Mavis Gallant’s agent was a crook

The reason Gallant was a starving writer in Spain was that payments for several stories in the New Yorker were kept by her agent, Jacques Chambrun. She wasn’t the only client he robbed. This entry in the New Yorker blog, describes Chambrun’s larcenous career including his embezzlement of $30,000 from W. Somerset Maugham.

There is a moral to this story, I guess, for those of us pining for an agent.

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It is a question of writing or not writing. There is no other way.

The July 9 & 16 issue of the New Yorker has a selection of Mavis Gallant’s wonderful journal entries from her days as a starving writer in Spain. Unfortunately, I can’t provide a link to the article, since they’ll only show it online to subscribers. It’s worth getting hold of a copy. Gallant was living in Spain in 1952, and the whole country was poor along with her. At one low point, she was reduced to pawning her typewriter and living on potatoes. Her response to her plight, as recorded in her journal is matter-of-fact and fearless. The words are a wonderful tonic against writer’s despair.

I am not pitying myself, because I chose it. Evidently this is the way it has to be. I am committed. It is a question of writing or not writing. There is no other way. If there is, I missed it.

She describes buying a ticket to the movies instead of food. “Chose cinema over potatoes.” she writes. And she explains that when you are desperately poor, you don’t want to see more poor people in the film; you want to see the rich, their clothes their jewels, their homes. A silly plot twist has one of the characters, dressing in rags and pretending to be poor. Gallant writes that she was “…furious and felt cheated, having chosen this over a meal.”

This is great stuff, and one is naturally reminded of others writing about being down and out in Europe. Hemingway and Henry Miller come to mind, of course. But after reading Gallant their stuff seems self-congratulatory and tinged with adolescent male braggadocio. Gallant comes a lot closer to expressing the real courage it takes to bet everything on your art and just “keep on writing”.

I have to include a longer quote that illustrates her powers of observation and a deceptively simple style that gave me chills when I read this journal entry.

Today from the balcony I see a blind man tapping his way along the buildings across the street. He reaches a street crossing; everyone watches, silent, and lets him walk full on into the side of a building. When he has recovered (for a moment he was like a butterfly beating its wings in a box) the spectators just walk away. Pure detached curiosity: “What happens when a blind man collides with a wall?” Then, “Only that?”

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“a New York lament”

If you stay at the Hilton Millenium Hotel in lower Manhattan, and you get a room pretty high up, say above the 25thfloor, facing west, towards New Jersey, you can look right down on the 9/11 Memorial and into the twin black reflecting pools where the towers once stood. 

Looking down on 9/11 Memorial from 25th floor of Millennium Hilton

Looking down on 9/11 Memorial from 25th floor of Millennium Hilton

The area is still largely a construction site.  The streets are torn up, and three future skyscrapers, World Trade Center 2, 3 and 4, are just shells of concrete and rebar. But the grandest of them all, World Trade Center 1, or Freedom Tower,  is near completion.  It is a brutally beautiful building, although beautiful isn’t quite the word.  I guess it’s too big and sleek and alien to be beautiful, at least in the human-scale, everyday meaning of the word.   While it isn’t the tallest in the world, it is still very tall, and, as of right now, it is the most expensive ever built.

Irish Hunger Memorial

Irish Hunger Memorial

There is another memorial nearby, over in Battery Park, right by the Hudson.  It is a smaller remembrance of a much bigger tragedy – the death of a million Irish from hunger between 1845 and 1852.  Simon Schama calls the Irish Hunger Memorial a “New York lament”.  It looks as if a giant had scooped up an acre of the Irish countryside, houses, fields, stone  fences and all, and placed it precariously on a stone pedestal where it sits balanced, on the verge of slipping off and falling to earth.

Schama wrote in the New Yorker about the memorial on the occasion of its opening in 2002, when the nearby scars of the 9/11 attack were still fresh.

