I’ve been meaning to post for a couple of days, but as those in the blog world have probably noticed, blogger was down for a while. But it’s back, and so am I. In the meantime, there was a piece of sad literary news. Once hugely famous, but now somewhat forgotten novelist Leon Uris passed away. When I was about fifteen and too young to know that my taste in literature wasn’t particularly cutting edge, I happened to pick up a copy of his book Trinity. It is a historical novel about the strife in Northern Ireland, and even then, when I was a youngster, I knew it was a masterful book. People are no longer used to the sweeping period pieces set in exotic locations that used to be so popular. They have fallen by the way side and been repaced by realism, flashiness, and dry modernity. Alongside all the stark reality that masquarades as fiction these days, a Uris book can be comforting in its ability to fix you in a distant place and time and to compell you to feel a visceral connection with his antipodean characters. If you like Uris at all, you will also like his contemporary James Michener. I still remember listening to Hawaii on cassette on one of the many interminable car trips of my youth. I’m not sure what compelled my parents to choose this form of entertainment, since I had never known them to be audiobook fans or Michener fans. Against all odds (or so it seemed at the time), I loved Hawaii in much the same way that I would later love Trinity. It’s the power of a really good story. That’s all for now… More soon I hope.
Yesterday, I was watching the headlines as I often do, and I was shocked to see the obituary for Bebe Moore Campbell, author of Your Blues Ain’t Like Mine, 72 Hour Hold, and many other books, come across the wires. She died, at 56, from complications of brain cancer. Campbell was a well-known writer, but that is not how I came to know her. For a year, when I lived in Los Angeles, she was my landlord.I first met her as the stern Mrs. Gordon – her full name was Elizabeth Bebe Moore Campbell Gordon – when she showed my friend Derek and I a hillside apartment in Silverlake. This upscale nook of the neighborhood was beyond our means – I was working at a bookstore and Derek was helping out on indie film sets – but her price turned out to be just barely in our budget. In the end, it was worth it for the fantastic westward facing view that on the rare smog-free day provided a glimpse of the ocean and for the walk down the hill to Spaceland, a venue where we saw many of our favorite bands.Campbell’s daughter lived upstairs – it was a bilevel duplex – and this arrangement gave us a glimpse into Campbell’s life. It is odd, in these situations, how well you can come to know people without knowing them as friends, or even acquaintances. It wouldn’t be fair to get into all the details here, but we came to learn, in the odd communication beyond mailing in our monthly rent and in the overheard voices that cannot be avoided when one shares a building with someone else, of the challenges in Campbell’s life.After a year, I got engaged to Mrs. Millions and moved out. Derek stayed on through two more roommates before leaving Los Angeles. I’ve never read Campbell’s books, but the obits in the New York Times, Washington Post, and from the AP describe their importance and her place as “a best-selling novelist known for her empathetic treatment of the difficult, intertwined and occasionally surprising relationship between the races.” I’ll remember her as my landlord Mrs. Gordon, but for more, Tayari Jones remembers her as Bebe Moore Campbell, the writer.Update: Richard Prince pens a more substantial obituary of Campbell.Related: Campbell wasn’t my only literary landlord.
Awoke to the news that Kurt Vonnegut died. His death was somewhat unexpected, coming after a fall at his home in New York, but he lived a full life, even penning a surprise bestseller that put him back in the public eye in 2005. That was fun to see because, though Vonnegut may be one of the most important writers out there for me as a reader, most of his literary output came before I was born.When I was a younger reader, I was a completist. I didn’t have knowledge of dozens of books and writers at my fingertips, so when I found a book I really liked, I would read everything by that author. And so it was that I read substantially everything that Vonnegut had written before I left home for college, starting with a late novel, Hocus Pocus, after finding it lying around the house when I was 14 or 15, and finishing up with Player Piano, Vonnegut’s first novel, on a long, late-summer car ride home from Maine, a few weeks before moving away from home. So, in many ways, Vonnegut was in the background through my teenage years, providing a vivid counterpoint to the mundanities of suburban high school life. His books are very important to who I am as a reader and a writer, so I’m sad to see him go.Some links: My call for more people to read the lesser-known Vonnegut novels. The New York Times obit.Update: Some of you may be seeing a lot of folks writing “so it goes” today in response to Vonnegut’s death. For those who are curious as to why, the phrase comes from what is perhaps his most famous book, Slaughterhouse-Five, where he wrote: “When a Tralfamadorian sees a corpse, all he thinks is that the dead person is in a bad condition in that particular moment, but that same person is just fine in plenty of other moments. Now, when I myself hear that somebody is dead, I simply shrug and say what the Tralfamadorians say about dead people, which is ‘So it goes.'”Also, I found Vonnegut’s official site to be particularly poignant today.
