- Illustration by Danny Shanahan.
I was invited to give the keynote address (whatever that is) at a convocation of librarians. It was to be held at one of those resort/honeymoon palaces that they used to advertise on television. Just as people were getting seated an excited librarian whispered to me that there was a surprise guest. Kurt Vonnegut’s then girlfriend was getting an award for a children’s book, and Vonnegut would be joining us at the speakers table. I switched the place cards around. (“No, no! It has to be boy-girl-boy girl!” the librarian complained. I ignored her.) Vonnegut made my night by mentioning a fan letter I had sent him years before. We settled down to some serious brother-novelist chitchat...and drinking. I hardly drink at all. Vonnegut drank rather a lot. The waiters were all fans, and hovered around him. Every so often he would order a different mixed drink—for each of us. I got to experience a sloe gin fizz, a Manhattan, a crème de menthe frappe, and a zombie; I forget what the others were. I was not going to appear to be a sissy in the company of one of my heroes. I drank my drinks. “Oh, look!” Vonnegut said, moving a finger unsteadily down the program. “You are the distinguished speaker.” “Thash right…Kurt,” I said. “If I had known that, I wouldn’t have gotten you drunk,” the great author said. “S’all right…Kurt,” I said. “What you gonna talkaboud?” “Dunno.” “Dunno? Diddin’ you prepare?” “Nope, Kurt. I will wing it.” “Wing it? I prepare a week ahead for one of these.” At that moment I felt a twinge of fear, but for some reason it wore off in the next moment. I am told my talk lasted three minutes. I don’t remember what I said. The librarians seemed angry at me for some reason, and it was 18 years before any librarians anywhere invited me to speak again. Kurt Vonnegut Jr., a literary icon, and a great man, said it was the best damned speech he’d ever heard.
Daniel Pinkwater is an author and illustrator responsible for more than 80 books, most of them excruciatingly funny. He is a mainstay of National Public Radio.
While I was a student at the University of Michigan, Robert Frost was invited to give a reading on campus. Twelve students, mostly writers, were invited to a dinner in his honor. Picture this: a long table set with fine linen and candles. Frost sits at one end. Awe has silenced us; nobody says a word. Five minutes pass. At last, Anne Stevenson, seated at the opposite end of the table, says, “Mr. Frost, what do you think of Pound’s latest canto?”
Frost could not hear the question; could we repeat it? Could we! It went up one side of the table like a game of telephone. Six times we heard it. What do you think of Pound’s latest canto?
“Never read it,” he said.
From then on, to our great relief, he told stories about himself.
Nancy Willard is the author of many books of poetry, fiction, and essays, and a winner of the 1982 Newbery Medal for A Visit to William Blake’s Inn.
I was an undergrad who loved to write fiction, but my parents were giving me the college education they’d never had and I was supposed to go to medical school. Then, one day, my writing professor took our class to hear Grace Paley read. The first thing I noticed was the silver hair that swirled atop her head like a halo. And she looked exactly like my bubbe, short and tough and wise. Then she started to read from Enormous Changes at the Last Minute and she sounded almost exactly like my bubbe. She read a handful of stories that day and I was enchanted throughout, drawn to her completely original yet strangely familiar voice. After the reading a few of us went up to meet her and she hugged me. I can’t remember why she hugged me and not the other kids standing around—did I say something? Did I remind her of her grandson the way she reminded me of my bubbe?—but her embrace was powerful, and it made me realize I wouldn’t be going to medical school after all.
Edward Schwarzschild’s books include a new story collection, The Family Diamond, and the novel Responsible Men, both from Algonquin.