…an urban tumulus—in this case, a cantilevered platform of verdure supported by a concrete base. Into this micro-landscape, planted with species native to Mayo (one of the hardest hit of the western counties) and strewn with fieldstones engraved with the names of all the counties of Ireland, is packed the memory of the calamity.

Abandoned farmer's cottage from Ireland, re-assembled at Hunger Memorial

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I’m being stalked by an internet criminal mastermind!!

I just got my first Facebook scam message.  It came from a guy who calls himself James Koku.   I think it’s a scam, but maybe it’s a parody of a scam.  It is so poorly written I can’t imagine who would be dumb enough to fall for it.

“My name is James Koku, an attorney to Late Engr.G. Specht, who share the same last name with you and of the same nationality with you, who passed away on the 11th of June 2009. He have the sum of Four million two hundred thousand dollars in his account. If you are intrested get back to me for More details.”

Poor James Koku, he doesn’t even know how to use spell check and he has real trouble with English grammar and capital letters.  I looked at his Facebook page. He only has one friend, Robert Alderson.  I wonder if Mr. Alderson knows that his friend is a cyber swindler.

This reminds me, I recently read a wonderful novel about Nigerian internet scam artists, I do not come to you by chance.  It was written by a young Nigerian woman,  Adaobi Tricia Nwaubani.  I couldn’t help admiring some of the scammers in the book, although not the suckers.

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Going to get our freedom

I was in Birmingham, Alabama last month. First time I was ever in the state. I surprised myself at how strongly I was affected by visiting the city’s old civil rights battlegrounds. Standing in the Sixth Street Baptist Church where the four little girls died in a terrorist bomb blast and walking in the park, right there by the church where Bull Conner and his dogs and fire hoses waited for the marchers, delivered a powerful shot of spiritual adrenaline to the soul of this despairing middle-aged progressive.

Kelly Ingram Park

Reminder of Bull Conner's Dogs - Kelly Ingram Park

The Birmingham Civil Rights Institute has gone up across from the park since those bad old days. When I talked to the people that work there and visited their museum, I began to understand why Birmingham had affected me so. It speaks of a time when the movement for justice in this country was in ascendance. I imagine that King and the other civil rights leaders and activists who engaged in that struggle were not certain back then that their cause would prevail, but it did prevail and in retrospect we can see that Americans were watching what was happening in Birmingham and it changed enough of them to end legal segregation.

In honor of the hundreds of students, some as young as eight, jailed during the Children's March

In honor of the hundreds of students, some as young as eight, jailed during the Children's March

In the museum, I watched a film interview of a Freedom Rider who had been nearly killed by a white mob. He spoke of the power of non-violent resistance and his willingness to die if necessary to end segregation. And I heard a black woman explaining her emotions back in ’63 when she joined the Children’s March. She and her classmates were going to jail, she explained, “to get our freedom”.


The movement for justice is not in ascendance in America now. Money has locked up our political system, and it’s a different kind of struggle, but the time I spent in Birmingham revived my faith that we’ll overcome this time too.

Sixteenth Street Baptist Church

Sixteenth Street Baptist Church

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Trivial times demand trivial writers

Richard Brautigan was a big deal writer in the 1960s. He sold a lot of books, had a bunch of lovers and, according to a NYT review, got to hang out, get drunk and shoot guns with writers like Jim Harrison and Thomas McGuane. I had forgotten the guy even existed until I was reminded by the appearance of surely the definitive biography on this poster child for 1960s whimsy. Jubilee Hitchhiker, by William Hjortsberg, is 852 pages long. As I recall, Brautigan’s books had the decency to be short, short enough that I usually was able to finish one before the excessive sweetness became intolerable. Smoking dope made them a lot better.

This quote from his Trout Fishing in America, gives an idea of the level of whimsy the guy practiced: “He created his own Kool Aid reality and was able to illuminate himself by it.” I would quote more, but you would hate me for it. The Times review includes a nasty but insightful summing up of Brautigan’s work from poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti. “I guess Richard was all the novelist the hippies needed. It was a non-literate age.”

