The Writing That Binds: Two decades after a botched interview, two college friends reconnect

By Bryant Palmer, BA’95
JON KRAUSE

JON KRAUSE

 

It’s 1994, and I’m in the offices of the Vanderbilt Hustler at 10 a.m. on a Wednesday. I spend as much time here as anywhere else on campus, but not usually this early. I’ve got a phone interview, not with a dean about another news story, but with James Dickey, BA’49, MA’50, the award-winning writer and Vanderbilt alumnus. I’ve had “Get Deliverance from library” written on my Things to Do list for weeks, but I haven’t done it.

First I dial the number of classmate Martin Wilson, BA’95. We had a dear mutual friend in common, but we don’t know each other well; our only recent encounter has been one meeting, for a few minutes, to exchange notes about this interview. We’re both taking independent studies in creative writing with [author and former Vanderbilt English professor] A. Manette Ansay, though, and I’m curious about Martin’s work, which is to say I want to know how well he writes.

Once Martin’s on the line, we dial in Mr. Dickey, and the first thing he says to us is, “You’re late.” Strong voice. No interest in pleasing. He cuts off our confusion: “You are aware, aren’t you, gentlemen, that North Carolina is in a different time zone than Nashville?”

This is the part of the experience I remember most: less the embarrassment and more the sudden, bracing certainty that I’m not nearly as worldly or as adult as I like to believe. I wonder whether Martin is feeling the same. We apologize repeatedly, both of us, continue with the interview, and end up with a lengthy Q&A that’s published in that year’s Vanderbilt Review.

***

I forgot about this experience entirely for more than 20 years. I moved to New York City, earned a graduate degree, and became an educator with a freelance copywriting business on the side. I did not keep in touch with Martin Wilson. When Facebook became a thing, we did not connect. But one winter I received the match schedule for my tennis league: My first doubles match would be against two opponents new to the league, one of them named Martin Wilson.

It is difficult to define what sparks a friendship, particularly one that begins well into adulthood, when the souls involved are 36 rather than 19 or 24. Martin and I had plenty in common. We were both writers with other full-time jobs, we both lived in and loved Manhattan, and we both played tennis religiously, in the same league.

And then there was Vanderbilt. Though we’d hardly spent much time together there, we had a shared language of experience. As we chatted during that first doubles match and then, a week later, over dinner, I found myself surprised at the strength of that connection. It didn’t take long before we’d become the best of friends.

This winter Martin spent much of his time finalizing revisions for his second novel, We Now Return to Regular Life, the story of a kidnapped boy who returns home three years later, as told through the eyes of his older sister and his former neighbor. By then it was a matter of course that I’d be one of Martin’s early readers.

Parts of his book recalled another shared experience of ours: growing up gay in Alabama and having to come to terms with that part of ourselves after college, because doing so any sooner, in that time and place, felt impossible. One of the beautiful parts of his new book is that one character has a much less difficult time with a similar journey.

We Now Return to Regular Life was published this August by Dial. It’s received many starred reviews and a great deal of positive buzz. Booklist calls it “beautifully written, displaying the perfect balance of heartbreak and hope with an always apposite tone and style that will capture readers’ hearts.” I get to play the role of proud uncle to this book my friend wrote. I like to visit a bookstore, find a copy of the novel, and read the back cover, the opening pages, the dedication all over again, and then start talking about it to anyone standing nearby.

On a recent visit to his parents’ home in Alabama, Martin unearthed the 1995 edition of the Vanderbilt Review and found inside our published interview with James Dickey. He texted me a photo of our shared byline, and the whole forgotten morning rushed back—namely the moment when we bumbled our way through an apology to a famous writer who had little patience for our rookie mistake.

We’ve both adopted that moment as the start of our eventual friendship. It’s a fun side note at a cocktail party we’re both attending, but it’s also a beginning that gives depth to our friendship: We knew each other when we were younger, and look at where we are now. It’s one of the reasons I believe we’ll remain dear friends for the rest of our lives.


Bryant Palmer, BA’95, studied English and communications at Vanderbilt and served as managing editor of the Vanderbilt Hustler before pursuing a master of fine arts at Columbia University. Today he lives in Denver, where he is founder and president of Bryant Palmer Creative, a boutique shop that develops and launches strategic marketing campaigns primarily for small businesses. He also is director of marketing and communications for Stanley Marketplace, a mixed-use urban marketplace and food hall. Palmer divides his time between Denver and New York City.



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