Talk Show 11: with Jon Clinch, Don Lee, Robert Anthony Siegel, Alix Strauss, & Sean Wilsey

Jaime Clarke


TALK SHOW 11: First Car

Jon Clinch is the author of Finn: A Novel, published by Random House. Visit Jon online at and

Don Lee is the author of the novel Country of Origin, which won an American Book Award, the recent novel Wrack and Ruin, and the story collection Yellow, which won the Sue Kaufman Prize for First Fiction. Recently he received the Fred R. Brown Literary Award from the University of Pittsburgh. He teaches creative writing at Macalester College in St. Paul.

Robert Anthony Siegel is the author of two novels, All Will Be Revealed and All the Money in the World. He was born in New York City and educated at Harvard, the University of Tokyo, and the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. He teaches creative writing at the University of North Carolina Wilmington, where he lives in a yellow house with his wife, the writer Karen E. Bender, and their two children, Jonah and Maia.

Alix Strauss is a frequent contributor to the New York Times, among other newspapers and magazines, and is the author of the novel, The Joy of Funerals. Her anthology, Have I Got a Guy for You, is just out.

Sean Wilsey is the author of the memoir, Oh the Glory of It All. His writing has appeared in The London Review of Books, The Los Angeles Times, and McSweeney’s Quarterly, where he is the editor at large. Before going to McSweeney’s he worked as an editorial assistant at The New Yorker, a fact checker at Ladies’ Home Journal, a letters correspondent at Newsweek, and an apprentice gondolier in Venice, Italy. He was born in San Francisco in 1970 and now lives with his wife, Daphne Beal, and his son, Owen.

––What was the make and model if your first car?

Clinch: My first car was one of the worst ever made in this country or any other, a 1974 Chevrolet Vega. The Kammback version. “Kammback” was Chevrolet’s oddball way of avoiding saying “station wagon”—a bit of euphemistic marketing-speak that I have continued to endorse by owning, by and by, such cars as the Audi A4 and A6 Avant. Station wagons the both of them. Obviously, station wagon lovers like me are in the minority and can be addressed only by indirection.

Lee: It was a 1975 puke-green Mercury Capri.

Siegel: It was a Cadillac convertible from the mid-sixties, though I can’t remember the exact year. It must have been twenty years old when I got behind the wheel in—when was that, exactly? 1985?—but it had been lovingly restored by its true owner, a client of my father’s named Howie Shapiro. (My father was a criminal defense attorney; Howie was a former drug addict working his way through culinary school.) But back to the car: it was white, with huge, really extraordinary fins in back, and a big chromium grill in front. It was nearly a block long, or felt as if it were, and I could barely see over the dashboard, but the engine was perfectly silent, and the steering wheel moved with the touch of a finger. The mere thought of tapping the gas pedal sent the machine gliding forward like a great white shark. Oh, and did I mention that the interior was red leather? And the radio was incredibly loud? The thing was brash, devoid of self-doubt—all the things I wanted to be.

Strauss: A blue-ish gray 1986 Volvo 240DO.

Wilsey: It was a Saab 900 Turbo, one of the last ones they made before discontinuing the series in the early 90s. Color: “beryl green.”

––How did this car come into your possession?

Clinch: My dad and I bought it brand new. He produced the down money and I handled the payments—which came, as I recall, to something on the order of $3,000. The car had a three-speed automatic transmission, a brown vinyl interior, and a 70-horse engine that looked like something stripped from a John Deere lawn tractor. My dad, who has always been a great inspiration to me, was then and is now of the opinion that when you buy a used car you’re buying somebody else’s troubles. So we bought a brand new 1974 Chevy Vega instead, and got $3,000 worth of our very own troubles.

Lee: A hand-me-down from my sister.

Siegel: That would depend on what “possession” means. The car was Howie’s, but he had nowhere safe to park it, so my father stored it for him in the garage under his apartment building. My father may have started out with good intentions; good intentions are a family trait. In this case that would have meant keeping the Caddy safe under the tarpaulin, probably, but pretty soon he was driving it around town, and then I was driving it, too, and then Howie seemed distracted by his own problems (money, sobriety, marriage, cheese soufflé). After a while, he stopped coming by to check on it, and I didn’t see him again for a long time.

Strauss: I grew up in Manhattan and never sat in the driver’s seat until I went to Ithaca college in 1987. My best friend was from Rockville Center and was one of the few freshman with a car. Late at night, after we’d seen a movie or gone for a pizza run, she’d pull into a mall’s parking lot and hand me the keys. Technically, I learned to drive in the freezing cold, in dark while listening to Rick Astley.

Wilsey: I bought it straight from the Saab factory in Gothenburg. It was me and a bunch of US Army guys stationed on bases in Germany. Saab had a deal where they’d charge no tax and ship the car home for free if you came and got it. Airfare to Sweden was a lot cheaper than sales tax back then. Also, it was defective!

––What was the first trip you took in this car?

Clinch: I drove, in the time-honored tradition of young men everywhere, to see my girlfriend in New Jersey. This was maybe a six-hour drive from my parents’ place in upstate New York, and I wasn’t entirely confident that the Vega was up to the rigors of the trip. I remember now (I have kept this a secret from everyone on earth, often even myself, until this very moment), that somewhere along the Northeastern Extension of the Pennsylvania Turnpike I pulled over and opened the hood so as to let the engine cool off. A state trooper, recognizing the universal symbol for engine overheating, stopped to check on me, and I told him that I was merely airing out that mighty 70-horse engine. Just in case. As Bugs Bunny would have it, “What a maroon.” The trooper kindly refrained from shaking his head before getting back into his patrol car and zooming off.

