The Opening, Chapter 1
"Give me a cigarette and the right atmosphere, and I'll tell you the story of my life," she said as she lit a cigarette.
The young writer listened to the renowned figure as she began to weave a tale to match all tales. The woman paused and looked at the recorder on the desk between them. The young writer blushed with embarrassment and started the machine that would hold the words Ms. James was about to speak.
She couldn't believe she was sitting in Olivia James' home. She couldn't believe she was listening to Ms. Olivia James--woman of a lifetime. Occasionally the young writer would pinch herself to be sure she wasn't dreaming. Who would believe that a struggling young writer would be summoned to write the biography of a woman who once dominated the literary world for a time? Olivia James would believe it. She was once a struggling young writer-a writer trying desperately to make sense of the world, of life. A writer before Amazon and self publishing made sharing one's work a possibility.
They sat in Olivia's study in her fabled home known as Somerset. The spacious Victorian-style mansion that rested in the secluded hills of southwestern Virginia, not far from her childhood home in Baileysville or her grandmother's house in Fuller. Somerset appeared, to the visitor's eye, to have been a part of the rural landscape known as Clovermist for years: a variety of trees gave way to an open ground around the house while shielding it from the view of passersby. Ivy traveled up a chimney, an enchanting garden bloomed with perfect timing every spring, grey squirrels frolicked in the front and side yards as if they were permanent residents of the majestic house, and deer grazed in the distance, unconcerned. One would think that Somerset began as a seed and grew in that very spot, not maiming or striking controversy with its environs.
This stately home was Olivia's hideaway, a place in which she retreated for the last twenty years and raised her three children. The children were now gown and had found lives of their own, leaving the house unbearably silent--silent until Olivia began to speak. With the breath of her voice the walls seem to come alive with conversations of literature, the hum of an acoustic guitar in the hall, and the lure of radicals and writers strolling about the garden in ardent debate. It was a house open to thought and imagination; a canvas filled with wonderful compositions of furniture, memorabilia, and worthless treasures of some little journey, acquaintance, or moment. It could be said that the house was a piece of an unbelievable creative genius. The house itself was a book or movie waiting to unfold.
It was in Somerset that Olivia worked during the last half of her career. It was a sheet of paper were she could assemble her thoughts and give birth to a timeless story. In her study she displayed the fruits of her labor--a Pulitzer, five screenwriting awards, numerous literary awards, portraits of her children and grandchildren, and, in the center of her desk, a photograph of her husband. This was the heart of what had now become a comatose house.
"My childhood is the logical place to begin. People are so fascinated by the childhood. It's as if it has to do with some sort of comparison. If you read of someone who was ordinary, lower or middle class, and they make a success of their life, then you compare yourself and say 'if she can do it, so can I'," Olivia explained as she took a drag from her cigarette and stared at the young writer.
"What do you think?"
"It seems logical. Like the common man succeeds. Hometown girl makes good," the young writer said, straining for an appropriate phrase.
"It's logical, yes, but you see my life was not, nor is, logical.
Whenever I tried to do the logical thing, logic bred hell for me. I found that an illogical logic worked best. It's the only thing that could work for a woman in this world. In order to compete and survive, one cannot think like the forces in front of them. One must think far beyond. In order to succeed, I had to let them believe I was an absolute genius."
"Illogical logic," the young writer repeated. She studied Olivia as if to warrant a better, if not more accurate explanation.
"If you were standing on an open plain and a tornado appeared and was heading toward you, you would think of running away from it. Find a ditch or a cellar and hide till it passed over," Olivia said as she blew smoke into the air. "The illogical logical thing to do would be to stand still and wait for it to turn before reaching you. Or hope it passes you over. That's an example. And, my dear, you then live in that moment." Olivia crossed her legs and watched the smoke lift from the end of her cigarette and disappear toward the ceiling.
"I think I understand. It's about taking risks, not doing what is expected," the young writer reasoned.
"You're getting there."
"Did you resort to this illogical logic when you were a child, or was it something you developed along the way?" Olivia nodded. "It was there. There with the imagination and the yearning to create something, be it a daydream or a one act play for a college course. I was an unusual child caught up in the usual all-American dream. Isn't it always that way? You yearn for what you don't have. When you get it, you either want more or you're just plain disappointed. As if you expected this magical carpet ride that would carry you through life without a care. Rarely does it turn out to be the ultimate of dreams come true where you appreciate and adore every second of life before the bubble bursts," she said, snubbing out her cigarette. "Then you have to watch over your shoulder to be sure someone isn't waiting to prick the bubble prematurely."
The young writer studied her--the mysterious look in her dark eyes, the youthfulness mixed with age in her face, the sadness seasoned with a long lost happiness in her expressions, and every odd and different facet of her manner. Then there was the fact that she was a smoker in her 70s and this was nearly 2040. If only she would open up her skull and let everything spill out. What a feast of knowledge, introspective and honest, would pour out!
"Let's begin with childhood," Olivia stated, reaching for another cigarette as she reclined in her chair with the grace of a ballerina being tilted backward. Now it would happen, now her story would be told; now the reason for Olivia James' journey through life would be understood. The young writer nodded in agreement as the recorder played on...
Olivia's life began long before the moment of conception. It began years and years before she was a mere celestial twinkle in the sky. Her life, as it exists on this place known as Earth, began when two Taylor brothers, having sold all the possessions left to them after the death of their mother, traveled across the Atlantic Ocean, many miles from England. They came to Virginia: one brother settled near the Chesapeake Bay area, and the other went farther inland, eventually settling in the western half of southern Virginia on a plot of land his oldest daughter would later name Clovermist.
Three generations lived and worked the land in those hills and valleys, selling bits and pieces to other farmers when the need arose till, when the fourth generation grew and began to marry, there was little left to suffice one family. Times changed, farming lost its appeal when towns sprang up, factories opened, and it was discovered that a regular guy could make a living with a business on Main Street just as he could on a farm--minus the temperament of the weather and the inconvenience of living in nowhere.
Soon churches and barn dances lost their status as "the" social meeting grounds for folks as rural schools grew and consolidated, bringing more of a sense of community
that prompted Elliott Taylor, a fourth generation Taylor from Clovermist, to seek his livelihood somewhere other than farming: he became a policeman for the town of Baileysville. It was in town that he met Lillian Frances Beauchant, a school teacher transferring into the area from Roanoke to teach at Fuller Elementary. They soon wed and moved to Fuller, a rural community just outside of Baileysville, and built a home to start a family, which would include Olivia's father.