People who know a lot about a lot have long been an exclusive club, but now they are an endangered species. Edward Carr tracks some down ...
CARL DJERASSIcan remember the moment when he became a writer. It was 1993, he was a professor of chemistry at Stanford University in California and he had already written books about science and about his life as one of the inventors of the Pill. Now he wanted to write a literary novel about writers’ insecurities, with a central character loosely modelled on Norman Mailer, Philip Roth and Gore Vidal.
His wife, Diane Middlebrook, thought it was a ridiculous idea. She was also a professor—of literature. “She admired the fact that I was a scientist who also wrote,” Djerassi says. He remembers her telling him, “‘You’ve been writing about a world that writers know little about. You’re writing the real truth inside of almost a closed tribe. But there are tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands of people who know more about writing than you do. I advise you not to do this.’ ”
Even at 85, slight and snowy-haired, Djerassi is a determined man. You sense his need to prove that he can, he will prevail. Sitting in his London flat, he leans forward to fix me with his hazel eyes. “I said, ‘ok. I’m not going to show it to you till I finish. And if I find a publisher then I’ll give it to you.’ ”
Eventually Djerassi got the bound galleys of his book. “We were leaving San Francisco for London for our usual summer and I said ‘Look, would you read this now?’ She said, ‘Sure, on the plane.’ So my wife sits next to me and of course I sit and look over. And I still remember, I had a Trollope, 700 pages long, and I couldn’t read anything because I wanted to see her expression.”
Diane Middlebrook died of cancer in 2007 and, as Djerassi speaks, her presence grows stronger. By the end it is as if there are three of us in the room. “She was always a fantastic reader,” he says. “She read fast and continuously. And suddenly you hear the snap of the book closing, like a thunder clap. And I looked at her, and she then looked at me. She always used to call me, not ‘Carl’ or ‘Darling’, she used to call me ‘Chemist’ in a dear, affectionate sort of way. It was always ‘Chemist’. And she said, ‘Chemist, this is good’.......”