As Chris Ware makes so abundantly clear in his outstanding (and bitterly accurate) cover illustrations, writers have always been a favorite topic of other writers. Their private foibles and public follies make ready fodder for gossip and snarky reviews. But, more than that, writers have always loved to tell (and write) stories about other writers. Sherwood Anderson slipped William Faulkner into his story “A Meeting South” as a lisping Southern drunkard named David. Jean Rhys took revenge on Ford Madox Ford—not once but twice—in transforming him into the manipulative Hugh Heidler in Quartet and the titular character of After Leaving Mr. Mackenzie. Saul Bellow turned the self-immolating poet Delmore Schwartz into the protagonist of Humboldt’s Gift.
The stories contained herein are of a slightly different strain. We asked each contributor to write a story in which a famous writer appears by name. Beyond that, we allowed for any angle. It could be a straightforward biographical narrative, such as Robert Walser’s “Kleist in Thon,” which recounts an actual journey of Heinreich von Kleist; an imagined (or even fantastic) tale, such as Allan Gurganus’s “Reassurance,” in which one of Walt Whitman’s soldier friends writes from heaven; or a humorous take, such as Ian Frazier’s “LGA/ORD,” in which Frazier riffs on Samuel Beckett’s claim that, had he not become a writer, he would have been an airline pilot.
It was a challenging assignment, one we were unsure would yield fruit. But it did, and the results, which you now hold in hand, are amazingly varied—not in quality (they are, we think, uniformly wonderful), but in approach. In these pages: Edgar Allan Poe speaks at the instant of his death, Emily Dickinson takes the form of a near-future robot, Mario Puzo appears as an offstage Casanova who has made off with the bereaved protagonist’s wife, and Nathanael West drives his car into a time-travelling wreck. Some stories are photorealistic, others are halls of mirrors.
Collectively, they remind us of the importance of great fiction. Each takes us to a place no conventional biography could ever reach—a place of imagination, a place of interiority. Much as these writers mined the human condition for their work, they themselves remain brilliant enigmas. No amount of fact-finding and documenting could ever approximate with a real person the intimacy we experience with a fictional one. It is the great existential conundrum: How do we ever truly know another person? The elusive answer is why we read fiction in the first place.