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By Lisa Bubert
When asked to picture a writer’s life, many people envision a cliché: someone holed up alone in a cabin in the woods, writing longhand on a yellow notepad, until they emerge months later with the next Great American Novel™. The coffee forever on brew; the cigarettes overflowing in the ashtray. Cliché or not, I’ve always been a sucker for this image.
Who wouldn’t want to live a life of eccentric glamour where all you need to be a tortured genius is a pen, a notepad, and a complete disregard for time? Where you can lean into all of your weird idiosyncrasies that are probably a sign of poor mental health but that you insist are crucial to the creative process? Where you can reasonably tell your loved ones not to disturb you because you are daydreaming and they actually respect your daydreams as having literary merit?
It’s a strange thing to be a writer, to argue with yourself about the way things are and should be, and committing those arguments to paper for others to read. It requires a level of self-awareness shaped by tireless observation of the world, and an internal dialogue picking that same world apart. The best writers out there, with the most recognizable voices and distinct styles, are writers who know exactly who they are: their flaws, their strengths, and most importantly, their oddities.
Which is why I live for a good writer profile. Give me the weird tics, the turns of phrase, the strange beginnings. Give me the writer in their natural habitat. Give me that artistic magic, the writer as myth. Let me never forget that the voice is hard-won and earned through a commitment to self as art.
The Yellow Trolley Car in Barcelona, and Other Visions (William Kennedy, The Atlantic, January 1973)
A great literary profile is one that captures the subject both in setting and in voice. The profile feels embodied, as though the subject has written it themselves from the outside looking in. This one from William Kennedy captures everything that is Gabriel García Márquez; the debonair aloofness; a sense of humor that feels like an extended inside joke; long paragraphs of description and scene-setting that tell a whole story within a story; perfectly-placed single lines of dialogue that tie everything up in a beautiful literary bow; and, along with all that, wickedly funny lines aplenty.
This piece is a blast from The Atlantic‘s archival past — originally published when Márquez had just released One Hundred Years of Solitude to great acclaim but was yet to realize the literary success that would be Love in the Time of Cholera. A time capsule at its best.
It was in January, 1965, while driving from Mexico City to Acapulco, that he envisioned the first chapter of the book that was to become Cien Años. He later told an Argentinian writer that if he’d had a tape recorder, he could have dictated the entire chapter on the spot. He then went home and told Mercedes: Don’t bother me, especially don’t bother me about money. And he went to work at the desk he called the Cave of the Mafia, in a house at number 6 Calle de La Loma, Mexico City, and working eight to ten hours a day for eighteen months, he wrote the novel.
How Hank The Cowdog Made John R. Erickson King of the Canine Canon (Christian Wallace, Texas Monthly, March 2021)
Having grown up on a ranch in rural Texas, I couldn’t not be in love with Hank the Cowdog. There are two formative books I remember from my childhood: Joe Hayes’ adaptation of the La Llorona folktale, and John R. Erickson’s Hank the Cowdog series. La Llorona taught me that there can be ghosts and magic in all stories; Hank taught me that even a little cowdog from Texas belonged in literature. (And that we cowboy types are funnier than most.)
This profile covers all the bases. It has all the Easter eggs Hank-ophiles have come to appreciate, like the 1980s picture of Erickson looking eerily like Slim Chance, the opening with Erickson face to face with a Western Diamondback, and the picture of Rosie, Erickson’s brown and bushy-tailed cowdog who looks an awful lot like another cowdog we know. The writer, Christian Wallace, perfectly captures the panhandle voice with its off-kilter lilt and understated humor — which in turn perfectly captures John R. Erickson, a panhandle cowboy who holds true to who he is, come hell or high water.
(I once met John R. Erickson at a Texas Library Conference. I was so excited and verklempt at the sight of him when I shakily asked for an autograph that he signed it and sent me away without charging me, just to get me out of his booth. A truer cowboy there never was.)
Erickson rose early this morning, as he has almost every day for 54 years, to write, or, as he likes to say, “to pull the plow.” At 5:30 a.m. he made the short drive from his house to the one-room cabin that he uses as an office. His headlights shone in the predawn dark, and his two dogs—Rosie, a red heeler bounding with energy, and Daisy, a sweet yellow Lab with an age-stiffened gait—picked their way through tall grass and burned-out cedars alongside the pickup. At the cabin, Erickson made some coffee. Then he got to work.
Some mornings, “work” might mean scribbling replies to fan mail—piles of it—at the folding table that serves as his desk. Other days, he might jot some notes in his journal. But more often than not, he spends the next four or five hours sunk deep into a faded, dust-covered armchair, pecking at the keyboard of his laptop. He works on articles for livestock journals, essays for various websites, and nonfiction books about ranching, cowboying, Texas history, wildfires, and Panhandle archaeology. And twice a year, as the sun eases over the eastern rim of Picket Canyon, Erickson types these words: “It’s me again, Hank the Cowdog.”
