The story behind Anderson Ferrell’s first novel, Where She Was (1985), has become the subject of gossip and myth among Lish students and the literary community. GQ’s “Captain Fiction” article profile states that Ferrell, a student, brought the opening two paragraphs to class, read them, and Lish contracted a book, as does Sven Birkets in “The School of Gordon Lish”: “[he] secured a contract for his student Anderson Ferrell on the strength of a few paragraphs of prose”(p. 258).
Correspondence between Amy Hempel and Lish corroborates this. Hempel writes that she heard Lish was worried she would be angry or jealous about the news, and certainly many current and former students were. Hempel tells him she is not, and that she had read the paragraphs and knew why he did it. It would seem, to anyone in writing and publishing, flabbergasting how (and why) any editor would acquire a first novel based on one page of prose—and how did he get the greenlight from the publisher? Further, why would a teacher do something that would most likely cause division among the students, who would be jealous of the one student who granted this “gift,” and probably ostracize the student for it?
(In fact, Hempel refers to someone named “Cohen” in several letters, how he frightened other students and threatened Lish’s life in class, and was banned from the Columbia campus, but was out to “get” Lish for not lauding him a great writer.)
We will suggest that Lish was proving something to his students—that something like this was possible, he had the power to do it, and they had to work even harder to write better and impress him. Ferrell’s novel opens thus:
On the paved road that went by the colored folks’ church stood the Aycock place, a two-story white frame house that would have looked Greek Revival except for the four Doric columns that had been connected with Victorian latticework sometime last century. The house was built on sturdy brick piers, each about five feet tall and two feet square, but spaced so far apart that the place seemed to hover over the grassy gentle hill on which it was built. Eight wide wooden steps led up to the front door. On either side of the house stood a great magnolia tree, both so ancient that they had stopped bearing flowers. A little past the house was a dirt patch, just two sandy ruts, with a streak of grass growing down the middle of it. The path dipped lower and lower into a lush, almost tropical woods. At the bottom of the path a small, clear stream crossed, and then the path began a steady incline, up, up, the woods thinning, fading, giving way to a large yard, where grass was not permitted to grow. (3)
Ferrell’s writing is descriptive, lush, and elegant. The style is consistent throughout the short novel (141 pages), was well-received and praised. Library Journal‘s review stated:
Hard-working farm wife Cleo Lewis has her hands full, especially during harvest time in the tobacco country of North Carolina, tending to her husband and two babies and bringing in the crop while also struggling awkwardly with religious urges she doesn’t fully understand. First-novelist Ferrell describes Cleo’s daily life in great detail, but Cleo herself remains a slippery character. The novel generally relies more on descriptive images and familiar Southern gothic touches than on plot development, but nevertheless will have some regional appeal.
A paperback version was published by Washington Square Press (a division of Pocket Books that attempted to emulate the Vintage Originals series), an accomplishment most of Lish’s unknown writers did not achieve, their works—as noted in this chapter—left to hardback editions in libraries, remainder bins, and used bookstores.
Ferrell has since published two other novels: Home for a Day (1997), about a man dealing with the death of his lover to AIDS, and Have You Heard (2005), a southern coming-of-age story of a young gay man that has hints of influence from Truman Capote’s Other Rooms, Other Voices.
Ferrell won a 1996 Whiting Award; other than that, we have no idea what has become of him.