Friday, August 17, 2007

Part II of A Mid-Atlantic Turning Point in My Writing

(This is the serialized story of a writing crisis/career decision that took place on a crossing on the Queen Elizabeth 2, prior to publication of my novel Sister India. I came out of it with more resolution and courage in my writing. Part I was published last week.)

The ship set sail at midnight; my husband Bob and I joined the other passengers crowded along the deck rails. With the feel of New Year's Eve, we watched the long Manhattan skyline slide past, the lighted towers of the World Trade Center, the Statue of Liberty with torch alight.

...Then to the cabin, which looked exactly as I wanted it to: in the style of the golden era of liners earlier in this century. The walls were wood-paneled; there was a dressing table with a round Art Deco mirror, a spray of blooming orchids. I could settle in, wrap up in one of the QE2 bathrobes we found in the closets and, at some point, take out my stack of manuscript. Pure indulgence: this was being a writer the way it would be if Lauren Bacall were playing the part.

First day: the sky bright, the wind brisk. The swells rolling past were an even blue, whipped at the top into whitecaps. Some young Italian boys were playing deck tennis with a couple of American girls. The ship had the feel of a summer morning in childhood: step out your cabin door and play. People were shopping at the shipboard Harrods, taking the waters in the lower deck spa, sitting before PCs in the computing class, listening to the chamber music quartet. Outside the ship's library, readers had settled into armchairs along a long sunlit corridor that looked out on the water. I walked, tried to see everything.

A lunch of cold lobster and fresh pineapple, followed by creme brulee. Bob was downstairs in the weight room working out; I drank a second cup of tea, looked out at the water. The manuscript I've brought is my memoir of a winter I spent in India during an outbreak of Hindu-Muslim rioting and bombing. It's a strange hybrid book: nonfiction, structured like a journal, yet written in scenes like a novel. My agent sent the first eighty pages to several publishers who rejected it, saying: "What is it? Where would you shelve it?..."

I'd thought after I published my first novel Revelation that everything would become easy. It hasn't. Market niches and "big" mass market books are a larger factor in what the major houses publish now. Perhaps more important, my own style of writing has, in fits and starts, gradually changed. After so many years of matching anybody's style, from Cosmopolitan to The New York Times, and doing it almost reflexively, I find I can no longer count on myself to whip out a few pages the way someone else wants it. It's a change that scares me: writing is the way I've always made my living.


billie said...

Peggy, this is GREAT. I love it. I wish I were on the QE2 right now!

Peggy said...

Thanks. I wouldn't mind another crossing myself. It was a wonderfully luxurious experience. I especially liked the 180 degree oceanview armchairs in the corridor outside the library.

Heather (errantdreams) said...

Mmmm, what a lovely, luxurious description. Someday I think it would be fun to take a cruise.

Peggy said...

I highly recommend it. I think I could live on a ship very happily--if all my buddies came along too. And I had a small greenhouse on deck for gardening.