- Francine Prose
During the summers I taught at the Sewanee Writers' Conference, in the 1990s, I learned more from Wyatt Prunty than my fiction-writing students could have learned from me. The most useful and important lesson, and the hardest to put into practice, is that impeccable manners (I'm suddenly afraid that everyone writing about [End Page 742] Wyatt will use the phrase "Southern gentleman") can so seamlessly co-exist with looseness. Wyatt seemed so wonderfully chill, a word we didn't use that way, then.
The Conference lasted twelve days, and I have to admit that I found the work stressful, the individual conferences with students or fellowship recipients, each of whom had turned in a manuscript of sixty pages or less: rarely less. I felt that the helpfulness of these conversations depended wholly on my ability to hide the fact that, in some cases, I wouldn't have read past the first pages if they hadn't been written by a student. However gentle and kind I tried to be, I could only infrequently say what a writer most wanted to hear. Nor was it easy to "workshop" stories by students I barely knew. Once at an outdoor conference, I advised a talented writer to put his fingers in his ears if his classmates started to rip apart his work. I showed him what I meant, he put his fingers in his ears, and Jim Peters, stealth-shooting pictures for the conference brochure, photographed us like that, chatting, plugging our ears.
The hanging-out part was always fun, largely thanks to Wyatt's talent for hiring great writers who were also interesting and appealing people. Sometimes I am still amazed not only to have had the experiences I had there but to have taken them for granted, in a good way. Those indelible moments were simply part of the normal daily life of the Conference.
Howie and I used to go to Sewanee with our two sons, and we'd either rent or borrow or a car, so we could leave the Mountain on which the University of the South performed its gorgeous imitation of Oxford. We could visit the surrounding towns, the BBQ pits, the funky meat-and-three restaurant where we took Horton Foote. We haunted the flea market where I shopped for rhinestone earrings with Tayari Jones, and where I watched Diane Johnson warn a little boy that God was going to punish him for pretending to shoot the caged bunnies. In the French House I heard Mark Strand and [End Page 743] Donald Justice read their beautiful poems. We tried to cook dinner at the weird Southern-Tony-Soprano megahome the Conference found for Mark, where we watched Miracle in Milan on a VHS tape from the university library. I listened to Stanley Elkin give a hilarious and thrilling lecture about how financially disappointing it was to be a writer. I sat on the patio of Rebel's Rest, the faculty house, and told funny stories about taxidermy with Russell Banks, Chase Twichell, Ellen Douglas, John Casey, and Tim O'Brien. I read a chapter from a new novel, and later Alan Shapiro told me that my complex narrative had (unbeknownst to me) happened in life, to his sister. I taught with Stephen Wright, Claire Messud, Margot Livesey. I fear that all this might sound like name-dropping, but it was, as I've said, ordinary life for twelve days in July.
I'd been to other conferences. I knew that when one gathers that many people—writers!—on a mountaintop, there are bound to be crises or at least unpleasant moments. But whatever was going on, Wyatt never seemed rattled. In fact he seemed sublimely unrattled yet always highly aware. He had assembled an excellent staff, which must have made it easier for him to be attentive. Once, when I had the flu, Wyatt took it upon himself to deliver a bottle of Tylenol to the house where we were staying.
When I think of how Wyatt handled it all, I remember a certain smile he had—of amusement, or bemusement, I'm not quite sure which. He often...