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A Visit with Evan S. Connell

January 15, 2013 | by

Evan S. Connell, who died last week, was eighty-six when I interviewed him at Ponce de Leon, a nursing home in Santa Fe, New Mexico, where he had moved after selling his condominium at Fort Marcy. He had lived an incredibly solitary life. One of his caretakers mentioned that some of the other residents assumed at first that he was mute. I wish that the transcribed text that follows better reflected Mr. Connell’s timbre, because you’d be able to hear the way his inarticulacy was equal parts reticence and modesty. He had a wonderful laugh, a huh-huh-huh, gentle and self-deprecating. You could tell he was accustomed to downplaying his erudition. But he clearly wanted to communicate what he considered important.

The Paris Review was notorious for several things, one of which was it was almost impossible to get them to pay you. They bought two or three stories from me over the years, and it took forever to get paid. I happened to meet George Plimpton on the street one time. It was about noon, and George said, “Have you had lunch?” We went to a local bistro and the bill came—it was about a dollar and half for the two of us. We both stared at it. George finally said, “Oh, uh, let me treat you to lunch.” The Review had owed me ten thousand francs, which was about twelve dollars and fifty cents, for I don’t know how long. It occurred to me that if I let George buy my lunch for seventy-five cents, it was going to take another year to get paid.

You write very powerfully about hunger and starvation in The White Lantern.

I was reading the memoirs of Arctic explorers. They go through these terrible days, one after the other, and at the end they say to one another, “This has been a rather difficult day." I thought it was funny.

A major theme of your early work is understatement—your own as a stylist and what goes unsaid between people.

My father kept everything to himself. He and my mother were visiting Europe one time, and my father wanted to go to the battlefield where he had served during World War I. But he was afraid my mother would be bored. She wouldn’t have minded—but he couldn’t ask her, so they didn’t go. My father was one of the first to go up in an airplane. He was stationed at a French airfield. He had a carton of cigarettes, and managed to communicate to a young French pilot that he’d give him the cigarettes in exchange for a ride. The French boy didn’t explain to my father that there was such a thing as a safety belt. He turned the two-seater upside down for a bit of excitement. My father saw the Seine overhead. When I was in the Navy, night flying or flying blind, I used to think of him hanging on for his life.

Of Walter Bridge you write, “He intended to benefit by the foolishness of his father: he would not repeat his father’s error.”

I was supposed to become a physician, to follow my father in the family practice. His father had been a physician. My father was also Evan S. Connell.

What did your father think of your novel Mr. Bridge?

He was afraid to read it. I never knew what he thought.

You begin the book, “Often he thought: My life did not begin until I knew her. She would like to hear this, he was sure, but he did not know how to tell her.” How did your parents talk to each other?

They didn’t.

Mr. Bridge copies out a love letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne: “Thou only hast revealed me to myself; for without thy aid, my best knowledge of myself, would have been merely to know my own shadow—to watch it flickering on the wall, and mistake its fantasies for my own real actions.” In your poem Notes from a Bottle Found at the Beach in Carmel, you write almost the opposite: “Come with me or stay. I am full of dreams and charged with strange excitement. Although I am not at ease in this world, there is no one who can stop me.”

This over here is a two-thousand-year-old tortilla maker.

Critics have called you “highly reflexive, self-referential, but never confessional.” Do you think that’s right?

I just do it the way I think it should be done. Sometimes I have no idea what critics are talking about.

You once said that when you lived in San Francisco, you had a view of the Golden Gate Bridge from your study, but you turned your desk to the wall. Was that your asceticism?

There were a couple girls who used to sunbathe on the roof right outside, so I had to pull down the shades. I wrote all day every day. Used to be if I was in a good place I could write all day long and be anxious to get up in the morning.

17 COMMENTS

17 Comments

  1. Matthew Specktor | January 15, 2013 at 12:43 pm

    Wonderful interview, Gemma. I just re-read Mrs. Bridge last year and was really amazed by it. I’m pulling Mr. Bridge into the on-deck circle.

  2. CDarcy | January 15, 2013 at 1:14 pm

    Interesting interview, but I’m a bit lost on the tortilla line. Can you give us some context?

  3. Lorin Stein | January 15, 2013 at 5:41 pm

    CDarcy, I suspect he may have been changing the subject?

  4. Thomas Mallard | January 16, 2013 at 8:35 am

    You’ve really undone yourselves here.

  5. CDarcy | January 16, 2013 at 1:57 pm

    Lorin Stein, that’s what I thought. But I really wanted to learn more about ancient tortilla makers.

  6. Matt N. | January 17, 2013 at 12:33 pm

    Will the Paris Review publish (in good old-fashioned print) a full-length interview with Evan S. Connell? I hope so.

  7. Sadie Stein | January 17, 2013 at 2:19 pm

    Matt, rest assured we will keep you in the loop about all Connell-related content!

  8. Matt N. | January 17, 2013 at 5:44 pm

    Thanks. He was the best unknown of our time.

  9. Beverley de Graustark | January 18, 2013 at 6:50 am

    He´s a lovely genius. We will miss him.

  10. driedchar | January 22, 2013 at 10:08 pm

    Great interview. I’m currently reading Connell’s “The Connoisseur,” an artfully constructed book about a man who becomes hopelessly, inextricably obsessed with pre-Columbian figurines.

  11. HRH | January 27, 2013 at 12:43 pm

    The standard here is generally good. Why then are you proudly presenting us with a square of toilet paper Mr. Connell once wiped with? If this is the level of the stuff you have of the man, perhaps the decent thing to do is to simply let the marketing and publicity opportunities presented by his death pass in silence. Instead you’ve decided to flog the remaindered scraps you’ve got for all their worth. Your taste has let you down here. Plimpton would be ashamed, I expect.

  12. JJC | January 28, 2013 at 12:21 pm

    Oh, I don’t know, HRH. I got a pretty good sense of Connell from that brief interview. More than at a dinner party in Sausalito one night where his silence was unbroken. I thought, “What an asshole.” I think I was wrong, but maybe not. Wonderful writer though.

  13. HRH | January 29, 2013 at 11:55 pm

    He was a fine writer, JJC, no disagreement there. To my mind that only makes the rushing of bits and pieces to press uglier. Perhaps a richer portrait–the kind he merits–is forthcoming from this magazine. If so, let’s find the patience to wait for it, rather than play debasing media games with our artists.

  14. SJB | May 31, 2013 at 9:24 pm

    HRH I think you are quite mistaken. I love the sudden dazzling side step into cover behind the tortilla maker comment, and would not have missed it. Just because it didn’t resonate with you doesn’t mean it has no value.

  15. B | June 13, 2013 at 9:36 am

    I have read everything Mr. Connell has written and prefer his later work. Several of you speak as if he is a personal friend? I hope so – there is a special place for windbags and people of provocative nature who put on airs. He was a fine writer and it seems as time went on he was quietly amused “by it all”. And in later works if you picked it up – he had a terrific second voice in his narrative work. So just enjoy his work and- if you where a fringe? Don’t be a bore. But to get a thorough view of him here is a bit of information to chew on. There are 2 books that where translated from German by a man named Paul Herman a very long time ago. BcK

  16. Derrick | October 30, 2013 at 11:30 pm

    Just completed reading “Mr and Mrs Bridge” for the second time after a long gap of several years and I am amazed at the vitality of his story-telling. Now looking for something else of his to locate and read.

    Any suggestions, please?

  17. Justin Alvarez | October 31, 2013 at 8:02 am

    @Derrick, we would suggest the great, if sadly overlooked, “The Connoisseur,” which features the recurring character Muhlbach.

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