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      William Saroyan International Prize for Writing

Saroyan and me
Prize-winning writer recalls his mentor

By Mark Arax
The Fresno Bee, Sunday, August 7, 2005

At the risk of sounding parochial, I drove here today from Fresno, up Highway 99, past the grape fields and peach orchards, past the farmworkers picking in the 107-degree sun, some of them literally dying of heat stroke in this harvest. As I drove by Uncle Melik's old pomegranate orchard, I couldn't help but think of a summer just as hot and brutal 25 years ago when I said goodbye to the San Joaquin Valley and headed to New York City for grad school.

My heart was set on being a writer, but everyone in my family thought it best that I pursue the law -- everyone but my grandfather, Aram Arax. He was a survivor of the Armenian genocide, a young poet with the last name of Hosepian who took the pen name Arax from our mother river, which poured down from Mt. Ararat. When he arrived in Fresno in the summer of 1920, my grandfather wanted nothing more than to continue his writing. But he did what all poets do when they land in the Valley. He got down on his hands and knees and began picking potatoes and then bell peppers and then grapes. Sixty years later, his grandson wanted to be a writer and damned if he was going to see that dream succumb to the idea of one more lawyer in America.

So he hatched a plan. He would take me, on the eve of leaving for New York, to visit his old friend, the one man who might set me straight. I picked him up and we drove to two tract houses side-by-side in west Fresno. They looked like all the other tract houses except the front lawn was waist high with weeds and filled with mint. The old guy inside picked the mint every day to put in his yogurt. We knocked on the door, and I will never forget the boom of his voice from the kitchen. "Come on in fellow Fresnans, fellow Armenians, fellow writers. I'm just finishing lunch."

The door opened and I could see right away that William Saroyan wasn't quite the lion I remembered. He was thinner and more pale. Only the mustache seemed as ferocious. The living room where he invited us to sit was a lovely clutter. A big Formica table with his typewriter stood in the middle surrounded by piles of books and free-form art he had drawn in crayon and pen, pieces of glass and twine he had picked up from that morning's bicycle ride, rocks and pebbles he collected to remind himself, he told us, that art should be simple.

It was a 105 outside and the room felt like a blast furnace. He said he liked to perspire when he wrote and feel the cool of air conditioning only at night, in bed. He opened the window to let in some midday air. On the ledge, he had placed a recorder with which he taped the sounds of night -- hours and hours of nothing punctuated by the buzz of a fly, the chirp of a robin.

We were there a good hour, but I don't recall much of the conversation. What comes back to me now, a quarter century later, are the silly questions I peppered him with.

"I don't know if I have the stomach for the life of a writer," I told him, surveying the room." He laughed a big belly laugh. "Please don't judge a writer by these surroundings. There is no formula for being a writer. It's what you are and what you're going to be and what's going to happen."

"But the way you live seems important."

"It's only important to find what works for you. You must be alone and have a place to write. So it's lonely sometimes, but it isn't abject loneliness. Rather a kind of majestic one, a kinship with larger things."

Did being a writer, a real writer, mean there would be no time for wife or children?

He was too kind to laugh again.

"Not if it's the right marriage. Not any more than any other intensely felt profession. Maybe less. I was married to the same woman twice. Walter Matthau has her now. Thank God."

He said he wrote using 300 words of the English language -- no more. Count them. And then in my exuberance, I asked a question that no writer, mediocre or mighty, ought to be asked. Would he kindly provide me with a reading list -- the great books of American fiction? On the back side of an envelope from his publisher, he scribbled wildly. "Mark Twain, our best." "Edgar Lee Masters for the 'Spoon River Anthology.' Sherwood Anderson, for 'Winesburg Ohio.' Faulkner, Hemingway, Fitzgerald and Wolfe's 'Look Homeward Angel.' " Even himself, though he seemed almost apologetic for suggesting it. "Let's include Saroyan. 'Sons Come and Go, Mothers Hang in There Forever,' even though that's not the title I chose."

Grandpa said it was time to go, and Saroyan showed us to the front door. Then from behind his back, like a magician, he produced a copy of his latest book, "Obituaries." "Here," he said. "This is for you. For New York City. Don't be put off by the title. It's not about death at all. It's about living."

When I got in the car, I opened the book and on the first blank page, to my surprise and delight, Saroyan had penned a note. I read it to Grandpa.

"For Aram Arax, grandfather, and to Mark Arax, grandson. Fellow Armenians. Fellow Writers. It is a track. It is a profession. But most of all writing is being alive. Continued good luck, Bill Saroyan."

Pop nodded his head and smiled. Then he laughed and said. "You would have thought the jackass could have turned on the air conditioning a while."

I returned to the Fresno heat a decade later to write a memoir, "In My Father's Name," about my grandfather and his journey out of genocide and the unsolved murder of his son, my father, when I was 15. And I returned in 1997 to tackle the King of California. I was sitting in my back yard with my close friend and colleague, Rick Wartzman, explaining how I had begun a book that was going to take me 10 years at least. It was the story of how the South came West, how the Boswells and other plantation owners had left Georgia and Virginia, chased out by the boll weevil, and grafted their Dixie onto a corner of California. Jim Boswell, a Stanford-educated cowboy, had sucked dry Tulare Lake, the largest body of fresh water west of Mississippi, and carved out the richest cotton patch in the world. Rick and I joined forces that night and we ended up writing something I swore I would never write -- a book with footnotes, 100 pages of them.

On behalf of Rick and myself, I want to thank Stanford University, librarian Michael Keller, the Saroyan Foundation and its director, Bob Setrakian, and the judges for this honor. I guess you now know why this prize is so special for me. And I want to thank Bill himself for telling me, on our very first visit when I was 18, that I could never bring paper or pen inside his house.

"Notes are crutches," he explained. "If you're going to be a writer, you have to see things. And you can't very well see things if your face is stuck in some notebook."

Mark Arax is a reporter for the Los Angeles Times.

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