I never suffered from writer's block during the ten years of my marriage, and did not suffer it immediately after Johanna's death. I was in fact so unfamiliar with the condition that it had pretty well set in before I knew anything out of the ordinary was going on. I think this was because in my heart I believed that such conditions only affected 'literary'' types of the sort who are discussed, deconstructed, and sometimes dismissed in the New York Review of Books.
My writing career and my marriage covered almost exactly the same span. I finished the first draft of my first novel, Being Two, not long after Jo and I became officially engaged (I popped an opal ring on the third finger of her left hand, a hundred and ten bucks at Day's Jewellers, and quite a bit more than I could afford at the time . . . but Johanna seemed utterly thrilled with it), and I finished my last novel, All the Way from the Top, about a month after she was declared dead. This was the one about the psychotic killer with the love of high places. It was published in the fall of 1995. I have published other novels since then ¡ª a paradox I can explain ¡ª but I don't think there'll be a Michael Noonan novel on any list in the foreseeable future. I know what writer's block is now, all right. I know more about it than I ever wanted to.
When I hesitantly showed Jo the first draft of Being Two, she read it in one evening, curled up in her favorite chair, wearing nothing but panties and a tee-shirt with the Maine black bear on the front, drinking glass after glass of iced tea. I went out to the garage (we were renting a house in Bangor with another couple on as shaky financial ground as we were. . and no, Jo and I weren't quite married at that point, although as far as I know, that opal ring never left her finger) and puttered aimlessly, feeling like a guy in a New Yorker cartoon one of those about funny fellows in the delivery waiting room. As I remember, I fucked up a so-simple-a-child-can-do-it birdhouse kit and almost cut off the index finger of my left hand. Every twenty minutes or so I'd go back inside and peek at Jo. If she noticed, she gave no sign. I took that as hopeful.
I was sitting on the back stoop, looking up at the stars and smoking, when she came out, sat down beside me, and put her hand on the back of my neck.
'Well?' I said.
'It's good,' she said. 'Now why don't you come inside and do me?' And before I could answer, the panties she had been wearing dropped in my lap in a little whisper of nylon.
Afterward, lying in bed and eating oranges (a vice we later outgrew), I asked her: 'Good as in publishable?'
'Well,' she said, 'I don't know anything about the glamorous world of publishing, but I've been reading for pleasure all my life ¡ª Curious George was my first love, if you want to know ¡ª '
'I don't.' She leaned over and popped an orange segment into my mouth, her breast warm and provocative against my arm. ' ¡ª and I read this with great pleasure. My prediction is that your career as a reporter for the Derry News is never going to survive its rookie stage. I think I'm going to be a novelist's wife.'
Her words thrilled me ¡ª actually brought goosebumps out on my arms. No, she didn't know anything about the glamorous world of publishing, but if she believed, I believed . . . and belief turned out to be the right course. I got an agent through my old creative-writing teacher (who read my novel and damned it with faint praise, seeing its commercial qualities as a kind of heresy, I think), and the agent sold Being Two to Random House, the first publisher to see it.
Jo was right about my career as a reporter, as well. I spent four months covering flower shows, drag races, and bean suppers at about a hundred a week before my first check from Random House came in ¡ª $27,000, after the agent's commission had been deducted. I wasn't in the newsroom long enough to get even that first minor bump in salary, but they had a going-away party for me just the same. At Jack's Pub, this was, now that I think of it. There was a banner hung over the tables in the back room which said GOOD LUCK MIKE ¡ª WRITE ON! Later, when we got home, Johanna said that if envy was acid, there would have been nothing left of me but my belt-buckle and three teeth.
Later, in bed with the lights out ¡ª the last orange eaten and the last cigarette shared ¡ª I said, 'No one's ever going to confuse it with Look Homeward, Angel, are they?' My book, I meant. She knew it, just as she knew I had been fairly depressed by my old creative-writing teacher's response to Two.
'You aren't going to pull a lot of frustrated-artist crap on me, are you?' she asked, getting up on one elbow. 'If you are, I wish you'd tell me now, so I can pick up one of those do-it-yourself divorce kits first thing in the morning.'
