Forty Parties in Forty Weeks by Suzette Field
Writing a book to deliver in forty weeks is one thing; being pregnant at the same time turns it into even more of a challenge. Suzette Field, author of A Curious Invitation, found herself in just that situation
Forty Parties in Forty Weeks
In 2011 Picador commissioned an idea I had pitched to them, to write a book to be called A Curious Invitation about famous parties in literature. My initial plan was to include thirty-five soirées, balls, fetes and bashes, featuring in works ranging from Plato’s Symposium in Ancient Greece to Jackie Collins’s Hollywood Wives. But after receiving suggestions for additional parties from various quarters I decided to expand the number to forty. This seemed like a nice round figure; without being too round, like fifty. It also resonated with classical significance: Lent lasts for forty days, it rained for forty days and forty nights in the Great Flood and Ali Baba faced forty thieves. Also it hadn’t escaped my attention that 2012 would mark Picador’s 40th anniversary and there’s never anything wrong with a first-time author seeking to ingratiate themselves with their publisher.
Before very long life decided to hand me a second deadline, which also involved the number forty. I became pregnant. In obstetrics the human gestation period is defined as 280 days, i.e. exactly forty weeks. To my alarm I realized that my two delivery dates, baby one (my book) and baby two (my baby), would coincide pretty much exactly. There were similarities between the two entities I was nurturing within me. Both would be a long haul, involving a certain amount of pleasure and a definite amount of suffering, but would supply an end product which would bring me pride and joy and, if I was lucky, might support me in my old age.
The literary task that lay ahead of me involved not only a lot of writing but a serious amount of reading. Forty prose works of various lengths had to be perused, including such heavyweights as Thackeray, Dostoyevsky and Proust. In a cowardly fashion I decided to start with the easy (and short) texts: Lewis Carroll, Gogol and Edgar Allan Poe. Poe’s ‘The Masque of the Red Death’ comes in at a trim eight pages (not that this stopped Roger Corman making a full length horror movie of it), which compared favourably to The Brothers Karamazov, which weighs in at a hefty 760 pages.
In week twelve I was researching Daphne du Maurier (the Manderley Fancy Dress Ball in Rebecca is one of the parties I write about) and I learned that she, like me, was pregnant with her second daughter while writing the novel. In her case the baby was delivered before the book. More worryingly this daughter, Flavia, ended up writing a less than flattering biography of her mother, accusing her of putting her writing career before her children. I hoped that my unborn girl wouldn’t harbour similar resentments against me in later life, telling the world that I had been too busy on my laptop to find time to expose her to Mozart symphonies in the womb.
At week sixteen I was writing about the Flying Party, a never-ending cocktail party hovering above an alien planet from Douglas Adams’s Life, the Universe and Everything. Adams, I found, was famous for missing deadlines and on one occasion had only written a single sentence of his book when his due date arrived (he said he liked the ‘whooshing sound’ deadlines made when they flew past). With a dozen chapters under my belt, I reassured myself, at least I was doing better than him.
In week twenty it was Mrs Leo Hunter’s Costume Breakfast in The Pickwick Papers. Pickwick, I discovered, came about largely by accident. The unknown twenty-four-year old Dickens had been commissioned to provide the text for a monthly series of illustrations on sporting life by artist Robert Seymour. Unfortunately Seymour committed suicide after volume one, but this gave Dickens (who knew nothing about sport) the opportunity to repoint the serial in a more generally socially satirical direction. Within a year he was a celebrity. He of course went on to write a dozen more famous novels. This gave me a positive example of how a rookie author’s career could unexpectedly blossom (not that I would wish anything unpleasant to befall my lovely and talented illustrator, Lynn Hatzius).
A fortnight later I was served up with a sobering counterexample to Dickens. Cold Comfort Farm was also Stella Gibbons’s first novel (I cover Dick Hawk-Monitor’s twenty-first-birthday party in my book) and catapulted her to fame in her early thirties. She went on to write thirty-one further books, pretty much none of which anyone has ever heard of, and never managed to repeat the runaway success of her first prose opus.
