“IF YOU WANT TO WRITE,” my friend Josh Miller said, “go to Les Plesko at UCLA Extension. He’s the best.” It was 1996, Josh was 19 and about to publish his novel The Mao Game with Morrow. I was 36 and hadn’t written a thing. “If he digs your work he’ll invite you to his private workshop. That’s where the gifted orphans go.”
I was an orphan of sorts, 8,000 miles from where I grew up, but I had no work to speak of, just a few poems. They’d rattled about in my head ever since the summer I’d thrown fleeces in the shearing shed back on the farm. The boredom and heat and the rhythm of the shearers sent lines of words repeating through my hungry teenage brain.
Twenty years later, I’d washed up in Los Angeles, avoiding the farm and my life in Australia. Lost in cruising the all-night clubs and dangerous streets, the decreasing returns of avoiding my loneliness. Undaunted, dancing myself into oblivion, returning at dawn to sleep a few hours in a wooded Laurel Canyon guesthouse. An ivy-ridden fairyland on Wonderland Park owned by a former exploitation film bombshell. A cancer the size of a grapefruit had her chanting her way through the night. Nam-Myoho-Renge-Kyo. Nam-Myoho-Renge-Kyo. The low hum of it repeating still triggers the slow holistic trudge of death.
I had no chant in me, no prayer, just exhaustion. A lawyer by day, I was vaguely aware of a closet desire to write. So I read this Les Plesko’s florid novel of addiction, Last Bongo Sunset, as if that might save me, even signed up and dragged myself to his class. A distant unwritten story glowed in me, handwritten notes from faraway, my blind grandmother as she lay dying, whispered details of a childhood in the outback — a cattle station called Palparara, 90 square- miles of spinifex and sand. A mud-brick house of clay and cattle dung, her Scottish father out hunting, leaving his young wife alone with the children. He’d hijacked her from Salzburg where she sang opera. Now she was 10,000 miles from there, 200 miles past a town called Longreach, the local tribesfolk warring at the bottom of her failing garden.
All I had were the notes I’d carried around the world as I’d followed an adrenaline junkie’s dream, riding show-jumping horses for hire in Europe and then on the American circuit from Scottsdale to Culpeper to Saratoga Springs. The fear-based sport I grew up with melded with a brand new fear of HIV.
Samantha Dunn, Josh Miller, Shadow (possibly the spirit of Les Plesko), Janet Fitch, Rita Williams, Julianne Cohen, David Francis, Mary Rakow and a few other friends of Les gathered after a recent PEN/UCLA reading from No Stopping Train. Photo by Allison Strauss.
Timidly, I walked along a dim lit corridor at UCLA, entered a numbered door into a stark fluorescent classroom, more a spot for the insane than a place to re-launch. A small bedraggled man leaned on a table. A worn out smile crept about his face as if he knew he wasn’t what I expected. A tangled nest of curling grayish hair. He ran his hand through it, his cock-eyed glasses with frames taped up one side. A strange walleye, the other with an indisputable twinkle.
The waiting room of what looked like the walking wounded assembled, students, TV writers, Westside wives in a search for something cloaked in creative writing. I didn’t know why I was here exactly, or if I’d be allowed to stay. I had nothing.
I looked down at this Les man’s big flat feet, weather-beaten salt-licked ankles bereft of socks, worn down loafers. Here was the character “College” from his heroin-in-Venice novel, grown old.
Settling into my seat near the door and opening my empty notebook, I kept an eye toward the exit, the other on this unlikely teacher. At first I couldn’t listen, my gaze drawn only to his torn white T-shirt, midriff showing. Sexy in a strange bohemian, emaciated way. He eyed me for a second, taking me in, drawing me to his voice. “It’ll be like shitting a pumpkin,” he said. “But it’ll be the one that only you can carve. You might keep a piece for Halloween, if you’re lucky.” The smile, wry and knowing, as if aware he’d walked to the edge of the world and this writing thing had brought him back. “You might salvage a sentence or a word, or even yourself.”
