Les Plesko, 1954 – 2013
By Rochelle Low, Nancy Spiller, Lola Willoughby, Julianne Cohen, Joshua John Miller, Mary Rakow, Samantha Dunn, David Francis, Janet Fitch, Rita WilliamsSeptember 18, 2013
It is with enormous sadness that I tell you that Les Plesko, one of UCLA Extension Writers’ Program’s most beloved, long-time fiction writing teachers, died on Monday, September 16, 2013. I was notified of Les’s death by his long-time friend and publisher, Michael Deyermond, several hours ago.
There are no details available at this time, but there will be a memorial service for Les at Beyond Baroque in Venice next week — very likely, Thursday or Friday. The exact time and date have not been determined, but we will post the information on the Writers’ Program Facebook page (http://blogs.uclaextension.edu).
I am still absorbing the shock and remembering the generous, gracious, brilliant spirit that was Les Plesko. He taught fiction writing for the UCLA Extension Writers’ Program for many years — from tender beginners to novelists approaching professional status — and he never failed to convey to them, to quote Les, that “writing is a transforming, transcendent act.” He will never, ever be replaced or forgotten.
— Linda Venis
Novelist and teacher, Les Plesko, took his life Monday, September 16 at 10:00 a.m. He was a wonderful author of the novels The Last Bongo Sunset, Slow Lie Detector, and Who I Was. Originally from Budapest, he lived in Venice and wrote. He also taught creative writing at UCLA Extension for many years. For those of us with him in Kate Braverman’s writing workshop in the early 90’s, this searing loss goes to the core. The following comments are the immediate thoughts of members of that workshop.
— Rita Williams
Les Plesko. That flame. Consummate artist. He lived simply but he was not a simple man. He lived simply because he was not--it was a way he could hear himself. I have never known a writer so committed, so devoted. He was a lover of the Real and hated anything false, slick, self-serving. He was in rebellion against all that. He was purposefully anti-trend. You saw it in his smoking, in his mismatched socks. His favorite writerly advice — “Don’t have ideas.” Meaning — don’t force things, don’t lead with your head. Writing for him was an activity of soul, of memory, of sound and dreaming. A gentle man, he gave so much — his time, his friendship, passion, subtle intelligence, a wacky humor. The flame of his purposefulness. His presence reminded us to treasure the deep and the true. His absence is unthinkable.
— Janet Fitch
Les is many things in my life, but here's one: He is the reason I started teaching writing. He told me to. Ordered, even. The one piece of advice he gave me then was the most important, ever: Tell people what they are doing right. Even if it's only a single frigging thing in the whole lousy manuscript, it's at least a toehold. With that they can begin to scale the mountain. If you do nothing else, show them they have a way forward. Such hopeful advice from someone who didn't believe in happy endings. In his works the guy never got the girl, the condition was always terminal, the rain always a portent of flood. He believed the small moments of grace we gave each other, human to human, was all there was, all there would ever be. Fuck fuck fuck. Damn it, Les.
— Samantha Dunn
Les seemed to own a vast solitude. We went to a Cindy Sherman exhibit and didn't speak. It was perfect. "I never look at art with another person," I confided afterward, "but with you it was as good as being alone." He cracked up and was not at all offended. In his presence, I saw how deeply I feel entitled to happiness. Not expecting life to deliver happiness, but believing it can deliver meaning, Les showed us all his working method. Year after year, day in, day out. For us, he was and is a writers' writer. Uncompromising. Unbought. Free.
— Mary Rakow
Les did what he was here to do, every day. At 5 am he put his pen to the page. Regardless. Relentless. Resilient. Birthing and deathing. Calling in the beginning winds. After, he'd run the beach barefoot because his flat feet never could stand much in shoes. Home, and open his students work with his inky, smoky fingers, brushing sand away, cleaning, clearing, and inevitably finding that irritated little bit that would be pearl. You could call him, anytime. "Hey man," he'd say. Hey. He'd always have a place for you, humble. And you'd always know where he'd be. As much as he gave to others he gave to the page. His page, your page. His books shimmer and shine. Terse and clean and bright and trued. Brace us all, how such a bright heart could fall like that.
— Julianne Cohen
Les Plesko was, above all else, a writer. He wrote every day of his life, darkly, relentlessly, and with great purpose. With Les, it always felt like writing and breathing were the same thing, that he could not exist without respiration or words. I'd see him once or twice a year at UCLA on his way to teach his class with piles of student work and his fingers stained with ink from marking the pages and he'd tell me about his latest novel. What I loved about Les is there was always another novel, in progress, or just completed. He was never just thinking about writing, he was doing it, that hard and wondrous task.
— Lola Willoughby
I was 17. There was something pure and raw about Les. I remember when he was writing his first book, Last Bongo Sunset, he rose every morning at 5 AM so he could write before trudging off to his copyright job. It put me to shame. I knew then he was the real deal.
No affect. He was always writing from the core. Even though his language could be lyrical and even floral, he wrote from the core. I never doubted the truth in his fiction, no matter how much he invented, it was ripped from his insides.
I remember the last time we said goodbye in Venice. I watched him mount his well-worn bike, head tilted to the side, that mirthful gaze, as if listening to music that no one else heard.
"See ya,” he said. That signature salutation before he rode off and disappeared.
Tomorrow I'll be up at dawn, writing, and thinking of him.
