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    Bridge Ladies When I set out to learn about my mother's bridge club, the Jewish octogenarians behind the matching outfits and accessories, I never expected to fall in love with them. This is the story of the ladies, their game, their gen, and the ragged path that led me back to my mother.
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The Rockies May Crumble, Gibraltar May Tumble

Last night, I met one of my literary heroes. If you haven’t read this book, order it now. And then this one.  Or her latest.  From the moment I read Janet Malcolm’s work in the New Yorker in my early twenties, I was hooked. The quality of mind and quality of prose are perfectly met. Was I nervous? Check. Did I say something really stupid, twice? Check.  Coffee was  finished when I blurted what a big fan I am. It’s extraordinary how you feel you have a relationship with an author you’ve never met, when you’ve read a body of work and powerfully responded to it. When it has shaped your ideas and standards. I wasn’t disappointed. She was  like her prose: elegant, incisive, exacting,  penetrating. Also funny, which I wouldn’t have guessed.

I might have asked this long ago, so forgive me. But do you any good stories to tell about literary heroes.

54 Responses

  1. Meeting literary heroes is like unrequited love. You have spent hours thinking about them and they don’t care whether or not you exist. I felt this way when I met Adrienne Rich. Marie Ponsot was like the love who at least smiled and kissed your cheek before he/she turned away.

  2. I once met and chatted with the white-suited Tom Wolfe in line at LaGuardia. Later, on the flight, I crashed the First Class section to get his autograph. Yes, I was a grown man at the time.

  3. Wish I did – I’ve never subscribed to the hero thing but I am fortunate to have many artists/writers/musicians in my life. Those that have honed and nurtured their creativity seem to glow from within – and like a moth to a flame, I enjoy circling that glow.

  4. I met Michael Hedges when I was in my 20’s. I was coming back to NYC from a semester at UofM. I got on an earlier flight. When I stepped onto the plane, the only seat available was in an empty row, save the musician. He started chatting me up and I rolled my eyes. It wasn’t until he mentioned he had just played Hill Auditorium, a theater that holds 3500 people, that I sat up and took notice. He was en route to a gig at The Bitter End. We became fast friends. He sat on my fire-escape and met my mom. What a talent he was. The world lost a great artist when he passed.

    • Just remembered something. I took an acting class with Herbert Berghof shortly before he died. He was sitting behind a small desk, critiquing our scenes. At one point he was so frustrated with us, he pounded the table and pointed behind him to a framed picture on the wall. “The only one who never lied to me!” he shouted. It was a photo of Lassie.

  5. I met Paul Auster at his reading for THE BROOKLYN FOLLIES. As he was signing my book, I asked him if he agreed with the main character who says that all astrologers are stupid. He paused for a moment and said, looking right into my eyes: “Yes…but you’re the exception.” (How did he know?)

  6. Umm . . .does squeeing all over Eloisa James at ALA count?

    I was scoping out Neil Gaiman at the time (he did have a glow about him, although it might have been all the cell phone flashes) and backed into her as she was standing at her podium, surrounded by her books.

    I turned, did a double take at her badge and immediately told her who she was and what she does at top volume: “You’re Eloisa James! I love you! I mean your books! You write the Duchess series! The last one just came out!”

    She was very gracious — she said she’d been worried about signing across from Gaiman and thanked me for drawing attention to her (a line did form behind me, but I’m sure it was a coincidence). She also gave me an autographed copy of that final book and didn’t call security.

  7. When I was a tender young thing, I worked for Richard Yates’s literary agent. I was an idiot and gushed every time he called. But despite his reputation for being a curmudgeon, he was always patient and kind. He even signed my copy of LIARS IN LOVE, which remains my most cherished possession. Here’s a picture of his inscription: http://bit.ly/lFo4EA

  8. Loved hanging out with Abigail Thomas.

    • Funny, I loved her before I met her and then did a memoir workshop with her. I asked her about finding the thematic threads that hold experiences together and she mocked me a little bit and told me to “just write.”

      I went home and gave away all of her books except THINKING ABOUT MEMOIR.

