<back to index
| previous letter | next letter
July 2010 Message from Dan
"The Fifth Heart"
Dear Readers, Friends, and Other Visitors:
Well, the year 2010 has lurched past its temporary, ballerina-on-point's balance of the summer solstice, roared through its fiery July of Independence Day celebrations (in pouring rain and heavy hail here in Colorado but the cities fired off their fireworks anyway, without any viewers, rather than pay to delay to the following night), sorted out the All Star Game -- that wonderfully symbolic and sobering dividing line that ends the parents-with-a- mediocre-adolescent period of looking for glorious potential (even where little or none is to be found) and begins the grown-up, real-life, daily and nightly war of attrition against heat, exhaustion, injury, bad luck, and the casino-winning universal law of averages that levels all streaks and slumps as flat as a centenarian's molars or ancient mountain ranges -- and is preparing to slouch into the real summer doldrums while shuffling sweatily forward to the dog days of August and beyond.
So what are we all up to this fine summer?
I can't speak for thee, but having fulfilled my last contracted book with my current publisher with their acceptance of the ms for FLASHBACK in May, I'm technically on an unprecedented medical hiatus -- taking care of some health-related things that I should have paused to deal with several years ago.
No one wants to hear about other people's medical issues and I won't assault you with talk of mine. But one exchange with a doctor a few weeks ago is relevant to my writing and what and when you'll read books of mine again (assuming, arrogantly, that you want to read books by me.)
Doctor: I'm not saying that these chronic conditions are caused by stress, but there's no doubt that stress exacerbates them. You're a writer, I know. When was the last time that you weren't under a daily writing deadline every day of the year?
Me: Um . . . well, four or five years ago I wrote a novel call THE TERROR on spec but . . . actually . . . since I'd left my previous publisher because they weren't interested in the idea of THE TERROR and had bought back the last book I owed them, I researched and wrote it in the same ten months or so that I do all books that are on the one-year deadline. So the last time I wasn't under a daily deadline all year was . . . mmm . . . I guess . . . early summer of 1986."
One of the medic's eyebrows rose in a very Spock-like manner.
So I'm technically in a brief hiatus before signing the next multiple-book contract with my current publisher -- assuming that my current publisher continues to want such a new contract -- and I fully plan to be renewed in health, energy, and some freedom from pain by the time I happily go back under the hovering deadline blade.
But this doesn't mean that I'm not working. Currently I'm responding to my editor's many (but not major) revision suggestions for FLASHBACK. Then I go through the electronically edited ms to respond to line-editing comments and queries from the editor. (Both these projects take a while.) And only then will begin the two- or three-round serious word-by-word, comma-by-comma copy editing and final proofreading rounds with the physical ms . . . something that will go on for the remaining weeks of summer and into autumn. (Thus the reason for my "one-year" contractual deadlines for writing the next book always actually amounting to 9 or 10 months . . . with luck.)
But perhaps by September this final work on FLASHBACK will be completed and I'll technically be on that brief medical hiatus from writing deadline, free to see the specialists I need to see and to follow the procedures and regimens they recommend.
But what will I do when not taking care of overdue medical demands?
Why, write a novel on spec, of course. It's what I do.
But which book? And how, exactly, does any novelist decide on a topic, make the final decision to devote at least a year of his or her life to that particular idea, and then make all of the dozens and scores of decisions necessary even before the first sentence of the first page of such a new novel can be written?
How does one viable idea for any book coalesce out of the hovering, buzzing, vibrating Oort cloud of tens of thousands of ideas available to a novelist?
The Five of Hearts:
In December of 1880, Henry Adams and his wife Clover moved into a rented house at 1607 H Street on Lafayette Square in Washington, D.C.. That was also the year they became lifelong friends with two men who had previously been mere acquaintances -- assistant secretary of state John Hay and the hazel-eyed bachelor, explorer, surveyor, mining expert, and general man-of-action in the West, Clarence King. The two, along with Hay's wife Clara, became constant callers at the Adamses small but wonderfully select 1607 H Street salon.
In the words of one biographer, the five "delighted in their delight of one another" and began calling their little daily tea-time group "the Five of Hearts."
Why the Five of Hearts? Well, all of the five were aware that Henry Wadsworth Longfellow had belonged to a similar select group of friends known as "the Five of Clubs." And a series of Western adventures (and one diamond-mine scandal that he'd uncovered, saving some of America's richest investor-robber barons millions) had already earned Clarence King the title of "the King of the Diamonds." So these five were as delighted with their new secret name of the Five of Hearts as they were with each other.
Clarence King, who was in Washington as head of the U.S. Geological Survey at the time, would wrap up all afternoon business so he could be in front of the Adamses' hearth precisely at five p.m. each day when the historian Henry Adams -- grandson of one president and great-grandson of another -- would emerge from his study. John Hay would leave the state department at four-thirty and make his five-minute walk north across Lafayette Park to arrive at the white-porticoed Adams house, known for years to all Washingtonians as "the little White House." Hay's wife Clara was usually there early and ready to greet him. The only visible common element to the Five of Hearts was their age: everyone was close to forty years old except for Clara, who was thirty-one.
Clarence King had a tea-set -- cups, pot, tray -- made up showing the five of hearts card with little clocks on each piece, the clocks' hands pointing to five o'clock. Everything except the tray was made in the shape of a heart. One of the Five had expensive Five of Hearts stationery printed and four of the five Hearts would use the stationery for their most personal, witty, (and often tragic) letters to each other for the rest of their lives.
To say that the Five of Hearts meeting on H Street was a select group was an understatement. Clover Adams (her given name was Marion, but she'd been known as "Clover" since she was a young girl) was emotional, given to deep melancholy that ran in her (Hooper) family, but one of the wittiest and most interesting women in the nation. She was a pioneer American woman photographer and had her own darkroom at home. She was also a novelist -- publishing a satirical bestseller under a pseudonym -- and ferociously witty. Special guests and old friends such as editor of the Atlantic Monthly William Dean Howells, author Mark Twain, old friend of the Adamses and John Hay Henry James, Jr., leading American artists such as John La Forge, John Singer Sargent, and Augustus Saint Gaudens, and a very few politicians -- such as young Teddy Roosevelt (known to John Hay and the others as "the Boy") -- might find themselves invited once or twice to the Five of Hearts' tea, but senators, congressmen, and the mere president of the United States were not considered interesting enough to be invited by Clover -- the First Heart -- and her friends.
