Monday, January 23, 2012

An International Walk

by Joan

Recently I learned that an acquaintance from my Oxford summer program passed away. Michael (seen here with the lovely Mary-Lucille) wrote spare but spot-on poetry, traveled the UK with gusto, showed complete interest in whoever stood across from him and carried this basket with him always. His wife said he counted his time among us as a high point in his life, and that he had warm and enduring friendships among us.

I also view my time there as a high point, not only because it spawned a manuscript that now lives under my bed and in my heart’s left ventricle, but because I met a truly international group of friends who, each in their own way, adds richness to my memories and my writing self.

Devon, a professor of Irish literature at West Virginia Wesleyan, slipped into the chair next to mine at the first dinner, straight from her cottage on the west coast of Ireland. I knew then that my Maeve Binchy-loving self had found a soul sister. When plans took me to within an hour of her home in WVA, we scheduled a weekend in Shepherdstown, where we roamed quaint streets and talked literature, browsed bookstores and clomped through the cemetery. She also read my then-WIP, The Bodley Girl, and offered invaluable feedback.

The graceful Mary Lucille, posing here with Michael in Exeter’s quad, recently earned a diploma in Creative Writing from Oxford and writes in the vein of Virginia Woolf without being the least bit copy-cattish. She read the British bits of Bodley and advised me on WWII-era fashion and makeup and music. On my next trip to the U.K., I will buy her a spot of tea.

Megan, then a young Duke graduate student with killer writing skills, lodged in the rooms next to mine, and occasionally we'd sneak off to Starbuck’s for real coffee and critique sessions. She was insightful and generous and now, six years later, is on everyone’s watch list for her short story collection, Birds of a Lesser Paradise, which debuts in March. (I pre-ordered from Battenkill Books, an independent bookstore in Vermont.) This is going to be big, people, just wait!

Laura is an absolute sweetheart, a brilliant writer from Mexico living in Amsterdam, publishing books and essays about multicultural issues. Last I heard, she was the Policy Advisor for the International Affairs department of the Dutch Institute for Multicultural Affairs-FORUM. Chance brought us together in New York a few years ago, and we traipsed the streets near Washington Square, stopped in every bookstore and discussed life’s great mysteries.

Naya from Athens got a kick out of my character named Athena in The Cemetery Garden and schooled me on the proper way to pronounce her name: uh-thee-nuh not uh-thee-nuh. She recently stole my dream and moved to London and, after my tea with Mary Lucille, I will storm the Tower of London with Naya.

Shirley travels the world, but I met up with her again in Austin at the Writers League of Texas conference a few years ago. She writes essays on life, which she knows a thing or two about.

Rieko writes exquisite poetry and has contributed to BBC radio programs, both on and off the air. There were times, toward the end of our program, when Rieko and I found ourselves bolting from the Great Hall, up George Street and across Hythe Bridge to avoid a too-often-served dish. It was the first (and last) time I tried green curry, but the joy we found sitting outside with a glass of wine was worth it, made all the more humorous when we looked over to see that Naya, Laura and a few others had the same idea.

There were about sixty of us in total, mentored by professors Jem Poster (brilliant poet and novelist) and Sandie Byrne (leading Austen expert), and many of us keep in touch via Facebook, like Rob and Michelle and Lito and Charles.

The cliché about meeting people in all walks of life is true and I’m thankful I took that walk. And I hope that Michael is someplace warm, with a full basket of pencils and paper.


  1. Dear Joan,

    Being there, was magical. And your words just brought back the magic.
    Thank you!
    Laura Coello

  2. Yes it was magical, Laura! Thanks for stopping by!
    Happy writing!

  3. Dear Joan,
    What a perfect masterpiece in tribute to Michael. I'm grieved to hear that he passed away. Thanks for writing about our Creative Writing Class. It was truly an international walk.


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