Posts Tagged ‘John Cheever’

Happy birthday, Tobias Wolff! A few of his words on writing…

Thursday, June 19th, 2014
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Birthday boy.

birthday cakeHappy birthday to one of our favorite people, the award-winning novelist and short story writer Tobias Wolff:

“Writers are superstitious. I don’t mean knock on wood, throw salt over the shoulder—let me try to explain. I began this whole writing enterprise with the idea that you go to work in the morning like a banker, then the work gets done. John Cheever used to tell how when he was a young man, living in New York with his wife, Mary, he’d put on his suit and hat every morning and get in the elevator with the other married men in his apartment building. These guys would all get out in the lobby but Cheever’d keep going down into the basement, where the super had let him set up a card table. It was so hot down there he had to strip to his underwear. So he’d sit in his boxers and write all morning, and at lunchtime he’d put his suit back on and take the elevator up with the other husbands—men used to come home for lunch in those days—and then he’d go back to the basement in his suit and strip down for the afternoon’s work. This was an important idea for me—that an artist was someone who worked, not some special being exempt from the claims of ordinary life. But I have also learned that you can be patient and diligent and sometimes it just doesn’t strike sparks. After a while you begin to understand that writing well is not a promised reward for being virtuous. No, every time you do it you’re stepping off into darkness and hoping for some light. You can be faithful, work hard, not waste your talents in drink, and still not have it happen. That’s what makes writers nervous—the sense of the thing being given, day by day. You might have been writing good stories for years, then for some reason the stories aren’t so good. Anything that seems able to jinx you, to invite trouble, writers avoid. And one of the things that writers very quickly learn to avoid is talking their work away. Talking about your work hardens it prematurely, and weakens the charge. You need to keep a fluid sense of the work in hand—it has to be able to change almost without your being aware that it’s changing.”

From “Tobias Wolff: The Art of Fiction,” Paris Review, no. 183. (See him on the Colbert Report here.)

Remembering William Maxwell: “He used a pause better than most of us use a paragraph.”

Tuesday, October 30th, 2012
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Sophisticated? He didn’t think so. (Photo: Brookie Maxwell)

In preparation for Stanford’s “Another Look,” a new book club launched by the English department at Stanford, I wrote a retrospective on author William Maxwell, whose  masterpiece, So Long, See You Tomorrow, will be the inaugural book for  “Another Look”  on Monday, November 12.   The book will be discussed by award-winning author Tobias Wolff, with Bay Area novelist, journalist, and editor Vendela Vida and Stanford’s lit scholar Vaughn Rasberry, to be followed by an audience discussion.  More on “Another Look” here

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“I never felt sophisticated,” the erudite and elderly Midwesterner explained to NPR’s Terry Gross in 1995.  His modesty is certainly one reason why William Maxwell remains a connoisseur’s writer, never achieving the wider recognition he deserves.

Yet Maxwell’s career was situated at the epicenter of American literature and letters: On staff at the New Yorker from 1936 to 1975, he was the editor of J.D. Salinger, Vladimir Nabokov, Eudora Welty, Frank O’Connor, John Cheever, and many other luminaries.  He also contributed regularly to the magazine’s reviews and columns, and continued to do so until 1999, a year before his death.  Maxwell wrote six novels, many short stories, a memoir, two books for children, and about forty short, whimsical pieces, which he called “improvisations.” Three volumes of letters have also been published.

Others have readily compensated for Maxwell’s modesty.  Christopher Carduff, editor of the Library of America edition of the author’s complete works, once called him “a kind, wise, quiet voice. One of the essential American voices of our time.”

“I don’t think he tried very hard to promote himself,” said writer Benjamin Cheever, son of novelist John Cheever, in a telephone interview. “He was very, very quiet – both as a public person and as a conversationalist.  He used a pause better than most of us use a paragraph.”

“He lived for art, its appreciation as well as its creation,” wrote John Updike in The New Yorker.  “His shapely, lively, gently rigorous memoirs, out of the abundance of heartfelt writing he bestowed on posterity, are most like being with Bill in life, at lunch in midtown or at home in the East Eighties, as he intently listened, and listened, and then said, in his soft dry voice, exactly the right thing.”

The path of Maxwell’s life took few sharp turns. He was born in Lincoln, Illinois, on August 16, 1908. His professional life was almost entirely bound up with the New Yorker, where he worked for four decades – in a sense, he became the “company man” his father would have approved.

After an intensely long and lonely bachelorhood, he married the most beautiful woman he had ever met.  Their marriage lasted until her death, a week before his own.  He and Emily (universally called “Emmy”) had two daughters – the first born when he was 46.

His work habits were relentlessly predictable:  According to his daughter Katharine Maxwell, he was consistently in bed at 10 p.m., and up at 6 a.m.  He didn’t like the superficial chitchat of cocktail parties.  He excused himself abruptly from dinner parties at 9.45 p.m. – he wanted to be fresh to write the next morning.

About four-fifths of his oeuvre is set in or around his hometown. Thanks to him, Lincoln has become a landmark as indelible as Hannibal, Missouri, in the annals of American literature.

“The shine went out of everything”

There was one defining peak on the otherwise rather flat landscape of Maxwell’s life: his mother’s death in the 1918 influenza epidemic, when he was 10. He never really got over it; almost all his friends and acquaintances speak about it when recalling him.

“He couldn’t speak of her without tears welling up in his eyes,” recalled his daughter, Katharine Maxwell. She said it resulted in a sort of flinty atheism, a grudge almost – “yet he said he thought God could write a better story than he could.”  Maxwell’s friend and fellow writer at the New Yorker, Alec Wilkinson, described him as “melancholy-minded.” Said Wilkinson: “His mother’s death stamped him forever with an awareness of the fragility of human happiness.  It kept him away from any religions. I remember him saying that ‘no one can fail to be astonished by creation – that’s as far as I’m going to go as to a governing faculty to the universe.’”

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