Although the Adamses' little rented house on H Street and their later mansion (erected next to the John and Clara Hays' mansion on the corner of H Street and Sixteenth Street and designed by the same top architect, Henry Hobson Richardson) looked directly out on the White House, Henry Adams -- raised in a family where national politics was mother's milk -- disdained the daily mucking around of politics and looked down on the events and intrigues in Washington from the Olympian heights of an historian. But -- with John Hay as only one of their scores of insider informants -- those scandals, affairs, intrigues, and political power plays made for wonderful gossip in front of the fire for the Five of Hearts.
Everyone in the group except Clara Hay wrote well and made a game of publishing bestsellers under pseudonyms and then dropping hints that one of the other Hearts had written it. Everyone in the little group (except for Clara Hay) was famously witty and given to punning without mercy. When one of the Adamses' Skye terriers developed an eye problem, Hay immediately pronounced it a case of "cataract" and Clarence King interjected that the diagnosis should be "tom-cataract."
Clover Adams was a dear friend of the expatriate writer Henry James and he was their guest in Washington during his American visit in 1882, but this didn't stop Clover -- a fine writer herself and in some impatience at John Hay's near worship of James's novels -- in analyzing the problem with James's fiction as being "he chaws more than he bites off."
In all this wordplay and wit, Clara Hay -- who filled her days with the domestic life, her four children, and the kind of traditional Washington-society ladies' luncheons that were so anathema to Clover Adams -- smiled and labored to catch up.
Clover and the three men were arbiters of Washington's taste in literature, music, and art, and Henry Adams, John Hay, and Clarence King raced each other to find and purchase the most interesting of what was then considered avant garde art in both Europe and America. King, by far the least wealthy of the Hearts, nonetheless spent a huge portion of his oddly gained income on art. Once, as he reported to John Hay, when King was given the choice between two staggeringly expensive J.M.W. (William) Turner paintings -- near abstracts -- he bought both of them, explaining that "one good Turner deserves another."
Amidst all this artistic excellence and political involvement (John Hay, for instance, had been one of only two personal secretaries to Pres. Abraham Lincoln when he, Hay, had been in his early 20's) it was this enigmatic figure of Clarence King who most impressed the other Hearts. Awed by King's drive and intelligence (as one biographer put it), Henry Adams and John Hay predicted that their friend King could and would have whatever prize he chose. (The arch-bachelor King would just laugh at such predictions and tell the other two men that the only prize he sought -- other than diamond and gold mines all his own -- was a "a lovely lady, much more dusky-skinned and lusty than these pale, emaciated Washington types.")
And thus the lives and creative work of the Five of Hearts continued into the 1880's. Retreating to his study to write his history of the United States -- even as his friend John Hay continued to shape the future history of the United States just across Lafayette Park -- Henry Adams thought their tea-time friendships (as well as the future of the world relying upon America at that time) was -- "like a dream of the golden age."
In 1885, the Adamses and Hays were busy designing and building their adjacent H.H. Richardson "Richardsonian" mansions (where the Hays-Adams Hotel now stands), with both Adams and Hay engaged in constant struggle of wills with the 345-lb. architect (who enjoyed emphasizing his girth by wearing bright yellow waistcoasts).
But there was a darker concern for Henry Adams.
Marion (Clover) Hooper had, along with most of the members of the reknowned Hooper family, a certain strain of madness running in her bloodline. Friends had urged the young Henry Adams not to marry Clover for precisely that reason. Now Clover's father -- with whom she had been incredibly close -- was seriously ill and Henry Adams was concerned enough about the potential of the old man's death triggering a downward spiral of depression in Clover that Adams wrote the novel Esther in which a bright young woman very much like Clover entered into a religious crisis while fighting mental illness and the temptation of suicide after her father's death.
Shortly after fat Grover Cleveland's inauguration in March of 1885, Dr. Hooper -- Clover's father -- had a serious attack of angina pectoris and Clover went to Cambridge to be with him. In the following weeks, Henry Adams visited frequently and sent letters full of cheerful patter about the ongoing construction of their (and the Hays') new house. Privately, Adams was terrified of how Clover would react to the death of her father. On April 13, Dr. Hooper died.
At first, Clover seemed to be dealing well with the loss. Then the summer at their rural retreat of Beverly Farms became one of deeper and deeper melancholy for her. Before long, Clover was overpowered by the same kind of feeling of unreality that her husband's character Esther had experienced in the novel. "Ellen, I'm not real!" Clover often cried to her sister. "Oh, make me real -- all of you are real!"
Clover Adams felt as if she were a fictional character, slowly but painfully fading out of existence.
On Dec. 6, 1885, Henry Adams was heading out to see his dentist when he met a caller -- probably a certain Rebecca Dodge who had been visiting Clover regularly and had been a reliable source of cheer -- and when Henry went back inside to ask Clover if she wanted company, he found his wife lying on the floor of her room in front of the fire. He carried her to a sofa and then ran for a doctor.
It was too late. Clover had swallowed potassium cyanide, a chemical for retouching photographs that she'd had in her home darkroom. She must have died almost instantly.
And so the Five of Hearts died as well that Dec. 6 of 1885.
Finding a Novel:
Thank you for patience in reading that little history of the Five of Hearts -- certainly nothing more than a minor historical footnote now.
Is there a novel there? Possibly, although not for me. Not quite yet. A few more pieces need to be added to the solution before it becomes supersaturated enough (for me) to crystalize itself into a novel one would want to spend a year or more researching and writing.
How did I come to the Five of Hearts and why does it interest me? (And therefore why might it interest readers, if it were part of something larger?)
I'd long had an interest in Henry Adams (at least since reading his fictionalized autobiography, The Education of Henry Adams, in college) and, via my obsessive reading over the decades about Abraham Lincoln, an even deeper interest in John Hay. And I'd noticed how well Gore Vidal had used Hay as a central viewpoint character in his history-based novels Lincoln and Empire. Hay's life spanned two great eras of American history that interest me -- from the Civil War to Theodore Roosevelt's great expansion of America to proto-empire, an expansion for which Secretary of State John Hay was the primary architect -- and he was a fascinating, complex, and contradictory person. Perfect for the kind of history-plus-fictional-situations novel I've pursued for myself in my books The Crook Factory about Ernest Hemingway in 1942, The Terror about the lost Sir John Franklin Expedition of 1845, Drood about the final years of Charles Dickens, and even Black Hills about the American Indian view of the period from 1876 to the 1930's and beyond.
In 1990 I stumbled across the trade paperback of Patricia O'Toole's excellent The Five of Hearts: An Intimate Portrait of Henry Adams and His Friends, 1880-1918 and my resolve to write something about the group increased.
But I also came to the Five of Hearts through another historical figure about whom I've read almost obsessively over the years . . . Henry James.
So if there were to be a novel with the Five of Hearts as a major plot element, I knew that it would have to include Henry James.
