the contact of two chemical substances:
if there is any reaction,
both are transformed.
Carl Jung, Swiss psychologist (1875 – 1961)
“Patrick Stewart called,” said my Hollywood agent one day after I got home from University. “He wants to know if you can swing by Los Angeles on your book tour so that he can have dinner with you.”
I was flabbergasted. Though Patrick and his production company, Flying Freehold, had held the option on my first novel — The Kommandant’s Mistress — for a few years, and though we had often spoken for long periods on the phone — about all sorts of topics, including my novel — I never dreamed that I would meet him, let alone have dinner with him.
I was also stressed. Not being a famous author, my New York publishers had always asked me to pay for my book tours: I had saved a long time on my English Professor’s salary to do the tour for my second novel; all the flights, hotels, and bookstores had already been set up.
How could I add another city at the last minute?
The expense would be tremendous.
After I explained the situation frankly to my Hollywood agent, Lisa, requesting that she not ask Patrick for the money, she called my New York agent, who called my publisher, who called the publicist. Three hours later, Lisa informed me that the publisher would pay for the Los Angeles part of the tour — flight, driver, and hotel — if I would be sure to promote both books — The Kommandant’s Mistress as well as Only with the Heart — while I was in Los Angeles.
Especially at the reading that Patrick and his (then) wife Wendy would be attending.
“Patrick’s coming to the reading?”
“How else is he going to meet you?”
“He’ll take you to dinner after the reading. But he said he’ll meet you at the bookstore cafe beforehand.”
“Before the reading?”
“It’s in his neighborhood,” said Lisa. “So, I’ll be there, too.”
I was more nervous than I’d been at my very first public reading several years before, in New York. You see, I don’t just “read”: I perform. Like an actor. Except that I’m a writer.
Patrick Stewart is the actor. A fine actor. Now he was going to be at my reading? How could I possibly perform in front of him? I already couldn’t eat anything before a performance (neither can he, as I discovered). How would I be able to eat anything afterward? I had no idea.
Somehow, I got through the reading/performance, with Patrick sitting right in front of me, so close that our knees touched, with the all-female audience visibly swooning each time anyone looked at him or he asked me a question in that magnificent voice of his. While I signed books afterward, Patrick and Wendy went to the restaurant to get a table. My agent Lisa waited at the back of the bookstore to take me over to dinner.
The driver who’d been assigned to me was very annoyed. She wanted to know what she was supposed to do. Her job was to take me to the bookstore readings and back to the hotel afterward. Was she supposed to just sit in the car the entire time I had dinner, or was she also invited to dinner? I signed books, chatted with my fans, and anxiously sought any sign of Lisa, who had disappeared. 45 minutes later, I’d signed the last book, thanked the bookstore owners and employees for sponsoring the reading, and discovered that the driver was gone.
“She said to tell you she’ll pick you up at the hotel tomorrow morning at 10 to take you to your four readings,” said my agent Lisa, who had returned. “Patrick will take you back to the hotel after dinner.”
“Patrick?” I said. “Not you?”
“No, I have to leave dinner early. I’m going to New Orleans tomorrow and I haven’t packed yet. Don’t worry. Patrick knows where the Holiday Inn is. He drove instead of walking in case you needed a ride back afterward.”
My nerves, already jangled, were now stretched even tauter. As we walked across the street to the restaurant, I asked Lisa if Patrick and his wife had been pleased with the reading. She told me she hadn’t been paying attention to them, but, rather, to me, and that she had been very impressed. Instead of being reassured, my feeling of foreboding increased.
At the crowded restaurant, Friday night diners packed the lobby and bar. We struggled through the group until someone grabbed my shoulder from behind: Patrick. Before my glass of wine had even arrived, the maitre d’ sidled up to Patrick to quietly inquire if his entire party had now arrived. He informed him that it had. Before all the others, we were taken to a table which had been reserved — empty — for at least the last hour since no one had known how long my reading would last and thus had not known what time to make the reservation. My cheeks turned redder than my hair as people openly stared while we were seated at the table in the center of the over-full restaurant.
