From: Elisa Albert To: Aaron Hamburger, Angela Pneuman, Stacey Richter, Karen Russell Subject: Ever been stalked? Ever stalk?
Aspiring writers tend to idolize and kinda stalk their favorite writers (full disclosure: my college boyfriend gifted me with a copy of My Date with Satan, which blew my mind, and I have been kinda stalking Stacey ever since). Anyone have any experience with that? What does it feel like, on either side of the equation? What role did a mentor or lack thereof play in your own writing life?
From: Karen Russell To: Elisa Albert, Aaron Hamburger, Angela Pneuman, Stacey Richter Subject: Do not pork the old dude
I think that “if [insert old dude] [(but do not pork him)]” should be the title of my super avant, coming-of-age tale, a tale that is just chockablock with themes. Maybe I can cull and use these emails in there to get bonus meta points or something.
Seriously, I was really heartened by our last exchange. I now need to read (and reread!) all of your books, so that I can awkwardly shuffle up to you at parties and toss off a noncommittal “I read your book.” Elisa, I forgot to say, all my favorite fictional characters are deranged or deeply flawed in some way. I think it takes real courage to leave the shit-deniers under their colorful parasols on the beach and wade into those waters. So yeah, I think you guys are right. We should probably just swim forward without worrying about critics watching in their lifeguard chairs, assessing our strokes through binoculars. Like right now, one of them is definitely blowing his whistle on this metaphor.
So! Elisa’s question for today.
What’s weird is that I, too, had a wild writer crush on Stacey (Stacey, are you blushing?) and have confessed as much to her. I heard someone say once that a book made them feel personally understood, and Stacey’s book was like that for me. My real experience with author-stalking, though, happened with Kelly Link (Stacey, you’re too far away. If you’re in the market for creepy literary stalkers, NY is the place to be, I think). The night I bought Stranger Things Have Happened, I stayed up in a white heat during a big Florida thunderstorm and slammed it. I had to put the book down every other sentence and just take deep Lamaze breaths; I couldn’t believe that stories like this existed, with girl detectives who ate dreams and artificial nose-collectors. It really extended the realm of what I thought was possible in fiction, and inspired me in a way that nothing had before or since.
A year and a half later, I submitted this tiny speculative piece to Kelly Link’s zine, LCRW—it was the first thing I ever sent out. And she and her partner Gavin took it! I got 20 dollars and a tarot card. Magic for Beginners came out, and I could tell this was no flash-in-a-pan fling, this was forever love. So when Kelly came to read in NY, I made my friend Jess go with me on a weeknight to South Street Seaport, and I was as nervous as if I were prepping for a date. And Kelly Link was so gracious, and normal looking! No Joyce Carol owl glasses or anything. I stuck around with the milling hordes of fans afterwards, and do you know what I told her? “I read your book!” Then I spewed out some vague milky sentences about how much I loved it. I’m sorry, klatch. It was just so hard to communicate, in the two minutes I had of her time, how her stories are actually these little carnivals that travel inside me all the time now.
And how’s this for creepy stalking? I also gave her a printout of this 16th-century ink sketch of a turtle skeleton. I loved this turtle drawing, and I think I wanted to impress Kelly with my off-beat gift (Look, I’ve read you and I understand you! I understand that you, too, will surely share my enthusiasm for this whimsical drawing of a turtle skeleton.) In retrospect, how freaking terrifying! As you might imagine, we haven’t really been in contact since, although sometimes I email with her partner Gavin.
What about you guys? Any mentors/schoolgirl literary crushes run amok? And what are your street addresses, and where are there convenient bushes for stalking?
From: Aaron Hamburger To: Elisa Albert, Angela Pneuman, Stacey Richter, Karen Russell Subject: Dale Peck
When I was in college, I was starting to deal with questions about my sexuality, so I started looking for fiction by gay writers. At that time, there wasn’t a lot out there, and what was there was more popular fiction rather than literary, in the mold of Tales of the City (a book I enjoyed).
Then I read Martin and John by Dale Peck, which really blew me away. Besides how beautifully it was written, what I really appreciated was the way he’d structured the book, as a symphony of repeating relationships, which seemed to say something about the gay experience as well as the story he was telling.