Why has this man been so interesting to me? I can't really answer. One reason, of course, has to be that Henry James is a writer's writer . . . not only one of the best (if not the best) American writer we've had, but someone who was only a writer and consummate craftsman at the trade. Henry James, Jr. (he was in his 40's before he could drop the "Junior" in his signatures and get out from under the shadow of his weird and famous father) had no independent wealth -- his father had left the four children revenues from some rental properties in Syracuse, NY, but Henry had turned his share over to his sister, Alice, who was a professional invalid -- and Henry depended solely upon his writing to provide his livelihood, travel money, savings, future, and freedom.
James wrote just about everything -- travel articles, letters from Europe for American newspapers (although he was terrible at that since he could never bring himself to share the truly juicy gossip he had access to -- it would have been impolite to his hosts, hostesses, and the other guests, rude --and was eventually asked to stop by the newspaper), reviews of art and literature and architecture, short stories, long stories, novels, and plays.
Literally to his dying minutes, Henry James was writing (dictating to a non-present stenographer and typist in his delusional dying minutes, his hand also moving to write in the air.) Whether one likes the works of Henry James or not, any fair observer -- but especially any other writer -- has to acknowledge that James dedicated his life to his craft and explained it in a way few other writers in the English language ever have.
So over the years, perhaps at least in part in preparation to write my The Fifth Heart, I've read quite a bit about Henry James, including more than a dozen biographies -- ranging from Leon Edel's formerly definitive five volumes which appeared between 1956 and 1972 to more recent and intrusive works such as Sheldon M. Novick's 1996 Henry James: The Young Master and his 2007 follow-up Henry James: The Mature Master. There are also such less-dependable works as Fred Kaplan's 1992 Henry James: The Imagination of Genius and such recent efforts to cover the entire James family as Paul Fisher's 2008 House of Wits: An Intimate Portrait of the James Family.
(Note -- I say "less dependable" because Kaplan's biographies -- I also read his biography of Charles Dickens and other historical persons I've written about -- tend to be a bit more rushed and loose with factual details than the best biographies. In his biography of Henry James, for instance, he mentions James's friend Henry Adams commissioning the sculptor John Le Farge to create the astounding statue that stands guard at Clover's grave, where in reality, of course, the sculptor was Augustus Saint Gaudens. These small errors -- perhaps made in haste or over-reliance upon secondary sources -- tend to add up.)
It's difficult -- perhaps impossible -- to do justice to the entire, incredibly weird James' family in one volume, so when I branch out from Henry to his siblings, I prefer such books as Robert D. Richardson's 2006 William James: In the Maelstrom of American Modernism or Jean Strouse's Alice James: A Biography, or even the very university-press postmodernist-scholarly The Trial of Curiosity: Henry James, William James, and the Challenge of Modernity by Ross Posnock (© 1991, Oxford University Press.)
And then, of course, there are the actual letters -- thousands upon thousands of letters by Henry James and William James and Alice James, all fanatical (and wonderful) letter-writers. To gather all of these to read -- especially since Henry James was devoted to destroying so many of his more honest letters -- is a serious (and staggeringly expensive) challenge to any real James scholar.
And finally, there are the previous fictional uses of Henry James as a character.
My favorite such use of Henry James in a novel is from a book that I haven't read and whose title I don't know (and don't especially want to know), but whose central conceit -- mentioned to me years ago by my agent -- is so wonderful that I'll never forget it:
Henry James, Jr., is visiting America in 1882 -- the same year he stayed with Henry and Clover Adams -- and is crossing the west by rail when suddenly the train is stopped by bandits. The passengers are lined up outside being relieved of their valuables by the robbers Jesse James, Frank James, and their gang and Henry James, Jr. is nervously fumbling to hand over his gold watch and money when suddenly Jesse James shouts, "Holy shit, boys! It's cousin Hank!" And Henry James ends up riding off with his American cousins for some enjoyable bank-robbing adventures. (No, they weren't cousins and Henry James never went west by train while the James Boys were still alive . . . but what a wonderful idea!)
The fiction that I have paid attention to includes such novels as Author! Author! by David Lodge and shorter fictional usages of James by such writers as Cynthia Ozick and Joyce Carol Oates. Recently during a visit here in Colorado, my literary agent Richard Curtis -- who doesn't want me to write The Fifth Heart on spec -- made the mistake of giving me a gift of Colm Tóibìn's 2004 novel about Henry James, The Master. It was like a red flag to a bull (save your letters, I know bulls are color blind) or the smell of smoke to an old firehouse horse or . . . fill in your simile. Suffice it to say that the novel redoubled my enthusiasm about writing about Henry James and the Five of Hearts.
[Note -- The Master is a beautifully written novel about Henry James's life that lifts entire segments from the biographies of Edel, Kaplan, Novick, and others and gives them the veiled viewpoint of Henry James himself, but as always happens when another writer has read widely or deeply, small errors become visible -- such as James's "memory" of meeting Oscar Wilde at Clover Adams's home in Washington in 1882 when, in truth, Clover said "absolutely not" when her guest Henry James asked if he could invite the scandalous Irishman over to tea. James met Wilde at the Wilde's Washington hotel and when, in a desperate attempt to initiate conversation, James mentioned that he missed London, Wilde haughtily and condescendingly drawled, "Reeeally? You actually care about places?" Wilde, you see, was a citizen of the world. James took the insult at the time, but it made him even more interested when Oscar Wilde's time of fame ended and his end-perioid of infamy began in his trial and imprisonment as a sodomist. And when other writer-friends asked Henry James to sign a petition demanding Wilde be released -- at least from his near-death-sentence of hard labour -- James refused to sign.]
Anyway, that novel and so many of the more recent biographies and essays about Henry James -- not to mention almost all teaching of him today in America's universities -- are obsessed about his dubious but presumed sexuality.
That Henry James fell in love with men (especially young men as James got older and older) is indisputable. Does that make him the most famous of "America's gay writers"? That's doubtful.
Henry James's female characters were often reflections of himself (but so was the 5-year-old Maise in What Maise Knew) but the only time he created a visibly homosexual figure in his millions of pages of fiction, that character was a charlatan and villain, closely resembling the later-Oscar Wilde mode.
More importantly, Henry James spent his life veiling his deepest thoughts and private actions, even from future biographers. So in Colm Tóibìn's The Master, when an older Henry James looks back to remember, in great detail, the night of bum-buggery with the young, naked Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., in that famous bed they shared for one night in the summer of 1865 (Holmes a Civil War veteran, shell-shocked, repeatedly wounded, drinking heavily) we can say that it might have happened -- but other than vaguely worded letters and notes from James some forty years later that something happened to change his outlook on life and himself that amazing summer of 1865, there is no proof.
