Alexander Chee on the life, work and loss of his mentor, Kit Reed
The first day of Kit Reed’s advanced fiction class, sitting in the yellow Victorian house I would come to know simply as “Lawn Avenue,” was my first time for so many things. I had never been taught by a professor in her own home, for example, and I remember I couldn’t stop looking at it all. I had never been in a home full of that much art, or with walls painted white or black, or in rooms full of chrome furniture, Lucite lamps, and mirrors— there was an offhand glamour to it all that I loved from the start. This was the kind of home you hoped professors at Wesleyan University had, or at least I did, and I sat nervously, excited, aware that I was lucky to be there as she listed off her rules for the class. We had to turn in 20 pages every other week—she ran the class like a boot camp—and she told us never to call her before noon, as she was writing and wouldn’t answer.
Another first: I’d never had a professor tell me I could call at all, and I don’t know that any of them ever did tell me, besides her. It never occurred to me to call my professors outside of class. Her willingness to accept a call was an openness to another kind of connection and conversation with us, one that, for many of us, would go on for the rest of the time we knew her. The art in that house was from all over the world, and each piece had a story, either about a trip or a friend or a family member, or all three. I remember praising a painting in the hall by the stairs, and she told me a long story about it as the rest of the class looked on, hesitating—I could see they were wondering whether they had to listen. I didn’t care. I was fascinated because she was the first person I knew who knew artists well enough that she could look at each piece of art and think of a friend, or of her husband, the artist and film scholar Joe Reed, a professor of English and American studies, a legend in his own right.
For the record:
4:10 p.m. Nov. 17, 2017An earlier version of this story said Kit Reed died Sept. 27; she died Sept. 24.
I wrote an enormous amount, including a story that became part of my first novel, eventually published more than a decade later. She believed you had to get a lot of pages out to get to the good stuff of writing, and that the reason we had to write so much for her was that “it was a long paper road” to being a writer, and you may as well start. She was not precious in her praise but she praised things if she liked them, and if she thought you should get rid of a particular phrase or piece of writing, she would read it and then make a pistol with her fingers as if she had shot it. She hated to be bored by stories perhaps more than anything.
She taught me that semester to treat writing like something you did, un-mystically, even when writing about magic, a task to be met regularly in one’s office every day, as she did, for her three hours a day. She was reliably on a schedule, writing at the same time, eating at the same time, leaving for New York at the same time, returning to Middletown at the same time. If she saw movies she saw matinees, and she swam, for many decades, just about every day. She and her husband Joe owned many Scotties, dogs they always replaced as soon as one died—I believe there were always two, so one would never be lonely. It was like her to think about these things. The dogs had walks on a schedule too, which meant she and Joe did also. And so if you were passing through Middletown and called to see if you could see her, she could tell you the spots she had open in her schedule, down to the minute. And if this sounds put on, she used the schedule to write 39 works of fiction in the almost 60 years she wrote, while raising three children and teaching, and looking after all of us, her great big family of writers who were once her students.
The secret to the advanced fiction class was that it didn’t ever end. Like many, I learned the class was the beginning, not the end, of my education with her.
Like many, I learned the class was the beginning, not the end, of my education with her.
I am ashamed to say I didn’t know much about her when I signed up for her class. She was not the first author I’d ever met but she was the first to have a full shelf of books with her name on them. Her career was always larger than I imagined, in part because there was so much teaching and writing, and she did more than anyone I knew. When I met her, she’d been teaching at Wesleyan for 27 years. She had debuted with the novel “Mother Isn’t Dead, She’s Only Sleeping” in 1961, a year after moving to campus with her husband Joe, who had accepted his job there the year previous. She was hired to teach writing almost immediately, first as a visiting assistant professor, then an adjunct professor, eventually a resident writer in 2008. She wrote and published literary fiction, horror, science fiction, mystery novels, true crime—all before it was cool to cross genres—and was what she called trans-genred, a term Gary Wolfe memorialized for her in his introduction to her collected stories, “The Story Until Now.” Of her work, I will always remember her for “Thief of Lives” (the short stories collected in 1992), “The Baby Merchant” (2006), “Enclave” (2009), and “Thinner Than Thou” (2004).
She also wrote and published horror under the pseudonym Kit Craig, her maiden name, and had an online life she loved, as a part of a community called StoryMOO, where she also taught—and as near as I can tell from her descriptions, it was a sort of MMORPG for learning to write. She was instrumental in the formation of the creative writing program at Wesleyan, and often took part in the Wesleyan Writers’ Conference, but preferred a role behind the scenes—no work she ever took on was allowed to interfere with her writing, a lesson she tried to drum into my brain like all the others I learned at her house.
Her wit was savage and unrehearsed, and elegant: she spoke in spontaneous paragraphs that were also arias.
Almost all of my major career decisions passed before her before I made them: She approved of me getting a job at Out magazine—she herself had been a reporter at the St. Petersburg (Fla.) Times and the New Haven Register early in her career. She disapproved of my applying for an MFA, though she wrote me a recommendation letter anyway; she was happy to see me return to Wesleyan as a visiting writer, and sad when I left at the end of my post. She advised me on my teaching jobs thereafter with her vast store of institutional knowledge—the many ways of academia, and the ways writers survived inside of it.
