Such Great Heights: A Profile of Annie Dillard

John Freeman

In the morning the cabin is clobbered by light. Deer stand in groups chewing on dewy grass so far away, yet still visible, the eye needs a moment to adjust its lens before one can count the animals. Hunters cannot shoot on this land and the animals seem to know it. Dillard owns most of what the eye can see, but is loose with her ownership. Appalachian land is cheap. Some of it she has bequeathed already to her friend, the activist physician Paul Farmer. It’s quite a spread; her great-grandfather founded the company that became American Standard. Bob boils rich Cuban coffee strong enough to compete with the view. As he begins frying up eggs, he raises Annie on a walkie-talkie to let her know breakfast will be ready soon. By the time she arrives at the table, Bob has pointed out cardinals and owls in the brush.

As we eat, details of Dillard’s biography—the known things—slip out in asides and in peripheral conversation, echoing some of what Bob told us the night before over a nightcap. How they met because she wrote him a fan letter for Henry Thoreau: A Life of the Mind (University of California Press, 1986); how he was already teaching her book to students when she wrote; how they met for lunch—both of them married; and how they didn’t look back when it was clear they were falling in love. He is Dillard’s third husband. “She is the smartest person I’ve ever met,” Bob tells us when she is not present, “and I’ve known some smart ones.”

“I got my name from my first husband,” she explains to me later in an e-mail. “I had no intention of getting married, let alone young. Richard Dillard, my poetry-writing professor, talked me into it. It was fine. That was a ten-year marriage, after which I headed west and met Gary Clevidence. We were together twelve years. With Bob it’s been twenty-eight years and counting.”

The novelist Lee Smith met Dillard as a freshman at Hollins, and has known her ever since. “The class was filled with talent,” she wrote to me, “but Annie’s was always extraordinary.

The group of us became a gang, a cohort, a karass—and we had fun, too. Inspired by Richard Dillard and his friend George Garrett, often on campus, an antic spirit prevailed. We wrote and put on plays, took over the newspaper, published our own literary magazine, Beanstalks, when the upperclassmen running the real literary magazine turned us down. We satirized everything and everybody. We loved to party, and we especially loved to dance.

This was true of Hollins girls in general. When several mostly-English majors formed a (really good, by the way) rock band named the Virginia Wolves, several of us became go-go dancers and performed with them at Hollins, UVA, and other literary festivals. We all had go-go names (I was Candy Love), white boots, glittery outfits, and cowboy hats—I don’t think Annie was an actual traveling go-go girl (no outfit) but she always loved to dance, and still does, to this day, as does my entire class, which always shows up for reunions (even the 45th, our last) with music like “Barbara Ann,” “Stop in the Name of Love,” “You Can’t Hurry Love,” “Help Me Rhonda,” “My Girl,” etc. (I know, I’d have to see this to believe it. Husbands flee.)

Watching Annie and Bob over breakfast, editing each other’s stories and officiating over the presentation of flatware, coffee, second and third helpings, it’s clear that whatever came before, this is the show. It is the big love, and they move with the grace and irascibility and tender watchfulness of a couple well into what Richard Ford called in his third Bascombe novel “the permanent period.” Virginia is one of three places they call home, boxes shipped ahead every six weeks like provisions sent further up a slope, the two of them following by plane with backpacks, like students. Spring and summer they spend on Cape Cod; in fall they are here in Virginia, and in winter they wind up in Key West, where over the decades they’ve come to know some remarkable writers—Joy Williams, Ann Beattie (who nursed Dillard during a recent hip surgery, coming by with movie rentals and hot meals), and the biographer and essayist Phyllis Rose. “These are some powerful, remarkable women,” Bob says, his eyebrows adding commentary.

“She was also one of the most generous teachers I’ve ever seen,” Rose writes when I ask her later about her friend. Dillard went to Wesleyan in 1979 at Rose’s request, after deciding her years in the Pacific Northwest were over and she was looking for someplace new—a general theme in Dillard’s life. “She was generous with her time, her hospitality, her advice, and even sometimes her money. She usually had classes meet at her house, and outside of class time students were welcome too, for Ping-Pong or potluck.” A Ping-Pong table sits on the cabin’s porch behind us.

Maggie Nelson says the games were part of the whole instruction method. “Annie made a writing workshop an ‘experience,’ involving an Act One, sitting in a classroom; then an intermission of sorts, which consisted of taking a brief walk through the Connecticut woods to her house; then an Act Two, with refreshments and reading aloud in her living room. On the way to her house there was a hole in a chain-link fence, which she taught us to crawl through, likely in celebration of both trespassing and accessing liminal spaces. She encouraged us to get out into the world, which explains at least one afternoon I spent playing video games with the owner of a local baseball-card store, in order to write a profile of him.”

I realize, when Dillard beckons us from breakfast for our tour of her own liminal spaces, that her demeanor is not that of a famous person reduced to interior scale—or even of a genius judging the brain capacity of two citified visitors—but that of a teacher who never truly left the classroom. She taught for four years at Western Washington University in Bellingham, followed by twenty-two years at Wesleyan, after all. “Studying with her was a top-to-bottom education on being a working artist,” novelist Alexander Chee tells me.