      In her books, love. In person? Not so much.

      • I wonder if she realizes the domino effect of such a casual bit of ‘I could care less about you’. If anyone forwards this blog to her, she does now!

      • I always feel bad for a writer when they ask their audience for questions and no one raises a hand. But I feel so much worse for fans who ask questions that get this kind of non response. Ridiculous.

  9. Tobias Wolff spoke at a writer’s conference I attended in the late ’90s. He was clearly uncomfortable with the attention, barely looking up from the podium as he read, answering questions briefly but with intelligence and humor. His sleeves were rolled above the elbow, revealing brown, sinewy arms. I was charmed by his shyness, his strong, lean frame, his sculpted hands.

    I wait nervously in line that evening to have him sign my copy of This Boy’s Life, rehearsing what to say, swallowing in big gulps. When it’s my turn I say, reddening, stammering, that I love his books, that they have inspired me (though I say “aspired”). There is an aura, a halo, around him. I want to touch him, perhaps do something sexual. Instead I ask him if he would like something to drink. “Thank you,” he replies, perking up, looking around. A woman behind me says there is a water fountain downstairs. He demurs; it is too much to ask.

    And that, ladies and gentlemen, was the day I got Tobias Wolff a glass of water.

  10. Betsy,
    If you haven’t yet seen the Spring 2011 Paris Review, there is an interview with Janet Malcom that is fantastic. Her answers were great, but her editing of the questions as she goes is brilliant.
    I was just reading it last night and the humor between the words really comes through. She is just so damn smart. And precise doesn’t begin to do it justice.

  11. I wrote a terribly gushing review of Baxter’s new collection of shorts on my lil’ blog. I even wrote about stalking him at AWP. To my delight he posted a comment on my BLOG and became my fb friend. It was too amazing and overshadowed all those other writers I’d put on a pedestal and disappointed me with what I’m sure was their humanness…. here’s the review and comment for your delight http://betteranever.blogspot.com/2011/02/nice-shorts.html

  12. i roll as a canadian, so here goes:

    1. Timothy Findley was charming, funny, outrageous and blindingly drunk. his partner, Bill, was the organization behind Timothy’s literary operation, i think. Bill whisked Timothy out of there, fast.

    2. Rob Kroetch waved at me from behind a potted plant and i went over and had a nice chat with him.

    3. Margaret Atwood asked me where the ladies room was.

  13. One of my literary idols, Edward Albee, spoke during my time as a drama major at San Diego State University. In scene design class,we were expected to have him comment on our scene designs for his plays. One student did a cartoonish, exaggerated version of one of his plays. My scene design for TINY ALICE was next and he said, “I see you’ve done the same thing here.” And I said, “No, I just can’t draw very well.” 🙂

    Later, after his address to the drama students, I was sitting on the bench outside the theater. He came out, sat down, and he and I had a ten minute conversation about his play THE AMERICAN DREAM. Chatting alone with my literary hero about his work was a life moment that, as a writer, I will never forget.’

  14. I did a huge favor for a much admired female writer — whom I’d never met — for which she invited me to lunch. I was so f-ing excited, so f-ing beside myself. I picked a fine restaurant in her area (an hour + drive for me), bought a new outfit, and showed up 20 min early (even after getting lost, twice). She arrived a 1/2 hour late, in her sweats, her hair in a headband and no makeup, and gobbled up her salad in about 3 minutes saying, “I’m off to see my shrink!” I spilled my coffee while she paid the check.

    On a better note, the night I met ZZ Packer she exceeded my every expectation. At one point she said, “I hear you’re going to Krakow next week,” to which I gushed, “I’ve always wanted to see Auschwitz!! It’s going to be so much FUN!!!!” She touched my arm, like trying to calm a spastic child, and said, “I don’t think fun is the word you’re looking for.”

