A Visit with Evan S. Connell


At Work

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.