Two years ago Malcolm Gladwell published an article in The New Yorker about prodigies and late bloomers, comparing the artistic careers of painters Picasso and Cezanne, and writers Jonathan Safran Foer and Ben Fountain. Ben Fountain’s story interested me particularly, because it took him many years to write and publish his first (excellent) book, Brief Encounters with Che Guevara, and because he was so acutely aware that he would not have been able to write the book at all without the financial and emotional support of his wife, Sharie, who encouraged him to leave his promising legal career to become a writer.
On my wedding day, my mother was very busy putting the finishing touches on the wedding cake top, which she’d sculpted herself. In the sculpture, Richard and I are seated at a picnic. He is playing his guitar and a little book (my MFA thesis, a novel) lies on the grass beside us. In creating the cake top, my mother understood that because Richard and I are both artists (he’s a poet and musician), it would be important for us to support each other, to make room in our marriage for writing and music and art.
Today is Richard’s birthday, and he is absolutely as important to my work as Sharie is to Ben Fountain’s. Without Richard, I don’t think Mattaponi Queen would be a book on its way to print. He’s the one who encouraged me, after we moved to North Carolina, to work part time for a while so that I could write. He’s also the one who sent the manuscript to the Bakeless contest. I was teaching at a KIPP school in D.C. at the time, working many more than forty hours a week and feeling generally overwhelmed–too overwhelmed to worry about a manuscript and its slim chances in the publishing world. But Richard, who was also working a lot, believed in me and in my work. He said, “I think contests are the way to go with this book.” I said, “Okay”–or maybe I didn’t even say that. I was busy writing lesson plans or grading papers. It must have been fall. I didn’t think anything more about it.
In the winter–January or February–I came home from work and it was dark. There was a light blinking on the answering machine, and a message that I was a finalist for the Bakeless Prize, along with eleven others, and was the book still available? I didn’t even know Richard had submitted it! Of course it was available!
I was thrilled but had no expectation that I would win. If you’re a writer who sends things to contests, you probably have had the experience of being runner-up. Or finalist. Many times! Some of us list this on our resumes. I always put everything on my resume even if it has little to do with teaching middle school, which is usually what I do for a living.
So then, on March 27, two days after Richard’s birthday, Michael Collier called at 8:00 in the morning; Richard answered and handed me the phone with a significant look. I honestly thought he was calling to tell me I was runner-up (which would have itself been a thrill). I’d met Michael years ago during a snowstorm in Maryland, when I was looking at MFA programs, and he was as kind on the phone as I remembered he’d been in person. He had to assure me a couple of times that it was true–the book had won, and it would be published in a little more than a year. I could not thank Richard enough that day. I still can’t. When I tell people this story, especially other writers, they always tell me how lucky I am, and I always say, “I know.”
The photo above is one I took of Richard from earlier that same week of his birthday and the Bakeless news–we were in Florida for a short spring break trip, kayaking through the mangroves.