To commemorate John Gardner’s 90th birthday, Harpur Palate is thrilled to publish the following conversation between Binghamton University alumna Julene Waffle and Professor Liz Rosenberg.
Ninety years ago, on July 21, 1933, a literary master was born in Batavia, NY. John Gardner was a brilliant mind who didn’t mind sharing that brilliance with everyone. In his writing, in his teaching, in his loving, he was bold, passionate, generous, and brave.
Gardner authored over 30 books, including an avant-garde retelling of Beowulf from Grendel’s point of view, and his still relevant and authoritative book on writing, titled The Art of Fiction (published posthumously in 1983), whose advice to young writers could easily apply to anyone and any genre. He is also the eponym for Binghamton University’s John Gardner Memorial Prize in Fiction. He was a great friend and mentor to many students at Binghamton University.
Liz Rosenberg met him while a student at Bennington College. After graduation and after the end of his first marriage, Liz and John married in 1980. Through Liz’s eyes we can glimpse what life was like with this literary genius.
Julene Waffle: What was your relationship like with John Gardner?
Liz Rosenberg: Even now, he is hard to speak about. We became friends after we were teacher and student. We loved each other very much. It is very hard for a man and a woman to be best friends, especially with a more than 20-year age difference between them, so we married.
JW: What was he like to live with on a private level?
LR: He was lovely. He had very little patience for wasting time—which included things like going to movies or eating out at a restaurant. He believed we should cook all our own meals, that I should spin and weave and sew my own clothes, that we should raise goats and children—in other words, we were terribly mismatched as husband and wife. Our backgrounds were entirely different. But our brains were madly in love.
JW: In spite of being entirely different, what did you do for fun together?
LR: Well, we talked like mad. We once drove fifty miles past an exit because we were so busy talking. And we both agreed that writing, and reading, and thinking about writing and reading were the most fun things in our world. We also did other goofier things, of course, like staying up too late and seeing friends and listening to music and pretending we knew how to cook.
JW: What idiosyncrasies did John have that made him lovable? Conversely, what habits of his drove you crazy?
LR: He was the kindest, quickest, cleverest, swiftest soul I ever knew. He was tireless, absolutely tireless, and fearless when it mattered most. It didn’t surprise me to learn he’d been a high jumper in school. He was all the qualities of all the three brothers in the fairy tales: handsome and clever and foolish. The same things that made him amazing made him exasperating, and the same things that made him exasperating made him amazing.
JW: What was he like as a teacher?
LR: I sometimes joke that it was so hard to find a great creative writing teacher, when I finally found one I married him. John was not the only the best teacher I’ve ever known, but he was more intense, more committed than any I’ve ever known. He was infinitely generous to new and/or beginning writers. He’d write a blurb, make an introduction, call an editor, read a manuscript in progress for anyone who asked. As a teacher he was straightforward, he pulled no punches. And he was very protective of any student who tried. Plus, it was just a pleasure to hear him talk. They say Coleridge’s genius at conversation was beyond anything that paper can contain, but I’d stand John against him. He’d start out talking about, say, Beowulf, and go off into conversation about Japanese pottery, Cervantes, Beethoven, roof-tiling and somehow at the end it came back around to Beowulf, on point.
JW: In On Moral Fiction, John clearly believed that good literature must test human values to promote human fulfillment. What would you say John valued in writing and writers?
LR: He valued craft, of course. And serious ideas—because he was a philosophical novelist to the core. He loved magical realism and sleight of hand, as well as beautiful clunkiness and oddity. But I think more than anything he valued writers who grappled with the big questions, and who loved the world—including their own characters, their readers. He believed great art could save the world. He valued all the life savers.
JW: What did a day in John Gardner’s life, the writer, look like? What excited him about writing?
LR: He spent all day writing, stopping only for air and a little food. He’d spend some time with people—students, friends, family, loved ones. Then he’d go back to writing all night. That’s what it looked like because that’s what it actually was. Everything about writing excited him—from hammering out a plot, to tearing it all apart, to putting it all together again. He was a fair carpenter. I think that shows in his work. He understood structure and purpose in a deep way.
JW: One of his most influential books on writers around the world, The Art of Fiction (1983) is still regarded as an informative resource for writers today. Can you explain that lasting influence?
