This site is about my work, that of my late father, the historian William Manchester, and one thing that still binds us: my memoir Escaping the Giant. It's a story of a father and son and the 1960s.
A few days ago I got an email confirming that something I suggested to someone a few months ago had resulted in a cool thing. Nothing scandalous, but it made a fun story.
Something. Someone. Thing. Nothing. No, this is not an exercise in bad (i.e., purposely vague) writing. Please read on.
So I thought -why not blog about it? I asked the source of the email and they said, “No! Under no circumstances! You can’t write about it!” As I value my relationship with this person, I agreed. So I can’t tell you who or what or when or anything.
“You can’t write.” Not the first time I’ve heard that.
Right about now if you, the reader, are anything like me, or anything like anybody else, you’re getting irritated. Tell me! Come on, just a hint. Promise, I won’t tell anyone. (Sure you won’t.) But my word is good. I Ain’t tellin.
Here’s the thing. You’re not the only one feeling frustrated here. There’s nothing quite like being a writer and stumbling on a good story, only to have someone tell you you can’t tell it. It’s almost physically painful.
You Can’t Write About Me is the title of my first novel. It begins with a guy who’s writing a memoir and calls up an old girlfriend. She’s happy to hear from him until she finds out what he’s doing. She commands, “You can’t write about me,” and hangs up.
He sits there skewered on the horns of a terrible dilemma. Yeah, when they were together it was her life, and she deserves her privacy. But that time was also a piece of his life, and he deserves to write about it. Being a fictional writer, with no lawyers or burly husbands or actual propriety to worry about, he writes about her. Then he writes about other people who don’t want him to. Before you know it he’s wishing he hadn’t. (No spoilers, but suffice it to say he has more than his guilt and a pissed off ex after him.)
Janet Malcolm of the New Yorker once wrote, “Writers are vampires.” She was talking about Joe McGinniss’s book about Jeffery MacDonald, the “green beret killer,” how the writer had befriended the killer, then betrayed him by writing a scathing (and bestselling) expose of him.
We’re all vampires, all of us writers. I’m not proud of it, but I’ll admit to honing my long incisors before venturing out in public. Never know when you’ll get hungry.
Nobody’s safe. An old, old friend got in touch after 40 years. It was great to talk to him. It was great seeing the PBS piece he sent celebrating a long illustrious career fighting injustice. But by the time I was done watching I’d ripped off his beard, hair and high school sport and grafted them onto a character in my latest book.
Nobody who eats in the same restaurant with me is safe. Don’t talk too loud or I’ll mine you for dialog. And don’t even think of fighting. I love that stuff! Your hipster fedora, your girlfriend’s vocal creak, the exact microbrew you’re right now quaffing are all slotted away awaiting reincarnation in a scene I’ll write.
I spent a long time working on a memoir about my father and me and the 1960s. My deepest motivation was a desire to tell the truth. I’d never had the courage to tell my father the truth when he was alive, nor he the courage to tell me his. All the members of my family, including me, had our lips somehow magically sealed so that we could never tell each other what we wanted, what we felt. We all shoved everything that mattered into a great closet filled with clattering skeletons, whispered desires and unspoken sorrows.
I found that telling my truth in a memoir was much harder than I thought it would be. There were living people whose secrets I could not betray. And there were things even the dead did not want revealed. Hardest was finding a way to craft my truth into words that someone would want to read. My biggest problem was that I was too close to the material. I couldn’t achieve the essential quality of narrative distance. And without it I couldn’t tell what was good story, and what was just stuff that carried a potent emotion charge for me, but would just bore a reader. After seven drafts, and seven years –like something in a fairy tale - I let it rest.
And started writing fiction. I didn’t do it because I’d always dreamed of being a novelist. On the contrary, I consider novelists an impoverished, whiny, catty, miserable lot, somewhere in the nether ranks of society between musicians and psychokillers.
It was not ambition that brought me to fiction, but the solution to the problem of “You can’t write about me.” No, I can’t write about you, but I can write about my fictional character Ray, and everyone he knows.
Writing fiction also solved the thorny problem of getting the right narrative distance. I was surprised to discover that my made up stories (which the reader might suspect had quite a bit of real life woven in) were actually truer than my memoir. Yes, the “facts” were made up. But the emotional truth was there. Working at the canvas of a novel I found it easy to step back, see what my brushstrokes had evoked, see the whole, because it was not my life. Not my life, but my truth.
So I’m very sorry, for you, and for me, that I can’t tell you this neat story I heard this week. But if you hang around my work, I will tell it in one form or another. I promise.
Twenty-four years ago my father began work on the third volume of his Winston Churchill, The Last Lion. He died without completing it. In a weeks weeks Little, Brown will finally publish it.
This Sunday's New York Times Magazine tells one version of how it was written:
Early reviews have been stellar.
