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The Surprising Peter Taylor


[clock] 6-MINUTE READ ISSUE:  Autumn 2001

Putting aside the manuscript Styron had read, I started another novel. The new book, Man in Motion, was a comedy, based on my travels and travails in Mexico. But by a curious quirk of logic, Linda believed that France was the perfect place to finish it. She had spent her junior year in Paris and longed to go back. With her encouragement, I postponed my doctoral dissertation and applied for a Fulbright Fellowship in Creative Writing.

Proficiency in French was only the first of the hurdles. I needed a recommendation from a writer in a position to pass judgment on my project. Since George Garrett had resigned from the University of Virginia and left Charlottesville, I turned to his replacement, Peter Taylor.

A celebrated author of short stories, Taylor was an elusive figure. Unlike other English Department faculty members, he didn’t have an office in Cabell Hall. He holed up in a wood frame house off campus and kept such irregular hours that colleagues and students rarely knew where to find him. In fact, for years to come, regardless of the official University calendar, he set his own schedule and flew off to Key West when the weather got cold, dealt with students by mail, and didn’t return to the classroom until spring.

Lanky and thin, a soft-spoken Southerner with cowlicked hair, he looked like an easy touch, a pushover. So it surprised people to learn that he had definite ideas about almost everything pertaining to teaching, publishing, literary prizes, and reputations. One might have been tempted to brand him as rigid had he not expressed his opinions so amiably, had his loose-limbed languor not suggested such flexibility.

The day I met Peter Taylor, he leaned far back in the chair at his desk like a first-class airline passenger reclining in drowsy anticipation of a drink, dinner, and the inflight film. When I asked to audit his course, he drawled that that didn’t make sense. “The class is for writers,” he said, “not listeners.” He tugged at his fleshy earlobe, miming what “audit” meant.

Swearing that I was eager to write and anxious for criticism, I explained that I had already taken Garrett’s graduate seminar. Officially I couldn’t enroll again, but if he would let me sit in on the class, I would be happy to fulfill all the requirements.

“Afraid I can’t let you do that,” Taylor said. “If I gave you permission, I’d have to give it to everybody. I’d end up teaching two or three times the normal load of students.”

“I hate to make work for you, but if I could persuade you to read something of mine at your convenience, on an informal basis—”

“Can’t do it,” he said. “I have to concentrate on the stories my students turn in. Now I know George Garrett is different. He’d read anything. He encourages everybody. But that’s what’s wrong with creative writing programs.”

“What’s wrong with them?” I asked.

“People expect to be encouraged. They expect to get published and make a living as writers. I’ve been fortunate. I never had to support myself by writing and that’s freed me to write what I want.”

Taylor’s distinction between writing for a living and teaching writing for a living while working on his own writing wasn’t entirely clear to me. But there was no opportunity to ask for clarification. In his unemphatic manner, Taylor went on to enumerate his objections to literary politicking, to careerism, to the pursuit of meaningless prizes—”I wouldn’t accept one if I won it”—and to what he regarded as the meretricious craving to break into high-paying magazines like Esquire and Playboy. “I wouldn’t let my fiction appear beside a beer ad on one page and a naked lady on the next.”

He preferred The New Yorker, where in those days nudity was unknown and the ads were tasteful. If Mr. Shawn didn’t accept his stories, Taylor said, there were always respectable little magazines and literary journals that would.

Fervently praying that a Fulbright wasn’t one of the empty prizes he despised, I plunged ahead and confessed I wanted to spend a year in France and needed a recommendation.

“Why that’s wonderful!” he exclaimed and straightened in the chair. “I had a Fulbright to Paris. I didn’t get much work done, but it was a terrific experience. You’ll love it there.”

When I reminded him that I would never get to Paris unless I got a fellowship, and that I wouldn’t get a fellowship unless I got a recommendation, he sagged back like a wave cresting, then subsiding. “I suppose I could read one of your stories, and if I like it, I’ll write a letter.”

“I’ve been doing novels,” I said. “I’ve finished one and I’m halfway through the second.”

“I don’t read novels.”

“You mean novels by students?”

“I mean novels by anybody, but especially not students. The novel is an epic. Very few writers are competent to produce an epic. I don’t write them myself. But a short story, that’s like a lyric poem. Plenty of people are capable of achieving a lyric. Why don’t you show me a chapter of your novel and I’ll read it as a short story?”

Though this made little sense, I didn’t see that I had a choice. I selected a 10-page section from the manuscript I had brought along and passed it to Peter Taylor. Rather than do the expected and say he’d contact me once he had a chance to look it over, he read the batch of pages on the spot. Pursing his lips, he let his pale eyes slide from sentence to sentence. He sniffed once or twice through the roseate flanges of his nostrils. He turned back to an early passage, then skipped ahead. Finally, he sighed. “Well, this sure isn’t a short story. Without a beginning, a middle or an end, it’s tough for me to tell what you’re up to.”

“Sorry. Thanks for your time.” I reached over to retrieve the pages.

“Look, I can tell by talking to you that you’re serious about writing. And if you’ve finished a novel, I know you’re not afraid of work.”

“No, I’m not. And I realize I have a lot of it ahead of me.”

“Yeah, you do. But hard work’s a big part of writing, and if you’re willing to keep at it, maybe you’ll make it. I guess I could write something for you to the Fulbright Commission.”

I thanked him again and left resigned to getting, at best, a lukewarm letter. But as Peter Taylor would prove in his career, he was a man capable of surprises and abrupt about-faces. After decades of writing short stories and disdaining commercial success and literary prizes, he turned from the lyric late in life and took up the epic. He published a number of novels, including A Summons to Memphis which won the Pulitzer Prize and a $50,000 jackpot from the Ritz in Paris. So maybe he gave me a rave recommendation after all. That spring, I was awarded a Fulbright to France.

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