My husband, daughter and I recently stayed at a B&B on Nantucket. On our first morning, the owner asked the twelve of us at breakfast a question: If you could have a conversation with anyone, alive or dead, who would it be?
I avoided answering because the question seemed so personal. I didn’t know this woman and had just met the others. No matter whom I picked, I was afraid my answer would be too revealing. I’m sure that says something significant about me, but that’s not my point here. Nor will I address why I feel comfortable now answering this question in my blog that could, theoretically, reach more people.
My first thought, if I had answered, was to say I’d like to talk to my mother. She died when I was in my forties before my children became adults and before I’d become the person I am now. She was not easy to talk to and the number of real conversations the two of us had could be counted on the fingers of one hand with several left over. I like to think with more years of life behind me that I’d be able to talk to her now and push past her defenses and get real without her shutting me down.
But if I had answered that morning I wouldn’t have said my mother. Instead I’d pick a writer who I admire. My first thought was Jane Austen because I have read all her books and love every one. But I think the times she lived in are so different than ours that we would not have the same concerns. In addition, because she never had a husband or children she never had to juggle work, children and a spouse or justify occasionally putting herself first.
On the other hand, Ann Tyler, another favorite author, is alive and does have a family. I love how she turns domestic stories into brilliant character studies. Because I’ve read most of her books, I’m not sure I’d need to ask her any specific questions. Instead, I’d like to hang out, have lunch, coffee or a glass of wine and chat. That way I’d find out if she’s a lot different than I am or more like my friends and I with the extra dash of genius that produced such novels as The Accidental Tourist and Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant.
I’d also pick her because she’s a woman. It seems so many male writers have big egos, assistants and attitude. I don’t think they would let their hair down or forget that they’re famous and part of the literati as easily as a female writer. In sum, I don’t imagine they’d be that much fun to spend time with over a drink.
But mostly Ann Tyler would be my choice because of an essay she wrote about having to schedule her writing time around her children’s activities. In the essay she described how she’d put away a manuscript to go to her child’s athletic event. As a woman and a mother, I can so relate to that. I don’t see a male writer interrupting his afternoon of writing to catch his daughter or son’s soccer game though maybe I’m being harsh and hasty in casting aspersions.
Most significantly though I’d pick Ann Tyler because the last conversation I had with my mother was about one of Ann Tyler’s books, Breathing Lessons. My mother thought the book was funny. I read it later, after she died, and didn’t find it funny at all. But I like to think that talking about it and why we had such different reactions could be a starting point for us.
I wonder how others would answer the question: who would you want to talk to, alive or dead? Would it be an historical figure? An ancestor, or would you also go for someone who you could relate to and learn from?