I was amused, but also a little hurt. 'Did you see that first press release from Random House?' I knew she had. 'They're just about calling me V. C. Andrews with a prick, for God's sake.'
'Well,' she said, lightly grabbing the object in question, 'you do have a prick. As far as what they're calling you . . . Mike, when I was in third grade, Patty Banning used to call me a booger-hooker. But I wasn't.'
'Perception is everything.'
'Bullshit.' She was still holding my dick and now gave it a formidable squeeze that hurt a little and felt absolutely wonderful at the same time. That crazy old trouser mouse never really cared what it got in those days, as long as there was a lot of it. 'Happiness is everything. Are you happy when you write, Mike?'
'Sure.' It was what she knew, anyway.
'And does your conscience bother you when you write?'
'When I write, there's nothing I'd rather do except this,' I said, and rolled on top of her.
'Oh dear,' she said in that prissy little voice that always cracked me up. 'There's a penis between us.'
And as we made love, I realized a wonderful thing or two: that she had meant it when she said she really liked my book (hell, I'd known she liked it just from the way she sat in the wing chair reading it, with a lock of hair falling over her brow and her bare legs tucked beneath her), and that I didn't need to be ashamed of what I had written . . . not in her eyes, at least. And one other wonderful thing: her perception, joined with my own to make the true binocular vision nothing but marriage allows, was the only perception that mattered.
Thank God she was a Maugham fan.
I was V. C. Andrews with a prick for ten years . . . fourteen, if you add in the post-Johanna years. The first five were with Random; then my agent got a huge offer from Putnam and I jumped.
You've seen my name on a lot of bestseller lists . . . if, that is, your Sunday paper carries a list that goes up to fifteen instead of just listing the top ten. I was never a Clancy, Ludlum, or Grisham, but I moved a fair number of hardcovers (V. C. Andrews never did, Harold Oblowski, my agent, told me once; the lady was pretty much a paperback phenomenon) and once got as high as number five on the Times list . . . that was with my second book, The Red-Shirt Man. Ironically, one of the books that kept me from going higher was Steel Machine, by Thad Beaumont (writing as George Stark). The Beaumonts had a summer place in Castle Rock back in those days, not even fifty miles south of our place on Dark Score Lake. Thad's dead now. Suicide. I don't know if it had anything to do with writer's block or not.
I stood just outside the magic circle of the mega-bestsellers, but I never minded that. We owned two homes by the time I was thirty-one: the lovely old Edwardian in Derry and, in western Maine, a lakeside log home almost big enough to be called a lodge ¡ª that was Sara Laughs, so called by the locals for nearly a century. And we owned both places free and clear at a time of life when many couples consider themselves lucky just to have fought their way to mortgage approval on a starter home. We were healthy, faithful, and with our fun-bones still fully attached. I wasn't Thomas Wolfe (not even Tom Wolfe or Tobias Wolff), but I was being paid to do what I loved, and there's no gig on earth better than that; it's like a license to steal.
I was what midlist fiction used to be in the forties: critically ignored, genre-oriented (in my case the genre was Lovely Young Woman on Her Own Meets Fascinating Stranger), but well compensated and with the kind of shabby acceptance accorded to state-sanctioned whorehouses in Nevada, the feeling seeming to be that some outlet for the baser instincts should be provided and someone had to do That Sort of Thing. I did That Sort of Thing enthusiastically (and sometimes with Jo's enthusiastic connivance, if I came to a particularly problematic plot crossroads), and at some point around the time of George Bush's election, our accountant told us we were millionaires.
We weren't rich enough to own a jet (Grisham) or a pro football team (Clancy), but by the standards of Derry, Maine, we were quite rolling in it. We made love thousands of times, saw thousands of movies, read thousands of books (Jo storing hers under her side of the bed at the end of the day, more often than not). And perhaps the greatest blessing was that we never knew how short the time was.
