Spring/Summer 1998, Volume 15.2
The Company of Writers
Martin Naparsteck (MA, DePauw U), a free-lance writer, lives in Logan, Utah. He has published two novels, War Song and A Hero's Welcome. His work has appeared in Mississippi Review, Confrontation, Ellery Queen and The Writer, etc.
When Ralph Ellison introduced me to Bill Styron, Bill said he had been looking forward to meeting me. Tim O'Brien once apologized for not noticing I'd been sitting in the back of the room listening to his talk; that night we had drinks together and dinner and talked about old times. Richard Yates called me on the phone a few times to talk about my writing and his; I remember all the drinking we did in The Crossroads in Boston's Back Bay and in his apartment.
Ralph, Bill, Tim, and Dick: great guys, all of them.
I do my writing in Logan, Utah, now. Before moving out here in September 1994, I did my writing in Rochester, New York; I lived there thirteen years and was convinced from the beginning it was a literary wasteland, devoid of writer companions I needed to sustain my intellectual growth or liveliness or curiosity, my intellectual something. Still, there was the possibility of an advantage to being a Rochester writer, the same advantage I hoped to find in Utah: I could develop my own little world, I could become a locally-based celebrity of sorts: no William Kennedy to frighten me; his Albany was 200 miles to the east of Rochester, straight along the Erie Canal, and now more than 2,200 miles from Logan; Kennedy was too far away for me to be crushed by a silent whomp of his falling shadow.
At times I yearned-mildly-for more constant company of Bill, Ralph, Tim, and Dick, but I remind myself Rochester was mine, Logan is mine; they have fair writers associated with them (John Gardner grew up in Batavia, half way between Rochester and Buffalo, and The Sunlight Dialogues is set there, and Walter Edmonds [Drums Along the Mohawk] set parts of some of his works there [Rome Haul, Chad Hanna]), but none of them were in any real sense Rochester Writers. John Jakes lived in the city a decade, but the millions he made from his Kent family chronicles preclude him from serious consideration as a Writer. John Steinbeck (Travels With Charley) and William Least Heat-Moon (Blue Highways) merely passed through, so Rochester isn't theirs. No, there are no Rochester Writers, not the way Kennedy is an Albany Writer, or Faulkner a-the-Yoknapatawpha Writer. And Logan? Poet May Swenson was born and buried there but lived most of her life in New York; few of her poems are set in Logan.
I once jokingly told Jay Parini his 1986 novel, The Patch Boys, robbed me of my chance to be the Exeter Writer. Set in Exeter, Pennsylvania, a town of about 3,000 people amidst anthracite fields, the town where I grew up, Parini's book is, as far as I know, the only published novel set there. I was writing at the time a novel set in a fictional Dover, a town modeled on Exeter. Jay later wrote me a letter apologizing for stealing Exeter from me.
But, no matter: I had by then decided to be a Rochester Writer, not an Exeter Writer. And now, well, I'm determined to be a Logan writer.
But there are always obstacles. In Rochester their names were Andrea Barrett, Nicholson Baker, William Heyen, T.M. Wright, Joanna Scott. Rochester Writers all. Barrett's four novels (Lucid Stars, Secret Harmonies, The Middle Kingdom, Forms of Water) are set in Massachusetts or China but were written in Rochester, where she lives (her National Book Award-winning collection of short stories, Ship Fever, wasn't published until I'd moved to Utah). Baker was raised there and his third book (U and I) revolves built around a brief encounter he had with John Updike in the Xerox Auditorium in the city's downtown. T.M. Wright moves around a lot, but always in Western New York: Ithaca, Naples, Buffalo, Batavia, Syracuse, Rochester. Two of his 15 horror novels are set in the city; all are set in the state. A Manhattan Ghost Story was sold to Hollywood and the screenplay has been written by Ron Bass (who did "Rainman"). In Logan there are no living writers with truly national reputations (although there are some very talented ones, like Ken Brewer), so I feel less competition.
