When Alice Adams finished reading her short story, "Beautiful Girl," at UC Davis last Wednesday night, a writer in the audience turned to me and said: "She makes me feel like going home and writing."
Yes, she certainly did. And that's the sign of a compelling artist.
"Beautiful Girl" is the name of her first collection of short stories. The title story concerns an alcoholic middle aged woman and the unexpected visit of a man who admired her 20 years earlier in college.
"You used to be such a beautiful girl," he whispers to her after she passes out in an alcoholic stupor.
She comes to long enough to say, "Whatta ya mean? I am a beautiful girl."
"Unfortunately," Adams told her audience, "people in my generation and my parents' generation were alcoholic. It's a familiar pattern to most of us."
Her work has been compared to the sophistication of F. Scott Fitzgerald and the Southern flavor of Flannery O'Connor.
Adams, 69, said she grew up in Chapel Hill, N.C. (the most highly educated city in the United States) where writers are folk heroes. She published her first work of fiction when she was about 30. Success didn't come immediately after graduation from Radcliffe, however.
"I didn't start publishing right away," she said. "It took a while."
But she did get married less than a year after graduation. While the marriage was unhappy, Adams stuck at it. She had a son in 1951. Later, she recalled her late 20s and early 30s as the worst decade of her life, a time in which she wrote only spasmodically, desperately. Finally, she divorced her husband in 1958 and published her first short story in 1959.
She raised her son alone and supported herself in a series of clerical and secretarial jobs. She was over 40 when she began making a living solely as a writer.
At some time in the early '80s, possibly 1980, she taught at UC Davis. The experience was not memorable enough for her to pinpoint the exact year.
"I can't remember exactly when I was at Davis, but I should," she said. But the experience did provide enough material for a short story, the title story in a collection called "To See You Again" (Knopf, 1982). And the Greyhound bus journeys that Adams took in her commute to Davis also resulted in a short story called aptly enough "Greyhound People."
In fact, even Adams' dull secretarial jobs have paid off in unexpected ways, she says. Her next novel, "Medicine Man," will be released this spring.
"I like the title quite a lot," she said.
"It's all about doctors...it's mean and angry," she added. Those boring jobs in medical offices helped supply some material, but unfortunately Adams' own recent illness and experiences with doctors supplied the rest.
"I was sick, fairly seriously," she said, "and I had professional and personal bad experiences with doctors. My lawyer is worried that I might get sued (upon publication) but I told him not to worry. I can always sue them in return for malpractice. Anyway, some of my best friends are doctors, too, and the book is dedicated to a doctor."
Her most recent critically acclaimed novel is "Southern Exposure" (Knopf, 1995), set in a university town in the South.
In 1982, in recognition of the 12th consecutive appearance of her work in "Prize Stories: The O.Henry Awards," Adams won a special award for continuing achievement, joining the ranks of Joyce Carol Oates and John Updike, the only previous winners.
Love, falling in love, falling out of love and all stages in between, is a constant theme in Adams' work. She also writes about women struggling to find their places in the world, much as she had to struggle to find her place.
The next in the series of women writers visiting Davis this summer is mystery writer and writing teacher Donna Levin. She is the author of two novels, "Extraordinary Means" (1987 and "California Street" (1990). She will be speaking in the Alumni and Visitors' Center on campus at 7:30 p.m. Her talk is free and open to the public.