I felt my own sense of salvage, a rusting vessel laid on its side, a desire to be seen by this wrinkled little guru who leaned like a hooker on the table. Sharing how he too had felt unworthy, creeping into the workshop 10 years before of a gifted witchy Kate Braverman, just a few weeks shy of one last needle in his arm. “People who aren’t desperate don’t write,” he said. “Well, not anything worth reading.”
He talked to me, as if to keep me from running back out into oblivion, to the streets and the clubs and the chant of the dying in my Laurel Canyon tree house. He was throwing out a line, sharing how he was in the throes of a new novel set in Hungary during the war and how he’d given up on Budapest because the trip was hijacking his story, skewing his memories and flooding images that weren’t how it was. “All you need are few good specks of memory. Water them like dying plants and see if some take seed and grow. If you’re lucky.”
Specks had me mindful of the strange Australian use of skerrick — a semblance, trace, or a vein. “I’m not so interested in what you’ve already written,” he said. “Just see yourself in a room, the room where your narrator is. Write what you see or just dream it, around it.” The unsentimental encouragement, the beach in his eyes and the salt on his feet. No wonder Josh had christened him the Urchin of Venice.
I closed my eyes to the white of the classroom, entered a lucid sort of fugue state, faked it. Tunneling back through skerricks of memory. My grandmother struggling against the restraints, strapped in a primitive bed. I scrawled longhand in the blankness of my notebook.
The straps low and tight around her long body,
buckled to the wood-slatted base of the bed.
Her forearms, purpled with bruises, were bound in too.
“From where are you watching?” asked Les. I didn’t know from point of view, but his words floated to me as a plume of possibility, and my own words entered me like a rope of smoke, to hang myself or save me.
I knelt on the on the veranda bench and watched her through the fly-wired window, my elbows spread wide across the cool stone sill.
“Who is telling your story?” he prompted.
I was twelve years old, small for my age. We lived in New South Wales …
On the break, I went to cruise the restrooms, search for the familiar. I didn’t want to have to speak to him, didn’t want to chat with his wide-eyed disciples, to let them know how unworthy I was, how ill-prepared. But as I left the room before the others, he glanced at me as if he understood. He’d once been a version of me.
Now he stood there smoking on the stoop of the non-descript UCLA building, holding court with a new crop of young female acolytes, offering them cigarettes and ginger cookies. It was later I learned that he believed this was the secret to his legendary class reviews — and more. All I wanted was to make a run for it, hunker down in the stall at the end and hide, but I skulked back as the class reassembled. Les pushed a wrinkled packet of Gauloises into his pocket and smiled at me, not warmly, but with a kind of knowing. His grim array of teeth, uneven as old fence posts and similar in color. There could be no judgment in those.
Gingerly, I took my seat as he ushered us in, hypnotized us into what he called a vivid and continuous dream. In this fluorescent room more suited for interrogation than art. “Don’t think, just write. Ideas are your enemy. Logic is not your friend. You are driving at night and you can only see as far as the headlights allow. The rest is distraction.”
I had a page and then he asked if I might read aloud, if I wanted. And I was surprised that I did want to. My voice quivery, and reedy, ashamed but exhilarated.
My mother died with her eyes wide open in 1947 near Maude in the Riverina. No doctor was called, her body was not prepared.
The words took their positions in the air.
I still wonder what he was thinking as he dropped her into the dirt without a word or a coffin or the whole of her name, as he scooped red earth to cover her with the chub of his pale Scottish hands.
“Swell,” said Les, “But what happened to the room?”
All I heard was “swell” and felt a new euphoria, a hunger for this man’s approval. “Keep it going,” he said, “before it sags and dies like she did.” He talked of a story as an injured bird. “You hold it in your palm and feel for an expansion of lungs. You may have to feed it through a dropper, until it wilts and dies in your hands or flaps its wings and fails, or flies away and leaves you.” He taught with a wisdom and a lyricism that reminded me of how he wrote. Susan Oliver was dying and I was being born again. Willing to place myself in Les Plesko’s hands and somehow write my way back into myself, give myself another way to breathe.
