The Birth of Rembrandt Sings

My novel Rembrandt Sings began in Carmel, more than thirty years ago, when an interesting change in career found me travelling frequently to America and having the opportunity, over a decade or so, to visit more states of the Union than many Americans manage in a lifetime.

I remember the airport in Phoenix, Arizona, and the offices of the Greyhound Bus Company where the rather dour purchasing manager had no room for design in any new seat covering. All he wanted to find was someone who could make what he presently purchased for less than anyone else. I remember the carpet fair in Atlanta in January where, one year, I nearly froze to death on the quarter-mile walk back to my hotel; colder in Georgia that day than at the North Pole. I remember the Art Institute in Chicago and standing in front of a Seurat that I had only known, or thought I had known, from reproductions but which was more rich and beautiful than I had ever imagined. I remember the Guggenheim in New York where I wanted to get my roller skates on and whizz past the paintings standing out from the walls of its snail shell spiral corridor.

There are many other memories but the one that eventually gave birth to my novel Rembrandt Sings was the house of an artist in Carmel. He had painted many of the walls of his house with very realistic copies of modern works of art. I was particularly struck by the Douanier Rousseau jungle scene in the bathroom. This was long before the days of digital cameras or smart phones small enough to slip in one’s pocket but, in my mind’s eye, I can still see these walls with the tiger staring out from behind the towel rail and the serpent slithering down the wall of the shower. My host told me a little of his life story and how, sadly, he had become spectacularly wealthy. Sadly? Yes, sadly; because he married her; it was a real love match; but he only discovered after she died, not much more than a year later, that she was an heiress and he was her sole surviving relative.

It was Draft 11 of Rembrandt Sings that finally went to the printer

I started trying to work up the story into a novel around 25 years ago and its first draft was a real ‘baggy monster’, as they used to describe the three-volume novels popular in the late nineteenth century. Further drafts cut away the surplus fat and let the reader see the flesh and bones of the story but it was not until one prospective agent asked me to go away and think why anyone would want to read this story today that I cast the book in its present form. I had to find the hook that would pull the reader into the story before they had a chance to cling to the shore. Once I had them carried away with the flow, I could take readers to visit islands set in the past and to explore some of the creeks and tributaries. In a sense, the hook I devised, with the narrator finding his past catching up with him, pulled me in too. I found the story taking me over and new characters and sub-plots occurring spontaneously. It was the eleventh draft that finally went to the printer.

Rembrandt Sings was, for me, the proof of the truism that real writing only starts after the first draft and a reminder that falling in love with the first draft has killed off many a promising novel.

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