A heartbreaking life of staggering generosity

An eerie thing happened on September 14, 1982. I received a letter from John Gardner that morning about a pack of short stories I’d left with him to critique, at his suggestion, even though I wasn’t one of his students. Later that day, as I sat on the rim of the copydesk, the city editor swiveled in his chair and, pointing to the computer, said, “Look at this.”

It was an AP story reporting that the novelist had died in a motorcycle accident on his way home that day. He was forty-nine. The story sounded like something from his latest novel.

Gardner was well-known in and out of literary circles for his outsized characters and their philosophical rants. Some of his books, like October Light, made the bestseller lists. A few months before his death the New York Times led its book review section with commentary on his last novel, Mickelsson’s Ghosts, a work I had just finished reading.

John Gardner explainsI’d met him earlier in the year in a class at a local university. The professor had invited Gardner to talk about fiction and, as a bonus, he’d read and commented on the first page of our latest submissions. He had a shock of white hair that flowed over his forehead and small, wrinkled eyes. His pipe kept going out as he talked. Later the professor invited some of us to his apartment to continue the discussion. Sitting on the floor, our backs to the tiled fireplace, we listened as Gardner talked about his work.

Some of the discussion was funny. “Why did you sell the short story on Julius Caesar to Playboy?” “Because they offered the most money.” Other parts were more serious. Gardner didn’t give a toss about genres; he didn’t care whether people considered his work popular or literary, thoughtful or entertaining. He wanted to be known as a storyteller. He constantly courted the ancient arts, rewriting epic tales like Beowulf from the monster’s point of view. (Years later, Hollywood would turn his novel Grendel into a movie, the closest to populism the author ever got.)

John Gardner typewriterEmerging from the dream
For emerging writers Gardner is best known for his view that fiction should remain a “vivid and continuous dream” in the mind of the reader, uninterrupted by extraneous detail. Yet his books were crammed with characters philosophizing about life. He seemed obsessed with philosophy and argued constantly against nihilism, a doctrine that nothing is knowable, that rejects all distinctions of moral value. In his work of criticism, On Moral Fiction, he called for books with “just and compassionate behavior,” art that “establishes models of human action.” He may have identified deeply with Grendel, the monster who finds himself cast out of heaven because he’s ugly, comes from a bad family and asks too many questions.

While his characters were not always models of behavior, Gardner was a kind and generous man, lending his time and name to aspiring writings. I met him that May in class and shared an evening with friends, but I wasn’t his student. Yet he invited me to his home in Susquehanna to discuss and critique my work.

I arrived on a fine spring day to find the novelist in a farmhouse on the edge of town, nestled in the hills the locals call the Endless Mountains, purplish gray and draped with mist like the webs of tent caterpillars. The clapboard house had curlicues over the porch; it looked like an old train station.

Inside sat Gardner’s son Joel, a photographer, and Susan Thornton. She and John were to be married—the week he died. A visiting colleague handed him a few short stories and a novel for comment. They talked about producing plays in Susquehanna and about a literary magazine on which he was working.

Gardner went into his study to concentrate on the story. His desk consisted of a door resting on two sawhorses, covered with pipes and papers. He hunched over the story, making quick notes with a pencil. Then he and Susan had to leave. He apologized over and over for giving me so little time.

Mickelsson's Ghosts AMZA life in fiction
Back in the living room, I asked Joel how much of his father’s work was autobiographical—a questions many writers hate but I was too young to know at the time. Not much, Joel said, but then he opened the door to the dining room. It was long and sparking with new plaster walls and thick with beams. The mead hall from Grendel, the house from Mickelsson’s Ghosts. I felt a chill, as if the spirit of those characters were looking over my shoulder.

There were other similarities. The main character in that book, Peter Mickelsson, is a professor at the State University of New York at Binghamton who is battling a failing national reputation and the IRS, which is after him for back taxes. He lives in Susquehanna and is going through a divorce. That much mirrored Gardner’s life. But Mickelsson is going mad, his mind enflamed with the ghosts of Martin Luther and Nietzsche, his wife, his son, two lovers and a murderous couple who used to live in the farmhouse. Joel smiled at this and said his father made up most of the book.