That night I climbed the gate into Hollywood Memorial, the headstones in the shadows, grasses mown only in places, maintained but not manicured. I wrote in the darkness, unmolested, at the grave of Sister Bessie Slaughter, Josh’s grandmother to whom his book was dedicated. Under the palms that dwarfed the headstone of Caroline Hidden, I prayed that words might come.
My mother wrapped in a hessian feed sack, propped up in a big wooden barrow. He bumped her down the steps, pushed her across the paddock like a load of wood.
“Who was he?” a voice whispered. Les, channeling, guiding.
I felt the dull thump of her body as it met the earth, felt it in my hips as I lay flat as a lizard in the grass.
I kept hearing Les’s words, the words I still hear now. “Let your story take you somewhere unpredictable. H to W, not A to B.” It felt like a séance, my eyes half-closed, fingers lightly on the glass, trying not to push across the Ouija board. Les said dreaming around was not the only way, but it was the most intrinsic. Devoid of artifice or tricks, it felt deep-rooted and real. I opened my eyes to the grave of Anca Velicu. Romanian or Hungarian. An old man delivering plastic flowers to a nearby headstone in the dark. I closed my lids again and wrote, opened them and the man was gone. How would he have got in? I prayed for my grandmother and for her words to rise up inside me. I wrote longhand for three hours right into the night.
Les invited me to his private workshop and I sat amongst them, a nauseated newcomer on ash-burned chairs in Les’s cigarette-smoked apartment on Victoria. I was there among the accomplished. Janet Fitch, Josh, Sam Dunn, Julianne Cohen, Mary Rakow. They read their pages cautiously, emotionally, as if their own lives were at stake. Janet read from White Oleander. I read from virtually nothing.
Les read from his own work, hearing his own sentences against the room, this sacred sounding board he’d assembled. He read from No Stopping Train listening for resonance, and I heard the rhythmic timbre of his reading voice, and stepped further into his spell. Into a story of Sandor and Erzhebet, of love and revolution. The harrowing vibration, the forlorn wounded splendor of the characters together. It was mesmerizing. The sense that he quietly valued his work, knew it held up against anyone’s. I couldn’t screw around in the presence of that.
Feeling less of a fraud as my story rendered itself before me, through me, around me but in a different way, hotter and drier than any in Budapest, essential to me, mine to be told. I tried to keep holding my memories, the memories of my grandmother and my imagination, all of it gently, allowing sentences to steal out from my hands, from the finer nerves of my skin.
The fabric was frayed and thin from her days in the garden in the flourish of japonicas and jonquils she’d planted herself. Working the soil with her fingers, crusting her knees if she drew the dress up, wearing it threadbare if she didn’t ...
I read Les’s expression for clues, watched for the strokes of his pen, a deep relief when these real writers smiled, accepting my work. A new family of strugglers and yearners, readers, thinkers. But still I didn’t quite belong, ill-equipped to genuinely respond to their work, unsure of my own sensibilities, opinions. So I made sure I sat next to Les so I could learn by cribbing, spying on what he underlined, what he struck out. An eye for the cliché, sentimental and unnecessary gleaned without formal discussion of rules, just by example and then, over time, by a divining of tone and hum. An effort to truly inhabit every word and scene in a relentless pursuit of art and truth.
Fifty good pages thrown away like pale toast, jettisoned because the edges didn’t burn. “Is this a story you really need to tell? Are you only one to tell it?” He wasn’t for putting pallid work back in the toaster. He didn’t want reheated, he wanted us to burn anew.