She Changed Black Literature Forever. Then She Disappeared (Imani Perry, New York Times Magazine, September 2021)
I love a literary recluse almost as much as I love a good literary profile. It is a romantic notion, the idea of a writer who has nothing to offer the world but their words. And words are all we will get from Gayl Jones.
It’s no surprise if Jones’ name is not as familiar to you as other writers with such acclaim to their work. Perry describes her as “transformative,” a writer handpicked for publication by Toni Morrison herself, then editor at Random House. Her work utterly changed the face of Black women’s literature. But with that transformation came the spotlight, and a sense of public entitlement to know everything about Jones, to peek into her life no matter how much she would have preferred otherwise — an impulse to create a mythical story about the writer that was based partly in truth and mostly in assumption. Perry handles all of this with care, calling us out on our assumptions before we even realize we’ve made them, making her the correct choice to write about such a guarded subject.
Jones’s novels have, from the beginning, cracked open something new in African American literature. Tasked with explaining how and why, without a glimpse or an interview, I sought an alternative. It was second nature to me. I’m a scholar and a writer. I work in archives. So I dug into Jones’s words, gathered from dozens of scattered sources. And there I found her, in cached papers like those of William Meredith, her mentor and friend at Connecticut College; of her Random House editor, Toni Morrison, at Princeton University. I sought out the poems, stories and essays she published in numerous small Black literary journals, the handful of interviews with cherished interlocutors (and some who raised her ire), as well as works she published abroad or by herself over the years. I also looked for her influence, a soul-searching exercise — because she has shaped me as a writer — as well as an exploratory one with my peers who agree that she is a writer’s writer, and more than that, a Black woman’s writer.
Smart Tartt (James Kaplan, Vanity Fair, September 1999)
Remember how I love a literary recluse? Well, Donna Tartt is another that fits the mold, with the added benefit of some Fran Lebowitz-styled fashion where the outfits are androgynous and the signature hair never changes. I may not be a huge fan of Tartt’s prose, but I have to admire her style and commitment to character.
This profile is doubly interesting in that it’s a look at Donna Tartt before she was Donna Tartt. Even from the first line, Kaplan knows he’s dealing with a strange new literary star: “Donna Tartt, who is going to be very famous very soon — conceivably the moment you read this — also happens to be exceedingly small.” From there, it’s all you would expect from a writer hailing from small-town Mississippi who happens to write like the epitome of a highbrow East Coast WASP. I blame Bennington, clearly.
Donna Tartt has her own secret history. Her childhood in Grenada should not, must not, be talked about. Bennington places, but no Bennington people, may be associated with her book. McGloin may not be spoken to. The novel itself is a thicket of literary references and inside jokes: the narrator’s surname is the same as that of the Weimar Republic chancellor who knuckled under to the Nazis; Bunny, whose real name is Edmund, has the same nickname as literary critic Edmund Wilson. The hotel where Henry and Camilla go off together, the Albemarle, has the same name as the English Channel hotel where T. S. Eliot, recuperating from a nervous breakdown, revised “The Waste Land.” What does this mean? Perhaps we shouldn’t overinterpret—but then, maybe we shouldn’t under interpret, either. When, pleased with my discovery, I point out the Albemarle correspondence to Tartt, she grows chilly. “I have nothing to say about that,” she says.
The Radical Woman Behind ‘Goodnight Moon’ (Anna Holmes, The New Yorker, January 2022)
As a children’s librarian, I know firsthand the depth of artistry and control of language it takes to write a picture book for children. I also know first-hand how often that artistry and ability is tossed aside by writers who mistakenly believe that picture books must be simple to write. Picture books are high art. And no one understood that better than Margaret Brown, author of the incomparable Goodnight Moon.
I love this article not just because it does justice to picture book writers everywhere (and to Brown as a poet with a keen sense of how a child sees the world), but because it dispels the myth of picture book writing as “women’s work,” or as something only suitable for shy, quiet, child-friendly rule-followers. Margaret Brown was anything but. In fact, she was a queer rebel who blew right through expectations to create children’s literature still relevant today. She also happens to have had a feud with the most powerful children’s librarian of her time that lasted decades after both of their deaths — and this article has the tea. #TeamMargaret.
Brown was most taken by the idea of writing for five-year-olds. “At five we reach a point not to be achieved again,” she once wrote in a notebook. In a paper on the topic, she argued that a child of that age enjoys a “keenness and awareness” that will likely be subdued out of him later in life. She went on, “Here, perhaps, is the stage of rhyme and reason. . . . ‘Big as the whole world,’ ‘Deep as a giant,’ ‘Quiet as electricity rushing about the world,’ ‘Quiet as mud.’ All these are five-year-old similes. Let the grown-up writer for children equal or better them if he can.”
Lisa Bubert is a writer and librarian based in Nashville, Tennessee. Her work has appeared in The Rumpus, Texas Highways, Washington Square Review, and more.
Editor: Carolyn Wells
Copy Editor: Peter Rubin
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