My First Time is a regular feature in which writers talk about virgin experiences in their writing and publishing careers, ranging from their first rejection to the moment of holding their first published book in their hands. Today’s guest is Je Banach. Je is a member of the residential faculty in fiction at the Yale Writers' Conference. In 2013 she was awarded the CT Artist Fellowship for Fiction; she was previously awarded the New Boston Fund Fellowship in Fiction. She has written for The Paris Review, Esquire, Granta, Guernica, Bookforum, KGB Bar Lit, L.A. Review of Books, Opium, and other venues. In 2012 she wrote PEN's "Final Word" for Banned Books Week. A long-time contributor to Harold Bloom’s literary series with Infobase Publishing, Banach is the author of publishers' guides to classics as well as works by contemporaries such as Salman Rushdie, Ian McEwan, Dinaw Mengestu, Hisham Matar, and E.L. Doctorow, among others.
My First Yes
“Are you a writer?”
About a decade ago I found myself face to face with Norman Mailer and this was how he greeted me. We were at his Provincetown home for a reception following a reading in town. He sat in a chair in the center of the room, and I sat directly across from him on his living room couch until all of the guests who had been lined up to speak with him had finally dispersed with drinks and books in hand. It had seemed like enough just to sit on that couch in a great writer’s home, but as the night drew to a close I began to think I might later regret not seizing the opportunity to speak with him, so I sat down next to him and said hello, and this question—“Are you a writer?”—was his greeting. Though I had been writing for some time, I felt that I hadn’t yet produced sufficient work to be able to reply in the affirmative. I said I was not. “Is your father a writer?” he countered. I said that he was not. We exchanged a few more words and soon the magic minutes passed and I was making my way back down Commercial Street in the dark, weighed down with the disappointment that I had somehow misspent my time with him.
When I returned home after that trip, I felt the urge to take a larger, more certain step into the literary world. Though my background as an undergraduate was in literature, I had become divorced from it and had worked for a local non-profit arts organization in the years after helping to put together exhibitions and then at another local gallery where Arthur Miller had strolled in one day, putting the idea back in my head that I really should be dealing in words and books. I declined job interviews with the artists Jeff Koons and Spencer Tunick in the hopes of returning to literature.
Though I cannot recall what specifically drew my attention to him, I knew the world-famous literary critic Harold Bloom was living and working in my home state, and I got the idea that he might give me some work as a place to begin, perhaps assisting with research for his latest book. So I emailed him. He replied by politely pointing out he already had local assistants and that I was some miles away. I replied by saying I do not like to let geography limit me. He replied with his editor's phone number. I remember staring at the numbers on the screen in disbelief. If I called, I was certain the editor would inquire about my background and what I had accomplished. What would I tell him?
I decided I would try, regardless. When I rang him, he was cheerful and asked right away whether I would like to work on a book—a guide to Tennessee William's Glass Menagerie for a series edited by Bloom.
Could I complete an entire book? Could I complete this book and do a good job? How could I be sure? I had never done it before.
I said yes. This was my first real “yes” as a writer and is the affirmation that confirmed me as one. I finished the book—my first substantial assignment—and it led to another project that led to some more, until I could look back and see my own course—the course that I continue on today. And these were the first important lessons I received as a writer: That one must be able to hear “No” and continue on regardless; that one must be ready to say “Yes” and to make it true.
For weeks after the visit to Mailer’s home, I continued to think about his question—“Are you a writer?”—and to wonder why he had asked. I had overheard his conversations with the other guests, and he had not asked the same question of anyone else. So I wrote him a letter. I thanked him for having me at his home and confessed that I was, in fact, a writer and I had been wondering how he had known. I also mentioned I was writing for Bloom and suggested I might write about him for Bloom’s series some day. I can’t remember how much time passed before it arrived, but one day when I walked up my front steps I could see in my mailbox an envelope stamped faintly with a Provincetown address. I opened it without too much excitement, expecting to find a form letter inside. Instead, there was a typed letter signed by Mailer which answered my question and made me sure that I should always, always say yes:
I enjoyed your letter and to answer your question as to why I suspected you were a writer, it is a developed instinct. I think a very good poker player knows when someone has a good hand and is not bluffing when they raise you and they are right most of the time. I am probably that way in spotting young writers.
I must say, that is a most peculiar job working on guide books for Harold Bloom. I’m not sure that he likes my work much; he’s quite a bit back and forth about it in the occasional references that he makes so he may not be that excited by your suggestion that I am the next one to tackle. But if so, splendid. I think you will do a better job on this venue than anyone else he might choose.