Besides being a master of fiction, Henry James was a master at personal dissembling.
So this is why I want to have Henry James in my The Fifth Heart. He will be the central viewpoint character as he visits America, Washington, D.C., and the surviving Five of Hearts, but he won't be a first-person narrator in the way I used the historical Wilkie Collins in Drood.
Why not? It's obvious. Another writer told me recently that Colm Tóibìn "wrote in the style of Henry James" in The Master, but that's pure nonsense. No one -- at least since the scathingly funny parodies of James's friend Max Beerbohm -- has written successfully "in the style of Henry James."
And besides -- which style would that be? The relatively simple style of his earliest stories and novels, before he revised them heavily for his American Edition? His transitional style about the time of The Turn of the Screw? Or his final "Late Style" of The Ambassadors and The Wings of the Dove and The Golden Bowl that his brother William -- and millions of high school and college students since -- have found to be all but unreadable and indecipherable?
No, my The Fifth Heart will be from the viewpoint of Henry James -- as deep into his psychology, heart, and mind as an honest writer can get without purely making things up and violating the success of James's brilliant efforts at self-obfuscation -- but it won't be in his language. Except for dialogue, of course, which will offer its own profound challenge. (Perhaps because of an early stutter, James had a unique verbal style, often holding up a finger and saying, "Wait . . . wait . . ." while he formed what he was about to say, and then launching into seeming endless (but rapidly produced) sentences that rivaled his own Late Style in the written word for Germanic complexity and noun-free richness.)
But even with Henry James added to the cast of the Five of Hearts -- or at least the surviving Hearts after Clover's suicide -- there's no novel there yet for me. Playing by my rules of writing such historical thrillers -- i.e. having the actual historical characters where they were on any given day that we know of and doing what they actually did on those days -- will be hard enough with such a large cast of historical characters, but it's not yet difficult enough if The Fifth Heart is to be a conceptual and craftsmanlike quantum leap up as I want it to be from The Crook Factory, The Terror, Drood, Black Hills, and my other history-based fiction such as the Civil War-related novelette "Iverson's Pits."
Now I need one more central character who will act as the seed crystal to my almost super-saturated solution and bring this novel together. And that character is . . .
Here's where many prospective readers and even more agents, editors, and publishers cry that this is definitely jumping the shark. Definitely a bridge too far.
Why introduce a fictional character -- and a sort of iconic, genre-ish fictional character at that -- into this meticulously researched, quite serious historical novel?
Because I want to.
Because it would be fun.
And because it would be the ultimate challenge in this arc of increasingly difficult challenges I've constructed for myself in the collision of carefully researched historical figures meeting my fictional plots and characters in this entire Simmons' sub-sub-genre of historical-plus-possible-fantasy thriller books I've been creating the past years.
And there is the fact that Sherlock Holmes is the only fictional character in the history of imaginative literature who -- the custom has been since the early days of the serialized stories in The Strand magazine -- has been treated by a majority of his readers and almost all of his scholars as a real, historical person. It's a strange custom, but a delightful one. And one that would serve the purposes of The Fifth Heart in ways both obvious and surprisingly complex.
Finally, there is the author's goal -- my goal -- of making this particular novel, as was the case with parts of Drood and The Crook Factory as well as my other history-centered novels, an investigation into the borders of reality itself as well as a psychological exploration of the historical characters.
Including Sherlock Holmes.
The Timeline and Comparisons:
Looking at my hand-scribbled pages . . . .
Henry James, Jr., was born on April 15, 1843, in New York City. William Sherlock Scott Holmes was born in North Riding of Yorkshire on Jan. 6, 1854. Henry James is the "older man" of the two -- a role he preferred playing with others from a surprisingly young age -- but he's only 11 years senior to Sherlock.
In 1859, Henry James, Sr. took his family to Geneva on the first of countless trips back and forth to the Continent, most often in the name of finding "a better education" for the travel-confused children. In 1855, Sherlock's father Siger Holmes, takes the Holmes' family to Montpelier in the first of many such educational trips to the Continent to benefit the eager minds of young Sherinford, Mycroft, and baby Sherlock. Young Holmes didn't return to England until 1860.
Throughout his childhood, teenage years, and adulthood, Henry James, Jr., felt that he was in the shadow of his smarter older brother, William. It was a sense of inferiority that Henry couldn't outgrow until William died only a few years before Henry did. Sherlock Holmes had two older brothers -- Sherinford (born in 1845) and Mycroft (born 1847) -- but while Sherinford was shy and retiring, Sherlock spent most of his life in the shadow of his "smarter" old brother Mycroft's achievements. "At times," Sherlock told Dr. Watson, "Mycroft is the British government."
Both Henry James, Jr., and Sherlock Holmes often felt themselves members of professions that weren't "real" in the sense of their older brothers' professions.
In 1871, 27-yr-old Henry James publishes his first modest novel -- Watch and Ward. In 1872, 18-yr-old Sherlock Holmes is put under the tutelage of the 26-yr-old mathematics prodigy, Dr. James Moriarty. The student hates his tutor and the feeling is returned by the cold and seemingly emotionless author of the classic paper The Dynamics of an Asteroid.
In 1872, Henry James, Jr., is beginning his writing career in earnest without any college education. In October of 1872, Sherlock Holmes enters Christ Church College, Oxford. Two years later, Holmes transfers to Caius College, Cambridge. He later attends medical school, but only to study such odd things as the efficacies of certain poisons and the bruising effects of beating a two-day-dead cadaver.
In 1879, James publishes Daisy Miller to much acclaim in both the United States and England. On Oct. 13, 1879, Sherlock Holmes makes his first appearance as an actor on a London stage, playing Horatio in Hamlet.
In 1881, 38-yr-old James publishes The Portrait of a Lady in Macmillan's magazine and the Atlantic Monthly. After visiting New York and the Adamses in Washington in 1882, James vows "never again to return to New York City" in a fit of disdain over how economic growth (and the infusion of Jewish immigrants) has lowered the quality of life in the city. In January of 1881, 27-yr-old Sherlock Holmes meets 29-yr-old Dr. John Watson and invites him to share the rent on a suite of rooms at 221 B Baker Street.
In 1888, James publishes The Aspern Papers. Depressed by the near total sales and popularity failure of his The Bostonians, James turns his focus to writing for the stage. From Sept. 25 to Oct. 20 of 1888, Holmes is involved in the case of The Hound of the Baskervilles.
In 1891, James's dramatization of his story The American is enough of a hit in provincial cities and then briefly in London that Henry James sees his future totally as a playwright. On May 4, 1891 -- according to Dr. Watson's tale "The Final Problem," placed in the Strand magazine by his literary agent and sometime collaborator Arthur Conan Doyle -- Sherlock Holmes dies along with his newly discovered nemesis, a certain Professor James Moriarty, at Reichenbach Falls in Switzerland.
