journalism

Remembering writer John C. Keats

OpenRoad Media got some press recently for releasing The Lord of Publishing, the memoirs of an old literary agent. And I do mean old. Sterling Lord is 92 years old, and still sharing stories of his past clients, such as Jack Kerouac, Dick Francis, Jimmy Breslin, Frank DeFord, Howard Fast, and Nicholas Pileggi.

I first heard about Lord when I was in my teens. One of my journalism professors, John C. Keats (top), was a Lord client. Keats had spent his career churning out books of social criticism during the 50s. He attacked the suburbs and their cookie-cutter houses, Detroit and its dangerous cars, and on and on. One of the best descriptions I heard about Keats’ work was that “he took on Detroit when Ralph Nader was still in his Buster Browns.” Later he wrote biographies on Howard Hughes and Dorothy Parker. He was a definitely a 50s man, and by the time he and I met he was heading into retirement but still teaching journalism. The rap on the teachers in the magazine journalism department was that you ought to take magazine writing with Bill Glavin, my dear professor whom I wrote about last November, and magazine editing with Keats. Keats struck me as a professional curmudgeon. He read one of my short stories once and said, “Nice writing. You have talent. But I don’t believe a word of what you’ve written.”

Ouch.

Keats told us that even if he landed a magazine assignment on his own, without Lord’s intervention or assistance, he always sent Lord a check for his 10% anyway. Knowing what I know about agent-writer relationships today, I’d regard this as unthinkable, but Keats said he did it because he believed Lord had invested in his total career and was entitled to that small token.

I enjoyed reading about Keats in Sterling Lord’s book:

John was in the process of withdrawing from the society he critiqued. He and his wife Margaret moved to Pine Island in the Thousand Islands area of the St. Lawrence River… When I needed John, I would call the Andress Boat Works, in the tiny town of Rockport, Ontario, and tell them I wanted to talk to John Keats. Someone would board a motorboat and bounce over the two miles to Pine Island to deliver the message. Once it was received, John would hop into one of this boats and motor to the tiny Canadian general store that had the phone to call me back. It was quaint and cumbersome, but it worked.

I saw that island once, the day before I graduated, when Keats took a group of his “student bodies” up there to help him and Marge open the house for the season. Keats forgot the food he was supposed to bring for our lunch, and we made do with soup out of the pantry. I’ll never forget how angry he was at himself for that, and how he chalked it up to his advancing age. 

He and I stayed in touch after Syracuse and I treasure the letters that originated on that island, where he’d tell of listening to Caruso on the record player while turtles and “Devonian-seeming pike” plied the waters. When his wife died and he got too old for the island, he moved to an assisted living home on the river. He wrote some letters from there and we talked a few times, but he suffered from aphasia, which made everything difficult. I was sad to hear the news of his passing in 2000 at the age of 80. I helped another Keats alum write and submit the obituary which ran in the New York Times. The photo Dana sent to the Times is the one above, which hangs on my office wall today.

It was nice to think of Keats again, and see him come to life — even if only on three pages or so — as I read Lord’s recollections.

Lord’s book is available in paper and ebook. It’s a neat look at a world that feels long gone. You can catch a taste of it in this Vanity Fair article about Lord that ran recently.

If you have ever read any of Keats’s books, please consider leaving a review for them on Goodreads, where I set up a profile for him.


2019 Update: I’ve corrected the dead link to the New York Times obit, and have re-named the link to this post due to advice from Google’s search engine. In the future, I’d like to post other links about Keats that are available online. If anyone reading this finds interesting articles about him, kindly let me know via the Contact page, and I’ll post them in the future.

And yes, I am trying to post here more often. Thank you for noticing. If you want to sign up for my newsletter and claim your free ebook, go here. Thank you! — Joseph D’Agnese

Thank you, Bill

Bill Glavin was a writing teacher of mine in college. We stayed in touch after I graduated and would meet every now and then along the banks of the Beaverkill River in upstate New York. There he managed to teach me whatever I know about fly-fishing, which is still not much. It’s a sport I only ever did with him. I liked going up there and living in a camper for a few days and hearing him talk against the sound of a river.

He was from Boston and had a funny accent. He loved sports, mostly baseball, and on many of those nights in front of the fire he’d listen to a game on the radio. I knew nothing about sports and couldn’t really bond with him about that. But I was into books and writing, and he had plenty to say about that.

