Dawn Reader

Dawn Reader
from Open Door Coffee Co.; Hudson, OH; Oct. 26, 2016

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Hanging out with Jay Parini

Writer Jay Parini spent the day on the WRA campus yesterday--and had dinner the night before with the WRA English Department (active members + one ... uh ...  retiree).  Parini is a novelist (The Last Station, about the death of Tolstoy, was a fine film with Christopher Plummer a couple of years ago; his novel about Melville, The Passages of H. M., which I really liked, is at the pre-production stage of a film), a poet, a screenwriter, a biographer (Steinbeck, Frost, Faulkner, and--forthcoming as an Amazon e-book--Jesus), a critic (he reviews regularly), an essayist, a professor (Middlebury).  He makes me feel downright lazy!  A sluggard!  Oh, and he's a husband and father, too (his youngest is now a junior in high school).

He's just one of those extraordinarily productive people--and I'm getting an idea for an essay!  Or book!  (But I'm too lazy to write it.)

I'd approached him last year about coming to WRA--before I'd decided to retire.  I'd planned to teach the Melville novel with my students.  I've done that the past decade--have my students read something brand new and invite to campus the author--visits supported wonderfully by the parents' organizations, especially the Pioneer Women.

But it didn't work out.  I retired.  A colleague, Jeannie Kidera, took on the heavy lifting of making specific arrangements, etc.

And on Thursday night he arrived.

We met for dinner at a local restaurant, and everyone seemed to like him a lot.  He was totally unpretentious--though, obviously, he lives in a world we do not occupy--knows Hollywood stars, literary legends (he's Gore Vidal's literary executor) and the like.  He told a great story about meeting Vidal in Italy when he (Parini) was a young man.  He'd gotten the word to Vidal that he'd like to meet him; that night GV pounded on his door--invited him to a meal!  (That hasn't happened to me recently ...)  Vidal, by the way, is not doing well, medically ... sad news for long-time fans like me.  (My middle-schoolers used to read his Visit to a Small Planet.)  Coincidentally, on Broadway right now is a revival of Vidal's political play The Best Man.

On Friday, I went up to school (wearing a tie for the first time since last year's commencement!) and heard him read a few poems and have a brief Q&A in the Chapel.  The students laughed a lot, especially when he told them that his favorite day in church as a boy was when the missionaries would come and show their slides of naked natives.

Later, I picked him up after lunch and walked down to Caribou to chat about common interests--including the novels of Anthony Trollope (about whom I'm going to chat with the WRA community on May 4).  We stopped at my house afterwards, briefly, so that he could sign a bunch of books for me (ever the mercenary, I).

After school was a reception at Wilson Hall--a number of students and faculty stopped by to chat one more time ere Sasha, a colleague, whisked him off to the airport.

I've loved these personal encounters with writers.  A quick (inaccurate?) list: Ursula K. Le Guin, Lee Smith (both via teleconference), Matthew Pearl, Tobias Wolff, Sharon Olds, Robert Sullivan, Brock Clarke, Dan Chaon, Brian Hall, Jay Parini.

I experienced nothing like it as a student (Hawthorne did not sit in my classroom and discuss snotty little Pearl).  But can you imagine?  Reading a book, then sitting in a classroom with him/her and asking whatever you want?  "Mr. Faulkner, why do you drink so much?"  "Ms. Millay, is it true that you're promiscuous?  And if you are, what are you doing after class?"

And: "Mr. Shakespeare, what were you smoking?"

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