we did not learn to read until we went to school.
I learned to write my name so that I could check books out of the library to look at, and my parents were always happy to read them to me. I imagine I picked up a word or two. That I don’t remember. What I do remember is Miss Kaye’s first-grade class. She believed in phonics, and taught us the alphabet by the sounds, rather than the names, of the letters. “Aaa, buh, cuh, duh . . .” Then she taught us to sound out a word. What I felt when I realized that, for me, she had just broken the code of all those words in the books my parents read me, the words on the back of the cereal box, on billboards, in newspapers–it must have been what archaeologists felt when they discovered the Rosetta Stone. My mother tells me I said to her, “Mama, I can read anything.”
And I did. Anything and everything. In an important sense my life was reading. I soon turned my back on children’s books, missing entirely the Pooh, Toad of Toad Hall, and Anne of Green Gables, unfortunately. I was reading Shakespeare in the fourth grade and adult trash in the seventh. Green Dolphin Street and The Citadel were the high points of my seventh-grade summer, which I spent compulsively reading to avoid thinking about puberty. My mother, true to form, made a rule that I had to play outside for two hours every afternoon. I took a book outside with me and read. A couple of years later I managed to progress from adult trash to adult literature.
When I was a little older, my parents drove me to the downtown public library in Oklahoma City on Saturdays, and I spent the whole day there. I also walked around the surrounding blocks just enough to find my first used bookstore. I had discovered kissing at about the same time, and I would be hard-pressed to say which discovery was more exciting. I simply indulged my taste for both as much as I could
Between the library and that used bookstore, I developed a strange familiarity with literature. Without the perspective lent by lectures and textbooks, I read Dryden, William Dean Howells, and George Jean Nathan and thought they were of about equal importance. I bought a book of nine plays by Eugene O’Neill and read it straight through without committing suicide, then went on to Thomas Hardy. Thomas Wolfe was my meat and drink. I became enraptured by the Algonquin Roundtable and gave my sister a copy of Thurber’s Is Sex Necessary? for her birthday. She was polite about it.
And yet, with all this, until Mrs. Weber suggested it, I had never thought about being a writer. Not even once. And yet, the moment it came home to me that “they pay people to write,” my life was set. I never considered any other vocation.
Of course, I had absolutely no idea where to start. I wasn’t interested in journalism. The editor of our school newspaper was a cheerleader. Enough said? (God, I was a prig.) Besides, my heroes weren’t journalists. I’d never heard of Dorothy Thompson. I wanted to be Dorothy Parker. I didn’t want to cover foreign wars. I wanted to sit in a room by myself all day writing the Great American Novel and then go out to cocktail parties all night. (I was a Methodist preacher’s daughter in Oklahoma City in the early sixties. I’d never seen a cocktail party in real life and I thought they were glamorous affairs attended by William Powell and Myrna Loy. Oy vey.)
I don’t know where I thought I was going to get the material for the Great American Novel if all I did was write and go to parties. Actually, I do. When I had to choose a college, I looked for schools with good psychology departments, thinking I would learn about people. In terms of naiveté, this was clearly on a par with the botanist thing. Fortunately, I got sidetracked by philosophy and English literature and messed my life up enough that I ended up with plenty to write about.
In the development of my career as a writer, we can pretty much skip the four years I spent at a variety of universities. I was complimented on my writing by a number of my professors, but I never wrote anything that I wasn’t assigned. The marriage that occurred during that time is more important. Rather, the man I married, Ralph Carlson, is important and will show up again repeatedly. The marriage itself was brief and resembled the measles. It happened to me once and I was immune for the rest of my life.
Ralph and I met when I was sixteen and he was eighteen. I was debating in a high school tournament at his college, and he was one of my judges. Later, he got one of his friends, who had been a high school debater and therefore knew me, to set up a blind date. Ralph fell in love with the writer in me. Up to that point, boys had pretty much dated me in spite of that, and when they found it out, the bloom was off the rose. Ralph introduced me to philosophy and, one Christmas, gave me the best present any teenaged girl ever got. It was a large box filled with paperback books and cans of black olives. After that, I’d be reading George Eliot at school and going home to Dostoevsky, Gissing and Mailer. Ralph and I got married after my first year in college. He was determined to be my Maxwell Perkins, and I thought that was fine.
