I dedicated my third novel, Under Radar, "For Maurice Sendak, after a long conversation one August afternoon." That was in 2000. I'd known Maurice for about five years, since writing a script based on Crockett Johnson's Harold and The Purple Crayon. Maurice controlled the rights. The project didn't get done, but we stayed friends for about ten years. When I was in New York I'd go up to his house in Connecticut for lunch and a walk, and we talked often on the phone. He knew everything there was to know about anything worth knowing in culture, especially Melville, Shakespeare, Dickinson, and Tolstoy and the joy of those hours of talk was the privilege of sharing his enthusiasm. He made everyone who knew him smarter. One's brain actually changed after a long talk with him, and what improved would not revert. He was never healthy, often angry, always hilariously obscene.
That August I was writing the novel at a friend's house on a New Hampshire lake, away from my family, and going insane. For the previous three or four years I'd missed no more than a dozen Saturdays in synagogue. The condition was late-onset piety following a few classes in Torah study with good teachers. I'd been raised Reform and while theologically still Reform (Bible a historical compilation, women should be ordained), I'd become liturgically Orthodox with a patchy attention to ritual. I didn't eat pork. I mixed milk and meat. I sometimes put on tefillin. I sometimes wore the fringed undershirt, tucked in. I belonged to a neo-Hasidic synagogue in New York, and in Los Angeles both a Modern Orthodox and a Conservative Synagogue.
All of this had started before I met Maurice. He was curious about what I was doing, but he worshipped at other altars, where he was a High Priest, and I wouldn't have come to him that Friday if he weren't. Under Radar, like Wild Things, is about a fantasy of violence followed by a sea voyage. It was directly expressing what I understood about Judaism, although coded, at that point, even from me.
I was on my way from New Hampshire to New York City for a meeting and stopped in Connecticut for lunch. We spent the rest of the day talking about religion and art. He didn't believe in God, but his disbelief wasn't based on some vulgar use of science, pitting it against superstition — this is where Richard Dawkins falls flat, pointing out the contradictions in the Bible as though the sages hadn't figured that out fifteen hundred years ago. Mostly what Maurice talked about was the life of the artist, and the lives of the artists he revered and the life of the artist in response to the universe of art. Maurice was a Melville scholar and quoted a letter Melville wrote to Hawthorne, in the midst of the passionate infatuation that Hawthorne's wife, Sophia, put a stop to:
Until I was twenty-five, I had no development at all. From my twenty-fifth year I date my life. Three weeks have scarcely passed, at any time between then and now, that I have not unfolded within myself. But I feel that I am now come to the inmost leaf of the bulb, and that shortly the flow...