Dance to the music of time; The Books Interview
A literary late-starter, Joan Brady caught up fast. So why does she shun books?
Saturday 16 January 1999
Not reading is now quite common but it is unusual, to say the least, in a novelist - a vocation that traditionally includes poring over the competition, past and present, with forensic intensity. And Joan Brady, now 59, is a cardinal amongst novelists. Her account of white slavery in her second novel, Theory of War, won the 1993 Whitbread Award and later gained her entry to what this Devon-based American describes as "the damnedest list of people you ever saw" - recipients of France's coveted Prix du Meilleur Livre Etranger.
Her problem with the written word is not the grand gesture of a much- garlanded egotist, explains Brady. An elegant, grey-haired woman in black, she reveals her past as a ballet dancer when, in one supple movement, she gets up from her armchair, closes the door to her London hotel room to shut out the noise, and lands back perfectly poised in front of me. "It's terrible, but I lost the capacity to read for pleasure, to read at all really, during my husband's illness, and it still hasn't come back."
It is a psychological block she cannot get round. "When I try to pick up a book, I find that if it's good, if it's trying to take me over a bit as all good books should, then I can't do it, so I withdraw. If it's crap, and I used to love crap, my mind now just wanders." She says this without even a hint of self-pity. Indeed the dominant note in her voice is gentle self-mockery. Her long, bony face has an almost dizzy grin.
This unAmerican flippancy is one of the hallmarks of Brady's brief but celebrated bibliography. It is much in evidence in her new novel, The Emigre (Secker & Warburg, pounds 15.99). But - again as in her books - irony stands in stark contrast to the heartbreaking details she is describing.
The event which triggered her allergy to the printed word was the death in 1989 of her husband and soulmate: the writer Dexter Masters, best-remembered for his anti-nuclear novel, The Accident. She had fallen in love with him when she was just three. He was a friend of her parents. When she was in her early twenties, she gave up a promising career as a ballet dancer and married this much older man.
They left the US and headed by boat for France. "My husband always liked looking at houses," she recalls, "and somehow we never got beyond Plymouth." They made a home in Totnes, raised their son and then, when Masters fell ill, Brady nursed him single-handedly for a year before returning with him to the States in search of help.
At that stage she lost the ability to read novels. "Looking after my husband 24 hours a day left me exhausted, not just ordinary exhaustion but the sort when you wake up in the middle of the night with your fists clenched and arms outstretched with rigid tension. The human body is not able to bear that sort of strain."
It hasn't stopped her writing. First came Theory of War, a novel she had been working on for several years without much encouragement from publishers, but to which, in the aftermath of her husband's death, she brought a fury that made it extraordinary. Then there was her account, in Death Comes for Peter Pan, of the American way of death.
Though fiction, the book had such an unpalatable honesty that her US publishers withdrew a $100,000 advance when she refused to water down her criticisms. She likened to the Nazi treatment of the Jews a health- care system that continues to offer large rewards to those private nursing homes that use technology to keep terminally ill patients artificially alive. The longer people linger, the more money the operators of the homes make.
Death Comes for Peter Pan has never appeared in America. There Brady is regarded not as a prize-winning author with a conscience but as someone controversial to be avoided at all costs. So far, The Emigre has failed to find a US publisher.
One positive legacy did spring from her long vigil at her dying husband's bedside. She used to sketch out plots and characters in her mind during quiet moments and estimates she stored up enough material for two or three novels. First to make it into print is The Emigre, which centres on Count Nikolas Strakhan - half Mid-West boy, half Russian nobleman, a talented musician, a con-man and a homme fatal.
It marks something of a sea-change for Brady. Gone are the overt social themes, the campaigning edge. There is a frivolous, almost meringue-like quality to the novel. "I'd made all this fuss about serious things in Theory of War and Peter Pan, and nothing changed. So I just figured it was time to have some fun... One of the benefits of all this acclaim happening when you are older is that you know better what it is you want to do and have the guts to do it".
For a late-starter as a novelist - she was encouraged into print by her neighbour, the archetypal late-starter Mary Wesley - The Emigre is a brave, some would say foolhardy, departure. But Brady doesn't place much store in conventional literary wisdom. "It's one of the advantages of not reading, and living miles away from London."
Those who take the fairy-tale flourishes of The Emigre at face value are missing the sting in the tail of Brady's polished prose. "I always liked fairy tales when I was a child," she admits, "and any dancer has to like fairy tales or you better forget the whole job." Yet, just as she played on the blacker side of Peter Pan, once again she is subverting the genre. In Strakhan, she has created the sort of seductive demon-cum- fool usually found in the Brothers Grimm. The innocence in the language (sex is referred to in childlike terms as "what you do under the cherry trees") is betrayed by adultery, theft and murder.
And this unconventional writer is not about to abandon all interest in creating a storm. Where The Emigre may prove controversial is in tying the unravelling of Strakhan's deception with the bombing of the Grand Hotel in Brighton during the Tory party conference in 1984. Through Brady's eyes, this becomes not an IRA atrocity but an act of individual vengeance.
With the victims of this terrorist crime in mind, I had recoiled a little on reading this section. To annex a real tragedy to a fictional plot about a con-man seemed to trivialise it, a sin compounded because Brady's style, imitating the fairy tale, makes everything seem so casual.
She is not surprised and we have a good-natured debate. Brady likes a good argument and litters her conversation with provocative statements. She once had a well-publicised spat over slavery with the actress-turned- novelist Marsha Hunt. "I think," she says, "people's sensitivities about real-life tragedies being used in fiction depends on how many people died. If you take any incident from the world wars, when there were heaps of bodies, nobody will object. But if you can count the number of victims, we begin to feel uneasy."
That cold capacity to stand back and analyse may be the product of Brady's way of life. She lives in a well-heeled Devon town, not quite feeling that she belongs either in Britain or America, cut off from her peers (what friends she has made through work tend to come from her dancing days), and distanced from current affairs.
How such an eager conversationalist bears the isolation is hard to imagine, but she fills the gap left by reading with movies on television. She says that "My taste is low" (she admits to a passion for Mel Gibson, who made her care about Hamlet's fate for the first time) "but I think that instead of learning from other writers, I have tried to bring a filmic quality to my writing, to bring in the cadences that music can deliver on screen, to write in close-ups, even that thing of moving rapidly from place to place and assuming the audience will follow".
Perhaps that debt to celluloid gives The Emigre its odd and disconcerting feel. Or perhaps it is just Joan Brady herself. The anger that fuelled her writing has subsided, but her sharp, playful and iconoclastic mind remains on display. To research the next of her bedside plots, she is half-way through an Open University maths and physics degree. It is, she says,the perfect subject, with the emphasis on practical work and not the (for her) impossible reading of textbooks.
Joan Brady, a biography
Joan Brady was born in 1939 in Berkeley, California. She danced with the San Francisco City Ballet from 1955 and joined the New York City Ballet in 1960. She left to study philosophy but in 1963 she married the author Dexter Masters. They moved to England where they brought up one son. After two decades busy with domestic tasks - "socks and eggs", as she puts it - she published a memoir, The Unmaking of a Dancer, in 1982 (later reissued as Prologue). She nursed her husband until his death in 1989, then wrote the novel Theory of War in 1993: it won the Whitbread Award and France's Prix du Meilleur Livre Etranger. In 1996, she published Death Comes for Peter Pan, about her husband's illness.
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