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spacer John Fowles, Lyme Regis, England, 1978
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John Fowles, Lyme Regis, England, 1978

In 1977, I had read John Fowles’ amazing but difficult book, “Daniel Martin,” a novelized autobiography about a screenwriter, and Fowles struck me as interesting profile fodder. Shelby Coffey, then my editor at The Post and an avid reader himself, shared my belief. I was told that Fowles didn’t use the telephone (which turned out to be not completely true, although I have learned over the years that many Englishmen still prefer postal communication) and that I would have to write and request an audience, which I did. A few weeks later, a perfectly typed letter arrived in the mail suggesting not only a date for the interview, but also the time of the train I should take from London’s Waterloo station to Lyme Regis, Fowles’ home and the setting for his book, “The French Lieutenant’s Woman.” The letter also cautioned that I should not bring a camera. “I find picture sessions offensive,” he wrote. We sat in Fowles’ writing room, where he explained how he worked: he would make copious notes abut his characters, place them in an imagined setting, and then transcribe the action and dialog that would appear in his mind. It made writing fiction sound deceptively simple. Later we went for a walk on the quay, where much of the action in “The French Lieutenant’s Woman” takes place. He talked about his bouts with Hollywood over the novel (it had been written in 1969, and would not be filmed for over a decade) and why he thought that screenwriting was the lowest form of art. Given the comment in his letter about cameras, I said I would have assumed he reserved that place in hell for photography. “Not at all,” he said. “I assume you’ve brought a camera? Tri-X? Try f4, f4 at a sixtieth of a second.” It was the perfect exposure.

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