My magnificent agent died last week. The barest facts of her life are in a New York Times obituary this morning. Her name was Emilie Jacobson, but her colleagues called her Emmy. She found me in a slush pile.
Emilie is the reason why I get a little impatient with people who insist that you need to know someone, or have some sort of inside connection, in order to get your book published. Some years ago, when I thought I had a good draft of my first novel, I started querying agents. Emilie was the thirteenth or fourteenth agent I contacted; she pulled my letter and sample chapters out of the slush pile, requested the full manuscript, and then, well, sent me a rejection letter. But her rejection was long, regretful, and filled with thoughtful editorial comments, all of which seemed sound to me. There was no guarantee of future representation if I took her suggestions, but I thought that in the worst-case scenario I’d at least have a better book, so I spent six months revising my novel and sent it back to her. She very graciously agreed to read it again, and this time she took me on.
I came down to the Curtis Brown offices on Astor Place to meet her. It was a heady occasion—the initial “I can’t believe I actually have an agent!” shock hadn’t worn off yet. I was early, so I loitered for a while in a bookstore near the office, running my hand over the spines of books, trying to imagine what it would be like to see my name on the shelf. I went up to the offices to meet her, and was struck by her warmth.
Emilie took me to lunch at the Knickerbocker Bar & Grill, a few blocks away. She’d hurt her back a few months earlier, and the recovery was proving difficult; she was stooped over and moved slowly. She was too vain, she said, to consider using a cane.
I doubt the décor of Knickerbocker has changed significantly since it opened in 1977. (I was surprised, in fact, to discover that it opened that late—it looks like it hasn’t changed since the 1940s.) It’s all dark wood paneling and leather and round banquettes, a dizzying assortment of bottles atop the grand piano. I’d never been there before and it was like slipping back into a lost world, a time when publishing deals were made in a cloud of cigar smoke over multiple martinis. I half expected to see Norman Mailer dining out with his agent at the next table.
“Would you like a drink?” she asked, when we sat down. She was of an era when a business lunch typically involved cocktails. I declined and ordered my usual mint tea. I wanted to ask how long she’d been agenting, but given her obviously advanced age it seemed somehow vaguely impolite, as if I were indirectly asking how old she was. I asked her, instead, how she became an agent.
“Well,” she said, “it was back in the early days of television, and…”
Curtis Brown was her first job out of college, and she stayed there for the next sixty-two years. From our first meeting, I decided that Emilie is what I aspire to: when I’m in my eighties I want to be that passionate, that interested, that warm, with a mind as sharp as hers.
Some weeks ago Emilie called to tell me that at long last she’d decided to retire. The good news, she said, was that a colleague of hers was interested in representing me. I told her that of course I’d known this day would come, but that I would miss working with her terribly.
“I think it was email that finally pushed me over the edge,” she said. She used email gamely enough, but she disliked the informality of the medium; emails from strangers that began with “Hello Emilie” bothered her immensely. She was deeply annoyed when she sent people emails and they didn’t write back.
I came back to the offices on Astor Place a few weeks ago to meet my new agent. I arrived early to visit with Emilie, and for a quiet half-hour we sat in her office together. Her office was a wonderful place, large and filled with books. I’ll confess that seeing my first novel displayed prominently next to David Lodge’s work always gave me a thrill. Her computer seemed an unwelcome imposition on a second desk, behind her real desk, which was massive and piled eight inches high with correspondence and manuscripts.
Emilie was so much a part of Curtis Brown that it was almost impossible to conceive of her being outside it, no longer coming into this office every day. I asked what she planned to do after retirement. She said she thought it would take her about a year to clean the stacks of manuscripts out of the closets in her apartment, and then she was going to read for pleasure. She thought she might like to do some writing. We talked about books for a while—she’d just read and loved The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo. We spoke about her career.
“You were my first champion,” I told her. I told her how much I appreciated everything she’d done for me, the faith she’d always had in my work.
She smiled and began reminiscing about other firsts: a piece of Joyce Maynard’s that she placed in The New York Times when Maynard was eighteen (“An 18-Year-Old Looks Back On Life”), a John Knowles story that eventually became the climactic scene in A Separate Peace. She asked if I was working on a new novel and I told her that I was.
“Oh, this is why I’ve delayed retirement for so long,” she said. “I always want to see what everyone’s going to do next.”