I felt my heart sag, thump onto his butt-stained carpet and linger in the doorway. But he’d warned me my words on a page would break me down then mend me, “or not.” My heart gashed so it might heal. Or at least form scabs. Encouraging me to write toward the abyss where I sensed Les had truly been. The least I could do was crawl toward the edge, stare down into it, inch forward, chapters building. A young American girl on a horse at Rehoboth Beach. The same story or another?
She wears a plastic rain scarf tied under her chin. Her mouth is slightly open. People think she smiles when she rides but it’s mostly determination.
She swam the horse out to sea and it bolted toward England, washed up dead on the sand. This happened at La Baule in France to Kathy Kusner, three-time Olympian show-jumper, first woman jockey, my riding guru. I had a new trove of memories, a new antagonist.
A gray lump lolls on the waves, washes up. Its head lies flat on the sand, set straight from the end of its neck. Its legs stick out like so many posts as waves lap at his belly, leave lips of froth as they recede.
“He wasn’t going to be an important horse,” says Callie.
“Everything you think you know will be proved wrong. All you think is important and necessary will fall or be stripped away.” He said I’d forget the agony when the intoxication of my efforts returned. That I would chase this and know: “Write because you must. The opposite is death.”
Susan Oliver, my sweet once bombshell landlady died. She’d taken her last healing trip to Mexico, and finally the chanting stopped. Les had warned I’d see the light fade until another appeared, an-other. That’s all I had now, left with that hazy glimmer, trying to find my way. I was not alone in what I’d felt and seen and nothing I wrote could shock or be too honest or dark. Things I thought were fiction later revealed as true, bleeding through in my DNA, in the cellular inheritance of memory.
I visited Les’s crappy apartment on Westminster whenever I could, paid for his time and his editing eye. Nervous always as I visited the single smoke-filled room in all its dankness. My own well being dictated there by his marks on my pages, by his rigor and precision, culling until I might learn to cull myself, discard my own young. My grandmother’s memories unfolding in me like a river in flood, merging with my own uncovered country memories, healing myself and a few generations. He taught me how to save myself, to find a new compulsion, a place to return to, circle and circle and not go down the drain but upward and forward with an odd desire to survive. I was being challenged not to be ordinary, lazy, or predictable.
He recommended early Coetzee, early Winterson, The Lover, A Sport and a Pastime, Nightwood, others I’d not heard of: Hula. The Land of Green Plums, Sea of Trees. Writers with an eye for the strange and melancholic, the touch between words and page and the eye of a particular reader who hungers for that rhythm and music and sound. A kind of intimacy evolving between Les and me, with Janet and Josh and Julianne, between my work and theirs. I struggled to be willing to keep my ear to that well, listening for echoes, for Les’s editing eye that had formed and morphed my own, for his voice as he riffed on writing and life. The skeptic’s hunch of his narrow Hungarian shoulders.
“You got pages?” That was all that truly mattered and I carried them everywhere, battle-scarred, the last round ravaged by his ink in the margins. Exhilarated by the checks as he began to treat me as a peer, gave me a sense that I had a novel worthy of saving a life, as Last Bongo Sunset had saved his. That I had a responsibility to be seized by this new desire, for this longing, for this new brand of ecstasy. “If you’re looking for love, God forbid, you’ll find it,” he said and I did, in strings of words and images, a love of his talent, and even a regard for my own, of his off-handed nurture. This patron saint of pessimism.
I didn’t sexualize him, left that for the young broken girls, and I was buoyed by a modicum of purity in my own desire, getting up early to meditate for my sanity and hope for a sentence that might ring true. I was learning to chase something different. From deep listening, reading, from the unvarnished varnishing of words laid on a page.
One day I had what looked like a novel, one novel, short, but a few hundred pages nonetheless. Each chapter had a life of its own. Stood alone if it needed to. My pumpkin had been breach-birthed incrementally, almost accidentally, and I realized the difference between faking and doing.
