Wise Counsel Before Lee Stringer's first book?Grand Central Winter?came out in 1998, his publisher, as most all publishers do, sent copies of the galleys around to other established and well-known writers, in the hopes of getting a blurb or two to slap on the back cover. It's a peculiar and very contrived activity, this blurbage, but it's all just a given part of the publishing game these days.
What no one was expecting in this case was that Kurt Vonnegut would be so taken with Stringer's account of his life as one of New York's homeless (as well he should have been?it's a hell of a book) that he not only wrote an effusive blurb, but he went on to write the foreword for it as well.
It's not unheard of, but it is rare, for a first-time author to run into such kindness and grace from someone of Vonnegut's stature. And while Vonnegut wasn't solely responsible for making the book such a big seller, it certainly didn't hurt.
"Kurt liked the book so much, he wanted to do something significant," Stringer told me when I talked to him a few weeks ago. "He wrote the foreword, and he wanted to do more." So Dan Simon of Seven Stories arranged an event: Stringer and Vonnegut would come together in public to talk about writing and whatever else came to mind. On Oct. 1 of last year, the two of them were brought before a crowd at the Astor Place Barnes & Noble. I asked Stringer if he had met Vonnegut before that night, or if they were just sort of thrown together.
"I met him first at the [Grand Central Winter] book launch," he explained. "I came in and the place was jammed. CNN was unloading their cameras, getting ready to bathe everyone in the hot white glow of celebrity. I make my way through the crowd, and everybody was very nice. I was on a cloud of air. Then Dan says, 'We're going to start in a few minutes, and Kurt's going to introduce you?you've said hello to him, haven't you?' And I said no, I haven't seen him. He said he might be outside. So I go outside, and there's this little receded doorway, with a step. And poking out of that doorway, I see a pair of knees, a bush of hair and a cigarette, and I said, 'That must be Kurt.' I go over there, and what I don't know is that Kurt has no use for small talk. He's impervious to it. And I'm loaded up with small talk, because I don't know the guy, and I have nothing else. It's like being in a handball game. I lob one and doom-doom, it comes right back. And I lob another and doom-doom it comes right back and I'm getting nowhere, and I'm starting to sweat and I'm thinking, 'This guy's in a bad mood, and I'm totally making a fool of myself.' So I said to myself, 'Just be humble and honest.' So I said, 'Well, Mr. Vonnegut'?which he hates to be called?'I just hope I don't make a fool out of myself. Of course, you've been through this sort of thing a lot, haven't you?' And he says, 'Never this far downtown before.' I just ran right back into the building."
The book came out, and it sold. Still, Vonnegut and Stringer didn't exactly become best buddies. It wasn't until the night of the Barnes & Noble event three months later, in fact, that the two of them got to talking.
As Stringer explains, "We go in?and this is my first big, big bookstore?and this very nice, happy, smiley blonde in a black cocktail dress meets us and says, 'Can I get you a latte? Let's have a latte?and a danish.' We go to this little room, and they bring in our latte with this little napkin, and a little danish, and they ask if there's anything else we might possibly want, and they bow out the door. I'm thinking, 'Wow, this is special.' Then two muscular guys wheel two carts full of books in there. I get it?we're here to work. And so we're sitting there face to face across the table, a cartful of my books next to me, and a cartful of Timequake next to him?there must've been 200 of each. We're sitting there signing, and that's when I got to know him."
The decision to turn the public conversation later that evening into a book came almost immediately.
"First of all, Kurt thought that it was a great, great evening. I was so nervous, I didn't remember a thing... But Kurt and Dan really thought it went well. I don't know if it was the same night or a little later, Dan said, 'This could be a book.' I didn't see it at first. I thought, 'Yeah, it's a free book for me!' But Dan put some touches to it. In paring down this and that, he really made a book out of it. It's an actual book. I got a sense of character out of it. Almost a slight arc. There's a distance traveled between us, between the first and the last thing. Most of the credit goes to Dan's editing.
"It's almost like a pure form of writing," he continued. "We all take reality and put it on a page. But he did it with the least intrusion?just enough to make it a book. It's very much to Dan's credit that that book is as good as it is."
A few months after that first conversation, the two of them were brought together a second time, to pick up where they left off. Instead of going public this time, they (along with a moderator and a photographer) met at the more intimate Cafe de Paris, and that conversation was transcribed as well. Both chats are now being released as Like Shaking Hands With God, timed to coincide with the release of the paperback edition of Grand Central Winter; Vonnegut's new collection of old short stories, Bagombo Snuff Box.; and, perhaps coincidentally, the film version of Breakfast of Champions.
Despite the timing, Shaking Hands stands up very well on its own. Even on the page it's fascinating to watch these two interact; Vonnegut, the droopy, weary, embittered and still underappreciated Grand Old Man of Letters, and Stringer, who's younger, still enthusiastic about what he's doing and still seems awed that he's become a successful writer.
Throughout the conversation, despite what you might expect from someone who not too long beforehand had been living on the streets, Stringer comes off as the more eloquent and thoughtful of the two, while Vonnegut sounds grumpy and tired. Near the end of the first section, when asked if there is anything to be optimistic about, Vonnegut replies, "I'm going to die!"