The table was unbelievably small. It reminded me of those tiny, outdoor tables in Paris at the sidewalk cafes. When I wasn’t bumping my knees against Patrick, on my left, I was banging them into his wife Wendy, on my right. I suddenly wished I’d ordered something stronger than a glass of wine. Before I had another sip, however, Patrick began his “performance.” Charming and gracious, he began telling me a story.
Clearly, he meant to entertain me.
It wasn’t just dinner: it was a dinner party.
For the first time that evening, I was relieved and began to relax: I do “dinner party” well.
“Did you know,” said Patrick as he speared a forkful of Caesar salad, “that when Joseph Conrad was dying, he spoke aloud to his characters as if they were in the room?”
“Really?” I said. “In what language?”
Everyone at the table except me froze.
Patrick’s fork was mid-air, dangling salad.
My agent’s eyes were wider than an owl’s.
Wendy’s mouth was hanging open, literally.
My first faux pas.
“What language?” said Patrick, who is extremely well read, and not just in Shakespeare.
“Polish or English?” I said, though my agent was shaking her head at me for some reason. “Did he speak any others?”
“Not that I’m aware of,” said Patrick, his fork still poised between his plate and his mouth.
“So, in which language did he speak to his characters?” I said, eating some of my own salad and taking a sip of my wine while awaiting his answer.
Patrick’s wife Wendy began to laugh.
He put down his fork.
My agent closed her eyes momentarily.
I bashed my knees against both Patrick’s and Wendy’s, apologizing repeatedly.
Patrick gazed at me.
I returned his look.
He leaned slightly toward me.
“You know, in all the years I’ve told that story,” he said, “no one’s ever asked me that question.”
“You’ve told that story a lot?”
“Only about a hundred-million times,” said Wendy, “and that’s just in the ten years we’ve been together.”
“You’ve told that story a hundred-million times and no one’s ever asked you what language Conrad spoke in?” I said, completely forgetting my manners and whom I was addressing.
“Not a hundred-million times,” said Patrick.
“Close enough,” said his wife.
“And no one’s ever asked you that question?”
“It’s probably not important,” said my agent, Lisa, smiling pointedly at me.
“It’s not the most important question, no,” I said. “I was just curious.”
“It’s not the most important question?” said Patrick.
“Not to me,” I said.
“First I have to know what language he spoke in.”
“What language do you think he spoke in?” said Patrick, moving closer.
“Because he was dying.”
Patrick looked around the table.
His wife and my agent both busied themselves with their food and drinks.
“Studies have shown that people have the accent of the area in which they lived when they’re 5-7 years old,” I said. “Other studies have shown that no matter how many languages they become fluent in, people always count in their native language. Unless they grow up bi-lingual. Nobody knows why. They just know that they do. So, if Conrad was dying, he’d be speaking in his native language. Not in English.”
“Now, what’s the important question?” said Patrick.
“If he was speaking in Polish, and we know none of his characters spoke Polish, even the ones who were bi-lingual,” I said, not even noticing my agent’s deliberate coughing, “was it like God speaking to His creations, who were unable to understand Him?”
Patrick swallowed and put down his fork. Everyone at the table stared at me. I blundered on, wanting to know the opinion of an artist I respected so much.
“Even if his characters could hear him, did they realize who he was? Did they know he’d created them, given them the lives they’d led, forced those difficult moral dilemmas on them, let them suffer, killed them? Did they try to answer him, like humans praying to God, not understanding anything He said back to them? Did he feel abandoned? Betrayed? Did they feel the same way?”
Patrick immediately turned to my agent, saying, “Lisa, what do you think?”
“I think I would have to be really drunk,” she said, pouring more wine into her glass, “to even begin to understand what she just said.”
Patrick looked across the table at his wife.
“Wendy, darling, what about you?”
“I think there’s not enough alcohol in the world for me to participate in this conversation,” she said, waving her hand at us. “Why don’t you two talk about the things you like, while Lisa and I discuss the things we like?”
