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Tom Adelstein

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Patricia Highsmith - Comfortable in Her Skin
By Tom Adelstein   
Rated "G" by the Author.
Last edited: Tuesday, July 31, 2012
Posted: Tuesday, July 31, 2012

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Her first novel -"Two men on a Train"-became an Alfred Hitchcock Hit. "The Talented Mr. Ripley" boosted Matt Damon's Career.

 I picked up on Patricia Highsmith while reading James Frey's "How to write a damn good thriller". He mentioned "Strangers on a Train"  and made reference to Alfred Hitchcock's movie. I saw the movie many years ago and remembered the suspense. That gave rise to a Google search for Patricia's biography, which led to more information, images and finally the purchase of her book, "Plotting and Writing Suspense Fiction".

 She  grew up a few miles from me in Ft. Worth, Texas. Granted a generation divides us, but after reading her book, I felt like I had just met a good friend. At that time, I was feeling a lot of cognitive dissonance about my new circumstances. My ways of working didn't work in my current circumstances: loads of free time to think.


She lived a solitary life, except for her cats. She did a good job of building an edifice where she could get on with her writing. I felt validated in the I way was conducting myself as a writer. Not so much because  it's a solitary life, but because she loved to write and moved around on her own terms.


I couldn't have guessed that a book on plotting suspense would have effected me in such a personal way. Call it serendipity. I wanted to find a book on writing mysteries; learned from James Frey that "in a mystery, the hero has a mission to find a killer.  In a thriller, the hero has a mission to foil evil". I had much more interest in a thriller, discovered the elements of suspense and found the woman who wrote "The Talented Mr. Ripley."


Talk about suspense and I went looking for the trail left behind by Patricia.  I think her biography by Joan Schenkar The Secret Life and Serious Art of Patricia Highsmith St. Martin’s Press is well done Creative Non-Fiction. I'm sure Ms. Schenkar's research is impeccable and I commend her on her hard work and wonderful book. As an analyst, I get two different vibes from what I read by Patricia.


In an article by Jeanette Winterson (who I truly admire) she wrote:


"Highsmith left 8,000 pages of diaries and ­“cahiers,” but as Joan Schenkar notes in “The Talented Miss Highsmith,” she forged, fabricated and altered where necessary, just like her antihero Ripley. ­She lied all the time — to her lovers, to her friends, to the tax authorities, to publishers, agents, journalists, and to posterity. Lying about the facts was her way of telling the truth — as she understood it."  New York Times Sunday Book Review, December 16th 2009."



I believe that she fabricated the information she left behind. I identify with the work of the author who wrote "Plotting and Writing Suspense Fiction" in her inherent demeanor. Something seems incongruent between Patricia's way of being and the life Ms. Schenkar's portrayed from the record.


If Pat was gay as portrayed by Schenkar in her book - so what?


Patricia Highsmith was as secretive as an oyster. She enjoyed the closeted hidden underground world of the gay scene in ’40s and ’50s New York and ’60s and ’70s Paris. She traveled in search of fresh encounters, and to rid herself of too much that could be known by others. (ibid)



I don't really care. Is it true ? I don't know and as I said, don't care. She was who she was and her work says much more to me than 8,000 pages of diaries and cahiers . I'm not going to judge Patricia Highsmith in that way.


That's my take and as we all know, history is an interpretation of events. Character is not and I have a knack for spotting character. I liked her character.


- - - - - - -


I found many jewels in "Plotting and Writing Suspense Fiction".  I can't believe she was an inconsiderate, rude and "hard to get alone with" curmudgeon.  Her writing betrays her character and I assert she was caring, intimate, open and caring some more. She also knew her boundaries and didn't have much truck for people that considered her a curiosity.


Patricia Highsmith (January 19, 1921 – February 4, 1995) convinced me that paying the bills, going for a walk or a train ride was okay when I didn't have the inspiration to move forward in a novel. I don't procrastinate and neither did she. According to her own words, she lived on the edge of emotion and let her  inspiration speak.



She refused to compromise for the almighty buck, sometimes she struggled without much money, but she lived life her way and stayed committed to her beliefs.


She gave me some incredible insights like: you have to like and care about your main character: "A reader cares if the personages of the story are worth caring about."


Her sense of joy:


I end this with a feeling that I have left something out, something vital. I have. It is individuality, it is the joy of writing, which cannot really be described, cannot be captured in words and handed to someone else to share or to make use of. It is the strange power that work has to transform a room, any room, into something special very special for a writer who has work there, sweated and cursed and maybe known a few minutes of triumph and satisfaction there. I have many such rooms in my memory - a tiny one in Ambach, near Munich, with a ceiling so low I could not stand up at one end of it...



Marks of quality:


The suspense writer can improve his lot and the reputation of the suspense novel by putting into his books the qualities that have always made novels good - insight, character, an opening of new horizons for the imagination of the reader.



Does the reader care about him?


Above all, one should find out the general impression the book makes in its present form. Is the hero too priggish, tough, humorless, selfish? Is he admirable, if you want him to be admirable? DOES THE READER CARE ABOUT HIM?



She further writes: Be honest about the last question. It is not about liking the hero. It is caring whether he goes free, or caring that if he is caught rightly in the end and it is being interested in him, pro or con.


The germ of an idea


The first person you should think about pleasing, in writing a book, is yourself. If you can amuse yourself for the length of time it takes to write a book, the publishers and the readers can and will come later.










Web Site: The Lonely Author

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