Author M. M. (for Mary Margaret) Kaye likes to recall her encounter with Somerset Maugham some 40 years ago. She told the famed writer she sometimes spent an entire day bogged down on one sentence. "My dear young woman," said Maugham, "that's the only thing you've said to make me think you may be a novelist one day."
That day has certainly arrived with the publication of The Far Pavilions. A meticulously researched historical novel about 19th-century India, Pavilions has surged near the top of the best-seller lists while critics dust off their superlatives. "This is a colossal novel," gushed the Cleveland Plain Dealer. "It is one of the true Big Ones."
Big is right. The 955-page Pavilions ran more than 600,000 words when Kaye presented it to her publisher last year. "It was like trying to hold the reins of four runaway horses," explains the silver-haired author, 70. "I never felt I had a grip. I didn't mean it to be so long, but I had to let it write itself out."
The book almost didn't get written at all. Kaye had been nurturing the idea for five years; then, inspired by a three-and-a-half-month visit to India in 1963, she set to work. Six months into the novel, she was stricken with what was first suspected to be lung cancer and later diagnosed as lymphosarcoma (a form of blood cell cancer). Massive cobalt treatments left her depressed and occasionally dizzy and compelled her to put aside the manuscript for four years. ("It felt like 40," she shudders.) Further distracted by family duties ("I am a housewife first") and her laborious method of writing everything out longhand in smudged pencil, Kaye took 14 years to finish Pavilions.
She actually began absorbing material for the book from the moment she was born in the Indian city of Simla. Her father, a British cipher expert in the Indian army, read Kipling to her when she was 3. Packed off to an English boarding school at 10, Mollie (as she is still called) was such a notoriously bad speller and math student that university was out of the question. Drifting to London, Kaye did sketches and paintings to keep food on the table while she attended "lots of parties and had loads of boyfriends."
At 25 she wrote a tale about rabbits, hedgehogs and other inhabitants of Potter Pinner Meadow in a small dime store notebook. That was the first of four successful children's books, but she turned to thrillers just before World War II and Mollie Kaye became M. M. Kaye. "Nobody would have taken seriously the Mollie Kaye of children's books," she explains.
Kaye spent some of her Potter Pinner earnings on a return to her beloved India, and on June 1,1940, Captain Goff Hamilton walked into her life. "Don't ever let anyone tell you there is no such thing as love at first sight," advises Mollie, who was 32 at the time. "I thought, 'That's it,' as soon as he walked through the door." There was just one hitch: Hamilton, who is four years her junior, already had a wife back in Ireland. Nevertheless, he proposed after five days. Two years later when they were eventually married, Mollie was already carrying their first child. "We just couldn't wait," explains Kaye of her rare indiscretion. "Had it been peacetime, I wouldn't have done it because of the way I had been brought up. But these were the pressures of war."
Romance and motherhood interrupted her literary career, but Mollie finished Death Walks in Kashmir in 1950. After two more thrillers in the same vein (Death Walks in Berlin and Death Walks in Cyprus) she retired the theme because, she cracks, "It was getting a bit footsore." She completed two historical novels before settling in to write Pavilions, her 14th book.
When Hamilton retired from the British army in 1967, the couple took up residence in the tiny (pop. 300) Sussex hamlet of Boreham Street, five miles inland from the English Channel. Goff dabbles in rural politics and paints still lifes while Mollie writes 2,000 words a day in her 8x12-foot cubicle. Buoyed by heavily sugared coffee and tea (she put on 40 pounds writing one book), she does two drafts in pencil ("It has to be a round one, or I get a groove in my index finger which hurts like hell"). Her best work comes in the evening. "I'm like a stone-cold engine in the morning," she reports. Hamilton helps out with reminiscences (he was in the corps of frontier guards she depicts in Pavilions) and with additional research and spelling. "She's still frightful," he winces.
After returning last month from a three-week promotion tour in America, Kaye "put my feet up" to answer fan letters, but will begin her autobiography by next spring. Then will come "the one more India novel left in me." She has no big plans for the Pavilions money (paperback rights went for $527,000). Another trip to India, a zoom lens camera and gadgets around the house are about as extravagant as she will get. Twenty years ago she might have gone on "an appalling splurge: diamonds, mink coats and a Rolls. But now I have enough. I've been jolly lucky and have had a marvelous life."
After The Far Pavilions will come an autobiography and "the one more India novel left in me"