A few days ago I mentioned my admiration of Rockwell Kent's illustrations for the old Modern Library edition of MOBY DICK-- and how much they were a part of my pleasure in reading it.
That reminded me of the only conversation I ever had with John Gardner. I had sent him some of my stories, and he had accepted them for his forthcoming journal, MSS., which he did not live to see. I had a dentist appointment in Binghamton, and he agreed to meet me on the SUNY Binghamton campus. We met on the lawn, where he was tossing an apple, if I remember right (or was it just a ball? no, it was an apple, all tooth-marked and gooey with dog spit) to a little dog named Esme'. I had brought along my copy of his story collection, The Art of Living, which he kindly signed for me, and as we talked about the powerful woodcuts by Mary Azarian that illustrate that book, he told me that he loved to see books illustrated, and thought it a shame that publishers seldom do that any more. It was a mission of his to insist that his books be illustrated, to give opportunities to artists and to encourage collaboration between writers and artists. Today I looked inside my treasured copy of The Art of Living to see if perhaps he had written something about that in the forward, but no-- it must just have been in the conversation we had on the lawn, while the little dog fetched that drooly apple again and again.
Perhaps someone remembers whether he wrote about book illustration in one of his other books. Please tell me! We lost him way too soon-- a writer with such gifts of his own, and such consciousness of the craft of writing! So many of us still learn from his books on writing-- The Art of Fiction, On Becoming a Novelist--and if we return to his novels and stories, what treasures are still there as well! I'm thinking today not only of our loss as readers and writers-- but also of the artists he'd have encouraged or discovered, and their phantom illustrations for the books he never got to write.
Sadly, Mary Azarian's illustration for the cover of The Art of Living seemed to foreshadow the tragic loss, in a motorcycle accident, of this generous-hearted writer.