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Meeting Walter Kirn

The first time I met Walter Kirn was in the late 90s. He’d published his short story collection, My Hard Bargain, and She Needed Me. Stories from these collections had been published in literary magazines and Esquire, sealing his reputation as a hot new writer.

I was a creative writing student at a small liberal arts college on the west coast and our professor that year convinced the college to invite and host his writer friends throughout the year as a lecture series. It was a genius plan, honestly. Our teacher got to host his writing pals, his pals got to promote their work, and we eager students got to fawn over “Real! Live! Writers!”

Kirn read from his work in progress “Thumbsucker” and talked about his life from a podium in the lecture hall in front of interested students and community members. Afterward, we students, Kirn and our teacher ventured off campus for a soiree.

Kirn didn’t remember meeting me, but he did remember sitting with a group of misfit students in my professor’s small living room on a rainy night in Portland, Oregon. The group of us (probably ten) was too big to collect in the living room at the same time, so we students wandered between the living room and kitchen, lingered in the doorway or stepped out onto the front porch to have a smoke. We didn’t go far because we didn’t want to miss anything.

These were the days when writers were having a moment in popular culture. There was a brat pack of literature made up of recent graduates from writing programs like Johns Hopkins and the Iowa Workshop. And this was the time in my life where it seemed perfectly reasonable that I could make a living and have a productive life by staying up late imagining worlds I put on paper.

Kirn had that quality to his writing that we all admired. They called it masculine prose, evocative of Raymond Carver, Jack Kerouac,and Hemmingway. It was sparse, punchy and emotionally resonant.

What grunge was to music in the 90s, Denis Jonson, T.C. Boyle, Michael Chabon, Kathy Acker, Chuck Palahuniak, A.M. Homes and Walter Kirn were to literature. Edgy, ballsy, provocative. Emotionally restrained prose that captured life like snapshots, showing everything in a moment, revealing the private lives of characters that you believed with all your heart must be alive and living exactly as they were described.

Since then I’ve found that building a creative life is hard, but connecting with writers is easier than expected. I make it a point to follow and engage with writers I admire on social media. So when Kirn posted on Twitter that he was on a road trip around the US and the South and he was less than 4 hours from me, I had to reach out.

Not only was I a longtime fan of his writing, but I had recently learned that he had right-leaning political ideas. He was a crazy, out of control, socially liberal artist who also had a smattering of politically conservative opinions. He seemed to see world a lot like I do. Finding a kindred spirit sometimes seems more unlikely than meeting a literary hero. To find both in the same person was a stroke of luck.

Kirn took me up on the offer. We agreed to meet at a Crab Shack near my house for dinner and to shoot the shit. He was as easy to get along with as you can imagine. After some general chit-chat, he asked if he could interview me for a project he was working on. I agreed and he brought out an audio recorder. We talked about my history, my writing, my political opinions and some of the experiences I had coming out as a conservative after decades of being a liberal Democrat. He commemorated the gist of this conversation in his essay “Illiberal Values” in the August 2018 issue of Harper’s Magazine.

As interesting as meeting Kirn was, being profiled in a famous magazine and especially, going through the fact-checking process was just as fascinating. It was a side of publishing I’ve never been exposed to. (Let’s be honest, I haven’t been exposed to any side of publishing but that’s beside the point.)

His editor questioned every detail, from my experience being outcast from writer groups, family and lifelong friends because my political opinions didn’t align with theirs to what kind of crab legs we ate. The fact-checking interview took longer than the actual interview itself. Then his senior editor questioned my voting history. They seemed to doubt I’d ever been a Democrat and certainly doubted I attended a prestigious, famously liberal college. Two days before final typesetting for publication, they called with what seemed like impossible requests on such short notice. I needed to prove my history as a Democrat as well as my attendance at Reed College.

I was driving when I took the call and called Kirn afterward to ask what was the problem, and why were there so many questions. I was getting nervous about the article that I’d never read. I was just trusting that it would be an accurate reflection of our conversation but the editors seemed hesitant to publish it. It seemed like they were looking for a reason to pull the plug. I told Kirn there was no telling if I could find my voters ID card, or if I could get ahold of the college in time to provide the final necessary paperwork.

Honestly, who keeps physical copies of their voter ID card or college transcripts? I haven’t needed either of those in over ten years! What kind of madwoman, hoarder, weirdo would have these just hanging around the house in case a prestigious publication demands them as proof of her changing opinions for a feature article written by one of her favorite authors after dinner at a crab shack?

Me!

On any given day, it can take me fifteen minutes to find my keys, hours to find my phone, and it’s taking me damn near a lifetime to find my way on this planet but right there in that drawer with other papers I never look at was a copy of not only my college transcript showing my average to above average academic career but also my fourteen-year-old voter registration card from when I moved to North Carolina from California.

And thus, dear reader, the article was published. My name was finally in Harper’s although not as a byline as I’ve always hoped. I got to chat with a favorite writer and feel like an interesting person with important, or at least, curious things to say. And, without a doubt, it was the highlight of my year!

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