Winter 2012, #18


Hanging with a Master

     by Derek Alger

I first met Gordon Weaver in Vancouver, British Columbia, of all places, at an annual writers and writing programs conference, the AWP Conference, where I was supposed to be on a panel giving an overview of his fiction.

Talking on the phone with Gordon - and he’ll always be Gordon to me, not Doctor, or Professor, or Mr. Weaver - before the conference, he in Wisconsin, and I in New Jersey, I joked that maybe he should write my presentation and then it would be correct, free of any amateur missteps. His answer was simple, but gave me a subtle sincere jolt of confidence. "You probably know more about my fictions now than I do," he said.

The year before I had done an interview with Gordon via e-mail and telephone. It turned out to be quite an extensive interview, and through the process of doing that interview, I felt I knew Gordon quite well, felt closer to him than many I encounter each day in my normal pedestrian life.

And his fiction, I had read much of his fiction to prepare for the interview, and Gordon had been responsible for publishing a significant body of work - four novels and nine story collections at the time of the interview, with publication of over 100 stories in various and highly respected literary journals.

So, by virtue of the interview, and a review I was fortunate to have published on Gordon's short story collection, Last Stands, I was off to Vancouver. I was the non-academic, subversive outsider attending the conference for one purpose, to meet Gordon, and to participate on the panel about his fiction, which was advertised on page 10 of the over 230 page AWP program, without making a fool of myself or embarrassing Gordon. I wasn’t sure about not making a fool of myself, but I soon learned that I didn’t have to worry about embarrassing Gordon; he’s a supportive and generous guy, one whom you could definitely count on next to you in a foxhole while the bullets were flying, and from time to time, we have all been subject to a hail of fire from antagonistic forces.

As nervous as I was about attending the conference, my fears were somewhat diminished by what I thought of as a sacred trust Gordon bestowed upon me. I couldn't find a copy of his 1968 novel Count a Lonely Cadence - his first novel which had eventually been made into quite a good film, called Cadence, starring Martin Sheen and Sheen’s son Charlie - anywhere. I tried Amazon, other online sites specializing in rare or used books, but nothing, out of stock or not available, no sign of Count a Lonely Cadence, despite hours of searching all kinds of links on the computer. Gordon came to the rescue. Without hesitation, though he himself only had two copies of this valuable book, Gordon mailed me one with the promise I would return it.

I don’t think I’ve ever read a book so carefully in my life, excessively mindful of guarding against coffee stains or crumpled pages, or stains of any sort, as I read on about Private Bean, a rebellious nineteen-year-old whose father had just died, and his 90-day sentence in an Army stockade. "I didn't even think of it," Gordon said. "It never occurred to me to save more copies.”

So, now I had a copy, and he had one, and though I could have mailed it back to him in Wisconsin, I couldn’t take the chance, I decided that I must deliver it in person to Gordon in Vancouver. I was on a mission, a special mission which had to be accomplished. No matter how insecure I felt about my lack of publishing credentials, or the fact that I hadn't been in a classroom, much less a writing workshop, in over twenty years, it didn't matter, I was going to the annual AWP Conference charged with the protection of a copy of Count a Lonely Cadence, and that was enough to ensure that I would make it there unscathed.
I arrived at the hotel in Vancouver, down the hill from the two hotels, the Hyatt Regency and the Fairmont, where the conference was located, excited, nervous, and curious about what I was about to experience. There were supposed to be about 4,000 people, writers and teachers and publishers, at the conference, and so far I had only met one person before in person, for dinner the year before in New York City, and that was Thomas E. Kennedy, a versatile writer originally from New York City who has lived in Copenhagen for over two decades, and was the one who proposed the panel on Gordon. Other than that, the only other connection I had with anyone was Steve Heller’s cell phone number, which I promptly called upon arrival and a half hour later was joining him and his wife, and a poet colleague of theirs from Antioch Los Angeles University, where Steve is Chair of the Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing, for drinks at the Fairmont Hotel. And that was my start at being accepted in the Gordon circle, for Steve was on the panel, too, and Steve had been a student of Gordon’s in the graduate writing program at Oklahoma State University.

The next morning I walked up the hill to the Hyatt Regency. I was on the second floor, having just officially registered for the conference and picked up my name tag, which I slipped around my neck, making sure the card with my name was under my sweater, when Steve Heller came up and greeted me like we’d known each other for decades. “Gordon’s in the bar," he said.

