My fourth novel, The Odyssey of Lily Page, began life in 2020 immediately after I had finished Miller Street SW22, ahead of its publication in early 2021.
Yes, I write slowly. The rest of living, getting, spending etc so often get in the way and even after the last sentence is finished, numerous re-writes, edits, proof reads and re-reading of proofs extends the whole process of producing a book.
In May, the manuscript was, however, duly delivered to my publishers, to await the various stages of further preparation before an eventual publication date in late November 2023.
So all was done and dusted, so to speak, all my final re-writes, changes and alterations of content months and months ago.
Imagine, then, my shock when I began to read the latest novel by one of my favourite writers, Ann Patchett, to find what seems to me to be an extraordinary coincidence between the esteemed american author’s Tom Lake and my soon-to-be-published The Odyssey of Lily Page.
All right. So perhaps I am overreacting. But bear with me.
My novel, set in 1983 in London, involves (among other things) a play-reading society that is pretty pivotal to plot development. There are various random references to plays but two are noted particularly and are of significance – namely Thornton’s Wilder’s Our Town and Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard.
I have always loved these plays, have directed one and acted in the other and both hold particular warm memories and associations for me. Passages of the text are inscribed on my mind – for their truths, their pathos and reality. My late mother also loved Our Town and she and I would often quote key lines to each other, savouring together their poignancy – such as when the young protagonist, Emily says:
It goes so fast. We don’t have time to look at one another. I didn’t realize. Oh earth, you’re too wonderful for anybody to realize you. Do any human beings ever realize life while they live it? Every, every minute?
I directed Our Town many years ago when I was teaching at a London school and ‘my’ Emily went on, a decade or so later, to have a daughter who she called Emily. Coincidence or intentional choice? I am not sure.
I played Anya is The Cherry Orchard about 100 years ago and have been influenced ever since by its story of loss, of change, of non-communication – and what would be – ambition, love, life – but never quite was…
The two plays inevitably crept with ease into my novel when I was selecting plays for my fictional play-reading society.
Anyway, back to Ann Patchett and Tom Lake.
There I am, reading the first few pages and of all the plays in all the world, written across all the centuries, which two plays do I find she features and references – indeed, are the very backbone of her novel?
You’ve got it!
Right first time!
I was absolutely stunned to find that both Our Town and The Cherry Orchard are central to her wonderful novel, positively supporting and suffusing the narrative.
Tom Lake was published this summer well after I sent Lily Page winging on its way to the publisher. I only acquired a copy last week and have since read it, with huge admiration, but also with alarm at the coincidence.
I started writing The Odyssey of Lily Page early in 2020. Ann Patchett’s book refers the pandemic and summer of 2020 so she clearly started writing it during or just after that period.
It’s pure coincidence. Pure chance. But still it rankles and disturbs just a bit.
Will people think I copied the great writer?
Clearly not, if they note when the books were being written. And clearly Ann Patchett inhabits a writer’s universe that is so remote from my humble one that comparisons are not just odious but embarrassingly irrelevant.
The thought of being accused of plagiarism is terrifying even if easy to dispute due to the dates of composition.
So I shall just have to relax and be ready to defend myself with the truth of the matter:
It’s an extraordinary, bewildering and baffling coincidence – that’s all!
And since I don’t share Ann Patchett’s brilliance as a novelist, at least it’s good to know that I share her taste in plays!