Tuesday, September 25, 2007


A bookstore owner recently told me that there was a surfeit of writers asking to visit. A decade ago another bookstore owner told me that even some of the big names didn't draw much of an audience after their second or third appearance.

When I was growing up we had anything but a surfeit of writers.

Part of what I'm about to say owes to the fact that except for Minneapolis I grew up in small cities and small towns. I didn't meet a writer until I was in my early Twenties. He was a local guy who sold to men's magazines and very small soft core publishers. His dream was to sell a story to Amazing Stories. I don't think he ever did.

But it was cool to sit on the summer library steps and talk to him. Cheesy as his markets were, he was an actual pro. He was a grumpy middle-aged bastard and I probably wouldn't have liked him but for the fact that he was an actual WRITER. That was worth listening to a whole lot of bitching.

I'd tried to meet an author before, the great YA writer Henry Gregor Felsen. He was speaking in Des Moines. My cousin wanted to go too. We were going to ride in style. He had a chopped, channeled, louevered 50 Ford. The only thing wrong with it was that it spent half its years in the garage. A very tempermental car. One of us once said that his Ford was the equivalent of marrying the most beautiful girl in the world only to find out she wouldn't sleep with you. His Ford wouldn't run on Felsen day.

One night in a local pub I met a guy who told everybody he was a writer. Paperbacks, he said, and yanked a Dell First edition from his back pocket. I don't remember the title but I do remember the author name: Robert Dietrich. He always used a pen-name when I asked him how come his own name wasn't on the cover. Saving himself for more important work. Then he'd use his real name.

Those were my early drinking days when people passed in and out of my life in a boozy fog. I ran into "Mr. Dietrich" a few times more but decided he was just a bullshitter, As he was, it turned out, the Dietrich name being in fact Howard Hunt of Watergate fame. But the fake Dietrich did do something spectacular. There was a down and out bar down on the river where, on a hundred dollar bet, he walked in with a real full-grown lion on a leash and scared the shit out of all the poor winos. He was arrested, of course. I never did quite know how the hell he came up with a lion.

Nelson Algren was the first writer of any substance I ever saw. He was teaching at the Iowa workshop and speaking on a panel. He was well worth the wait. Funny, melancholy, angry and just generally honest and wise. No bullshit.

He was well worth the wait.


pattinase (abbott) said...

One of my favorite nights in terms of meeting writers was the night Tobias and Gregory Wolfe both came to a local forum to talk about their parents and the experience of being separated early on and writing books about their separation: Duke of Deception and This Boy's Life. Both wonderful books about a split family.
Some writers can be a terrible disappointment. Others can make you run for the shelves.

Anonymous said...

James Reasoner's interview seems to be inspiring excellent memoirs among his friends...to judge by this and Bill Crider's recent similar entry on his blog.

James Reasoner said...

The first writer I met in person was either Kerry Newcomb or Neal Barrett Jr. It was right around the same time and I can't remember which one I ran into first. But they're both fine writers and I'm still proud to call both of them friend.

As a kid I loved the hot rod books by Henry Gregor Felson and William Campbell Gault. Never met either one, but at least I got to correspond a little with Gault. And of course by then I knew him as a great mystery writer, too.

Anonymous said...

Gault is still the king of sports fiction of all kinds, as I tire those around me by repeatedly noting. Dan Jenkins and, alas, the late Michael Shaara notwithstanding.

Elizabeth Foxwell said...

I think the first author who made an impression on me was Judy Blume, because her son, Larry, was in my fourth-grade class. She was just starting out then, and _Otherwise Known as Sheila the Great_ and _Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing_ had been published. Her early books are filled with references pertaining to my small New Jersey hometown.

I wrote a fan letter when I was 14 to George Chesbro (about the first in the Mongo series, _Shadow of a Broken Man_) and received a nice reply. I still remember how thrilled I was. And to tell Lawrence Block that I'd grown up reading his _Writer's Digest_ column and then (much later) to have a story of mine in a Block anthology---words fail me.

Anonymous said...

I have met some writers, shook the hands of a few performers, and gotten a couple of juvenile autorgraphs from speakers at lectures. But it's this wiseguy Ed coming into the bookstore, spinning yarns of "the old days" or calling me Dick Cheney's girlfriend that I'll cherish until he defects to Canada, leaving Cedar Rapids behind some cold election day. Or until I get fired for talking to Ed all the time instead of shelving books.