I was in my twenties when I banged out my first novel on my mother’s portable Olivetti typewriter, and I mean “banged.”
We were like boxers from different weight divisions, that typewriter and me - my heavyweight hands coming down hard on its flyweight keyboard, the typebars jamming in clusters that had to be pulled apart whenever I worked too fast.
That poor Olivetti grew creakier by the day. I hit those keys as if they owed me money, to make sure the carbon copy was legible.
Inky fingers, carbon paper, Wite-Out... a pretty messy process. Crossed-out words, coffee rings on the pages, and (worst of all) circled paragraphs with arrows indicating their new locations, to be moved around in the next draft.
All those drafts! The endless rolling of pages through the carriage! By the end of it, I figured I’d defoliated a corner of Brazil to complete “Shepherd Avenue” in time for publication in the spring of 1986.
Then, suddenly, the process changed. Technology didn’t walk into my life. It galloped.
I gave up the Olivetti in favor of an electric typewriter with a rotating golf ball studded with letters, numbers and punctuation marks. No jamming with that golf ball! You barely touched the keys, and the letters appeared on the page. It worked like a dream.
But not for long, because I soon abandoned that machine in favor of my first word processor - a big, boxy IBM.
Whatever I wrote appeared in green light on its screen, and when a manuscript was complete I simply hit “print” and waited as the pages emerged from the printer, pristine and flawless, ready to be mailed to my agent.
“Pages.” That’s the key word here.
Because I just completed a novel on my laptop computer, and not until I typed the words “The End” did something really freaky occur to me:
This story exists only in the form of light! It’s a blackout away from oblivion!
Well, not really. I’d “backed it up” on a few systems, and now all I had to do was e-mail the link to anyone I wanted. Five seconds later they’d have the novel, and they could read it on their computer screens.
Which is exactly what was bugging me. Sure, they can read it on their screens, but they can’t really touch it. That’s what thirty years of progress amounts to - look, but don’t touch.
Can you be touched by a story you cannot touch? And can you truly call it a book if it’s never existed in the form of paper pages?
I don’t know, but here’s one thing I do know - I’m going to print out a copy of my new manuscript, just for the hell of it.
I’ll dog-ear a few of those pages, smear some ink on a few more. Maybe even set a cup of coffee on the title page, just to give it a little ring.
The ring of truth, I hope.