Conversations Between Friends: Suzanne Roberts and Al Landwehr
In 1992, when I was twenty-two and nearing graduation with a degree in biology, I somehow talked my advisor into letting me replace technical writing with a course in fiction to fulfill my requirements. That’s how I met Al Landwehr.
On the first day of class, Professor Landwehr strolled in a few minutes late, holding his coffee cup and smiling at us for a few minutes without saying anything. He seemed more relaxed than most of the professors I had previously taken, and happier, too, like he was genuinely glad to be there in the room with twenty undergraduates.
When I turned in my first scene, he asked me to come talk to him afterward. I was afraid he might tell me that I had no business being in a creative writing class. That I should drop out. I sat down next to him, and he said, “You read a lot, don’t you?” I nodded, and he said, “Of course you do. It shows.” And then he told me I needed to work harder, so I did.
By the time I graduated three months later, I was applying for MFA programs in creative writing (none of which accepted me) but my father, also a writer, didn’t care about that. It only mattered that I now had the drive, which he attributed to my professor, Al Landwehr.
The lessons I learned from Al thirty years ago—when he was fifty-six, just five years older than I am now—have stayed with me; they are the very same things I tell my own students. It’s the work that matters, so take joy in the act of storytelling. And you don’t have to make one of the “Five under 35” lists to have “made it,” because “making it” means writing the stories you want to write.
Al Landwehr had published short stories over the years but never a novel, yet he kept on working. Now at eighty-six, his debut novel What’s Left to Learn is being published. I had the privilege of blurbing it, something twenty-two-year-old me could have never imagined.
I recently traveled to Al’s home in Portland, Oregon, to speak with him about writing and the writing life, his new novel, the other books in the drawer, and how it’s never too late to publish a first book.
Suzanne Roberts: What does it feel like to be publishing your first novel at eighty-six. Did you worry it might never happen?
Al Landwehr: Over the years, I didn’t worry that I probably wouldn’t publish a novel. Actually, I’ve always thought that it probably wouldn’t happen. There are thousands of people who’ve written good novels that will never be published; that’s the way it works. Not everything is recognized. Somewhere out in the world there was at least one more Virginia Woolf, at least one more F. Scott Fitzgerald, and now one more Alice Munro and one more Michael Ondaatje. Finally being published and being recognized are numbers two and three on my list. Number one is the ability and the opportunity to write a story. What an incredible gift.
SR: You have always taught me that process is more important than product. Tell me about your writing process.
AL: On the same day that I was born in 1936, my mother was diagnosed with tuberculosis and spent the next year in Mount Saint Rose Sanitarium in St. Louis, Missouri. When she was released, she was still ill and was quite weak for some years after that. In my early years, I had to be very quiet because my mother was resting. I learned to read early and developed a love for stories, and I still love to read them, and I also love to write them.
It’s telling that I start my answer to this question with a story. Make no mistake, I enjoy it that I’m sometimes paid for writing fiction, and I somewhat like the attention I get for publishing a story, but my primary reason for writing fiction is that I thoroughly enjoy the process. The process is not just the physical action of writing a story; it also includes ruminating on the story during quiet minutes of the day. What an escape from the world!
I’ve been writing fiction for about fifty years, but I’m not strictly disciplined about writing. I’m not a person who can say that I write for two hours every morning. I’m sporadic. I write when I want to write, and I want to write quite often.
SR: Let’s talk about your new novel. Where did the ideas for What’s Left to Learn come from?
AL: What’s Left to Learn comes from my lifelong interest in the mystery novel, and my desire to combine mystery fiction and literary fiction. In my novel, I tried to combine the conventions of the mystery novel and the rich character development of literary fiction. The reader learns a great deal about Drayton, learns how Drayton thinks and feels—and the reader understands Drayton’s complex relationships. Drayton “solves” the mystery and changes his life forever.
A second source for the ideas in my novel comes from my interest in trying to understand the relationships between men and women. The mystery genre may give a structure to the novel, but the focus is on the romantic and physical relationships between the characters and the great difficulty of reaching clear communication.
A third and somewhat whimsical source for my novel is my long interest in a particular Renaissance poet who wrote a famous English sonnet which begins with “Since there’s no help, come let us kiss and part….” I know a bit about his life and have stolen his name, Michael Drayton, for my protagonist. I think that the poet and that particular poem informed the main character and the novel.