The second volume of the late Manchester’s Churchill biography (The Last Lion: Alone, 1988) left its audience in suspense with Churchill’s appointment as British prime minister in May 1940 and in anticipation of how Manchester would present Churchill’s and Britain’s finest hour in WWII. Foiled by illness, Manchester tapped Paul Reid, who has magnificently completed Manchester’s work. Opening with a character sketch of Churchill in his multifaceted guises of sentimentality, egotistical insensitivity, and brilliance, Reid dives into Churchill’s war leadership in 1940 that is the cynosure of his place in history. Reid’s got the research right, down to the day, down to the minute. He shows Churchill defying Hitler and appeasers––the French leadership and figures in the British government––who even in 1940 thought peace could be arranged with the triumphant Nazis. As Reid chronicles Churchill’s public speeches, communications, and strategy sessions, he affords regular glimpses at Churchill’s private aspects—his wittiness, sybaritic consumption of scotch and cigars, and moods bordering on depression. If reading Churchill’s life after 1945 entails an unavoidably anticlimactic quality, Reid nevertheless ably chronicles its main events of writing his WWII memoirs and assuming his second premiership of 1951–55. Manchester was one of the best Churchill biographers, and this capstone to his magnum opus ought not be missed.
— Gilbert Taylor
Before his death in 2004, an ill Manchester asked former Cox newspapers journalist Reid to take his research notes and finish writing the final volume of his trilogy. The long-delayed majestic account of Winston Churchill’s last 25 years is worth the wait. Sixty-five when he became Britain’s prime minister in 1940, Churchill remained a Victorian aristocrat, self-indulgent, coddled by servants. Yet his vitality, charisma, and self-assurance made him a perfect leader in a crisis. During his first year, when Britain fought Nazi Germany alone, Churchill, say the authors, may have saved civilization. Once the U.S.S.R. and U.S. joined, Britain’s role declined but not Churchill’s energy. While FDR left war to his generals, Churchill poured out ideas, many of them imaginative failures (the bloody landing at Anzio) or simply bad (early opposition to invading France). Despite Churchill’s unparalleled popularity, his Conservative party was defeated in July 1945. Though devastated, Churchill remained the party leader, returning to office in 1951 to preside over a declining empire and escalating cold war until a repeatedly postponed retirement in 1955. Manchester (and Reid) matches the outstanding quality of biographers such as Robert Caro and Edmund Morris, joining this elite bank of writers who devote their lives to one subject. 32 pages of b&w photos, 6 maps. (Nov.)
A (very) posthumous study of the late, great British leader by the late, great popular historian, aided by journalist Reid.
Just before Manchester (A World Lit Only by Fire: The Medieval Mind and the Renaissance—Portrait of an Age, 1992, etc.) died in 2004, he handed over the task of finishing his Churchill biography to Reid, who retains Manchester’s habit of writing at extreme length, and it’s clear where Manchester left off in his own primary research: Though the book spans the years 1940 to Churchill’s death in 1965, roughly only one-tenth of it covers the “lion’s” last 20 years, while the vast bulk is given over—fittingly enough—to Churchill’s leadership as British prime minister during World War II. The documentation would not pass a professional historian’s muster, but Manchester never wrote for historians, and general readers, as always, will be taken by his boundless abilities as a storyteller. Manchester also saw patterns that may not have been apparent to most other writers. Whereas Hitler was famously known as an artist manqué, Churchill “came at every issue with a painter’s eye,” whether developing a battle plan for the invasion of Italy or “parsing geopolitical matters such as continental hegemony.” The great-man theory of history, too, may be passé in academia, but Manchester/Reid gladly subscribe to it, with an account of the friendship of Churchill and Franklin Roosevelt (and rivalry with Josef Stalin) that is both searching and unsentimental. The authors clearly admire Churchill, for reasons that they make evident throughout, but there is little in the way of hero worship. Indeed, their critical account of Operation Torch—which Dwight Eisenhower exaggeratedly called “the blackest day in history”—is thorough and convincing, and it does not reflect well on the cigar-chomping PM. The manuscript is replete with Manchester’s journalistic flourishes, some of which cross into cliché, and it’s as much a monument to the author as to its subject.
Essential for Manchester collectors, WWII buffs and Churchill completists.
Up to now I have stayed out of the political arena with my blog. But a recent story brought up some painful memories, and sparked some thoughts I wanted to share. They were well received over at Open Salon, and the editors at the good men project - an interesting and well-trafficked online magazine - asked me if they could publish it there. The piece is Bully.
FINAL BOOK OF CHURCHILL TRILOGY COMING THIS FALL
By HILLEL ITALIE, AP National Writer – 4 days ago NEW YORK (AP) —
The third and final volume of the late William Manchester's beloved series on Winston Churchill is coming out this fall, nearly 25 years since the previous book. In November, Little, Brown and Company will publish "The Last Lion: Winston Spencer Churchill: Defender of the Realm, 1940-1965." The new work was started by Manchester and completed by Paul Reid, a former writer for Cox Newspapers. Manchester, who began the Churchill series in the 1980s, was in poor health during his latter years and asked Reid to take over the project. Little, Brown spokeswoman Nicole Dewey said Sunday that the first two biographies had sold hundreds of thousands of copies and that the publisher still receives frequent inquiries about the third book. Manchester died in 2004 at age 82. Copyright © 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.
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