When I graduated from college, I was still married for a little while. Since I had worked while Ralph studied for his oral exams, he offered to support me for a year while I wrote. This is the one and only time in my life that I was free of the need to make a living and could simply write what I wanted to, and I didn’t know what to do with it. I sat at an old typewriter at the dining room table while Ralph was at work and thought, “If I don’t write, I’m a housewife.” This was patently untrue, because I didn’t clean house even then. I did cook and I still do, but that’s because I like to eat. It was simply the most terrible threat I could hold over my own head. And my head, which was innocent of novelistic fodder, was nonetheless smart enough to know an empty threat when it heard one. I may have typed as much as five pages, if you put together all the bits and pieces.
Before the year was out, I had left my marriage and was on my own. I held as firm as ever to my vocation, but I still had no idea where to start. So I began looking for jobs that would support me and give me time to sit in front of the typewriter until something happened. The first thing I tried was modeling. Why? Well, I was working as a cashier at a golf course north of Chicago while Ralph was studying one summer when a man came in surrounded by an entourage. While I was filling out his golf cart rental form, he said, “You ought to be a model.”
When he walked out onto the course, Otto, my sixty-ear-old Prussian partner behind the counter, said, “Do you know who that was?” I didn’t. “Trini Lopez.”
If Trini Lopez thought I could be a model, it was worth a shot.
God, yes. I was that dumb. If you were born after, say 1955, you are probably finding this all very difficult to believe. Or if you were born into a somewhat more worldly family than mine. I got everything I knew about being a writer out of books, and the heroes in the books went to the big city and started writing. I don’t even remember most of them having jobs. The ones who did worked as stevedores. As far as I knew, that was not an option for me.
Neither was modeling, as it turned out. I was five foot six and a half, too short for fashion. I did a few jobs standing next to office machines or sitting on couches, making the furniture look bigger, but mostly I “did rounds.” At studio after studio I was told that, at 125 pounds, I was way too chubby, so I starved myself down to 110. This was very easy to do, since I couldn’t afford food anyway. The only photographers who were willing to do test shots for my portfolio were trying to get me to bed. I was consistently referred to in the third person. “She has something interesting going on here, at the jawline.” “Her butt’s pretty good, but she’s got no waist.” “Have the model wait in the other room and get me a sandwich.”
I lasted six months, I think. Then Ralph offered to get me a job at the university press where he worked, typing invoices. It was the first of many jobs I would thank him for.
At the Press, I was part of the front office crew. One of the other women had a high school diploma and one pretended she had. Both could do the work better than I could, but they were patient with me. The warehouse manager was an older man from Belgium with conservative views about women. I’d never had a lot of patience with that sort of attitude, and this was 1969. The second wave of feminism was cresting. We got into an argument pretty much any time I went into the warehouse with a batch of invoices until the business manager took me aside and explained that Ray had a heart condition. Management was worried that I’d make one too many radical statements about women and his heart would explode. I liked Ray and I didn’t want his heart to explode, but we’d just had a doozy of an argument and going back into the warehouse meant either continuing it or apologizing. I was in a quandary. I solved it by going out on my lunch hour and buying him flowers. Fortunately, his sense of humor kicked in and the situation was saved. We never fought again.
But Ray wasn’t my biggest problem at the Press, at least not with regard to being a writer. The director of the Press, Bob, was an elegant man with an African art collection, a taste for fine food, and a penchant for parties and receptions. He took a shine to me and began inviting me to meet authors and other literati. He would introduce me as “a young woman who works at the Press. She’s a writer.”
I couldn’t stand it. I wasn’t a writer, although I yearned to be. And I was desperately afraid that accepting the label would be not only deceitful but dangerous. If I could “be a writer” without writing, would I simply settle for that? So I insisted upon being called an accounting clerk. (I’d had a promotion, you see, from typing invoices.) Have I mentioned that I was a little prig?
I was still in search of the job that would allow me time to write, if ever I found anything to write about. I decided to open a bookstore.