How a Writing Mentor Can Change Your Life
Nathan Deuel, in Praise of Jeff Parker
It’s late in Lisbon at this, the second Fado club of the night, and I really shouldn’t be ordering a bottle of wine but the singing is so good and I’m ordering the bottle of wine. One member of the previous band, Bella Ensemble, seemed so talented (and was so handsome) no one in our group was surprised to learn he was leaving the next morning to tour with Madonna. What am I doing here? In Portugal, witnessing ethereal singing at three in the morning, guest of an international writing conference, put up in a nice hotel and eating its buffet breakfast and folded into the program’s staggering faculty, witness to its impressive student body. Why here, when I could be in Los Angeles, where I live with my wife and daughter, where I have a tidy lectureship teaching creative writing, where I review books for the local paper, where I’m about to turn 40 and might be guilty of losing any real or provable connection to the ambitions and principles I once cherished and hoped I’d make good on?
I’ve just turned 21. I need one more class to graduate. Summer school is expensive. But in the English Department lounge I find a flyer for a writing conference in St. Petersburg, Russia, where Dave Eggers is on faculty, for which the price is right. There’s college credit. It’s cheaper than summer school. I get on a plane.
But I don’t have a place to sleep. The conference is overbooked and doing its best to make room. In the makeshift office, statuesque Russian women on staff eye me and make tea while the program’s co-director, Jeff Parker, a former skate punk from Florida, is cooing at the printer, trying to coax it into action. When he leaves, I try to make conversation. “Where can I find,” I ask Tanya and Sasha, “a good barber?” They look at me like I’m a cockroach, or a bad smell. I push the hair out of my eyes and then a bedroom opens across town.
Eggers is reading in Nabokov’s house, I’m pretty sure. It’s stunningly beautiful. Surrounded by all these sleek and promising writers, flanked by the faculty, I feel dumb and young and 10,000 miles from home and yet close to something that feels right. In the men’s room, Parker zips up, looks at me, and asks why I needled the office managers about finding a hooker. “Baba,” we determine (or “barber,” as I had said) doesn’t mean you want a haircut.
At the nautical-themed bar make no mistake: the editors from Random House and Norton are buying shots. Can I hang? Parker and Tanya frog-march me home and I’m humiliated and the next morning (or maybe the morning after that) I find Parker to apologize and we foot-race hungover through the streets of a Russian city and might also see the dead body, but it could be another morning I see the dead body. We sweat through our shirts and untie our running shoes and talk books and the moment Tobias Wolff called to tell him he’d gotten into Syracuse and how his first professor was more or less sleeping in his office and how he nonetheless walked Parker from the train in Manhattan, into the office of the agent, who was urged to take him on.
Later, I’m reading David Remnick’s books about Russia and I’m taking notes and I’m scaring myself with what I’m writing and I can’t wait to hang out with Parker again, to hear more of how he did it, is doing it. Part of the idea of any writing conference is to bring young Americans into contact with real-deal writers, but it’s also a feature of this one to ask us to consider the Russian poets and prose writers who had been in danger during the Communist years but are now mostly safe and we listen to them in grand ballrooms and ballet studios and cultural exchange halls and some of us take notes and I find myself at the faculty lunch table, where I finish Eggers’s salad. Parker is maybe watching me chew, maybe he’s not, and when it’s time for the student reading, I go last in a dimly lit bar and read my stuff and cry and one of the Russian writers hands me a beer.
The second year, I’m flying in from Jakarta, where my partner and I are working as reporters and I’m 22 (about to be 23) and on the party-boat Mary Gaitskill stands up, just as we’re going under one of the canal bridges, just before midnight, when all the big drawbridges get raised across the Neva and sailors hoot and holler and the chained-up bears dance and everyone who has suffered through an epic winter is now drinking and wearing shorts or at least, you know, light blouses, but on our boat, the old stone connects with Mary’s skull and she is hurt and on another night it’s my birthday, and Mary’s a bit better and the woman I’m going to marry, Kelly, has come to Russia, to see what I’m so excited about.
She and Parker convince almost the entire program, 150 of us, to march together to surprise me at the apartment. It’s just before the city gets too crazy expensive, and from our balcony you can see the Church of Spilt Blood and the Neva and the Hermitage. Parker is probably wearing the sweater I gave him the first night. I bought it at an Indonesian grocery store, in the biggest size I could find, possibly the biggest in the whole country, and it fit him better so I handed it over. Robert Coover, one of America’s greatest living writers, is eating a turkey leg in my kitchen with a pen knife, the blade stuck into the meat, and he’s drinking red wine out of a bottle, and gesturing to the crowd, he says, pausing to take a bite, “This is the way to live.”
Now is when I tell you Parker can’t make it to our wedding—car trouble—and maybe we sort of drift apart but as we’re making the move to New York and he is getting better and better jobs in academia, I come to Russia for a third and then a fourth and then a fifth summer. I eat lunch with George Saunders and go for a long walk with William T. Vollmann and brush repeatedly against the riddle that is Padgett Powell and write up a series of dispatches for the newspaper where I’m an editor. When I got an offer from a magazine called Rolling Stone, I insist they give me enough time to go back, one more time.