One night in Venice, I sat at a fancy dinner not far from where Les lived, but a world he’d dismiss out of hand, far from the alleys of Last Bongo Sunset. Seated beside a slightly imperious English theatrical agent, we made plans to see one of her clients in the theater, then went to an Academy screening. “Not movies, films.” She’d represented Bette Davis and Elizabeth Taylor, came from a Hollywood world but had advised writers from novel to film.
Months later I braved sharing my manuscript with her. She sent it on to an agent in London who represented Americans and he read my pages over that first weekend. By Wednesday there was a minor bidding war in London between Picador and Fourth Estate, the only houses he sent it to. The novel sold in eight different countries. The film rights were optioned in Paris. Les was pleased but with a hint of veiled frustration. No Stopping Train had not been sold. He sent it out each year, and still no one bought it. Too demanding, not funny, not commercial enough, at all. “You got lucky man,” he said of my novel. “Mine won’t sell until I am dead.”
The publishing industry ground him down, as it inexorably does, as it has done to me since. Les had his own stealth ambition, combined with bad health and the insidious return of his using. I have the luxury of other lives. In recovery they say the disease of addiction is cunning, baffling, powerful and, most terrifyingly, patient. His struggle was a recipe for an awful demise, and we didn’t see it coming, neither did we imagine such heartbreakingly wonderful posthumous attention. He was right, No Stopping Train sold to Counterpoint. Janet sat with Dan Smetanka, the editor, at the PEN Awards last month.
After Les’s memorial I visited his apartment, climbed up the fire escape and onto the roof, saw the place from where he’d rolled, the place where he had landed, where there were now photos and candles and roses and words of mourning written on the bricks. It felt macabre being up there, needing to be there, feel. Watched through the window of a rooftop apartment by another Australian. This one had seen Les stumble up there, stare at him then get onto the narrow cement lip of the building and roll, as Les’s father had in Budapest 30 years before.
On the roof, I felt as if I hadn’t really known him, not on any deep human level. He had his own recovery, his particular isolation, his disdain for worldly things. I wasn’t part of him in any emotional, fearful, vulnerable way, that was the purview of the women in his life. To me he was somewhat impermeable and mythic, writing by candlelight through the night on his old Remington, sharing his work and me sharing mine, sharing his disappointment, inspiration, his wry mordacious humor. I didn’t experience him as others had, not as Janet’s long lost brother, not as Julianne, two strange muses digging in the sandpit of love and genius. Still, we all had our form of romance with him: lost sibling, lover, guru, pundit, buddy in recovery, sphinx. I found my story, reclaimed something of a life. And, as he’d so bluntly counseled it would, the writing had broken me down, then mended me, torn up my heart so that it might heal. Without him, I still try to step toward the abyss of disappointments and small joys, writing toward the heat, different from who I was when I found him. The writing life has sporadic joys and many hardships. He said the light would fade until another light appears. He was my brilliant cynical star.
Without him, I struggle not to be ordinary, lazy, or predictable. Once again. I hadn’t seen him so much in recent years, except at occasional writer’s dos. I’d become a writer in my own right, pretending not to be too shaky on my feet, challenged even more by my subsequent books, as if I was now supposed to know what I was doing. The ever-decreasing returns of that first publishing high.
Not so long ago I was at LA Louvre and got a passing glimpse of Les. On his rusted cruiser bike wending along a Venice alley, looking much as I imagine him as he rode and wobbled and soared to the end of his own strange rainbow.
He said if he died, he’d get some attention. Well, here we are. You had our attention all along, this loyal culty band of yours. We should have known it wasn’t enough, known to jump out of our writing chairs when we heard you weren’t sober. After God knows how many years. But you wouldn’t have let us in, would you? Not for long.
You’d say this piece was a load of baloney. Self-indulgent, sentimental. But it’s the best I can do without you, listening for the rattle of your smoker’s laugh, the roll of your good eye. “Oh, brother …” you’d say.
Oh brother, indeed.
David Francis’s second novel, Stray Dog Winter, was the Australian Literature Review’s Novel of the Year.