Friday, October 17, 2014

My Dinner With Joseph Heller

It was the year Joseph Heller agreed to come and be the literary lion at the Trenton State College Writers’ Conference, sometime in the late eighties. The school is now called The College of New Jersey. Jean Hollander, director of the conference, contacted me at the last minute to come and run a workshop, because another writer had bailed. I was working at Applied Data Research at the time; I remember that because I still had an office and my office still had a door.

I took a personal day in the middle of the week to go to the conference. A free lunch for the writers running workshops was part of the deal. By the time my workshop was over there was only one other person in the writers’ free lunchroom, a gorgeous-looking woman with a profusion of dark curly hair and the sort of gypsy vibe to her clothes that we so admired in the eighties. I was dressed in tweeds, making believe I was enough of a professorial authority figure to run a workshop. As I hastily munched my free sandwich, this woman stretched her arms out in front of her, yawned elaborately, and said, “If I were home right now I would be taking a nap.”

A nap! Who the hell took naps in the eighties? I was working my butt off at the software factory, keeping house for a husband and small child, and rising every morning at 4:30 to get in a couple of hours of writing. “How do you get to take naps?” I said. “If I weren’t here, I’d be slaving at the office.”

She said, “I’ve never worked a day in my life.” Except for a writing class she taught at some college in Pennsylvania, she said, and for that she only had to show up once a week. Well, the scales fell from my eyes. This was what life was like for real writers. (I later discovered she was regularly published in the Atlantic Monthly.) For the rest of the day I hung out with this glorious woman, fascinated to see what real writers did.

The first thing she did was to bum a cigarette from two gay poets out in the hall, interrupting an intensely soulful discussion they were having about their work. She was trying to stop smoking, she said, and so hadn’t brought any cigarettes with her. The second thing she did was to peruse the conference program closely enough to spot the fact that the English department was taking Joseph Heller and maybe a couple of other writers out to dinner before his speech that evening. “We should go,” she said. “We’re writers.” She pulled me into Jean Hollander’s office and told her we wanted to go to the dinner. Other people were there, so Ms. Hollander was unable to give us the brush-off gracefully, although she probably wanted to.

Anyway, we were in. When we got to the restaurant, one of those dark places on the outskirts of Trenton where the food is divinely Italian and one’s fellow diners might be mobsters, my new friend grabbed us seats directly across from Joseph Heller. The faculty of the English department, some of them hard of hearing, were forced to sit at the ends of the long, narrow table while we writers kept up a witty conversation in the middle. “You should write humor, Kate,” Joseph Heller said at one point. We said I did. He told us stories of the joys of being a famous writer, how his publisher had bought him two servings of oysters at a restaurant in London when he was touring, how he had gone out to the market next day and had seen what they cost, how he had gloated.

When dinner was over the faculty members streamed out into the rainy parking lot to go get the car. My gypsy friend and I began to follow them, but at the door, Joseph Heller put his arms around both of our shoulders. “Wait,” he said. “We are the famous writers. Wait here and they will bring the car to us.”

We waited, and they came. Next day, back at the software house, I put up a little hand-lettered sign on my office door: “Kiss my ass. I’m a famous writer."

© 2014 Kate Gallison


  1. Charming tale! But.... WHO was the mystery gypsy????? T.Straw

  2. Wish I could remember, Thelma. It was something vaguely Scottish. I think it began with M. I would look up her story in the Atlantic, but I can't remember the name of that either. It was a good story, too, semi-autobiographical, about the artiste from the country whose daughter lives in a loft in New York City and won't give her a key to the place until she figures out how to keep it locked.

  3. Great story. How long did you keep that sign on your office door?

  4. I want to know too. How long was the sign on your door? Do you still have it? The sign, not the door.

  5. Kate, I have always admired Heller, but never more than now. What a discerning guy--as in telling you you should write humor!! What glorious fun!

  6. The sign? Three days. I threw it away, but the sentiment is still engraved on my heart.