I’d written a fan letter to William Maxwell before I ever dreamed of editing at New England Review, but that job gave me permission to write to all the writers I loved. I remember asking Mr. Maxwell to please send anything to us—that nothing else would make me happy—and one day Toni Best had a manila envelope addressed to my attention from East 86th Street, New York, New York.
I didn’t even open it. I didn’t even take off my coat. I thanked her and ran to the old chapel across the street to be alone with whatever was inside. (How fitting to be in the quiet of a church, the moment still sacred all these years later to me.) I held my breath, made sure my hands were clean, and handled those typescript pages like they were the most precious documents on earth, such were my feelings toward this writer and his work.
Inside the envelope were the four fables you see here. In fact, that entire issue was, to my mind, truly inspired. William Maxwell, Marianne Boruch, Andrea Barrett, Miller Williams, Alice Mattison, Eileen Pollack, Terry Tempest Williams, Kate Barnes, Phillip Baruth, Sally Ball, Kate Barnes . . .
In his cover letter, Mr. Maxwell invited me to send him a story sometime, if the spirit moved me. I wrote and sent him a group of fables as a kind of response, and we started a correspondence that lasted the rest of his life. In one letter he wrote, in counsel, “Try to listen to your feelings as you would to the sound in a seashell, and then put them down on paper.” So simple, so difficult, such lasting advice that I have been carrying and aspiring toward ever since.
William Lychack served as Associate Editor of NER from 1994 to 1995. He is the author of a novel, The Wasp Eater (2005), and a collection of stories, The Architect of Flowers (2011). His work has appeared in The Best American Short Stories, The Pushcart Prize Anthology, and on public radio’s This American Life. He currently teaches in the Writing Program at the University of Pittsburgh.