steady hands at seattle general
Yesterday we learned the valuable lesson that literary celebrity can backfire to the point where no one talks to you. Denis Johnson came to the Dey House yesterday for a Q&A in the basement; it was filled to overflowing, duh. He was tanned and healthy-looking and casual and friendly, but the thing was that everyone was too intimidated to ask questions. He had to start out the session by asking us questions: e.g., what's the difference between a land mile and a nautical mile? Nobody knew, though everyone was looking at me like I was supposed to know. So all right, I looked it up yesterday evening.
There are three different nautical miles: the British mile (aka Admiralty mile), which is 6080 feet; the American mile no longer in official use, which is 6080.20 feet; and the international mile used by the U.S. since July 1st, 1959, which is 1852 meters or approximately 6076.11549 feet. The differing measurements come from the fact that the mile is calculated by taking one minute of arc (1/60th of a degree) of a great circle of the earth; but because the earth is an oblate ellipsoid rather than a perfect sphere, you get different lengths depending where you draw your circle.
That was kind of a tangent. Anyway, I didn't know that at the time. Then people started asking shy questions, which Denis Johnson used as excuses to tell entertaining stories about his land in Idaho and the plays he's been writing (much more fun than writing fiction because a) you interact with other people, and b) certain people have the job of memorizing every single word you wrote, and additionally they want to know how those words sound inside your head) and the making of the film Jesus' Son (not Jesus's Son, he pointed out; too many sibilants). He also talked about 09.11; he was in New York at the time and saw the second tower go down. Someone asked him what the writer's duty was in these times and he said he had no clue. He compared Manhattan in the aftermath to war zones he'd visited (Mogadishu, Kabul). Close paraphrase:
I can no longer remember why I had the urge to pack up and visit those places. There is no shred of me that would want to be there now. But I had to go there and see it, see if this was really happening on my planet. And it was my planetit's fifty percent of the planet, really, that are killing each other daily or figuring out how to kill each other tomorrow or cleaning up from killing each other yesterday. And to see this happening on my planet, I knew then it would come to the United States, that one day I would see this within our borders. And then I did. Manhattan was like the other war zones not in that people were shooting each other, but in that there were official people everywhereemergency workersso many official people moving around, and not many unofficial people at all.
He choked up a little, talking about the towers going down; and the same thing happened at the reading yesterday evening, when he read a piece from Seek about the hippie Rainbow Festival and got to a passage about a childhood friend who was now dead of AIDS. Both times he paused for a moment, apologized for his sentimentality, and then moved into a few jokes to help leaven the mood. He gave the impression of a highly intelligent and complex person who had seen and done unimaginable things, but who had not been destroyed by the experiencesthey had somehow left him all the more gentle and human. Someone you'd definitely want to hang out with. Only that's not what happened at the after-reading party.
I arrived just as he was leaving. Apparently everyone was so intimidated that nobody really talked to him, so he just sat in a chair for a while and watched all of us wannabe writers talk to one another, then he left. The curséd backfire effect. The chair he had been sitting in stayed empty all night, out of a weird sort of communal respect, blankly facing the rest of the room.