When I first moved to New York, I saw that Peck was going to be reading with a few other writers at A Different Light (a gay bookstore that has since gone out of business), and so I went, feeling very nervous and excited. After the reading I went up to him, and suddenly felt completely tongue-tied. English became a new language.
“I really loved your book Martin and John,” I said. “The way you arrange words, it’s like music.”
“Thank you,” he said.
That was it.
I wasn’t sure what I’d expected to happen. But really, what did we have to say to each other? It was the book he’d written I’d had the conversation with, not him. He was a complete stranger. (Ironically, years later, something similar happened to me when I was on a panel and a reader came up to me to tell me how much my book had meant to him, and I found myself wanting badly to connect person to person, the way my writing had connected with him, and yet once again I found myself tongue-tied.)
Since that first meeting, I’ve had several more interactions with Dale Peck. I interviewed him for a local gay newspaper when his third novel came out, and actually went to his apartment. It was a funny experience because as he answered my questions, he’d go back and forth between really brilliant analyses of contemporary fiction to really bitchy take-downs of contemporary writers. He was very kind and polite, and then at the same time, he’d deliver a cutting zinger about a writer or publisher that made me cringe.
Later, after the interview was published, I ran into him and he said, “I loved your interview because it made me look like the cuntiest cow.”
I’ve kept running into him over several years in New York, and I enjoy chatting with him, but the deer-in-the-headlights enchantment is gone. I think it’s because I don’t have the same need for specifically gay literary role models anymore. I can get just as excited about The Sun Also Rises or a Graham Greene novel or Jennifer Egan’s last book as I used to about a new voice in gay fiction. Good writing is good writing. That’s excitement enough.
From: Elisa Albert To: Aaron Hamburger, Angela Pneuman, Stacey Richter, Karen Russell Subject: You love the book, but the writer's still a stranger
That is exactly it: you’ve had the interaction with the book, not with the writer. The writer is a perfect stranger; you don’t know him/her even when the act of reading the book makes you feel known. So obvious, yet so hard to grasp when you’re in the throes of love with a piece of fiction! Every single time I connect with a book I have the problem of becoming at least a little obsessed with the writer. Every time. Lately Alison Bechdel (Fun Home) and Jonathan Lethem, whose fiction doesn’t quite do it for me but whose essays in The Disappointment Artist knocked me on my ass. It’s infatuation. It’s some sort of desire to gift these people with something huge in return: a lock of my hair, unborn children, a turtle-skeleton-thing. (All of which speaks to what I love about reading and writing in the first place. You get to communicate things to one reader at a time, and that reader might really get it and feel understood. And how totally magical is that moment, on either side of the equation? That’s, like, what it’s all about.)
But, yeah, invariably there’s that let-down when reality rears its head: I don’t know Lorrie Moore, no matter how much her stories affect and engage and infatuate me. After college, when I had written a collection of stories for my undergrad thesis, I sent her a long, long letter—with a copy of my Kinko’s-bound ridiculously undergraduate stories!—basically telling her I loved her, pouring my heart out about my various life sorrows up to that point. I don’t know what I was expecting: that she would invite me to come live with her and we would host magnificent dinner parties, lie in parallel hammocks reading and exchanging witty banter, lure Antonya Nelson and Grace Paley to come join us and form some sort of new society? She did write back a sweet note, bless her heart, saying thank you and good luck, etc., which I can plainly see now was a total oh dear, who is this lunatic and how do I deal? moment for her. What can you do? There is no reconciling extreme feelings of connection with a perfect stranger.
Lorrie was at Vermont Studio Center last summer when I was there, and it was fantabulous to stand next to her at the salad bar and make small, small, small talk, and yes, even discuss work with her. She was lovely and gracious and warm. But nothing can remotely approach the level of intensity I brought to the table. Could we ever have a normal, everyday moment? Probably not.
So, Stacey. How does it feel to be worshipped?
From: Angela Pneuman To: Elisa Albert, Aaron Hamburger, Stacey Richter, Karen Russell Subject: Runny-nose crying
After years of loving Mary Gaitskill, and having friends who’d met her, I got to introduce her this spring. But before the introduction, I got to have dinner with her. And before that, I went to a Q&A with her, and knew I was in trouble when I couldn’t decide what to wear, and when my question-voice trembled like an earnest undergraduate’s.
