Got Lit

I attended the Get Lit! Using History in Storytelling panel this morning and took a few notes. I went there mainly to catch up with Jess Walter. Jess was in fine form as usual, and his panel-mates weren’t too shabby either.

Jess opened with a story from his newspapering days. He was assigned to the DC beat for a time and covered the waning years of Tom Foley’s reign as Speaker of the House. According to Jess, Foley related the following story from his early years in Congress, during the presidency of LBJ:

A new presidential aide was instructed by the chief of staff to always be sure there was Dr. Pepper on hand, which was LBJ’s soft drink of choice. Well, one day this aide was on board Air Force One with LBJ and sure enough LBJ asked for a Dr. Pepper. The aide went to the mini-fridge and was horrified to find there was no Dr. Pepper there. So the aide picked up the phone (yes, there were phones on Air Force One in the 60s) and called the chief of staff.

“The president just asked for a Dr. Pepper, and there’s none on board. What should I do?”

“OK. The only thing you can do is go back to him and say, ‘Dammit, there’s no Dr. Pepper!'”

So the aide goes back to LBJ and says, “Dammit, there’s no Dr. Pepper!”

LBJ picks up his telephone (there’s one right at his seat, of course) and calls up the CEO of the Dr. Pepper plant in Texas.

“Hello, this is Lyndon Johnson. I’m so sorry to hear that Dr. Pepper is no longer in business. What’s that? You are in business? Well that’s good to hear, because I have a young man here that just told me you didn’t exist. Alright, you have a good day.”

LBJ hangs up the phone and glares at the aide.

“I thought you said there was no Dr. Pepper.”

Of course the next time Air Force One flew, the aide made sure it was so loaded down with Dr. Pepper that it could barely fly.

And the funny thing is LBJ never drank Dr. Pepper after that. He became a Fresca man.

So Jess turned this story in to his editor back at the Spokesman Review, who said, “This isn’t news.” But maybe this is the sort of thing news and history miss, the personal flotsam and jetsam that gets passed over. Maybe there are epiphanies hidden in the stuff that gets left on the cutting room floor of history.

Thus Jess became a novelist.

What else did Jess say? What interests him is the gap between what we believe and how we act. Fiction is compelling because it deals with what could have happened, not what did happen. (Insert Aristotle footnote here.) Fiction can also provide a means to access what is happening right now. Writing The Financial Lives of the Poets was exciting because it was such a real-time view of the very present catastrophe of the recession — like writing about a car wreck as it’s happening, with your head out the window, taking it all in, all kinds of cultural detritus flying around inside the car: Facebook, mortgages, pot.

How did Jess become a writer? He always wanted to be one. As a young kid, he created a magazine called Readers Indigestion to chronicle family news. He came from a family in which no one had been to college and — although they were supportive — to have this bookish kid who wanted to be a writer — well, “I might as well have wanted to be a ballerina.” At the age of twelve or thirteen, Jess looked for the spot on the shelf in the library where his books would someday reside and discovered that he would be right next to Kurt Vonnegut. Jess checked out Breakfast of Champions, a book in which Vonnegut enters the story and sets his characters free. “Can you do that?!” thought Jess. Discovering Vonnegut, and his rule-breaking ways, was a revelation. Vonnegut became his literary hero. The end of the book, where the main character speaks to Vonnegut in the voice of his dead father, hit him like a magnificent brick. That’s what I want to do.

In college, Jess accidentally became a father at age 19 and decided to pursue journalism as a more realistic source of income and family support. Whenever famous writers would come to town, he’d get phony press credentials in hopes that by stalking them some of their skill might rub off on him, by osmosis perhaps. The college student would sit there in a room with other, real reporters and ask the writer, “What advice do you have for young, aspiring writers?” He asked Ken Kesey that question one year and the next year he asked Tom Wolfe, who said, authoritatively, “Use a word processor!” (This was in the mid-1980s.) Then, amazingly, Vonnegut himself came to town. And, even more amazingly, when Jess got his phony press credentials and went to attend the press conference, he found himself, not in a room full of reporters asking Vonnegut questions, but alone, one-on-one, with Vonnegut himself. So he asked Vonnegut the question. To which Vonnegut replied, “How old are you?” and “And you’re writing for Esquire?” Well, they haven’t accepted the piece yet. After about fifteen minutes of cordial talk, Vonnegut excused himself. But then, after his talk that night, he spotted Jess in the audience, gestured towards him, and said, “Did you get everything you needed for your piece?” Yes, thank you. So then Jess, somewhat mortified by this encounter, perhaps, swore off stalking authors. A few years ago, Vonnegut returned to Spokane, however, and Jess wrote a piece for The Inlander about his earlier encounter. Vonnegut’s publicist forwarded the piece to him, and one day Jess received a thick manila envelope in the mail, with a New York return address. The envelope smelled of Pall Malls, and inside was a signed, leather-bound edition of one of his novels. “To my fellow novelist, Jess Walter. Kurt Vonnegut.” Jess, in turn, sent Vonnegut a copy of his book, Citizen Vince. Vonnegut replied with a postcard saying he’d read it right away and loved it. Jess sent him his next novel, The Zero, and received another laudatory postcard with a wry comment about Racine and the Nobel prize. “I’m corresponding with Kurt Vonnegut!” But when Jess was in New York shortly before Vonnegut’s death, he couldn’t bring himself to call on his hero — too much like the old stalking. (Jess actually told me this when I stalkerishly went up and chatted with him briefly after the program.)

A couple of other Walter nuggets:

“Non-fiction” is an odd label. It covers such a broad area of literature. It’s as if someone came up with “non-sock” as a category of clothing.

On the line between fiction and non-fiction: There is water and there is dry land and we all know the difference. And there’s also swamp, and we know what that is, too.

What about the other panel members? They were smart, engaging writers, too, and I’m sorry I’m giving them short shrift here, but I can tell you who they were: David Laskin, Ana Maria Spagna, and Marianne Keddington-Lang. I particularly liked what Laskin said about how there is a before-and-after phenomenon that he likes to explore. Big changes that play out on a personal level. And I also particularly liked what Spagna said about the novel of her youth that a teacher let her spend three weeks sitting in a bean bag chair writing. The teacher mimeographed the novel and handed it out to the entire class. “How could you not become a writer after that?” Keddington-Lang is an editor and her editor’s perspective nicely rounded out the panel. I liked what she said about wanting to eradicate the word indeed from the English language.

A couple of audience members contributed nicely to the discussion as well. One older lady pointed out that some authors become too enticed by every tidbit of information their research has uncovered. Example: The Zookeeper’s Wife. That’s when a good editor is needed. In the same vein, a good-humored gent in the audience asserted that Cloud Splitter is a fantastic 400-page novel — but unfortunately it’s 600 pages long.

So … I got lit, and I’m looking forward to getting more lit as the weekend rolls along.


  1. Matthew Lickona says

    Thank you for this.

  2. Dorian Speed says

    This is very interesting.

    But I just can't believe anyone, let alone a Texan, would switch from Dr. Pepper to Fresca.

  3. Jonathan Webb says

    My favorite LBJ story is when he invited a congressman who was opposing him on a particular bill into the oval office.

    LBJ sat down well within the man's personal space, grabbed the man's legs and asked,"are you trying to f#@& me?"

Speak Your Mind