“I knew I liked you guys when I realized you read fiction; you’re fiction people,” Dillard says as we get ready to check out her cabin and her study. It’s a short walk over to the buildings, maybe a hundred paces, but in that space the energy changes. It feels wilder, more animal; a skull and pieces of wood sit on a table. The cabin itself is plastered with photographs of her friends and family; her daughter, a poet and Iowa MFA graduate who lives in Arkansas and whose privacy Annie asks me to respect; Gary LaVallee; Bob. There’s a photograph on her refrigerator door of a place in Turkey. Serious travel—for health reasons—is something Annie and Bob have had to give up recently, but, she says, “If I went again I’d go into the Hula Valley, the wilderness. Just to see it.”

A small shelf of books sits next to her laptop—an old hardback copy of Barry Lopez’s Arctic Dreams, among some beat-up paperbacks. Some volumes of her own books. Her books are no longer coming out at the alarming rate at which they appeared in the 1980s and early 1990s, but this is where she still does the work she doesn’t consider work, firing off letters of encouragement and interest to writers all over the world.

Pico Iyer struck up a fast and ongoing long-distance friendship with Dillard, stoked by her correspondence. “Her e-mails to me, long and incandescent, veered between fervent literary recommendations (of Hardy, Joyce Cary, Robert Stone) and exuberant reminiscences of her cavorting on the beach and love of the [Pittsburgh] Pirates and delight in miniature golf.” If he was expecting a symposium in person, he was mistaken. “When we met, all she wanted to do was play Ping-Pong, in her backyard, each returned slam threatening to send a stack of books on esoteric theology or meteorology skidding off the dining table a few feet away. At some point, I realized that I was meeting the closest I could get to my longtime hero, D. H. Lawrence: someone furiously alive, attentive to everything and impossible to anticipate.”

As it did for Lawrence, painting has become Dillard’s primary mode of expression in later years. (She turned seventy this past year.) “I switched to painting,” she tells me. “Not really my art, but it lets me make something new. I paint people, mostly faces, in oils, on black-gessoed paper.” She invites Garnette and me to investigate the studio, which is as compact and crammed with information as a human skull.

The austerity of the studios she describes in Teaching a Stone to Talk, The Writing Life, and Holy the Firm come zooming back like déjà-vu. Tacked-up pieces of paper describe radial-axis instructions for depth and perspective. Another piece of paper lists the radio stations on satellite radio. An orphaned pack of American Spirits gleams. The view out the window unfurls the cove and the mountain across.

Bob radios back that it’s getting on toward noon, so we leave the studio and cabin and pile into his Toyota and head off in search of Gary LaVallee’s Valhalla, as locals have dubbed his massive log cabin in progress. We bounce treacherously up a muddy boulder-strewn drive out onto a high bluff only to discover this isn’t Gary’s yard at all. Whoever lives here has managed to transport, intact, an unmuddied, vintage 1940s low-rider with exposed piston, up the mountain, where it sits near a farmhouse, as improbable and somewhat sinister as a puma in a library. We circle around and down and off the hill and backtrack into town, Annie and Bob pointing things out along the way: the Confederate-era forge, the remnant of the railroad the army built into the mountains to haul the iron out, the hotel that was opened but never really took off.

Our destination is the Cripple Creek Mall, an ironically named general store where you can buy anything from MoonPies and soda made with real Carolina sugar to extension cords, hats, toilet drain snaking equipment, packaged ham, dried kale, bullets, and several strains of honey. Dillard talks to Eddie Younce, the proprietor, asking after his and his family’s health while he comments on how good she looks, after which Eddie delivers a detailed forty-five-minute dissertation to Garnette on the best places to gather and make honey in Appalachia. “I could sit and listen to my father and his friends talk about honey for two, three hours,” he tells us.

At some point during Eddie’s monologue, Annie and Bob back silently out of the store. We find them later down the lane, standing, holding hands, as if this is all there is to do in the world. It’s past noon and the sky is showing it and already I know we’re going to have to hurry to get out of Cripple Creek before dark. We hustle back to the house and through a lunch of chicken and potatoes before they send us packing. The light chases out of the hollows and falls again quickly as the little roads turn to interstate and Garnette and I race so I can make a train back to New York City. The next day, after I’ve woken in New York and the deep, soft pocket of earth we visited feels a million miles away, Dillard writes to me, the first of many e-mails about the late E. L. Doctorow, Key West, the Pacific Northwest, landscape and family, and generosity, as if she hadn’t been demonstrating it all along.

“Working in a soup kitchen is great for a writer or any artist,” she writes in one. “There are many unproductive days when you might hate yourself otherwise. You are eating the food, using the water, breathing the air—and NOT HELPING. But if you feed the hungry, you can’t deny you’re doing something worth doing.” She may have stopped writing, but Annie Dillard continues to feed the minds of generations of writers. As she might say, that’s what she’s for.


John Freeman is the founder of Freeman’s, a biannual anthology of new writing.