In 2015, I typed and mailed a letter to Joy Williams. I was coming out of a few non-writing years and the mindfuck of parenting young children when I started re-reading all of her books in some attempt to crack myself back open. Reading her work again—the bits of fabulism, the edges knocked up against and out, the moments of hilarity often positioned so close to cruelty or stark beauty in unexpected ways and places—helped me to remember what I loved about both reading and writing.
So I decided to write Joy Williams a letter, a thank you of sorts, typed and printed because, according to the contact at the university where she teaches, “Joy isn’t at a computer enough to warrant having an email address.” Which is badass, which I admire and aspire to, especially when I find myself watching the one hundredth episode of House Hunters International late at night to provoke sleep.
She responded to my letter—a thrilling shock. A postcard with a black-and-white photo of an isolated path surrounded by leaning trees on either side. Ooh, I thought. I get it: keep going on the path. Or maybe she had a stack of random postcards for this purpose (response-to-fawning/struggling-author postcards).
I put the postcard in a wooden box full of other things worth saving and brought it out again in June 2018 when I finished writing a story called “Dear Joy Williams,” which now appears in the latest Split Lip Magazine print issue. It was fun to write because it unfolded quickly in loose and unexpected ways. Of course, Williams’ work and her ideas about writing and life inspired it. Was I imitating her? I hoped not too much. But like she does, I wanted to try to write things that are sharp and beautiful but still free-ranging enough to give the reader room.
This was right around the time when a shouty troupe of crows had set up camp in the neighborhood where I live. There they were each day for all of May and most of June on one of the straight-line streets I walked between my house and downtown. Prodding and communicative, insistent really. Likely they were just doing standard crow things, but I took it personally, started calling them my crows, which I knew was for the most part ridiculous, which my son pointed out to me, more exasperated each time. “They are not your crows, Mom. They are just crows.” But also: crows sometimes brought people presents and could recognize human faces, so who was to say, really?
We were a few days away from a road trip from Kansas to California. It was that last day of June and my daughter and I were walking mid-day around our neighborhood. The crow clatter was at a peak level. Ten or twelve of them followed us, madly squawking and swooping low in front of us and then rising up and then down again with some urgent bird message, it seemed.
After that, we didn’t see them again for many days. We left for California, and my husband joked that the crows had preceded us in their journey so they’d be in San Francisco to greet us. And we did see crows there—and ravens. We all agreed that crows got short shrift, and ravens, though perhaps more majestic, were a bit obvious and even cloying.
When we returned to Kansas, in a weird fit of ego, I printed off my story and sent it to Joy Williams. Who was I to think she would give a shit or want to be bothered?
The postcard I got back a week later was this: a photo of a massive tarantula on desert rock and with orange all-caps “TARANTULA” in the lower left corner. It looked like a postcard purchased from a truck stop in 1979 and reminded me of driving to Colorado in the back of a station wagon with blankets in a pile and my brother and sister sleeping almost as if in a coffin.
The left side of the tarantula postcard was entirely blank but for a single large and centered exclamation point. It was the perfect Joy Williams response. It could have meant either, “I’m bored with this exchange and don’t have time but will acknowledge that I read this and now let’s move on” or (and it was this option that I chose to believe) “I liked this and didn’t want to fuck with it by trying to say much so I am sending you this punctuation, and if you know you know, and that is that.”
My daughter and I spent several weeks searching for the crows after our trip. The sprinklers ticked through the early evening up and down all the blocks we walked just before dusk, but the crows were silent. They’d gone, maybe to another part of town, or more likely to another town altogether. In their absence and maybe prompted by the second postcard, I started digging back into Joy Williams’ books and noticed crows everywhere—crows, corvids, Corvus. There was even a photo of one on the cover of Honored Guest for fuck’s sake. How had I missed this? The crows, the tarantula, they were so Joy Williams: weird, a little funny, jarring, unexpected but sort of not, and strangely beautiful. They were the things on the margins, hidden or ignored. The things I liked looking at, liked reading about and writing about.
The desert tarantula on the postcard from Joy Williams is described in tiny print on the back, likely by someone whose entire job it is to write text for postcards: “This primarily nocturnal spider is large, hairy, and heavy bodied. During the day it hides in its silk lined burrow but comes out at night to feed on its favorite food: large beetles.” I can’t really explain it and I don’t think I need to, but somehow that says every single thing about life.