Ralph depressed me immediately before he introduced me to Bill, and Bill's remark that he had been looking forward to meeting me drove me deeper into a depression that lingers, whenever I remember the incident, to this day.
The introduction came in a private dining room in the headquarters of the Book-of-the-Month Club in midtown Manhattan. I was an old senior in college, 24, and until Ralph's haphazard remark, I had that day been as happy as a writer as I had ever been. I was old because when I graduated from Exeter High School in 19611 had no distinct plans to do anything with my life. Until graduation I assumed I would be a major league baseball player, not knowing I needed a lot more talent than I possessed to even be considered for the profession. An ability to hit a baseball about as far as anyone in Exeter wouldn't do. A year and a half passed before I became a student at Wilkes College in Wilkes-Barre, 10 miles to the south, and another half year passed before I enrolled full-time. I was old as a senior also because after two full years at Wilkes I flunked out, and, not having a sense of direction in my life and feeling, incorrectly, one was needed, I volunteered for the draft. just about then, Lyndon Johnson announced he was sending hundreds of thousands of troops to Vietnam to do the job the tens of thousands already there couldn't do. Two years later, I returned from 'Nam to reenroll at Wilkes. By then I had a vague sense of what I would do with my life: I would be a writer. Writers often went off to war and I had gone off to war, so haphazard logic assumed the shape of choice. The fact I hadn't done much of anything in 'Nam hadn't been in combat, hadn't been shot at, didn't feel guilty, wasn't shell-shocked-bothered me-how could you write about war if mostly you just hung out in the neighborhood without ever walking through it? I sat in an air-conditioned trailer in Phu Lam, just south of Saigon, and babysat electronics equipment. Hardly qualifies me as a war-hardened veteran with [war] stories to tell.
Nevertheless, once back at Wilkes (I wonder why so many of us who flunk out of a college return to that college to complete our degrees; shouldn't we avoid the site of the pain and seek kinder locales? The answer, I suspect, has something to do with refusing to meet defeat; in any case, I got revenge years later by getting a teaching job at the college that once said I wasn't good enough to be one of its students), I enrolled in an Advanced Composition course and wrote fictionalized essays about Vietnam. We were told by Mrs. Schwartzchild to write an essay categorizing things, so I wrote a few hundred words about Four Ways to Die: slow and painfully, quick and painfully, slow and without pain, quick and without pain. Some of the students in class complained I was morbid and, worse, derivative: they had seen that blood and gore in a dozen movies, read it in a dozen novels; I thought of challenging them, of insisting they name just three movies, just two novels with that blood and gore; I was certain then (and feel confident today) they were faking, they were accusing me of stereotypes and cliches they knew only second hand, they had never seen those movies, never read those books. But back then 1 wasn't good at saying things, so I said nothing.
The next semester I took a creative writing course; the instructor, Pat Boyle, mentioned in class in mid-semester the Book-of-the-Month Club was sponsoring a writing contest open only to college seniors and up to fourteen $3,000 Creative Writing Fellowships would be awarded. Seniors from all over the country could enter and the judges would be literary heavyweights: Ralph Ellison, who at the time I had never heard of, William Styron, who at the time I hadn't read anything by, and Louis Kronenberg, who had been drama critic at Time and whom I still know little about. My belief Boyle was speaking to me resulted from an arrogance shy people often develop to defend themselves from the assaults they consistently endure. She said one requirement for entering was having a faculty sponsor and she'd sponsor anyone who wanted to enter. Later I asked her if she'd sponsor me and was disappointed when she said only yes, not I was the particular one she hoped to sponsor.
