When it came time yesterday for writer Calvin Trillin to meet Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, Trillin dissented.
The deadpan Trillin and more than a dozen other writers were in town to read last night at a black-tie benefit for the PEN/Faulkner writers organization. As part of the festivities, the scribes were given a tour of the Capitol, a pork chop lunch with a couple of senators and a rare opportunity to meet Thomas. But the invitation, suggesting that writers not ask the justice any confrontational questions, rankled Trillin.
"I don't want to make a big deal out of this," Trillin said. "I just didn't want to go." Trillin said his recalcitrance "wasn't political," he just didn't like being told that he could speak to Justice Thomas only under certain conditions.
Playwright Edward Albee also turned down the chance to meet Thomas.
"I hoped they would go in the spirit in which they were invited," said PEN/Faulkner board member E. Barrett Prettyman Jr., who arranged the meeting with Thomas, "and not in a confrontational mood."
As it turned out, the rest of the writers were on their best behavior with Thomas and at other times throughout the day. This year's gaggle was an eclectic bunch, including Judy Blume, Rilla Askew, Lorene Cary, George Garrett, Herbert Gold and Chang-rae Lee.
For the wordsmiths, the 11th annual PEN/Faulkner gala is a two-day chance to schmooze with others in their solitary line of work. Last night they took a break from chatting to read--three minutes apiece--from their writing and to chow down with patrons who paid $375 apiece. The readings were in the Elizabethan Theatre of the Folger Shakespeare Library. George Plimpton was the master of ceremonies.
For book lovers, the evening was like a highbrow literary slam. Fourteen formidable writers, one after an alphabetical other, Albee to Trillin, took the lectern to read of "endings." Albee read an amusing first-person tale of an "ending" looking for a story; Cary sang a little; Oscar Hijuelos told of an apocalyptic day in Catholic school; Claire Messud spoke of endings that sneak up on you; Richard Selzer concocted a new menage a trois finale for "A Tale of Two Cities"; and Trillin finished off the evening by reading "O Y2K, Yes Y2K, How Come It Has to End This Way?," a poem in which the world is turned topsy-turvy by the millennium bug. A taste:
The lobbyists who work on K
See all their loopholes go astray
And benefit the EPA
The stated mission of PEN/Faulkner, named in part in honor of William Faulkner, is "to make writers and their works accessible to larger and more diverse audiences in the Washington metropolitan area." The group invites writers to read here throughout the year.
Money raised from the gala--which was helped along by the Ford Motor Co.--goes to pay for the PEN/Faulkner Award given each spring and for the group's program of sending visiting writers into Washington-area schools.
On this visit, a dozen writers planned to speak with students.
Yesterday, for instance, Chang-rae Lee, author of "A Gesture Life," met with a journalism class at the Washington Math Science Technology High School in Waterside Mall in Southwest Washington. Lee, an affable guy with a shock of black hair and tortoise-shell glasses, told the young people that his two favorite books are James Joyce's "Dubliners" and Walt Whitman's "Leaves of Grass." He said he reads them over and over.
"How do you feel after writing a book?" asked Trenise Wells, 17.
"I feel kind of lonely," said Lee, who has published two novels.
The idea of loneliness emerged in other conversations throughout the day. Blume, author of children's books such as "Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret" and adult novels such as "Summer Sisters," said she enjoys living part of the year in Key West because there is a large community of writers there. She and Gold, author of "She Took My Arm as if She Loved Me" and a passel of other novels, discussed the promises and pitfalls of writing for Hollywood as they chomped on asparagus spears in the Senate dining room. The bearded Gold, decked out in a red-and-white checkered shirt and light-green knit tie, said he recently wrote a screenplay on a garage-sale typewriter.
Sen. Thad Cochran (R-Miss.), whose wife, Rose, is one of the organizers of this year's gala, ushered the writers from here to there in the Capitol, pointing out intriguing historical tidbits such as Lyndon Johnson's bathroom and a drawer in Cochran's own desk, which contains the carved names of others who sat there before him--Jefferson Davis, Harry Truman and John Stennis.
A true Mississippian, Cochran had a couple of William Faulkner stories to tell the gathering. Faulkner's mother was a portrait painter, Cochran said, and one of her earliest paintings was of Rose Cochran's mother in New Albany, Miss. Cochran also said that Faulkner had once lacquered his father-in-law's tuba.
After lunch, novelist Susan Richards Shreve, president of the PEN/Faulkner board, suggested that the writers might want to wash up before visiting Justice Thomas at the Supreme Court. Only Gold stepped into Lyndon Johnson's bathroom.
CAPTION: Author Lorene Cary, in town for the PEN/Faulkner benefit, tours the Capitol.
CAPTION: PEN/Faulkner writers George Garrett, left, and Herbert Gold at the Capitol tour and luncheon.