In 1892, Henry James's strange sister, Alice James, dies in England with Henry by her side. Alice's "lifetime companion," Katherine Loring, takes charge of the funeral arrangements, has Alice cremated, and eventually returns the ashes to the James crypt outside of Boston. For Sherlock Holmes, the period of time between Monday, May 4, 1891 until Thursday, April 5, 1894 -- almost three years, will always be known as THE GREAT HIATUS. When Holmes returns to London and reveals himself to Watson in April of 1894, in what became known as "The Adventure of the Empty House," Sherlock explains of his absence only that the famous Norwegian explorer that Dr. Watson had been reading about in the newspapers, a certain "Sigerson" in Tibet and elsewhere, had in reality been Sherlock Holmes himself.
Despite scholars' and readers' best guesses, no one knows where Sherlock Holmes really was during those three years or what he was doing. Holmes's "explanations" to Watson are very weak indeed.
If I continue playing by my rules of staying true to the actual location and actions of the historical figures in my fiction, I have to find a time and place where I can get all my central characters together. And not just together, but primarily together in Henry Adams's and John Hay's mansions near Lafayette Park.
The problem with corralling Henry Adams in those years is that -- in his profound grief after Clover's suicide -- he traveled to the South Seas and elsewhere. Traveled almost incessantly.
I also mean to have the amazing graveyard sculpture commissioned by Henry Adams and sculpted by Augustus Saint Gaudens for Clover's grave -- an ambiguous and terribly sad and powerful robed and seated figure of indeterminate gender, staring out over Clover's grave -- as part of my plot and setting. That sculpture wasn't finished and set into place at Rock Creek Cemetery until 1891.
Most important, of course, is that I have to have these central characters gathered between May 4, 1891, and April 5, 1894, during Sherlock Holmes's GREAT HIATUS.
(Note -- this challenge is a delight, but it's also like herding cats. Just when I find I can get all of the principle characters together during a period between late March and June 17 of 1893, without violating historical record, I find that Henry James's brother William -- America's first great psychologist, the author of The Varieties of Religious Experience, and a central player for the last part of the novel -- has hauled his family first to Italy and then to Lucerne during this critical period. The bastard. And he didn't even have any particular reason for this flight to Europe . . . William was just behaving like his crazy father, Henry James, Sr., who hauled the boys and Alice to Europe and back on constant whim.)
But I think I can work around this problem.
In late March of 1893, a discouraged and depressed Henry James, Jr., leaves his flat in cold, foggy London and treats himself to a month or so in Paris. He plans to spend his birthday (April 15) there in the City of Light. (True.)
James is depressed for several valid reasons. He's still getting over the death of his sister the year before. Both he and his brother William were bruised by Alice's friend Katherine Loring's dominance of the cremation and immediate aftermath of Alice's death. Several of James's relationships -- his "special friendships" -- with younger men have not worked out. Most central to James's depression is the failure of his novels and short fiction to earn enough money for him -- many of his American and English magazines that were his publication mainstays are turning away from long, serialized stories and novels that are James's specialty -- which means that he's going to concentrate totally on writing plays in the future. It's a hopeful gesture -- he imagines both fame and wealth there -- but one which frightens James.
Henry plans to spend much of his time in Paris alone and has alerted almost none of his friends as to his whereabouts.
On his fourth day in the city, James is returning to his hotel on the rue de la Paix when he sees what he thinks is a familiar face, despite the addition of full mustache and blacker, fuller hair combed back in an odd way.
"Holmes!" he cries. "Sherlock Holmes!"
The tall man whirls and his gray eyes are so fierce that Henry James takes a step back. "My name is Sigerson," rasps the black-mustached figure in a thick Norwegian accent. "Jan Sigerson."
"My apologies, sir," says James. "My mistake." He knows it's Sherlock Holmes but assumes that the world's first consulting detective is, as they say in such fiction, "under a cover." James bows and tries to back away, but this "Sigerson" has gripped Henry's arm in a vise-like grip.
"Why did you call me by this other name?" demands the tall man.
Because I am a man on whom nothing is lost, thinks James to himself. But he does not speak that aloud.
Venturing a tremulous smile, James says, "A thousand pardons, sir. I believed you to be a gentleman I met five years ago at a tea-party benefit in Chelsea . . . a party given by the American lady, Mrs. T.P.O. O'Connor. I had arrived with Lady Wolseley, you see. Along with some other writers and artists of the stage -- Mr. Aubrey Beardsley, Walter Besant, Pearl Craigie, Marie Corelli, Arthur Conan Doyle, Bernard Shaw, Genevieve Ward -- I was introduced to Mrs. O'Connor's house guest, a certain Sherlock Holmes. There is . . . a striking resemblance."
"Come with me," says the tall man who had called himself Sigerson. Without releasing his grip on Henry James's arm, "Sigerson" leads the writer to a brasserie where they spend the next few hours in intense conversation.
The Plot Thickens:
Over a long dinner, Sherlock Holmes admits his identity but wonders how James -- whom he barely remembers meeting, since he was at Mrs. O'Connor's estate only to solve a series of jewel robberies -- had seen through his disguise. "I have passed by half a dozen other people in Paris who know me much better," says Holmes, "and they did not glance twice."
Henry James shrugs modestly and the conversation continues, fueled by a third bottle of good wine.
Holmes tells this pudgy stranger -- but a percerptive-seeming stranger with kind gray eyes who seems eager to listen -- that he, Sherlock, had faked his own death for Dr. John Watson. The entire scenario at Reichenbach Falls had been a hoax. "Dr. James Moriarty is no more the 'Napolean of Crime' than is the most harmless tutor from your American adolescence," says Holmes. "I despised the man, so I borrowed him as a nemesis -- allowing him to fall to his death with me at the waterfall in order to convince Watson that I was dead."
"But why would you do that . . . fool your closest friend so?" asks Henry James, Jr.
Holmes explains that he's used his amazing powers of deduction -- ratiocination, he calls it -- to deduce that he, Sherlock Holmes, is not real. That he is, in fact, a fictional character.
Henry James cannot hide his surprise at this. What on earth could make a man decide that he's not real, that he is a character in another man's stories or novels?
"It started with the smallest inconsistencies related to my friend and Boswellian chronicler, Dr. John Watson, M.D.," explains Holmes.
It seems that when Holmes had met Watson in 1881, the good doctor had been invalided home from his regiment, the Fifth Northumberland Fusiliers, after he had been wounded in the shoulder by a jazail bullet -- that is, the kind of bullet fired by the kind of long, heavy musket used by the rebels in Afghanistan -- but suddenly in 1888, Watson is complaining and writing about the jazail bullet wound in his leg.
