Truth may be stranger than fiction, but who can tell the difference, asks Don Watson, who married writer Carole Morin after a whirlwind and very literary romance
CAROLE Morin and I had a good old fashioned post-modern courtship. She fell in love with my photograph, and I fell in love with her writing. We had met only three times when she allowed me to join in the decision she had made some months before, that we were going to get married.
The nineties way is to live with someone for 10 years or so in the hope that someone better will come along, then amble to the altar in forlorn hope with the consolation that if your fortunes take an unexpected upturn there's always the quickie divorce. Pardon us for making up our minds.
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But what can you tell from a photograph, from sentences on a page? Well quite a lot, as it happens.
The piece of writing in question was Carole Morin's story in the Serpent's Tail collection Sex and the City. It had a strange circuitous style to it, which seemed as if it was always starting off to tell you something, but then veering off on some fascinating detour, so that you forgot where you were going in the first place. Then the ending pulled you up, sharp as a razor.
In the middle of a collection dominated by stories with a single idea, told in a predictable fashion, its originality is all the more striking.
When I read the line, ``I couldn't love a man who'd loved someone else already, or a city he first saw without me'', I knew Carole Morin had to be beautiful. Not that self-congratulatory beauty which acts as a substitute for intelligence in those who allow it to possess them, but the sort of beauty that is the surface of a restless complexity.
But there was a problem. I had fallen in love with Berlin. I worried about this.
I managed to get her telephone number. You can find anyone in London if you really want to. She had loved Berlin too; we commiserated with each other about the destruction of the Wall. Six months later a white Mercedes took us to the airport and we flew there for our honeymoon.
``What if you read his book and don't like it?'' our bridesmaid had asked. Carole was adamant. You can tell whether someone's writing will be interesting by meeting them, just the way a personality shows in a photograph.
Writing fiction is a form of prediction. It was only after we had been married for some time that I realised a character in my second novel, invented before I met her, bore a stunning resemblance to my wife. There's nothing supernatural about it. First you invent a space, and then you move into it for real.
Carole Morin's first novel, Lampshades, is for me the only book to warrant the description punk novel. The punk of articulate nihilism and perverse glamour, not its sad legacy. It ends with the heroine moving to live by the North Sea. Sure enough, within weeks of getting married we moved . . . to a house overlooking the North Sea.
``Lies,'' the last line of Lampshades runs, ``are easy to believe in but the truth sounds false.''
One of Carole's favourite concepts is ``fictional truth''. In order to experience anything in the first place, you have to edit out irrelevant sensory information. Therefore in order to place a memory within the context of writing, you may have to change its shape, invent a detail which allows you to convey the essence of something, rather than the minutae. Another rule of writing is that if you have done it right, the reader finds it impossible to see the join.
Carole Morin's autobiography Dead Glamorous has set off a guessing game - how much of it is actually true?
One of the things we've laughed about over the reviews (both good and bad) is that when you write a novel, certain people like to think it's really autobiography; so it seems when you write an autobiog-raphy, they prefer to regard it as a novel.
And in both instances, they get it wrong. Some things in the book are technically speaking, fictional, although they are true in spirit. But inevitably the facts reviewers picked out as the most outlandish are the ones that are completely accurate.
When I first read Carole Morin's writing, I felt it had something in common with what at that time was my favourite book, Two Serious Ladies, by Jane Bowles. With both of them you get the feeling that an aspect of reality which is normally edited out in conventional realism has found its way into the writing.
It is best described as a sense of the madness of the world, the way that the most ordinary everyday event can stretch its facade enough to reveal the teeming neurosis underneath.
Both of them see a great source of humour in this, however scary they find it, although Carole both personally and artistically is more capable of surfing along on the chaos, whereas Jane, who died an alcoholic having never succeeded in writing the follow-up to her first masterpiece, was submerged by them.
W H Auden found Janes Bowles in the hallway of the house they shared in New York, putting a group of invisible girls through a drill routine, for no one's amusement but her own. Carole understood this, as someone who is often accompanied by her invisible Chinese baby Ming-Belle.
``Ming isn't imaginary'', she often corrects people, ``you just can't see her.'' It's an important distinction.
Jane's husband, Paul Bowles, described the strength of his wife's writing as being her ``wonderfully elliptical way of seeing''. This applies to my wife too. I gave her a copy of Two Serious Ladies, which she hadn't read. She loved it.
As a writer you become accustomed to fictionalising yourself. Being married to a writer, you have to get used to someone else doing it too. There is a certain symmetry to the fact that, after being discovered by my wife in the pages of the New Statesman, I now inhabit that same magazine in the guise of Dangerous Donald.
The title came about due to my ability, attested to in that academy of sloppy journalism, Private Eye, to persuade three prominent academics that they should give Carole the position as Literary Fellow at UEA. The fact that I was not in the room, or even the building, when the decision was made atests to my mysterious, Mac the Knife powers of persuasion.
As Dangerous Donald, I appear every week without fail in her column in the New Statesman, dispensing the odd word of wisdom before flitting off to Parkhead with my henchmen, Mad Dog, the reformed loose chib, and Johnny Deep, the strong silent type.
I also appear as the bruiser muse and constant companion in her new book, Dead Glamorous. It's a busy schedule.
In the nineteenth century, love letters were kept in scented caskets and bound in ribbons. My memento of the months leading up to our marriage (we didn't have an engagement, it's vulgar) is more portable - a tape with her answerphone messages on it.
She used to ring me up every morning. I got into the habit of putting the telephone by the bed, so that I could answer in comfort.
The proposal was live, but I have the decisive moment on Memorex.
We had spoken earlier in the day. She asked me if I'd been married, and if I'd like to be. ``I thought it would be nice to be married to you,'' she said.
Later, on I came in to find a message, ``Since we're getting married, could I borrow your leather coat?''
We still have the garment in question, which we take turns wearing. She says it gives us ned cred to have a full length leather number. In fact, my ned cred quotient is negligible, but Carole's is impeccable.
When I first heard her voice on the telephone I thought - like everyone else who's heard her speak since she was two - ``Kelvinside''. I can't deny I was incredibly impressed when, after we married, I was taken to grandfather's old building in the East End.
She started to tell me the stories. ``Grandfather Money never used to have his suits drycleaned, he just bought a new one.'' He owned a chunk of the East End, but lived in one of his own slums. Then there's the grotesque gallery of relatives.
Like all those who are constantly reinventing themselves, she had not given much thought to the past.
``You should write this down,'' I told her. She did. The result is Dead Glamorous.
n Don Watson's book, Dancing in the Streets, is published by Gollancz. Carole Morin's autobiography, Dead Glamorous, is published by Gollancz. She is reading at the Castlelmilk Festival next Friday at 7.30pm.