SR: Your novel centers around your protagonist who becomes obsessed with a missing artist. Without giving any spoilers, did you know how the mystery would be solved when you started writing or did it evolve through the writing and revising process?
AL: For me, in writing this novel, there’s no way that I can solve the mystery at the beginning of the story because at that point I don’t know the characters. In other words, plot couldn’t precede character and/or sense of place. At the beginning of the story I may have known stick figures, but I didn’t know the complex characters. For instance, I didn’t know which character might do what, such as commit a serious crime. I said earlier that in some ways the novel is literary fiction. I hope the novel is a good mystery with well-developed characters.
As I wrote the novel, as character after character developed, some characters started falling away as suspects. This started very early in the novel and rapidly increased as the novel developed. I honestly can’t remember when I began suspecting someone.
SR: Is What’s Left to Learn really your first novel or do you have unpublished novels in the drawer? If so, do you think you will revisit any of them?
AL: What’s Left to Learn is my first published novel, but not my first novel. I have written five unpublished novels. I wrote the first close to fifty years ago. One was submitted to a publishing house in 1977 by an agent I had for a short time, but he died, and I never learned what happened to the manuscript. My copy of it has been in a drawer with four others I’ve never submitted. The first three chapters of What’s Left to Learn were in that drawer until one day when I wondered what I was going to do with those abandoned novels. What’s Left to Learn was the most recent, and I liked it, so I took it out and decided to finish it. I think it had been roaming around in my subconscious. I liked it when I was writing it, and I still do. The other four make me wonder about their possibilities, and it would be nice to think they’re brilliant—but nope. Some may show promise, but they were written by a different man. I remember loving each novel as I was writing it, but I guess I never really believed in any of them until What’s Left to Learn.
SR: What are you working on now?
AL: Since finishing What’s Left to Learn, I’ve written two short stories but can’t really finish them. And What’s Left to Learn keeps nagging at me in two ways. It was my first mystery/romance/realistic novel, and I loved writing it, but in a way, that was different from how I love writing literary fiction. I’m old, but I think I might have one more novel in me. All I really need is an abandoned Alfa Romeo in a eucalyptus woods—Drayton, my central character, and I can imagine the rest.
One other thing along the same lines: What’s Left to Learn has a clear and definite ending, but it may not be a conclusion, and I do miss Michael Drayton—so maybe I’ll write about him again.
SR: You’ve taught for many years. What’s the relationship between teaching and writing?
AL: Both teaching and writing provide knowledge. Both students and readers learn something of value. Both teaching and writing are performances in which one wants to keep the student/reader involved. I approached teaching in a Socratic way with the hope that the student would remain curious or uncertain. In that situation, a question is answered but it raises another question. A parallel in the novel is when one of the conflicts is resolved but another is caused. In both teaching and writing you have a limit—time or pages—and you want to keep the movement increasing so that there is something like a climax/resolution very close to when the classroom bell rings or when the book ends.
SR: What advice do you have for writers (of any age) just starting out?
AL: My advice to a writer starting out is to know why you write and know what your expectations are. I’d also suggest talking to someone who is a successful writer. You need to know your expectations, you need to know what your chances are, and you need to know what road you have to travel. Remember, most people tell stories, and if they’re good at it, they enjoy the process. Contrary to a popular myth, you don’t have to suffer when writing a story. Enjoy yourself when you write.
AL LANDWEHR has published short stories in slicks and literary journals such as Redbook, New Letters, The Laurel Review, Negative Capability, The Chariton Review, and many others. His work has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize, and he’s taught fiction writing classes at the university level while director of the creative writing program at Cal Poly, where he retired after thirty years of teaching. Find him on Facebook @al.landwehr.5.
SUZANNE ROBERTS is the author of Animal Bodies: On Death, Desire, and Other Difficulties, Bad Tourist: Misadventures in Love and Travel, Almost Somewhere: Twenty-Eight Days on the John Muir Trail, as well as four books of poems. She holds a doctorate in literature and the environment from the University of Nevada, Reno and currently splits her time between South Lake Tahoe and a green down-by-the-river van named Shrek. Find her on Instagram @suzanneroberts28.