How to live? Why are we doing this? What can we find in a place that is or isn’t Russia? Parker has by now won teaching awards and is bending toward what comes next and maybe so am I. In New York, I’m doing my best but it’s not enough so I pack a bag and start walking. I sleep in a tent. I call Parker at some point from the side of the road in Florida. “You crazy bastard,” he says. “I hope you write a novel.” In New Orleans, when I’m done walking, Kelly and I make plans to move to Saudi Arabia.
For the first time in seven years, I’m not going to Russia. We have a kid in Riyadh and my wife gets a big-time job and I start writing about what it’s like to be married to a journalist who goes to Iraq all the time. My dad dies. I take care of the baby. I write. But not yet a novel. Parker calls me about a low-residency MFA in Tampa. Kelly and I move to Lebanon.
Now is when I explain that twice a year, I fly from Beirut to Florida, and also I tell you I’m from the southeast part of the state (Miami) and Parker is from the north west (swamp) and that the program he helms is in the center, on the Gulf, and along its leafy streets and on the quad of its tiny private college and its sandy beaches, Parker and I might be enjoying the peak of our friendship, two Florida boys making good, and there’s the added bonus that I get to know the woman he met in Russia, Alina, and all the moments are adding up to more questions about what he can do with his immense charm and tremendous powers. The possibilities seem to rub up against the real world and it will either fall apart or it won’t.Something more subtle and lasting can happen, I think, when you open yourself up, when you have someone to look up to.
The administration isn’t giving him what he needs, seems like. The staff and students cheer regardless. I ride in a car with the director, my friend, and some days we go swimming and most days we drink wine and I remember the morning he fumbles getting the Bluetooth setup going and it’s the summer of “Somebody I Used to Know” and over the song he drives and we talk about about good books and bad books and why anyone would get an MFA—let alone a low-residency MFA—and I’m crushed when it’s over. On the way home, all alone, I at last read his novel, which I’d been avoiding, because how do you take a real life and judge it by the book? There’s also a story collection and a nonfiction book and a collection of poems and maybe soon another novel. All fantastic.
There are so many ways to do it. When it’s time to publish my own book, the offers and possibilities sort out and in a way that feels destined Parker is my editor. I come back to the MFA program to read. The local paper does a story. Parker gets a better job.
We move to Los Angeles as my book is coming out and I’m getting job offers, too. I decline the one in the Midwest and then I decline another one in the Midwest and suddenly it’s been six years and I have a perch in Los Angeles that could be worse, at a big university on the west side of the city I call home. Parker gets married to Alina and at the wedding I walk to the microphone and I cry. They have a kid. My own kid turns 10. No novel yet.
When he emails me with the offer to come to the writing conference, in Portugal, I almost say no. It’s not because I don’t want to go. It’s because I’m scared of asking and then having to answer what feels like a serious question: Do I deserve to go?
When you are young and you are all possibility, it’s easy to run through the streets of St. Petersburg, Russia and maybe you see a dead body. You take the time to read (let alone write) an essay like this because you are a writer or probably because you are nearing the folder of achievements you need to start calling yourself one. What I have to tell you is that there’s a guy out there who has been there for me every step of the way. He’s almost too good to be true. So kind, so generous, so dedicated. I fly to Portugal.
In the palace, the poets and prose writers and spouses and children all drink from glass goblets and nibble on figs and prosciutto and melting cheeses and pastried pots of custard and the fountain on the grounds bubbles and in the center of it is a man who has changed my life, who has changed so many lives. It is because of him that I introduced Vollmann to a crowd in a Russian theater and went on a boat with Gaitskill, who hit her head, and drank too much wine while Nick Flynn watched and sped-walked through Tampa with Miranda July, who was very kind, and fell into a potted plant while talking to Karen Russell and had that night, long ago, when Coover stabbed a turkey leg with a pen knife and told me, yes, this is the kind of life we can seek out and indeed it can be the life we are living.
Before Parker there was Mikhail Iossel, who actually founded the program in Russia and before Iossel there was someone I haven’t yet met or maybe I did but I suspect when this is published Misha might write me to clarify. All you have to do is ask.
“I want you to meet someone,” Parker says to me in the palace garden in Portugal and I start talking to Maria, with whom I will go to the Fado club, and the one after that, and who will email me weeks later with photos of her hanging in Tbilisi with the guy who gave me a place to sleep in New Orleans. In what feels like the center of the world of arts and excellence, the only place I want to be, snared ever-so-slightly again in Parker’s web, I think of several things: Over five days in Portugal, I get to see what doesn’t surprise me at all—that my guy remains a careful, dedicated, poised conference leader. The he excels as a husband, cares deeply about being a dad, that so many of us want to consider him a friend.
Enough people insist on doing this private, awful thing. Writing. It’s so hard and so lonely. And yet there are opportunities to come together. To measure what you’re hoping for against what is actually possible. Private accounting can only do so much. It’s not just about meeting those who come before us. Something more subtle and lasting can happen, I think, when you open yourself up, when you have someone to look up to, when you come together. If you have a chance, get yourself near Parker, or someone like him. In my mind, he’s the nicest guy in literature. Instead of writing this, I probably should have just called him.