"Is it possible that your friend was wounded twice?" asks James, totally absorbed in this tale of personal madness.
"By an Afghan jazail bullet? In London?" asks Holmes, raising one dark eyebrow. "Besides, the original shoulder wound has disappeared, to be replaced by this leg wound."
"Very strange," murmurs James.
"Very understandable," says Holmes. "If both John Watson and I are fictional characters dependent upon the whims of some mortal author's memory. Besides, there are dozens of similar inconsistencies, inexplicable except for the case that neither Watson nor I are real persons."
"Such inconsistencies as . . ." prompts James.
"Watson's damned wives for one," snaps Holmes.
It seems that in the dozen years, the consulting detective's friend and chronicler is suddenly married and then suddenly not married. This has happened at least three times.
"Wives have a habit of dying," says James.
"It's the same wife," growls Holmes. "She just flickers in and out of existence, depending upon the need for Dr. Watson to be living with me at 221 B Baker Street or not. And her name keeps changing -- now Constance, now Mary, now nothing at all. And there are similar inconsistencies in what I remember of my own life -- that is, I now know, of the memories that I was given of my own fictional life."
"Odd," says Henry James. His mind is racing.
"Even more odd is our address, Watson's and mine, at 221 B Baker Street," Holmes says very softly indeed.
"Why is that, sir?"
"Because, according to every contemporary city map I was able to study in those last months before my faked and fated appointment at Reichenbach Falls," says Holmes-Sigerson with a strange, sad smile just visible under his bold mustache, "the numbered residences and structures on Baker Street end at Number 85."
"How very odd," says James.
"So I stepped out of that entire life in London," says Holmes. "A life I now firmly believe to be totally fictitious. I now doubt even my own powers of deduction. My use of deductive and inductive powers of the mind in the various 'adventures' chronicled by Watson rarely made sense. It was as if I -- or the fictional imposter posing as me -- assumed that a wide range of other, unknown, unseen variables could not have accounted for many of the solutions that my so-called brilliant deduction arrived at so easily, so . . . absurdly."
"What do you think your next move will be, Mr. Holmes?" asks James.
"At present, self-destruction seems the only logical course," says the detective. "I was on my way to the Seine to effect just such a resolution when you called my name." Holmes's voice is so cool and disinterested that it sounds as if he's discussing where to dine the next day.
Henry James decides to become an actor in this drama of madness. "I knew an American lady -- a wonderful woman and very dear friend of mine -- who also became convinced that she was not real," says James. "She ended up taking her own life some years ago -- by the terrible agency of ingesting potassium cyanide -- and the repercussions of her suicide ripple outward to this day amongst those who loved her. To terrible effect for those left behind, sir."
"Was her name Clover Adams?" asks Sherlock Holmes with that disconcerting predator-bird gray-eyed stare.
James is startled and chagrined that he revealed such personal information about a dead friend -- most probably through the mention of the means of Clover's self-destruction -- and says nothing.
"I inquire as to the specifics," says Holmes, "because an American gentleman named Edward Hooper -- the brother of a certain Clover Adams -- came to see me to engage me in April of 1891 in what he considered a case requiring the services of a private detective. It was a case centering on his sister's death seven and a half years earlier. The strangeness of Hooper's situation intrigued me, but he came shortly before my staging of the Reichenbach Falls hoax and I was too distracted to pursue the Clover Adams case at the time."
"Ned," mutters Henry James.
"I beg your pardon?"
"Clover's brother Edward is known as 'Ned' to all of his intimates," says Henry James.
Holmes explains the circumstances of what Ned Hooper had told him to the shocked Henry James. It seems that on every December 6 since Clover Adams's death -- seven such grim anniversaries -- one of the four surviving members of the select group that Ned Hooper had referred to as "the Five of Hearts" had received a simple, expensive cream-coloured card with the typewritten message on it -- CLOVER WAS MURDERED. YOU WILL JOIN HER.
Hooper had explained to Holmes that his sister had not been popular -- she had snubbed far too many of Washington's elite for that, nor had she spared her sarcastic wit in print or verbally -- so her widower Henry Adams and the others discounted the annual messages, sent first to Henry Adams, then to John Hay, then to Clarence King, then to Clara Hay, now back through the order to King this year, as just another vulgar and ugly expression of hatred similar to many that had appeared in print after Clover's death.
But what bothered Ned Hooper -- and brought him to Holmes in London -- was that the messages had an inexplicable way of finding Henry Adams or the others, even when the recipient was off on retreat somewhere the public would not know about.
"We shall go," says Holmes.
"Yes," says Henry James, Jr., consulting his watch. "It is late. I need to return to my hotel so as to write some letters before turning in."
"No," says Sherlock Holmes, "we shall go to America. You and I. We shall present ourselves to Henry Adams and John Hay -- you say they are your good friends -- and I shall solve this mystery for them."
Henry James's mouth gapes open.
"You are a writer, I understand," says Holmes. "You shall chronicle this American adventure in the place of Dr. Watson, my usual Boswell. Come along, Mr. James. The game's afoot and there's no time to waste!"
Questions and Problems and Fun Bits:
Yes, I got carried away there. And you've been very patient with me.
A million logical objections arise to this scenario, not the least of which is -- Why would the retiring and unassuming Henry James, so insistent on his own privacy and so slow ever to act in any situation, go to America with Holmes?
I have some response to that. In my novel. Henry and William were so offended by Katherine Loring's stage-managing of Alice James's death, cremation, and funeral, that Henry has performed a very atypical act . . . acting at all is atyptical for Henry James, Jr. . . . and has stolen a small portion of his sister's ashes which he and William secretly plan to scatter at sites near Boston where Alice had enjoyed being alive before she became obsessed with the idea of dying in her early 20's.
The problem with that, of course, is that in real life, William James and his family aren't in America at this time, but are in sojourning in Florence, preparing to switch to Lucerne, and then to join Henry for a visit at his Lamb House cottage in Rye on June 17, 1893. But I can get around this. (I would hope that the finale of The Fifth Heart not take place in England, in Rye, but perhaps the denouement -- the meeting of Sherlock Holmes and the Father of American psychology whose expertise was on perceptions of reality -- could be staged there. It would be fun to describe the rooms, furnishings, and garden of Henry James's beloved Lamb House, all as subtext under such a dramatic and literally existential showdown between the gimlet-eyed William James and the hawk-eyed Sherlock Holmes.)
So the novel essentially begins with a Norwegian explorer named Jan Sigerson and Henry James steaming to America in early April of 1893, Henry traveling with no notice to friends or fanfare of any kind. It is the only truly secret mission Henry James will ever undertake.
