After spending the day with Barry Silesky, it does not surprise PW in the least that he would immerse himself in the life of a rebel like the late John Gardner, author of such critically acclaimed works as The Art of Fiction, Grendel and The Sunlight Dialogues. Silesky, author of Ferlinghetti: The Artist in His Time (Warner Books, 1990), has written a biography of the flamboyant and charismatic author in John Gardner: The Life & Death of a Literary Outlaw (Algonquin Books, Jan.). A quarter of a century ago, Gardner was one of the most acclaimed and prolific writers in the United States, a hard-drinking, colorful character who steadily churned out dozens of novels, plays, nonfiction, literary criticism and other writings. In 1982, at the height of his career, Gardner died tragically in a motorcycle accident at age 49. Today, he is all but forgotten, remembered primarily by his contemporaries and by college English majors reading The Art of Fiction.
Author and subject seem kindred spirits, though Silesky denies it. Like Gardner, Silesky has always flouted social convention, living life on his own terms while marching to the beat of his own drummer. Like Gardner, Silesky moved hither and yon before disproving Thomas Wolfe's adage and going home again. Like Gardner, Silesky is a man of passionately held opinions, not mincing words when expressing himself, no matter how controversial his views might be. But unlike Gardner, Silesky does not live life on the edge, courting death and disaster at every opportunity, partying through each day as though it might be his last. Silesky might not have come to terms entirely with the life decisions he made as a young adult, but he is a man secure in the knowledge that he has made his mark upon the world.
Silesky, born in 1949, came of age in the 1960s, an era that, clearly, still resonates with him. Sitting in his small, book-lined study, in a house that stands, literally, in the shadow of Chicago's Wrigley Field, Silesky tells PW, "Growing up during the '60s had a profound influence on me—as my parents' defining experience was World War II. My political and social views were shaped by the events of the '60s and '70s—Vietnam, Watergate, Nixon.... The '60s still affects me; it still affects all of us. Look at Iraq. We thought we'd never see another Vietnam. The same self-aggrandizement, mistakes, misrepresentations and distortions—the same just plain stupidity."
Graduating from Northwestern University in 1971, Silesky did what so many other angst-ridden young people both before and after him have done: he took a road trip to California with some friends. "Boy, coming from the Midwest.... California! Whoa, it seemed like heaven, heaven on earth. I wanted to live the California dream."
As Silesky speaks, teenagers come and go, caged birds chirp and a purring housecat rubs her body against our legs on a cold December morning. "Why didn't I end up there? Things happen," he tells PW ruefully.
"I've spent my life ducking full-time jobs," Silesky says with a laugh. "I taught junior high, I drove a cab. I stayed with friends who lived in a squatter's cabin in Colorado. But I came back to Chicago—which I thought was a living hell. But I came back, and 30 years later, here I am. Still ducking full-time jobs. On a good day, I think, 'What a great way to live.' On a bad day, I think, 'I'd better get a real job!' "
"I have the best part-time job in the world," he continues. "I have no tenure and no job security. You do things when you're 23... and when you're 53, you think, 'I had no idea of the consequences!' 'What was I even thinking?' But I love my life, I love what I am doing."
After graduating from the University of Illinois in Chicago's writing program in 1976, Silesky once again tried to escape from the Midwest and the expectations others had for him. He sold everything he owned and set out to see America. Some friends of his had moved to Minneapolis, one of them pursuing a Ph.D. in future studies at the University of Minnesota. Silesky and his friends moved from Minneapolis to Grantsburg, Wis., a rural town in the northwestern part of the state, where they collaborated in constructing a geodesic dome.
It was in Grantsburg that Silesky decided to really put the ideals of the '60s into practice. "We stayed the winter in the geodesic dome. My first wife, Loren Delorenzo, had borrowed money from her father and bought a Montessori School. She sold it after a few years and used the money to buy 10 acres of land in Grantsburg," he recalls. "We started building. It was a small house—but it was a house."
After Silesky's first marriage ended in divorce in 1979, he decided to leave Grantsburg and the house he had built. "I could stay there, or I could return to Chicago. So I returned to Chicago. And never left."
Silesky's reappearance in Chicago that year coincided with his entree into book publishing. Silesky was hired by the publisher of a small press, Kidslife Books, to write several chapters of The Family Guide to Chicago. "He couldn't pay top dollar, but he wanted someone with some competence," Silesky recalls. This endeavor turned into a similar project, The Twin Cities Family Fun Guide, in 1981. An author was born.
What is it about Chicago and writers who just can't get this city out of their blood? Or, in Silesky's case, just can't get out of Chicago? Silesky's settling down here is a theme that crops up again and again in his conversation with PW. Shortly after his return to Chicago, Silesky says, a faculty member at the University of Illinois at Chicago asked him to teach a composition course. "I had nothing going on, so I said, 'yeah,' and came on down for the quarter. A quarter turned into a year, three years. I wound up staying here." Minutes later, Silesky mentions meeting Sharon Solwitz, his second wife, while teaching in the University of Illinois writing program. "We hit it off, had things in common. I ended up staying here." Silesky currently teaches English at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, a position he has held since 1991.
