Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Jeanne Leiby.

Jeanne Leiby

When I saw Jeanne after she'd gotten the gig at The Southern Review, we were in a hotel lobby at an AWP Conference -- maybe in NYC, but I can't be sure. We were standing near a fake potted fern and those ferns start to blur over the years. I congratulated her. She pulled me aside and told me the quick version of how it all happened. I think she was still a little stunned that she'd gotten the job, in fact. It had passed down from some giant literary figures -- all white men -- and then was handed to her.

I'm going to butcher this story, but bear with me -- taking all I say with a grain of salt and the noted blur of memory over time.

She told me that the strangest part of the interview was with someone high up at LSU -- I'm not sure how high up. She'd expressed to him her impression that The Southern Review felt a little stodgy, a little uber-male, and Old World Southern.

Later in the interview, he said, "Jeanne, I see that you've never been published in The Southern Review. Why is that?"

She told him that she hadn't submitted work because of that very impression that the magazine had. She said it was time to give the job to a woman, maybe even one not from the South. Maybe instead one from Detroit. Maybe to her.

And Jeanne was definitely from downriver Detroit. She was tough and smart and fiery. She told me that there's a board room somewhere at LSU with the portraits of the male editors who came before her. They were all hung too high on the walls. One of her first orders of business was to set them all at eye level.

But before she even got to that point, she did something brilliant and generous. She told me that she didn't want a coeditor, a system that had been tricky for The Southern Review in the past. She negotiated to use that money to fund two fellowships for emerging editors, poets, novelists, professors who wanted to immerse themselves in the literary magazine world -- and still have the gift of time to write. The move was both smart -- why share power? -- and deeply generous. What better gift to give to the next generation than opportunity?

And that's what happened. She took in those students in -- ones who'd graduated from writing programs and were deeply gifted -- and handed them real jobs where they immersed themselves in literature -- a grand tradition, in fact. They got real-world experience. Jeanne made that happen.

The last time I saw Jeanne we were in Sanibel at a writers conference there -- where she was truly beloved. I'd sent her a story that she'd rejected, writing me a note to say that she wasn't David Lynch enough for it. We were talking about genre writing. It was a fiery conversation between us -- out there by a pool, sitting in deck chairs, having drinks.

She was giving me a hard time for veering from my post as upholding all things literary. I explained that I wasn't interested in that role. I wanted to storm the gates of what has been -- for so long -- ghettoized as genre. I wanted to get dirty and see what I could do in those worlds with language.

Honestly, Jeanne was telling me what I think a lot of people from the literary world would like to tell me -- Stop messing around. Get serious. Come back to us with all your muscle. Don't pull any punches. Jeanne had the guts to say what she thought, when others don't. I loved that about her. Admired it deeply.

I convinced her that I was still swinging -- more viciously than ever. And that what I find in genre is a kind of deep liberation and challenge. Basically, I said, "Come with me. Storm some gates."

Right at the end of the night, she sat back in her deck chair and confessed that if she could write anything -- anything at all -- she'd write a noir thrillers.

And so it came full circle.

And she was right about the story I sent her. It was too David Lynch for her. It belonged to the dark finery of my subconscious and it burrowed its way into PURE, the post-apocalyptic novel that'll come out next year. I had my inscription for Jeanne already in mind. It began: For you, Jeanne, and the David Lynch in you. I know it's there."

And, for now, I just want to say that she was a lit-up soul. I'll miss her fight and her mouthiness. I'll miss her downriver Detroit.