The most common form of diversion is reading. In that vast and varied field millions find their mental comfort.”
— Winston Churchill (Thoughts and Adventures, 1932)
As a younger man, I lived by an unbreakable rule: always finish a book. Even if a tome was mind-numbingly dull, I stuck with it to the bitter end. To give up on a book was to be a quitter. I am no longer that sadomasochistic youth. Now, fully ensconced in middle age, I am a curmudgeon where books are concerned. With the pressures put upon me by work, family, and the simple struggle to stay sane, I am very particular about my hardcover-and-paperback companions (I’m a traditionalist when it comes to books). If a story hasn’t grabbed my interest by page 100, I toss it on the heap destined for the used bookstore. Time is a finite thing, and there are too many books on my to-read list that I hope to tackle while I’m still on the right side of the grass.
My bookshelves are lined with many volumes I have yet to read. Some are titles I received for past birthdays and Christmases; others, I purchased myself but just haven’t got around to cracking the spines. Their day will eventually come—and, if they don’t make the grade, into the discard pile they go. In the meantime, there is something to be said for a crowded bookshelf. I enjoy being surrounded by books. They make for excellent company. Here’s an excerpt from an essay by Winston Churchill I’ve always enjoyed on the subject:
“What shall I do with all my books?” was the question; and the answer, “Read them,” sobered the questioner. But if you cannot read them, at any rate handle them and, as it were, fondle them. Peer into them. Let them fall open where they will. Read on from the first sentence that arrests the eye. Then turn to another. Make a voyage of discovery, taking soundings of unchartered seas. Set them back on their shelves with your own hands. Arrange them on your own plan, so that if you do not know what is in them, you at least know where they are. If they cannot be your friends, let them at any rate be your acquaintances. If they cannot enter the circle of your life, do not deny them at least a nod of recognition.
How’s that for some good advice?
The Paris Review once interviewed Hunter S. Thompson and asked him, among other things, about writing under the influence of drugs and alcohol. Here’s the relevant exchange:
Paris Review: Almost without exception writers we’ve interviewed over the years admit they cannot write under the influence of booze or drugs—or at the least what they’ve done has to be rewritten in the cool of the day. What’s your comment about this?
Thompson: They lie. Or maybe you’ve been interviewing a very narrow spectrum of writers. It’s like saying, “Almost without exception women we’ve interviewed over the years swear that they never indulge in sodomy”—without saying that you did all your interviews in a nunnery. Did you interview Coleridge? Did you interview Poe? Or Scott Fitzgerald? Or Mark Twain? Or Fred Exley? Did Faulkner tell you that what he was drinking all the time was really iced tea, not whiskey? Please. Who the fuck do you think wrote the Book of Revelation? A bunch of stone-sober clerics?
Writers love their drinks. I don’t think that’s a stereotype.
“You’re a rummy, but no more than most good writers are.” So wrote Hemingway—a man who knew a thing or two about drinking—in a letter to F. Scott Fitzgerald. Writing and alcohol have long been companions. Indeed, numerous bars around the world continue to benefit from the patronage of their famous—though, now deceased—customers. There are more than a handful of watering holes who boast Hemingway as a one-time patron. The writer was a frequent visitor to Harry’s Bar in Venice, where he had his own table in the corner. He laid numerous daïquiris to waste at El Floridita in Havana and enjoyed drinking scotch at Sloppy Joe’s in Key West.
Dylan Thomas gulped his last drink at Manhattan’s White Horse Tavern. Thompson enjoyed frequent libations at the Woody Creek Tavern in Colorado. Ian Fleming drank a bottle of gin a day. This, coupled with his daily habit of smoking seventy cigarettes, contributed to his early demise at the age of fifty-six. His favorite pub was the Duck Inn in Pett Bottom near Canterbury. His favorite chair in the back is dully marked. C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkein, while not heavyweight drinkers like the aforementioned scribes, met Tuesday mornings as part of a group called “The Inklings” at the Eagle and Child pub in Oxford. A plaque above their table marks the meeting spot. Jack Kerouac paid regular visits to Vesuvio across the street from City Lights in San Francisco.
Tourism spots aside, many great scribblers have embraced alcohol—often to their own detriment. But I’ve always wanted to know why? Perhaps it has something to do with availability and opportunity. If you’re wandering around your house all day, trying to come up with something to jot down on paper, it’s pretty easy to grab a scotch from the wet bar or beer from the fridge. Perhaps it’s a distraction from the solitary nature of writing itself. Authors, by their trade, are loners, and a drink can be good company. A 2008 Los Angeles Times article I found on this subject matter states:
“Intoxication, if not the source of literary creation, creates a cerebral aura congenial to it. It recasts the glare of life in a softer hue. It soothes anxiety and other stultifiers of reflection. It warms the mind and thaws thoughts frozen in timidity. The fruit of the vine does not give us insight but aids our discovery of it; it can allow you to eavesdrop on yourself.”
