Carol Hill says her sexy novel about subparticle physics arrived in her head roughly like radio waves from outer space.
"Unbelievable! Like the story's coming from outside. Maybe it is. Maybe this sounds crazy. I believe in an enormous positive energy, available to us. True or not, none of us will ever know."
"The Eleven Million Mile High Dancer," the year's farthest-out title, has already been optioned for the movies by independent producer Iris Sawyer. Kate Capshaw and Jessica Lange both want to play Amanda, the ultimate space-age romantic heroine, Hill says, and Steven Spielberg is "interested." Douglas Trumbull, the special-effects wizard of "Star Wars" and "2010," flew to New York to talk with her about his new Showscan 3-D process. Penguin will publish the paperback next year. And it is already well on its way to becoming a cult book for its funk, fantasy, physics and feminism.
Everyone looks at Hill carefully to see if she wears Amanda's skates and red and white shorts.
"Nope, I can't skate at all," she says, talking at a corner table in the Mayflower's Cafe Promenade a few days before she flies to Hollywood from her moderne New York apartment. She looks as though she's spent her 43 years in space travel, where you don't age but the people you left behind do. She has classic features and wavy hair, and wears space-age earrings. But Amanda is of goddess proportions: Pallas Athena's head on Venus' body.
"Amanda is not me. I wish she were me. She kept me going during the four years I worked on the book. She's so strong and inspiring. Something's wonderful about her. She's the woman we'd all like to be. She makes me feel it's terrific to be a woman. Though she's vulnerable. For instance, Amanda is in love with two men."
Hill denies that either is based on men in her own life. Not Bronco McCloud, described as "clearly a wicked man . . . terrible and wonderful all at once," or Hotchkiss, "a dangerous man. Underneath that cool, rational gaze, his courage and his love, underneath those smooth benign surfaces, a primal terror lurked. Hotchkiss was a capturer and he was out to capture. Her."
Not that Hill's real-life romantic arrangement is without adventure. About 11 years ago a friend arranged a blind date for her -- with Jerry Albert, a man who buys and sells roller coasters and other whoop-de-whoo gravity rides.
"For the first five minutes I wondered why she thought we'd like each other," says Hill. "Two-and-a-half hours later I was falling in love."
He moved in that same night -- after picking up his dog.
"In retrospect, it was insanity. Very uncharacteristic of either one of us. Completely out of character. I am a very conservative person, habit-wise. But, then, we had a very long dinner."
They lived together seven years and then eloped. They've been married for four. The dog, Winston, went on to his reward at the age of 18.
The comatose cat in the book is based on a real character, Hill says. Schrodinger, Amanda's cat, is named after physicist Erwin Schro dinger, who "proved scientifically that a cat could be both alive and dead at exactly the same time." The cat wakes up occasionally to read Chinese and draw feet. He's catnaped by a galaxy hoodlum and pursued by Amanda, who boldly goes where no woman has gone before. (This is a simplification -- you have to read the book.)
Hill admits that Schrodinger was suggested by the Amazing Fonze, her own cat, who is "part human. I am not alone in thinking there's something special about that cat. People who come to the apartment say, 'My God, he looks like he understands me.' "
She claims that her other characters are purely imaginary: the teen-age orphan inventor who makes a mommy robot; Rufus, the philosopher of head rot; a chimpanzee astronaut that escapes by stealing an Arab's car and burnoose and is only captured by a press conference; the Indians who go up but don't come down. The terrible NERPs (Nerve Ending Reversal Programs) were inspired by the time Hill saw the red tide of pollution come in at the Kennedy Space Center at Cape Canaveral, Fla.
Where did her galaxy of characters come from? She doesn't know.
She hears her novels in her ears "as if the work is coming through a radio antenna from some other place into me . . . I have a lot of freedom because I feel it's happening to me."
Amanda, after a few chapters, suddenly starts to have out-of-body experiences. For Hill the breakthrough began when "all of a sudden I began to read in quantum physics. I read Einstein's theory of relativity at the breakfast table."
She had never studied science in school, and wasn't reading with the idea of using the material in a book. But some things she read began to race around her mind in the manner of the cursor on a video game.
"Wild!" she says. "I read mostly in subparticle physics -- very metaphorical, very beautiful, and totally absurd. Not unlike human life in that respect. Someone defined the subparticle world as ambiguous, unpredictible, invisible, with tremendous powers to affect our every reality. I say that's a definition of love. Subparticle physics is constant in our lives. Love is the center of all.
"The brain, the universe and subparticle physics all seemed to be part of the same thing. The same laws apply. Nigel Calder in 'The Key to the Universe' wrote that we are all made of the stardust of the original big bang. Out of that primary fireball, those atoms are still in you and me. Someone else wrote that with every breath, we chance breathing air Julius Caesar inhaled.
"I was reading science for sheer intellectual pleasure. That was the only time I was having a good time. I wasn't having a good time writing the novel. I was struggling. It wasn't coming. I didn't know what wasn't coming, but it wasn't.
"I'd written 65 pages when Amanda came out. Here she comes -- walking, talking, hurting. I could see her, oh yeah. That's the great fun of fiction.