Despite his brief flirtation with living close to the land and working with his hands, Silesky's career as a writer might have been preordained: he has always considered himself first and foremost a poet. He has had several compilations of his work published by small literary presses, including In the Ruins (Center Press, 1983), The New Tenants (Eye of the Comet Press, 1991), One Thing That Can Save Us (Coffee House Press, 1992) and Greatest Hits: 1980—2000 Poems (Pudding House Press, 2000).
But Silesky's career as a biographer of literary luminaries came about almost by happenstance. Silesky has edited a literary magazine, Another Chicago Magazine, since 1981. When legendary beat poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti came to Chicago on a book tour in the mid-'80s, Silesky interviewed him for ACM. Nat Sobel, a literary agent who knew Ferlinghetti (and Gardner as well) called Silesky and asked him if he was interested in writing a biography of Ferlinghetti.
Publishing Ferlinghetti: The Artist in His Time with Warner Books was a learning experience for Silesky. "When I first sold Ferlinghetti, I thought I'd finally made it, I'm finally on the escalator going up. Soon checks will arrive in the mail," he tells PW. After Silesky and PW both laugh heartily at his naïveté, Silesky adds, "A friend told me to enjoy the moment, it's all downhill from here, it's all stress and anxiety. How right she was."
Silesky admits to disappointment over his experience publishing with a big house. "One of the sad things that consolidation has generated [is] it's fed the American appetite for the 'next big thing.' Anything published by a big press lasts for no more than a year. It's a self-fulfilling prophecy—this is what sells, so this is what is available. American publishing is more and more like reality TV. You should publish because you want to make a mark on your culture, not just to make money," he tells PW.
Although Silesky soured on working with a large New York publishing house, he was not totally down on writing biographies. And though sales of Ferlinghetti were not great, the book did attract some attention in the right quarters. As Silesky was finishing his work on Ferlinghetti, he met NPR commentator Alan Cheuse, who discussed the possibility of his writing a biography of literary lion John Gardner.
Like many things in life, Silesky was in the right place, but at the wrong time. Nick Delbanco, a former student and friend of Gardner's, asked someone else to write a biography. But four or five years later, the other aspiring biographer had given up. Cheuse again asked Silesky if he was interested in taking on the project. Silesky agreed.
Because Gardner died at a relatively young age, many of his family, friends and colleagues are still alive. With Delbanco's assistance, Silesky was given complete access to those who knew Gardner best. "But one of the main problems was [Gardner's] first wife, Joan. She's a number." After first indicating that she would speak with Silesky, Joan Gardner became uncooperative, Silesky says. "She didn't want to talk to me, though she didn't close any doors. But other people, including Gardner's children with Joan, Gardner's second wife [Liz Rosenberg] and the woman who was supposed to become his third wife [Susan Thornton] all cooperated with me."
Silesky waxes eloquent, even quoting Emerson, when describing his reasons for writing biographies. "History is biography," he declares emphatically. "Writing biographies is an opportunity to delve into writing and recording history. As a human being, why people do things and how things happen, affects me profoundly. Biography is the story of what people do and why they do what they do. Nothing is more interesting than that.... Yes, I'm a gossip. But what is gossip anyway? It's a discussion of who we are."
But why delve into the life of a man who, while a prominent author during his lifetime, has faded into obscurity less than 20 years after his death? "Gardner's life captures a certain element of American culture and society that is fascinating," Silesky replies, describing Gardner in the greater scheme of things as a sort of canary in the coal mine. "Gardner is a remarkable combination of a writer who achieved both critical and popular acclaim during his life. And he's now all but forgotten. Is this the fate of literature? Is this the fate of our best writers? There's such competition for our attention from so many sources. It's that much harder for anyone to sustain being an object of interest. Even someone larger than life like John Gardner can fade into obscurity in a matter of years. Gardner's story has an impact on us, maybe not in obvious ways, but there's a lesson there for us."
Silesky has high hopes for John Gardner: The Life & Death of a Literary Outlaw on the eve of publication, feelings of "cautious optimism tempered by terror." Algonquin Books, a small literary press based in Chapel Hill, N.C., is publishing the book, and Silesky could not be happier. "Algonquin is terrific. The staff there has been sympathetic and always accessible. My editor, Shannon Ravenel, knew and worked with Gardner, and even had her own memorable run-in with him—which is recounted in my book. I feel great about how the book is being treated. It's getting the publicity it deserves—in fact, it's the lead title in their 20th anniversary catalogue," he tells PW, his voice full of hope that this time, he really will step onto that escalator going up into the mythical land of literary success.
"If charisma has a meaning, John Gardner seems to have been the embodiment of charisma," Silesky concludes. "Starting out on this project, I thought it was better not to have known him. But now? What a character. John Gardner is a portrait of an artist, drinking himself crazy, riding his motorcycle, having affairs.... His life was an interesting one and I think it would make a great movie. I wish I'd known him."