NINA ZIVANCEVIC

Red Queen, an excerpt from ‘Living On Air’, Nina Zivancevic’s beautiful book on Barncott Press.

The Queen in Red was a critic and novelist with a worldwide reputation who presided over her kingdom from an airy Brooklyn brownstone that had tall bay windows and a southern exposure. Formally of the Upper West Side, she chose this location – her summer palace, you could say – for its relative remoteness. She figured that only the most dedicated subjects would visit across the river, since few ventured so far from Manhattan. An invitation to her court was a kind of test, her own version of the quest a medieval empress demanded of favourite knights. She was a large woman with wide wrists, full lips, nearly fifty, and famously easygoing, when she wasn’t in one of her “moods.” Her voice was kind and without affectation, a direct American expression with no pretense. She answered the phone with a calm friendliness, or, more likely, she wouldn’t answer it at all, and listened while it recorded the messages from nervous fans who discovered her unlisted number, or from her many we-must-get-together-soon friends, or the invitations to absolutely splendid parties, or news from the agents, publicists and publishers whose livelihoods depended on their share of profits from the Queen’s books and speaking engagements. If she chose to return the call later, it was understood to be a magnanimous gesture, since everyone knew and accepted that the Queen was always too busy to do anything, especially make a phone call. But when one of her famous “moods” hit, she locked herself up and spoke to no one; her courtiers then frantically rang each other to strategize about how to reach the Queen; it was as if they were negotiating the end of a war.

To ward off her “moods” the Queen dressed in red, which she insisted helped keep her cheerful. Her wardrobe was filled wit red gifts from admirers, which provided her with an armory of anecdotes. She’d finger the bright cherry hat on her head, and say,

“This was a gift from a Nobel Prize winning chemist I met at a world hunger conference in Borneo.” Well, of course. I thought she was one of the smartest people I knew. A fantastic conversationalist, she was familiar with the important books in most fields, and referred to them in a way that implied she’d once gotten drunk with the author. Up on the latest intellectual fashions, expert at reading the barometer of academic trends, she was famously current and proud of it.

Again and again throughout her illustrious career, she uncovered the latest obscure but intriguing underground development, and recast it in a precise, crystalline prose that made it available to the largest possible circle of readers. At the cocktails parties where such things matter, she was considered the last word on What’s New. We met when I was invited to one of the Queen’s monthly literary salons, where she presided over a smallish group of writers sharing their recent drafts. It was an honour to be included, and I actually blushed – really! – at the thought of reading them my manuscripts. After all, I had devoured nearly everything the Queen ever published, and others there were older and quite respected. But when I finally dared to present a few of my pages, afterwards the Queen in Red gave me an approving smile. Some in the room took note; while we walked to the subway, a blonde novelist with John Lennon glasses and a wispy beard gushed that her response guaranteed me a successful career.

Well, maybe this guy thought so, but magazines kept turning me down. The rejection letters were short; sometimes an editor added a dismissive comment – about how my stories were inelegantly structured, or had unsympathetic characters, or that my “message” couldn’t be boiled down to a direct statement. One editor suggested that my “sentences lacked detachment.”

Actually, the only encouragement I got in those days – aside form K – was from the Queen herself. She insisted that I read at each of her literary gatherings. Then, as she got to know me better, she asked for copies of my stories so she could read them alone. “My dear,” she’d say, “please don’t deprive me of your brilliance!” Of course, I was deeply flattered.

Then gossip reached me from unexpected sources: Last night at a dinner party, the Queen in Red said great things about your writing.” Soon the gossip grew into rumours: “You should have no trouble getting your work published, now that you’re represented by the Queen’s agent.” But in fact nothing had changed form me. I kept committing to paper my raw sweaty words smeared with hop and rears. I was grateful that someone of the Red Queen’s stature was interested in my nonsense.

She managed to convince me not to care about rejection slips.

“Most great writing never makes it into print, “ she’d say. “What’s the point of being published, anyway? Everything one writes is inevitably misread, and claims to literary greatness are really just an excuse to own a small business.”

At the time, I was writing stories about the first appearance of the plague as it touched the lives of people I knew, and cast a shroud over our exuberant, wilfully artistic actions. They were written to help me forge m own understanding of tragic events. They were private jottings that I hoped would move others, of course, but were really meant for myself. So I took the Queen’s words to heart, and didn’t let those rejections get me down. That year the Queen threw a lavish Christmas party that brought the ‘crème’ of the New York writing scene to the wilds of Brooklyn. Famous names floated through the door, quick to check out what other famous names had already arrived – then they would hug one another and exchange kisses. The event was catered by a team in white. Those of us in need of a free meal stood by the kitchen to catch waiters as they entered with tray after tray of finger food. But the most delectable morsel served that evening came from the Queen in Red herself.

After hushing everyone to silence, she made a grand announcement: her latest novel was finally complete, and would be released that spring by the most distinguished press in the country! Everyone cheered, and she was toasted by her famous editor.

This was a wonderful surprise! None of us knew the Queen was at work on a novel. Not that this was so remarkable, but she never mentioned it. As we were true fans of her fictions, I and a few other courtiers surrounded the Queen to ask about her book. She replied by placing the tip of her index finger to her lips with great flamboyance, and said nothing. Soon after, the Queen left on the first of several international tours, and our literary salon kept getting postponed; finally, it was canceled for good. Over the next moths I rang her a few times, but she never answered the phone or returned my messages.

Suddenly, the Queen was gone from my life. This hurt me, especially since she’d been so supportive, and I didn’t understand it. I assumed, of course, that I’d done something to offend her, and kept trying to figure out what it was.

But when her novel was released that spring – then I understood.

The book had a fashionably sleek jacket; it grabbed the eye. The Queen’s name was in bold letters across the top. But when I opened that glorious cover, I found the words inside were strangely familiar.

The characters, I discovered, shared interesting similarities to characters of my own. The story, I realized, echoed stories I had written – but hers was simpler, made easier to chew.

The ideas could have been mine, but they’d been reduced to sound bite size, and were emptied of meaning. The Queen rewrote my stories about the plague into a language suited from readers who couldn’t care less. And there was one more difference. The Queen’s swords were false. Nothing about them was honest; she hadn’t lived the experience; it was all posturing, posing, sentimentality, pretence.

Reading those pages was like seeing myself through a cheap funhouse mirror on a bad drug. Needless to say, the Queen was widely praised for her “bravery” in “confronting such a controversial topic.” The novel was nominated fro a major prize, and a Hollywood producer optioned film rights.

To this day, she will not return my call.

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