Mark Helprin, the author of the acclaimed historical novel “Winter’s Tale,” loves a good story — but he told the audience at a Branford master’s tea Wednesday that he is reluctant to talk about himself.
Helprin, 63, spoke for nearly two hours to a crowd of about 70 people in the Branford College master’s house about a wide range of topics including his reasons for becoming an author, his near-death experiences, and irrational fear of parties. Helprin began the tea with a series of intricate tales about how he always knew he was going to be an author.
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Helprin said he could trace his desire to be an author to hours spent in time out in the book closet of his third-grade classroom. But Helprin said he taught himself to love the book closet, because he was surrounded by books and could gaze outside through a window in the closet.
The independent streak he developed there carried over to the advice he offered prospective fiction writers in the audience.
“Never join a writers’ union,” Helprin said. “You’re on your own. [Writing is] not a group activity. If you can’t make it on your own, you won’t make it.”
Helprin advised against getting a master’s of fine arts degree, saying that publishers are most interested in writers with experience. Helprin called on students to make use of their youthful energy, writing at night and studying or working in another field during the day.
“Get another boat to put your other foot on in case the writing boat sinks,” Helprin said.
Helprin’s near-death experiences as a young man traveling through Europe were also critical to his development as a writer. When he was about 17, the New York-born Helprin was traveling in Europe. Helprin said he rode a motorcycle to Aix-en-Provence, France to impress a French girl there, even though he had never been on a motorcycle before. She rejected him, he said, and on his way back, he crashed.
“The lesson is: don’t drive a motorcycle when you’re depressed,” Helprin said.
Though badly injured, he made his way back to Marseilles, he said, and collapsed near the USS Robert A. Owens. The crew tried to treat the bloodied and feverish Helprin. “For that reason, I’ve always loved the Navy.” Nevertheless, he was still in poor physical condition. Helprin said he traveled to Switzerland to recover, where he met author Vladimir Nabokov and his wife eating breakfast on the balcony of the hotel where all three were staying.
Helprin, mispronouncing Nabokov’s name, shouted, “Nabokov! Nabokov! Isn’t that amazing, because I’m a writer too!”
A few weeks later, Helprin said he found himself in “physical crisis” again while visiting Paris. He suddenly became paralyzed one day in his hotel room and lost consciousness.
“I had been close to death many times before,” Helprin said. “I was familiar with this, but it had never been this bad. I thought this was it.”
Upon regaining consciousness, Helprin said, he felt nearly weightless. He seized a pen and spent hours writing “a description of the Hagia Sophia” in Istanbul, Helprin said, adding that he had never been to Turkey.
“[The master’s tea] was friggin’ awesome,” said Eric Fishman ’14. “Writers of really cool books can be pretty cool themselves.”
Another Helprin enthusiast was in the audience was Branford College Master Steven Smith. After recently reading a few of Helprin’s books, Smith said he had to meet Helprin. Calling him a “national treasure,” Smith explained that he was a “member of good standing of the Mark Helprin fan club.”
Helprin said he is currently at work on a new book, the “motto” of which is “love moved me, and made me speak” — a quote from Dante’s “Divine Comedy.”