John Gardner hatThe lion of literature
Whatever its condition at the end, Gardner’s career in fiction got off to a slow start. He was born on July 21, 1933, in Batavia, New York. His father was a dairy farmer and lay preacher, his mother a high school literature teacher. His first novel sold about 1,000 copies but The Sunlight Dialogues became a bestseller in 1972 and October Light won the National Book Critics Circle Award in 1976. He raced motorcycles, survived surgery for cancer of the colon and married twice. He lectured at the Bread Loaf Writers Conference. He settled in rural Susquehanna, on a thirty-acre farm. Writers sought his comments on fiction and his clout with publishers.

A gifted writer with a marvelous ear for dialogue, he had always written interesting books. But with Mickelsson’s Ghosts he reached the top of his form, merging his beloved philosophy with a strong story line. He also seemed to have mellowed from the harsh critic of his youth to a man who wanted to say good things about others. People said he was trying to find his place. Others found him humble and generous.

The day I visited him in the Endless Mountains he sat on the couch and chatted in a smooth and quiet voice about new projects. I told him I’d had trouble finding his work in the local bookstore. It wasn’t filed under “fiction.” Concerned that his backlist had gone out of print, I asked the clerk if she carried Gardner’s books and she led me to the back of the story. There they were, filed under “literature.”

Gardner threw back that great mane of white hair and howled with delight, much like I imagine Grendel might have done.

Seven questions for Barbara Aline Blanchard

The mellow mouth of my French horn
Is worth all the jade or silver
Or the superficial birthright
Of an old family of scholars
That I’d trade for Scottish whiskey
And the junk I learned in college.

That’s how Barbara Aline Blanchard begins the poem that begins her book, I Was a College Dropout: the French Horn Was My Mistress. In it she tackles issues like aging, jealousy and making jam in her grandmother’s kitchen. During her career she has overcome the challenges of shopping her work and supporting her children as a single mother. Here she revisits her childhood dream and shares the ups and downs of a long career in an interview with Crossroads.

Blanchard BabetteHow did you get your start as a writer?
As a child of four, my mother called me Babette, French for “little Barbara.” She nourished my inner poet: repeating and recording my thoughts, praising my creativity, shaping my self image. Poetry was the core of my being—I always planned to be a poet when I grew up. As a shy child, poetry and art were the way I expressed my feelings. Ideas could take shape in essays, but emotions needed a poem or a picture.

When I met my husband of 26 years, I was a high-school English teacher in New Jersey, also teaching creative writing at night and lecturing in the psychological and nutritional aspects of weight control. Before that, I had been a social caseworker and a parole officer in Newark, New Jersey. Divorced with two sons, I was driven by a desire to provide for them in the only way I knew how: writing. Poetry wasn’t paying the bills, even though I had written two books of verse, recorded my work and given poetry readings in Washington Square and at such venues as the Lone Star Café in New York City and the Playboy Club in Great Gorge, New Jersey.

For years, I wrote two pages of fiction each weekday and five pages each weekend day, for a total of 20 pages a week. If I had a school vacation or a snow day, I would write extra pages, which would allow me to take occasional breaks. For 13 years I rarely missed a day. Most of my writing took place after 10 p.m. when my children were in bed. I would write until I fell asleep at the typewriter (remember those?): the typewriter bell would bing and I’d wake up and go to bed.

Blanchard Arthur & BarbaraMy first novel was accepted for publication just before I met Arthur. The check was equivalent to several months’ salary—enormous to me at the time. A sister publishing company then asked me to write a romance novel. I had never even read one. I was guaranteed an advance if I delivered the manuscript by December: it was ready in six weeks. Christmas was good that year, though I was sleep deprived.

After those two minor successes, I took a sabbatical from my teaching job to write fulltime. In addition to my then-current novel, I wrote short stories, newspaper articles, and “fillers.” I tried to make writing a business. Obsessively, I wrote 10-12 hours a day. In the evening, I painted to relax. I had two children and one TV—which I rarely watched.

