“Hi,” I said, laughing out loud, “and I’m Virginia Woolf!”
I always try to keep a bottle of champagne in the fridge just in case there should suddenly arrive a day worth celebrating. Finishing a book, for instance that’s worth celebrating (although “finish” turns out to be a relative term; I have “finished” the same book many times over.) Selling the book to a publisher! Celebrate. The arrival of the contract. The arrival of the advance. The arrival of the ARCs or bound galleys. The actual first copy to hold in your hand, proof that at last your amorphous idea has become actual artifact. Celebrate!
So I was prepared last week when the University of New Mexico Press sent me this picture the brand new Memory into Memoir in the window of the Harvard Book Store. I’m told the book will remain there till November 7th. Like a member of a renowned choir, Memory into Memoir glows among fine company. This photo sparked for me the memory of my 1998 interview at Harvard for the position of the Briggs Copeland Lectureship, one of four finalists.
I pictured Helen Vendler in her study, surrounded by ten thousand books, nine hundred of which she had written
I saw the Briggs Copeland Lectureship (basically Writer in Residence for a finite four years) advertised on a national job-listing subscription. I trotted out the usual letter I used in my yearly rash of applications. (Rash is the correct word.) In support of my candidacy I sent my brand new novel, Caveat, the best novel I had ever published (probably still true). Taut, intense, uniquely structured, thematically ambitious, full of character and rich with voice, Caveat is a novel of rain, greed and revenge in Southern California. I assumed the book basically was a donation to Widener Library; I didn’t have a chance at the job.
A few months later my youngest son called down the basement stairs where I was sorting through a pile of dirty clothes. He said the phone was for me. I picked up the extension and the voice said, “This is Helen Vendler calling,”
“Hi,” I said, laughing out loud, “and I’m Virginia Woolf!” But even as these words crossed my lips, I thought, yes I have a lot of literary friends, but why would someone say Helen Vendler?
And then Helen Vendler, the world-renowned literary critic said something about an interview at Harvard University and the Briggs Copeland Lectureship.
I pictured Helen in her study, surrounded by ten thousand books, nine hundred of which she had written. I dropped the dirty shirt in my hand.
I could belong here kept chiming in my head
A few weeks later I flew to Boston and thence made my way to Cambridge where the Harvard English Department put me up in a fine hotel adjacent to, maybe even on the grounds of, the university. The charming, bright yellow Longfellow House stood nearby with its 19th century air of prim, academic contentment. I looked at it longingly, and thought, I could be here; I could belong here.
The interview was the very next morning. I had been gnashing with anxiety for weeks. How to portray myself? Solemn? World-weary? Lively? Energetic. Oh, but not too energetic… on and on. I walked to the English department on that fine, crisp early-winter morning, and climbed the paneled stairs. I could belong here kept chiming in my head as I met with Ms. Vendler, with the John P. Marquand Professor of English, Laurence Buell, and the poet, Jorie Graham. The air, shall we say, was thick with poets—poets, not simply present, but past since both Ms. Vendler and Mr. Buell had literally Written the Book on famous poets. Oh, and Seamus Heaney was probably teaching a class down the hall at that very moment. I could belong here.
“I bet I am the first girl from St. Elmo California ever to sit in this room.”
We met in a large seminar room paneled in rich wood with high windows splashing pale sunshine across the intricate, antique carpet. They introduced themselves (as if they needed introductions) and served coffee in china cups with the Harvard insignia. I kept thinking of my character, Rica Benn in the novella Dark Continent. In 1910 Rica is a guest at a dinner party at some lordly English manor. She remarks wistfully to crusty old Sir Rupert seated beside her, “I bet I am the first girl from St. Elmo California ever to sit in this room.” (To which her unimpressed companion replies, “A dubious honor, madam.”)
On these hallowed Harvard walls hung heavy-framed portraits of past worthies, among them Mr. Briggs and Mr. Copeland. I know this because although I was too nervous to remember anything at all about my hour long conversation with the legendary Helen Vendler, and Ms. Graham (fresh from the pages of the New Yorker) and Mr. Buell, who might as well have been personal friends with Longfellow and Thoreau, at the end they asked: Did I have any questions for them?
Are there special chants, incantations I can drone? Or particular saints to pray to, lesser gods, perhaps? Are there smoky sacrifices needed to get this job? “Who were Briggs and Copeland?” I asked.
Ms. Vendler pointed to their portraits on the walls. She said that Briggs and Copeland had created this Lectureship to bring to the Harvard English department writers who might be the equivalent of “a bit of fresh air.” In short, someone who did not Be and Belong Here. That such a person might have some fresh perspectives for a four year appointment. I had fresh perspective radiating from my very eyeballs, I assured them on my way out.
O! To be part of a place where the past was present!
I walked all over campus afterwards, in high spirits. I felt like I was in a movie, confident I had struck the right notes in the interview. Next year I could belong here. I could have an office in the very building I had just left! Down the hall from Helen Vendler! Access to all the Harvard libraries and all their collections! (The thought made me giddy.) I could write letters on their lovely embossed stationery! O! To be part of a place where the past was present!
To be and belong to such a place, was a sort of girlhood dream. From the time I was a kid, I loved history, especially the 18th and 19th centuries. I loved historical fiction. I envied people who lived in houses with attics, who came from families with knowable pasts and deep roots with ancestors. For me, such a past could only be imagined. I had grown up in a neighborhood of tract houses, so raw, so recently replacing ripped-up alfalfa fields, so dry, that tumbleweeds still blew down the street in winter. Our public library was a storefront next to the Mode O Day dress shop. My high school classes met in uninsulated bungalows where the smog and heat rolled in, and all but sat down beside us. The university I attended was so new that the gray, block-like postwar buildings were set about with frail little trees staked with wires. And here I am! A Woman of the West, with the prospects of being and belonging at Harvard! Sashaying past the Widener Library among all these, smart, milling strangers who might be my students or colleagues. The future gleamed.
I don’t know who they hired. It wasn’t me.
I walked all over Cambridge that afternoon, loving the ambience that reminded me of Berkeley, a place that bristled with young people and ideas and high spirits. In the Harvard Bookstore I dropped a bunch of money. So much money on so many books that I had to have them shipped to my home in Washington. I also bought Harvard tee shirts for my entire tribe, though some inward voice whispered, If you don’t get the job, these might make you feel bad every time you…
I don’t know who they hired. It wasn’t me. Wasted anxiety, but not wasted effort. Before I met my dear friend Paola Rizzoli for dinner that night, Destiny’s Consolation Prize led me to one of those shops that time forgot, a funky, dusty, dim-lit used record store. My fave sort of place. I pawed among the musty bins of old LPs, and behold! Among other treasures, for $2.99 I found the soundtrack to The Yellow Rolls Royce. A long-forgotten film, perhaps but wonderful music by Riz Ortolani, especially its award winning “Forget Domani,” a song I had been humming for years because I didn’t know the lyrics, a song that roughly translates, forget tomorrow, “…let’s live for now, and anyhow, who needs domani?…”
I hand-carried The Yellow Rolls Royce home to Washington in case my luggage got lost. I put the LP on the turntable as soon as I came in the door. My youngest son smiled to hear it.
In 1998 not one of my novels or story collections was on the shelf at the Harvard Bookstore. I would have remembered. I would have offered to sign them. Ah well, one of my books is there now. On the shelf, and shining in the window, Memory into Memoir. And with these few thoughts, written here, I have accomplished just that.
Paint Creek Press will reissue the novel Caveat in 2022. Memory into Memoir is available wherever books are sold, including Harvard.