This is another of my really long posts, but if you want you can just skim the famous names in bold and go straight to the big, bold title centered at the bottom. That’s the unpublished memoir of the decade.
It’s an unbelievable story.
In the first part of the twentieth century, the author Paul Bowles changed literature.
I don’t know how many of you have read him, but if you haven’t do.
His short stories could get extremely freaky for his era—he moved to Tangier in the 1930s and in a few of his stories he wrote about the most violent aspects he could find there of Arab culture, all in perfectly stark, unemotional, beautiful prose. His literary prowess was inarguable, and many decades later his first novel, The Sheltering Sky, was made into a Bertolucci movie starring Debra Winger and John Malkovich.
Paul was something of a mentor to William S. Burroughs, Allen Ginsberg, and their friends, who traveled to Tangier to meet him in the 1950s and ’60s. Paul himself was mentored by Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas, who admitted when they met the 18-year-old Paul that they’d pictured him from his correspondence as an elderly shut-in.
As a matter of fact, Paul was credited by Norman Mailer with launching the genre we now consider ‘edgy’ literary fiction (which is not, I hasten to add, the same thing as bad genre horror).
Paul “opened the world of Hip,” Mailer said, “and let in the murder, the drugs, the incest. . .the end of civilization.”
You know what else Paul Bowles did besides invent literature as we know it today?
He traveled everywhere, in an era before world travel became the globe-trotting it is now. He was actually a professional composer and at one time wangled a grant from the Rockefeller Foundation and sponsorship from the US Library of Congress to travel around northern Africa recording tribal music, which was just then being demolished by the advent of radio.
He wrote a travel memoir, Their Heads Are Green and Their Hands Are Blue, an amazing record of parts of rural north Africa and India in the 1950s.
In later decades, Paul switched to translating and writing down the oral storytelling of his Morrocan boyfriends in books like A Hundred Camels in the Courtyard—an extraordinary illumination of the very roots of our human relationship to stories. (He lived into his nineties and died not too many years ago.)
Now, I got onto the subject of Paul last week with my client Scott Warrender (short story writer, novelist, and musical theater composer and lyricist, e.g. his co-authored Annie Award nomination Lion King II: Pride of Simba, “My Lullaby”). Scott had asked me to recommend some excellent fiction, so I’d recommended Paul’s novel of Morocco, The Spider’s House.
Scott just wrote to me Friday morning to say, “By the way, I’m almost done with The Spider’s House, and I’m loving it.”
Okay, well—as it happens, I actually interviewed Paul’s primary biographer, Millicent Dillon, a few years ago.
We originally planned a two-part interview: the first part on Paul’s wife Jane Bowles, an equally-brilliant but very different writer, and the second part on Paul. (We even did the interview on Paul—and let me tell you, it was fascinating—however, it turned out later that my tape-recorder didn’t record it. We still intend to do that one over eventually.)
Jane’s one novel, Two Serious Ladies, had at the time of our interview recently been re-issued in England, an extraordinary novel that had been out-of-print for decades.
Jane was my favorite author for many years, not only because her literary style was both deeply profound and utterly unique (and I mean unique—I don’t think you could imitate her if you tried). But also because of her incredible personality and life, which I’d read about in Millicent’s biography of her, A Little Original Sin, and Jane’s collected correspondence that Millicent edited, Out in the World.
Jane would have made the most perfect protagonist on earth: she was so perpetually and devastatingly torn between her mutually-exclusive internal needs that she actually wound up poisoned with a love potion by her Moroccan lover and had a stroke at the age of 40, dying in her 50s of the effects of that stroke after sixteen years of completely bizarre behavior.
This is all made much clearer in A Little Original Sin.
But, anyway, that’s drama.
Coincidentally, I was also trading email with Millicent last week. She lives south of San Francisco not far from me. I met her when, after fifteen years of idolizing Jane due to A Little Original Sin, I finally summoned the courage to write Millicent a fan letter. Now we are friends.
Millicent is considered the foremost living authority on Paul and Jane Bowles and gets invited to speak every time someone holds a Paul Bowles festival. She was once his literary executor (for about a year, I think, until he forgot—Paul smoked an awful lot of hashish).
And Millicent herself is one absolutely riveting human being.
She is actually a theoretical physicist and worked at Oak Ridge secret atomic facility when she was 21 in 1947—in the pivotal years right after the atomic bomb was so horribly demonstrated in the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
Millicent and a friend once had a private meeting with Albert Einstein to discuss the opposition to the bomb that was growing among atomic scientists. Her friend says the three of them met for almost an hour and she did most of the talking. She remembers sitting across Einstein’s desk from him and looking into his twinkling eyes and feeling—a very young woman speaking to this impossibly brilliant and famous man—stunned into vision, a sense of the spiritual. . .the luminous.
