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Monday, June 16, 2014

Time Was ...

Epistolary Novelists Dept.: During the time when Salinger’s characters were having crises of faith and Updike’s were pursuing affairs, Jack Finney gave us what either were domestic comedies in a Thurber-esque vein or unsettling shifts of the time-space continuum that would greatly influence Rod Serling as he developed “The Twilight Zone.” The too-neglected Finney found a champion in Jack Seabrook, whose 2006 monograph Stealing Through Time gives a critical overview not only of Finney’s books and stories but also their adaptations to film and TV. I discovered the book only recently, and it’s inspiring me to re-read Finney’s work. And giving me an excuse to share my very brief correspondence with the author.

Jack Finney in 1995
Photo by Ken Miller
My introduction to his work was through his (dare I call it) timeless novel Time and Again in the early months of 1980, ten years after the book’s publication. I was so enthralled with it, and so distressed to see it end (and what an ending!) that I immediately read it again. And then found a copy of Good Neighbor Sam in a used book store, which proved to be completely different and impressively hilarious. I sent a fan letter to Finney through his publisher and got this note back from Finney’s home in Mill Valley, California.
June 26, 1980
Thanks very much for your note, just now received from Doubleday. I’m glad you liked Time and Again s well as you did, and I surely appreciate your telling me. Nice, too, that you liked Good Neighbor Sam, which goes a long way back.
Books were more difficult to find in those pre-internet days, but I came up with a couple more titles, including what at that point was his most recent novel, The Night People, a mix of his domestic comedy genre with the spookiness of his darker work. Which inspired me to write to him again, this time enclosing a newspaper article I’d pseudonoymously written while a teen for the Ridgefield, Conn., Press, parodying the town’s fascination with its own history by inventing a turn-of-the-century club whose membership looked suspiciously like me and my friends in costume. (You can find the piece here.)
Sept. 25, 1980
Thanks very much for your nice note about my books, and for the clipping you enclosed. I’m glad you liked the books, especially that you liked The Night People, which hardly anyone ever heard of. And I liked your clipping; sounds like you had lot of fun.

Very polite and to the point, but welcome. Like the earlier letter, it had been written on a manual typewriter, which I (proud owner of a black-market Selectric) found impressively archaic.

I didn’t bother Finney for a couple more years, until his non-fiction collection Forgotten News was published. The book comprised several retellings – in his own engaging voice – of compelling news stories he’d encountered while researching Time and Again. I also told him of my own Time and Again experience of finding myself in 19th-century Ridgefield, walking along Bailey Avenue and marveling at the sheds flanking a railroad track. I also spotted the Leather Man, a historic wanderer whose circuit included the town. I woke up from this journey a little frightened by the sense of reality it had.
April 4, 1983
Thanks very much for your nice note about my book Forgotten News; yours is the first note I’ve had on this book, and it’s good to know you liked it. Thanks also for the several anecdotes you included, such as that of the Leather Man. They’re very interesting, and I was glad to read them.

When I wrote my final letter to Finney, two years later, I caught him in a chattier mood. I was now desperate to find his scarcer titles, and asked if he knew of any booksellers who might have them. And I mentioned how much I disliked the movie “Maxie,” based upon but doing little justice to his novel Marion’s Wall.
Sept. 30, 1985
Thanks for your letter; I enjoyed it.
There is a dealer in Santa Barbara who sells copies of my books; I cannot remember his name. But he charges a lot; $75 and more. And I think the New York book store run by the woman who wrote “Murder, Ink” does the same. I’ve had pretty fair luck now and then finding books I wanted by writing post cards to the half dozen places that advertise in the NY Times Sunday Book Review; the ones who say they’ll search for books. They charge a lot sometimes, but I don’t think it would be as much as the Santa Barbara guy. You’ve read most of my books anyway; one missing from your list was only published as paperback anyway; you’ll never find it. Those early books were all written as magazine serials, the books being only a minor appendage to the real reason for writing them. The only missing one you might like (since you liked The Third Level) is another similar collection of short stories called I Love Galesburg in the Springtime. I’d send you one, but I’m long since down to one or two copies.
The movie Maxie is absolutely terrible, of course. I like Glenn Close, and I think she did well in even this dog. But I didn’t like the conception of her role, or anything else about the picture. Lovable bishops knocking golf balls out of windows is the lowest you can get in attempted humor; the thing is worse than television. I would be unwilling to agree that any of my songs are in it, or even that there is anything that sings. The foam is appearing on my lips again, so I’ll stop.
Thanks again for your note. It comes the same morning our daughter in Paris finally phoned to let us know that her plane did actually arrive, and I cancelled having her picture (she’s in her early thirties) put on milk cartons – so that and your good note makes it a fine day.

In hindsight, of course, I should have written to him more often. His final novel, From Time to Time, was the long-awaited Time and Again sequel and contains a breathtakingly detailed look at vaudeville in the early 20th century. I would love to have asked him questions about that, but he died mere weeks after the book’s publication.


Jack Seabrook said...

What an interesting file of correspondence! You were lucky to hear from the reclusive Mr. Finney. Thanks for sharing his letters!

Snickenfrass said...

I love "Time and Again". it's funny where the main character shows a picture of himself and says "I didn't say I was handsome."