I’m writing this from a hotel room in Washington, DC, where I’ll be ensconced until the end of next week. Well, actually I'll be going out occasionally, mostly to the Library of Congress. (I've read most of the books in my library. That's a significant dfference between me and Congress.)
I love writing in hotel rooms. There are no undone chores to distract me, no ringing telephone, no visitors at the door (once the DND sign is in place), and, above all, almost none of my stuff.
Some people are comforted by their knickknacks, or have the perfect spot that looks out onto a garden. Give me a hotel room any day, and the more sterile and anonymous, the better. Hotel rooms are a piece of time and space that has been extracted from the daily rhythm of life: Welcome to Spaceship Marriott.
I gather I’m not entirely alone in this. I’ve read that Georges Simenon, one of the world’s most prolific novelists (somewhere between 300 and 400 novels) wrote all his novels in hotels, banging them out in marathon writing stints of two to four weeks. In fact, he had it down to a routine: he’d write out a few notes on the project, and then have his doctor give him a physical. If he was pronounced unfit for the task, he’d take a few weeks of exercise and sound diet first; if pronounced fit, he’d hole up in a hotel, usually a different one each time, and bang out that book.
To digress, part of the reason for this medical caution was that his marathons were conducted under the influence of amphetamines—in other words, he was wired off his nut the whole time. That’s mid-20th-century writing’s little secret. Any book on writing will caution you that you aren’t William Burroughs, and that all those alcoholic and drug-addicted writers out there wrote in spite of the goodies, not because of them—and, moreover, that none of these people wrote under the influence. Strictly an after-hours thing.
Well, that’s poppycock. (We think of poppycock as a rather prim little word, but it’s from the Dutch pappekak, variously translated as either “soft shit,” or, according to the latest OED update, "doll's shit." A bit more vivid when it’s meaning is known, eh?) Simenon was far from alone in this. Jack Kerouac was usually wired when he wasn’t drinking or smoking pot. Anthony Burgess wrote on amphetamines with a fifth of gin at his elbow (is that a disgusting combination, or what?); this no doubt explains all of his references to how hard writing had been on his health. Philip K. Dick is associated in the public mind with hallucinogens, but in fact he only took LSD once (and didn’t have a nice time). The fact he was a voracious speedfreak goes a long way toward explaining the pervasive paranoia of his novels. Lawrence Block once wrote a novel in two days, and though he doesn’t say that he had pharmacological assistance, he did this at a time when most of the writers in New York were swallowing crosstops by the handful, so I have my suspicions.
By the end of the sixties, speed was following the course of all illicit drugs, moving from a user group of artists and intellectuals on down to the colleges and finally out to the trailer parks and motorcyle gangs.
And, as always happens with illegal substances, the potency increased exponentially. Before Prohibition, America was a beer-and-wine country; within a few years, it had been transformed into a hard-liquor country. Why smuggle wagonloads of beer from Canada when you can get the same profit from a trunkful of vodka? If any of the reefer-smoking jazz greats of the fifties were handed a spliff of modern marijuana, they’d take two puffs and fall off the stage. So it was with amphetamines: by the time it hit the mass-market underclass it was no longer little Benzedrine and Dexedrine tablets, but grams of crystal meth.
As US laws became more draconian, writers became more circumspect, but there is no doubt that the seventies and eighties were the era of cocaine. The only novelist who has been forthright about this is Stephen King, who wrote his best books striding along on a diet of beer and Peruvian marching powder, but I’m morally certain that most of the eighties New-Yorky brat-pack-novelist crowd had their beaks in the bag while they were working. Being coked out is the only possible excuse for some of those books.
Now, of course, the coke-addled novelist is no longer fashionable, and cocaine has moved onto the streets as the more-bang-for-your-buck crack. Somehow meth and crack don’t seem like the way to achieve a significant but studious buzz; it’s like cutting butter with a chainsaw. Not to mention that to procure said substances, you no longer deal with guys named Chip who live in dorm rooms, but guys named Ice Cream who carry Uzis.
What was I talking about? Oh, yeah. Writing in hotel rooms. Well, I’m doing it, and it makes me more productive than normal, but we aren’t going to be seeing any two-week novels here. The days of Simenon are long gone, and Espresso and Zinfandel (preferably not at the same time—or, if you can’t manage that, at least not in the same cup) don’t have the same effects. Even in hotel rooms.