ALONG TOWARD THE END OF 1978, when Gerald Ford had bungled the Oval Office into the damp, eager hands of Jimmy Carter back home and, in my adopted country, James Callaghan’s Labour Party was soon to be trounced by that iron cupcake Maggie Thatcher, I began writing this book on the second floor of the first house I ever owned, 79 Hillfield Avenue, London N8, otherwise known as Crouch End. It was a nice, comfortable place, a terrace house with the living room, dining room, and kitchen on the ground floor, two bedrooms on the top, and my office, two good-sized rooms knocked into one, in the middle. The front half of the office floor contained a television set, bookshelveas, red leather furniture, and two of four AR speakers wired up to the amplifier and other sound equipment enthroned on a broad length of wood fixed to the rear wall of the back room and flanked on either side by long oak shelves crammed with LPs and books. Directly opposite the electronic toys – the life-support system, as I thought of them – and pushed up against the corresponding wall stood my desk, another long stretch of wood, this supporting one of a series of bound journals with numbered pages, a jam-pot from which jutted the sharpened points of about a dozen pencils, and, off to the side, an Underwood manual typewriter waiting to be drafted into service at the final siege. Above the desk hung two “book jacket” graphics by R. B. Kitaj that went unnoticed as I bent scribbling over the journal. Most of the time I scarcely heard the wall of sound blasting toward me. Facing a wall when you write really aids your concentration.
In those days, as the above indicates, I wrote everything by hand, filling the left-hand pages of the big journals with an entire first draft, and inserting revisions on the right-hand pages as I went along. When I reached the end of the book, I generally did some more revising in the journals before pulling the typewriter before me, loading it up with two sheets of paper separated by a carbon, uttering a heartfelt groan, and readying my right index finger for its long, coming torture by hunt-and-peck. If I were able to type, why would I bother writing everything out in longhand to begin with? Typing up a whole book at one go cannot be anything but excruciatingly boring, especially for one-fingered typists, but the process gave me another chance to revise. When I began SHADOWLAND, I assumed that the work of the next year and a half would travel along these familiar rails.
A great change was gathering itself to surprise the industrious lad at the desk, but another had already occurred. Our first child, Bejamin Bitker Straub, had been born the previous year, obligingly entering the world to occupy the increased space we had provided for him. By the spring of 1979, Ben was old enough to understand most of what was said to him, and I had jumped at the chance to entertain him by inventing stories.
Nightly, stories poured out of me, as from an inexhaustible source. I had no idea where they were going when I started them, but along the way they always turned into real stories, with beginnings, middles, and ends, complete with hesitations, digressions, puzzles, and climaxes. This was thrilling. My little boy was entranced, and I felt as though I had tapped into the pure, ancient well, the source of narrative, the spring water that nourished me and everyone like me. After I had uncorked maybe twenty of these homemade fairy tales, it occurred to me that I should write some of them down. Now I wish that I’d written down every single one. I made up stories for years, and the only ones I managed to put on paper are in SHADOWLAND. (The best one is about why frogs leap and croak.)
Traditional fairy tales, which I began to investigate soon after I started making up my own, pervade this novel. The beautiful story called “The King of the Cats” is the novel in miniature. Rose Armstrong is Hans Christian Anderson’s Little Mermaid, who accepts human form and ever walks across nails and razor blades. Tom Flanagan and Del Nightingale step in and out of the skins of the lost, wandering children inhabiting the Brothers Grimm’s compilations of folk tales, and the Brothers Grimm inhabit Coleman Collins’ mansion.
That same year, I had been moved by John Fowles’ novel, THE MAGUS, which suggested a way to unite the powerful strangeness resulting from the oral tradition with more conventional narrative satisfactions. No one familiar with THE MAGUS who reads SHADOWLAND can fail to notice Fowles’ influence on me, which was profound and pervasive: but this influence was above all liberating, not enslaving. Fowles demonstrated how the seductive uncertainty implicit in theatrical illusion and, even more importantly, the emotional effects of this uncertainty, could find expression in a narrative that itself moved through successive layers of surprise, doubt, suspicion, and uncertainty.
What disrupted the familiar process was an abrupt shot across the bows from my accountant. My previous and still as yet unpublished novel, Ghost Story, had begun to alchemize a startling quantity of moolah, ninety-five per cent of which James Callaghan’s bloodthirsty Department of Inland Revenue would have for lunch were I not to accept banishment from the United Kingdom – “yesterday,” the accountant said. So after a brief flurry of packing, off to America we sailed, the three of us, on the QE2. There was an agreeable rented house on Crooked Mile Road in Westport, Connecticut, and by the end of the summer, we had signed the papers for an older, larger, even more agreeable house on Westport’s Beachside Avenue. By September, the architect, the contractor, and a platoon of carpenters had turned the place into a beehive.
I wrote the middle third of SHADOWLAND in what would be its dedicatee’s bedroom as soon as all the worker bees had vacated my brand-new office on the floor above. Up there, in the best workplace I’ve ever had or will have, I began the final third, still writing by hand in big journals. In mid-December, 1979, my publishers, Coward McCann & Geoghegan, demanded a finished manuscript in two months. They had already bought the cover of Publisher’s Weekly to advertise the book as an October publication. Somehow, I wish I could remember how, I found Barbara Bouchard, a wonderful woman in my neighborhood married to an official at the U.N. and willing to do typing. Every couple of days, after finishing another stretch of pages I walked over my lawn to Beachside Avenue and over the little stone bridge at the entrance of Burying Hill Beach to Barbara Bouchard’s pretty white house, where Barbara took me to a room on the second floor, settled herself down before her trusty Underwood, me in another chair behind her, and medium-like, flawlessly, typed every word I read aloud to her from my journal. Together, we sailed along to the end of the novel. What an immense satisfaction – it was exactly like telling a story.