Wendy and Lisa began talking about Patrick and Wendy’s wedding (three months previous) and the honeymoon (on Fiji). Wendy had brought photographs. I looked at Patrick. He looked at me. He raised his eyebrows and waited.
“Sometimes,” I said, horrified to hear my voice begin to crack and to feel tears in my eyes, “I feel monstrously guilty.”
“About what?” said Patrick.
“Because the only life I gave Rachel [in The Kommandant’s Mistress] was as an inmate in a Nazi concentration camp, being raped by Max [the Kommandant], just so I could try to answer the moral and ethical question, ‘What would you do to survive an inescapable situation?’ ”
Patrick was silent for a moment.
“What was the answer to that question?”
“That you never know what you’re capable of until you do it.”
Suddenly Patrick gripped my hand, squeezing it hard, his voice and eyes intense.
“Rachel’s forgiven you,” he said. “Trust me. I know she has.”
When he released my hand, I realized that Wendy and Lisa were staring at us.
So was almost everyone else in the restaurant, including the waiter standing slightly behind Patrick with another bottle of wine.
“Is she always like this?” Wendy said to Lisa.
“You read the book,” said Lisa, shrugging. “What do you think?”
Patrick moved his chair closer, obviously happy with me. I felt a strange sense of peace.
Did Patrick grant me Rachel’s absolution or his own? I don’t know.
I do know that we spent almost 5 delightful, intellectually stimulating hours over that dinner, discussing everything from Moby-Dick to Shakespeare’s plays (both of us prefer the tragedies), from my accent to his homeland (whose dialect/accent he hides), from acting to writing, from novels to films. Patrick was gracious, intuitive, charming, intelligent, incredibly well-read (unlike some actors, who only read scripts, screenplays, or “treatments” and never the actual books they’re based on), insightful, and funny. I knew that he would make a wonderful Max, just as he had made a marvelous Ahab.
Unfortunately, though the film was funded, it was never made (Hollywood politics). Patrick released the option, and we haven’t spoken in over seven years. That’s simply how it works in Hollywood: if you don’t have a project together, you don’t have contact with each other. And in Hollywood, authors are not very well respected unless they’re bestsellers. Most authors who have books optioned never talk to or meet the actors/directors who acquire the rights to make their books into films; most books that are optioned never even make it to the first day of “principal photography,” as it’s called, when the author gets paid.
I got to talk to Patrick the first time on the phone because he wanted to talk to me about my novel. I got to talk to him after that because he’d just finished filming Moby-Dick and I’ve read the novel at least a dozen times, even writing a poem called “Ahab’s Wife”: he wanted to know my take on his Ahab. I got to talk to him many times afterward because I’m a Shakespeare scholar: we could discuss some of the works closest to his heart.
I got to meet him and have dinner with him in Los Angeles simply because he wanted to meet me and discuss what he wanted to do with The Kommandant’s Mistress, the film. My life partner Tom and I then got to spend the weekend with Patrick and his wife when he was doing Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? because it was being staged only an hour’s flight from where we then lived, because Patrick liked me, and so he invited us up as his guests.
My situation with Patrick Stewart was not customary. Patrick’s desire to have contact with authors whose books he optioned is not the norm in Hollywood. Most of the actors I’ve met since then are gracious, kind, intelligent, charming, talented, and clever, but understandably wary around strangers, even if they’ve optioned their books.
Of course, I was disappointed that Patrick didn’t get to make my novel into a film, and I still believe he would have been a wonderful Max. The fact that Hollywood politics prevented its being made, however, can never take away my first dinner with Patrick. Nor can anything take away our first face-to-face conversation about Joseph Conrad, authors, their characters, moral and ethical choices in unbearable situations, as well as the existence of God, forgiveness, and hope in art.
but I swear, that is me with Patrick Stewart, and, yes, he has his arm around me. Though we discussed many things over the years that Patrick held the option to my first novel, we never discussed Star Trek: TNG or his role as Captain Jean-Luc Picard: sorry.)