August 20, 2004

Richard Yates

I’ve written five novels. Working on my sixth. The first novel was a deliberate rip-off of my favorite writer, then and probably now, Richard Yates--namely, The Easter Parade. I picked up a copy of his stories, Eleven Kinds of Loneliness, off my parents’ bookshelf. Eighteen years old and lonely, the title spoke to me.

I get perplexed and even offended when people describe Richard Yates’ writing as spare. I think Richard Ford said something like this in a recent introduction to his stories. The man knew everything that was going on with a person’s mind, hands, and body. It can be brutal at times--showing how fragile and hysterical people can be. It was no wonder Yates was an alcoholic. To him every conversation must have seemed like a symphony of nerves and repression. He needed to drink to drown out all those voices. It’s not surprising that he looks like Zeus in his photographs. Though he looked more and more gaunt as time went on. He was a chronic smoker as well. I think he died of emphysema. Actually, he died as I was writing him a fan letter--the first and only time I’ve done that.

It’s common for a first effort to steal from another writer. In fact, it’s necessary. I found out that I could put 200 or so pages together, and I liked doing it. My father is a writer as well, a screenwriter and a novelist. Throughout high school: punk rock, alienated, thinking about killing myself, but not ambitious enough to do it--I rebelled against my father, which meant rebelling against books and writing.

Picking up Yates was what broke me of the adolescent spell. Jesus Christ, I thought. If this is possible with fiction then, you know, this is what I want to do. It was the most honest writing I had ever seen. Reading Yates was my epiphany.

The novel I wrote, called "Camera Shy," was about two women, sisters--one a blue-collar wife, the other a semi-professional Manhattan type. They were basically Yates’ Grimes sisters. When I finished the novel, I was riding high and proud. I had dinner with some girl--this was in college--and told her the plot. She replied, "Oh, so it’s about hysterical women." A stupidly PC moment. I have an unreliable memory but this sentence has stuck with me.

Yates was cursed by the fact that his first novel was his best, Revolutionary Road. I am still waiting to be as good as him. I dream of having his objectivity.


Anonymous said...

i've always wanted ot be a writer, i believe i can write well. i wrote a story once that every time i read, it makes me cry & i can't believe i could put such words onto paper. but, we all have talents, & if i only have that one talent, it's wasted on me. how could i ever become a writer. no-one praises me. my parents don't agree with it being a "real profession". who knows who to please anymore.

xo. war.

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