So, this was it. I was going to meet the man whose writing I admired and who was the reason I was in this hotel surrounded by writers and would be writers, scurrying about with black AWP tote bags with red lettering, and excited, and in some cases, frenzied smiles. I knew what Gordon looked like, was sure I would recognize him, and I was surprised that uncharacteristically, I wasn’t the least bit nervous about meeting him - I already thought of him as a friend, a close friend, even though that may seem ridiculously idealistic.
The bar had two entrances, the inside shaped down and around like a horseshoe. I came through the far door by the courtyard and walked down, cutting across by the bar, checking out tables and booths until I was about to reach the other entrance leading back into the foyer when I spotted Gordon sitting alone with his back against the wall, his long legs stretched out with red Reebok sneakers - bought at a discount - glasses on, reading, a half-downed drink on the circular table before him. I interrupted his concentration, saying his name and then saying mine, as he looked up, with a stern expression, expectant, waiting, until a smile of recognition appeared as he immediately placed my face with the voice which had previously interviewed him over the phone. He instantly stood up, towering above me, shook my hand and invited me to have a seat.

He wasted no time. “We’ll have to find time to discuss your story,” he said. I was surprised, it was unexpected. From reading about Gordon, and also from the settings of some of his stories, I knew he had spent time at a resort on a lake in northern Wisconsin which was similar to one where I stayed all my summers as a child and adolescent in Ontario. I had sent him a story of mine, what I thought was a safe story, one which wouldn't draw too much comment or criticism to show Gordon that I was familiar with summer lake country. When I mailed it, I wasn't even sure it would arrive at Gordon's home before he left on his double flight ordeal to reach Vancouver.

But, not only had the story arrived, but Gordon had taken the time to read it, critique it, actually make line corrections, or maybe suggestions is a better way to put it, and was prepared to discuss it with me.
I knew from his years of teaching that Gordon was almost inevitably able to read a student’s story and refer that student to a story written by a master, whether Hemingway or John Cheever, or maybe even Raymond Carver, to see the similarities in voice or theme, or subject, or intention. He did the same with me. On my short letter to him, which accompanied the story, at the bottom, underneath my name, in his own writing, Gordon had scrawled “Winter Dreams.” And that was the starting point of our discussion, or really Gordon’s helpful commentary, concerning what I had written. Of course it didn’t hurt starting from the premise that my story reminded him of one by F. Scott Fitzgerald.

“I think you have a story there,” he said, “but the ending isn't right." And then, using Fitzgerald's story as an example, he explained why. He wouldn't say whether he liked the story or not, but simply talked to me as a first among equals, and in a no nonsense manner flipped through the story page by page, noting written comments and elaborating on them, all of which, I must confess, made perfect sense.

I spent four full days with Gordon at the conference in Vancouver, and for me, it was like taking a refresher course in creative writing, but with the added advantage of gleaning invaluable insight from Gordon’s ongoing commentary about people and life, and after he’d downed a sufficient number of drinks, his rousing jokes, which were mini-stories in themselves.

The bar on the second floor of the Hyatt Regency, and one specific table in particular, became what I dubbed "the communications center." From ten or so in the morning until ay least early evening, when activities were winding down, Gordon and four or five of his former students, all of whom had gone on to become successful teachers and fiction writers themselves, could be found. What was particularly gratifying, and speaks to the character of Gordon as a teacher and a person, was that he and all his cohorts accepted me as one of them from the first hello and handshake. I had arrived as an isolated outsider and within a day, I had made some friends whom I suspect will be friends for years to come.
Since society has changed, and smoking is frowned on at the minimum, and prohibited in so many public places, Gordon and I, who both smoke, though we know we shouldn't, engaged in many one on one conversations as we stepped outside of hotels, restaurants, and bars, lighting up. This perhaps was probably my most valuable time spent with Gordon, and I think a closeness and mutual respect developed between us, especially when I think back to how refreshingly frank he was in so much of what he said. There was no pretense about the man - like most of us, he may not have always been comfortable with whom he was, but he had no qualms about expressing his beliefs, which were centered, grounded, and based on the reality of human behavior and day-to-day living.

At one point, after pondering a while, he shared a revelation with me. “Can you explain something to me?" I nodded, pleased that he would seek out my opinion on anything. “Writing is a solitary activity,” he said. “And reading is also a solitary activity. So, if we are indeed writers engaged in the solitary activity of reading and writing, what are all these people doing running around here?” I didn’t have an answer, except to say that I wanted to go home and write, which he agreed was a sensible conclusion, and so it was, and I returned at the end of the conference to my apartment in New Jersey and these are the words that sprang forth, though I wish I could step outside and have a smoke with Gordon and learn more about whatever he chose to impart.