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Left to read between their lines

When writers are reclusive, fans have only the words on the page to interpret. That may be their intent, but the seclusion can speak volumes.

September 02, 2007|Scott Timberg | Times Staff Writer

They wait like pilgrims, queuing silently, bearing volumes for inscription and awaiting a chance to touch the hem of his garment.

They're not Franciscans approaching Assisi but earnest readers rushing bookstores and cultural temples for word -- wisdom, solace, salvation? -- from on high. Or turning on the TV, opening a newspaper, for insight from their favorite authors.

But what if the creator won't come down from the mountain, won't comment on the reasons for his creation? What if he won't publish his new work (like J.D. Salinger), won't allow himself to be photographed (like Thomas Pynchon), won't make public appearances (like Cormac McCarthy) or won't write at all despite early success (like Harper Lee)?

That's the case with the reclusive writers, a small but mythically resonant category made up mostly of successful, staggeringly prestigious figures whose refusal to play the publicity game, or to appear to swim in the same water as their readers, can signify everything -- or nothing at all.

"When a writer doesn't show his face," Don DeLillo wrote portentously in his 1991 novel, "Mao II," "he becomes a local symptom of God's famous reluctance to appear."

God's -- or at least Pynchon's -- heir apparent may be Denis Johnson, an esteemed if not widely known poet and novelist who lives in northern Idaho and whose new novel, "Tree of Smoke," is one of the season's most eagerly awaited. For "Tree of Smoke," set largely in 1960s Southeast Asia and a work on which Johnson has been toiling for more than 20 years, he will offer no press or public appearances.

Previous books, such as his 1992 "Jesus' Son," which exists at the place where drug-induced hallucination becomes genuine religious vision, generated such heat that he'll always have a dedicated readership.

Johnson is in the softer end of the reclusive-writer type -- he home schools his kids and lives far from a big city and doesn't promote his novels. But he did a few readings and interviews, in which he projected a mellow intelligence, when his plays debuted a few years back. Since then, virtually nothing.

Eccentric writers, of course, are not the only ones to detach: Other famous shut-ins include the late Pink Floyd founder Syd Barrett, film director Terrence Malick, actress Greta Garbo, cult pianist Glenn Gould, anonymous rock band the Residents and, of course, the Unabomber. But because an author really only produces words -- unlike, say, an actor, whose image is always before us -- and since we often look to the novelist as akin to a guru, the disappearance often seems more violent, abrupt.

It can come off as arrogance, sensitivity, or a noble dissent -- a high-minded refusal to engage with America's culture of celebrity, erosion of privacy and self-promotion. It may be just the wishful fantasy that their books might arrive unmediated, might "speak for themselves."

Arthur Salm, the book editor at the San Diego Union-Tribune, calls it common sense.

"Reclusive writers are living perfectly reasonable lives," he said. "The fact that they're reclusive isn't the phenomenon: The phenomenon is our reaction to the fact that they're living normal lives. It has the opposite effect than what I think these writers want: People are intrigued by it. 'My God -- look!' Your idea is to disappear and you end up with the spotlight on you."


Smug, sensitive, too cool for school -- what is it? Why do authors withdraw from the world?

Everyone has his or her own reason, though by definition we mostly have to guess. For Lee it's thought to be a fear that she won't top her one and only novel, "To Kill a Mockingbird." (She's part of a group of writers, such as Ralph Ellison and Henry Roth, who fade from view after killer first novels.)

Salinger clearly had something resembling an identity crisis and perhaps a nervous breakdown soon after the publication of "The Catcher in the Rye." (It's a book, ironically, whose hero, Holden Caulfield, muses on his favorite authors and wishes "you could call him up on the phone whenever you felt like it.")

For Pynchon, who has enough of a sense of humor to appear, in animated form, on "The Simpsons," it may be sensitivity and cultural rebellion. As NEA Literature Director David Kipen sees it, Pynchon might be drawn to a subterranean lifestyle for literary as well as personal reasons. "He was a guy who came of age in the midst of the Beat generation," Kipen noted. Dropping out can have a more earthbound explanation as well. Writers often choose to make their living alone in a room, for instance, because they aren't that comfortable around other people. They're by nature reflective creatures. And the publicity mill can be bruising.

"I've had authors who tell me that the book tour is the best four weeks of their lives," said Lori Glazer, chief publicist at Houghton Mifflin. "Others tell me they'd rather have surgery."

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