Eliot's tepid enthusiasm and blunt criticism stung, coming from such an encouraging friend whose talent for criticism I had respected. Or it would have stung if I weren't so busy being a young genius at forty-seven.
NIGHTWING, as I said, was new, and different enough to capture attention, so I was trotted eagerly forth for interviews and panels occasionally --- some of them rather unsettling experiences. It was difficult enough to be the only defender of my wares on a panel of querulous feminists; it was even more exhausting, as well as hard on the eardrums, to find myself being defended by Camille Paglia.
And when I admitted that CONSENTING ADULTS had been inspired initially by a letter in PENTHOUSE, back when their letters looked real, Lois got the bright idea of encouraging real letters from real people by refusing to pay for them --- as everyone else apparently did, attracting professionals to submit brief fictions by the identical yard. Instead, she suggested I pick one a month to turn into genuine fiction, generously paying its author a mere fraction of what other magazines shelled out wholesale. I got an editorship on the masthead, a secretary to cull the slush-pile, and increased my income enough that I quit being a bookseller.
And as my total of savings rose, my total of social encounters rose as well. Initially, I lumped them in with the harvest from our slush-pile as "research". I was quite surprised when the beautiful model for illustrations of my stories admired my mind --- though I soon found her equipment with which to do so as small as she apparently found mine for appreciating her own attributes. More responsive were a dewy-eyed groupie and an embarrassed matron who both admitted a desire to be "bent like a pretzel and pounded through the floor" by the man who'd written those words. One of my interviewers did some very thorough research for a piece I think never saw print, and there were other less satisfying moments with sexual competitors quite successful at proving me an unlearned novice. After a surprisingly brief flurry, my refusals began to outweigh acceptances, except in the rarest occasions.
And, oddly, my work began to change. I remember after one initial encounter reaching for the lamp saying "Let me look at you!" only to hear "No! I mean, can't we just keep doing it in the dark?" And so we continued to do. But I began to wonder what if, at the outset, those had been the first words she'd uttered --- what would a man's response be? I wrote a lush, torrid introduction and then, as he snapped off the light, had my protagonist explain he would denude, explore and adore her in total darkness, but telling her, every step, what his hands were seeing of her. It was a beautifully turned conceit, a method with intense reader involvement, a sure-fire winner of an original idea --- which I found myself incapable of executing.
No matter what I did --- and I must have run at that passage half a dozen times over a frantic, feverish, fruitless week-end --- the words would not come. Every fresh start looked flat, false, familiar, flaccid, boring. All I saw was more of the same. I had picked that tree. There was no more fruit to be found, nothing new I could say. The introduction is still somewhere in the hard-drive, and every once in a while I stumble over the file and marvel at its sensuous promise --- and the cliff-edge of unfulfillment at which it ends.
After a first flurry of feverish facility, I fell behind in letter-stories. I asked the secretary to find me a few UNsuccessful encounters, but after printing one for startling contrast, Lois vetoed all the rest as counter-productive. More of the same or not more of the same, she had the NIGHTWING audience's narrow needs pegged and would not deny them. Finally push really did come to shove, and she hired a deft ghost who didn't need a by-line and sent me on a week's refreshing change of air in London, with disastrously unproductive results.
So not only was my editorial berth on the line, but there was the problem of my third book, as option time approached. We had bundled up years of short-stories for a second book. I suggested we do two covers: CLEAN STORIES and DIRTY STORIES, printed back- to-back like those old Ace Double-Novels. It was Lois who decided it would be cool to interpenetrate the books, so the last pages of the DIRTY book appeared upside-down on the backs of the early pages of the CLEAN book, with nice full-page titles setting each new story off no matter how short it was. It was my idea to refer to it in all the ads as "The book with two backs". The result was a thick-looking book bulked out with artsy blank pages, and the cute arrangement actually sparked some heated critical controversey as to which of the two covers emerged on top, quality-wise.
But the contract was for three books, I had emptied my trunk
to fill the second, and the letter-stories were in tragic short
supply. I was no longer the darling of the talk-show circuit, so
it was unlikely that a ghosted volume would enhance the image of
the magazine nor myself, and Lois stopped summoning me to staff
creativity-sessions. I set my alarm for pre-dawn for a week and
blindly batted out incoherent drivel in an unsuccessful attempt
to reacquaint myself with my subconscious. Nothing glowed in those
ashes but frustration, gloom, depression and a faint feeling of
loss. And another week of desperate attempts to dynamite my
writer's block with pot, coke, and finally mescaline showed me
either hyperinsensitive or enormously forgetful, for whatever
wonders blossomed withered before I could turn them into words.
I finally avoided the keyboard entirely, as if it hid a nest of