Sadder still was the story behind the novel I dealt with in week twenty-seven. The Tale of Genji was completed in Japan in the Heian period, some time in the early eleventh century, and contains a Blossom Viewing Party where the emperor and his courtiers inspect the newly arrived blossoms on the cherry tree in the gardens of the imperial palace. Not only does Genji have a strong case for being the world’s first novel, but it was written by a woman. And it’s still in print, in dozens of languages, a thousand years after its first appearance. The tragedy is that though the work has survived, we know almost nothing about its author, not even her real name (in Heian Japan it was disrespectful to refer to well-born people by their actual names, and the name attributed to her, Murasaki Shikibu, is an honorific title, the first name meaning ‘purple’ and the second deriving from the rank her father held at the imperial court).
A. A. Milne’s Pooh Party (week thirty) offered me another aspirational role model. His two Pooh books, Winnie-the-Pooh and The House at Pooh Corner, have been translated into thirty-six languages, including Frisian, Mongolian, Esperanto and Latin, and sold tens of millions of copies worldwide. Yet the two works total fewer than seventy thousand words between them, which must make Milne one of the biggest grossing authors of all time on a money-per-word basis. All the wealth and fame that Pooh brought him didn’t stop Milne grumbling, as he surmised that his stories of soft toys would mean that his plays and detective novels (which he considered his proper works) would be utterly forgotten. And they were.
A couple of weeks later I treated myself to The Three Musketeers, which features the Paris City Aldermen’s Ball, where d’Artagnan has to retrieve the Queen’s lost diamonds to foil the machinations of the villainous Cardinal Richelieu. Here I came across the cautionary tale of Alexandre Dumas (père), who was not just a writer but a whole literary industry in his own right. Dumas employed a team of hack writers to churn out historical fiction under his brand and ended up with over a thousand published books to his name. Yet he still managed to spend the final years of his life in penury, pursued by creditors, after squandering his fortune.
Daniel Defoe was my week-thirty-five reading (the ‘little ball’ given by Roxana in the eponymous novel). He had what would these days be termed a ‘portfolio career’: he was variously a merchant, a tax accountant, a ship insurer, a pamphleteer, propagandist and secret agent. He took part in a couple of rebellions, was captured by Barbary pirates, went bankrupt and was imprisoned several times: all of which gave him the perfect pedigree to write his last book, The Compleat English Gentleman. In his spare time he also invented the English novel. I, by comparison, am merely a party promoter who runs a shop and gallery on the side. If Defoe could successfully combine all those activities in addition to his literary career, why not me? I think it was at this point that I added to my deadline burden by deciding to organize a party for six hundred people on the weekend I was due to give birth and deliver my manuscript.
I was by now well into my third trimester (by this stage I reckoned my flesh and blood baby must weigh more than my paper and cardboard one would – even if the latter had embossed gold lettering on the jacket) and I decided I would have to take advantage of my decreased mobility to sit down and tackle some of the weightier authors I had been putting off.
Thomas Pynchon was first on my list. His 1973 novel Gravity’s Rainbow contains several parties, but I wondered how such a notorious recluse as Pynchon could write about having a social life. Or had his lack of profile enabled him to do all of the necessary literary research incognito, including the party I write about in my book: an orgy aboard a yacht called the Anubis?
In week thirty-six I got round to Proust (the Marquise de Saint-Euverte’s musical soirée in Swann’s Way). In Search of Lost Time is of course a highly appropriate topic for an author approaching their deadline. It’s the question we all ask ourselves: where on earth did all that time go when I should have been writing? For most writers a lot of it was probably spent drinking cups of tea or coffee. Proust, I discovered, was a caffeine junkie. In one famous session a Parisian host recalls him knocking back seventeen cups of coffee in a single evening, I read jealously (one of the things I missed while pregnant was my morning hit of espresso). Proust’s caffeine habit may have explained his manic inability to express himself in brief sentences. The longest sentence in In Search of Lost Time clocks in at a brain-numbing 942 words.
Week forty was looming and I had put off the toughest author, Joyce, and his toughest work, Finnegans Wake, till last. By this stage I was hoping that my baby would be late, because with 628 pages of macaronic prose to digest, my book was definitely going to be. I really should have known my biology better. My first daughter had been born on her due date and so was my second, at exactly forty weeks. Needless to say, I missed my own party. It was only a few days later that I realized the final irony. Baby Una was born on June 16th – Bloomsday, the day on which all the action takes place in Joyce’s other big novel, Ulysses. Obviously she had a keen sense of irony, as well as a knowledge of the classics – so it didn’t matter that I hadn’t done all the in-utero hothousing after all.
Most authors who miss their deadline get a telling off from their publishers. I got flowers from mine.
Read the introduction from the book