Chateau d’If

My private prison—the messy little twelve-by-twelve hovel where I gnaw my pens, crush my pages, despair, exult and write—occupies the back half of a converted one-horse stable. That means, I suppose, that my predecessor and fellow prisoner was a horse that went to its eternal reward about a hundred years before my tenure. Upstairs, right above my desk, is the horse’s hayloft. Owing to the fact that the hayloft’s door has never—or at least not in recent memory—been closed, I have very good reason to believe that there are bats sleeping up there in the daytime—not to speak of the squirrels I often hear scurrying and the spiders I sometimes see poking their black legs between the white boards of my ceiling. There are mice too, of course—and not only in the hayloft. I know that for a fact because I often find their little pellets down here on the scarred pine floor, on the dusty shelves of my bookcases and even amidst the heaped books on my butcher-block desk.

These books (tumbled on battle-scarred pens and scribbled-over scraps of paper) are my only permitted companions: Swift, the Earl of Rochester, Kafka, Captain John Smith, Nabokov, Berger, Descartes, H.G. Wells, Huxley, Barth, Heller, and Pynchon consort with Alice in Wonderland, Madame Bovary, Moll Flanders and Fanny Hill. I also keep a statue of a camel on my desk to remind me that an animal with its own resources can walk across a desert. Behind me are my dictionaries—Webster’s, American Heritage, and the compact OED that, in my advancing age, requires both eyeglasses and a hand-held magnifier.

The place of honor on my walls belongs to a kind letter sent to me by Joseph Heller. There are also two paintings and one etching by my great-grandfather, quotations by Flaubert and Milton, a painting of Dickens at his desk, a photograph of Nabokov in the midst of writing The Defense, a framed Barnes & Noble poster advertising my first novel, a few framed reviews, a picture of Samuel Taylor Coleridge and a photograph of the open jaw of an alligator emerging from a swamp.

The other half of the stable (separated by a wall and behind me at my desk as I compose this sentence) is the tool shed. In that little room you can, if you like, find my tractor, two rusting lawn mowers, two saws, a one-armed hedge clipper hanging on a rusty nail, two cross-country skis which no one in my family ever used, a filthy and crumpled blue tarpaulin, a discarded black plastic sled, a defunct automobile battery, two cans of gasoline, an archery target, a yellow arrow with only two feathers, an aluminum bicycle pump, an open bag of peat moss, a mound of rotting pine needles and a rusting stroller.

Whenever I must return to solitary confinement, this junk-filled shed is on my left. I always walk, between a derelict radiator and a pine tree, down a very well-worn avenue of dirt which I have come to call my “psycho-path.”  My office has a cinder-block front step and a red, wood door. The red door has a brass lion’s head with a knocker in its teeth. I open the door and am back, as they say, in business—in the belly of the beast.

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Full List of Essays
“A Noble Apology” • How I received an apology for the Spanish Inquisition (anthologized in Travelers’ Tales Spain)

“Allegro Furioso” • An introduction to my impossible grandparents and why Rodgers and Hammerstein wrote a musical about them (published in Columbia Magazine)

“Silver Bullets” • How I disturbed my great-grandmother’s ashes, didn’t meet Oscar Hammerstein and became the Lone Ranger.

“This Pen for Hire” • A lament upon the indignities suffered by an unpublished writer that, ironically, earned me my first publication—in The Washington Post Book World.

“The History of My Adversities” • The so-help-me-God true and lugubrious story of my first bloody taste of the perversities of the publishing world.

“Château d’If”A tribute to the tiny prison where I pen my deathless prose.

“Berlin Memories” • How I was frightened and tested by a stranger in a trenchcoat.

Just Who, Exactly, Is the Master? • An homage to my superlative cat. (Published in Westchester Magazine)

And click here to read my essays exclusively on the topic of TITULOMANIA (my love of titles).