I entered. I took a dozen or so essays and sketches I wrote for the two courses and put them together. The rules said you needed to submit a collection of poems or short stories or essays or part of a novel; if you submitted part of a novel, you had to submit an outline. Writers I thought then were novelists; poets and essayists and short story writers might be fine human beings, but they weren't quite writers. So I told myself I was a novelist, gave all those independent pieces obvious consistencies-characters separately conceived got one name, locales thousands of miles apart were relocated next to each other-and I concocted a twisted, haphazard plot with a point for each item I had written. I submitted it. Boyle sent a letter with it praising my use of "understatement." I hadn't previously heard that word. Months later I returned home with a girl named Bonnie, who I'd been working on for more than a year but who never permitted our friendship to advance to a date, to be told by my mother I'd received a phone call telling me I'd won the $3,000. Bonnie was openly enthusiastic in her congratulations, so much so I think of that moment whenever I hear a writer say he (this has to be a man) became a writer because he heard it was a good way to pick up girls. Bonnie still refused to date me. I was invited to New York to receive the check.
Before I arrived at the ceremony-a luncheon-I learned who Bill Styron and Ralph Ellison were. I was assigned a seat at the luncheon table next to Ellison, and I felt great. Heady. I would be friends, buddies, firstname pals with Ralph and, sitting on the other side of the table, five or six chairs to my right, Bill. Ralph said (my memory is guessing at the exact words, but I feel confident the import is accurate), "You know, Mr. Naparsteck, I've been judging this contest for three years now, and of all the entries I've read in all that time, yours is, I am convinced, the best piece of writing." Headier. Ellison wore a three-piece suit, sat erect, spoke in formal tones, and I think never smiled. I wouldn't know for certain if he did, because I couldn't make myself look at him. I was afraid I would say something stupid (better to be thought a fool, an old saying goes, then to speak up and remove all doubt). But Ralph persisted in his politeness. After talking to another winner (there were 11 that year, most from places like Princeton and Stanford; several people asked me where Wilkes was), and to Harry Scherman, founder of BOMC, for ten or fifteen minutes, he turned to try again to key up a conversation. "That was a really excellent piece of work, Mr. Naparsteck, quite publishable in its quality."
"Thank you, Mr. Ellison." I would wait until later, maybe years later, I told myself, to call him Ralph.
Twice more he repeated his praise of my writing, and twice more 1 stuttered (in my mind) and thanked him, and twice more his conversation attempts failed. The praises were spread over an hour as we went through four stages of lunch, and then we were told to go into an adjoining room for publicity photos. Ralph stood, I stood, and Ralph said, "You know, you should take those stories about hitchhiking through California and weave them together into a novel."
I might have been spit upon by a doorman and told, What makes you think you can enter this club? "I-I didn't write about hitchhiking in California." My lower lip quivered.
"What did you write about?" He may have looked embarrassed (his voice seemed flat, as if to avoid revelation); I couldn't look at him.
"Vietnam." Did I speak too meekly for him to hear me?
"Oh. I remember reading that one, too."
God I was stupid. How could I ever think any real writer, especially one who had written what was often said to be the best piece of black literature in the history of the republic, would praise my skimpy, insubstantial work? I walked away, hoping to avoid another spit, but I didn't know which adjoining room I was supposed to go to, and the flow of traffic hadn't yet started, so I couldn't creep into it. just then, behind me someone said something like, "Hi, Bill," and someone else said something like "How you doing, Ralph?" and before 1 realized it was the wrong thing to do, I turned, and Bill and Ralph and 1 suddenly formed a small triangle: our elbows could touch, and they shook hands. Ralph said, "Bill this is Mr. Naparsteck, one of the winners," and Bill said (extending his hand and taking mine so softly my mind concentrated for a moment on the surprising weakness of his grip), "I've been looking forward to meeting all the winners," and I realized as I deciphered his words in the micro-moment that elapsed between speech and understanding I had prayed, prayed beyond the ability of God to grant, Bill would say, "Oh, yes, you're the one who wrote about Vietnam, aren't you?" But, no, I was just another one of the college seniors in the room, in no way distinguishable from the others. I then realized the significance of a number: eleven winners that year; the rules permitted up to 14; just like when I went out for the baseball team at Wilkes and there were 20 uniforms and only 18 players, so I was given a uniform, I made the team. Just like then, there was an extra $3,000 so why not give it to the vet; least we can do for our fighting men.
