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Marx, Deceased: a book about productive insecurity


The greatest compliment I ever had in my life
Carl Djerassi Scientist
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When I told my wife, after I’d written my second novel, that I now will interrupt my tetralogy of science-in-fiction by writing this one which has its main character not a scientist but a writer, she said, 'You’re mad. Because while you are writing about scientists from a perspective which though not unique is very rare, because there are not many novelists who are also scientists, and you write about scientific behaviour and culture rather than writing science fiction or something like that, here you are writing about a writer. Well, there are thousands of books that have been written about writers by writers who know a hell of a lot more about it than you do, even though you’ve written two novels. So my advice to you is not to do it.'

Well, I ignored that advice, not because I usually ignore her critical literary advice which is usually very good and very sophisticated, but because of my emotional need to write this. And I didn’t quite realise what that emotional need was until I started writing it. And I’d really worked quite well when I wrote this, namely that I found myself cannibalising my first novel, Middles, which I promised not to publish. But I didn’t promise not to cannibalise it subtly and it is cannibalised in quite a number of places here. So I did something that I didn’t usually do. I did not show the manuscript... the work in progress to my wife. Usually we do show each other that... not every page necessarily or even every chapter, but periodically. And comment on it... each other's. I didn’t in this case, because I thought if she doesn’t approve, I don’t need that sort of crap. I’ll get it from the reviewers and others anyway. I don’t need to get it at home as well. And I said, 'All right, you'll get it only when it gets published or, if I get a publisher, when it gets published.' And it was accepted quite... fairly quickly. So then I got the bound galleys, so they already look like a paperback. They even have a cover. And I thought that I would give it to her, because that was already... the book would appear very shortly thereafter. And I gave it to her on one of our trips from San Francisco to London for airplane reading, because there, you know, you are not interrupted and there’s plenty of time. And I still remember what I had. I brought with me a Trollope novel, which was, sort of, 700 pages. You know, it was fine print. It was this thick and you could see mine, let’s say, which was a paperback and was even thinner than this. So she was reading this and I was reading Trollope. I was reading Trollope, not only because I want to read Trollope, but in preparation for my next novel because I wanted to read something about the stylistic manner of Trollope who at times addresses the reader and suddenly says, 'Dear reader'. And I want to use something like that in my next novel. But I read... for here's Trollope and I read it like this, but I read like this, always looking sideways at my wife who was reading this way. I mean, severe... and I thought, oh my God. You know, not a crack of a smile whenever I looked. Completely no expression, just reading a book.

Well, you know, you can read this in probably three hours and she’s a fast reader anyway, so maybe like this... There... it's now my wife I'm playing... I ought to tell you what she always calls me. She does not call me Carl. If she would ever call me Carl, I would shake in my boots because then it's very serious.  She always calls me 'Chemist'. Now that’s a very funny thing to do, because I’m the only chemist she’d ever met at that time. And then she does it... can do it very affectionately, but she always calls me 'Chemist'. So when you’d be on the street, she’d say, 'Chemist', you know as I would say, 'Diane', or something. Although I don’t call her usually Diane either. I have another name for her. But... said, 'Chemist', so you need to know this. So here she is now on the last page, she does it this way... 'Chemist, this is good.'

That was the greatest compliment I ever had in my life, because it was reluctant and it was an admission of a very sophisticated critic which I knew who was against the thing, and yet I overcame that barrier, and that pleased me more than any other statement I think I’ve ever gotten about anything I’ve written before or since. So that was a very important thing for me to get out of my system.

Austrian-American Carl Djerassi (1923-2015) was best known for his work on the synthesis of the steroid cortisone and then of a progesterone derivative that was the basis of the first contraceptive pill. He wrote a number of books, plays and poems, in the process inventing a new genre, 'science-in-fiction', illustrated by the novel 'Cantor's Dilemma' which explores ethics in science.

Listeners: Tamara Tracz

Tamara Tracz is a writer and filmmaker based in London.

Tags: Middles, Marx, Deceased, Diane Middlebrook, Anthony Trollope

Duration: 5 minutes, 26 seconds

Date story recorded: September 2005

Date story went live: 24 January 2008