In September 2003 I was working for a website that recorded in depth autobiographies of people who had made a significant contribution to their field. The site had begun working exclusively with scientists, and I had been brought in to broaden its scope to the arts. The idea behind the site was magnificent- that you could see these extraordinary people telling their own story, and then different parts of the stories could be cross referenced to someone else talking about the same subject. When I joined we had recorded two of the physicists who worked at Los Alamos developing the atomic bomb in the 1940’s, and their two separate takes on that time were fascinating. But I was having trouble getting people to agree to take part. It tuned out that amazing people over seventy were tired, busy, and approached by many. Just getting to meet someone was an achievement. Getting them to agree to take part was hard.
I was in New York that September, preparing to film Jonas Mekas, maker and curator of experimental film. I was also trying to get to meet a number of other filmmakers and artists, among them director Elia Kazan. Somehow I had managed to get hold of his address, and had written a letter to him explaining our work. I could of course have put it in the post. But I had a free morning and New York was so lovely in the autumn sunshine. I thought, if I put it in the post it will take a day at least to arrive. If I deliver it by hand then it gets there today, and maybe I’ll be able to meet him before returning to London. So I started to walk. It was a lovely day, but the walk turned out to be significantly longer than I had thought. Possibly I was a little overdressed. I was soon sweating. By the time I arrived I felt uncomfortable and a little breathless.
Also- in front of his house, I suddenly felt unsure. Should I ring the bell? No- it seemed wrong- or maybe I made it seem wrong in my mind because the idea scared me. Approaching these people cold was something I struggled with. I could spend an afternoon building up the courage to make a phone call. And now I was beginning to think- that just pushing a letter through the door, wasn’t that a little bit- weird…? I should have just stuck it in the post. Way more professional. But I was there. It had taken a good hour to walk there, could I really just walk back looking for a mail box? I hovered for a few minutes, then went down the stairs and pushed my letter through the box. A few seconds later the door opened and a woman wearing a pink coat, something a cleaner or a nurse might wear, looked at me enquiringly. I was half way up the stairs, and I didn’t know what to say. I just smiled at her and went on up, but I felt excruciatingly awkward. I could feel myself blushing, the heat of my embarrassment blending with the heat generated by my walk. I felt as clumsy in my body as I had at fourteen.
I spent the rest of that day preparing for the shoot with Jonas Mekas. At some point I saw on television, maybe in the red ticker tape feed that runs along the bottom of the screen in news programmes, the breaking news that Elia Kazan had just died.
I felt bottomed out. I could not believe the futile insensitive idiocy of actions that had seemed so sensible that morning. Had I really marched across New York to drop a letter through the door of a dying man? As I said to a friend later that evening, consumed with a kind of dull, unbelieving horror, I couldn’t imagine anything more amateur.
Amateur. It was a word that encapsulated everything I felt I was and didn’t want to be. Nervous, shy, uneasy- and most of all, visibly all those things. Oh- how I longed to be professional.
I have about sixty five boxes of books sitting in our basement at home at the moment. Unfolded cardboard mailers lie in unsteady towers on and around them. There is a certain amount of leaning to do when I hang out the laundry. I don’t have anyone helping me to sell the books in those boxes. I don’t have a marketing plan. Well- I do- I do have a plan. Just not a plan any professional would recognise as such.
But I like my plan. And I love my books- my hand made self published hard to catagorise books. I think they are good. And a good number of other people, smart, wonderful ever professional people, think so too. So shouldn’t I be able to shift my 65 boxes (fourteen books to a box my friends, fourteen books to a box)?
Well actually, I ought to mention that the more professional of the people who love my books are unconvinced of that. Vitek Tracz, my father, who has sold many books in his time, suggested that I would find it easier to sell 10 books at £10,000 each than 1000 at £65. Richard Charkin, managing director of Bloomsbury agreed.
But I can’t be doing with that. I’d rather 1000 people read the books for free than sell just 10 to the super wealthy (not that I devalue in any way the super wealthy- they are as fine as anyone else, I just can’t see why anyone would restrict their audience so radically). I have asked myself what I’ll do if no one buys the books. Will I (finally) give up on my dreams of recognition as the super duper artists I really really am? Will I give up and stop making things? But though the prospect of no sales is depressing (oh those boxes…) I know I’ll keep on making something else, and that even at 90 (should I be so lucky) I’ll be dreaming that this new project really will be the one… And as for those boxes- oh those boxes- I’ll find 1000 people to give the books to- and 1000 people who love them as well. As it happens, I’ve already started. And of the 70 odd books no longer in my possession, some were even bought.
I can see that there is nothing professional about what I’ve just written. But unlike the day of Elia Kazan’s death, there is no shame in that. The opposite. I’m not wishing that I did things differently. I’m not even wishing that I was capable of doing things differently. Oh- I still wish I was less amateur- many times a day. But I don’t actually want to be, anymore, anything other than what I am. Which is: frequently clumsy, almost always odd, but me. The me that made the books, and the films, and that likes them. That me that believes I can sell them, and that really, really hopes that I am right.