Betsy Carter is a wonderful writer and a wonderful friend. She’s the author of three novels–The Puzzle King, Swim to Me, and The Orange Blossom Special–published by Algonquin. Her memoir, Nothing to Fall Back On, was a national best seller and is now coming out as an e-book. She was editorial director of Esquire, executive editor of Harper’s Bazaar, editor-in chief of New Woman, and to top that she was the founding editor-in-chief of New York Woman.
She wrote this guest post wearing her novelist’s hat.
Her name was Lillie Doucet. An actress, known for her quick wit and exuberant personality, she could chew up a comic scene like nobody’s business. Cole Porter wrote songs for her, and Moss Hart, three original sketches. At forty-one, she was pretty enough. Tall, almost ungainly, with curly red hair and bold blue eyes, she had a surprisingly sweet girlish voice. Okay, so she drank a little too much, and threw notorious tantrums–as in weeping, screaming, throwing pillows and smashing perfume bottles–but these were certainly not reasons enough to knock the poor woman off.
Lillie and I shared nearly two years and 175 pages together. I was writing her story, which began at the Ziegfeld Theater on the evening of April 12, 1945. She was starring in a musical revue called The Seven Lively Arts, and was about to step on stage at 8:28…But wait, I’ve already written this part:
The orchestra had played only the first two chords of the glossy little intro to her sketch when Philip Loeb, the show’s director, got up from his front row aisle seat and walked to the center of the proscenium. He knelt down and whispered to the conductor, who signaled for the orchestra to stop playing. Loeb stood up, straightened the creases in his trousers and raised both hands like a traffic cop. “I have a terrible announcement to make,” he said, “but out of respect to the memory of the President of the United States this show cannot go on.”
He took off his wire-rimmed glasses and rubbed his eyes as he waited for the audience’s response. But all that came back at him were flutters of puzzlement. Clasping his hand together, he spoke again, this time in a louder and firmer voice: “President Roosevelt has just died.”
At 8:32, dressed in her dowdy English matron’s costume, Lillie Doucet walked off the stage with nothing more than a balding fox stole wrapped around her shoulders, and disappeared.
My novel was about Lillie and her unique tie to President Roosevelt. Together, we roamed through Central Park and New York’s Upper West Side and attended Roosevelt’s funeral at Hyde Park. Along the way we met a young unwed mother from North Carolina; an Irish woman with two ex-husbands; a recent German immigrant, a former ophthalmologist who took in stray dogs. The story was about that day in history, about Roosevelt’s death and how one woman’s life became upended because of it.
I wrote every day, something I particularly enjoy when I can get into my characters’ heads and anticipate their words and actions. The book took on some force and energy but I began noticing that whenever it came time to write about Lillie, I’d discover a jagged nail and rummage around for an emery board. Or I’d remember it was time to order from Fresh Direct, or that the dog had tracked mud on the living room floor and I needed to wash it. Or I should call for a haircut appointment. You get the picture.
I had to face facts. Lillie was spoiled and churlish and sulked when not all the attention was focused on her. A diva is a diva and Lillie Doucet (rhymes with “my way”) was certainly that. I know people like this, who suck up all the air in the room and wait impatiently until it’s their turn to speak. I don’t like those people. And slowly it was dawning on me: neither did I like Lillie.
It’s one thing to write characters who are difficult and unlikable; I’ve done it and it’s actually fun. But there has to be something tender or vulnerable about them if you’re to make them sympathetic. I couldn’t find those pieces in Lillie. I began to have pitiless thoughts about her. A car accident? A fiendish ex-husband? An accidental overdose? Nothing made sense. Without Lillie, there was no story. Without Lillie, 175 pages and nearly two years of my life had no context. I started having a churning feeling in my gut, the kind you get before you get really sick. This book wasn’t working.
I suppose at heart all writers are murderers. I’d killed off plenty of characters in my time, but never a whole book. Before I became a novelist, I was a magazine editor. One of the great things about being an editor is you get to say things to writers like: “This character isn’t fully realized,” or “You’re not writing from the heart,” then go off and have a latte and not give it a second thought. The editor in me was screaming those exact words to the writer in me. The book was dead. The editor in me knew it long before the writer did and neither of us got the latte.
Now, nearly two years later, I’m well into a novel that has three main characters: an immigrant from Germany, an Irish woman with two ex-husbands, and a young unwed mother from North Carolina. President Roosevelt is very much alive in this one, and what started out being a book about a single day has now turned into a story spanning nearly one hundred years. My characters are complicated, not all sympathetic, but I know them and like them flaws and all.
But every now and then, while I’m writing, a sweet girlish voice pops in my head, and the swell of an orchestra about to break into some wonderful Cole Porter number. Lillie Doucet. I think of her fondly. May she rest in peace.
Just in somebody else’s book, not mine.
FYI / Independent Bookstores from Coast to Coast
The Golden Notebook, Woodstock, NY
Annie Bloom’s Books, Portland, OR
Changing Hands Bookstore, Tempe and Phoenix, AZ