I once nearly met Eudora Welty, the greatest writer ever to win a Pulitzer Prize and be a member of The Junior League of Jackson, Mississippi.
Ms. Welty came to Birmingham-Southern College in 1986 as a guest of its nationally respected Writing Today writing conference. Every year, the conference invites some literary luminary to receive a grandmaster award, sort of a lifelong achievement honor for writers. I was a friend of friends who planned the conference.
Get-togethers of writers always have great sideshow moments. One year at Writing Today, I met James Dickey at an exclusive party for the visiting writers. I played an air guitar version of “Dueling Banjos” with him to widespread cheers until, very very drunk, the great poet threw up in his own mouth and tottered out the front door to add further color to the pink azaleas outside.
Another year, I chauffeured William Styron about town. He was a spruce little guy, intensely serious, always dressed in a Navy blue jacket with bright little buttons. Gloomy fellow. If he’d had a visible thought balloon over his head, it would have read “I’m Depressed” in capital letters.
I met Peter Taylor and John Barth and Shelby Foote. I met Richard North Patterson and Ray Bradbury and Mary Pope Osborne and my future agent and my future editor at Writing Today. Aspiring writers and lovers of good literature should check out this worthwhile conference.
I very nearly met Eudora Welty.
Somehow, through a fantastic pretzel-twist of fate, I learned shortly before the writer’s conference that I was scheduled to meet one-on-one with the famous writer on the Saturday morning before her reading.
I was quite excited, as you might imagine. That Saturday arrived, and I got to the college early, very happy to be meeting one of the South’s very finest. But then, just 10 minutes before that meeting, one of the conference planners approached me and uttered stunning words: “Well, Charles, are you prepared for your interview with Ms. Welty?”
No one had mentioned an interview. Ever. Not once.
Now, in 10 quick minutes, Eudora Welty expected me to walk through a door and sit down and ask some intelligent questions about a writer’s life and work.
I had no pen. No paper. No recording device. No questions ready. No research done. I didn’t really have a deep knowledge of Eudora Welty’s work.
What did I have? Hyperventilation. Heavy sweat stains, both underarms.
You see, Eudora Welty was more than a household name in those days. If William Faulkner were southern literature’s Mt. Everest, Eudora Welty was K2 – easily the second-best-known Southern writer of her time, the kind of figure who could elevate a young, unpublished writer named, oh, let’s say Charles, to, oh, let’s say, the stature of a Matterhorn or even a Pike’s Peak with a single call or letter to a publisher.
And here I was about to walk into a 30-minute interview – 30 minutes to climb K2 – without a freaking clue what to ask, say, talk about, or avoid discussing at all costs.
My meeting with one of the great writers of the day looked like hara-kiri, Southern style.
Welty had once been like me, unknown and barely published. Her stories appeared in magazines, but she was hardly K2. Then Katherine Anne Porter, the Texas short-story writer and novelist who wrote Pale Horse, Pale Rider and Ship of Fools and other fine works, spotted Welty and took her on as a project. She mentored the young Eudora and helped open the right doors.
I had been fervently hoping that in our meeting, Eudora Welty would invite me to send her some of my own stories. She’d recognize their sheer unearthly beauty, become my mentor, my Katherine Anne Porter. I’d win all the literary prizes by age 30, I’d cavort with Cindy Crawford. I’d live in houses in San Francisco, New York, Paris, and Pine Apple, Alabama, and I’d own enough of the planet to make Ted Turner look like a sharecropper.
Now, 10 minutes before the guillotine of literary humiliation dropped, I did my best to remember something – anything – to ask Eudora Welty.
I remembered the notable stories in Welty’s first short story collection, A Curtain of Green. Several had been anthologized all over creation. “The Petrified Man” was in there, a story of gossip and petty people in a Jackson beauty parlor that ranks as a classic story in dialogue. There was “Why I Live At The P.O.,” P.O. meaning post office, which takes a southern-fried view of a family so funny and dysfunctional that it makes The Simpsons look aristocratic.
There’s the story, “A Worn Path,” a heartbreaking look at the state of the black and white races in the South of Welty’s time. All were classic stories, worth a discussion any time, any place, any interview.
OK, so start there, I thought. Ask about those stories. And what did I remember Welty once tell The Paris Review about being an eavesdropper? “I’m not as much as I used to be, or would like to be,” she said, “because I don’t hear as well as I used to.”
When Paris Review asked if Faulkner’s work influenced her own, she said this:
“It was like living near a big mountain, something majestic – it made me happy to know it was there, all that work of his life. But it wasn’t a helping or hindering presence. Its magnitude, all by itself, made it something remote in my own working life. When I thought of Faulkner, it was when I read.”
And finally, the Review asked how Eudora Welty wrote, and she brilliantly didn’t answer that one: “There’s W.C. Fields,” she said, “who read an analysis of how he juggled. He couldn’t juggle for six years afterwards. He’d never known that was how it was done. He’d just thrown up the balls and juggled.”
I looked at the clock. Five minutes. Five minutes till Welty Waterloo.
Later on, I would find a few lines in A Curtain of Green that I would have liked to have read to her in our interview.
It’s the first paragraph of “The Whistle,” a strange bleak story that sprung right out of Welty’s memories from work with the WPA during the Depression, when she traveled and took pictures. She even earned a little fame as a photographer, a nice side portion to go with the heaping helping of notoriety served up by the 1973 Pulitzer Prize for The Optimist’s Daughter, and the later Presidential Medal of Freedom and the French Legion of Honor award.
Here’s the beginning of “The Whistle:”
In Birmingham, on that spring morning, exposed like those gray and featherlike tomato plants, I stood up to go to my star-crossed interview with Eudora Welty. To meet my end.
But, then came a miracle, just like in a children’s book of saints.
The door to the meeting room swung open, and Mrs. So-and-So for the writer’s conference came out of the door and looked down at me with solemn, pitying eyes. She nearly – I’m not sure, but I think so – nearly shed tears.
“Charles,” she said, “I’ve got some bad news. Ms. Welty isn’t feeling well. She’s asked if we could let her rest up for her reading. I’m afraid there won’t be an interview. I’m so sorry.”
I nearly shed tears too. Tears of relief.
I’m probably the happiest writer on the face of planet earth to have never met Eudora Welty.
I did catch Ms. Welty’s reading later on. And, yes indeed, K2 had a terrible cold. She punctuated her wonderful reading with nasal honking and heavy sniffling, and at moments her voice faded to a papery whisper.
After the reading, when everyone had left the auditorium, I climbed onto the stage where the great lady had read.
On the lectern I found a very well-used Kleenex tissue.
It looked like someone had dipped it in egg yolk.
Very gingerly, using just the tiniest tips of my fingernails, I picked Eudora Welty’s Kleenex up and dropped it into a paper bag.
I gave Eudora Welty’s used Kleenex to my best friend for a Christmas present the next December. I even wrapped it up. My buddy was an up-and-coming Southern writer, already with his first novel out. He’d lived in Jackson for a while. He was a big fan of K2.
He swears it’s his favorite used Kleenex he ever got for a Christmas present.