letter confusion

In a comment about yesterday’s post, Rachel made what she called an embarrassing confession, but the truth is, she’s got lots of company.

A few years ago I did a reading at the PEN/Hemingway award ceremony at the Kennedy Center in Boston. They gave me twenty minutes so I read the shortest chapter from Homestead, which is in letter form.

Now you have to remember that this was a big deal, in literary terms. There were people like Annie Proulx and Derek Wolcott and Nadine Gordimer in the audience (that year happened to be the hundredth anniversary of Hemingway’s birth, so they really went all out). I was especially nervous wondering if someone would ask some question I couldn’t answer in an intelligent way, but I managed to get through it. Then came the reception, and a very, very wealthy and well-known business man (who shall remain nameless, except to say he’s not in any part of the publishing business himself) came up to me while I was standing with a bunch of these big literary names trying to look nonchalant and at ease. ‘So,’ sez he. ‘Are you telling me that this woman lost her husband and all her brothers in the war? How did she cope with that?’

While I was searcing for some reasonable answer to this rather surprising question, he carries on: ‘And how did you get that letter, anyway? Did she just give it to you?’

To which I said something along the lines of ‘uh, I wrote the letter. It’s part of the novel. It’s fiction.’

He went very still for a second, coughed into his fist, turned on heel, and walked away. The rest of us were quiet for about ten seconds, and then somebody changed the subject.

I think that’s why I like letters, because readers get so caught up in them that they really do suspend disbelief to the point that it’s hard to remember, sometimes, that it’s all a story.