Then after the Q&A—and, Elisa, your boyfriend witnessed this—I met her and tried to say “I like your books,” or even “I read your books,” and I started to cry. The kind of runny-nose crying no one should see. She was very, very kind.
It’s nice to be in an industry where you can meet your heroes.
From: Aaron Hamburger To: Elisa Albert, Angela Pneuman, Stacey Richter, Karen Russell Subject: Meeting your heroes
It is nice to be able to meet your heroes. And almost always they turn out to be nice, at least in the brief moments you meet them.
Speaking of Grace Paley, I got to sit next to her at the ceremony at the American Academy of Arts and Letters, when I won the Rome Prize.
She was funny, very nice, and very dry. That ceremony was insane. Almost every famous writer in America was there in one room. I was chatting with E. L. Doctorow without even knowing it. And John Updike said to me, “You’ve won a prize. How nice for you. You’ll enjoy it,” and then looked the other way.
This year I couldn’t make it to the ceremony because I was in Rome, but Lorrie Moore was there, and J. M. Coetzee, and Ian McEwan. I almost flew back just to go. Three of my literary heroes. Sigh…
From: Angela Pneuman To: Elisa Albert, Aaron Hamburger, Stacey Richter, Karen Russell Subject: Blathering on to J.M. Coatzee…
One more brush with a hero—Lorrie Moore was reading in NYC a few New Yorker Festivals ago, with ZZ Packer. I was sitting in the audience before the event, when the stage manager came up to the mic, announced my name, and said I was “wanted down below.” Lorrie had just picked a story of mine for BASS, and ZZ had told her I was there. I was knock-kneed and grateful and did not even try to put into words how much I loved her stories.
Later I interviewed her for The Believer, and she said something about publishing early that has stuck with me. She said that whenever you publish something you are creating a public record of “learning how to write,” and she talked briefly about her relationship to her first two books, which I love for themselves but also because they indicate what I was in store for later on. She is also one of those complicated writers, smart beyond measure, whose work opens up to 100 different ways of reading.
I would lose my ability to speak to Lynda Barry and Alice Munro, not to mention Antonio Munoz Molina and Primo Levi, if he were alive. I read The Periodic Table once a year. I wish I’d lost my ability to speak when I met Coetzee, as I went on for far too long and he was too polite or amused or dismayed to stop me.
From: Stacey Richter To: Elisa Albert, Aaron Hamburger, Angela Pneuman, Karen Russell Subject: Too much time spent trying to meet rock stars
Those are great stories. I’m especially impressed that Angela cried—that’s adorable. I love admiration, I’m not at all used to it, and it’s never even remotely reminded me of stalking. I have to say, I never went through a time when I wanted to meet my writer heroes, maybe because I spent too many years trying to meet my rock star heroes (I’m over that). (Mostly.) Now I sometimes want to ask certain writers questions (and will occasionally do it in a letter), but I feel like the intimacy of friendship and the intimacy of reading are not required to overlap. A lot of writers aren’t very social anyway; sometimes, as Aaron said, the most charming part of their personality is in their books. I’ve met such a jumble of writers I like personally/writers I don’t like who’ve written books I love/writers I like who’ve written books I hate that I’ve concluded there’s no pattern, and less chance for disappointment when I remind myself that it’s the book I love.
I like it best when I meet my mentors in dreams. Once in a dream I walked into an old kitchen of mine and Denis Johnson was sitting at the table reading my manuscript. He looked up and said, “Pretty good, kid.” I woke up and thought: Denis Johnson is my father? Then I really woke up. So there you go. Entirely satisfying, and all in my head.
From: Elisa Albert To: Aaron Hamburger, Angela Pneuman, Stacey Richter, Karen Russell Subject: THE END!
KIT! WBS! BFF!
N E X T
Do: Ever stalk a writer, or go to pieces in front of him/her? Embarrassing tales from book signings or random street encounters welcome below. Read: Legal thriller writer Scott Turrow never actually "met" Saul Bellow, but he had a reader-meet-icon moment all the same. He recounted it in The Atlantic just after Bellow's death.