Writing letters has always been part of my life. It started with a pen pal cousin in the second grade, and continued in high school with long letters about literature to like-minded girls and what at the time I thought was a steamy exchange with a girl I met on holidays in Montana. Later, emails became another form of letters for me, although I still miss the anticipatory thrill of recognizing a friend’s handwriting on an envelope — recognizing someone’s email address just isn’t the same. Yet of all my correspondences, the one I value most was my correspondence with the American fantasist Avram Davidson in the last few years of his life.
Avram was one of the best unknown writers of the twentieth century. In books like Adventures in Unhistory and The Enquiries of Dr. Esterhazy, Avram perfected a style of story-telling with a sharp ear for speech patterns, a digressive style, and a dry sense of good-natured humor. Only Avram could get away with starting a story with a page and a half of irrelevancy, or write a page long sentence with six colons and six semi-colons that was perfectly coherent, or carry off a punch line like, “I tell you what the problem is. They let anybody into Eton these days.” The rules other writers learn about what to avoid were challenges to him, and he inevitably overcame each one he faced.
What made Avram’s letters special was that they were had all the characteristics of his stories, but were private. Written, as often as not, on postcards or the backs of old posters, they were almost illegible when handwritten, and not much better when typed because Avram had a cavalier attitude about typos. But because Avram was so observant and so full of a sense of the absurd, his letters were always worth deciphering, down to his inevitable sign off of “Yoursly.” They were the sort of letters that you carried to show to other people, and that made me stretch to produce replies that would entertain him in return.
Was I outclassed? Completely. Avram was not only a genius in the truest sense of that often abused word, but had thirty-five years of experience on me. But he tolerated me, and allowed me to learn.
The letters ranged over all sorts of topics. Avram had lived briefly in Canada in the 1960s, and retained a fondness for it, listening to CBC radio from whatever small town in Washington State he was currently living in. He usually started with some insulting reference to me as a Canuck (I retaliated by calling him a DamnYankee, knowing full well he was a Jew from Yonkers), and would talk about whatever he was currently reading. For a while, we discussed the merits of him moving to New Westminister, where the difference in the Canadian and American dollars at the time would make his small income go further.
Another time, he sent me scurrying to the library (this was pre-Internet) to find whether the First Nations chief Poundmaker had ever been pursued – all so he could mention an imaginary book called In Pursuit of Poundmaker in one story. I was able to tell him that, if you squinted, Poundmaker had, in fact, been pursued at one point. I still get a small sense of ownership when I come across that reference.
But the truth is, Avram’s letters sounded so much like Avram in person that I am not sure whether many topics were raised in conversation or in a letter. Was it in a letter that Avram told me about his one attempt to learn to drive when he lived in Belize – an effort that ended quickly when he looked up from behind the wheel and saw a tapir glaring at him, about to charge, and decided that being a driver wasn’t part of his karma? That he told me why he wouldn’t accept the Grand Master Award from the World Fantasy Convention? That we discussed the history of the Hudson’s Bay Company? That I learned that, even in the 1990s, he wouldn’t ride in a Volkswagon because of the Holocaust? Of his habit of buying writers a drink at science fiction conventions when their first novel was published? Of his pride in his son Ethan, who was proving a playwright? I could probably find out if I were to rummage through his letters. But the point is that it doesn’t matter. Whether in person or in letters, Avram was an entertainer.
Remember the princess in Rumpelstiltskin, condemned to spin straw into gold? If Avram had been the princess, and the goal a story, Avram wouldn’t have needed the title character’s help. Avram could spin a story out of anything.
One of my strongest memories of him is visiting him at the veteran’s home in Bremerton one Memorial Day, and watching him hold court surrounded by a dozen guests around a table on the lawn long after everyone else had left or gone inside. All of us were spellbound, and we listened to him for hours.
Our correspondence ended in 1993, when Avram was found dead in his basement apartment in Bremerton (by mutual agreement, he’d moved out of the veteran’s home, being too eccentric for the bureaucrats to handle). A memorial service was held in Gasworks Park in Seattle. Preserving some of the industrial equipment that was originally on the site, the location was one that I’m sure Avram would have appreciated for its offbeat whimsy.
What I learned from Avram was the same as you learn from any original writer – just how good a story can be, and how often we settle for something less because it tells us comforting lies, or just because it is adequate.
But every writer who delivers that lesson does so differently. Avram’s way was to suggest that everybody, without exception, is at least slightly eccentric. Most of us, Avram proposes (and he wouldn’t exclude himself) are downright dotty, and the only thing to do is sit back and enjoy the entertainment. I’m too idealistic to share that worldview for long, but, with Avram as a guide, I still enjoy exploring it.