One of the first books I added to my to-read wishlist on my new Kindle was the new biography of Patricia Highsmith: The Talented Miss Highsmith – The Secret Life and Serious Art of Patricia Highsmith by Joan Schenkar.
Though you might not have read her, Highsmith was responsible for the literary legend and antihero Tom Ripley, played by Matt Damon in the infamous movie The Talented Mr. Ripley. Highsmith herself was often described as being just as odd and sometimes introverted as Tom. She kept extremely detailed diaries throughout her life where she penned plot ideas and thoughts on her many female lovers.
I picked up Ripley years ago after the movie came out, but as a friend once told me, a book tells you when it’s time to read it, and it just wasn’t the right time to read Ripley I guess because I put it back down. The movie was still too fresh in my mind and I couldn’t stop thinking about the chemistry between Damon and Law that made the movie so magnificent.
So magnificent, in fact, that I took the time to find out that the movie was based on a book and I at least wanted to read it. I was even more shocked to find out it was written by a woman. I’m not a sexist by all means. Seek out gay male erotica on Amazon and you’ll learn well over half of it is written by women. But Ripley, though erotic at times when you knew what Tom was thinking, is more of a thriller and more about Tom being driven closer and closer to madness – much like his creator in real life.
Check out the cover of the book where we see Highsmith probably in her middle aged years. She is still as beautiful, mysterious, and alluring as the earlier photograph. But she was indeed a bitch, a drunk, and supposedly antisemetic. She was a writer, after all, so that’s to be expected. Isn’t it?
Writers all have a tad bit of snobbery to them, don’t they? Mad. Selfish. Drunk. Obsessive. Those aren’t always bad qualities when you sit down to write. Think of any great writer whose come and gone; look them up on Wikipedia and see what it says about them, or better yet, what others had to say.
Truman Capote, another hero of mine, boozed it up and popped pills like crazy. And think about how many authors killed themselves? Plath immediately comes to mind, putting her head in the oven while the kids were boarded up in the next room. Toole went to see O’Connor’s house before he offed himself. Have you read Flannery? My, my, I’m surprised she didn’t add her name to the list of dead writers who stopped their own hearts from beating. Morbid stuff! But unfortunately she died just shy of 40 from lupus.
But why did the others do it? Was it the voices of all those characters talking in their head?
Perhaps. It can drive you mad.
I’ve often called myself a literary medium, expelling the voices in my own head through my fingers and a keyboard. No worries, friends and family who read this, I have no plans of taking myself anywhere off the planet anytime soon. I still have too many stories to tell.
Highsmith did not end her life. She lived till 74 when she died of leukemia. By the way, the paperback edition of Schenkar’s book (due out in February) has a much better cover. Click on the picture of the current cover to see it. It reminds me of an old Hollywood movie. Highsmith would probably hate it for that reason. Highsmith was bitter in general, and rightfully so, she never captured an American audience while she was alive. But Europeans loved her. She spent quite a bit of time over there and even died in Switzerland.
I’ve heard from people before that I shouldn’t label my work as “gay.” That’s hard not to do in my first two books when a gay love affair is the center of attention. My latest book, not so much. Sure, there’s a gay character in it but there’s enough other stuff going on to keep heteros from getting too worried that my writing might make them question their sexuality. I primarily only use one label – fiction. When someone asks what I write, I say fiction and I leave it at that. I, as a person, have been given labels all my life. It’s not shocking that readers would label my writing as well. I touched it. I created it. So, it must be tainted with my cooties as well.
Stealing Wishes is currently #2 in the Gay Fiction community on Amazon. Sure, I might have encouraged that a bit but it was because I knew who I wanted my target audience to be and so I went after them. And it’s worked. I may not be selling paperbacks, but the book continues to do well on Kindle for me. People are still reading me – I don’t know if they are gay or not – but they are reading me. They are reading me! And if I knew that those readers were gay, why wouldn’t I go market to them when I have a new book coming out?
Readers are cruel, just as cruel as writers. I don’t think I’d slit my wrists over a bad review, but I’ve shed a few tears. So what!
Highsmith didn’t care. I certainly don’t think reviews made her bitter, but they probably helped. So, be kind to your authors – while they are still alive. Read them. Love them. Tell them you love them. True, Highsmith probably would have cringed had a crazed reader run up and hugged her, then she probably would have called them a fool, or maybe she’d been polite and signed her cocktail napkin for them. Who knows?
We love our crazies, don’t we? Ask me who I wanna be when I grow up…
Schenkar’s book has not gotten all positive reviews. Most say you should read Andrew Wilson’s book Beautiful Shadow instead, which actually uses the younger photo of Highsmith as its cover. So, what do these cover photos say about a person? Point of view, yes. Experience, perhaps. They are both magnificent, but I like the older photo the best. Cigarette in hand. A look on her face that says, “Just hurry up and take the damn photo, will ya?” Bulky sweater. Butch bobbed hair. Wrinkles and crevices brought on by mad writing and good Scotch.
I’m reading a book now that reminded me of that infamous line about how easy writing is…you just sit down at the typewriter and open a vein. Walter Wellesley.
E. L. Doctorow said writing is a socially accepted form of schizophrenia.
Plath said,” And by the way, everything in life is writable about if you have the outgoing guts to do it, and the imagination to improvise. The worst enemy to creativity is self-doubt.”
Highsmith said, “I can’t write if someone else is in the house, not even the cleaning woman.”