Writing, as all who do it know, is hard work. It’s mentally taxing at times and can wear you down. I might sit with a glass of scotch or wine beside me as I write, but I would never tackle a page while feeling intoxicated—or even slightly buzzed. Yes, alcohol takes the edge off, but I want my mind to be as sharp and focused as possible when I work. That said, I do enjoy drinking and toasting a good day’s writing.
Of course, none of this answers the question as to why so many authors are full-blown alcoholics. Consider this fact from a 2011 article in Slate: “According to one study, 71 percent of prominent 20th-century American writers at least flirted with alcoholism. (Only 8 percent of the general population abuses alcohol.)”
Ian Fleming was born on this date in 1908. Many dismiss Fleming as a mere pulp writer, but I disagree with this assessment. He was a master stylist and a damn fine thriller writer. His opening to Casino Royale is a personal favorite:
The scent and smoke and sweat of a casino are nauseating at three in the morning. Then the soul-erosion produced by high-gambling – a compost of greed and fear and nervous tension – becomes unbearable and the senses awake and revolt from it. James Bond suddenly knew that he was tired. He always knew when his body or his mind had had enough and he always acted on the knowledge. This helped him to avoid staleness and the sensual bluntness that breeds mistakes.
In honor of Fleming’s birthday, I thought I’d share the above video. It’s from an interview he gave at his Jamaican hideaway, Goldeneye, where he wrote all the Bond novels. It’s a wonderful little snippet in which he explains how he named his iconic character.
Fleming died in 1964, a victim of his fun–but excessive–lifestyle.
And in other Bond news, click here for details on the new 007 novel coming out this September. Set in 1957, two weeks after the events detailed in Goldfinger, it will actually feature original, never-before-published content by Fleming. Can’t wait!
Writer’s Envy is a condition in which you stumble across a sentence or paragraph in another author’s work and scream in frustration for not having written it yourself. I am prone to regular fits of Writer’s Envy. The only cure, as far as I can tell, is to stop reading—but seeing as that’s not possible, I have decided to give voice to my suffering.
In recent months, the work of one particular author has sent me into several fits of jealousy. If you’re not familiar with the late James Crumley, please do yourself a favor and purchase several of his books right now. He wrote hardboiled detective novels set in the Pacific Northwest. One critic described him as the literary love child of Raymond Chandler and Hunter S. Thompson. That’s pretty much spot-on.
Crumley’s stories are imbued with Thompson’s drug-fueled, Gonzo madness and Chandler’s hard-edged style. Like Chandler, his plots don’t always make perfect sense, but that hardly matters. It’s Crumley’s characters and writing that’ll keep you coming back for more. In the passage below, from Crumley’s The Wrong Case, private eye Milo Milodragovitch—searching for a client’s missing brother—has just followed up a lead in a slum bar and is now standing in the rain-slicked parking lot after sunset:
A car full of drunks hissed over the Ripley Avenue bridge and down the ramp above us, fleeing through the night down black and wet streets, heading home or to another gaily lighted bar rife with music and dancing and sweaty women with bright eyes and lips like faded rose petals. As the driver down-shifted, the exhaust belched, the tires snickered across the slick pavement, a girl’s shrill laughter flew out, abandoned like a beer can in the skid. The colored lights from the discreet Riverfront sign reflected off the dark asphalt, wavering as the wind sifted the rain, glowing like the lights beneath a black sea.
Awesome, isn’t it? There’s nothing contrived here. There’s no sense Crumley is writing to impress. It’s just a beautiful piece of writing that evokes a great sense of atmosphere. Another passage I love is from Crumley’s last book, The Final Country, in which Milodragovitch is attempting to clear his name in a murder case. Here is how he describes one of the femme fatales he encounters:
Her fine features, framed by coal black hair, seemed chiseled from an ancient marble as pink and bloody as the froth from a sucking chest wound. As she walked out the door, her hips swayed like willows in the wind and her bare white shoulders gleamed like a hot flame in the smoky shadows.
Again, it’s just a wonderful piece of writing that captures the essence of a character without resorting to cliché. It brings to mind dingy bars and seductive glances. But of all the things Crumley wrote, his opening to his masterpiece The Last Good Kiss is considered by many to be the best first paragraph in crime fiction:
When I finally caught up with Abraham Trahearne, he was drinking beer with an alcoholic bulldog named Fireball Roberts in a ramshackle joint just outside Sonoma, California, drinking the heart right out of a fine spring afternoon.
Crumley sadly passed away in 2008, but he left behind a legacy of phenomenal writing and stellar stories.
It’s received a nice publicity blurb from Martin Dugard, author of the excellent Into Africa: The Epic Adventures of Stanley and Livingstone, and co-author of the Killing . . . books with Bill O’Reilly. Several other authors I admire have also said they’d be willing to take a look at the manuscript, so we’ll see what happens. The book is currently with a proofreader at Da Capo.
Plans right now call for the book to have four maps, one for each campaign Churchill covered as a war correspondent. I’m also pleased with the pictures I’ve managed to scrounge up from various archives. Hopefully, the book will be a treat for not only Churchill fans, but anyone who loves a great adventure story.
More details to come . . .