For Denis Johnson, it was Leonard Gardner's cult favorite Fat City; for Jonathan Safran Foer, it was a brief encounter with Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai; Mary Gordon's mentors were two Barnard professors, writers Elizabeth Hardwick and Janice Thaddeus, whose lessons could not have been more different. In Mentors, Muses & Monsters, edited and with a contribution by Elizabeth Benedict, author of the National Book Award finalist Slow Dancing, thirty of today's brightest literary lights turn their attention to the question of mentorship and influence, exploring the people, events, and books that have transformed their lives. The result is an astonishing collection of stirring, insightful, and sometimes funny personal essays.
In her communications with contributors, Benedict noticed a longing to thank the people who had changed their lives, and to acknowledge them the best way a storyteller can, by revealing the intricacies of their connection. These writers look back to when something powerful happened to them at an unpredictable age, a moment when a role model saw potential in them, or when they came to understand they possessed literary talent themselves. As most of these encounters occurred when the writers were young -- unsure of who they were or what they could accomplish -- several pieces radiate a poignant tenderness, and almost all of them express enduring gratitude.
When Joyce Carol Oates describes her public-rivalry-turned-wary-professional-acquaintanceship with Donald Barthelme, we are privy to the fascinating sight of one of today's most important writers being directly, personally affected by another influential writer. When Sigrid Nunez reveals what it was like to be Susan Sontag's protégé, we get a glimpse into the private life and working philosophy of a formidable public intellectual. And when Jane Smiley describes her first year at the Iowa Writers' Workshop in 1974, she offers an intimate portrait of a literary milieu of enduring significance for American literature.
Rich, thought-provoking, and often impassioned, these pieces illuminate not only the anxiety but the necessity of influence -- and also the treasures it yields. By revealing themselves as young men and women in search of direction and meaning, these artists explore the endlessly varied paths to creative awakening and literary acclaim.
Free Press, October 2009
eBook, 256 pages