Updated: Nov 14, 2020
by Stephen T. Vessels
Excerpt from Volume 5: Wild Mercury
I met John Reed when I first attended the Santa Barbara Writers Conference in 2006. I’d never been to a writers conference before, and I was a bit lost. Big hotel—the conference took place that year at the Fess Parker’s Red Lion Inn by the beach—lot of people, all of whom looked like they knew what they were about better than I did. John taught a late-night class called a “Pirate Workshop” that ran from 9 p.m. until the participants cried uncle. The workshop was in a meeting room with a very long table surrounded by swivel armchairs. John had positioned himself on the right, at the middle of the table; I sat down at the end near the door. Were that encounter to be filmed, it should be done in black and white, because The Spy Who Came in From the Cold was black and white. That’s what it felt like: I’d found my way through enemy lines and come home.
Not a perfectly hewn analogy, because in the movie Richard Burton doesn’t make it. I’m not going to be immaculately logical when it comes to my feelings about my mentor—my George Smiley—because he got me home in one piece.
I asked John once why he teaches writing workshops and the like, as there’s no bloody money in it. He said, “Because I don’t like the idea of people who can’t defend themselves, and writers can’t defend themselves.” No argument here. I sure couldn’t defend myself when I walked into his workshop fifteen years ago. I’d never been able to. Different now, in no small measure due to the influence of John Reed.
Not going to tell you my history with writing, because it’s boring, and this isn’t about me. Suffice to say that, by the time I walked into John’s workshop, I had made pretty much every mistake an aspiring writer can make. I’d come to the conference searching for, hoping for—what? I couldn’t have said. Not money—I wasn’t so foolish as to think I’d cross the threshold and be transported to fame and fortune. Not a publisher—I didn’t expect it to be that easy. Not a magic solution to the problems of my life. Thinking back now, I would say I was looking for sanctuary, like the hunchback’s bell tower.
What I found was John Reed. First time—with all the universities and classes and workshops I’d attended—first time I walked into a room where writing was being discussed as a serious matter that I felt at ease. All that tension I held in my shoulders—the surreptitious defensive crouch unconsciously maintained in case a tiger was about to pounce on me from out of the societal camouflage—went away. Here I did not have to defend what I wanted to write; here I could learn how to write it. How did I sense that? How did I know that? I’m not sure, exactly, but it had to do with the man. He’d parked the bulk of his ego somewhere exterior to the premises. Somewhere exterior to his life, more like, a long time ago. Somehow I knew he wasn’t there to be taken seriously by us; he was there to take me, and everyone else in the room, seriously.
In the years following that first encounter, my relationship with John evolved into a deep friendship I value more than I can say. It has gone beyond that, to become a working relationship, in which we read each other’s manuscripts and give each other feedback. That pretty much constitutes the greatest privilege of my life.
What follows meanders between an interview of John we conducted in person and experiences I’ve had with him over the years. The Q&A took place in a motel room in Santa Barbara, the evening after one of John’s workshop sessions had concluded, and quickly became a somewhat chaotic and less-than-reverent exchange informed by liberal quantities of alcohol.
A note on the latter: I drink single malt whisky neat. There are a great many distilleries that produce whiskies which I find palatable. John drinks what I call beer, except for him there is only one brewery on the entire planet which produces a fluid worthy of the name. That religious institution is the Ninkasi Brewing Company in Eugene, Oregon, where John lives. All others are pretenders, which John begrudgingly acknowledges to be “wet,” but not beer. Fortunately BevMo carries Ninkasi’s sacraments, and I had secured a sacred six-pack for the proceedings.
I sat outside on the little patio with my Scotch; John was inside with his Total Domination IPA. I know from long experience that John is irreverent, especially about himself.
I lead with, “Let’s imagine we have serious aspirations for this interview.” That produced a solid minute of jocular sparring, much of which is not fit to print. I reminded John of our first meeting, related my experience of feeling that I could relax, and asked why he thought that was. His response may be regarded as both direct and aslant:
“I declare this truth to be self-evident in any workshop that’s worth a damn. Why are we here? We’re here to help each other.”
I remind him of his comment about writers not being able to defend themselves.
“Pretty heavy shit,” he says, self-effacingly. “I must have been stoned. No, I don’t like people attacking people who can’t defend themselves. That was a tenet in my earlier life, which you’re not familiar with, nor should you be. You’re a nice civilized guy—you shouldn’t be fucking around with AKs. That’s the nastiest thing you can do, go for someone who can’t defend themselves. Writers can’t defend themselves, so it’s my job to help them.”
I catch a reference, there. “Can you talk a bit about your experiences in the military?”
JR: I was commissioned in the ROTC. Taught you how to twirl a gun. Always put in two when you’re aiming at a target.
SV: You went to Vietnam. My number was never called.
JR: You wouldn’t have liked it.
SV: Did you?
JR: No. Had some moments but they weren’t connected to things the army officially condoned.
SV: At some point you became involved with the CIA.
JR: Allegedly. Not much to say. You do what you get paid to do.
I have enough friends and family with military backgrounds to know when I’ve hit a dead end. I remember a time I took John to meet some friends of mine, artists who live near UCSB. We got to their place before they did, so John and I hung out on their porch, waiting for them. Nice garden; pleasant sunny day. We got into a trackless conversation about writing and history, and I made the comment, “We may have evolved through violence, but I don’t know that we’ve advanced through violence.” I wish I had a picture of the smile John gave me.
Care to fall further down the Rabbit Hole? The rest of this interview is available in Volume 5, which can be purchased in our bookstore.