Why Ita Daly had to tell the story of David Marcus
Many of those David had helped had achieved success but now he would be forgotten. Once I began to think this I knew that I owed it to him to write this book
David Marcus at home in Rathgar, Dublin in 2008: The expression “I’ll drop you a line”, the title of Ita Daly’s memoir, was very typical of the man, untrendy and old-fashioned. He was someone who never threw out the old for the new unless there was a very good reason and throughout his long career as an editor that is how he kept in touch with his writers: he dropped them a line. Photograph: Matt Kavanagh
Ita Daly and David Marcus, right, with Maeve Binchy and Brendan Kennelly at the official opening of Waterstones Bookshop, Dawson Street, Dublin in 1987. “I think we always feels some guilt when a person we love dies but in the exercise of deliberate recall I think I have gained balance,” writes Daly. Photograph: Pat Langan
When publisher Jo O’Donoghue asked me if I would consider writing a book about David, my initial reaction was – no, of course not. I am a novelist, not a biographer, and I have never admired confessional literature. If anything I have actively disliked the sort of books that expose the intimacies of lives lived in private.
But Jo’s request gave me pause. I began to think about David and not about myself. He died in 2009; a generation was growing up to whom his name would mean nothing. People would forget what he had done, for his work has been subsumed into the achievement of others. He was an enabler, someone who wanted to see others succeed. Many of those he had helped had achieved success but now he would be forgotten.
Once I began to think this I knew that I owed it to him to write this book. If it would remind people of his worth and perhaps give them some insight into the man he was – well – what else would I do?
The book wrote itself. I have never been able to say that before and have always dismissed the idea as publishing hyperbole but now it was happening to me.
The first thing that came to me was the title: I’ll Drop You a Line. David had supplied the titles for all my novels because I always found it impossible to name the book I had just finished. Now the title I would use for the book I was going to write about him came to me with complete ease. I could see him, I could hear him as he said good-bye to some writer, promising, “I’ll drop you a line.”
That expression was very typical of the man, untrendy and old-fashioned. He was someone who never threw out the old for the new unless there was a very good reason and throughout his long career as an editor that is how he kept in touch with his writers: he dropped them a line.
When I got going on the book I found that it wasn’t all that different from writing a novel, except that the plot was already there. Plots are my weak point, so this was a huge advantage. I didn’t have to invent a life for David; instead I had to go back and examine the life he had had with me.
It was painful but not as painful as I had imagined. As I have said in the book, novelists have to do a lot of soul searching. You imagine people into existence and try to give them lives of their own but the filter, the sensibility, is yours. To that degree, all fiction is autobiographical and fiction writers are well used to looking into their own hearts.
What I found really interesting about writing I’ll Drop You a Line was that it was such a pleasant exercise. I am one of those writers who actually loves writing. I feel happier and healthier when I am working on a book but I don’t find the process easy. I get my characters into awkward corners and I can’t get them out; I lead them into cul-de-sacs, I invent some who are poor, mewling creatures who should never have seen the light of day and then I don’t have the heart to kill them off. “Murder your darlings” is not easy advice to follow.
With I’ll Drop You a Line I knew the ending, the beginning and I knew the middle too. I was remembering rather than inventing and in remembering, trying to understand what my life with David had been.
In a marriage you jog along, so the marriage becomes a series of days that are lived through without much time for reflection, particularly when one is young. In my particular case, because David developed dementia and lived with it for the last five years of his life, this was really all I had been remembering. During this period I never looked back on the life that we had had before, probably because it was too painful but also because I was too busy. Looking after someone with dementia is a full-time job, something that, in fact, makes it more bearable. When you are busy minding someone, helping them with all the everyday tasks they once did for themselves, trying to find some way of keeping them occupied, you don’t have any time to ponder on your situation. Busyness keeps anxiety at bay.
At night in bed, however, I had time to think but again my thoughts were circumscribed by David’s illness. What food would I cook tomorrow? Would I bring him with me when I went shopping? Would we go by car or walk and use the wheelchair?
I was living in the present, practising mindfulness without realising it.
Then when he died I found myself remembering only the impaired husband, the one who grew thinner every day and every day made less sense of the world around him. I imagine this must be fairly common when final illnesses are protracted and maybe I would, in time, have remembered our earlier life together.
The unexpected gift I got from writing this book is that it short-circuited the process; it made me look at our marriage and at us without squirming or squinting. Some things I have been delighted to remember, other things not so much so, but I can live with that. I think we always feels some guilt when a person we love dies but in the exercise of deliberate recall I think I have gained balance.
I remember once someone telling me that they never read fiction because it was made up. Now, having finished a memoir, I can say that non-fiction is made up too. I haven’t invented anything but I have tidied up here and there. History, biography, autobiography: they are none of them pure. I have tried in I’ll Drop you a Line to be as objective and truthful as I can and I have tried to write about the protagonists as they really were. But they are as I saw them and others would see them – us – very differently.