Bob visited riverrun. We chatted. How did he get interested in reading, I wondered.
"I always read," said Bob. "But just the ordinary books that everyone was reading. Then when I was in high school, Them [Joyce Carol Oates] came out in paperback. It was about the time it won the National Book Award. Them changed my reading life.
"Oates was prolific so there quite a bit of her work already in print. I went back and read it all. It affected me so much that I wrote to her."
Bob must have been just a kid then. Did she write back?
"Yes, I was in 10th or 11th grade. Fifteen or sixteen. And yes, she wrote back. I thought she was in Windsor, Ontario. Actually she was in England but my letter got to her and she sent me a postcard from London. It had a reproduction of Botticelli's Venus. The one on the half shell from the Tate Museum. I still have it."
Oates' writing awakened Bob's critical reading interest.
"I read Philip Roth, John Updike, John Cheever.
"John Cheever came to my high school in Ossining while I was there. He gave a mini course. We met up in a corner of the balcony over the auditorium. It was open to anyone but there were just a few of us. I was actually reading Cheever's short stories at the time but I didn't like the idea of bringing his book to the class. I brought short stories by Oates instead.
"At one point another student asked John Cheever to recommend some writers. 'Saul Bellow,' said Cheever. 'Philip Roth. John Updike.' Then Cheever looked over at my book. 'And, ah well, yes, I always say, straight away, start your day with a bowl of Joyce Carol Oates and bananas.'
"When I quoted this to Oates, she said, 'Cheever has always been an unpredictable soul.' "
John Cheever lived in this area and he went to a local AA. "Each AA member is assigned a mentor. Do you know who was Cheever's mentor?"
I did, but I thought it was supposed to be a secret. Bob assured me it was no secret. Both Cheever and the mentor had been outed in a recent biography of John Cheever. Already outed or not, I prefer to say just that the mentor was a book dealer that both Bob and I knew.
Bob McPhillips read good and interesting books from his last years of high school on. He went to Colgate and majored in English, of course. He took his graduate studies at University of Minnesota where he was admitted with a teaching assistantship. By this time McPhillips already had a well established relationship with the Birth of Venus post card sender. He wrote his PhD thesis on Joyce Carol Oates.
"It took me a long time to finish that dissertation. Each of her sentences took me off into an area I wanted to discuss. Some people say that Oates overwrites. Too many words. I think this may have been one of the things that drew me to her. I might use too many words too; might pursue too many paths. There was no one there telling me to tighten my focus and I wanted to examine everything."
Before the dissertation was finished McPhillips was writing literary criticism.
"Did you know I was Joyce Carol Oates' official literary biographer for a little while?"
I didn't. How did that come about and why was it just for a little while?
"I met Elizabeth Pochoda at a conference. She was the literary editor at the Nation magazine. Elizabeth invited me to the Nation to do some reviews. For instance, I reviewed Breathing Lessons by Anne Tyler just before it got the Pulitzer Prize. I didn't give it a particularly good review. I enjoyed reviewing for The Nation.
"Phil Pochoda was Elizabeth's husband. He was in publishing but switched sides to become a literary agent. He and Elizabeth decided that a biography of Joyce Carol Oates would be desirable and marketable and a good way for Phil to begin his new career. They launched the project. I hadn't finished my dissertation but I'd written a lot about Oates. They asked me to author it. They were both very helpful with my proposal to Oates. She liked the idea and appointed me her official literary biographer.
"Probably the best approach would have been to go to Oates' editor, Billy Abrams at Dutton. Phil was an enthusiastic beginner though. He said we should be aggressive. He sent proposals to every important editor. 'We'll have it on their desks waiting when they get back from Nantucket, or wherever. Then in August, we'll have an auction.'
"It was an overplay though. It didn't work out well and I didn't want to pursue it. Greg Johnson had already written about Oates. He suggested that he write another about her personal life and I write one about her literary life. Both Elizabeth and Phil were warmly encouraging, but I bowed out."
How did that affect his relationship with Oates?
"Not at all, really. I concentrated on finishing my dissertation. I sent her a copy . She sent me a limited edition of her poetry. I continued to see her and her husband from time to time. I still feel very connected to Oates. Very fine writer."
At riverrun bookshop there are always stacks of marvelously good things piled precariously. It's hard to avoid knocking a stack over. Sure enough. Bossing Bob around about photo placement, I misdirected him right into one of these stacks. Over it went. Everything got reshuffled. The mishap exposed a lovely broadside of Snowfall by Oates. It must have been karma. Bob McPhillips and Joyce Carol Oates are indeed connected
Bob McPhillips' book on New Formalism B & N
book review of Them
profile of Elizabeth Pochoda