  15. I was at a writers’ conference. There was a wine tasting in the evening. I was “tasting” and had been for quite awhile when I ran into one of the poets on that year’s staff in a dark parking lot, catching both of us by surprise. I gushed a bit then started quoting the end of one of her poems, a line that goes “Something looks back from the trees,/and knows me for who I am.” I said that was how her poetry made me feel. I must have made some sense because the next day she signed a book for me with this: “In gratitude for the perceptiveness and depth of your reading, and with warm wishes for you and your work.”

    Whenever I need a hook back into my writing (or life for that matter), all I have to is read this and one or two of her poems. It’s a great poem, by the way:


  16. Sad to say, I’ve been mostly disappointed by meeting my literary heroes. A couple have been rude and arrogant. Some have disappointed only because they seemed shy and difficult to talk to–not *bad* qualities, but a personal bummer for me. The greatest surprise has been how people with fabulous, confident, outsize voices are so often people who seem so very uncomfortable in their own skin. Tobias Wolff is a generous, engaging man. Amy Bloom is frank, smart, and funny.

  17. Many-many-many-many years ago, I had a parttime gig at The Atlantic Monthly, in the subscription department. I helped grouchy subscribers resolve their trubs, which usualy meant I hit a button and extended their subscriptions for free, and at length, because I could. One day, I got a soft-spoken gentleman on the line. “Hello, this is John Guare. I’m wondering if you might help me.” It seemed Mr. Guare had a magazine delivered without a plastic wrap during a rain storm, or some similar subscription mishap. This was in the exact era that “Six Degrees Of Separation” was at Lincoln Center, and I had already seen it twice. Nervously, I asked Mr. Guare if he was indeed Mr. Guare. Once he admitted it, I gushed forth, on how much I loved his plays, how much I admired him, how I was a writer just trying to make it in this crazy world, etc. and he was such an inspiration. Finally, I came up for air. “Well then” he deadpanned, “I guess I’ll take my head out of the oven.”

  18. I loved meeting Amy Bloom. It was a reading about ten years ago in a tiny bookstore in DC. I was surprised by how sparsely attended it was. She was funny, gracious, wise, and a little sad.

    “Met” Billy Collins this weekend. I have heard whispers about his bad behavior, but sadly have nothing to confirm nor negate. He gave me three words when I told him how to spell my name: Lizi, how pithy. Unfortunately, none of my favorite poets seem to be receiving the telepathic messages of ardor I keep sending out; not even Billy, who I stood face to face with.

  19. I met Mordecai Richler in an airport lounge in Montreal a year before he passed away . It was early in the morning, but sadly he was neither drunk nor curmudgeonly – he was friendly, sober and elegantly dressed, with a beautiful camelhair coat. I told him how much I loved his work, I made a move to shake his hand, he dropped his small cigar, then his lovely wife gathered him up and led him away.

  20. Nimrod Journal poetry reading in Tulsa Oklahoma late ‘80s—I went with a friend to hear Carolyn Forche read. Raised my hand and asked her a few of those afterward questions and she invited me to join them, she and the magazine crew, for dinner at a nearby diner. I smoked with her, gave her some local flavor tips—suggested she visit the Prayer Needle at Oral Roberts University. Felt an immediate kinship with her. She described feeling stuck after great immersion in evil and sorrow, felt her desire to help squashed by racing thoughts dooming her to falter, to trip, to fail. Would she ever recover from what she’d written in El Salvador. We had a similar look back then; Dark hair, dark eyes, squint to the side skepticism. She said, “You stand out here. Don’t you feel conspicuous?” Conspicuous and paranoid and tight wrapped in the past. Shortly after I moved to LA. Left the land of prayer needles behind me. Thanks to Carolyn.

  21. I’m a fan of Mira Bartok (Memory Palace) because she’s such a charming person without an attitude. I met Isaac B. Singer once when he gave a talk at Smith College. He had a great sense of humor, especially about himself. I met Seamus Heaney at Amherst after a reading and gave him a loaf of home made Irish bread. His reading was amazing. He’s a big guy with a great voice.