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Death and the cartoonist

R. Crumb on death, as quoted in the New York Times, Saturday April 24, 2012 –
“Death? Afraid of death?” he said. “When you get older, you dry up. You die. That’s it.” He added: “I’ve lived my life. I’ve lived it out. I’ve left my mark. I’ve had great sex. I got a great record collection.”

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Is anybody there?

Most of my experiences with literary magazines have not been positive. I understand that editors are swamped. I just wish they would come clean about their limitations.

What story?

You’ve all heard an editor swear passionately that he or she or a trusted assistant reads every submission that comes across their desk, that, by God, they prefer unsolicited manuscripts over the slick stuff their MFA teacher buddies slip them. The first time I heard this was from the editor of The Gettysburg Review. It was at the tail-end of a writer’s conference sponsored by the magazine, and he gave us all a pitch about how he really wanted to see our stuff.

So I sent a story, pointing out in the cover letter that I had heard him speak while I was attending his writer’s conference, and how I knew he wanted to see stuff from new writers. Then I waited – three, four months and nothing. So I sent a letter asking what was up with my story. Again, no response. I’m not saying I think they ignored both the submission and the follow-up letter. It may very well have been that when the poor, harried editor or one of his harried assistants saw my letter and realized there was no way to locate the story to which I was referring, they were simply too embarrassed to write back.

More recently, the staff at Crazy Horse subjected me to an irritating trial by incompetence. At the end of an anonymous note rejecting a story because “it wasn’t quite right” for them, the writer asked if I had any other stories I could send. I immediately fired off another story and my cover referenced their request to see more of my work. No response, nothing. I never even got a form rejection on this story. Follow-up communications were also totally ignored. I’m sure the person who wrote that brief message had good intentions, and I’m sure the impulse was forgotten within minutes after it was acted on.

A fiery end to your deathless prose

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South Africa remembers the struggle against Apartheid


Live, painted and mirrored figures at entrance to Apartheid Museum

Those who are passionate about politics will find South Africa’s museums as exciting as its game reserves. There are two that I visit every time I’m in the country – the Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg, big, architecturally daring, emotionally overwhelming; and the District Six Museum in Cape Town, small, intimate, focusing on just one neighborhood obliterated in the 60s and 70s by the Apartheid laws.

The Apartheid Museum can be exhausting, the scope of the story spanning centuries and virtually the entire world. District Six Museum is comfortable, homey if melancholy. You would want to live in District Six if you were somehow transported to South Africa in the 40s or 50s, whatever your race or religion. Christian, Muslim, Jew, it didn’t matter.

My Pigeons Come Home

Writers Room - District Six Museum. Writers mourn the loss of a community to racism.

To the architects of Apartheid, that nasty, Rube Goldbergesque and uniquely South African system of racial separation, District Six was an abomination. The races were living together, even having sex, and you could listen to jazz and smoke marijuana! The place had to go. In 1968 it was declared a white area and the bulldozing of houses and forced removals began.

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Unsolicited submissions

I haven’t submitted a story to a literary magazine for at least a year. Yet I enter contests sponsored by those same magazines all the time. The reason is simple – I believe the odds are much higher that someone will actually read my story, when it’s accompanied by a check. I’m sure that the editors and staff at these magazines want to read every submission that comes to them, but they are swamped.


I'm sure we have your story in here somewhere

In my mind’s eye, I can track the progress of my story as it drops into Somebody’s inbox along with 25 or 50 others, and Somebody doesn’t recognize my name, and my story ends up in a virtual or literal heap of fellow orphans until Somebody accidently hits the delete button or the pile of ancient unopened envelopes is finally declared a fire hazard and carted off to the city dump.

I’m not saying that an unsolicited story is never considered by a literary journal. One of my rare successes came at the hands of a guest editor, Edie Meidav, at Fifth Wednesday. She read my unsolicited story, liked it, took the time to suggest some very smart edits, and published it. In my experience, however, something like this happens only every decade or so.

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