I think it's fair to say that the role of the artist is to attempt the impossible--to paint what cannot be painted, sculpt what cannot be sculpted, write what cannot be written. In fact, any artist who shuns the impossible and settles for what is easily accomplished is not really much of an artist.
In 1978 I started writing a book that was completely impossible. It didn't occur to me at the time that it was impossible, and in fact I finished it in about six months (or thought I had). I sent it to a literary agent, who found it fascinating--but thought it would be impossible to sell. I took his word for it and decided to write it a different way . . . which proved to be impossible.
After a thousand pages, I could see no end in sight. I threw away this second version and wrote a third; after penning a thousand pages (and in those days I did use a pen), there was still no end in sight. I started a fourth version that bore no resemblance to the first three. When it was close enough to being finished to show to someone, I sent it to a different literary agent, who found it fascinating--but thought it would be impossible to sell.
Since I was finding it difficult to produce a version that actually reached a satisfactory conclusion, I decided to issue the fifth version in parts, and simply to write as many parts as were needed. The first three parts were brilliant--the best writing I'd ever done--and, publishing and distributing them myself, I achieved quite an impressive local underground following in the Santa Fe area. But the fourth part would not come, though I worked on it for months. Like the previous ones, the fifth version was a failure.
Nevertheless, it gave me an idea of how I might go about writing a sixth version, which, amazingly, I actually finished. Quite confident now, I sent it off to the same agent who had found the first version fascinating. He didn't find the sixth version fascinating, however. He thought it was drivel. Even worse, he told me I was wasting my evident talent on this material, because nothing I could ever do with it would make it publishable.
By this time seven years had passed, and I was ready for a vacation. I decided to spend it tackling something that was easily accomplished, which turned out to be a novel called Dreamer. It wasn't a bad novel, merely a possible one. My agent immediately recognized as marketable, and it was sold, published, praised briefly, and forgotten, as such books generally are.
I went back to work on version six of my impossible book, cutting it in half to produce a seventh version that I thought I might be able to sell myself to one publisher or another. No one was interested.
There remained an eighth version to be written, which I needn't describe at length here, because it won the largest prize ever given to a single work of fiction and went on to become an international bestseller in twenty languages. This was Ishmael, a book my agent had assured me was impossible to write. He wasn't far wrong (after all, it had taken me about a dozen years to write it), but I fired him all the same.
About four years after finishing Ishmael I conceived another impossible novel. In this novel, our universe had come to an end--and had begun retracing its steps backwards through time. When it reached a point roughly corresponding to the year 2040 of our own era, the hero of my novel (a man named Adam Taylor) would be born. The novel would open when he was about thirty years old.
I found, however, that it was impossible to write a novel about someone living backwards in time. I should say that it was impossible for me to write a novel about someone living backwards in time. Perhaps another writer could do it.
I put the idea away. After all, I had plenty of other impossible novels to work on.
I tinkered with one called The Holy, which I'd started in about 1989 (and which my agent confidently assured me was impossible). I tinkered with it, but it remained impossible. I went on to other projects.
Then one day in 1995 I got a call from a stranger, Michael Taylor of Boyle-Taylor Productions. He explained that, having read and been impressed by Ishmael, he wondered if I had a screenplay he could look at with an eye to production.
I said, "You mean a screenplay of Ishmael."
"No," he said, "I don't really think it's possible to do Ishmael as a feature film. I was wondering if you had something else entirely."
I told him I didn't at the moment but that I could have something else. "I have a story idea that won't work as a novel, but it would work as a film."
He told me that if I wrote it as a script he'd be glad to have a look at it.
I spent the next few months writing a screenplay about a man living backwards in time. It opened this way:
EXT. -- A COUNTRY CEMETERY -- DAY
The film begins with a long shot of that most ordinary of film-opening scenes, the grave-side service, attended by all the usual people: the husband of the deceased (ADAM TAYLOR), the mother of the deceased (HELEN CRANE), a MINISTER, and a handful of friends: DOUG, HARRY, JENNIFER, PAUL, TERESA. The film runs for some time before we begin to see that this is not the ordinary grave-side service after all. The casket, instead of being lowered into the grave, is being drawn up out of the grave. The flowers on the casket, instead of falling from the mourners' hands, leap up into the mourners' hands. By now it should be clear that this is a burial scene in reverse motion.
The minister opens his prayer book and begins to read aloud--unintelligibly (since it's in reverse). When he's finished, he closes his book, looks around, nods, and the mourners begin to back away from the grave toward their cars. Adam, a man in his late thirties, is the last to leave.
Finally he too begins to back away toward the cars. After a few steps he looks over his shoulder, and his eyes meet those of Mrs. Crane. He turns back to the grave site and the camera turns with him, producing a blur pan. When it ends, we're seeing the scene from Adam's point of view. He and the others are no longer backing toward their cars, they're walking in the normal way. From his point of view (and therefore from ours), the action of the film is taking place in forward motion (and continues to do so from this point on).
Echoing the verdict given on the first version of the book that ultimately became Ishmael, Michael Taylor told me that The Man Who Grew Young was fascinating--but would never be produced as a film. As I had in the other case, I took his word for it.
It might have been left at that if not for a further intervention by Ishmael. Always a wonderful matchmaker, this book brought me into contact with Tim Eldred, a young Californian who wanted to know if he could mount a not-for-profit dramatic reading of it. As we discussed it, I learned that he was a comic-book artist, and he sent me some published samples of his work. Seeing these, I realized that, even if The Man Who Grew Young couldn't be a film, it could certainly be a graphic novel. After reading the screenplay, Tim eagerly agreed to work with me on it.
And work it was--far more than I imagined--most of it being done by Tim, of course, since the scenario (my contribution) was already in place. In reality, Tim single-handedly turned The Man Who Grew Young into a film-on-paper, donning every film-making hat in turn--casting director, costume-designer, property-master, location manager, set-decorator, lighting director, director of "photography," and director. That he did his work with extraordinary brilliance is evident at a glance, and no author could be happier than I am with this astonishing realization of my concept.
Having said all this, I must hurry on. An impossible screenplay is awaiting my attention--and after that two of the most impossible novels I've ever dreamed of.
I can hardly wait to get at them!
(And, by the way, that other "impossible" novel, The Holy, will be published by Context Books in the fall of 2002.)
Houston, April 2001
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