Lives They Lived: Books Left Unwritten
New York Times Magazine, December 28th, 2003
My wife, Ayelet Waldman, met her before I did -- roped by Amanda
and her golden lasso into a friendship that while heartbreakingly
brief was one of the truest and fiercest I have ever stood next
to and admired. And one of the first things she told me about Amanda
was that she had just finished reading her novel, ''Wonder When
You'll Miss Me.'' ''She's the real thing,'' Ayelet said. Or maybe
what she said was, ''The girl can write.'' I'm not sure anymore.
It's only after your friend's airplane has crashed into a mountain
in North Carolina -- killing her, at 32, along with her mother and
her father, who was flying the plane -- that everything she ever
said to you, and everything anyone ever said to you about her, takes
on the weight and shadow, the damnable significance, of history.
was obvious to Ayelet that Amanda had the goods -- maybe that was
what she told me -- and then when I read Amanda's books, it was
obvious to me too. Her sentences had the quality of laws of nature;
they were at once surprising and inevitable, as if Amanda had not
written so much as discovered them. As the catcher Crash Davis said
to his wild and talented young pitcher, Ebby Calvin LaLoosh, in
''Bull Durham,'' ''The gods reached down and turned your right arm
into a thunderbolt.'' Amanda had that kind of great stuff.
It's unfair, as well as cruel, to try to assess the overall literary
merit, not to mention the prospects for future greatness, of a young
woman who managed to produce (while living a life replete as a Sabatini
novel with scoundrels, circus performers, sterling friendships,
true love, hair's-breadth escapes, jobs at once menial and strange
and years of hard rowing in the galleys of the publishing world)
a single short story collection, the remarkable ''Circling the Drain,''
and a lone novel. I would give a good deal of money, blood, books
or years to be able to watch as Amanda, in a picture hat, looked
back from the vantage of a long and productive career to reject
her first published efforts as uneven or ''only halfway there''
or, worst of all, as promising, or to see her condescend to them,
cuddle them almost, as mature writers sometimes do with their early
books, the way we give our old stuffed pony or elephant, with its
one missing shirt-button eye, a fond squeeze before returning it
to the hatbox in the attic.
bottom of this kind of behavior on the part of old, established
writers is the undeniable way in which our young selves, and the
books that issued from them, invariably seem to reproach us: with
the fading of our fire, the diminishment of our porousness to the
world and the people in it, the compromises made, the friendships
abandoned, the opportunities squandered, the loss of velocity on
our fastball. But Amanda never got to live long enough to sense
the presence of her fine short stories and of her stirring, charming,
beautifully written novel as any kind of a threat or reproof. She
was merely, justly, proud of them. On some level that was not buried
very deeply, she knew that she was the real thing. This is, in fact,
a characteristic of writers who are (alas, it is often found as
well among those who are not). After ''Wonder When You'll Miss Me,''
she was going to write a historical novel about early Jewish immigrants
to the South or a creepy modern gothic, and then after that she
was going to try any one of a hundred other different kinds of novels,
because she felt, rightly, that with her command of the English
language and her sharp, sharp mind and her omnivorous interests
and her understanding of human emotion and, above all, with her
unstoppable, inevitable, tormenting, at times even unwelcome compulsion
to do the work, the hard and tedious work, she could have written
just about any book she damn well wanted to.