When I was a cub newspaper reporter with more of a purr than a growl, I read a lot of fiction to teach myself how to write. I was more interested in how words sounded on a page than in what they said. Investigative journalism is hard work. You have to decipher complicated financial documents and people hang up on you all the time. I just wanted to write pretty sentences.
This is a roundabout way of saying that I read the novels and short stories by Ann Hood. If you live in South Dakota you may have heard of her, but if you live on the East Side you most certainly have heard of her. She is one of our most celebrated writers. It seems every time I mosey through a bookstore or pick up a magazine I see her name. She is prolific.
Hood is the author of 15 books, most recently The Obituary Writer, a novel about marriage, loss and love. Her essays have appeared in journals and magazines as varied as the The Paris Review and Redbook. Without question her most searing work is Comfort: A Journey Through Grief, a memoir about the death of her five-year-old daughter Grace and, as one reviewer says, her “climb back to wholeness.”
I have never met Hood, at least not formally, although my son Henry has and he reported back to me that she is really nice. He’s 12-years-old and has freckles and strawberry blond hair. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
My story begins in 1987, the year Hood published her first novel, Somewhere Off the Coast of Maine. I bought the book at the College Hill Bookstore, the Thayer Street landmark which, sadly, closed years ago.
The novel is about three friends and the paths they choose after college. I devoured every page, paying special attention to the rhythm of Hood’s sentences and to her description. I still remember Sparrow’s DayGlo green VW. I even wrote my name on the title page to document this latest addition to my shelves: Elizabeth Rau, October, 1987.
Reading Hood’s work and the books of other authors – Raymond Carver, Susan Minot and Ann Beattie, among others – helped me as a budding journalist. Their writing was spare, fluid and accessible, and they wrote about lives truly lived. I read their work and thought, well, maybe I can do that.
Back then, I traveled a few times a year to St. Louis, where I grew up and where my parents and sisters and brother still lived. These visits were always bittersweet, a mixture of sadness about leaving my big family and excitement about returning to a reporting job that I liked. Often I would land in Rhode Island with a frown.
My exits off the plane were usually uneventful, dignified scrambles to breathe fresh air. One exit, however, was memorable for what it brought later. I was standing in line, holding my bag in one hand and a book in the other, and a flight attendant leaned in and asked me what I was reading. I held up a collection of short stories by William Maxwell. Her face lit up. I could’ve said “Great book!” or even “$24.99, Barnes & Noble!” but instead I didn’t utter a word. I remember being surprised that a flight attendant would be keen on a literary giant like Maxwell. I was young and understood nothing about the writer’s life.
A few weeks later, I was flipping through my beloved Somewhere Off the Coast of Maine and reread the author’s page, which included a photograph and this snippet: “She is currently a flight attendant.” I stared hard at the photo. Hmm. My flight attendant and Ann Hood were one and the same. Ashamed of my behavior, I wrote her a long hand-written letter apologizing for my rudeness and telling her how much I liked her book. I probably rambled. I’m not sure if I sent the letter to TWA or to her publisher. I am also not sure if I included a return address. For all I know the missive was lost in a mailroom in Poughkeepsie.
Over the years, I followed Hood’s writing career as it soared. One winter, from my car window, I saw her sitting on a chair during a reading at our local Books on the Square, and I thought about stopping in to divulge my secret but didn’t.
Henry finally brought us together. He came home from school one day and told me that Ann Hood was coming to give a writing seminar. “Really,” I said. His sixth-grade English class had read The Treasure Chest: Angel of the Battlefield, the first book in Hood’s new series for middle school readers. I wrote the date on my calendar.
Henry loves to write. He takes his craft seriously. He knows how to build suspense; his dialogue is pitch-perfect. He’s not afraid to take risks. Now and then, he lets me read his work, but rarely lets me edit. “It’s my story, Mom,” he says.
The morning of the event, I asked Henry if he would take Somewhere Off the Coast of Maine to school and request a John Hancock. He put the book in his backpack. I couldn’t help but wonder if he would remember to remove it and hand it to Hood. Thankfully, he did. “For Liz, Ann Hood,” she wrote in big loopy cursive. Since the seminar had turned into an impromptu book signing, they also talked. “I remember writing this,” she told Henry. “Look at the yellow pages.”
They might be brittle, but they are well-thumbed. I once heard someone say that we are all connected. So true.