"So I started the book all over again and restructured it with Amanda as the center."
Hotchkiss, Amanda's lover, describes her this way: "She liked strawberry sodas, high-heeled shoes, men, lipstick, convertibles, long hair, bright toenail polish, particle physics, quarks, entropy, speculations regarding the speed of light, Darwinism and archaeology."
The first section of the book went fine -- Hill loved Amanda. "I think you have to fall in love with your character." But about two-and-a-half years into writing, the trouble began when Amanda "came to -- she was hurtling, heading at infinite speed, through a bright tunnel. She was traveling. She was going for Schrodinger and she was confident."
Crash! Amanda hits a field that looks like a huge pinball machine, infested with robots. And at that point in space Amanda's travails became Hill's.
"I was inside Amanda, with my own robots at work. I was very afraid. I scared myself to death. The story was so alive. If someone rang the doorbell, I had to readjust. I would dream about the robots, like a kid telling myself ghost stories. The robots went on for a year and half. Lots of time I couldn't go near . . . I didn't know what I didn't want to go near. I got that far and I didn't want to go any further."
She decided that the only way to end her nightmare was to try to end the book.
"I suddenly went dead. So I wrote, 'And then they went back to Earth. The end.' I put the book on the shelf for three months. Then I read it and I said, 'It's not right. It's not the end.' At last, I got my second wind and finished it."
Hill says she always works like that, sporadically. When she hits a block she writes articles for women's magazines, often on psychology and once (after finishing her book) an interview with astronaut Sally Ride.
The catchy title of "The Eleven Million Mile High Dancer" comes from an illustration of Einstein's relativity theory in a book by Heinz Pagels, "The Cosmic Code." Actually, the phrase was the "Eleven Million Mile Tall Dancer," but the publisher changed it. Pagels, executive director of the New York Academy of Sciences, didn't get the copy she sent him, but went out and bought the book and wrote her that he loved it.
"I have never written a fictional word out of my own experience," she says, forgetting her cat. Considering the characters and their experiences in her first two, it's a good thing her ideas come from the ether. "I doubt anyone could guess I wrote all three," she says.
Her first novel, "Jeremiah 8:20," was a "passionate outcry, growing inside me." She wrote the book "totally unaware of where this material was going. I almost fell off my typewriter chair, I was so astonished."
Her hero, if that he could be called, "was a 39-year-old balding overweight man who thought black people had some sort of a secret he didn't have. If he could get it, he thought, he could be released from middle-class white bondage."
At that time Hill, in her late twenties, was an editor with a major New York publishing house. After working on the book for almost six years she stayed home for six months to finish it. Her first husband traveled a great deal, so when he was out of town, "when it got cooking, I'd work 10 a.m. to 8 or 9 p.m. When he was traveling three, four days I was on a high, like having a fever. It's a kind of addiction, an obsession."
She told her friends in publishing how the novel was written. "I would describe this thing happening to me. I'm like a dreamer at a typewriter."
Her friends called it "magical thinking." And they warned, "If you want to write, you can't do it that way. You have to take responsibility for your material."
Hill says, "I didn't want it to be up to me."
The book had a "phenomenal reception." Alfred Kazin said she had "an unusual imaginative range." Newsweek called it "a desperate comedy and a harrowing rehearsal of the Apocalypse." John Leonard wrote that it "moves from the particular to the prophetic, from man to metaphor to myth."
Her experience with automatic writing sent her on a different direction for the second novel. "I was waiting for the old magical thing, but it wasn't working."
"Let's Fall in Love" has a murder mystery center. Hill says she wrote it "out of revenge. Everyone said my first novel didn't have enough sex in it. So I said, 'You want sex, you'll have sex.' "
The book is "a satire, very episodic, very different, very funny. It isn't dirty, it's erotic. I invented all the most absurd positions -- such as people uniting on a diving board in mid-air. Ludicrous! You'd think people would know it was satire. But some thought I'd written a sex manual. I had a telephone call from a man one night saying, 'Unless that girl is 4-feet-11, I don't see how it worked.' "
As she punctuated "The Eleven Million Mile High Dancer" with quotations from scientific books, she filled "Let's Fall" with newspaper stories, excerpts from amorous memos. "I'm always weaving fact and fiction. When I needed a newspaper story to tell some outrageous tale, it would appear. People think I invented them, but they are right out of the day's news."
Although the book sold more copies than the earlier one and was well reviewed, Hill doesn't think it has "the power of the first."
Eating a chocolate mousse under protest, she reflects on how she started as a writer. "I have this personality totally unsuited to being a writer -- I'm miserable alone in my room," she says. In college she wanted to be an actress. But the great thing about being a writer is getting to do "all the parts."
So after college an employment agency found her a job in publishing, "where all I learned was how to address labels." Before long she was an editor. "I was wonderful, because I know what it is to have somebody mushing up your words."
Hill has just finished writing the screenplay for "The Eleven Million Mile High Dancer," and she's resisting writing another novel. "It takes a lot out of me," she says. "On the other hand, I might just put my antenna up. I'm not really sure I've heard the last of Amanda, Schrodinger and Hotchkiss."