Monday, January 4, 2010

"Interlude in India"

Readers with only a passing knowledge of John D MacDonald have probably heard the story of how he "became" a writer. It's a great lesson in serendipity and how latent talents within a person can be obvious to everyone but themselves. The story was told and told again throughout MacDonald's lifetime until it became gospel, even if it may not have been entirely true -- at least in the way MacDonald told it.

The official version goes like this: Major John D MacDonald, while stationed in Ceylon during World War II, became fed up with the heavy censorship the military applied to his letters home and wrote his wife Dorothy a story instead. Without telling him, Dorothy typed it out as a manuscript and submitted it to Esquire magazine, where it was rejected, not because they didn't like it but because it was too short. Encouraged, she tried again, this time sending it to a small-press fiction periodical called Story. It was accepted. She saved the good news for John's homecoming surprise, and he was so dumbfounded at the news that he decided to try writing as a full-time profession.

In The Red Hot Typewriter, however, biographer Hugh Merrill uncovered a letter Dorothy had written to her husband before that story was written. It's a deeply touching missive that reveals a lot about MacDonald and the conflicts he felt while being separated from his family. He was unhappy, depressed and had gone as far as to ask his wife to stop writing letters to him. Her concern is palpable and she begins by worrying that her husband had forgotten her and their son, and had "filled the gap with personalities that [have] made us seem dim and remote." But she had come to the realization that "it seems to be [yourself] that you've lost." Declaring that "you've got to work this out somehow," she lists "the greatest two releases one can find": love and creative work.

Dismissing the former as possibly "bring[ing] you more trouble than joy if you try to find an outlet for it there," she focuses on the creative, and writing specifically.
"Possibly writing for publication sets up an unnatural constraint between you and your self-expression. If you just wrote it down and sent it home, it might release some of it, and I could save it for you, because it might be useful to you later."

That letter explodes two "givens" in the MacDonald mythology: first, that writing the story was his idea, and done solely to substitute all the things he wasn't permitted to write about and, second, that writing was never anything he seriously considered until that first effort was accepted for publication. She obviously sensed her husband's creative potential and did her best to shepherd him toward writing. The letter reveals how much greater Dorothy MacDonald's contribution was to the career of her husband, not simply by secretly submitting his story, but by encouraging him in the first place. It makes me wonder how she must have felt every time she read the "official version."

It is unclear to me whether or not MacDonald titled his little tale, but when Dorothy submitted it, it bore the title "Through a Glass Darkly," a Biblical quote that seems odd in relation to the story itself. When it was ultimately accepted by Story, the editors informed her that "we do not care for the title... and would like to substitute something else, which has not yet occurred to us." When it was finally published in their July 1946 issue -- a full year after it was accepted -- its new title was "Interlude in India."

It is a brief story of 1,500 words that takes place in wartime India, revealing the minor resentments that are building in the relationship between an American Army officer and an Indian woman. Billy Miller doesn't like the way Sal provocatively swings her hips when walking through a roomful of men, and Sal resents the fact that Billy is not even a Captain, while her friend Ella has a Major. She obsesses over the color of her skin, while Billy worries about how carrying on with a native woman must appear to his superiors. Sitting together in a coffee shop, they brood over their uneasiness. Still, it's not enough to quell the passion they feel for each other, and they know they will see each other again that night in his room. Once there, Sal's insecurities lead her to test Billy's love, with unhappy results.

"Interlude in India" holds up fairly well and hardly reads like a first effort. The language is a bit overdone in places, but the MacDonald voice is there, evident in even the first sentence: "Miller tilted his chair back cautiously, with the gentle regard for chair legs that all large men develop." He plays counterpoint ably, shifting back and forth from one point of view to another as we are introduced to the characters. And he tells us just enough about these people to require the reader to fill in most of the detail themselves.

As late as 1979, MacDonald would recall the story fondly, referring to it as "a bit clumsy," but "not too bad." That is high praise indeed from an author who nearly blanched at the thought of having some of his early work republished. MacDonald was paid $25 for the submission and it was good enough to to be anthologized later in a 1949 collection titled Tropical Passions: The Stories of Five Unfaithful Women. The fact that it took a year from acceptance letter to publication would mean that, although "Interlude" was the first story he wrote, it would not be the first story of his to see publication. That honor goes to something titled "Conversation on Deck," which appeared in an obscure and cheaply-printed fiction journal called The American Courier. According to the Shines, "Interlude" was the eighth JDM story to be published.

MacDonald claimed in 1979 that he "had done no writing for publication" prior to "Interlude in India," other than "the writing one does at school." Again, that's not entirely true. In 1986 Walter Shine wrote an interesting and amusing piece in his JDM Bibliophile column, relating something that happened while MacDonald was returning home from Asia at the end of the war:

"On the boring 68-day trip from Calcutta to the United States a British thriller 'Kiss the Blood Off My Hands' was being passed around, but some 'sadistic slob' (JDM's characterization) had torn out the last pages of the book. It infuriated many of the soldiers. So, for want of something to do, JDM wrote an ending for the book, typed it, and pasted it in the book. Those who then read it liked the ending and their praise may have given added incentive (in addition to the $25 received from Story magazine for "Interlude") to his writing career."

Who's to say?

You can see a picture of the original Story magazine acceptance letter (dated on John's 29th birthday!) at Cal Branche's great JDM website.

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