“Guess who’s going to write Cities of a Thousand and One Nights?” Werner asked me on his next visit to London.
I had no idea.
“You are,” he said.
Me??? I knew Werner and his publisher, Shroll Verlag in Vienna, had been looking for a writer for awhile. Werner, who did big, ethnographic art books, usually approached publishers with an idea and often wrote part of the text himself. His brother, Bedrich, did the design, layout and graphics. They would find a scholar to write the introduction. I was no scholar. I hadn’t even finished college.
“How could I possibly write that?” I asked. “I don’t have the credentials. I wouldn’t even know where to begin.”
Werner, who’d dropped out of school at fourteen to begin his career as a photographer, didn’t buy my argument. “You’re a writer. Begin at the beginning.”
I’d been told I was ready to write professionally when I was thirteen. But at this point in my life I wanted to write fiction, short stories, poetry. Not big books requiring specialized knowledge of art and antiquities. To complicate matters, I was also in art school, working on a portfolio. I wasn’t really sure what I wanted to do next. So I resisted Werner’s idea. I just plain didn’t want to do it. But he pushed, saying this was an opportunity that would put me on the map as a writer and I couldn’t afford to turn it down.
I was, of course, totally in love with him. He had old-world charm. He was handsome, brilliant, kind, unbelievably gifted. He cared about me in a way no one else ever had before. I wanted to be with him the rest of my life. So finally I said yes, I would try to write the book.
And so began a time of real torture. With my history as a grind, I was going to do the very best I could. But where to begin? I grappled with one idea after the next. Scotch became my closest friend and ally. I’d get something on paper, realize it sucked, and reach for the bottle. I had no guidance whatsoever. I figured if I was gonna play with the big boys, I’d better act like one and just get on with it. But that still left me floundering.
In the meanwhile, it was summer and life in our little flat continued as usual: house guests, wonderful meals, lots of wine and conversation. Celia taught me to cook. Frankly, despite my upbringing (or perhaps because of it), I was not well socialized and had no idea how to run a household. Celia, wise beyond her years, taught me everything. She was beautiful, with soft brown eyes, strong potter’s hands, a fine nose and sensuous mouth. Long legs that made men turn and stare. To me she was just Celia, who’d always been in my life, sister and protector. My actual sister, Vivi, was living in Holland at the time and would call us at ungodly hours, like 7AM, to see if we were awake or “lying around like teenagers.” Married too young, she was bored and matronly and probably jealous of Celia and me. She liked to get at us.
Then one morning I had a phone call I didn’t expect from the daughter of a very close business associate of my father’s. “Did you hear the news?” she asked in her posh British English. “Russia has invaded Czechoslovakia. The borders are closed. The whole country’s been shut down.”
Werner was in Prague. There was no way to get in touch with him. I went into total crisis mode.
To be continued…
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