My mentor Rick Bass sits next to me at 12 Steps Down, a local dive in my South Philly neighborhood. In front of us, are several napkins scribbled with what look like football plays. They’re strategies for my semester, a new story, my book (at this point, I didn’t even know I had one), my writing career (moving from food writer back to fiction writer), my whole damn life.
A beer spills all over his drawings. “If you didn’t know better, you’d think these were the ravings of a mad man,” he says, clumping the sopping napkins into little hills.
It is just before Thanksgiving 2012. Bass drove up from DC where he was arrested during a protest on climate change. The Kennedys were there. And Darryl Hannah. His 17 year old daughter bailed him out of jail. I want to know more about the ride in the paddy wagon, the celebrity activists, his badass teenage daughter, but Bass seems nervous and not about his night in jail.
He finishes his Moscow mule and asks the bartender, Dan, my friend since high school, for some beer recommendations. They’ve taken to each other and I’m glad.
But he’s stalling.
Three months prior, Bass was assigned as my mentor for my first semester of grad school at the low-residency Stonecoast MFA at the University of Southern Maine (no, it’s not an online school for the love of Christ, but you can read all about it here.) But he isn’t here to talk about school. He wants to discuss a book project he’s just starting. A project I might be interested in. “It has to be done in person,” he writes in an email. “It’s too big. It won’t translate over email or the phone.” Even the email seems nervous. It makes me nervous.
Dan pours Bass a pint, something fancy, Belgian, with crazy high alcohol content. Bass asks for something to mark his glass with and I hand him a Post-It from my bag. Because I’m the type of anxious person who carries Post-Its in her purse. He wipes some of the frost off his glass and places the sticky note about ¾ of the way down the pint.
“When I get to here,” he says pointing to his marker, “we’ll talk about the book project.” Because Bass is the kind of nervous person who can do things like that and you just go with it.
He’s not kidding but I have to remind him when he passes his mark.
I don’t think he looks at me once. Which is fine because I am bright red from trying to keep up drink-for-drink and nervous sweating like an animal. He just wants to get it all out. He touches his fingertips together or plays with his pen. Spins his beer bottle.
The project is called Eating My Heroes. Bass wants to cook dinner for his mentors and peers, “a fine meal to say thank you,” while they’re still around to hear it, instead of, the traditional route within the literary community, to honor mentors once they’ve passed. Once they’re not around to hear it and enjoy it.
But he won’t go on the journey solo. He’ll take one nonfiction writer to meet all his environmental activist mentors and one fiction writer to meet all his fiction folk. Bass thinks the mentorship he experienced as a young writer coming up in the 1980s just isn’t something that happens anymore. He wants the lessons, the stories of his mentors to be passed on to the next generation. My generation of writers, herded like cattle from undergrad to MFAs to the academic beyond in a competitive, shark-like environment, where community and mentoring can be forced and weak.
Before I have time to process the idea of the book, and the idea that he wants me to work with him, he’s already explaining why I should tell him no.
Maybe this isn’t what I want to do. Maybe it’s not something I’m passionate about. Maybe it will take away from my own work. Maybe his philosophies, on mentoring and publishing and writing, aren’t mine and that’s fine, that’s fine! I don’t have to take the path he took. I don’t have to be a cowboy like him! Avoiding the more traditional routes. Who is he to map out my career, anyway? No pressure. You decide. Sleep on it.
“I really can’t afford to say no.” I tell him. And I’m not just trying to flatter him. There just isn’t one other thing to say and it’s true. We cheers. But he still needs convincing.
And then he starts to see it from my perspective. A once in a lifetime opportunity. An adventure. A chance to get out of the city when I really, really need to. To travel the country. To go West! “I’ve never been,” I tell the flabbergasted Montanan.
“Well…well, fuck,” he says (this phrase, a Bass-ism my peers and I try relentlessly to perfect) in his hybrid Texas-to-Montana drawl.
The project is the unbelievable chance to meet the writers I am just now discovering. “You’re so under-read. It’s wonderful!” Bass had said to me during our first meeting at Stonecoast. Which I heard as, “You don’t know shit! How did you even get here?!”
Well…well, fuck. There was no way in hell I could say no. So I didn’t.
Thank You Gravy, a nod to Bass’ preference to give thank you meals over thank you eulogies, will document my experience on the road with him and his friends as we travel the country to cook, to talk, to drink and eat our way through thirty years of the writing life.
As a reader you can expect: more Bass-isms, recipes, stories of survival, social anxiety and chainsaws, life lessons with Callie the bird-dog, pictures of booze, the secret to writing the next great American novel and jokes about Italians and rednecks, respectively.
Stay tuned! It’s going to be a really weird trip. –Cristina Perachio