But already the suspension-of-disbelief in the novel (achieved -- or at least attempted -- in my history-plus-fiction thrillers by great attention to detail and verisimilitude) is threatened by the obvious major question -- How does Henry James, Jr., "recognize" Sherlock Holmes?
That is, is Holmes supposed to be real? Are we inhabiting a parallel universe in this novel where Sherlock is, as he has been treated by so many Sherlockian scholars, a real person?
That would be the simplest and most obvious way to deal with the huge issue. But there are ways we could introduce ambiguity even into this basic assumption so that we, the readers, aren't sure whether Holmes is a real person in this novel's universe or an obvious madman. Obviously Henry James can't call out to Sigerson "Sherlock Holmes!" if Henry has only seen the occasional illustration of Sherlock in a copy of The Strand he's perusing while waiting to see his London dentist. But such an ambiguity could be retrofitted into their meeting, perhaps with Sigerson-Holmes first identifying Henry James.
And a central question, if not problem, is -- What role does the narrator play in this novel?
Remember, Henry James will be the only viewpoint character -- we will have access to his thoughts at times -- but he will not be the narrator. (And not only for the reason that his style is impossible to reproduce or that if it were perfectly imitated, The Fifth Heart would become all but unreadable by most modern readers.)
No, I'm the narrator, but what kind of narrator am I? What perameters and hidden agendas do I have in this tale?
Shall I confess early on to the reader that my great-grandmother's aunt on my mother's side was a certain Mary Weld, a naïve and accomplished young stenographer and typist (the human beings at the keyboard were still being called "typewriters" in Henry James's day) who converted James's dictation to fiction and personal letters starting in 1901? My relative, poor Miss Weld, is often forgotten, briefly sandwiched in as she was between the better known Scots emanuensis Mr. MacAlpine and Miss Bosanquet, James's final aide and typist. Mary Weld left Henry James's employment in 1904 -- while James was visiting America for the last time -- in order to marry into my mother's family.
Passed down to me was nothing so vulgar as a complete record of Henry James's American Adventure with Sherlock Holmes but . . . perhaps . . . a small, redbound book of somewhat obscure notes from the year 1893?
Then there is the fact of my father's grandfather's great uncle in England being none other than the diminutive but infinitely resourceful Burgess Noakes, a local lad in Rye hired at the age of seventeen in 1901 by Henry James first as "knife boy" and general handyman and cleaner-upper of the new puppy Nick's messes, but who stayed on as loyal valet (except for the time he fought in WWI until he was wounded) to the end of Henry James's life on Feb. 28, 1916.
What sorts of sincere but spavined attempts at a memoir might loyal old Burgess Noakes have attempted in his dotage?
Well, we need none of these overused framing devices to add some power to the narrator of The Fifth Heart. That narrator -- apparently Dan Simmons but never truly so -- can kibbitz to his heart's delight, interrupting scenes to peek forward into the lives and fates of various characters, pointedly doubting the veracity of statements made, contradicting such statements (pronounced even by our beloved viewpoint character, Henry James, Jr.) when history states otherwise.
Finally, there's the question of dealing with Henry James, Jr.'s sexuality in the novel.
But perhaps I won't have to deal with it at all. As James insisted about all of his private life throughout his adult life -- it is, after all, no one's business but his own.
But will James have any interest in how Sherlock Holmes has shared his life and flat at 221 B Baker Street with another bachelor for more than a dozen years? Perhaps. Henry James did ask at least one of his "young men" to come live with him as a life partner.
To be honest, it's Henry James's letters to those young men -- read in chronological context or gathered in such volumes as Beloved Boy: Letters to Henrik C. Anderson or Dearly Beloved Friends: Henry James's Letters to Younger Men -- that can be cloying to the point of actively irritating. (Especially when James, in his later years and abandoning all of his earlier discretion, lapses into baby talk and begins writing of his "lips panting to kiss you.")
At some of those times, the compleat-letter-reader is tempted to explode, as Harold Frederic, London correspondent to The New York Times, once did --
"Henry James is an effeminate old donkey who lives with a herd of other donkeys around him and insists on being treated like the Pope . . . Mr. James recommended Mr. [Stephen] Crane's novel [The Red Badge of Courage] before me in the house of our mutual acquaintance and I was deterred from reading it for some days for that reason."
James did often act in his old age -- or at least in his private letters -- like an effeminate old donkey desperate to be loved, petted, and admired, but the offputting part of these letters, even worse than the lapses into baby talk, is the fact that we are reading an old man seducing a young man through the power of the older man's position and influence. The crowd of "donkeys" surrounding James when Harold Frederic wrote his intemperate note -- "would-be geniuses" was another description of them -- included Jonathan Sturges, Edmund Gosse, the younger Max Beerbohm, Arthur Benson, and Morton Fullerton (Stephen Crane, although he lived not far from Rye and Henry James shortly before his death, was never in James's circle) -- and every one of these younger men could have had their writing or artistic careers moved toward success by a word or review from Henry James.
The distaste at reading these "my waiting impassioned lips" parts of James's letters then has nothing to do with revulsion at homosexuality, but quite a bit to do with the embarrassment -- always uncomfortable-making in other people's love letters anyway -- of hearing the desperation of the old using every tool and potential leverage in seducing the young.
But although the romances (and even the first glimpses of overtly erotic letters and baby talk) existed by 1893, they were not as prevalent or indiscreet as they would become in James's later years, so any such dealings with Henry James's sexuality in The Fifth Heart would be subtle and infused with memory and ambiguities.
No, the great fun in writing The Fifth Heart will be placing all these intelligent, powerful, forceful, perceptive, and strong-willed men (and a few women such as Lizzie Cameron) in a small pit and waiting to see who emerges alive and unscathed.
The even greater fun -- and more difficult challenge -- will be to show these battles within the thematic context of probing the perceived bounds of reality itself.
The Fifth Heart:
Once we get Sherlock Holmes-Jan Sigerson and Henry James, Jr. to Washington, DC, and the Hays' and Adams' homes, things will become wonderfully complex.
Henry Adams can not be told of Sigerson's true identity, of course. In reality, Adams refused to discuss his dead wife or her suicide until his very old age. He certainly wouldn't welcome an intruding, prying "consulting detective" to his home. (And yet, paradoxically, we know by May of 1893 that Henry Adams will know Sigerson's true identity and even start to introduce Sigerson as "My friend, Sherlo . . .er . . . Jan Sigerson.") How do we know that? It's in my novel Black Hills where my protagonist Paha Sapa, a Sioux Indian present at the 1893 Chicago World's Fair as part of Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show, regularly visits the generator house to watch the giant dynamo that powers the thousands of exhibits and the electric elevated trains. A bald man in a straw hat who is the only other visitor there turns out to be Henry Adams -- at the proper dates when Adams did visit the Fair and become obsessed with the dynamo -- and Adams almost introduced Sherlock under his true name.
