Are we born this way or is it our suffocating mother, absent dad? I had neither, but who cares? Well before eight years old I knew something was weird when most little guys strained like a dog on a leash to get onto the ball field while I wanted nothing more than to bury my nose in the roses of my grandfather’s garden. (Actually I suspected decades later he may have been gay, composing poetry and reading serious books when not tending his flowers.)
I was smitten by The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett. So total was my rapture I would return it to our little library and near-plead to sign it out again. The librarian, like all in those days, was matronly and all-knowing–it was a small town. She was likely well aware of my vandalism at age four, decapitating the minister’s entire tulip bed so I could present armloads to my family.
The Secret Garden captured me, defined me. Published in 1911, it became and remains a children’s classic. I personally was replaced and inhabited its hero, 10-year-old Colin Craven, whose beautiful mother died in his childbirth leaving him a sickly, sunken invalid–in mind more than body. Colin’s psychosomatic illness is summarized by the author, so ahead of her time: “Just mere thoughts…good for one as sunlight…or as bad as poison.”
Colin’s spunky cousin Mary crashes into this scene of despair, rummaging through the desiccated, long-neglected surrounds of the English country mansion and discovering a secret, walled garden. She and a spirited local boy gradually restore this Eden, as well as the frail, despondent Colin to vibrant full health, the boy once consigned to a wheelchair and a prognosis for life as a hunchback.
Thus was cemented my love affair with books–well, novels, and their power primarily to shield me from nay-saying, and, secondarily, to immerse me in energizing nature.
I rejected my New York City/suburban spawning grounds for my adult life in Vermont, writing several books and a TV show on organic gardening before I tested my prowess with a novel.As a Cornell English major it was unheard-of to veer beyond history, economics, and the sciences. There was no creative writing program. How could I make a living? Well, I did love words and language and was adept. Even zoology was based on essay exams.
Allowing my love of fiction to broaden beyond that of a reader happened while living for a sojourn in London. There were entire shows on BBC radio and television devoted to authors and their work. The Golden Notebook by Doris Lessing had already made of her and the novel icons. Talk about sexual frankness and exploration! Me, perverse? A vanilla milkshake by comparison. I had re-read this masterpiece (for me) on so many levels, foremost being the sheer, bloody bravura of its protagonist Anna in not just forging a saner life for herself but articulating social issues of global urgency.
I met Lessing and we became friends, hiking Hampstead Heath and talking about everything under the sun except her books (likely why we remained friends). She plowed through the manuscript of my then-unpublished novel, big as a London phone book, and declared: “Look. Richard. Get out the f—–g red pen.” Years later it became my second novel, Siegfried Follies. More to the point is the gift of this woman to have made the craft accessible to the likes of me. I met all sorts of writers, mostly celebrated, who, like Doris, were as affable, flirtatious, ribald, insecure, arrogant and lovable as anybody else on the street. Especially we who love literature tend to put our icons on pedestals, but we must honor that the printed word should be the extent of our adulation.
My lifelong love for novels has never abated. I’m still enthralled by the ability of great stories to instruct, heal, refine our moral compass by somewhat circumventing the head with an arrow-piercing of the heart. My round of the King’s English was icing on the cake.
Richard Alther’s third novel, The Scar Letters, will be published September 5th by Centaur Books, Chicago.