The Final Confession of Mabel Stark

They say that your first novel is like your first child. If that is so, I’ll peg the conception of The Final Confession of Mabel Stark to a drive I took in 1998. As I don’t remember it being particularly hot or cold, and I don’t remember being bothered by the hay fever that assails me every spring, I’ll make it autumn. I’ll even describe the trees as being a blazing collage of golds, reds and yellows, though to be frank I don’t remember this detail, either.

I was driving to the Bowmanville Zoo, about an hour and a half east of Toronto. I had been assigned a story by Equinox magazine – Canada’s equivalent of National Geographic – in which I was going to chronicle the efforts of the zoo’s director, a former carny named Michael Hackenberger, to train a pair of lions for use in a Hollywood spectacle entitled The Ghost and the Darkness. (One critic accurately it as being “Jaws with paws,” and rightly advised giving it a wide berth.)

I was thirty-four years of age. I had been a magazine journalist for the last dozen years, the first six of which I’d enjoyed to the point of giddiness. (What’s that? You want me to go to Ghana? You need a profile of David Cronenberg? The print world needs a piece on media pranksterism in New York City? When, I say, do I start packing?) The last six, however, had become a trial – magazines were closing, the buck-a-word manacle remained unchallenged, and those publications that did survive were being co-opted by the advertising industry at a speed I found breathtaking. The future was clear – if I wanted to continue being a magazine journalist, the bulk of my work would be re-writing press releases about Hollywood stars, automobiles and hair products. It was a sobering prospect.

I should also admit that, by this point, I had written a classically putrid first novel. Quasi-autobiographical, and naturally structured around the protagonist’s “coming of age”, it brooded relentlessly on relationship issues and recreational drug taking. I had even thought, in my naiveté, that the sheer originality of its subject matter would have been enough to get me published. Every agent who braved the first few pages (trust me, there weren’t many) disabused me of this notion.

In other words, that possibly-autumn day found me disillusioned, bothered by an escalating sense of failure, and determined to find subject material that might somehow provide an escape from the galley-slave existence that is magazine writing. I met Hackenberger (a huge, strapping fellow with the face of a ten-year-old), I said hello to his lions (the nice one was named Bongo, the surly one Caesar) and I got our first interview on tape (getting things on tape being a predilection of mine back then).

That’s when the fateful moment of conception – of circumstance mating with desperate ambition – arrived. Just as I was about to leave, my story subject loaned me a book; about as thick as the Vancouver white pages, it was entitled Famous Big Cat Trainers Throughout History. I remember being surprised that history had produced enough famous big cat trainers to justify a phonebook-sized volume, but there it was. All of the big names were given their due: Clyde Beatty, Gunter-Gebel Williams, the absurdly coiffed Siegfried and Roy, I could go on and on. I also found three pages on a female tiger trainer who had been a centre-ring attraction with the Ringling Show of the 1920s.

Mabel Stark had grown up in the tobacco fields of eastern Kentucky. At the age of thirteen, she lost both of her parents in the space of three months. She became a live-in nursing student at a nearby hospital, only to suffer a nervous breakdown and be committed to a mental institution. She escaped, became a stripper on a carnival side-show, slept her way into a job as a tiger trainer, only to become one of the biggest acts in the golden years of the circus. She trained tigers well into her eighties; upon losing her final training job, she promptly committed suicide. Along the way, she had six husbands, a dozen serious maulings, and a five-hundred pound Bengal lover named Rajah. I remember thinking to myself: if you can’t make a book out of this, then God help you you pitiful talent-less bastard.

It was around this time that something truly serendipitous happened. An editor I knew at Toronto Life became an editor at Random House Canada. Her name was Anne Collins, and she – miracle of miracles – had been one of maybe three or four magazine editors in the country to ever shown signs of actually liking my writing. We lunched at a Thai restaurant. I told her Mabel Stark’s story. Somehow, I managed to cadge a small advance to write a non-fiction book about an obscure female tiger-trainer whom no one had ever heard about. (Such unlikely and misguided triumphs have been a hallmark of my publishing career.)

