Over the Wall

This talk was given on the occasion of the Missouri Review’s annual fundraising dinner.

Thank you for having me here.  It is a terrific privilege to be able to say a few words tonight in support of the Missouri Review and its superb mission, especially because it was Speer Morgan and the Missouri Review who published my very first story more than ten years ago now.

Now and then I am asked how I got published for the first time.  This question almost always comes from students who have not yet been published and for whom this question is a matter of serious anguish.  There is no pain like the pain of being unpublished and wanting, more than anything, to not be unpublished any longer.  It is equivalent to the pain of loving a beautiful girl who thinks of you as just a friend – you study her from across the college cafeteria, you memorize the swing of her yellow dress, but you cannot have anything to do with her.  Meanwhile she wastes herself on unworthy objects, including, 1) that guy with the motorcycle and the long hair; 2) that exchange student from Greece who can be seen cleaning out one nostril and then the other with a swift plug-and-blow behind the chemistry building; and 3) the shadowy figure of David, the boyfriend from home, now at Harvard, or Yale, or possibly both.  But for all this we’re hopelessly in love.  We love her even though she does not love us.

In the same way do we, when we are unpublished, regard the printed word.  We become kabbalists of tables of contents, shameless font fetishists, conoisseurs of front-matter, that beautiful arcana we covet to own ourselves; we desperately want to have our own rights reserved under International and Pan-American Copyright Conventions, and we compose our acknowledgements pages years in advance, and dedicate our books over and over again; and meanwhile the ravishingly beautiful world of the printed word wastes itself on another feeble novel by So-and-So, who is getting lazy in his famous old age; and So-and-So, who has just printed a first story in Such-and-Such national magazine, and who is so much younger than we are that, when we do the calculation, we discover we were already a romantic failure with Hilary Haselton and beginning the long painful disappointment of our adolescence when he was still a fetus, still with his gills, a fetus that is now at Harvard, or Yale, or possibly both.

And once we are published, if we have any heart, we remember being unpublished with the same wincing discomfort with which we remember being fourteen, and this is why we are all – published and unpublished, readers and writers – so happy the Missouri Review exists.  We love the great fiction, the superb poetry and nonfiction, the interviews and reviews – but just as much we cherish the Missouri Review because this magazine really does provide a place for new writers to emerge, and for relatively unheralded writers to be lifted into prominence.

I am especially grateful to the Missouri Review, of course, because this is what happened to me.  When I was twenty-four the first story I ever sold won the editors’ prize for fiction; and that story, selected out of the blue by the brilliant and far-seeing editors of the Missouri Review, went on to be selected for that year’s O. Henry awards.  By then the acceptance at the Missouri Review had helped me gain entry into the University of Michigan’s MFA program where I met Charlie Baxter and Nick Delbanco, and that story was the first story in The Coast of Good Intentions, my first book.  In other words, the Missouri Review was good to me.

But I want to tell you briefly the circumstances of that first acceptance.

When I got the congratulatory letter from the Missouri Review – and I still remember it, handwritten in blue ink, from Speer, covering a whole glorious page, containing the kind of news you refuse to believe at first and which, if you are paranoid, you suspect your friends of having faked up at great expense and in the throes of the greatest cruelty of which the human animal is capable — at the time I got the letter it was extraordinarily welcome, not just because it meant that that beautiful girl had finally noticed me, but also because I was at the time living in a fallout shelter.

I was, really.

Like others of his immigrant generation my grandfather survived on his wits and his courage and a native ill temper which served him well to a point and then began to serve him very poorly.  When he was in his middle fifties the worm began to turn and he became paranoid and peculiar and under the pressure of a career that had gone south on him and a family that held him in no great esteem, feeling, in other words, as though his world was falling down around his ears, he decided to buy a parcel of land where he could go when the crap hit the fan.  Atomic war if not a given was at least even odds at that point and the Cuban Missile Crisis only upped the stakes.  The fallout maps showed a zone of safety, relatively, on the dead-quiet empty Washington coast.  When the bombs fell, the fallout would be carried inland on the westerly winds, over Seattle and Spokane and into Montana, there would be radiation sickness and epic death on a scale never before seen in human history in the midwest and on the east coast, but he would be all right in his little wooden house on stilts on the beach in Grayland Washington, assuming he had the two and a half hours’ warning to get himself down there to avoid the initial blasts.

