Sep. 3, 2011


by Patrick Phillips

It will be the past
and we'll live there together.

Not as it was to live
but as it is remembered.

It will be the past.
We'll all go back together.

Everyone we ever loved,
and lost, and must remember.

It will be the past.
And it will last forever.

"Heaven" by Patrick Phillips, from Boy. © The University of Georgia Press, 2008. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

Today is the birthday of Sarah Orne Jewett (1849) (books by this author). She was born in South Berwick, Maine, and she died there, too, 60 years later. She was deeply rooted in the region and its people. "My local attachments," she wrote, "are stronger than any cat's that ever mewed."

Her father was an obstetrician, and he often took her with him on his house calls; they would talk about the land and the sea on the way, and she would talk for hours with his patients and their families. She originally wanted to be a doctor herself, but she was in poor health, suffering from rheumatoid arthritis. She read voraciously when she wasn't out with her father. She attended the Berwick Academy and graduated when she was 16, but she considered her true teachers the fishermen and farmers and their wives, and they were her subjects when she began writing stories as a girl. She published her first story, "Jenny Garrow's Lovers," in Flag of Our Union when she was 18. Later, some of her sketches of the fictional New England town of Deephaven were published in Atlantic Monthly, and eventually collected into a novel, also called Deephaven (1877).

She never married, but she had a very close relationship with writer Annie Fields and her husband, Atlantic Monthly publisher James Field. After James died, Sarah and Annie traveled together extensively, and lived together in Boston for a large part of every year. Her strong regional writing would inspire Willa Cather, who called Jewett's novella The Country of the Pointed Firs (1896) an American classic on the level of Huckleberry Finn and The Scarlet Letter. Cather dedicated O Pioneers! (1913) to Jewett.

Jewett was injured in a carriage accident on her birthday in 1902, which put an end to her writing career. She was paralyzed by a stroke in 1909, and died a few months later.

It's the birthday of screenwriter and short-story author Sally (Redway) Benson (books by this author), born in St. Louis, Missouri, in 1897. She's best known for her two story collections, Junior Miss (1941) and Meet Me in St. Louis (1944).

She went to work as a bank teller when she was 17, and began her writing career penning film reviews and articles for the New York Morning Telegraph. She published her first story in The New Yorker in 1929. It was the first of many — 99 to be exact — that the magazine would publish over the next 12 years. Junior Miss, a collection of some of these stories, was published in 1941; it was adapted for the stage later that year, and it ran on Broadway for two years before being made into a movie, and later, a weekly radio series. Meet Me in St. Louis had its beginnings in a series of eight vignettes — called 5135 Kensington — which had run in The New Yorker in 1941 and '42. Benson wrote four more stories to add to the eight, and arranged them so that they each represented a single month in a year. Benson also wrote an early draft of the screenplay for Meet Me in St. Louis, but her version wasn't used; nevertheless, the 1944 film was a big success. She wrote several other screenplays, including Shadow of a Doubt (1943), Anna and the King of Siam (1946), Viva Las Vegas (1964), and The Singing Nun (1966).

Today is the birthday of war correspondent Marguerite Higgins (1920) (books by this author). She was born in Hong Kong, and her family lived there while her father worked at a shipping company. They moved back to the States when Marguerite was three years old; she grew up in Oakland, California, where her father worked as a stockbroker. She studied French at the University of California, Berkeley, and earned a master's degree in journalism at Columbia University in 1942. Because many male reporters were serving in the military during the war, newspapers were willing to give female reporters a chance. Higgins got a job with the New York Herald Tribune, and in 1944, after working for them for two years, she persuaded them to send her to Europe to cover World War II. She reported from London at first, and then Paris. In 1945, she was sent to Germany, where she witnessed the liberation of the Dachau and Buchenwald concentration camps, and covered the Nuremberg Trials and the Soviet blockade of Berlin.

She was named Tokyo bureau chief in 1950, and soon after she arrived in Japan to take her post, the Korean War broke out. She was one of the first reporters on the scene, but the Herald Tribune sent their best male reporter, Homer Bigart, to replace her when General Walton Walker soon ordered her out of the country; Walker was of the opinion that women didn't belong at the front. She appealed to Douglas MacArthur, who cabled the newspaper: "Ban on women correspondents in Korea has been lifted. Marguerite Higgins is held in highest professional esteem by everyone."

She died in 1966 after contracting the tropical disease leishmaniasis while covering the war in Vietnam. She was 45.

It's the birthday of writer and academic Alison Lurie (1926) (books by this author), born in Chicago and raised in White Plains, New York. She's best known as a novelist; her books include Imaginary Friends (1967), The War Between the Tates (1974), and Foreign Affairs (1984), for which she won the Pulitzer. Her books tend to feature highly educated protagonists — often academics — negotiating the perils and pitfalls of their personal relationships. She divides her time between Florida, England, and Ithaca, New York, where she has taught writing and literature at Cornell University since 1970.

In her novel Real People (1969), she wrote: "... you can't write well with only the nice parts of your character, and only about nice things. And I don't want even to try anymore. I want to use everything, including hate and envy and lust and fear."

Today is the 40th birthday of Kiran Desai (1971) (books by this author). She was born in New Delhi and grew up in India until she was 14; she spent a year in England with her mother and then moved to the States. Her first novel, Hullaballoo in the Guava Orchard (1997), grew from work she'd written in Columbia University's Master of Fine Arts program, and it received praise from literary luminaries like Salman Rushdie.

Her second book, The Inheritance of Loss (2006), is a sumptuous and complex postcolonial epic. She received a generous advance to write the novel, but ended up living in a tiny flat in Brooklyn with numerous roommates and later, in Mexico, to stretch the money out over the eight years it took her to complete the book. The Inheritance of Loss was awarded the Man Booker Prize in 2006.

Her partner is the Nobel-prize-winning Turkish novelist Orhan Pamuk, and her mother is the noted author Anita Desai, who has been shortlisted for the Booker Prize three times. "It was wonderful to have her around when I was writing this book [Hullaballoo in the Guava Orchard]," Desai told an interviewer, "to talk to her through this whole process. She was wonderful through the whole thing." She is working on her third novel, but she admits she works at a slow pace. "I'm lazy," she told attendees at the Jaipur Literary Festival recently.

She has a bit of advice for aspiring writers: "There are all kinds of theories that you get told in writing workshops — 'Write what you know,' and that sort of thing, which I don't believe at all. I think one of the great joys of writing is to try and explore what you don't know, that's exciting to me. [...] I can't imagine how they come up with these rules — they're really ludicrous. You can't learn to write in that fashion. What inspired me really was reading, reading a lot and learning from other writers."

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
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