Thursday, May 31, 2007

Story Time

Some years back, when you were doing weekly features for the weekly freebie, The Independent, it fell to your pleasant lot to interview a number of local mystery writers, most of whom you already knew socially. 

 Perhaps the least well known of them all turned out to be my favorite interview experience, not only because he served such exquisite coffee while we spoke, not indeed because he was such an exquisite prose stylist, but because of one thing he said, almost as a throw-away line. It was a comment you had to ask him to repeat because you had difficulty believing you'd heard correctly. 

 He did and you will not forget the words or the intensity with which they were spoken. "I'd rather be the world's worst writer," William Campbell Gault said, "than a good anything else." Gault was far enough away from the world's worst writer to have been able to inject his sentiment with passion.

This opened the door in your mind for one of those lovely what-if situations that get writers going. What if a person were to prove to be preternaturally gifted at something that person hated doing?

The other memorable interview for your piece for  The Independent was with Margaret Millar, whose late husband, Ken, also known as Ross Macdonald, had been in graduate school together at U of Michigan with your associate from USC, Dick Lid. "As close friends can often do," Maggie said magisterially, "Dick can tell you things about us that will make us seem more like demons and less like Canadians."

Maggie was quite right.  Dick Lid did tell you stories of triangulation in which either Maggie or Ken called him, often in the earlier hours of the morning, when sleep for ordinary persons seems to be a given, and sleep for the talented, the disturbed, and the driven was at premium.

Our interview took place at the posh Coral Casino, a sort of meat market for the bored and wealthy of Santa Barbara, more known for its Olympic-sized swimming pool than its cuisine. Indeed, Maggie's major interest was that swimming pool to buoy her spirits as she faced widowhood and the decline of her eye sight to macular degeneration.

Maggie decided we could venture a salad at the Casino, but she brought our onion soup in a large Mason jar which she handed to the maitre d' with an edge that bordered on contempt. As we spooned our way through the soup, a distinguished man approached, greeted Maggie, and exchanged an affable shake of hands with you after Maggie introduced us.

After the man departed, Maggie alluded to his parentage in a hoarse stage whisper. "The son of a bitch!" she explained. "He knew how much swimming meant to me and he didn't tell me. He did nothing to prepare me for this."

Once again, she had me. "Okay," I said, " prepare you for what?"

"They had to take a lung. Cancer, you know. I can accept that. But the son of a bitch didn't tell me. When they take your lung, your buoyancy is skewered. You don't float the way you used to. I find it difficult to swim now, but I am not going to quit over a son of a bitch like him."