More than once I wondered if breaking the ritual is what led to the writer's block. In the daytime, I could dismiss this as supernatural twaddle but at night that was harder to do. At night your thoughts have an unpleasant way of slipping their collars and running free. And if you've spent most of your adult life making fictions, I'm sure those collars are even looser and the dogs less eager to wear them. Was it Shaw or Oscar Wilde who said a writer was a man who had taught his mind to misbehave?
And is it really so far-fetched to think that breaking the ritual might have played a part in my sudden and unexpected (unexpected by me, at least) silence? When you make your daily bread in the land of make-believe, the line between what is and what seems to be is much finer. Painters sometimes refuse to paint without wearing a certain hat, and baseball players who are hitting well won't change their socks.
The ritual started with the second book, which was the only one I remember being nervous about ¡ª I suppose I'd absorbed a fair amount of that sophomore-jinx stuff; the idea that one hit might only be a fluke. I remember an American Lit lecturer's once saying that of modern American writers, only Harper Lee had found a foolproof way of avoiding the second-book blues.
When I reached the end of The Red-Shirt Man, I stopped just short of finishing. The Edwardian on Benton Street in Derry was still two years in the future at that point, but we had purchased Sara Laughs, the place on Dark Score (not anywhere near as furnished as it later became, and Jo's studio not yet built, but nice), and that's where we were.
I pushed back from my typewriter ¡ª I was still clinging to my old IBM Selectric in those days ¡ª and went into the kitchen. It was mid-September, most of the summer people were gone, and the crying of the loons on the lake sounded inexpressibly lovely. The sun was going down, and the lake itself had become a still and heatless plate of fire. This is one of the most vivid memories I have, so clear I sometimes feel I could step right into it and live it all again. What things, if any, would I do differently? I sometimes wonder about that.
Early that evening I had put a bottle of Taittinger and two flutes in the fridge. Now I took them out, put them on a tin tray that was usually employed to transport pitchers of iced tea or Kool-Aid from the kitchen to the deck, and carried it before me into the living room.
Johanna was deep in her ratty old easy chair, reading a book (not Maugham that night but William Denbrough, one of her contemporary favorites). 'Ooo,' she said, looking up and marking her place. 'Champagne, what's the occasion?' As if, you understand, she didn't know.
'I'm done,' I said. 'Mon livre est tout fini.'
'Well,' she said, smiling and taking one of the flutes as I bent down to her with the tray, 'then that's all right, isn't it?'
I realize now that the essence of the ritual ¡ª the part that was alive and powerful, like the one true magic word in a mouthful of gibberish ¡ª was that phrase. We almost always had champagne, and she almost always came into the office with me afterward for the other thing, but not always.
Once, five years or so before she died, she was in Ireland, vacationing with a girlfriend, when I finished a book. I drank the champagne by myself that time, and entered the last line by myself as well (by then I was using a Macintosh which did a billion different things and which I used for only one) and never lost a minute's sleep over it. But I called her at the inn where she and her friend Bryn were staying; I told her I had finished, and listened as she said the words I'd called to hear ¡ª words that slipped into an Irish telephone line, travelled to a microwave transmitter, rose like a prayer to some satellite, and then came back down to my ear: 'Well, then that's all right, isn't it?'
This custom began, as I say, after the second book. When we'd each had a glass of champagne and a refill, I took her into the office, where a single sheet of paper still stuck out of my forest-green Selectric. On the lake, one last loon cried down dark, that call that always sounds to me like something rusty turning slowly in the wind. 'I thought you said you were done,' she said.
'Everything but the last line,' I said. 'The book, such as it is, is dedicated to you, and I want you to put down the last bit.'
She didn't laugh or protest or get gushy, just looked at me to see if I really meant it. I nodded that I did, and she sat in my chair. She had been swimming earlier, and her hair was pulled back and threaded through a white elastic thing. It was wet, and two shades darker red than usual. I touched it. It was like touching damp silk.
'Paragraph indent?' she asked, as seriously as a girl from the steno pool about to take dictation from the big boss.
'No,' I said, 'this continues.' And then I spoke the line I'd been holding in my head ever since I got up to pour the champagne.'"He slipped the chain over her head, and then the two of them walked down the steps to where the car was parked.'''