— Joshua John Miller
I last saw Les at the UCLA Extension Writers' Faire, where he came up from behind and gave me a hug, really not a huggy guy, so that was a surprise, but a pleasant one as I hadn't seen him for a long while and we visited that day for a pleasant spell. I always liked him from the first, his disturbing yet beautiful writing and his unapologetic presence. If I could get him to lighten up and laugh in Kate's workshop I felt I had achieved something. He struck me as a kind of Steinbeck character — sweet, but fundamentally uncomfortable in the world.
— Nancy Spiller
I was still fighting — that writing meant a life of service.
That the most important character was the reader.
Fretful. How nothing might come of it. How hard I’d have to work. How it might not heal me or save me.
Make me loved or understood or less of a brown wallflower in this field of blond wheat.
That it might take everything and only occasionally grant me that moment
when the correct words settle
along the plain like the right black stones.
Les had already taken this vow of patience.
Accepted that vocation to dredge the muck
To harvest the phrase and peel it back and place it on the page.
For those who might stop.
— Rita Williams
Les Plesko wrote as he lived — sparely, poetically, without flinching. A wry guru to a breed of Los Angeles writers who'd never have found their voices without him. I count myself among them. He responded to our excesses and the slightest hint of cliché with a rattle in his smokers laugh and a roll of his good eye. He'd say "Oh, brother!" and we'd know. His wall eye off in the distance, drilling into a life we couldn't quite see. He was our gold standard, the patron saint of cynicism, the opposite of the "yakkers and tweeters and braggers." Under-published, under-heralded, writing by his candle light in a dogged search for threads of words that rang more truly. He conjured more deeply, more intuitively and brilliantly than most of us will dare. That we are left here to write without him seems unthinkable.
Jonathan Franzen recently wrote in The Guardian: "But what happens to the people who became writers because yakking and tweeting and bragging felt to them like intolerably shallow forms of social engagement? What happens to the people who want to communicate in depth, individual to individual, in the quiet and permanence of the printed word, and who were shaped by their love of writers who wrote when publication still assured some kind of quality control and literary reputations were more than a matter of self-promotional decibel levels?"
— David Francis
The definition of what it means to be a true artist.
Uncompromising. Devoted. Obsessed.
Not burdened with a desire for fame or enormous financial success.
Les was satisfied, perhaps the most satisfied person I have ever
known, with the gift of the work.
I feel blessed to have had dinner with him recently and remember how
good he looked in his bright blue starched dress shirt.
We made plans to have lunch together. I was going to cook for him.
I miss you, Les. We will all miss you. Terribly.
— Rochelle Low
I knew Les for 25 years, as we wrote our way through successes and those intolerable times when the silence was so loud it screamed in our sleep.
Only Les wouldn't sleep through it. For him, inertia was never an option. His wondrous, singsong rhythms always illumined; bright, fierce and alive.
His discipline alone drove him to believe in the power of his words. Those all-nighters, which just about did him in, were, in the end, what kept him alive.
My friend, you will be missed and remembered. We will not hear words such as yours again.
— Jordan Gallader
From Day One, Les set the standard for what writing was — the necessity of it, the bible of it, the raising up it bestowed when you were true. Also what it wasn’t — glossy, slick, unctuous. Easy. He took his art into his body, yes, the smoking, yes, the inky fingers from marking student work, but most of all, for me, his unalike eyes. The one gazing out, to Eastern Europe, maybe, the dark history, or maybe more outward, beyond known borders. That eye told me how far I could journey to find heart and language, the vastness of the writer’s universe. The other eye, what I thought of as the straightforward, American eye, was here and now, present and declarative, raking over what had been gathered into the net, tossing out clichés and dross, revealing the lustrous seeds. Les was a divining rod for the water of words, and, now, our tears. How can it be? How can that be?
— Jody Hauber
Nancy Spiller is the Los Angeles–based author of Entertaining Disasters: A Novel (with recipes) (Counterpoint, 2009) and Compromise Cake: Lessons Learned From My Mother’s Recipe Box (Counterpoint, 2013). She is also an artist, recovering journalist, and instructor in the UCLA Extension Writers’ Program. For more information please visit www.nancyspiller.org. Twitter handle: @nancyspiller.
Samantha Dunn works as a feature writer at the Orange County Register, and is the author of the novel Failing Paris and the memoirs Not By Accident: Reconstructing a Careless Life and Faith in Carlos Gomez. Her essays are widely anthologized, including in the collection she co-edited, Women on the Edge: Writing from Los Angeles. She has written for O the Oprah Magazine, Ms., Glamour, and Salon, among many other national publications. She teaches in the UCLA Writers Program and at Idyllwild Arts Academy.
David Francis’s first novel Agapanthus Tango was published in the US as The Great Inland Sea. His second novel, Stray Dog Winter, was the Australian Literature Review’s Novel of the Year, and won the 2010 American Library Association Stonewall Prize for Literature. For more information, go to www.straydogwinter.com.
Janet Fitch is a Los Angeles native and the author of White Oleander and Paint It Black. Her latest novel is a two-part epic, The Revolution of Marina M. and Chimes of a Lost Cathedral.
Rita Williams's work has appeared in Best Food Writing for 2007, Los Angeles Times, O, The Oprah Magazine, O at Home, Saveur, The Utne Reader and Fins and Feathers. She is currently teaching in the Master of Professional Writing Program at the University of Southern California. If the Creek Don't Rise is her first book.
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