The following is the complete conversation between David Ulin, the book critic for the Los Angeles Times, and author and Plesko colleague Janet Fitch, which ran in a somewhat shortened version in Jacket Copy, the literary blog of the Times, on October 14, 2014 — publication day for No Stopping Train.
Ulin: For readers who are unfamiliar with Les and his work, can you give a brief overview of his writing and your relationship with him? What is it that makes him special as a writer?
Fitch: I met Les Plesko in 1995 in a private workshop run by Los Angeles writer Kate Braverman out of her apartment on Palm Drive in Beverly Hills. I was new to the workshop, thrilled to be there, trying to hold my own in a very accomplished milieu, while Les Plesko was one of the stars. A self-effacing, wry guy with wild hair and a walleye, he was already finishing his first novel, The Last Bongo Sunset, and had begun a book about lovers in Hungary. Our relationship in that workshop was one of tolerance (his) and admiration (mine). He was very kind in his judgments, he’d find the one thing that was any good in your work and encourage you to do more of that.
His first novel was published decently and was duly praised for its music, its craft, though the subject matter–the junkie world of Venice Beach, of which he had been a part–was not to everyone’s taste. I couldn’t understand the detractors of the book, who could dismiss something so beautiful because of subject matter—it was early on, and I thought art saved everything. We all did. Especially Les.
What makes him special as a writer is, was, his absolute conviction that there was no higher calling than this, that art would save us, that the transmutation of life into art was the great redemption. It gets harder and harder to find such practitioners anymore. I remember his process so clearly, that he would have to get every sentence right before he went on to the next sentence. His painstaking care with every line he ever wrote—I don’t know if most readers can even imagine how hard it is to write as beautifully as he did. It’s like—you almost have to have tried it yourself, like dancing, or playing an instrument, to really understand the labor and devotion that goes into a virtuosity like his.
There’s a certain cadence, a fine facility with the poetic devices of rhythm, rhyme, alliteration and assonance that marks his prose so definitely that I can often tell when a student or writer has worked with Les because I can hear overtones of that poetry in their work. It’s unmistakable.
Ulin: No Stopping Train was his big book, in a sense, that he held out hope for, even after major publishers had turned away. It’s a lovely book, and quite different from The Last Bongo Sunset. What about it makes it special do you think?
Fitch: It was the book he was born to write, more than The Last Bongo Sunset with its description of that era of excess and searching. No Stopping Train goes back to his his origins, his father, his mother, his sense of identity, his Hungarian nationality, the impact of World War II—remember, Hungary fought on the side of the Axis and then was overrun by the Soviet ‘liberators.’ The political turmoil of the Hungarian Revolution of 1956 arose from deep wounds in the national soul. Les’s personal story is intimately entwined with that of his mother country, where his own mother became pregnant in an affair and bore him in 1954. (He would not learn the man’s identity until he returned to Hungary years later, while researching his book.)
When young Laszlo, as Les was called then, was two, the Revolution broke out against the rule of the Soviets, and his mother escaped Hungary with a man who would become Les’s stepfather, leaving Laszlo in the care of his grandparents, not sending for him until he was 7. I think he was haunted by his Hungarian roots, wanting to return to that time and place and live through his own history, not as a helpless child this time, but as a man, as an active protagonist, to really understand what happened, not only to him, but to his mother, and to his native land.
Ulin: Did he have that sense of hierarchy in his own writing, books that he cared about more than other books? He did publish two novels with local indy presses.
Fitch: Yes, absolutely. Les was enough of a Beat to be comfortable publishing his two subsequent books, Slow Lie Detector and Who I Was, with Equinox and MDMD Books, run by his friend Michael Deyermond. They were books he felt to be breezier and more accessible. But he worked so very hard on his Hungarian novel which became No Stopping Train, he’d put so much of himself into it, there was such beauty, such labor, such rigor, I think he wondered whether he could ever equal what he’d done with it again, and really wanted to see it—as a friend put it—“walk down the aisle in a white dress.” I think he felt that if this more difficult, more complex book was published with a certain presence, people would find their way to the other books. I hope this will be the case.
Ulin: You talk a bit in the introduction about how you met Dan Smetanka and brought the book to his attention. How was the manuscript put together? What shape were his papers, his archives, in?
Fitch: Les was a great sharer of his work. He brought his own pages into class to read to his students as he required of them in turn. The manuscript had been submitted many times, and by 2008 or so, it had taken the form you see in the Soft Skull book, very little had been tweaked after that. Students and friends had versions of the manuscript, it took little work to reassemble it. His papers are voluminous, his brother George has most of them, including his computer files. They need to be sorted and the publishable pieces identified.
Ulin: Is there other unpublished work of his that we can expect to see?
Fitch: I have been told by friends that there was a novel after Who I Was that he completed shortly before his death. It is most likely on that computer. I imagine there is also a good chunk of unpublished short work among his files and papers. He was also a prolific letter-writer, and I think in time a collection of his letters will find its way into print.
Ulin: Les committed suicide by jumping from the roof of his building in Venice. This is tragic. And yet, it is possible for a life to have a tragic end and not be tragic itself. What’s your sense of him? Was he a tragic figure? Or something more than that?
