Paul Madonna, the well-known San Francisco artist who beautifully illustrated my book A Writer’s San Francisco, was recently seriously injured in a car accident. I am wishing him a very speedy recovery and wanted to share with you a few pieces from that book that he enriched so much.]
I can’t remember the exact house or street. But it was somewhere in the San Francisco neighborhood of Laurel Village. The street sloped uphill from Sacramento Street toward Pacific Heights. Leafy trees shaded the quaint Edwardians and Victorians. Herb Wilner, my thesis advisor, was dying of cancer. Was I coming to his house because he was too ill to meet me at his office at San Francisco State, or did we routinely meet there? I can’t remember.
I do remember that I lit up a cigarette as soon as I arrived. Herb asked me to put it out, because he was having trouble breathing. In those days, I lit up wherever I liked, including in movie theaters. Herb whispered his request. He had always been soft-spoken, but now he had the added burden of illness.
It was another feature of my arrogance never to have considered reading his fiction. I think he had published one novel and one collection of short stories and that their setting was a New York City college, maybe even Brooklyn College, from which I flunked out in 1965. Without having read a single word, I’d concluded that I didn’t respect the fiction of my professors. Since they were academics, they must be writing “academic fiction,” something very different, I suspected, from the fiction of Dostoyevsky and Camus. So, I couldn’t be bothered.
He seemed like a sad man but not an embittered one. No doubt the illness accounted for the sadness. But there was something else, too, something about untapped potential and unrealized dreams. He told me a story that day about how he had accidentally missed a reviewer for the New York Times. His novel had just been published, and a Times reviewer, in possession of the novel but on the fence about reviewing it, had landed in San Francisco for the weekend. Spontaneously, the reviewer had phoned Herb to set up an interview. As the gods of whimsy would have it, Herb was out of town. The interview did not take place, nor did the review.
To have the New York Times not review your novel is one thing. That is terrible but at least not absurd. To have the New York Times not review your novel because you happened to be away for the weekend is both terrible and absurd. It makes you a little crazy and sad in a place that never heals. Herb recounted the story wistfully, as if it had been more a dream than nightmare. But to any writer listening, it had that nightmare quality.
I once knew a fellow in Fresno who ran a small publishing house. He published regional books about the West and the occasional odd something else. One book he published was the memoir of an actress who had spent a season on a hit television show of the seventies. The memoir was doing nicely and could already be counted a success, although, of course, its numbers did not compare to those of national bestsellers.
One Friday morning the publisher went off to a weekend book fair. So that he could concentrate on the fair and get a little break from the day-to-day challenges of hand-selling, he made the conscious decision not to check his phone messages while in Los Angeles. What, after all, were the chances of an important message coming in that Friday afternoon, Saturday, or Sunday? In fact, he had never gotten a book-related message so important that it couldn’t wait a weekend.
Almost as soon as he drove off to Los Angeles, his office phone rang. One of Oprah’s producers called and left a message. Was the actress available for a segment the following week? They wanted to feature her and the book. They were including three actresses from the seventies, and each would have a full twenty minutes of airtime. Since she was the only one with a book to sell, he had better get ready to publish another sizable printing, because he was about to have a national bestseller on his hands.
The publisher listened to the message when he got home Sunday night and dialed the Oprah producer that very instant, etiquette and the time difference be damned. She called him back on Monday. Ah, she said, they had moved on and picked someone else. Sorry. Goodbye. He made his best pitch for another chance—but no soap. That train had left the station.
There is the everyday pain that a writer experiences when she doesn’t manage to write, writes drivel, or hears back from an editor rejecting her work. Then there is the occasional insane pain of an event that seems to have occurred only to mock you, that is proof of the existence of absurd, whimsical, malevolent gods who have targeted you as the object of their fun. How can you write for twenty years and miss the most important opportunity of your writing life because you took a well-earned weekend in the country? The only conclusion is that you are doomed.
So it seems, and so it feels. We must desperately fight the temptation to settle on that conclusion. We must enlist our “inner cognitive therapist” and reframe the matter, lancing the boil with logic, healing the wound with hope. We really don’t dare let a thought like “Missing that reviewer is proof that my life is a farce” remain unchallenged. Designating your life a farce is a bigger tragedy than missing the New York Times book reviewer.
I never have reason to visit Laurel Village, and I rarely think of Herb Wilner anymore. But my mind has wandered his way today. I wish he’d been around that weekend to chat with the reviewer. I wish he’d had a nice New York Times review. And I hope that he’s staked out a beautiful writing spot in heaven.
This Post is republished on Medium.
Photo credit: iStock