Picaresque voyages in America

It was the day I walked into a person’s office at Abrams that a life changed. The joy of that, versus the reality of now, is still rather haunting, though nostalagia can be such an enemy. Like watching a train you were supposed to be on, always vanishing into a darkening tunnel, and taking half your memories and heart with it. Not to mention three novels. But the adventure of discovering a person, was fully matched by the adventure of discovering a vast country. That first tour took a writer to 13 cities, to talks on stage with sometimes a thousand middle schoolers, in your huge schools, between the snows of Vermont, the communications dreams of bracing Seattle, and the twinkling, feminine lights of San Fransisco, where another storyteller took me to a gay bar and sang me love songs; the strange often surreal disparity between life and ‘work’. When you talk to kids though, and they like you, some of the sweetest moments are signing anything from notebooks, to school bags, and even the cast on a broken arm. Then there was the special magic of being translated, as you lose your heart in translation. It’s that Brit accent thing, that’s supposed to make us triumph in America, from New York, to LA. Like the cliche we all meet the queen, wear plus fours, or go to tea at Fortnum and Mason. ‘Would you say butterfly?’, whispered a thirteen year old in one bright school, instead of asking how many pages my book had, what car I drove and how much I earned, and when I did, her delighted shout was ‘just too cool!’ You have to have the sound of words and different voices in your head to catch the charm of it, as another American voice was soon in my being, with the thrill of a romance so close to work, and the secret of it too. But perhaps, being a journalist, and a travel writer, the search for America had more resonance for me, than just performing or being defined as a Children’s author. Yet, walking through San Fran, and talking to two black homeless guys, there was a special humour in trying to speak about what I did. One looked up from the sidewalk, clutching a can of beer, and immediately the words came – ‘Harry Potter’! It was something I talked about in schools, cutting through any resentment by spoofing Snape in class. HARRY PPPPPOTTER, I’d growl and spit, before I’d tell them how much I loved those enormously creative tales, and no, for the people trying to excercise their supposedly democratic ‘right’ to ban books in libraries, those stories are not evil. My agent in London first mentioned the ‘competition’ when Fire Bringer came out, but little did I get the significance of that. So an entire generation of writers, who might never have done, suddenly turned to ‘children’s books’, which is a special and precious skill. The bandwagon had begun, the hunt for money, but my own speech to Arizona State University, about how most great childrens books deal with the loss of ‘God and belief’, as we journey to the ‘real’ adult world, got a standing ovation. There I met the charming, gentle Jim Blasingame, lover of Cowboy Poetry, if such a thing isn’t just an act of nostalgia, who came to edit the Allen Review. So I saw those huge library conferences, that define the powerhouse in America, run by librarians and publishers, aided by local heroines of books like Mary Wong in Arizona, and why ‘cracking’ America is such a hope for an author. A hope far beyond money. I saw too the extraordinary, changing landscape of a country that is far more than one place, or one voice, despite all that talk of being American. New York, strangely old fashioned Gotham, those seething canyons of metal and glass, that powerhouse of energy and that giant marketplace, is its own country, almost its own continent, folk say. Yet the cliches of America I already carried were changing. The liberals I met, in supposedly reactionary Texas, talking of how the big corporations were taking out the independent book sellers. The constant odour of oil in the air, travelling to Houston to see the Rothko chapel. The red dirt excitement of Arizona, and the gigantic gulf of the Canyon, like a wound in the hard earth. LA, mad, moveable town, where I had lunch with another author at the Chateau Marmont and heard Denzel Washington behind me talking up his latest project. Just as seeing celebs like Keifer Sutherland smoking a cigarette outside a Greenwich Village restaurant, or Ryan Adams renting a video, gave me a sense of a far bigger celebrity, perhaps always walking towards a movie, as the essence of how we communicate now, and the dreams and fantasies not only of an entire nation, but the entire modern world. Driving through the painted dessert from LA to Vegas, of the 10,000 Maniacs song I’d listend to so many times in the UK, to meet a new girlfriend was the most exciting of all. America teaches old fashioned Europeans to have a go, frees us from all our complex history, and I was no different, despite my beef about how you don’t teach formal history in American schools, but brand it as social studies. How I made a fool of myself ringing the Exalibur Hotel in Vegas and suggesting they might comp a writer and travel journalist because I had written an Arthurian Fantasy called The Telling Pool, that some of you thought ‘Awsome’. Wandering through all that kitsch and imported culture, where real art is housed inside a dream, I later imagined a flock of ganster’s kids, or their wives, filing into a slot lobby for a polite book signing. ‘Hey Mickey Brown Eyes, you’re now a Made Author! One of da family.’ Falling in love in New York though, in the atmosphere of ‘family Abrams’, or standing on the avenues seemed to summon Herman Melvile dreams and ambitions to chase down some white whale of truth and adventure. ‘If you can make it here, you can…” Despite the fact that Gainsvort Piers where Melville worked as a custom’s official, and wrote Moby Dick in his spare time, is now the municipal garbage depot, and, caught between novels and real life, even a tendency towards self-mythification, I suggested the overworked girl at the bar in the Hotel Gainsvort might read Herman Hesse’s Journey to the East. I had gone west though, no longer so young man, after once writing a travel piece for the Daily Telegraph about Devon and the scrubby town of Westward Ho, peering across the Atlantic and two centuries towards America, that in its very bad edit had lost my voice, offended old school British readers, and effectively lost me my place there. Perhaps the truth was other resentments of having conflicts in the UK over books, of seeing Fire Bringer do well but not quite triumph, of the trouble with various projects, like a pop-up about evolution called Fabulous Life that got 20,000 orders at Borders and was suddenly cancelled, or ZoZo Leaves his Hole, book of the summer in The Evening Standard, yet never with the whiff of a royalty, and mixed with another split up that hurt badly, was a time bomb of the heart waiting to go off. Yet I was open about that too and nothing was calculated, it was just free hearted, thrilling and a huge and rather innocent adventure, and one that out of past sadnesses, or literary stumbles, was hugely healing. Yet perhaps one issue for me was being cast as a childrens author, rather than just a writer, and so, in the journey of fantasy, perhaps of looking for too many happy endings. DCD

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