In this happy mindset he built himself a house.  It was not a place built for posterity, as he did not expect it to stand more than a decade – but it stands still, out in the weather, rudimentarily plumbed, flatroofed in a country famous for its huge rains, uninsulated in a climate known for its persistent bone-gnawing winters, unprotected against the carpenter ants which can today be heard audibly consuming its hollow core doors and still stocked, as if in a nightmare, with cans of chum salmon and chick peas, clams in their own decades-old juice, and copious amounts of vitamin-C rich fruit, tinned pineapples and mandarin oranges in their tiny cannisters laid up in the hopes of warding off scurvy, as though the imagined survivors were not being born into a world of hellish, poisoned emptiness but merely sailors on a voyage needing some provisions to get them over the ocean with their teeth intact.

How did I end up living here?

After college I taught elementary school for two years and by living very cheaply managed to save up enough money to live without working for a year.  I intended to write full time during that year and see what happened.  One of the ways I worked this scheme was by moving into the fallout shelter.

In fact I loved the place.  There was a fireplace in which I could burn the driftwood that the ocean provided abundantly, some of it picturesque, gnarled roots and barnacle-encrusted branches, but most of it less romantic, splintered pallets that had broken loose from container ships.  I chopped these up with an axe.  The linoleum floors were red and no matter how often I swept they were always covered with a fine layer of invisible sand.  A generation of children, myself included, had spent the occasional summer weekend here – our parents making the same calculation I had, free being too good to pass up — and had gathered a half-hearted collection of sand dollars and styrofoam Japanese floats.  There was a smell of mustiness from the closets, of 1962, of canvas and chemically degrading vinyl, pleasantly nostalgic in its way, and the pump shed held aluminum lawn chairs stored away against the occasional sunny day, and now and then, in fact, there was one, and I could see the beach from the plateglass windows, and the ocean provided a constant sussurant backdrop to the few noises I produced myself, the tapping of my computer keyboard, installed on the kitchen table, and the radio, which was always on, tuned in the daytime to Seattle AM radio and at night to the more distant, and therefore more romantic, San Francisco stations, KGO, which came booming up the coast once the sun went down.  Late at night I wrote and wrote.

For the two years that I was an elementary school teacher, one of the worst elementary school teachers in the history of the profession, I was working on one story – a story I had begun in college.  This was the story I learned to write stories on, and as I worried at it I broke it down and built it up, broke it down again, until I began to see what it was supposed to be.  Here in Grayland at the kitchen table, late at night, I worked on it further.  It was “The Cranberry Coast” or “Settled on the Cranberry Coast” or, sometimes, “Frosty”, and it was set about two miles from where I was typing, on that empty, almost uninhabited coast.

I knew that coast as an outsider would, as a summer person, meaning not really at all, and as it often does that kind of ignorance amounted to freedom.  I was able to populate the world of Twin Harbors State Park and the local high school with figures of my own imagination and move them around in an environment which I could see out the window, and yet it was not my own environment, it was a borrowed environment, and because of this I was able, finally, to make it perform the way I wanted, manipulate it as I needed, with a freedom I would not have felt were I writing about Seattle, where I had grown up, and which I knew too well.  I could see that little coastal town in a way I could not see Seattle.  The common objects of the world have a kind of half-life, in a way my grandfather might have understood; we can only truly see them briefly, when they are new and strange to us, and very rapidly they lose their radioactive intensity and degrade into the safe, inert materials of our daily lives.  This cup, this car, this house and lawn.  This is a good thing; we could not survive in a world in which we were always bombarded by impressions; but if we are lucky we remember those few moments in our youth in which we felt exposed; brilliantly irradiated by our surroundings; we remember feeling the energetic emanations of these places and these times entering our bones, our marrow, and changing, forever, our DNA.

Under the influence of this energy I wrote, wrote, wrote.

I knew it was a good story.  It was rejected all over the place.  Lois Rosenthal, then the editor of Story Magazine, and who had the honor of rejecting every single one of the stories that eventually made up my first book except for the one I didn’t send her, sent “Settled on the Cranberry Coast” back with one of her infuriatingly encouraging rejections, and I remember distinctly standing at the kitchen table and saying aloud, to the empty room, “You’re wrong.”  This was the story I sent here, to Columbia, along with my entry fee of fifteen dollars, the story that started it all for me.

That I am grateful goes without saying; there is no way to thank the Missouri Review properly for providing me what no one else did, an introduction to that beautiful girl.  We have been getting along fine now for ten years, she and I, and I see every indication that this is a relationship that will last.  I have never been to Missouri before, but in a sense tonight I feel I have come, at last, to my first true home, the place that first said, daringly, yes, hello, pleased to meet you. It is to the magazine’s great and lasting credit that this is one of its principal missions, to keep greeting the newcomers.  They will keep coming for as long as you are here to greet them, and let us hope this is a long time.