I told her that I’d send her the manuscript as soon as it was done. She seemed happy at this prospect. “Okay,” she said, but she was gone five weeks later.
All sudden deaths are a little shocking. It seems impossible that I’ll never see her again. In the last letter she ever sent me—she never sent an email when a letter would do—she expressed her regret that she wouldn’t be in Martha’s Vineyard when I read at a bookstore there in June. But she would be there later in the summer, she said, and she suggested that if my husband and I were to return to the Vineyard, perhaps we might like to visit with her and her husband. It’s startling to think that she won’t be there. It’s startling to think that the next time I see the orange Curtis Brown letterhead on an envelope in my mailbox, it won’t be from her. The last email I received from her was only two weeks ago.
There’s great comfort, of course, in knowing that she spent almost the entirety of her long life doing work that she was truly passionate about. I know this is the best we can hope for: a long life engaged in a pursuit that brings us joy and fulfillment, a quick death at the end. There’s a school of thought that a peaceful death at the end of a long and fulfilling life isn’t a tragedy, and I put some stock in this.
But she really was magnificent, and I don’t use that word lightly. I always thought of her as an emissary from a bygone world, among the last of her kind. I feel as if a light’s gone out, and there won’t be another like her.
One of the world’s great photographers and perhaps the greatest portrait photographer ever, Richard Avedon died today. Avedon started out in the fashion world, and then he became equally well known as a portraitist in the documentary style. He was known for placing his subjects in front of an all white background, for eliciting hidden emotions from his subjects, and for his meticulous darkroom work. Photos, a timeline, and various other goodies can be found here. Here are his most comprehensive collections: Evidence: 1944-1994 and An Autobiography
When other writers at a 1986 PEN panel on “How the State Imagines” were lamenting Cold War militarism, John Updike offered a hymn of praise for the U.S. Postal Service: “I never see a blue mailbox without a spark of warmth and wonder and gratitude that this intricate and extensive service is maintained for my benefit.” His co-panelists were miffed, but there was no gainsaying him: Updike was a lucky man. Lucky in his chosen career; lucky with women (or at least, he wrote about “getting lucky” often enough); lucky in being an American at the peak of the American century.Many remembrances of this literary polymath will focus on his native talent, and may be right to do so. Updike found his pellucid, synesthetic voice in his mid-twenties, and so seemed a kind of prodigy… even, at times, a prodigal. But at its best, what his voice expressed better than that of any other American novelist (with the possible exception of Saul Bellow) was gratitude for the superabundant gift – the sustained good luck – of everyday life.At the height of his powers… say, from 1959’s The Poorhouse Fair to 1996’s In the Beauty of the Lilies, Updike delineated a territory – American, lower- to upper-middle-class, uneasily suburban – that will ever after be associated with his name. In novel after novel, story after beautifully wrought story, he charted its tensions and ambiguities. That it is hard to remember that this territory was ever unfamiliar is a testament to the thoroughness of Updike’s cartography. Collectively, the novels of the ’60s and ’70s, the Rabbit Angstrom omnibus, and The Early Stories are a monumental achievement, one that will become clearer as the world they describe falls into the past.Somehow, Updike also managed to maintain a a sideline as a poet, as well as a prolific career as an essayist on literature and art. Though his opinions on each could be both narrow and strongly held, his Protestant circumspection always allowed room for doubt. His “rules for reviewing” remain a model of good faith and good sense.As five books became ten, and ten became fifty, Updike’s “spark of warmth and wonder and gratitude,” which seemed to distill a generational trait, could at times flirt with self-satisfaction. We forgive a writer for everything but success, and in his later years, Updike’s critics would execute a kind of pincers movement. From one flank, he was attacked for rehashing old ground, for being (in books like Villages) too… Updikean. From the other flank, he was attacked for his attempts to move beyond first-hand experience (see: Seek My Face, Toward the End of Time, Terrorist). If each position had its merit – more than a decade has passed since Updike’s fiction felt urgent – both overlooked the fact that he had been experimenting with form and subject since the mid-70s. And well into his own eighth decade, his reviews and essays, which he produced with the dependability of a classic Buick sedan, bespoke a writer still alive to the surprise of the new.In this, too, Updike was lucky: he outlived his aura of invincibility.He will not, however, have outlived his reputation. Now that he is no longer among us, it will be easier not to begrudge him his good fortune, and to appraise his legacy. The career of Émile Zola, that other prodigy of the real, tells us that a few golden works will outweigh any amount of dross. Updike’s gold-to-dross ratio was, in retrospect, remarkable, and his good books many. They remind us of our own good fortune. We are lucky to have had him.