Awardee recalls meeting William Saroyan

At two-and-a-half, single-spaced typewritten pages, the remarks Mark Arax prepared for his acceptance of the 2005 William Saroyan International Prize for Writing looked a little on the long side as he took them out of a pocket and unfolded them at the awards ceremony July 19.

But for the next few minutes, Arax, author with Rick Wartzman of the prizewinning King of California, mesmerized audience members. Twenty-five years ago, Arax related, he was leaving Fresno for New York City and was caught between his family's desire that he become a lawyer and his own desire to be a writer. The night before he left town, his grandfather, Aram Arax, took him to see an old friend who he thought might be a good influence: William Saroyan.

Aram Arax, a poet and survivor of the Armenian genocide, had wanted to be a writer, but when he arrived in Fresno in 1920, "he did what all poets do when they land in this valley," Mark Arax recalled. "He got down on his hands and knees and began picking potatoes and then bell peppers and then grapes. Sixty years later, his grandson wanted to be a writer and damn if he was going to see that dream succumb to the idea of one more lawyer in America."

Mark Arax said he has forgotten most of what was said during the hour-long visit at Saroyan's cluttered, sweltering house on an afternoon when the temperature was 105 degrees. "The living room where he invited us to sit was a lovely clutter. A big Formica table with his typewriter stood in the middle, surrounded by piles of books and free-form art he had drawn in crayon and pen, pieces of glass and twine he had picked up from that morning's bicycle ride. Rocks and pebbles he collected to remind himself, he told us, that art should be simple."

Surveying the room, Mark Arax told Saroyan, "I don't know if I have the stomach for the life of a writer."

He remembered that Saroyan "laughed a deep belly laugh" before replying: "Please don't judge being a writer by these surroundings. There is no formula for being a writer. It's what you are and what you're going to be and what's going to happen.

"It's only important to find what works for you. You must be alone and have a place to write. So it's lonely sometimes, but it isn't abject loneliness. Rather a kind of majestic one, a kinship with larger things."

When they left, Saroyan gave them a copy of his book Obituaries. The inscription, to Aram and Mark Arax read, "Fellow Armenians. Fellow Writers. It is a track. It is a profession. But most of all writing is being alive."