Before Frank Conroy’s wonderful story landed on my desk at Esquire, it had been read and rejected at William Shawn’s New Yorker, which in those late days of the great editor’s reign still had rather strict, arcane dicta about what kinds of fiction the magazine would, or would not, publish. Conroy’s story fell under a credo disallowing stories about writers or writing. The New Yorker’s miscall was our gain. At Esquire, however, the piece faced another juggernaut: There wasn’t enough space in the magazine to run the piece at length—in the mid-1980s, the margins for literary work were already narrowing everywhere, though not so drastically as they are in the print media today. Cuts in Frank’s story had to be made. If I were to recall exactly what I did, I’d have to go back and compare the edited version in Esquire with the final, full version published here and in Frank’s collection Midair, but what I clearly recall is Frank’s graciousness about the edits, which he felt had been made from inside the piece rather than forced on it from the outside. Later that year, Ray Carver included the story in his volume of Best American Short Stories, 1986. But that’s all background to what I want to tell you.
In discussing “Gossip” with Frank, I learned what I instinctively knew. A thread of roman à clef ran through the story. Much of Frank’s work, beginning with his novelistic masterpiece of a memoir, Stop-Time, had an autobiographical basis. “Gossip” begins with George, a young man who, not unlike the young Frank, after the great success of his memoir, suddenly found himself floundering. About George, Conroy tells us the essential truths in an opening that astonishes by the dexterity and penetration of the sentences:
The method he had used to deal with pain—of which he had had his full human share—was denial. He did not deny pain’s existence, but only its power over him. (In this, he was of course mistaken.) He was twenty-eight, intelligent, and ignorant of the forces that moved him. More than most young men, he was entranced by the surface of life, not because he was shallow, but because he thought the surface might reveal some hitherto unknown (to him) route of access to the interior, to the inside of life, where he might finally become a man instead of a young man. He wanted an older face.
The basis for “Gossip” is just what the title says. The character of the talented young woman writer whose peers imagine as her teacher’s lover was based on Jayne Anne Phillips, who was Frank’s student at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop; and in life, as in the story, there was no fire where there was smoke, though earlier in Frank’s life there had been a secret love affair, as described in the story’s vacation interlude. When Frank talked to me about the who’s who of the story—Lillian Hellman, for instance, was the inspiration for the old woman who encourages George to have his holiday fling—the only character whose real-life identity Frank didn’t wish to reveal was the irascible blind poet, because Frank felt it would be unkind to expose the poet, given his meanness.
More than twenty years have passed, and Frank is gone, leaving his genius with us. The risk in talking about the story behind “Gossip” is that the literal details can be misinterpreted as being the story itself. But for the author, the personal element simply unlocked the door to imagination. Conroy’s plot was a pattern he created to express his meaning, and the perspective he provided in the narration names what’s true in a fictional world connected to the actual world, as Virginia Woolf once noted, like a web attached to a mirror.