LONDON — Charles Dickens may be dead, but his spirit lives on in Bella Pollen’s latest book, “Meet Me in the In-Between,” a coming-of-age tale and rollicking memoir of the novelist’s double life, ping-ponging across the Atlantic from her native England to New York, or the wild American West all in a quest to examine — and silence — her demons.
As with any memoir, there are a few truly miserable bits — drugs, death, divorce — many a poignant family moment, lots of “David Copperfield”-style plot twists and adventures straight out of “Oliver Twist” — almost all of them instigated by Pollen herself, the author of five novels, including the best-selling “Hunting Unicorns.”
Here are just a few of the characters she encountered and/or lived beside in her 55 years straddling two continents: A Jewish-Italian mafia boss of sorts (Pollen’s former father-in-law who inspired her pun “Kosher Nostra”); a mouthy Colorado cleaner called Pamela with mottled gums and a thing for sparkly boob tubes; Vicente, a reluctant Mexican people-smuggler and die-hard Pink Floyd fan, and Julius, a pet macaw with a double personality.
Pollen, who was among the wave of young designers who energized London fashion in the early Eighties — Princess Diana was among her clients — eventually swapped sketches and swatches for notebooks and pens and is quite a character herself.
As a child growing up on the Upper East Side of Manhattan (her father Peregrine Pollen was a Sotheby’s supremo in the U.K. and U.S.), she yearned to be black, and wore a Pam Grier-style Afro wig to and from school. As a grown-up she courts danger wherever she goes, secretly torturing an airport rental car rep; extricating herself from the clutches of a scary hillbilly family; charming American sheriffs out of speeding tickets, and nearly crossing the Mexican border into the U.S. illegally in a tunnel.
She also married twice, the first time to an Italian art dealer, the second to her current husband, the publisher David “Mac” MacMillan, a grandson of Britain’s former Prime Minister Harold Macmillan. She’s a mother of four, and devoted to her parents and siblings.
The book, which launches in the U.S. this week, was a long time coming, says Pollen from the sofa of a juice bar in her West London neighborhood. It was meant, in part, to exorcise her many demons, among them the feeling that she did not belong anywhere after her parents’ divorce. She was a child at the time and returned to England with her mother and siblings after a fun life in New York City.
Therapy was flat-out of the question — she’s British after all — and so she decided to take the do-it-yourself route and resolve her issues, which included terrifying nighttime hauntings by an incubus and writer’s block, on paper. “I was hovering around the edge of memoir for a really long time — that’s the true story,” says the blond Pollen (she relinquished the Afro years ago) who still looks almost childlike with her big blue eyes and her delicate frame.
“I realize that I’m always interested in the same thing: What’s the meaning of home? Why am I so restless?” She also realized something was blocking her. “This ghost or whatever it was, represented something, and I needed to stop and go back to try and see what was bugging me.”
Her diverse stories are accompanied by a series of quirky, cartoonish black-and-white illustrations by Kate Boxer and calligraphy by Amy Gadney. Readers get to see drawings of Pollen’s dreaded incubus, a very real psychological force, and a board game with tiles that describe her early life — “Drink, Sex, S–t 1st Job.”
All of those tales lay bare the tension between her disparate desires. “My particularly conflicting desire is home, with everything at home: The guy, the kid, the dog, the house. And away, this whole idea of escape and everything away represents. It’s the idea of having a darker self, and why do I have this other self? Where does it come from? What’s my f—ing problem?”
Although fashion doesn’t play a starring role in the book, Pollen is clearly proud of her past career. She won a slew of fashion awards, dressed high-profile clients including Diana, Marianne Faithfull and Christiane Amanpour (who still wears Pollen’s colorful coats) and created the signature pink-red color for Virgin Airlines.
She eventually sold her company to Courtaulds, which shut the business in the Nineties. “I’d pieced together my company during the Thatcher era,” she writes. “Boom time for women. I was a confused feminist, the kind who secretly loved being whistled at by men on building sites.”
She said that even as a teenager, she’d understood the transforming power of fashion. “How it could make you feel brave. And there was something I could do for the cause. Empower the fellow shy; dress them up to take down inequality. That idea alone had been enough to make my accidental career feel like it had a purpose, and I’d been good at it, too.”
Pollen, who’s dressed for the interview in jeans and an olive green army shirt, says she still loves clothes. “But I’m the scruffiest person in the world.”
She also believes there’s a certain era that women often get stuck in when they dress, “either because it really suits you or something about that era imprinted itself on you. For me, I think it is probably still the Seventies, partly because I have such a nostalgic view being in America during the Seventies. When I reach for something, I still end up wearing a great suit and with a pair of funky shoes.”
The Eighties, she says, were “neither funky nor sexy. It was working girl. In the Nineties, it started to get touch-y feel-y, and now you can wear whatever you want as long as you wear it well. What I suppose fashion should be.”
It may have been a long and painful process, but writing the memoir turned out to be far more effective than a shrink. She’d recommend memoir-writing to anyone looking to sort themselves out. “You take responsibility for everything that has happened to you, so you are nobody’s victim and nobody is yours,” says the heroine of the book.