Emboldened, I set out to do research. I went to The Circus World Museum in Baraboo, Wisconsin. I went to the Ringling Brothers’ Museum in Sarasota, Florida. I went to the Circus Hall of Fame in Peru, Indiana. I travelled for a week with one of the last remaining big-top circuses, the Carson and Barnes Five-Ring out of Hugo, Oklahoma. I read every book from that era, of which there was no shortage: I remember coming across a publication that was solely devoted to circus tent pegs. I learned everything I could about the circus of the twenties, my only problem being that I could find very little about my subject, beyond which I’d already read in Famous Big Cat Trainers Throughout History.

After eight months of diligent research, I decided I would have to either start writing my book, details be damned, or surrender myself once again to the clutches of magazine writing. This is what I decided: I would stick to Mabel’s large-stroke career moves, and speculate, perhaps even wildly, about the stuff that happened in between. In so doing, I would produce one of those imaginative non-fiction works that had, for a time, been popular in the sixties. Oh yes, in my treatment of Mabel Stark’s life, I would write journalistic fiction, I would be an author of literary non-fiction, I would pen a non-fiction novel. I would traipse in the footsteps left by In Cold Blood, if only out of abject necessity.

I started writing. I got nowhere. I decided that the book needed to be written first-person. I spent three months inventing a voice for Mabel. This helped. This helped a lot. I wrote page after page, all in a grammatically eccentric southern drawl peppered with out-of-date circus terms. My neck ached and my forearms hurt. I wrote the first draft of a 400 page novel in just eight months, fuelled by the fear that I did not have the stamina to produce a full-size book. (My failed coming-of-age novel had clocked in at all of 180 pages, and even that was with generous margin sizing.) I wrote so quickly, in fact, that I failed to consider a germane fact until the draft was completed – I had not written journalistic fiction, or literary non-fiction, or a non-fiction novel. I had just plain written a novel.

Thus I was confronted with another harrowing problem: I became convinced that were I to submit a work of fiction instead of non-fiction, my advance long since spent in cities with names like Baraboo and Peru, Random House would not only sue me for fraud, but black-ball me from the Canadian book publishing industry. Still. There was no escaping the fact that I had written the damn thing. There was no getting around the fact that this was something I had done.

I handed it in. It was, for the sake of argument, fall of 2000. I waited for three months. It was the longest three months of my life; I clearly remember explaining to my wife that I knew Anne Collins hated my book, because why else would she put off giving me the bad news for so long, oh no no no, there was no other possible explanation, it was all over, woe is me, best to write my L-SATs and get law school over with so that one day I could retire and nurse the mournful, achy regret I had over my entire goddamn life. (I didn’t realize that three months in the book world is roughly equivalent to a long lunch in the real world.) In the interim, I moved with my wife and baby daughters to a new house. I remember I had just hooked up the telephone in my new office – it was still empty of furniture – when said telephone rang. It was Anne Collins. She looks a little like Angelica Huston, which I’ll mention only to help you picture her talking on the phone.

“So,” she said. “It’s a novel, is it?” “Yes,” I squeaked. “Is that … okay?” “Ah, what the hell,” she said. “I might have known you’d pull something like this.”

The Final Confession of Mabel Stark was published in the spring of 2001. It went on to sell in fifteen markets, and be published in a dozen different languages. Sam Mendes, of American Beauty fame, owns the film option. His wife, Kate Winslet, will play Mabel. When it came out, I remember hoping for a review in one of the small-press literary reviews, of the type published on a university campus; it was reviewed in the Sunday London Times Review of Books, The New York Times Review of Books, Time, The Economist, etc. etc. etc. I wish I’d had the wisdom to enjoy it at the time.

Two years later, when the book came out in England, I spoke at a packed London theatre with Yann Martel of Life of Pi fame. (Believe me, no one was there to see me.) After our respective talks, a question came from the audience: “How has publishing your book changed you?” Martel, who had recently won the Booker, answered that nothing had changed, that he was still the same person, that he was still just a guy trying to unlock the secrets of the novel. I wondered if this modesty was a defence mechanism, forged in the face of sudden and extreme notoriety, or whether he really felt that way.

I, on the other hand, was not in any way rich, famous, or even notable. I really was just a guy who had happened to write a novel. Yet when it came to my turn to answer the question, I said, “Writing Mabel changed everything. It changed the way I saw myself, and it changed what I think I can do. Having written Mabel, I’m finally starting to think of myself as a writer.”