Years later, when she became a fiction author, Millicent won five (five!) O. Henry Awards and was nominated for the PEN/Faulkner for her novel on the American atomic spy, Harry Gold.
Truly—a woman of staggering intelligence.
She’s also one of the most gracious people I have ever met in my life. When we had lunch together to discuss Paul and Jane Bowles, she spent part of the time questioning me with sincere curiosity about the blogosphere, especially Twitter.
“What is it?” she wanted to know. “What do you do on it? And what do you call that, what you do?”
“This is quite embarrassing,” I said. “They’re called ‘tweets.’”
Imagine saying that with a straight face to a scientist who’s spent an hour in private conference with Albert Einstein.
And when I brought her a copy of my brand-new first book on writing, The Art & Craft of Fiction, she not only read it, she gave me a glowing blurb for it.
A PEN/Faulkner nominee, you guys. A five-time O. Henry Award-winner.
Then about a year ago, Millicent finished her memoir, which her agent is right now shopping around. The Believer Magazine published an excerpt from it called, “In the Atomic City,” which is of course fascinating. My husband and I were both completely bowled over.
So the other night over dinner, my husband—who is quite visible in the open-source computer industry—mentioned that encouraging women in Science, Technology, Electronics, and Mathematics (STEM) is a huge thing these days, and he couldn’t wait to read Millicent’s full memoir. He said he knows a number of top women in his industry who would love it, and he wondered if her agent was getting any traction.
So I wrote to her to ask. And she sent it to me.
Millicent Dillon sent me her unpublished memoir.
Now I can hardly bear to do anything but read it. It’s so wonderful—the meeting of theoretical physics and storytelling in the mind of a woman who’s made history in literature.
Please, everybody—run to any publishers you know and tell them about it. Her agent is at Harold Ober Associates.
THE ABSOLUTE ELSEWHERE
This book must be published.
MILLLICENT G. DILLON, the world's expert on authors Jane and Paul Bowles, has won five O. Henry Awards and been nominated for the PEN/Faulkner. I worked with Dillon on her memoir, The Absolute Elsewhere, in which she describes in luminous prose her private meeting with Albert Einstein to discuss the ethics of the atomic bomb.
BHAICHAND PATEL, retired after an illustrious career with the United Nations, is now a journalist based out of New Dehli and Bombay, an expert on Bollywood, and author of three non-fiction books published by Penguin. I edited Patel’s debut novel, Mothers, Lovers, and Other Strangers.
LUCIA ORTH is the author of the debut novel, Baby Jesus Pawn Shop, which received critical acclaim from Publisher’s Weekly, NPR, Booklist, Library Journal and Small Press Reviews. I have edited a number of essays and articles for Orth.
SCOTT WARRENDER is a professional musician and Annie Award-nominated lyricist specializing in musical theater. I work with Scott regularly on his short stories and debut novel, Putaway.
STUART WAKEFIELD is the #1 Kindle Best Selling author of Body of Water, the first novel in his Orcadian Trilogy. Body of Water was 1 of 10 books long-listed for the Polari First Book Prize. I edited his second novel, Memory of Water and look forward to editing the final novel of his Orcadian Trilogy, Spirit of Water.
ANIA VESENNY is a recipient of the Evelyn Sullivan Gilbertson Award for Emerging Artist in Literature and has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize. I edited Vesenny's debut novel, Swearing in Russian at the Northern Lights.
TERISA GREEN is widely considered the foremost American authority on tattooing through her tattoo books published by Simon & Schuster, which have sold over 45,000 copies. Under the name M. TERRY GREEN, she writes her techno-shaman sci-fi/fantasy series. I am working with her to develop a new speculative fiction series.
CHRIS RYAN drew acclaim from the New Yorker for the hook to his novel Heliophobia. He is the author of poetry collection The Bible of Animal Feet from Farfalla Press. I edited Ryan’s debut novel The Ishmael Blade and worked with him to develop Heliophobia and his WIP Pogue.
JUDY LEE DUNN is an award-winning marketing blogger. I am working with her to develop and edit her memoir of reconciling her liberal activism with her emotional difficulty accepting the lesbianism of her beloved daughter, Tonight Show comedienne Kellye Rowland.
In addition, I work with dozens of aspiring writers in their apprenticeship to this literary art and craft.