Fitch: Well, that’s the question, isn’t it. I wrestled with it in my last novel– which he’d worked on, as a matter of fact. About his suicide, he actually didn’t jump from that building, he rolled off it—as his Hungarian father had done, something he’d learned on that trip to Hungary in 2008. He’d always been something of a tragic figure, I think. There was a deep wound in him, perhaps from being abandoned by his mother when he was so small. A deep wound, and a lovely gentle quality, a gentle pessimism—completely un-American. He was absolutely sincere, there was nothing ironic about him, but he never was a believer in anything but art, and love. What a romantic. He constructed his life around art and romance, and the romance of art. Which is a terribly vulnerable place, especially as you grow older. I think he lived himself into a corner in a certain respect. I think he was always tragic. Though he wasn’t morose or gloomy, he could have this sweet comic quality, like Charlie Chaplin wobbling away on a broken bicycle. A wry pessimism, gently encouraging, but a great woundedness underneath it all.
I won’t speculate further. As Les’s close friend Julianne Cohen wrote recently in a letter: “He said, ‘Everything bleeds into everything else, you can point at the constellation but what about the dark matter?’ He found elegance and truth in what’s better left unsaid. He’d say, ‘whenever you give a reason, you leave something out.’ He didn’t leave a note. If he could’ve answered ‘what did you die of,’ my guess is he’d say what he often said–“it’s the Hungarian disease”. So I think if it were one of us he were writing about, he would leave speculation out of it too.”
Ulin: I’d be remiss if I didn’t ask you about him as a teacher, since that was so important to his sense of identity. I wonder if you can say something about his qualities as a teacher, and the interplay of teaching and writing — for him, and also for you. As a corollary, what was he like in the Braverman workshop, as a colleague and a fellow student? How did this influence his teaching, do you think?
Fitch: I actually participated in his private workshop for a while when I was writing Paint It Black—as he participated in mine from time to time—so I was able to see him in action. He concentrated on what was working in students’ stories, and urged they cut the rest. He was a grand cutter of clutter and reiteration, praiser of the lapidary phrase. He loathed sentimentality—he was very Eastern European that way—and a really overwrought scene would elicit an “oh, brother.”
He encouraged the writing that emerged freshly in the moment of creation, of trusting the moment. One of the first bits of advice I ever got from him in that Kate Braverman workshop was, “Don’t have ideas.” As outrageous as it sounded at the time, it has become a touchstone for me as it has for the 1000 students he taught over 20 years at UCLA’s Writing Program. “Don’t have ideas” means don’t plan what you think is going to happen, don’t shove your characters around. It meant, quiet down and feel what’s actually happening in your work, sentence by sentence.
After he died, we created a website where people could post stories about him, some of his writing exercises, quotes, photographs, even actual pages he had edited—often with a line all the way through the page—and called it “Pleskoism: Don’t Have Ideas.”
He adored teaching. He got a big charge out of that literary interaction–it was a complete circuit. You have to understand what a purist he was—he wrote, he taught, he fell in love—that’s it. That’s it. He rode a bicycle, he lived in a single room, he didn’t have two pairs of socks that matched. He loved his students madly.
I don’t think he struggled between teaching and writing as many of us do, fighting for the time to work, fighting for the clarity. Or if he did he never complained about it. Les wasn’t a complainer. He certainly didn’t complain about the things many untenured lecturers complain about, the poor pay, the lack of health insurance, though he must have worried about it. It was the first thing I thought of when I heard he’d committed suicide—did he have health insurance?
In workshop, he was a great devotee of the music of writing. All of us in that Braverman workshop learned to write for the ear as well as the eye. We read out loud, listening for the music of the words. I teach that way, and I know he did, even in large classes, he’d have everyone bring one page and read it out loud. He felt that one page was enough—I think he was right. Whatever’s right or wrong with your work is there on a single page.
His way was always that of gentle honesty, he was a master of it from the very beginning. I think sometimes great teaching is a matter of what the martial arts people call ‘direct transmission.’ Being in the presence of someone so dedicated, with such love for his art form, such a master in his own right, changes us, elevates us by example.
In the Braverman workshop and after, he was modest, wry, self-effacing and yet completely confident in his opinions, his work and his world-view. I saw him as an older brother. He considered himself not some fullblown genius, but simply someone who had arrived before you.
Ulin: There’s a tribute/reading/publication party for the book this coming weekend. Can you talk a little about the program and how it came about?
Fitch: It’s almost like an unveiling, a year since his death. When he died, there was a memorial at Beyond Baroque, where his colleagues, friends, students and members of the Los Angeles literary community gathered to mourn his passing and shared his profound impact on their lives. At that time, no one knew what would happen with his Hungarian novel, and it so added to the darkness that his most brilliant work never saw the light of day. He had no children, that book was the child—orphaned, left behind.
Now, the book is coming out into the world, though its father is gone, and once again his colleagues and students, friends and the literary community of Los Angeles are coming together–this time, to mark that white wedding.
The speakers include four of his colleagues from the old Braverman workshop: me, reading my introduction to the book; Joshua Miller (The Mao Game) who was 19 in the workshop, now a writer for films and TV; Samantha Dunn (Failing Paris, Not by Accident, Faith in Carlos Gomez) who teaches extensively at the UCLA Writers’ Program in addition to her work as a journalist; the Seattle-based short-story writer Julianne Cohen, Les’s closest colleague and correspondent; Mary Rakow (The Memory Room) a 2003 Lannan Foundation fellow currently living in San Francisco; as well as two of Les’s students: David Francis (The Great Inland Sea, Stray Dog Winter) an attorney and now vice-president of PEN Center USA, and Jamie Shaffner, a former PEN Emerging Voices fellow and Les’s student at UCLA, who maintains the blog www.pleskoism.wordpress.com.
The No Stopping Train Launch Party and Reading, sponsored by PEN Center USA, will be held on Sunday October 19, at 6 p.m. (doors), readings at 6:30, in the Charles Young Salon at UCLA. Free.