He must have sussed me out before we ever boarded the plane.
I was 22, mere months out of college and clinging with near-religious fervor to the lowest rung on the editorial ladder of a boutique literary publisher, where I was hoping to quietly, without drawing attention to myself, learn how to be a writer. I knew absolutely nothing except that I knew absolutely nothing. And so mine was a covert operation, I believed, in which I watched and listened to the writers who passed through the desanctified church where our publishing house performed its holy work.
One of those writers was Evan Connell. We had reissued his devastating first novel about longing and repression, Mrs. Bridge, with its companion, Mr. Bridge, in a fittingly austere, unjacketed, slipcased set a few years before my arrival. My first assignment at work was to proofread the index for his new book about Custer and the Battle of Little Bighorn, Son of the Morning Star, which, like Mrs. Bridge, was to become a bestselling sensation. Inexplicably I was chosen to accompany the notoriously private, excruciatingly reserved Connell to collect a book award, which would require us to spend a weekend together sandwiched between two plane trips.
Poor Evan, to be stuck with me for three days! He was 60, disciplined, devoted to his books, his solitary obsessions: alchemy, the Crusades, Goya, pre-Columbian art. I was as naïve as they come, larval in my aspiration, yearning and unformed. How transparent I must have been! And yet he was nothing but kind. On the first of our flights, sitting awkwardly next to each other in the narrow seats, I burbled nervously about books that I loved. “I can’t just enjoy a book,” he said. “If I read something I like, I always ask myself, how did the writer do this? And how can I steal it?” He looked up at me from the stirring of his drink, cubes of ice crackling in his watery Scotch. “How can I make it my own?”
Evan Connell’s obliquely offered advice was the first deposit to a bank account I’ve been adding to for 30 years, the beginning of my education as a writer. Even then I understood that embedded in Evan’s suggestion to learn how to steal was the necessity of reading as a writer, of paying attention. Of making use of whatever befell me, of recognizing that passions unexamined were lost opportunities. And that my own obsession wasn’t a sidetrack, but the road I was intended to follow. His is the first lesson I now offer my own students, with gratitude to Evan.
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