When I sent the pages of my second novel to my agent for the first time, she wrote to me, in an email with the subject heading, “you know the rule, right?”
You’re not allowed to work on the early pages again until at least ten days after she gets back to you. So whatever particles have time to settle.This is a rule I SO try (and fail) to follow...lovely to talkxxxx
In addition to the rules, she had axioms, Kit Reed Axioms (they were branded), such as the one she sent me as I was leaving a difficult romantic relationship: “MOVEMENT IS NOT ACTION.” Leaving him was not enough. There was more to do. Like much of her advice, it applied to writing and life, and often came in all caps, spoken that way also—in person she was capable of a sudden volume coming up out of her seemingly petite throat, as if inside of her was another dimension, where a larger, louder woman was shouting because the axiom or rule or point was important.
In person, she was a little like a small lion, upright: perfect posture, well-dressed, with a taste for bold color and accessories, always a little lipstick and a little mascara, her always red hair cut short as it had been since before I met her. She could summon a daffy smile and bright eyes that could make you laugh when she was clowning. Her wit was savage and unrehearsed, and elegant: she spoke in spontaneous paragraphs that were also arias, and at some point I realized this was just part of how she thought her way through life.
She wrote right up until the end—79 years, having begun writing stories at age 6.
She was ahead of her time, an early adopter. Her young people had to keep up with her. We almost did but it took me decades to get close. She was on the internet before me and urged me to take it seriously for its potential as a tool for writers at a time when everyone else was acting like it was beneath them. My first Gmail to her in 2004 has me offering her a beta invite. She wasn’t interested, as she had one already. We read comics together before they were called graphic novels, and exchanged them and emailed about them, and in the 28 years after I left Wesleyan, sat in her living room on my visits and talked about them too.
Whenever I stopped by to give and to hear the gossip, and to give and get advice, I didn’t always do what she said but I appreciated that she cared enough to tell me, and that I was always welcome to come back to Lawn Avenue and tell her a good story. She loved to talk shop, and if I had questions she couldn’t answer, she sent me to other writers. She did not discriminate by age with her friends—we were an all-ages show, this vast network of we who loved her, who came in and out of her kitchen for the tuna melts on English muffins, or the cookies, and the giant mug of iced tea.
The only times I saw her anywhere else was in New York—she was also the first person I knew to belong to a social club there—and when I moved to the city, she would invite me to the club, and I would try not to break the rules, though my last photo of her was taken there, against the rules.
I had just given her my second novel, “The Queen of the Night.” It’s hard to tell you what it meant to me to give it to her. I had spent 15 years working on it, and she was alternately kind or stern but she never lost faith in my talent, even when I had, and in that way, she was one of those people who held me up when I wasn’t sure I could keep going. In the spring of 2015, at her club, when I put the galley in her hands, I think she was perhaps even happier than I was because I had at last proved her right about me. And this was one of the best gifts you could give her—proving her right.
She died Sept. 24 in Los Angeles—she preferred us to use the word “died” instead of “passed”—going in her sleep, under the care of her daughter, the writer Kate Maruyama, and her family. She wanted to be remembered as she was—no funeral, no wake. The only reason I can get away with writing this is because I will mention her last book—she’d want us to plug her book— “Mormama,” a novel that came out in spring from Tor Books. A last story appeared in Asimov’s Science Fiction magazine, “Disturbance In the Produce Aisle,” the week she died. She wrote right up until the end—79 years, having begun writing stories at age 6.
In 2009, she and Joe were honored with a labyrinth on campus at Wesleyan, built for them with funds raised by former students. I don’t know that any of us anticipated the day we would go there without them because it is impossible to imagine the place without them. I know the house at Lawn Avenue is empty. I don’t know that I’ll ever be able to walk by it again. I think she’d prefer if I just walk the labyrinth—to use it as it was meant—and to think of her as she was, as she is in my mind. If there’s some better memorial to raise for her, we’ll see, though I think we build it every day—the work we all do, we who studied with her and loved her—which I suspect is what she’d want most. For us to keep proving her right. “A lot of being a teacher,” she said at least once, “is standing at the edge of the nest and going ‘flap your wings like this,’” and I think this is true. But she often welcomed us back to the nest once we could fly.
From her example, I learned lessons on how to be ambitious enough to try and make history, and to just write regularly and draw boundaries around my work. I learned how to handle myself as a writer, as a teacher, and as a mentor to others. I have my own network of students helping each other out when I don’t have answers now, and some of them studied with both of us. And as she got older, she taught lessons even how to do that—how to be married to another artist, how to age with him and both their careers—or, now—how to exit life’s stage with panache, and a last publication.
We love you, Kit. This last lesson: how to get along without you, the hardest one. Thank you, for everything.
Chee, one the Times’ Critics at Large, is the author of the novels “The Queen of the Night” and “Edinburgh,” and is a professor at Dartmouth College.
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