Brett Singer may not be a familiar name, but she has the distinction of coming from a great writing family, being the granddaughter of I. J. Singer and grand-niece of Isaac Bashevis Singer. And when "The Petting Zoo"--the novel she was working on when I took her creative writing class at Stanford--was published, it was hailed by one critic as "the 'Catcher in the Rye' for the 80s."
But neither Ms. Singer's pedigree or the success of her future book were uppermost in my mind when I studied with her as an undergrad. What was uppermost was her. Although she was only a few years older than me, she seemed bohemian, worldly-wise and alluring in an European or--at the very least--East of the Mississippi kind of way. She graduated from Vassar. She had long straight hair and gamine-like good looks. She toted her cigarettes around in the front waist band of her skirt, and nothing was more provocative than seeing her pull one out and light up.
This being a writing class, and me being the tongue-tied, would-be Lothario that I was, there was only one way these feelings were going to find outlet: as short stories with thinly veiled versions of her and me as lovers. I recently located the last remaining ditto copies of these literary gems and felt the burning bright shame of authorship.
One is titled "Sunstroke and Seduction" and features our star-crossed lovers on a park bench talking about having sex like you might discuss motor oil viscosities. But in a surprising twist at the end, we learn that the narrator (that would be me) may have actually had a sunstroke and therefore has dreamed the whole thing.
Another titled "Operating" advances the art only slightly by incorporating a plot. In it, a hospital orderly (me) discovers a newspaper reporter (Brett) masquerading as a patient to get the goods on malpractice claims at the hospital. Seeking to enlist the orderly in her fact-finding mission, the reporter (naturally) induces him to have sex with her on her hospital bed. Hilarity ensues when they are discovered in flagrante delicto by a male nurse, the orderly is physically restrained and the reporter is mistakenly scheduled for unnecessary heart surgery. Fortunately, the orderly escapes in time to prevent any actual cutting.
Of course the whole point of writing these stories was to have Brett read them, and more importantly, spend office hours alone with her discussing them. To her credit, she never let on that she recognized herself and me as characters, and she did her best to make suggestions to improve them--which was something like trying resuscitate cube steak.
I, on the other hand, had little or no interest in the stories per se, but did I all could to steer the conversation to sex. I had recently discovered the clitoris (like Columbus "discovered" North America) and I remember one very awkward office session when I managed to introduce the word into our discussion. Brett did her best to keep her game face, but whether because I mispronounced the word or because it was such an obvious reach, she wasn't entirely able to suppress a smile. Even I recognized the smile was not the sort that signaled titillation or interest; it was the sort that signaled amusement--amusement at juvenile behavior.
I never saw Brett again, but shortly after I graduated I was in a bookstore and I ran across a hardcover copy of her novel "The Petting Zoo." Her picture took up most of the back cover, and I decided to buy the book, if only to possess her image. I didn't think I would enjoy what the jacket flap told me was tragic love story involving 20-year-old protagonists (I was 21 after all), but when I cracked the covers I found to my surprise I liked and admired it very much. I was not alone. In addition to the critic who had compared the book to "Catcher in The Rye," there was a short but positive mention in the New York Times and the notoriously cranky Kirkus Reviews called it, "An impressive debut ... A major first novel."
Finding the book to my liking was not the only surprise: the other was that there was a character named after me.
But what sort of character? The first time I told the story--in response to the question about how I started writing--was at the prestigious Squaw Valley Writer's Conference, nearly twenty years after I read "The Petting Zoo." The way I told it then, and the way I've told it for the almost ten years since, is that the Coggins character is a lecherous professor who hits on all his attractive female students.
This always gets a big laugh from audiences at my book signings because it is the perfect comeuppance. The real Coggins uses his short stories to make lewd suggestions to his attractive college instructor, so the instructor in turn creates a fictional Coggins who teaches at a university doing the very same thing to his students.
The problem is, that is not the Coggins in "The Petting Zoo." As I discovered when I reread the book, the Coggins in "The Petting Zoo" is, of all things, the director of a writing conference. That doesn't sound bad on the face of it, but it turns out that this Coggins has a special curse. To quote from page 89 of the book, "Coggins is the director, the top luminary. Although the only thing he's ever written is a scholarly book, a dialectical analysis of writer's block, everyone is afraid of him."
I'm not sure what trick of memory made me recall the character incorrectly. Maybe it was guilt over my behavior, maybe it was a subconscious desire to make the story sound rounder and fuller. But now, with the passage of years and the modest success I've achieved as a novelist, being cast as writer who can only write about writer's block--and inspires fear to boot--represents by far the bigger karmic payback.
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