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Dylan Thomas, Sunset Boulevard and the Beatles: inspiring Three Strange Angels

by Laura Kalpakian

One of the pleasures of being a novelist is to be able to build an entire book from a wisp, a particle otherwise insignificant, an anecdote that lodges in the brain, rather like the grit that eventually becomes a pearl. Three Strange Angels is that sort of novel.

My first London agency was a venerable firm, founded in about 1919 and boasting a list of authors that dazzled me. By association, I liked to think, my work was included in this stellar company. I lived in England, off and on, Oxford and Cambridge, throughout the 80s, and when I first went to the literary agency’s Mayfair offices, I was delighted to step back in time. Amid an ambience of ramshackle tradition, typewriters clacked away, the air hung heavy with cigarette smoke, and manuscripts lolled off every shelf. In an arc across a high wall were a galaxy of author photos, literary sophisticates mostly from the 1930s and 40s. My own agent in this firm was new, a young woman around my age, and we became (and remain) fast friends. The head of the firm was a man of my parents’ generation, dapper, convivial, charming.

One summer afternoon he took the two of us out to lunch at a posh Mayfair restaurant. He was treated like royalty; the drinks kept coming, the service was impeccable, the conversation funny and anecdotal. He told a story about their client Dylan Thomas (no less!) and Thomas’s sad, sudden demise at the Chelsea Hotel in New York. At that time, 1953, this now-distinguished head of the agency was a young man, a junior partner. The firm sent him as their (and the family’s) emissary to New York to escort the poet’s body home to England. This was the era of ocean liners. On that voyage, on learning that the young literary agent was associated with the much-mourned poet, other travelers feted him, fed him, bought him drinks to salute the sadness they felt for the late, lamented Dylan Thomas. The experience made him understand the power of poetry.

After that lunch, on my way back to Cambridge, as the train whistled and rocked, I kept thinking, there’s a novel there

And now, some thirty years later, and spun far from that morselette of anecdote, Three Strange Angels comes to print. I didn’t actually start writing the book until about 2010 when the central character, Quentin, emerged in my imagination: a young man with all his tickets punched, his future foreordained. Francis Carson’s death would draw Quentin into the unexpected orbit of the fascinating widow, Claire Carson, a displaced American. The task of escorting the late Francis Carson’s body home from Los Angeles would change Quentin forever.  As I wrote and read and researched over the years, the central thematics emerged: the tension between Austerity and Desire. For a young Londoner in 1950 to step into Los Angeles would have been a total, cosmic shock to the system.

Gigi Fischer – clever, sassy, shallow – nicely embodies that cosmic shock. The formidable cookery writer, Louisa Partridge, offers Quentin insight, sophistication he could never have come to on his own. And Claire Carson offers him love, the great love of his life for which he was willing to imperil everything. The book’s title, from the D. H. Lawrence poem ‘Song of a Man Who Has Come Through’ (fittingly) came to me years after. I have always loved that line about the three strange angels knocking at the door, and the urgent admonition “Admit them, admit them.”

I filled Three Strange Angels with elements that have been important, even crucial to my own life. Books, of course. Reading. Especially novels.  Music of all sorts. I am especially fond of old, early recordings that hiss and rasp and the singer’s voice wavers up from the past. And films. In my research I sat spellbound through Sunset Boulevard (1950) and a lot of British films from and of that era as well. And then, just before I wrote the (sort of) last draft, I went to the library and spent days with the whirring microfilm machine and reading the London Times, beginning in January 1950, when the novel opens, to have a sense of the world in which Quentin Castle would have actually moved and lived and had his being.

Quentin Castle’s England was indeed pinched and austere. The war, though it ended five years before, was everywhere apparent in still-uncleared rubble; incalculable losses hung over everyone, as Robert’s death remains a vivid loss for Quentin. Rationing didn’t end till 1954; the winters were bitter and coal shortages kept people hunkered in their overcoats. Americans, who did not live with the war on their soil, nor with daily privations, had no understanding of England’s post-war suffering. And frankly (as the novel makes clear) wanted none.

In Britain the grim fifties ground on, and then, as the decade turned, the Beatles emerged!  Boyish, cheeky, energetic, incredibly talented, and tons of fun (A Hard Day’s Night is one of my favorite movies) the Beatles and the rock scene they inspired in the early sixties seemed to wake Britain up. The old post-war pall lifted, and England was suddenly chic, mod, even enviable. Three Strange Angels ends at this bright moment, June 1965, when Quentin, at age forty, prosperous, professionally acclaimed for his astute literary taste, sits at his desk and once again, risks everything for love.

Three Strange Angels will be published by Robert Hale in March 2015.

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