I never saw Mr. Ellison again, and I've always felt distant from his work. His praise was intended for someone else, and his mistake in assuming I was that someone excavated a moat between me and the company of famous writers I wanted for buddyship. The only time I saw Mr. Styron again was more than 20 years later at a bookstore in Rochester where he was autographing books and I stood to the side and looked at him and didn't approach his table, although he would return to my life indirectly, because he would come up in conversations between me and Richard Yates. They were friends. The guy who really wrote those stories about hitchhiking through California was Don Mitchell, from Swarthmore, an institution people had heard of. The book he put together was Thumb Tripping, and Mitchell, too, would come back indirectly into my life, via a conversation with Tim O'Brien. But Mr. Styron, like Mr. Ellison, was permanently beyond my hopes of friendship. We would never drink together like I would with Dick and Tim.
I got an M.A. in Creative Writing. I was a reporter on two daily newspapers and a weekly, wrote commercials for a radio station, wrote college public relations, all in Pennsylvania. I also had two novels published, both paperback originals, the lowest of the low on the publishing totem pole, but they managed to get me a part-time college teaching job in Rochester, so a decade and a half ago 1, my wife, and our son Taft, not yet two, moved north.
I'd never before been to Rochester and knew little about it. With two books, I reasoned, I might now be ready for the company of writers. Famous writers, of course, is what I had in mind. The only writer in Rochester whose name I recognized was Christopher Lasch; Culture of Narcissism had been a big best seller a few years earlier. They had no idea how to approach him, but by chance my wife met him. She decided she wanted to do graduate studies in history even though her bachelor's degree was in sociology. She applied to the University of Rochester and was interviewed by Lasch. She and Lasch discussed the fact she lacked the normal range of undergraduate history courses expected of someone seeking admission to the department. He told her he'd let her know.
In the meantime, a doctor said our son needed an operation for removal of a hydrecele. He went into the hospital, the operation was performed, the surgeon signed the discharge papers, and we waited for our boy to come out of anesthesia so we could take him home. He bled to death in the patient room, a victim of someone's failure to tie an internal stitch properly, of someone else's failure to monitor him properly, of still someone else's.... He died December 7,1981.
Two days later my wife received a short letter saying her application for admission to the graduate program at the U of R had been rejected. There was no explanation. There was a date: Dec. 7. There was a signature: Lasch. Of course he couldn't have known what terrible timing he was guilty of. Of course he may not have known my wife had a son who was beautiful and loved and wonderful. Of course he couldn't have known these or a thousand other things. Still, with a logic only a wounded heart can know, I've never forgiven him for the letter.
Four or five years passed before I again made an effort to intrude myself into the company of writers.
There was in the interval a pleasant friendship formed with William Least Heat-Moon. Within a week of his Blue Highways being reviewed on the front page of the The New York Times Book Review and a long excerpt from it appearing as a cover story in The Atlantic (that week being the point he became a famous writer), he came to Rochester to visit with his friend (they were roommates three decades earlier at the University of Missouri), Scott Chisholm. Scott taught at the same college I did; Scott and Bill had dinner at my home, and every year or so for a while Bill came back to Rochester to visit Scott, and usually I got together with them. I got along well with Bill, but in truth I realized he was Scott's friend; Scott now teaches at Utah State University and he arranged for me to teach there for a year. Scott's in touch with Bill; I'm not.
The writer whose company I intruded into most was Richard Yates. hi the mid-80's, I decided I wanted to meet him, so I wrote to him saying 1 was a freelance writer and wanted to interview him for an article. A month later he telephoned; the voice was slurred-he'd been drinking-but we arranged a date to meet in Boston.
I prepared for the interview by rereading some of his work, making a library search of other articles on him (almost none) and reviews of his books. When I got to Boston in my Ford Escort I got lost. A few years later I would read Boston has a reputation for being among the most confusing cities in the nation to drive in. I didn't know that then, and the exit I missed on the Massachusetts Turnpike seemed, instead, proof of my inability to meet and befriend real writers, famous writers. The nearly two hours I drove around downtown looking for Commonwealth Avenue (which doesn't go downtown) confirmed my belief in the inability. I arrived two hours late at The Crossroads, the bar he had given me directions to.