His later, younger students got to know him during the rise of Harry Potter, and referred to Glavin as their Dumbledore. Our thing—his and mine—was crime fiction. He loved Sherlock Holmes, he loved Rex Stout. He enjoyed “newer” guys too, like Elmore Leonard and James Lee Burke, and Boston guys like Robert B. Parker and Dennis Lehane, of course. In fact, the first book signing I ever attended was when Glavin took me to meet Parker, who was signing at the university bookstore. Imagine that: Robert B. Parker signing at a university bookstore! The writer looked bored out of his mind, and was horrified that Glavin would want a signed copy of Love & Glory, a love story which Parker had written early in his career and which a reviewer had once described as “cloying and bathetic.” (That was the sole reason Glavin wanted it.)

Glavin loved the writing of Mark Twain and never stopped looking for writing that made him laugh. He always said it was hard to write funny, yet he certainly seemed to turn up countless of great examples for us to read and dissect in class. He culled them from newspapers and magazines, and later in his teaching career, the Internet. I once watched him try to read a Dave Barry column all the way through without stopping. He was laughing so hard that tears ran down his face. The piece wasn’t nearly that funny the next time I read it for myself.

From about the mid-seventies on, Glavin ran a one-man placement center from his office in the journalism school in Syracuse. Whenever former students called asking him for help looking for a job, he’d start working the phones. I don’t know how many of those calls resulted in jobs, but the Syracuse journalism mafia is no joke in New York City. A lot of the editors running those magazines got their start in one of Glavin’s classes, trying to write three paragraphs without using a form of the verb to be. Many of the students in the magazine department were women; still are, I guess. Guys were rare in that major. I don’t know why.

Maybe that’s why we bonded, why he became a second father to me. (There’s nothing wrong about my dad, by the way. He’s a stand-up guy, just not a writer.) Long after college I’d phone Glavin to ask his advice on pieces I was working on, or to share a hilarious article I’d found, or to talk about a great book I’d read, or just to hear his gravelly, smoker’s voice. Much of the time I spent on the phone with him consisted of me trying to get him to laugh. I loved hearing his chuckle.

Surprisingly for a guy who helped so many others perfect their craft, Glavin did little writing of his own. I was not the only person who told him he ought to write about fishing. He loved it so much, didn’t he? Hadn’t he read us countless excerpts of Norman Maclean’s A River Runs Through It over the years? Why couldn’t he try his hand at that kind of memoir? He certainly had the stories to fill it.

He said nah, if he wrote about fishing then fishing would become work, and he never wanted to let that happen. One night on the river he admitted that there was one thing he wanted to write about, and maybe one day he would.

"The older I get," he said, "the more obsessed I become in the things that obsessed me as a kid. I don’t know why that is, but it is. And I’d want to figure out why."

I assumed he was talking about three things: baseball, fishing, and writing. Glavin never married and never had kids. His students and faculty colleagues were his closest family. He had plenty of time to indulge in those obsessions, and his colleagues probably envied his freedom to do so.

Two years ago, Glavin got sick. At first the monster plodded along, then roused itself to tear through his lungs. A bunch of people rushed to Bill’s bedside, hoping to say goodbye. I showed up late in the game, and the sight of him shook me. I remember uttering a single, silent prayer, directed to whomever: If you’re going to kill him, do it now. Or work a fucking miracle. This halfway thing is bullshit.

Maybe once every 30 years those of us among the irreligious are allowed a run on the hotline. Glavin died the next morning. He would have been 70 today. It’s hard to sit quietly sometimes and think or talk about him because it still hurts. Until now I’ve resisted trying to write about him.

We all want a loved one’s death to mean something. Holding onto a signifier—whether a word or an object—is akin to hanging onto the ones we’ve lost. Glavin’s words on the river are the ones I think about the most these days. I think he was trying to make sense of something most novelists I know accept as gospel: that all fiction springs from their obsessions. That’s certainly true for me right now. If your fiction has any power at all, it’s because you’re mining something that’s authentic for you. If your work is in any way unique, it’s because you had experiences growing up that were wholly your own but still somehow universal.

The second you start writing, all these things starting coming out. That’s probably why writing is hard. You’re constantly dodging the landmines of your past, selecting the stuff that furthers your art and ignoring the stuff that only makes good therapy sessions. When it’s going well, that act can be beautiful. It’s helpful to remind myself from time to time that all the raw material comes from the same place. They are things lodged in my heart. Like you, Bill.



Photo courtesy Syracuse University.