Oct. 19, 2010


by Ronald Wallace

Just once, you say,
you'd like to see
an obituary in which
the deceased didn't succumb
after "a heroic struggle" with cancer,
or heart disease, or Alzheimer's, or
whatever it was
that finally took him down.
Just once, you say,
couldn't the obit read:
He got sick and quit.
He gave up the ghost.
He put up no fight at all.
Rolled over. Bailed out.
Got out while the getting was good.
Excused himself from life's feast.

You're making a joke and
I laugh, though you can't know
I'm considering exactly that:
no radical prostatectomy for me,
no matter what General Practitioner
and Major Oncologist may say.
I think, let that walnut-sized
pipsqueak have its way with me,
that pebble in cancer's slingshot
that brings dim Goliath down.
So, old friend, before I go
and take all the wide world with me,
I want you to know
I picked up the tip.
I skipped the main course,
I'm here in the punch line.
Old friend, the joke's on me.

"Obituary" by Ronald Wallace, from For a Limited Time Only. © University of Pittsburgh Press, 2008. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It's the birthday of the spy novelist who writes under the name John le Carré, (books by this author) born David Cornwell in Poole, England (1931). His father was a con man who made money from fraudulent real estate deals and was constantly in and out of prison. He was raised mostly by his father's various girlfriends, ran away from home at 16, bluffed his way into college, and then joined the British secret service. He thought it would be exciting but he said that it was "spectacularly undramatic." So he decided to entertain himself by writing novels. To keep his identity secret, he chose the pen name John le Carré. He said, "I wanted something three-syllabled and exotic." Spy novels at the time were full of sexy daring heroes, but le Carré created a new kind of spy novel about spies who are tired, lonely men, and who don't trust their own government any more than they trust their enemies.

Le Carré's third novel, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1963), was so successful that he quit his job as a spy and began to write full time, but he has continued to use things he learned from spying in order to write his books. To do research, he often travels alone to various cities, checks into cheap hotels, and carries out surveillance, interviewing the local police and politicians without ever disclosing that he's actually just a novelist.

It's the birthday of Tracy Chevalier, (books by this author) born in Washington, D.C. (1962). After college, she moved to London to stay for six months, but she fell in love with a British man and she has never left. She started writing historical novels, and her second book, Girl With a Pearl Earring (1999), was a huge best-seller. For the book, Chevalier was inspired one day when she was staring at a poster she had bought when she was 19, a copy of Johannes Vermeer's painting Girl With a Pearl Earring. She imagined what life might have been for the young woman who ended up the subject of that painting. She started the book right away, but she was pregnant and she didn't want the book to get lost in her life as a new mother, so she researched and wrote the whole novel in just eight months.

She said, "Don't write about what you know — write about what you're interested in. Don't write about yourself — you aren't as interesting as you think."

It's the birthday of Philip Pullman, (books by this author) born in Norwich, England (1946). His father died in the air force when Philip was seven, and was awarded a medal after his death, and Philip grew up believing his father had been shot down. He learned much later that his father died in a plane crash, and that he had been dropping bombs on the Mau Maus in Kenya, who had no weapons sophisticated enough to shoot down a plane.

His favorite stories as a kid were the cowboy and gangster shows on the radio, ghost stories, and also comics, especially Superman and Batman. He said, "I was sure that I was going to write stories myself when I grew up. It's important to put it like that: not 'I am a writer,' but rather 'I write stories.' If you put the emphasis on yourself rather than your work, you're in danger of thinking that you're the most important thing. But you're not. The story is what matters, and you're only the servant, and your job is to get it out on time and in good order."

He went to Oxford, but he earned the lowest class of degree. He said, "I thought I was doing quite well until I came out with my third class degree and then I realized that I wasn't — it was the year they stopped giving fourth class degrees otherwise I'd have got one of those." He got a job teaching English to middle schoolers, and he published a novel called The Haunted Storm (1972). He usually acts as if The Haunted Storm doesn't exist when he discusses the books he has written, although it did win an award for young writers — he was only 25 at the time it was published.

Pullman was a popular teacher, and he got his start with children's literature by writing plays for his middle school students to perform. Out of those plays came the books that launched his career as a respected and popular writer, books like Count Karlstein (1982) and The Ruby in the Smoke (1986), the first in his series starring the spirited Victorian heroine Sally Lockhart.

But the books that really made him famous are a trilogy called His Dark Materials, named for a passage in Milton's Paradise Lost:
"Into this wilde Abyss,
The Womb of nature and perhaps her Grave,
Of neither Sea, nor Shore, nor Air, nor Fire,
But all these in their pregnant causes mixt
Confus'dly, and which thus must ever fight,
Unless th' Almighty Maker them ordain
His dark materials to create more Worlds."

The first book was published as Northern Lights (1995) in Britain, but in the United States they called it The Golden Compass. The books tell the story of two children, Lyra and Will, who journey through shifting worlds, learning about a mysterious particle called Dust that the Church believes is the physical embodiment of Original Sin. They eventually take down the Kingdom of Heaven. The books are full of armored bears, witches, gypsies, people with animal companions who represent their souls, and portals between parallel universes. Despite this, Pullman said, "I've always resisted calling it a fantasy, just to be perverse, and tried to maintain that it's a story of stark realism."

His most recent book is The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ (2010), a retelling of the story of Jesus, which divides him into two separate figures: Jesus, a loving and radical preacher, and Christ, his smart and manipulative twin who twists his brother's message and establishes a power structure in order to ensure that Christianity survives. Philip Pullman said: "I have always written what I wanted to write. I have never considered the audience for one second. Ever. It's none of their business what I write! Before publication, I am a despot."

When he writes a book, he writes down scenes on Post-It notes, and then he puts them all on a giant piece of paper and rearranges them. He said that he believes in exercise and healthful eating, but that he himself doesn't practice either of those things, and that the most exercise he usually gets in a day is unscrewing the whiskey bottle.

Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®




  • “Writers end up writing stories—or rather, stories' shadows—and they're grateful if they can, but it is not enough. Nothing the writer can do is ever enough” —Joy Williams
  • “I want to live other lives. I've never quite believed that one chance is all I get. Writing is my way of making other chances.” —Anne Tyler
  • “Writing is a performance, like singing an aria or dancing a jig” —Stephen Greenblatt
  • “All good writing is swimming under water and holding your breath.” —F. Scott Fitzgerald
  • “Good writing is always about things that are important to you, things that are scary to you, things that eat you up.” —John Edgar Wideman
  • “In certain ways writing is a form of prayer.” —Denise Levertov
  • “Writing is a socially acceptable form of schizophrenia.” —E.L. Doctorow
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  • “Let's face it, writing is hell.” —William Styron
  • “A writer is someone for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people.” —Thomas Mann
  • “Writing is 90 percent procrastination: reading magazines, eating cereal out of the box, watching infomercials.” —Paul Rudnick
  • “Writing is a failure. Writing is not only useless, it's spoiled paper.” —Padget Powell
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  • “Writing is my dharma.” —Raja Rao
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