Months later I received a letter from a Matthew Bruccoli, editor of a series of books called Understanding Contemporary American Literature, published by the University of South Carolina Press. He offered me a $500 advance to write a book on Yates. He said Yates suggested my name. The letter was about the length of this paragraph.
With some doubts but without hesitation, I accepted. I didn't really want to write academic stuff, and I thought I was exiting the emotional drain my son's death dumped me into and would soon be able to get back to work on fiction. But it also struck me as an easy book that could open up my dead end academic career (of course, all part-time college teaching jobs are dead end). I reread all of Yates's published works, made extensive notes (typically more than 20 pages per book), and went back to Boston twice. The book would cost me more than twice the promised $500 advance to write, and I expected no royalties because such books just don't sell. Financially it was a dumb decision.
Yates spent hours and hours answering my questions until late at night. Usually we met in The Crossroads, sometimes in his apartment above the bar. When I went back to Rochester, he'd call, giving me a tidbit about his life or a comment about a comment I made about his writing.
Yates told me how Bruccoli came to ask me to write the book: Bruccoli evidently first asked Jerome Klinkowitz, a much better known academic critic than me, to do the book; Klinkowitz had written a book that was onethird about Yates and had also written an entry in a reference book about him; the reference book, The Dictionary of American Literary Biography, was edited by Bruccoli. But Minkowitz said no. Yates said Bruccoli said Klinkowitz; was crazy; this was apparently a reference to the amount of money Klinkowitz wanted. Asked by Bruccoli to suggest someone else who could write the book, Yates gave him my name.
I spent close to a year on the book, far longer than it was worth (the manuscript was limited to 40,000 words). Yates liked it; Bruccoli didn't. In a curt letter (about the length of this paragraph) he told me it needed rewriting. I called to get specifics, but the conversation lasted about as long as it takes to read this paragraph.
I spent a few months rewriting. I was despondent about the project: a job I didn't want for an editor who wouldn't give me time to talk. He rejected the revision, told me how terrible it was, claimed it pained him to say these things, and suggested I send it somewhere else. The letter was about twice the length of this paragraph. A secretary initialed it for him. I never got the $500 advance.
A few weeks passed and Yates called again. He said something to the effect Bruccoli fucked me, and I said something to the effect, "Yeah." He also said Bruccoli assigned someone else to write the book, that person called him, and he wanted to know what I thought of the possibility he might cooperate with the guy. I said-with false nobility-1 saw nothing wrong with it and, besides, that was his decision. He insisted I think about it and get back to him. I hoped to high heaven he would refuse to cooperate.
I let a few days pass and called back with the same lie: It's your decision, Dick, and I won't be upset if you cooperate; I think it's about time a book about you and your work is published. I must have gotten him at a bad time; he said something to the effect, "yeah, yeah," and the conversation was over. I never heard from Yates after that. Every Christmas I sent him a card. He never wrote back. I check every now and then to see if the Yates book is listed in Books in Print; it's not, In November, 1992, he died. I read his obit in The New York Times.
When Jay Parini's The Patch Boys was published I wrote him a letter I hoped wouldn't make me sound like a groupie; the idea was to establish a friendly correspondence between two writers who had something in common: Exeter, Pennsylvania; his novel was set there and one I was working on was set in Dover, modeled on Exeter. He responded with a polite, formal note; he wished me well in my writing. There was no hint he welcomed a reply. I've never met him.
A few years ago, my buddy Tim O'Brien told me my buddy Dick Yates moved to California. Then I read an article (in the Rochester Times- Union) that Yates was teaching at USC and working on a novel about someone who was a speechwriter for Bobby Kennedy (as Yates was briefly in 1963).
