It's a relationship killer. A lover of literature gets the inkling that he wants to be a creator of it, and suddenly the benign literary idols of his youth look distinctly more sinister, and they throw onto his ambition devastating shadows of creative brilliance. One such figure for me was the preeminent English author John Fowles, author of such classic works as The Collector, The Magus and The French Lieutenant's Woman.
There were three of us that day, three fledgling writers in the final weeks of a master's program at the University of Exeter: me, Caroline (the girl I would marry) and the Fowles-crazed Morwenna. We didn't know much more than what Morwenna's father had told us. That John Fowles lived in a crumbling pink mansion in the seaside hamlet of Lyme Regis. That John Fowles was a recluse. That John Fowles didn't take kindly to visitors.
So we packed our Fowles first-editions and several good pens and went looking for him.
Lyme Regis is the kind of English town that might be counterfeit. Misty coastlines and bucolic countryside, mackerel fishing, cobblestone streets, fabulously askew tudor buildings, quiet pubs. It's a place of singular atmosphere. It figures that Fowles was inspired to set The French Lieutenant's Woman here, and it figures that Hollywood pounced on an adaptation.
We toured the town, Morwenna pinpointing the locations used in the film starring Meryl Streep and Jeremy Irons. All the while we searched for the numinous presence of Fowles. A small bookshop downtown had a case dedicated to his work, but the owner ignored our inquiries about the pink house, as did everyone else.
Sometime in the afternoon we went out onto the great arm of stone that reaches into the Atlantic. This is Cobb Harbour, the ancient wall that has sheltered seafarers for centuries. It's also the setting of the film's most famous and lampooned image: the heroine, hooded, gazing out to sea for her long-lost husband. We walked out platformed above the ocean, leaning into the wind. At the tip of the Cobb, waves slapping the boulders below, Morwenna produced a black cloak from her bag. She swept it over her shoulders, her giggle yielding to a look of Streepian anguish.
It was from this point that we saw the house, nestled deep into the foliage of the cliffside.
We stood at the threshold of an open wood gate. If not for a car parked in the balding gravel driveway, we would have taken the house to be abandoned. An untamed garden rose above the high stone walls. The proximity to Fowles—the man, the author, there was no distinction—disabled me entirely. It was all very Fowlesian. The front door was just visible through the mist and it was Caroline who took the first step towards it.
I don't remember who knocked. We heard movement and finally the door cracked open. A woman's slender, exasperated face appeared.
Is this the house where John Fowles lives?
He's my husband. Can't you see I'm on the phone?
We explained that we were students, that we were great fans, we chorused our many apologies for the disruption, we didn't mean to disturb them.
Why would you be here if you don't want to disturb us?
Then she opened the door fully and told us to come in if we must. We followed her, nauseous with anticipation, down a long hallway. She turned abruptly into another room, now openly bitching about us to her phone partner, and motioned for us to continue down the hallway. The inside of the house was full of light and art and wonderful objects.
You have visitors, John.
We stepped into a high-ceilinged living room and there he was. Small and gray and fragile, sunken into a leather chair. His right hand was wrapped around the top of a walker. A Rolf Harris art program was on the television, muted.
I don't really have narratives about becoming a writer; I have narratives about almost not becoming a writer. I had been writing seriously for some time, had passed through a blissful phase of creative naiveté, and was in a place of real discouragement and doubt. I was due to return to California, get an actual job. If I entered that house feeling intimidated by Fowles and writers like him, I left feeling inspired.
We moved tentatively into the room, guarded against the author's famous cantankerousness. He didn't seem to notice us until we were several meters away. In an unsteady voice he apologized (he to us!), he was going blind and deaf, we would have to come closer, we would have to speak up. We each shook his hand and then he motioned for us to take a seat on a giant leather couch.
We had known that Fowles had suffered a stroke in 1988 which had severely impaired his creative faculties. Still, it was startling to see this man, a god of other worlds, so withered and diminished. It was utterly incompatible. It exaggerated a very simple lesson, which I had apparently understood only in the abstract: authors are human beings, susceptible to basic human fallibility. And humans can disappoint in ways that idols cannot.
We spoke with Fowles for over an hour. We talked about writing, about his career, about our ambitions, and at some point my disappointment reverted into admiration. Admiration not of the author, but of the man. Fowles was kind and generous and, though perhaps dulled by his ailments, sharp nonetheless. Later, as we finally made our goodbyes, Fowles said something that still echoes in my everyday. He said, the writers who succeed are the writers who write. And that's the best damn piece of craft advice ever to come my way.
Two months later, in November 2005, John Fowles died. I like to think that we were the last pilgrims to be offered a seat on his couch. We never did get him to sign those books.