Summer of 2007: The genesis of In Pursuit . . . began in a used bookstore in a small village in southern France. I was looking for a book to read on my return flight to New York. There was one on a high dusty shelf crammed with English books. I read through the spine titles and author names. My discerning eye stopped on "The Garden Party and Other Short Stories" squeezed amongst the classics.
Katherine Mansfield? Why do I know that name? Oh yes, in Virginia Woolf’s journal she remarked that Katherine was the only writer she was ever jealous of. Why not find out why, I thought, and reached up and pulled down the thin tattered book that was just the right size for my purse. That brief moment led to my three and a half year odyssey in pursuit of Katherine Mansfield’s story.
Riveted to my airplane seat, I read her stories and discovered why Virginia Woolf was so jealous. What struggling young writer, like Virginia, wouldn’t be jealous of a contemporary writer who could put so much compassion, empathy and meaning into so few words?
But it wasn’t just Katherine’s stories that kept me riveted to my seat even as the jet landed at JFK Airport, it was reading the brief description of her life written by her husband, John Middleton Murry. I knew right then that I wanted to recreate her story.
I had reached a difficult crossroad in my own writing. I had spent that summer working on an autobiographical novel that I wasn’t at all satisfied with. I had every intention of continuing with it when I could find the time, but as Virginia Woolf said, ‘life interrupts.’ And in this case it wasn’t my life but Katherine’s that interrupted. She could not be ignored.
I had to write her story – the story of a woman who managed to cut out a brilliant and creative life for herself with everything working against her; the story of an individual’s powerful determination to surmount the limitations forced upon her by illness. I wanted to tell her story so that others might be as inspired by it as I was.
I went to my annual one-week writer’s retreat on North Carolina’s OuterBank with a weighted-down suitcase containing books by or about Katherine Mansfield. By then I had read several of her biographies, more of her short stories, the fascinating chapter in Hermione Lee’s biography of Virginia Woolf about the relationship between Virginia and Katherine, and the equally fascinating book by her caregiver, "The Memories of L.M."
Under the hot shower or before rising in the morning I was creating scenes with Katherine and Virginia, Katherine and LM, Katherine and Jack, Katherine alone.
I was anxious to write it all down.
In the isolated beach house surrounded by the tapping keyboards of four other writers deter- mined to get much work done in one week, I faced the blank page on my laptop’s monitor screen. I sat ever so still. Then I too started to tap my fingers across the keys and Katherine and Ida Baker and Jack came into my interior vision.
By the end of the week I had an opening chapter that catapulted Katherine’s story into the 21st century. Tuberculosis became lung cancer. The Bloomsbury Group became the New York literary scene. Menton was transferred to Miami. The Alps to Teyssières.
But surprisingly it was Ida’s voice that spoke, not Katherine’s. It was the voice of the caregiver, not the one being cared for. I wrote the first draft, but neither Katherine nor Ida nor Jack were comfortable in the 21st century, and nor was I.
In the second draft I moved them back into the early 20th century where I thought they belonged. I worked on this draft when I could find the time, knowing that the bulk of the work would take place the next summer in France.
I’m a freelance editor in New York City. It pays for my writing habit. In the summers my husband and I retreat to a farmhouse in southern France to plant and harvest our creative work. We bring our harvest back to the States to sell in the marketplace.
In Teyssières, I settled down in my writing room and read the second draft. I wanted to love it but the writing was forced and worse it wasn’t the story I had envisioned tell- ing. The voice was wrong. The point of view was wrong. Katherine had to tell this story, no one else could do it justice. The story wasn’t about what Ida did for Katherine, as important as that was; it was about what Katherine did for Ida. So what does a writer do when the story doesn’t work? Reams of printed pages went in the recycle bin. The only files I kept were the massive research notes I had written that included an old soapbox packed with 5 x 7 index cards.
I started a third draft, this time from Katherine’s point of view.
And that summer I visited Menton, Bandol and Fontainebleau to see Katherine’s writing haunts with my own eyes and continue my research.
My daughter Amie came with me to Bandol. We stayed at a hotel literally overhanging the Mediterranean Sea and only a short walk from Villa Pauline – so close that before I went to sleep that night Katherine’s spirit slipped under my skin and has been with me ever since.
In the car, Amie read aloud the letters written back and forth between Jack and Katherine when they were separated, and when Katherine was very ill, scared and alone. We cried together over some of the passages and I had to pull over and take a deep breath to avoid driving off a cliff. We went hat shopping in Cassis to escape from Katherine’s grip on us.
By autumn I had planted the seeds of Katherine’s story but I knew it would take much more work before the harvest.
I started to see the end of my quest as I approached the last pages of the manuscript.
Some days I was exhausted but I had a time limit and I’d have to return to New York shortly where I wouldn’t have the time to write, particularly under such suitably quiet and isolated conditions, surrounded by nature and the blossoming yellow flowers whose essence, Genêt Fleuri, was Katherine’s favorite perfume, an essence that Virginia Woolf found too earthy. I had to finish soon.
And, like Virginia, I also had Katherine’s formidable presence to deal with. She would not leave me alone – no, really. She wanted me to finish "In Pursuit . . ." so she could sink into its pages or better still rise from them.
When I took breaks and rested in a hammock under a 100-year-old walnut tree, Katherine would come to me as a monarch butterfly and sit on my shoulder.
Flapping her wings against my ear, she would whisper, ‘What are you doing? There’s work to be done. How much longer must I wait to be brought back to life?’
I revised the last chapter of my manuscript at the writers’ retreat at Outer Banks and read it to a very supportive and enthusiastic writing group. They too had become fascinated by Katherine’s life and were often coming to me with quotes and pictures they’d found on the Internet, and they read her stories for the first time.
That evening after I read the final chapter, we went to see Avatar at a local movie theatre. I felt like an Avatar myself that evening and could hardly keep still in my seat as I cheered them on to victory in a battle against the dark and evil forces. (If you haven’t already guessed I’m an avid cheerleader for the underdog.)
I returned to New York filled with anticipation and expectations. I printed my 330-page manuscript and held it in my hands for the first time.
I then wrote the perfect query letter and, after researching the most appropriate ones, sent it out to fifteen agents. All fifteen rejected me. The gatekeepers on guard at the pearly publishing houses told me it was impossible for an unpublished writer to get published in this recession-driven marketplace.
My husband and my editor never gave up on Katherine’s story and kept encouraging me to self-publish. I hesitated and then, because they’re smart guys, I took their advice and sacri- ficed a summer of reading and writing and reflecting (my favourite occupations) to get down to the business of self-publishing because Katherine wouldn’t rest in my desk drawer. In- stead, after choosing Createspace/Amazon for my printer/distributor, I spent the summer assembling a book. The details were endless and the full weight of what I had set myself up to do – produce a book from cover to cover – was overwhelming.
A cover! What would I use for the cover? In a despairing moment, a brown paper bag came to mind. Then I remembered a folder of my son Sam’s artwork in my photo library. There I found the perfect painting for the cover of "In Pursuit . . ."
As the summer weeks turned into months I copyedited my own manuscript and then proofread it. I thought of Virginia and Leonard Woolf’s Hogarth press and how all their work had been self- published. The image of Virginia bending over the ink-stained printing press to hand set Katherine’s sixty-eight-page ‘Prelude’ made what I was doing seem less arduous. I finally came home with my harvest – a completed book ready to enter the marketplace.
Was it all worthwhile? Yes! Absolutely!