An inspirational read: Patrick Skene Catling (92) on 65 years as a published author
My debut came out in 1952 and I have just published my 13th novel. So where does my inspiration come from?
Patrick Skene Catling: 'I share Graham Greene’s belief in the creativity of the subconscious.' Photograph: Bryan O’Brien
The genesis of literature is sometimes mysterious. “Where do you get the ideas for your stories?” is the question most often asked by adults and children alike when they have a writer up against the wall. The simplest answer, “I really don’t know,” though often true, is not satisfactory: the customers think that authors are obliged to spill the professional beans. A how-to-do-it manual such as So You Want To Write A Bestseller never seems enough.
I share Graham Greene’s belief in the creativity of the subconscious. In his posthumously published “dream diary”, A World of My Own, he tells how Robert Louis Stevenson’s subconscious imagination once saved him. “I was very hard up for money and I felt I had to do something,” Stevenson confided. “I thought and thought and tried hard to find a subject to write about,” without success. But at night he dreamed the whole story of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. “It practically came to me as a gift.” I have never been that lucky; however, there have been times when I have confronted my brain with a knotty plot problem just before going to sleep, and the following morning have found it neatly resolved. A well programmed brain can do overnight some of a writer’s most difficult work.
Many ambitious, would-be novelists have found that journalism is valuable training. But it is vital to get out soon enough to avoid habituation by formulas and cliches
Intensive reading and writing from childhood are helpful preparations for a literary career. I explored my father’s bookshelves and found inspiration in books by writers such as HG Wells (Scientific Romances), Aldous Huxley (Brave New World), Evelyn Waugh (A Handful of Dust), Flann O’Brien (The Third Policeman) and Nathanael West (The Day of The Locust).
Many ambitious, would-be novelists have found that journalism is valuable training. The discipline of deadlines compels a certain fluency, obviating the self-indulgent procrastination of writer’s block, and international travel at no expense to oneself reveals a sufficient variety of people and locales to enrich later years of written description and dialogue. But it is vital to get out of journalism soon enough to avoid habituation by formulas and cliches.
Inventing children’s books liberates the imagination, extending realism into fantasy
Inventing children’s books liberates the imagination, extending realism into fantasy. The Greek myth of King Midas’s lust for wealth, turning everything he touched into gold, even his beloved daughter, was easily converted into the cautionary parable of young John Midas in The Chocolate Touch. Many children say in letters that they like the bit where John kisses his mother and turns her into a chocolate statue. For another book for children, Eskimo Surprise, I asked myself the useful question “What if. . .?” and the response was a package from a supermarket deep-freeze containing an Arctic Inuit fisherman’s extraordinary catch, a live pterodactyl, millions of years old, that grows immensely on release and speaks good English. Why not?
The same sort of liberal approach makes novels fun to write – as much fun as that Herculean task can ever provide. My first novel, Tourist Attraction, was suggested by a Buckingham Palace garden party I attended as a reporter with about 9,000 other guests. A lot of the ladies were wearing hats of Royal Ascot splendour. What would happen, I wondered, if a sudden torrential downpour caused a stampede into the Lyons catering marquee? I imagined an affluent American woman tourist scalded to death by a toppled tea urn. “Must you kill her?” my London agent asked. Yes, I must. The last chapters were then developed backwards to show my doomed protagonist’s relationship with a smooth English public-relations con man, who fixed her garden-party invitation, after wooing her on the groin of the Cerne Giant, an ancient fertility icon incised in the turf of a Dorset hillside.
The Experiment, my commercially most successful novel, was exceptionally facile in conception. I merely converted Masters & Johnson’s solemn laboratory treatise on Human Sexual Response into comic grotesquerie
The Experiment, my commercially most successful novel, was exceptionally facile in conception. I merely converted Masters & Johnson’s solemn laboratory treatise on Human Sexual Response into comic grotesquerie. Anyway, I thought it was comic.
My thanks are due to Mr Justice Arthur C Klein of the New York State Supreme Court for encouraging me to concoct Freddy Hill, in 1963. In a statement dismissing a complaint against the publication of Fanny Hill, he observed: “. . . it is quite possible that were Fanny to be transposed from her mid-18th-century Georgian surroundings to our present-day society she might conceivably encounter many things which would cause her to blush.” So, of course, I transposed her, altered her gender, and gave handsome, naive young Freddy plenty of reasons to blush.
Secret Ingredients is about an innocent culinary genius, a native of Alsace, who migrates to America, inadvertently supplies Dorothy Parker with some of her best lines, rescues a Hollywood producer, and finally, as a US army sergeant is assigned to General Eisenhower’s advanced headquarters in England in June, 1944, whomps up a magical Abilene stew that Ike loved as a boy, and thus gives the nervously hesitant allied commander the courage to give the green light on D-Day.
Under the expert guidance of the late Paul Gitlin, New York’s most powerful agent in his day, as Harold Robbins repeatedly attested, I devised Best Summer Job. about a New York University graduate student, who is commissioned by the city’s foremost newspaper, during the dog days, to survey local sexual habits. He does a thorough job, culminating in an investigation of the United Nations delegates’ secret social club, Jollies. Imagine my surprise when I consequently discovered a copy of the novel in the New York Public Library’s section classified as “Occupational Guidance”.
My latest novel, the 13th, which I prefer to call 12-A, Murder Becomes Electra: A Love Story, has just been published in Ireland by Somerville Press. The title, adapted from Eugene O’Neill’s play Mourning Becomes Electra, has its earlier origin in a psychiatric term coined by Carl Jung. Electra Complex is the Jungian equivalent of Freud’s Oedipus Complex.
I am a dedicated follower of neither the Swiss nor the Viennese guru, but I thought the Electra reference might add a touch of class to a domestic romantic tragedy which is basically not much more than a modern Grimm fairy tale of adoration, jealousy and a crime of passion, involving a pretty nine-year-old girl, her emotional father and her cruel step-mother. As one of the Algonquin Round Table playwrights pointed out, “Satire is what closes on Saturday night,” but I still most enjoy fiction with a sharp edge, and try to honour its tradition. Satire is a nice hobby in the twilight years.