At one point early on, Vonnegut asks Stringer, "Do you run into old friends who are still on the street?"
"Yeah, I do," Stringer replies.
"And is your impulse to rescue them, or to do something for them?"
"Not at all."
"Well, you're not a very nice guy."
In response, Stringer goes on to explain that it's not a matter of being nice or being mean?it's a matter of not being presumptuous. There's a scene in Grand Central Winter in which one of Stringer's old business partners finds him collecting cans and offers him a job, which Stringer turns down, content and determined to make it on his own.
Besides, he counters, "saving myself is going to be a lifetime job."
Apart from that little exchange, the two spend most of their time talking about the process of writing and being a writer?a mysterious business Stringer compares to "shaking hands with God." And that's where things really begin to shine. Vonnegut, sounding like a man who's relieved to be at the end of his career and who's actually rather tired of talking about what he does for a living, concentrates on the notion of sincerity. Sincerity and the writer's obligation to the reader. If a writer isn't sincere in whatever he writes, he says, the reader will recognize it immediately and stop reading. That's why Jacqueline Susann was so popular, he argues?because she was absolutely sincere when she wrote Valley of the Dolls. At the same time, however, he also talks about the uses and value of irony.
Then, in a move that left me a bit baffled, after establishing the role irony plays in his work, Vonnegut goes on to say, "Well, the nice thing about our trade, as compared with poetry or with painting, possibly with music, is we don't envy each other... Novelists do not envy each other, and if a writer succeeds, makes a lot of money, say, that makes all other writers happy."
Either he's being ironic, or we don't know any of the same people.
"You know what I think my problem is?" Stringer asks, when the subject of writing a second book comes up. "I know things I shouldn't know now. I know the afterward stuff. What Barnes & Noble is doing, how Oprah might respond, what stores put up front and what they don't put up front."
When Stringer starts talking about his frustrations concerning a second book, Vonnegut actually tries to talk him out of writing it, telling him that he's already done his job, and that there's no obligation whatsoever to go and do another one. I asked Stringer what he was thinking when Vonnegut started telling him that.
"I was wondering what he meant. And it took me a while to realize what he meant. He had put a finger on something that I wasn't even aware of. It was always assumed by me that we'd go on to another book. That was an assumption based on momentum. I had never stopped and said, 'Do I want to go through the process again? Can I go through it again? And do I have something more to say?' The momentum was driving me on to another book, and what he meant by those words was, 'Is this what you want to do?' I thought about it, and I said, 'Well, hell yeah. I do want to do it.'"
Stringer's been invited all over the world to give lectures and readings. In early October, he was asked to give a talk before the United Nations Council on Poverty. Not long afterward, he was shuttled off to Germany. It's become a strange ride for a crack addict who was living in the tunnels of Grand Central a few years ago.
"I spent the whole summer writing," he says. "I feel like a fraud one minute and a genius the next. My self-esteem plunges when I can't do what I want to do; despite all the evidence otherwise, I feel like nothing. [Novelist] Peter Blauner taught me that this is not an aberration, this is not to be worked out of the process?it is the fucking process. So now I still go through it, but I go through it without despair, and with faith that is has and it might lead somewhere again."
And how's the next book looking?
"Oh God! Oh no! I'm going to kill myself!" he screamed. Then he caught his breath. "It's teasing itself together. We don't know what it's going to be. I have a shitload of writing, some of it about the past and some of it recent stuff that I'm writing for a number of anthologies that asked me to contribute pieces?which is a good thing, because I get to break back into the process with small victories, rather than having to wait out the whole book. The thing about writing a memoir from earlier life is that there are any number of stories to tell. But there have to be reasons to tell each of them. And that reason has to tie into the reason for the book. And that I usually don't discover right away. In Grand Central Winter, I had the circumstance of homelessness as sort of a launching pad to go in any direction I wanted, really. And I didn't have that [now] until about four, five months ago. I started writing about when I was sent away to not-quite reform school. There's stuff to be mined in that, but I want to get a whole bunch of other stuff in there as well. Again, with the camera on the inside looking out, rather than getting the audience to watch me in action."
I brought up the fact that he's certainly had plenty of post-homeless adventures. Like addressing the UN, for one.
"Peter suggested?and it's a very good suggestion?ever since the book came out, I've been here and there, and I tell him all my adventures. And he's been saying, 'Oh, you gotta save that one.' But I don't want to fall into the rock star syndrome, where the second album is about the travails of being a rock star. But then he gave me an angle?I was telling him about the UN thing, and he suggested that it would be not so much about my travails but, 'Here I am, back in America,' so to speak, and it's a Bizarro place. It's almost like a road picture?this macabre world that anyone lamented I was out of. That's a very good angle, if I can pull it off."
Until then, we have Like Shaking Hands With God to keep us busy. Going back and looking again at what Stringer and Vonnegut have to say, it becomes clear that there's more honest wisdom in this little volume than you're likely to find in most any other single book this year. And not just about writing, either, even if that's specifically what they're talking about. What they say about our motivations and how we do what we do can be applied most anywhere, to almost any human pursuit. And for that, this book's a gem.