'Keep a Stiff Upper Lip, Giovanni'
Post by Timothy Miller
The Strange Case of Eliza Doolittle
Possibly the question a writer likes least is: Where do you get your ideas from? So of course I’m about to tell you exactly where the idea came from for my very British first novel, 'The Strange Case of Eliza Doolittle', if only to show that ideas come from the strangest places.
I was chasing a girl to Milan. Well, what better reason could you have to move to Italy, especially when you’re young and stupid? But what I came away with was the kernel for my first novel.
Let’s see now. It must have been New Year’s Eve, 1989, when I set out. If you want a short New Year’s Eve, spend it on a flight from Chicago to Milan. As soon as you’re in the air, they give you a New Year’s toast, whip the glass from your hand, and the rest of the flight you’re supposed to contemplate how you escaped a New Year’s hangover, because you’ve been flung eight hours into the future. And if you noticed I said 1989, yes, it took a little time for this kernel to hatch. Or pop, or whatever it is that kernels do.
Now let’s backtrack a little ways here. I had already begun to write a Sherlock Holmes pastiche. Not this one, but another. Although frankly, I was getting nowhere with it, because I couldn’t figure out who my narrator was. Also, I had no idea how much research would be required for the project (an unholy amount, as it turned out). That project would eventually morph into my first screenplay, which would eventually throw off its cocoon and unfurl its wings as my second novel, which I’ll tell you about some other time. Okay, now we’re caught up. Did I mention the girl?
To keep body and soul alive while wooing the girl, I intended to teach English. There’s always a need for English teachers in Europe, because English is the language of international business. But there’s a great deal of contention as to whether one should learn American English or British English, with the Brit teachers always doing their utmost to belittle American as a mongrel language. Which I’ll admit to, but we all know that mutts make better pets than purebreds, right?
Now here’s the complication: I didn’t speak Italian. But I was undeterred. I had plunged into study in the weeks before I left America, and since I’m good at memorizing vocabulary, I thought I might be able to fake it. But I had one problem—I couldn’t understand Italian when I heard it spoken. People have an irritating way of mushing up their own language--it was the same problem I’d encountered years earlier, backpacking my way across Europe. I had memorized how to say “How much?” in six languages—but couldn’t understand the answer in any of them (including British English, which was crushing, since I had always thought I could scare up a pretty convincing English accent. Nawp.)
Yet still I was able to collect clients. And now I have to confess: I wasn’t a very good teacher. Not that I didn’t know my stuff, but most of my clients already spoke passable English and wanted to speak it perfectly—and I was so charmed by their mistakes that I hated to correct them. Still I was able to do some good, if only by liberating one group from Dostoyevski’s Crime and Punishment, which had been inflicted on them by their previous teacher (a Brit, of course.) Also I had the good fortune to meet a lovely young married couple who were a delight to teach, and whom I hold responsible for my first book, simply because they were having trouble with English prepositions. All Italians have trouble with English prepositions because there are only a handful of Italian prepositions, while there are over a hundred in English.
So I got an idea. I would write a little detective story. (You can see that I still had Holmes on my mind.) That would give me a reason to lard it with prepositions—which I would leave blank. And I’d populate the story with English characters, probably hoping to make up for my American mutt complex and show those Brits. Characters that even an Italian would be familiar with. So I picked them out of the air. Sherlock Holmes. Henry Higgins and Eliza Doolittle. Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. I think it was about six pages long, and as I recall Higgins is murdered and Eliza revealed as the culprit, a denouement G.B. Shaw should have thought of. I acted it out for my students and it was a big hit, with them shouting out prepositions right and left.
Well, in case you’re wondering, I never got the girl. I left Milan after a few months, since Italy is no place to nurse a broken heart. But I took away a story. Or not so much a story as an amalgam of characters that felt right together, but I had no idea what to do with. It took a few years for me to realize that maybe I hadn’t just pulled those characters out of thin air. That perhaps there were certain similarities between them, besides their location in place and time, that were not so readily apparent. That there was actually a theme streaming between them. A theme having to do with the duality and the fluidity of human nature. Something to hang a novel on. And that, dear reader, is how I got the idea for my very stiff upper lip novel in romantic Italy. Where do I get my ideas from? I’m not picky.
About the Author
Timothy Miller is a writer raised in Shreveport, Louisiana. He has produced two screenplays, 'Scanned' (2010) and 'At
War with the Ants' (2010). He was featured on a morning news segment at Loyola University in New Orleans. Miller's love of the Edwardian long summer and golden age developed in grade school when he first read 'The Wind in the Willows'.