People sometimes get asked, in Miss America interviews or at parties or during ice breakers, if you could meet any [fill in the blank], living or dead, who would it be and why? Who’s the actor or musician or philanthropist or writer. At various times I’ve thought, Meryl Streep, Julia Child – especially during the Paris years – Isabella Stewart Gardner, Mary Queen of Scots (I’ve got some questions), Barbara Kingsolver, and I would totally have a beer with Sandra Bullock (it strikes me just now that this list is all women). But the more I learn about him the more I think, it would be William Maxwell. I only heard of Maxwell a few years ago, but everything I have read and learned since makes me wish that I had known him (and his wife, Emmy, too). Like this, from Alec Wilkinson’s My Mentor.
“He was sometimes difficult to talk to, because he had no interest in facile or socially polite conversation, lunch party talk. His conversation was about things that mattered to him, and he was not made uncomfortable by hesitations or breaks in exchange. His silences appeared to be measuring and sometimes made me anxious. It was years before I understood that his habit was to brood until he felt moved to respond. No one’s conversation was more literate or informed or compressed. His remarks had the candor and perception and quality of profound thought. Often he said no more than a sentence. In general, as people get older they talk more and become insensitive. As Maxwell got older he talked less and listened more, a form of kindness and an expression of his never-ending interest in the world.”