One of the more important influences on me when I set out to become a writer was Richard Yates. The first book of his I recall reading was A Good School. From there I went on to perhaps his least successful novel, Disturbing the Peace, and I even loved it. Then I read his masterpiece, Revolutionary Road, followed by his fabulous first collection of stories, Eleven Kinds of Loneliness. What fascinated me about his work--and I have read all of it, some of the books as many as four or five times--was the transparency of his prose and the apparently effortlessly created effects. I say "apparently," because I know they were anything but effortless. Yates rewrote and then rewrote some more. He was a meticulous craftsman.
I met him only once, in 1983. My friends Skip (Donald S.) Hays and his wife Patty and I were traveling up the east coast, spending money we didn't have on art museums, major league baseball and books. After leaving Skip and Patty with some friends in Fairhaven, Massachusetts, for a few days, I went north to Haverhill to visit Andre Dubus, whose work I'd written an MA thesis on, and he suggested that on my way back through Boston I call Yates, who at that time was living here. This led to a memorable evening at the Newbury Steakhouse with Skip and Patty, Yates, Andre and his wife Peggy Rambach.
At one point, Patty asked Yates which of his books he thought was his best. "Oh," he said, "I'll never write a better one than Revolutionary Road. That's about as good as I can do."
Most of the writers I've known over the last twenty or twenty-five years are always convinced their most recent book is their best. Looking back, I find it refreshing to know that Yates had honestly assessed his own work and reached a conclusion that a lot of us would find daunting. That quality of Yates's--relentless honesty--is reflected in Blake Bailey's superb biography A Tragic Honesty: the Life and Work of Richard Yates. It's one of my favorite biographies, of a writer whose work I will return to again and again.