Siegel: I took it on a camping trip, of all things, with a bunch of college friends. I didn’t have a tent so I planned to sleep in the car—the front seat was as big as a couch; I could completely stretch out on it, and a friend of mine took the back seat. But during the night I kept rolling into the horn, which was unbelievably loud, the brass section of some kind of gigantic dream orchestra. No one slept too well, even the squirrels. But I wouldn’t leave the car. I had latched onto the idea of sleeping in it as some kind of self-conscious gesture of cool.

Strauss: Since we were in the middle of nowhere, going to the mall was considered a road trip. Though after college, we’d take long weekends and drive up to the Hamptons, the Berkshires, Vermont and Woodstock.

Wilsey: I drove it on the autobahn. Eventually I took it up to the maximum speed of 140 mph and tried to set the cruise control. (Not possible.) At that speed you could actually watch the gas gauge tick to the left..

––What are your outstanding memories of the car?

Clinch: My outstanding memories are of its dissolution. The 1974 Vega was a rustbucket of a very high order, and mine in particular was no match for the highly-salinated roadways of upstate New York. Its front and rear fenders rusted into lacework within a year, and they would have fallen off had my dealer not clued me in about a secret warranty program that replaced them at the last minute.

Lee: As I remember it, it was a fast car, but butt-ugly. I was living in L.A. at the time, and rode that thing to the ground. Took a lot of trips up to San Francisco with it up Highway 1, camped in Big Sur on the way. My last year in California, just before I left for grad school in Boston, I was living in Burbank, but I had a job with a painting/construction company that had most of its business in the South Bay. So I used to leave the house at 6:30 in the morning and drive through rush-hour traffic to Huntington Beach or Manhattan Beach—50 miles, anywhere between an hour and a half and two and a half hours, each way. I’d get home at 7:30, utterly beat. The only way I could stay awake through dinner was to lift weights (I have a photo of myself from that time, and I’m virtually unrecognizable with twenty extra pounds of muscle). But I learned all the shortcuts, when to anticipate a slowdown and get off the freeway to Sepulveda, say, and where I could hop back on. I just tore the shit out of the car. In that one year, I had to replace the clutch three times—I kept burning them out. Toward the end, I had to change the sparks and spray the carburetor constantly just to keep the thing going.

Siegel: My sister was moving to Chicago to go to art school, and we drove her out there in the Caddy. A friend of hers by the name of Jan Chelminski did most of the driving—he would speed along at about a hundred miles per hour, with a single finger wrapped around the steering wheel. With the top down it felt like we were flying at an altitude of about one foot over the payment, a very naked feeling, both frightening and magical. I remember falling asleep in the back seat out of sheer exhaustion—an incredibly deep sleep—and then waking up, unsure for the briefest moment where I was. The wind was beating at my head and the trees were rushing by, and beyond that there was nothing but fields. It was like waking up from a dream into a different dream.

Strauss: I loved being in that car – whether I was driving or being driven. It was like a very tiny studio apartment on wheels. There was something about the freedom, the intimacy and the memories that car created for me. And if I wasn’t driving, I was in charge of the music.

Wilsey: I was driving at night with two friends when the road in front of us disappeared. Before I could react we were flying, four wheels off the ground, having hit the top of a rise where the country road we were traveling on crossed an irrigation ditch. We landed perfectly after a solid three one thousand count.

––What ultimately happened to the car?

Clinch: I traded it in for the second-worst car ever made in this country or any other, a 1976 Dodge Aspen. Don’t even ask.

Lee: A couple of days before I left, I miraculously got an offer for the car. I’d parked it on the street with a sign, and I really hadn’t thought there’d be any takers. We agreed on $500. My last day, I drove it to the guy’s house. He wasn’t home, but his daughter gave me the cash and asked me to move the car from the driveway to the street. No problem. Except the car wouldn’t start—not an unusual occurrence at that juncture. So I backed it out in neutral, and fortunately the street was on a hill, and I was able to pop the clutch and roll-start it. I parked it on the street and guiltily hightailed it out of there as fast as I could.

Siegel: Some years later, I was driving down the street in a car I actually owned, a Chevy Impala with a ripped up interior (I’d inherited it from my grandfather), when I recognized the Caddy up ahead—there was no mistaking that magnificent beast. The top was down and my father was behind the wheel, and next to him was a friend of his, Jim Kirk, who was dying of cancer. I knew that my father took Jim out on drives, but I’d heard it from my mother, not from him; he and I were going through a period of estrangement and hadn’t spoken in a while…which is a way of saying that I don’t know what ultimately happened to the Caddy. I ran into Howie some years after that on the street, but he looked like a junky again, wearing those mismatched clothes from Goodwill. He said hello and then darted away. My father died in 2002. It’s been five years, but I still find missing him incredibly disorienting, like waking up in that gigantic white car, doing a hundred with the top down.

Strauss: Sadly, after 120,000 miles and 8 years later, it was sold to a family-run business and then given to one of their employees who ended up destroying it. I still feel a slight twinge of loss when I’m picked up by my friend in her black Range Rover. It reflects the new life she has, the family she’s started and how many years have gone by since our college days.

Wilsey: Sold it to a Saab dealer in Ramsay, New Jersey, and took the bus to New York.

Jaime Clarke is the author of the novel WE’RE SO FAMOUS, editor of DON’T YOU FORGET ABOUT ME: CONTEMPORARY WRITERS ON THE FILMS OF JOHN HUGHES, and co-founder of POST ROAD, a national literary magazine based out of New York and Boston.