Writing Alice in Bed … while often in bed

Alice in Bed began inadvertently. For most of my adult life I’d been a journalist and nonfiction author, specializing in science. I wrote articles for magazines from the Atlantic Monthly to Omni and Allure, and authored several books. These are two of them.

Of Moths and Men (W.W. Norton, 2002) was a finalist for a Los Angeles Times Book Award and the PEN/American Prize for First Nonfiction and was reviewed favorably in the New York Times Book Review, the London Times Literary Supplement, the Wall Street Journal, the Guardian, and the usual suspects. But look it up on Amazon and you might be asked if you’d like mothballs to go with that. The Three-Pound Universe (Macmillan, 1986) attracted a different set of fans, some of whom tracked me down and called me up, in those dim pre-internet times, to chat about their altered states of consciousness.

Fast-forward to the fall of 2005: The nonfiction book I’d signed up had a good publisher and a decent advance, but after a cheerless autumn in the academic libraries of Boston, it wasn’t cohering. I could think of no remedy, and I was now mysteriously ill, exhausted, woozy on the MTA, subject to feverish sweats in the reading rooms, with invisible fire ants in my limbs, numbness and electrical sensations in my digits. 
As a cancer survivor, I already knew that “Most of the time it’s nothing” doesn’t necessarily hold true. I was paying a fortune in rent, too. As the New England winter bore down, I returned home and spent the next months being tested for obscure diseases and reading Alice James’s diary and letters. And her brothers’ letters and notebooks, her father’s strange mystical books, William James’s academic papers, the pedestrian letters of her mother and aunt. What a family! It is easy to fall under the spell of the Jameses; I was even dreaming about them.

I did not foresee that I would spend the next seven years rewriting Alice in Bed during my well—or less ill–intervals. Since I’d switched genres, I had to pay back the book advance. How to explain such a disastrous infatuation? I had come to love Alice James, despite her faults. She doesn’t suffer fools gladly. She looks sullen in her sepia photographs. She is not a “pleaser” and in her day that was fatal for a woman. If she gives you the cold shoulder, it is glacial. There is something fierce and uncompromising about her, like a secular Joan of Arc. But her inner world is full of a strange beauty.

I discovered that I loved writing fiction. After “being poorly,” as they would say in Alice’s day, for the better part of three years, I eventually did get better, but I don’t regret being ill. How else would I have been capable of empathy with Alice James, who spent nine years in a sickbed in a country not her own? At my lowest ebb, I could at least walk and I had the Kardashians to watch (when you are ill you sometimes take comfort in shallow escapism) but what did Alice have? La Revue des Deux Mondes, her landlady’s conversation, occasional visits from Henry… and her imagination. Oh but what she did with that!