Meeting Richard Yates’s Biographer


Steve (my host) very kindly drove me out to Logan Airport at 7ish in the morning, with the air crisp and cold and clean. I checked in and had a Starbucks (and that alone made me feel American but why, oh why, is there no coffee in an American Starbucks? I miss proper coffee…), and then made my way to the gate for boarding. It was an unadventurous flight except that there was a sweet young couple, six months pregnant with their second child, who were travelling with their two year-old son to Texas as an early Thanksgiving departure. He, the dad who was a pilot, wasn’t going the whole way but was there to assist as far as our first stop in Philadelphia. It was lovely to watch their intoxication in everything their son did or said or intimated. This does of course sound so patronizing but how can I express my genuine delight at their parental love and shared joy at this small child’s antics? It reminded me so much of travelling with E. back and forth from Japan, thinking everyone wanted to hear his little jokes repeated, his witticisms relayed back and forth to the strangers kind enough to listen on the plane – their joy was so infectious and I too ended up genuinely delighted in the fact that he was looking for whales in the water outside Philadelphia (where we saw quite a lot of water) and his duck noise was sublime!

I landed in Virginia, Norfolk, to be exact just about 12.30 and got a cab to Tabb’s restaurant, as directed by Blake Bailey who was to meet me there. Tabb’s is a southern ‘shack’ in that it is a one story, one roomed, low-ceilinged café type place – very homely. There was some poor cultural exchange when I said to the cab driver to take a tip from a twenty dollar bill (explaining first that I had no idea how to tip) and he kept the whole bill – all twenty dollars of it, from a fare of thirteen dollars twenty. I could hardly say, actually I didn’t mean keep the lot. I rang Blake and five or ten minutes later he came running (yes, running, like someone late for their stage cue) into the restaurant with all the energy of a young boy. He was immediately likeable, very tactile, a little flirtatious (but no more than I am) and thoroughly engaged with my ‘project’. We gossiped to begin with as we ate, about all sorts of things and all sorts of people. It was idle and fun and bonding as most gossip tends to be. He explained that he and his wife and child are Hurricane Katrina victims and moved north after that disaster. While I was sad to hear about that, I was devastated when the full implications of this sank in; lots of Yates’s letters and other valuable papers were lost in Katrina’s wrecking power. Awful. I heard a little bit about Blake’s Cheever biography – due to be published in March (he later showed some real astonishment when I started to discuss The Wapshot Chronicle with him – ‘D’you mean you’ve read some Cheever too? Now I am impressed’ – or words to that effect). (Now that Blake has since told me his present project I have come to the very safe conclusion that he specializes in the f***** up lives of alcoholic men of the mid-twentieth century. He agrees. This is his domain, his speciality. Kate)

After we had eaten – and the fare was very southern with lots of fried fish of various kinds – and I had a side salad and then ‘rockfish in lime butter with French fries’ which was a special – we got down to business. I used my voice recorder and started asking my questions. Blake was very accommodating, kind and interested: his big point was that I shouldn’t get distracted by biography (and questioned even why I was seeing him – good question. Answer: for the gossip!) and I agreed that it was a temptation I was realizing every day anew that I would have to avoid – especially now that I’ve left the archive and moved into the realm of ‘connections’. We talked about Yates’s ability to fuse different perspectives and about the film and about the Twayne book which Blake agreed was very fine. I should add that Blake seemed genuinely delighted, and a little surprised, when I produced my copy of A Tragic Honesty for him to sign. ‘Oh my god! Look at the state of that! That’s what all writers want to see,’ he laughed as he took my tattered copy from my hand. Bits of paper were sticking out from its pages, the front cover is none too tidy and post-stick notes fell out.

I had two hours to kill at the very quiet airport of Norfolk Virginia and it was annoying that I couldn’t get internet access there. Flew from there to La Guardia and then fell through my friends’ door in Manhattan at about 7.45pm. We had a lovely supper during which I heard from O about his desire to act and the performing arts school he goes to, from S about soccer and from V and C about life in general and how their older boy is enjoying Brown. I slept in A’s (college-student) room and was asleep pretty fast.


3 Responses to “Meeting Richard Yates’s Biographer”

  1. The script for the RR film was just posted on the web, downloadable as PDF.

  2. kateonyates Says:

    Thanks DeWitt….that’s another bonus.

  3. Good stuff.

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