Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

“Like catching a fish with your hands…”

with 2 comments

Martin Cruz Smith

By now, many of you have probably seen the New York Times profile that revealed that Martin Cruz Smith, the author of such acclaimed suspense novels as Gorky Park, has suffered secretly for nearly two decades from Parkinson’s disease. Any reader of his stories knows that Smith doesn’t lack for ingenuity, and he’s managed to deal with the symptoms to the extent of publishing five books over the last dozen years, with even his publisher unaware of his situation until recently. It was clearly a novelist’s nightmare: the tremors prevented him from taking notes, sketching, and ultimately even typing, and it made it increasingly hard for him to do research on location. In the end, he was able to rely on his  wife, Emily, as an amanuensis, dictating to her in his office while he typed. As Pam Belluck, the article’s author, shrewdly points out, the process was fraught with pitfalls:

Writers often “think” through their fingertips, not knowing exactly what they’ll create until their hands are at the keyboard. Could Mr. Smith, whose novels braid history, suspense, deadpan humor, and subtly surprising characters, write a book one step removed?

Yet it seems to have worked, at least to a point, although not without a lot of mental and psychic toil.  At a time when novelists increasingly use their personal stories as a sales tool, Smith’s decision to conceal his condition for so long speaks both to his desire for privacy and to a kind of ingrained pride in his tools to which all professional writers can relate: it’s hard for us to admit that we may be operating at less than our best. And it would be a mistake to give Smith the wrong kind of credit for what he’s accomplished. Working with Parkinson’s took courage and tenacity, yes, but also inventiveness, resourcefulness, and superhuman concentration, all of which are qualities that he’s shown before in his writing. Gorky Park is a model thriller that manages to pull off a difficult dance between politics, reportage, and character development, while also constructing an exciting and finely detailed mystery, and it served as a valuable source of inspiration for The Icon Thief. Any writer capable of producing such a book—not to mention so many others over the years—inevitably learns a great deal about tackling complicated, seemingly unsolvable problems.

Jorge Luis Borges

It’s impossible to know if being a novelist, who is often keenly conscious of the gap between his intentions and his capacity to perform them, really gave Smith greater resources to cope with his condition, but his case reminds me of other writers who have been forced to work under similarly difficult constraints. Borges, of course, went blind, and although it represented an undeniable loss to his fiction, he dealt with it by switching focus, moving away from the intricately literate stories of his early period to poems, fables, lectures, and tales drawn from his own memory of Argentina. Solzhenitsyn suffered from a different kind of deprivation: in the gulag, he had a fellow prisoner make him a rosary out of pellets of bread, which allowed him to compose and memorize long passages of poetry without access to pen or paper. None of these writers went so far as to romanticize their predicaments, and I don’t doubt that Borges would have gladly accepted the return of his eyesight and Solzhenitsyn of his writing materials. But it’s a testament to the power of our need to tell stories that it repeatedly survives under the most trying circumstances.

Cruz, not surprisingly, describes his experience with the vividness of a writer who has had a great deal of time to think about what it means and how it feels. Writing by dictation is “like playing football, except you’ve got two quarterbacks.” Typing with Parkinson’s “was like catching a fish with your hands.” And most memorably: “It’s not like Hillary conquering Everest. It’s like Mallory never coming down.” And his efforts speak volumes about the impossibility of giving up the act of telling stories. Smith’s books have done well; if this were simply about earning a living or seeing his name in print, he could have retired long ago. But writing is central to who authors are, and that impulse breaks out against even the most daunting of odds. Noting that he sometimes fails to find the first word he wants, Smith finds a particularly writerly way of putting the situation into a better light: “I like new ways of expressing things. It makes the work alive.” And after revealing that he sometimes suffers from hallucinations, including a black dog that appears in unexpected places, he notes drily: “Having hallucinations for a fiction writer is redundant.”

Written by nevalalee

November 13, 2013 at 9:05 am

2 Responses

Subscribe to comments with RSS.

  1. Terry Pratchett seems the obvious additional name here.

    One thing here is that he is using his prominence to lobby for funding, changes to laws over euthanasia, and a raft of things. So this is a case where while it is a very personal affliction that he has to work around, he is very open about the existence of the condition so he can use his ‘celebrity’ as part of his advocacy. This is unlike the writers you mention but not unlike various sports people and the like.


    November 13, 2013 at 6:26 pm

  2. Absolutely—thanks for reminding me.


    November 13, 2013 at 7:21 pm

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: