Wally looked me up this week and said we should go meet his publisher friend, who lives in the far eastern wilds of Descanso.
Never one to turn down a drive in the country or a long-awaited serendipitous meeting, I agreed.
Does everyone idolize the person who rejects them, or am I the only one?
I’d attempted to get in touch with Mr. Wourms more than a year ago. Wally, still in Egypt then and unable to midwife the meeting, had encouraged me to persevere. But none of my phone calls or emails met an answer. His unresponsiveness made him, in my imagination, into a giant of a man, with the face of Sting and the throaty terseness of Steve McQueen.
(Latest in my growing book of life lessons: for an instant cosmetic lift, reject somebody.)
Springtime makes San Diego’s east county look like Steinbeck country. Lots of cows grazing, and migrants working on idyllically small patches of land. Shady, sloping yards with swings. Storefronts that are mercifully utilitarian: “Gas,” “Beer,” “Descanso Store.”
Nobody opened the door for a good while, when we arrived. At length, I heard a voice—a reedy voice that spoke at a solicitous clip. “There he is,” said Wally.
And the door was opened by Peter Lorre.
He was expecting us the day after, but he cleaned up his lunch and opened the blinds, and we sat in the three spacious corners of his living room.
“Tell me about yourself,” he said.
So I did. Then he asked, looking frankly (though amiably) bemused,
“Good. So why are you here?”
I looked at Wally.
It was hard for me to decide how to approach Mr. Wourms, as he spoke about his experience in publishing. Most of it, if not all, has been done in service of the church. He started by making a book of his pastor’s best sermons; he ended by transcribing, ghostwriting, or publishing similar volumes for many pastors, missionaries, and church folk for the next 20 years. His company was cranking about 12 new books a month for a good while. Many of these books sold in the millions of copies—which, to me, was impressive for a book of sermons put out by a homespun press.
He also had a great interest in missionary work, himself. He fostered three children. He traveled to the Philippines to meet with Brother Eddie, founder of JIL Ministries. He sponsored Wally’s family during their stay in Egypt.
Why was I there? To find something, I suppose…something I’d imagined I needed. Something between a Svengali and a leprechaun. Something to tell me how to move forward and reward me for doing so.
I began to tell him about working for Converge, but found myself getting bogged down in explaining the profanity article. I couldn’t tell what was being signaled by his little button eyes growing wider, his marionette mouth opening slightly.
“Cussing, you said? An article about cussing?” He turned to Wally. ”That sounds like the kind of thing they’d make us do when I was a kid,” he said, “for punishment.”
“Oh, well…” I was acting embarrassed, out of sensitivity to his views. “I liked it. It was interesting…”
He was still looking at Wally, smiling. “That’s why there needs to be all of us, right? Because we’re all different.”
He asked what I wanted to do over the long term. I started to describe the project…well, I suppose I didn’t only start. Because after I had come to an end, there was one of those long pauses that usually means the other person’s mental transcription is taking a while to catch up.
“You’ve got a gleam in your eye,” he said. “I love that. You’ve got a fire in your belly.”
Feeling encouraged (albeit awkwardly) by this observation, I went on to ask him my primary question—how do you get people to pay you for telling stories that have no resolution? People might enjoy empathy, but they don’t pay for it—they pay to be told what to do.
By way of example, I told him about a couple of the interviews I’ve done lately. The villains of the stories that simplistic ears like mine want to hear. The people I’m in love with.
Again, a long pause.
“I love you,” said Mr. Wourms.
I’ve lately been reading “Eating the Dinosaur.” (Listening to it, actually—thanks, Audible!) Ira Glass confides to Chuck Klosterman about the irresistible magic of his own questioning technique,
I think it’s pretty hard to resist when any person really wants to listen to you. They can tell by my questions that I am really, really interested and really, really thinking about what they’re saying, in a way that only happens in nature when you’re falling in love with somebody.
I haven’t arrived where I can say that, myself. Not that I don’t entirely agree. But I can’t say it. It still feels too strange, to feel it and know what it is.
That’s what we want to hear in the church, isn’t it? That so-and-so’s husband left her and she lost her job, but by God’s grace she’s getting through it, praise the Lord. When really what else might have happened, if someone had listened to him?
Because you hear those stories sometimes, too. Where two people say they don’t love each other anymore but somehow they stay with it, and ten years later they’re in love again. And only God could have done it.
We went to lunch at one of the spartan storefronts. Mr. Wourms knew everyone behind the counter by name; he asked if Veronica had made the crème brûlée herself.
He paid for our lunch.
He told us about interviewing Brother Eddie, the figurehead of the world’s second largest church organization, who treats all visitors like they are the big shot and he is simply a native guide. He told us about getting fitted for a suit by Brother Eddie’s tailor, who explained Mr. Wourms’ bill this way: “Twice the fabric, twice the price.”
He talked about meeting the “garbage dump” kid in Manila, a 12-year-old boy who explained his stamina this way: “Me iron.” He talked about the life of Mary Stewart Relfe, who died last year and whose biography he is going to write. And he talked about the book he was about to write for a retired man who lives in La Jolla, with chronic back pain, who prays with a roll of paper towels because Kleenex can’t keep up with his emotions.
He also told us about losing most of his publishing business during the economic downturn, and wondering as a result whether he’d missed his calling or squandered it.
“People have always seen me as a big leader in the church,” he said, “doing big things. And I always wanted to be doing big things for the Lord. I think he was pulling me back, letting me know that doing big things for him isn’t any good if I’m not close to him in relationship.”
“How did going through that affect your trust in him?” I asked.
“I don’t know how honest you want me to be,” he said.
But his professed love for me must have instinctively informed him of what I wanted. (As, indeed, love ought to.) After barely a beat, he continued,
“I was almost suicidal.”
“This is a terrible question,” I said, “but how is your relationship with God now?”
His voice was much more cheerful than his smile.
“You know how they say in heaven, we’ll live in mansions the size of what we did? Well, I always think I’ll be given this little pup tent on the outskirts. And my wife, of course, will be way inside with a gigantic mansion…”
He slowed down.
“I think he wants me to know it isn’t like that.”