Rest in Peace

Rest in Peace

Rest in Peace

James Welch has died.

I only met him once, years ago, at the very first Art of the Wild conference. He led a workshop with a participant we’d been really worried about — he was this older man from Alaska who had, to our enormous alarm, sent us the entire manuscript of his novel, and it was typed. During the months we were planning the conference, we worried about losing the thing, since it was clear it was probably his only copy. So this gentleman appeared, and we scheduled his workshop for the end of the week with Jim because the other problem was that the book was terrible. It was a long, cliche’d story about an “Indian Princess” — and the man was so nice, and we’d become so fond of him after a week in workshops together that none of us wanted to hurt his feelings. And Jim was amazing … he very quietly, and with enormous dignity told this man that the book was terrible, and that he could do better than these kind of cliches. This is a really difficult thing to tell someone, and it’s especially difficult to deliver this kind of news in a way that a student can hear, because, of course, one’s ears fill with white noise when you hear the news you’d been repressing — that your work is terrible. But Jim Welch pulled it off, and we all sat around that conference table watching him with awe — he was so kind, and so respectful, and so tough with this sweet older man who had written this awful novel. It was the kind of thing that only someone with a very big heart can do.

I’d heard at a party this summer that he was very ill, that the lung cancer had really taken a lot out of him and that he was a shell of his former self. But he was still funny, cracking dark jokes about how we’re all only going out of this life one way. And then this morning, in the paper, comes the news. His big heart gave out.

If you haven’t read his work, go now to the library or bookstore. Fool’s Crow is my favorite, and one of the most astonishing books I’ve ever read. He was a wonderful writer and a good guy, who will be sorely missed.

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