LR: Well, it’s a wonderful resource which he wrote with his friend Lennis Dunlap. I have a very vivid memory of that book because he was working at it while tethered to an IV pole before a serious surgery at Johns Hopkins Hospital. He wasn’t sure he’d survive the surgery—no one was sure, including the surgeon—so he was still typing away at it just before they wheeled him off. It’s a great book. For any kind of writer.
JW: How did he influence you as a writer?
LR: He influenced me in every way, in a thousand ways and still does. He set the bar impossibly high in terms of a work ethic (he worked eight, ten, twelve hours at a time). The speed of his brilliant mind, his quickness of speech, his capacity to love. . . Artistically, he taught a thousand thousand things, and I learned at least a handful. As a writer, he was a master juggler trying to convince the rest of us how simple it was.
JW: How did you influence John?
LR: I believe I provided a degree of calm for him. A moment of peace. His first marriage was very turbulent, very loving but troubled. And he had a traumatic childhood, involving a farm accident in which his younger brother was killed for which he felt a great deal of guilt. I tried to cast some light into the dark corners.
JW: Did you help him with his writing? If so, how? Were you an ear? An editor? Were you involved at all in the process?
LR: Oh, that was clearly how we fell in love. As readers for each other’s work. I never found a better one—he’s still the reader there in my mind’s eye as I write. Young and stupid as I was, he trusted me too. That was rare, it’s always rare in any writer’s life, to find someone like that. He used to call me The Cricket. I was involved in his process, yes—but he literally wrote faster than I could edit and read. I’d tell him, Slow down! He never did, of course—to the very end.
JW: You were married for two years. What was your relationship like after you divorced?
LR: Well, as I said, we were best friends. After we divorced, we remained friends. The night before he died in the motorcycle accident he asked me to be his best man at his upcoming wedding. I explained that I could not do that without upsetting the bride and the whole wedding party. There was never any doubt that we loved each other. That was never going to stop. And indeed it never has.
JW: In The Opinionator, you wrote a piece entitled, “Replacing the Irreplaceable” (2015). You have clearly been dealt your share of tragedy, but you call yourself lucky because you have had the chance to love fiercely and intensely and be loved the same in return. How has John’s influence and others’ love help you return the favor to the world?
LR: I struggle with that every day, Julene. But it’s a great question. John lived the answer. My second husband David, now also deceased, lived the answer. The truly great inspire us to keep trying.
JW: Imagine John was here right now, what would he want to do for his birthday? How would he like to spend it and what would be the gift you might give him?
LR: He would want to write. It’s his birthday, that’s fine, but he still wants to write. He’d want to see his kids because he adored Joel and Lucy. He’d like to see that the children and grandchildren all survived the terrible loss of him. He’d have wanted that most of all. The gift I could give him would be whatever book I’ve written that he would like best—that’s what he’d have wanted. He also loved ice cream, so an ice cream cake would be good.
JW: What advice would he give writers today? Or for that matter, anyone, all of us livers of life?
LR: He would advise you to “watch with both eyes” as Odin says after he steals one eye from his adversary. But seriously, he’d say, pay attention. Pay attention to the world. Realize you are responsible for everything going on in your little corner of it. And if you want to write, then for God’s sakes, write. Just keep on. Have faith. Have what he called “divine stubbornness.”
Liz Rosenberg, from Long Island, NY, is an American poet, novelist, biographer, and children’s book author. She is the author of several award winning poetry collections, anthologies, and books, including Demon Love (2008), novels The Moonlight Palace (2014) and Indigo Hill (2018) as well as recent biographies of L.M. Montgomery (2018) and Louisa May Alcott (2021). Rosenberg is also a Fulbright and NEH fellow. She teaches English and Creative Writing at Binghamton University in New York.
Julene Waffle graduated from Hartwick College and Binghamton University. She is a rural public high school English teacher in upstate NY, an entrepreneur, nature lover, wife, and mother of three boys, two dogs, three cats, and a bearded dragon. Her work has appeared in The Adroit Journal Blog, NCTE’s English Journal, The Blue Mountain Review, The Ekphrastic Review, The Bangalore Review, and Mslexia, among journals and anthologies. Her chapbook So I Will Remember was published in 2020. Learn more at www.wafflepoetry.com, @JuleneWaffle on Twitter, and @julenewaffle on Instagram.