Monday, August 18, 2008

RIP: L. Rust Hills

L. Rust Hills, the former fiction editor of Esquire has died. From the Washington Post obituary here:

“Mr. Hills worked at Esquire on and off for almost 40 years and helped create the fictional landscape for a generation by guiding such renowned writers as Saul Bellow, Norman Mailer, Philip Roth, William Styron, Ann Beattie, Raymond Carver and Bernard Malamud. He was the author of a well-received book about how to write short stories, but he never turned his hand to fiction himself.

“He was not well known to the public, but in literary circles Mr. Hills was held in almost the same regard as Maxwell Perkins, who edited Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Thomas Wolfe in the 1920s and 1930s, and William Maxwell, a longtime fiction editor at the New Yorker magazine.”

Paper Cuts, the New York Times Book Review’s blog, has an appreciation, additional links, and an interesting reminiscence in the comments by writer Beverly Lowry, here.

As for my personal appreciation, there is a diagram on page 20 of my ancient Bantam paperback edition of Rust Hills’ book about writing, Writing in General and the Short Story in Particular, that changed my writing life. It shows with precision the concept of the “surprising yet inevitable” ending. The diagram looks like the veins of a leaf and when you start on the left at point A, it seems that at every point “A” (your character) has a choice in how to act, as we trace the path all the way to point “B” on the right. This is the “surprise”: which path will the character take?

But when you look backwards, from point B to Point A—you can see that there is actually only one path that was ever possible: and here’s your “inevitable.”

Speaking of inevitable…it’s inevitable that I pass out this “leaf drawing” at virtually every writing class I teach. Half of the students are struck immediately and see its brilliance as I do. And the other half thinks it’s crazy and confusing! I accept this reaction—teaching writing is always a matter of finding language to convey the inexpressible, so this was just something didn’t translate for them. But for me, this is one case of perfect translation, so thank you, Rust Hills.


DC-area author Leslie Pietrzyk explores the creative process and all things literary.