Janet Lewis: “Whenever I’m writing, I’m interested in everything, because I’m still waiting for the next page.”

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A pensive Janet Lewis (1899-1998) at her Los Altos home. (Photograph: Margo Davis)

I wrote about Women Writers of the West: Speaking of Their Lives and Careers shortly after I arrived in Palo Alto in the early 1980s. I would later get to know the editor of that slim volume, Marilyn Yalom, one of the founders of women’s studies at Stanford – she’s featured on the cover of the book, looking out from the picture window in her beautiful home office, as she writes. Decades later, after I learned she was René Girard‘s first graduate student at Johns Hopkins University, I would include her in my own book, the first-ever biography of the French theorist, Evolution of Desire: A Life of René Girard.

I also interviewed one of the writers featured in that volume: the poet and novelist Janet Lewis, about the same time this book was published – by then her husband, the eminent Stanford poet-critic Yvor Winters, was dead. I visited her Los Altos home with the legendary loquat tree. “Being a writer has meant nearly everything to me beyond my marriage and children,” said the author who is best known for here book The Wife of Martin Guerre, which was featured at a 2013 Stanford Another Look book event. “It has concerned the way I have thought and the friends that I have made. I’ve noticed that whenever I’m writing, I’m interested in everything, because I’m still waiting for the next page. I don’t pay as much attention, when I’m not writing, to living in general.”

Through Marilyn and her legendary women writer’s salon, co-founded with the late Diane Middlebrook, I got to know the photographer Margo Davis, who took the portraits in the volume, and her portrait above is the reason for this post: the poet, the photographer, the editor, and the magnificent photograph above that brought them all together. “It is no longer clear to me that the degree of familiarity with the subjects determines the strength of the portrait,” Margo wrote in a photographer’s note. “I used to believe, like the French photographer, Nadar, that the person I know best is the one I photograph best.” She already knew three of the women authors in the book – Kay Boyle, Joyce Carol Thomas and Janet Lewis. She had a few hours to photograph the others. She wrote: “However, in those brief meetings, I felt a common understanding that even though we knew very little about each other as individuals, we knew about each other as artists. And that even though we come from different disciplines, whether it be words or photographs, we are involved in a similar process of expression and interpretation.”

Margo Davis at home.

The photograph with persimmons is my favorite of the older Janet Lewis – hands down. Here are a few more excerpts from the chapter, which was taken from a Stanford public dialogue between the author and Brigitte Carnochan in 1980:

For Lewis, writing is “putting things in order in my head” so as to be able to perceive a situation as completely as possible. This was one of the motivating forces of her novel, Against a Darkening Sky, which describes the effect of the encroaching terror of World War II on an ordinary Northern California family.

***

“I began as a poet. Very small-sized, too. My first published poems, or practically the first, were about Indians, about Manibozho and the legendary Indians of the Ojibways.” More than half a century later, in 1979, with the publication of The Ancient Ones, Lewis returned to the Indian themes of her first poems. In “Awatobi,” for example, she brings together sites as distant from one another as the French court of Louis XIV and the battle at Awatobi, united only in the commonality of bloody violence.

***

When asked how she had found the time to write, while raising two children and caring for a husband and a household of airedales, Lewis’s reply was typically straightforward, without a trace of having suffered unduly in her responsibilities. “I put aside a few hours a day. Probably the` best hours. My working time has always been when everyone went to school.” In one instance she typed the manuscript for a novel with her small daughter sitting on her lap. “She was very small, so I could reach around to the typewriter. I was working on The Invasion then, and I was under contract to finish it at a certain time. I worked very regularly, getting up very early in the morning before anybody else, except the baby, who had to be taken care of. She was quiet for awhile, she had her naps, and I knew what I was doing because I had been working on the book for a long time. I knew where I was going and didn’t have to pace up and down the floor and say, ‘what do I do next?'”

Marilyn’s salon, shortly before her death in 2019 (Photo: Reid Yalom)

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One Response to “Janet Lewis: “Whenever I’m writing, I’m interested in everything, because I’m still waiting for the next page.””

  1. George Says:

    Her novel The Invasion: A Narrative of Events Concerning the Johnston Family of St. Mary’s is well worth reading: the story of an Irish fur trader, the daughter of a leading Ojibway chief, and their descendants. Lewis knew a daughter of the family when the latter was quite old.