How will Henry Adams discover Sigerson's actual identity and why does he seem all right with it? How can he start to introduce Sigerson-Holmes as his friend? I'll be interested to find out.
So we assume that Sherlock will be staying with John Hay -- who, along with Clarence King will be let in on the secret -- but both men will have reason to regret the consulting detective's presence, if only they knew what he uncovers. Henry James will know.
Only two days after their first introduction to the surviving Five of Hearts, Holmes will calmly inform Henry James that Clarence King, the lively and much-pursued bachelor who likes to joke about dusky ladies, doesn't really reside at the New York men's club or the Brunswick Hotel where all his friends, including Adams and Hay, assume he lives.
More than that, Holmes explains, Clarence King is living a double life, and has been married -- since 1888 -- to a black woman, formerly Ada Copeland, and is living with her and their children (under King's assumed name of James Todd) on Hudson Street in Brooklyn. On Hudson Street, Clarence King has told his wife Ada and neighbors that he is a railroad porter from Baltimore and has to travel a lot.
(All this is true.)
Henry James is stunned. Henry soon panics, wondering what on earth he'd been thinking when he brought this intrusive, hyper-perceptive, preternaturally deductive detective into the homes and lives of his friends. And what happens -- Henry realizes with rising panic -- if and when Sherlock Holmes turns those turn-over-every-rock deductive powers toward Henry James's secrets . . . secrets Henry's spent his life and not inconsiderable powers of invention and obfuscation to conceal from everyone, including -- sometimes -- himself?
There is more. In just a few days, Sherlock Holmes discovers (and informs James) that Undersecretary of State John Hay -- considered one of the most upright and honest men in America -- is having a secret love affair with Nannie Lodge, wife of Senator Henry Cabot Lodge. Hay is pursuing this affair right under the unsuspecting nose of his wife Clara -- the two couples often traveling together, including to the Chicago World's Fair with Henry Adams, Henry James, and Jan Sigerson in May of 1893.
More . . . the truly distraught widower Henry Adams is having a love affair of his own, this with the beautiful Lizzie Cameron, wife of Senator J. Donald Cameron of Pennsylvania. It's in Don Cameron's private railroad car that the entire entourage, including Holmes and James, will travel to Chicago.
There will be the interesting little side-story of watching Mr. Sigerson trying to find his refills of his curative drug, heroin, in 1893 America.
As far as the mystery of the annual anonymous cards arriving each December 6 -- the anniversary of Clover's suicide -- John Hay and Henry James are amazed to hear Holmes announce that typewriters make distinctive marks and can actually be traced.
Many of John Hay's personal files include typewritten cards and letters and he turns those files over to "Mr. Sigerson" who pours through thousands of them in search of a broken "f" and a defective "o" that appears above the line of type.
Holmes finds it on the fifth day. The typewriter that has typed the annual threatening CLOVER WAS MURDERED. YOU WILL JOIN HER. also typed several brief but funny personal notes to John Hay.
"Who," asks Sherlock Holmes, holding the incriminating cards, "is Mr. Samuel Clemens?"
Will The Fifth Heart Be Written?
My current publisher -- the one for whom I'm currently fulfilling the last contractual obligations with the copy editing for Flashback, to be released in April, 2011 -- actively hates the idea.
A few years ago when I was floating proposals for a three-book contract after The Terror -- proposals eventually to become Drood, Black Hills, and Flashback -- I discussed The Fifth Heart in general terms and the publisher then specified that I could submit no proposals that included Henry James or Sherlock Holmes, in any way, shape, manner, or form. Period. Full stop.
Why? I'm not sure. Perhaps the editors or publisher were frightened by a deerstalker cap when they were young. Or, more likely, they've seen some of the abysmal Sherlock Holmes' pastiches that were the norm some years ago.
I have no intention of writing an abysmal pastiche.
It doesn't matter too much to me since if I write The Fifth Heart -- (and the "Fifth Heart" is not Clover Adams, by the way, who was always referred to her by the other Hearts as the First Heart, but, rather, a clue) -- I will write it on spec during this year or so of medical hiatus. (If I'm able to do that work.)
My agent also hates the idea of this book written on spec. It creates problems for him since my current and possibly again-future publisher doesn't want this book, and any publisher who would be interested almost certainly would demand some multiple-book contract.
But my agent -- and friend -- sometimes forgets that the vow I made to myself when I began publishing in 1982 was a simple one: I would never write work dictated by anyone else and would always write the stories and novels that I was personally moved to write.
Such a record of ignoring "what the marketplace wants" may be naïve ignorance. Or perhaps it's courage. Or maybe it's both. But whatever it is, it's been a decision that's set me apart from many writers I know who have been either too timid or too intimidated by publishers and agents to venture from their safe genres, from their presumed safe readerships, and from recycling old characters and old stories in a perpetual-motion mediocre-fiction machine that, presumably, "pleases the marketplace."
To hell with that. If I can't write the books that I'm interested in writing, I'd rather drive a truck. (And, my agent hastens to advise me, that's what I may be doing soon.)
So be it.
The Fifth Heart would be a bitch to research, the literary-equivalent of juggling about fifteen whirring chainsaws at once. (You solve that problem of William James and his family actually being in $%*#*ng Europe when he has to be in America to be part of this story!) Under my rules of playing fair with actual history, the book would be the literary equivalent of an orbital mechanics problem with more than a dozen moving objects moving at different velocities all trying to rendezvous on the same orbital position at precisely the same moment.
And I'd be researching and writing this unwanted book on spec during months I'll be dealing with frequently uncomfortable and time-consuming medical realities . . . all with absolutely no guarantee that, if successfully written, the book would find a publisher or interested audience.
I love the idea.
As Henry James had a character say in his story "The Middle Years" about an aging writer named Dencombe who, after years of yearning for success, fortune, and fame, learns, at the end, (and who tells the admiring young doctor at his deathbed,) that such goals of fame and fortune and momentary success are pure delusion; the true glory is simply to have lived fully and to have written well:
" 'It is glory -- to have been tested, to have had our little quality and cast our little spell. The thing is to have made somebody care . . .'
" 'You're a great success!' said Doctor Hugh, putting into his young voice the ring of a marriage-bell.
"Dencombe lay taking this in; then he gathered strength to speak once more. 'A second chance -- that's the delusion. There never was to be but one. We work in the dark --we do what we can -- we give what we have, Our doubt is our passion, And our passion is our task. The rest is the madness of art.' ”