  22. I’ve never been one to be to overly impressed by literary or other celebs – perhaps because I’ve encountered plenty over the years in life and my job, only one: Isamu Noguchi — who while a sculptor, also wrote brilliantly (so I squeeze him in here) and had cool friends (Buckminster Fuller, Kahn, Louise Nevelson). I was living in Kyoto and he was getting an award and I sent him flowers and then went back to meet him and was completely flustered and –thanked him for his inspiration. And he, apparently recognizing my name from the flowers said, “No. Thank YOU for the flowers.” and that was it. He was eighty I was still in my twenties — but completely smitten. I don’t why he got to me so much (yes I do: his work) but there you have it. I get goose-bumps and feel foolish at the same time.

  23. Spalding Gray invited me to be a resident artist at the Atlantic Center for the arts with him as my mentor.

    I was writing a new monologue about suicide and depression at the time and Spalding killed himself shortly afterwards.

    Spalding had been in a devastating car crash the year before. He was a shadow of his former self. Often barely able to speak. He had a metal plate in his skull. He limped like a wounded soldier. This damaged state was interrupted with lyrical bolts of perfect insight. And as I worked with him, he and his ongoing descent into madness became part of my piece.

    At the end of the month, I performed the monologue for everyone at the colony, portraying Spalding as the ghost of who he’d been. The entire lot of them turned on – except Spalding who was fascinated to see himself in someone else’s monologue for the first time. When I was accused of attempting to ride his coat tails and that my tale had no merit, it was only Spalding who defended me, saying it was actually a classic story of a kid who meets his hero, only to find him… not heroic enough.

    Despite his encouragement, the negative reaction from the others kept me from every performing the piece again.

    Spalding killed himself a year later.

    And I’ve finally just this year written a book about all of it.

  24. I met Jan Morris, who once was James Morris. I had read her books both pre- and post-gender change. She was writing a biography of Admiral Jackie Fisher and I agreed he was a most intriguing person. I mentioned I had always been interested in the spy Kim Philby. “My dear,” she said. Her voice rose in authority. “I knew Kim and he hated me because I loved Empire.” I realized I was stunned to actually have a conversation with this person, who was treating me as an equal. I told her I most loved her history of the British Empire. (written when she was James). “My dear, it is absolutely my favorite.” I walked on air.

  25. Sorry, I’m literally a cave-man: Nietzsche talking to the sun, and wondering the purpose of it all. I kind of like it up here. In a way, I hope I never come down. And If I do, I hope there is no one there to meet me. I just want to live out my life in peace, but this writing shit is niggling me to neurosis.

  26. Martin Amis. He was smaller than I expected. He wore sensible shoes and pulled his pants above his knees when he sat. The lecture was superb – I could have listened to him for longer – and he was pleasant enough for the book signing. Later, when there were only a few people left milling around, I heard him ask one of the handlers where the bathroom was. There was some confusion, and he had to say again, louder: “I’m looking for the bathroom?”

  27. I was on a layover at O’Hare airport. I’d always wanted to visit Chicago ever since I read JM Coetzee. I was in love with his mind, his writing, and the fact that he was on the faculty of this thing called The Committee for Social Thought at the University of Chicago. It was heady for me just to be within a hundred miles of all that.

    And then while I was waiting to board, I heard an announcement over the public address system: “Mister John Coetzee, please report to Gate 7.” I ran over to the desk and asked, “Did you just page a John Coetzee?” The attendant looked at me as if I were rabid, denied any knowledge of him. I wandered around a bit, heart pounding with disappointment and excitement, hoping to catch a glimpse, but no luck. I’ve met Auster, and Robert Stone, but just hearing Coetzee’s name electrified me.

  28. In college as a J-school major, I read Katherine Boo’s New Yorker piece, “The Marriage Cure,” and I had a similar reaction to yours with Janet Malcolm, so I e-mailed her and told her that her writing was beautiful, that I felt like she was a ghost in the room with her characters. Boo wrote back to thank me for writing her and I almost fainted. So, I wrote back again. That time she didn’t respond and I realized I had been too needy. So has happened again with bloggers. I think I have finally learned to write once; get some stock swooning in, showing you’re an honest fan, and move on.

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