‘Try for one beautiful phrase per page’: in praise of Lester Goran

Paul Perry pays tribute to his creative writing mentor, who inspired him to aim high

Paul Perry: “He was not happy to hear I had turned to co-authoring commercial fiction. ‘Write your own story, god dammit. And make it good. Make it count.’”

Paul Perry: “He was not happy to hear I had turned to co-authoring commercial fiction. ‘Write your own story, god dammit. And make it good. Make it count.’”

 

‘Now Perry,’ he said holding up my submitted manuscript. He always called us, his students, by our surnames. It had something to do with his military background. He had served in the US Army Corps of Engineers and the Military Police, and his teaching style always had a front of stern discipline.

‘Is this a test?’ He held up a page within the sheaf which was upside down! I answered that it was not a test, but that it was simply a mistake on my part. He was not entirely convinced, but he did go to discuss in detail the merits and the failings of my fledgling efforts.

This was 1995 at the University of Miami. Lester had introduced creative writing to the university as early as 1965 and counted among his colleagues the crime writer Charles Willeford. I had gone to take my MFA in creative writing, entered writing poems, and left penning fiction.

Lester inspired his students; he inspired me. He didn’t rate Hemingway, for example. He thought his work would date. He once said to me, ‘don’t tell your friends.’ ‘Tell them what?’ ‘What it’s like here,’ he said pointing out to the palm trees: ‘They won’t believe you.’

What did he mean? Did he mean the sunshine, the writing programme, the madness and unpredictability of a place like Miami; its volatility, its violence, its sheer and engrossing beauty? Maybe he meant all of those things.

Lester himself had grown up in the slums of Pittsburgh. He called the house he grew up in a ghetto house. ‘They sold moonshine on that first floor,’ he once said in an interview with Mathew Asprey Gear. ‘They didn’t make the moonshine, but they sold the moonshine. They would bring to our house the moonshine in these big vats and they’d sell it for five cents a glass. And if you wanted it coloured so that it looked like something in a bottle you paid ten cents a glass for it. They had a big side door and there was banging on that side door up until around one o’clock in the morning. People crying and screaming and fighting. The landlady was a tough old bird. She would scare them off.’

And Lester could be a tough old guy. He grew up Jewish in an Irish neighbourhood. He said, ‘I’ve never had any real interest in writing about Jews because I just don’t know anything about it. They’ve never expressed themselves to me. They’ve never revealed themselves to me in the way that the Irish did in all those years of drinking. I had a pretty good idea of who the Irish were. I lived right there in the middle of all of it and I felt very, very welcomed.

‘The Irish accepted me for a number of reasons: they like a volatile sort of person, they like somebody who’s pugnacious, and I was a basketball player at the time. I felt very comfortable there. In fact, when I go back I meet guys that I knew and they all pick up with me as if I were 18. They all talk to me the same way. They’re liable to say to me, ‘Are you still playing basketball?’

Lester Goran: “The Irish accepted me for a number of reasons: they like a volatile sort of person, they like somebody who’s pugnacious.”
Lester Goran: “The Irish accepted me for a number of reasons: they like a volatile sort of person, they like somebody who’s pugnacious.”

Lester published eight novels, a memoir and three short story collections including Tales From The Irish Club, a New York Times Notable Book of 1996. His Irish stories are irreverent, melancholy, and full of wry observations, and loveable characters!

Joseph O’Connor once wrote that all writers need to go away. He was right. It gives you perspective, distance enough to reassess who you are and where you come and what it is you are going to write about, and how. It also gives you some life experience.

Lester’s journey was from Pittsburgh to Miami, and when I left the writing programme, in Coral Gables, Lester told me to get as far away from college as possible. But I stayed in Florida, and ended working a bunch of jobs, one of which was on an orchid farm; from whence the inspiration for my novel The Garden sprang, a novel about smothering power, loyalty and agency thwarted by the tragic patterns of memory and behaviour. Or so my publisher tells me!

In another 2010 interview, Lester said he was drawn to writing to explain his life. ‘I couldn’t understand myself unless I partially fictionalised myself into a drama. Produced, directed, and written by myself, he said, adding that he loved teaching and ‘dealing with many young people who are on the edge of self-discovery’.

And one of the extraordinary things about studying literature, I have found, is that you are not only entering into a dialogue with your fellow students, and your teachers, but also engaging with writers from the past – it’s a form of time travel in a way – and of discovering and honouring a tradition, and legacy which as apprentice writers we did well to take notice of, and study.

And when your professor, in this case Lester, has a direct link to that past, you best sit up and listen. Lester’s memoir of his friendship with Nobel Prize winning Yiddish writer Isaac Bashevis Singer, The Bright Streets of Surfside, was a case in point.

Singer, according to Lester, saw in Philip Roth, for example, a kind of masculine selfishness that wants all the sun. Saul Bellow was a different case. He had nominated Lester for a Guggenheim way back in ’60s, but Lester never took the nomination seriously; he did remain a fan of Bellow’s writing, however. He also translated many of the stories to be found in Singer’s late collections The Image (1985) and The Death of Methuselah (1988).

An extraordinary teacher who discouraged what he saw as lax, and lazy work – in what I once heard John Montague invoke Genet by saying ‘découragé’ to an aspiring writer – he insisted we, his writing students, try for one beautiful phrase per page. ‘One per page!’

Years later, sometime in the 2000s, I was invited to celebrate Lester’s 50 years of teaching at the University of Miami. As we got out of the taxi to enter a restaurant, I said something like, ‘Lester, they are giving you a great send off.’ He stopped and turned. ‘Perry,’ he said, and looked me in the eye. ‘I am not going anywhere!’

And it’s true, he kept on teaching until the end, and passed away peacefully in 2014. Before he died, he was not happy to hear I had turned to co-authoring commercial fiction. ‘Write your own story, god dammit,’ he said. ‘And make it good. Make it count.’

It took a tug of self-belief to walk away from another contract to what my publishers were calling ‘the brand’, but I did. And I am glad I did. I feel like I owe something of that self-belief to Lester. ‘And remember, Perry,’ he said that last time in the dusky sunshine, ‘Give it one per page!’ And I hope, I have, for you Lester, as much as anything else.

Paul Perry is the author of several poetry collections, and a number of co-authored novels as Karen Perry including the international bestselling Girl Unknown. He is a winner of The Hennessy Award for Irish Literature, the Listowel Prize for Poetry, and the Patrick and Katherine Kavanagh Fellowship. He directs the creative writing Programme at UCD. The Garden is published by New Island Books.

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