Over twenty years ago, my book, French Dirt: The Story of a Garden in the South of France, was published. It’s still here, to paraphrase Stephen Sondheim. For that, I’m extremely pleased. As a young, unpublished writer—well, as a middle-aged, unpublished writer, since I was forty-five when I wrote French Dirt—I had many literary dreams and fantasies. Some were not completely unreasonable: I wanted—please God!—to publish a book. Some were misguided and greedy: I wanted my book to be a bestseller! I wanted to be a famous author! And some dreams were too remote to even be conceived, such as wanting my dreamed-about book to be in print twenty years from then.
French Dirt is the story of a man who goes with his Dutch girlfriend to live in a small village in the South of France, not too far from Avignon, for a year. We went there to escape New York and for my girlfriend to be closer to her parents in Holland. I also was going there in a last gasp effort to see if I was really the writer I claimed I was, or just a poser. I’m sure many already thought I was, including most, if not all of my friends as well as my parents. We found a marvelous 200-year-old stone house to rent for the year in a little village we had never heard of before.
Ignorance is the state we were in when we arrived in that sleepy village outside of time. It may be the ideal state in which to find one’s self in a situation like this. I knew no French. (My girlfriend knew some.) Neither of us knew a soul in this little place of just 211 people. The villagers were mostly farmers who raised grapes for wine. We didn’t know where we were, really. Neither of us had ever been close to the South of France. So, we had to learn, to find out, to meet, to discover. That year proved to be totally unlike our preconceptions, and I think that’s true of most voyagers who go to places they know only in their minds. This wasn’t a bad thing, by any means. Instead of spending my time writing, as planned, for example, I spent my time cultivating a vegetable garden.
The garden was ultimately a failure, but out of that failure came friendships with the villagers, intimate contact with the French earth and with its lucid air and with its sun and seasons—and, ultimately, a book. I wrote French Dirt in New York, not in France, simply because I had no idea that I would write that book until I returned home. As a “writer,” I had always dreamed I’d write the next Moby Dick or the next The Sun Also Rises. But a book about a garden? At a certain point, though, I decided that if my first, and perhaps my only, book were going to be about a garden, well, so be it. That’s what I would write.
Which I guess means, distrust your brain, trust that organ beating regularly deep with your chest.
It turned out to be the right decision for me. I spent a year writing that book. I wrote for two hours every morning before I went to work during the week, and then for as long as I was able on the weekends. I didn’t fully realize it at the time, but that one year of continued ecstatic composition was one of my dreams comes true. Now, I see that. “Writers,” as W.S. Merwin said, “pray to be obsessed.” I was obsessed, and that is a form of ecstasy. If you are obsessed as a writer, I say you are lucky, indeed.
When I was finished, I found an agent. And then came the day when Algonquin Books said, yes, they would publish my book. I still remember my stunned sense of elation when I heard the news from my agent. After hanging up the phone, I walked out of the office at the corporation where I was working and stood there in the hallway, saying over and over, “Wow. Wow. Wow. Wow.”
A young woman looked up from her work and said, “What’s wrong?”
“Wow,” I replied.
From that moment that I knew the words I had typed on my Smith Corona Galaxie II manual typewriter would actually be published, would reside between the two covers of a book with my name on the front, many dreams have come true. One of the most splendid was to have M.F.K. Fisher write me that she liked my book. Well, I had written to her first, impetuously, if not impudently, sending her two chapters of my book in typescript and asking her, the great writer of The Art of Eating and Two Town in Provence, whom I admired boundlessly, if she would please, please, please read what I sent her.
And lo and behold, she did. She did! She wrote me back a single spaced typed letter in which she said (I still gasp), “I possess a deep prejudice against anything written by Anglo-Saxons about their lives in or near French villages. So, Richard, I thank you for breaking the spell. I like very much what you wrote.” These words of hers allowed this writer to suddenly have the ability to defy gravity and walk around the room two feet above the ground.
Much as that was a dream come true—to have one of my literary heroes bless my writing—there was another exchange with a writer that proved even more powerful. That was with Laurence Wylie, the man who wrote what I think is the best, the truest, book ever written about Provence, Village in the Vaucluse. Wylie was an anthropologist who specialized in France and who went to live with his family for a year in Roussillon, a small village about an hour east of Avignon. He went just five years after World War II when those quaint villages in Provence still had one foot very much planted in the 19th century. When I read his book, I was living in my own little village in Provence. The villagers’ ways perplexed me. I couldn’t understand or relate to many of their customs and habits. After I read Village in the Vaucluse, I could. Wylie writes with a huge sympathetic, comprehending heart, and his words explained so much.
I never forgot Laurence Wylie’s insights or his help. When French Dirt was published, I sent him a copy in care of his publisher, Harvard University Press. I enclosed a letter in which I said that his book would live forever because it was true. A month or so later, I received a handwritten letter from him in which he wrote these words,
“You letter was so important to me because it helped me shove aside a sort of feeling that at 83 my life is sort of dwindling without my having made a difference. Your letter made me feel that I had done something.”
As, indeed, he had. And still does.
Fame, fortune, no, never got that. But did many of my literary dreams come true? Yes.