What challenges have you overcome?
Making a living as a writer was difficult, even though I was publishing. I needed cash flow. After taking a bartender’s course, I worked special events at the Holiday Inn, experiences that were memorable and lucrative. But when my health insurance was about to run out, I returned to teaching and Arthur and I moved in together.

Arthur took an executive position in the Pocono Mountains of Pennsylvania while I freelanced. A magazine picked up my ghostwritten article. “I Was a College Dropout, the French Horn Was My Mistress,” a sestina, arguably my most technically-proficient poem, was published.

What makes you proud?
Undeterred by those who said a writers’ group wouldn’t last, I wrote an article for the local paper announcing the inaugural meeting of Pocono Writers. Twenty-six of us met one evening in a real estate office. Raising a glass of “literary sherry” (a reference to Poe’s The Cask of the Amontillado), I dared the group to prove the skeptics wrong. We began a tradition of monthly meetings around the fireplace at a local restaurant, reading, listening to and critiquing each other’s work. All “business” was printed and distributed in the newsletter, which I began and edited for several years until Arthur took a job in Massachusetts. I left my friends from Pocono Writers, which was and is the seed of the arts in the tristate area. The group continues to thrive.

Arthur is a scientist and a businessman. He convinced me that writing yet another novel without an advance or contract was just not logical. I bought a 640k Leading Edge word processor with an amber screen and began to teach myself. I landed a job as a consultant for Better Communications, the premier corporate writing-training company.

For seven years, I traveled throughout the United States, Canada and Bermuda, presenting workshops to, among others, Ford Motor Company, Sun Microsystems, the U.S. Department of Transportation and AT&T. I edited corporate documents; ghost wrote speeches; coached scientists, engineers and executives how to write more succinctly and give their documents visual impact. As the director of curriculum and instructor development, I was included in Who’s Who in of Global Business Leaders in 1996. Finally, I was earning a decent living as a writer. My hourly rate was 50 times what I had earned as a fiction writer, maybe more.

Meanwhile, my typewritten manuscripts were beginning to fade away and were impossible to scan. My first still unpublished novel, The Barefoot Years, which I had once submitted to Random House with high expectations, had fallen into the technology gap. “Despite obvious merits, we will not be making you an offer to publish,” the editor had written. Why not? Too short? No sex? Too introspective?

What was your breakthrough?
Hotel rooms were where the phone rarely rang: the perfect atmosphere for a writer. After a day in which I exceeded my word quota, I sat in the room and doodled. I sketched. I wrote poetry. There were no laptops, no cell phones. Business writing and creative writing collided in a cyberspace that had not yet been invented. The visual world took over my right brain.

Blanchard garden torso--Prize winning sculpture 2009 001 (2)The time came when the train to the future chugged to a stop: Babette had loved to paint, to mold clay and words into the shapes of clouds and butterflies. The journey back to my childhood destination has been arduous, like the overnight train from Beijing to Xian. I looked out the window at the early dawn and watched a fantasy landscape pass through a cotton-candy cloud that melted at the touch of my tongue.

Now I am walking through the dream I once had: traveling to exotic lands, attending theater and concerts, sculpting and painting. My studio is a place to play, to work, to imagine.

What is your latest work?
Blanchard Cover smA poet-songwriter friend, Virginia Wagner Galfo, spent three years editing my previously published poems. She persuaded me that these poems were my legacy. I Was a College Dropout: the French horn Was My Mistress was recently published. My sculpture by the same name is currently in a 3D show at the Venice Art Center, Florida.

What do you do for fun?
Almost everything I do is for fun! Recently, there was Brecht’s Galileo, Respighi’s Pines of Rome and Verdi’s La Traviata. The porcelain workshop with master potter Ki Woon Huh is hard work—today I spent four hours carving my piece. My hands hurt, I’m tired, but it was fun. Tomorrow I go to my twice-weekly workout at the Y: it’s fun when I finish.

What is your advice to fellow writers?
If you want to write for a living, write nonfiction. It’s helpful to have some credentials and knowledge about what to write. A major in science, for instance, would make it easier to publish in myriad journals and websites.

If you want to write poetry and/or fiction, get a day job. Take lots of notes, keep a journal and don’t worry about writing for a living. Write what comes from the cherry pit in your belly.