1 was in O'Brien's home in Boxford, about an hour's drive north of Boston. I had written him a letter like the one I wrote to Yates. I spent three and a half hours there, drinking eight or ten cups of coffee, trying not to look bothered by the steady stream of cigarette smoke O'Brien generated, and feeling very comfortable. We're about the same age, both Viet vets, and share some interests: both are physically active; he plays golf and skis down hills; I go on all-day bicycle rides and ski cross country.
So I asked him what M&Ms were. He looked as if I asked him if the sun comes up every morning; he must have consciously worked to keep his jaw from drooping. They're little pieces of candy, he said. Come in lots of different colors. God, I was too stupid to even make chit chat with a writer. I explained, but remained convinced I hadn't erased the original impression, that when a medic in Going After Cacciato gave a wounded soldier some M&Ms I thought it might be a nickname for some drug, legal or illegal. The grunts had a different language than those of us who were REMFs.
A year later a former student of mine, Doug Brooks, who now teaches at Mon-roe Community College in Rochester, asked me for O'Brien's address and phone number so he could invite him to speak at the college. The college was prepared to offer up to $3,000, so I thought it was OK to give out the information. But, feeling a bit guilty and wanting to strengthen whatever tentative friendship I had with Tim, I wrote him a note semi-apologizing for what I had done. He wrote back saying it was OK. Tim's letter also said he looked forward to seeing me again.
I had something to do the morning he arrived, and when I got to the college in mid-afternoon, he was in the midst of a session talking to a group of mostly students sitting around several pulled-together tables in the faculty dining room a little about Vietnam and mostly about the soon-to-begin war in the Gulf. I sat in the back of the room, next to Doug, and listened. I was less than 25 feet from Tim. Doug whispered to me Tim would be going back to his motel after this session to rest for the evening reading and dinner with students and faculty. Did I want to go along for the ride to the motel? Sure.
When the session ended 45 minutes later, the students left, some quickly, some slowly, and I stood with Doug. Tim chatted with a few final students, and when all of them had gone, he looked at me, now not more than five feet away. "Marty?" he said. I shrugged or nodded or did something to confirm his suspicion. Sorry, didn't see you without my glasses, he said, and put his glasses on. We shook hands and talked about his plane trip here and about whether he was tired and about the coming evening's events. Not about the good old days or the war or anything old buddies talk about. We talked about things casual acquaintances talk about. That's what we were. And are. That night I was given a seat next to him at dinner; there were maybe 20 students and faculty and somebody's brother around a long table at a restaurant across the street from the college; someone saved the seat for me, assuming-I think-Tim and I really were good old buddies. I told him the story about Ralph Ellison confusing me with Don Mitchell, and he said he knew Mitchell and would tell him the story.
I have in my mind a photograph: 1, O'Brien, Yates, Heat- Moon, Styron, and Ellison sit around a table in some Mermaid Tavern in Logan (my choice is The White Owl). Dick has a Scotch and water, I have a Guiness, Heat-Moon an Anchor Steam, Tim a big-glassed Mexican drink and Ralph and Styron have coffee. You can tell from our expressions we're having fun and engaging in serious conversations filled with witty repartee. The photo is pleasantly faded and taken by a one-focus camera. Like all doctored photographs, it's a lie.
I sought the company of writers as a substitute for becoming the type of writer I wanted to become. I wanted to be a famous writer, yes, but more, I wanted to be a writer respected by other writers. I needed to learn to respect my own writing first. When 27-year-old William Faulkner left Northern Mississippi to live a while in New Orleans, largely because he wanted to be in a city where writers lived, he met and went out of his way to befriend the 48-year-old Sherwood Anderson. In a famous piece of advice, Anderson told Faulkner to go home and write about his own little postage stamp of a world. Faulkner took the advice, of course, but a more telling remark comes from a character-"a little Southern man"-Anderson created in a short story~ a wounded World War I veteran who says, "If I could write like Shelley, I would be happy. I wouldn't care what happened to me." If I could write like writers whose company I seek, I wouldn't care so much that they didn't seek my company.