Julia Slavin

in correspondence with

Richard McCann

McCann’s hidden influences:
Tillie Olsen
Jean Rhys
His liver donor

I met Richard McCann a year ago at the Folger Theatre in Washington, D.C., where we had been relegated to the cheap seats at an awards show. A handsome man in a box-cut tux, he introduced himself and asked if I’d “had any work done.” I said not yet, but did he know anyone good. I wanted to tell him how much I loved his writing, how after reading Mother of Sorrows the mean sidewalks of Wheaton, Maryland, would never look the same. But there was too much other ground to cover: the best concealer, whether one needs to pay a lot for good moisturizer (no, one does not). There was more to say but the lights went down.

Why share our letters? You remember the story of the boy who while wandering the mountains finds a piece of iron that will give him immortality. His greedy family takes the rock and will not allow the peasants of their ailing village access. The vain sisters use the rock to make themselves more beautiful—but for whom? The young men of the village are dying of the fever. The father uses the rock to make him rich, but what is there to buy? The merchants have left the village to escape the fever. His mother uses the rock to become a great weaver and cook. But who can eat on a stomach ravaged by the fever? Disgusted by his family’s behavior, the boy takes the rock to the center of the village and drops it down the well, where it dissolves into the town’s drinking water. Did the rock cure the fever? We never find out. All we know is that the rock is for everyone.

—Julia Slavin


Dear Richard,

Just so there is no awkwardness between us, you did show me your scar within the first ten minutes of meeting me. I was extremely flattered that you trusted me enough to share it and that you somehow sensed that this would be something I’d like. I think you are the consummate dinner companion; someone raised you right. Just this Saturday I was seated between two boors who leaned across me to discuss… who cares, I spilled tiramisu on the new satin finish with the muted leopard (really fabulous, tight to the waist then full skirt with hidden pockets [!] for lipstick and concealer. Hands down, the best concealer: Laura Mercier) trying to get my spoon around them. I do hope you’ll show me your scar again as I can’t remember if it was an accent grave or an accent aigu


Dear Julia,

I showed you my scar and you don’t remember what it looks like? I was carved open, as are all liver transplant recipients, with what’s called a “chevron incision.” My boyfriend says the scar looks like the peace sign, minus the circle; my surgeon says it looks like the logo for Mercedes-Benz.

Once again, income and aspiration determine perception, one might say.

I suppose it will come as no surprise, now that you know my predilection for revealing my scars, if I tell you that I don’t imagine I would ever have started writing had I not come across the poems of Anne Sexton’s books All My Pretty Ones and Live or Die. Until I read Sexton, I’d never heard anyone speak with such violent self-exposure. (I was twenty years old when I found Anne Sexton. I was still in the closet. I was still whispering politely within parentheses.)

And before Anne Sexton? Well, I was thrown out of eleventh-grade honors English by Miss Evelyn Stockard, who wore her gray hair in a bun, because I’d chosen for my term project to declaim a half dozen poems from Edgar Lee Masters’s Spoon River Anthology. I was only a few lines into my first selection, “Hortense Robbins,” I believe—“My name used to be in the papers daily / As having dined somewhere, / Or traveled somewhere, / Or rented a house in Paris.…”—when Miss Stockard rose from her seat in the back of the classroom. “Stop!” she said. “Stop at once! That is not literature!” …

We hope you enjoy this excerpt.

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Richard McCann is the author of Mother of Sorrows, a collection of linked stories, as well as Ghost Letters, a collection of poems. He edited Things Shaped in Passing: More “Poets for Life” Writing from the AIDS Pandemic. McCann has received awards and fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, and others.

Julia Slavin wrote The Woman Who Cut Off Her Leg at the Maidstone Club and Other Stories and the novel Carnivore Diet.

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