She typed it, then looked around and up at me expectantly. 'That's it,' I said. 'You can write The End, I guess.'
Jo hit the RETURN button twice, centered the carriage, and typed The End under the last line of prose, the IBM's Courier type ball (my favorite) spinning out the letters in their obedient dance.
'What's the chain he slips over her head?' she asked me.
'You'll have to read the book to find out.'
With her sitting in my desk chair and me standing beside her, she was in perfect position to put her face where she did. When she spoke, her lips moved against the most sensitive part of me. There were a pair of cotton shorts between us and that was all.
'Ve haff vays off making you talk,' she said.
'I'll just bet you do,' I said.
I at least made a stab at the ritual on the day I finished All the Way from the Top. It felt hollow, form from which the magical substance had departed, but I'd expected that. I didn't do it out of superstition but out of respect and love. A kind of memorial, if you will. Or, if you will, Johanna's real funeral service, finally taking place a month after she was in the ground.
It was the last third of September, and still hot ¡ª the hottest late summer I can remember. All during that final sad push on the book, I kept thinking how much I missed her . . . but that never slowed me down. And here's something else: hot as it was in Derry, so hot I usually worked in nothing but a pair of boxer shorts, I never once thought of going to our place at the lake. It was as if my memory of Sara Laughs had been entirely wiped from my mind. Perhaps that was because by the time I finished Top, that truth was finally sinking in.
She wasn't just in Ireland this time. My office at the lake is tiny, but has a view. The office in Derry is long, book-lined, and windowless. On this particular evening, the overhead fans ¡ª there are three of them ¡ª were on and paddling at the soupy air. I came in dressed in shorts, a tee-shirt, and rubber thong sandals, carrying a tin Coke tray with the bottle of champagne and the two chilled glasses on it. At the far end of that railroad-car room, under an eave so steep I'd had to almost crouch so as not to bang my head when I got up (over the years I'd also had to withstand Jo's protests that I'd picked the absolute worst place in the room for a workstation), the screen of my Macintosh glowed with words.
I thought I was probably inviting another storm of grief ¡ª -maybe the worst storm ¡ª but I went ahead anyway . . . and our emotions always surprise us, don't they? There was no weeping and wailing that night; I guess all that was out of my system. Instead there was a deep and wretched sense of loss ¡ª the empty chair where she used to like to sit and read, the empty table where she would always set her glass too close to the edge.
I poured a glass of champagne, let the foam settle, then picked it up. 'I'm done, Jo,' I said as I sat there beneath the paddling fans. 'So that's all right, isn't it?'
There was no response. In light of all that came later, I think that's worth repeating ¡ª there was no response. I didn't sense, as I later did, that I was not alone in a room which appeared empty.
I drank the champagne, put the glass back on the Coke tray, then filled the other one. I took it over to the Mac and sat down where Johanna would have been sitting, if not for everyone's favorite loving God. No weeping and wailing, but my eyes prickled with tears. The words on the screen were these:
today wasn't so bad, she supposed. She crossed the grass to her car, and laughed when she saw the white square of paper under the windshield. Cam Delancey, who refused to be discouraged, or to take no for an answer, had invited her to another of his Thursday-night wine-tasting parties. She took the paper, started to tear it up, then changed her mind and stuck it in the hip pocket of her jeans, instead.
'No paragraph indent,' I said, 'this continues.' Then I keyboarded the line I'd been holding in my head ever since I got up to get the champagne.
There was a whole world out there; Cam Delancey's wine-tasting was as good a place to start as any.
I stopped, looking at the little flashing cursor. The tears were still prickling at the corners of my eyes, but I repeat that there were no cold drafts around my ankles, no spectral fingers at the nape of my neck. I hit RETURN twice. I clicked on CENTER. I typed The End below the last line of prose, and then I toasted the screen with what should have been Jo's glass of champagne.
'Here's to you, babe,' I said. 'I wish you were here. I miss you like hell.' My voice wavered a little on that last word, but didn't break. I drank the Taittinger, saved my final line of copy, transferred the whole works to floppy disks, then backed them up. And except for notes, grocery lists, and checks, that was the last writing I did for four years.