My writing resume usually starts with the fact that I studied writing at LSU with Walker Percy and Vance Bourjaily, both known to interested folks as two great writers. I list them for just that reason, to have someone think, Wow, two fine writers and this unknown studied with them so let’s pay attention to his work because he must have some talent. If that has ever been the case it is surely talent by association. But as well-known as those two writers are, there was another writer and teacher at LSU who influenced me more than Percy and Bourjaily.
Merely scratching the surface, here are a few facts about Warren Eyster, my old undergraduate creative writing teacher.
He was born in Steelton, Pennsylvania, in 1925, and after high school, Eyster became a hydraulic repairman in the Army Air Corps and, in 1942, joined the Navy. His experience in the navy was to be the basis for his novel Far from the Customary Skies, set on a Navy destroyer operating in the Far East during World War II. While in graduate school at the University of Virginia, he wrote half of that first novel as short stories, and after leaving Charlottesville he devoted himself entirely to writing. Audrey Wood, primarily a theatrical agent, with clients like Tennessee Williams and William Inge, nearly succeeded in persuading Little Brown to publish his first novel. Instead, David McDowell at Random House became his editor and with support from Bob Haas and Bennett Cerf, Eyster became acquainted with a number of writers, including James Agee, Robert Penn Warren, Mario Puzo, William Carlos Williams, Budd Schulberg, and William F. Buckley. In 1954, he was awarded a Rockefeller Foundation Fellowship to work with aspiring Mexican writers at El Centro Mexicano de Escritores in Mexico City. Finishing a second novel, No Country For Old Men, Eyster started to write a novel about a Mexican revolution. He also translated the first three chapters of a Carlos Fuentes novel, Where the Air Is Clear, and was instrumental in getting it published. The movie, "The Old Gringo", was based on conversations Eyster had with Carlos about Ambrose Bierce and his determination to bring about his own death by becoming a spy for Pancho Villa.
In 1970, Warren Eyster came to Louisiana State University and became coordinator of the undergraduate writing program, teaching courses in writing short stories, novels and plays. Since it bolstered decreasing enrollment in English—even future journalists and law students particularly interested in creative writing courses—the writing program became more acceptable to the English department, allowing students like John Ed Bradley, James Colburn, and Valerie Martin to take more than twenty hours of undergraduate writing classes.
In the early ‘70s, he reminded me of Columbo, the television detective played brilliantly by Peter Falk. Short, a little stocky, clothes always giving the wrinkled-at-the-end-of-the-day appearance, even first thing in the morning, like Columbo he seemed forgetful, his desk always piled high with stacks of short stories and plays and novel excerpts, all in danger of sliding off of his desk at any moment and some doing so occasionally. Always open to talking to any student who came to his office—official office hours or not—he often discussed books and films and then suddenly realized he was late for class, grabbing one stack from his desk and hurrying off and muttering a line from literature, I’m late, I’m late. The thing was, often hurrying behind him to the same class, I was always amazed he had read every story and had jotted down succinct notes that always pointed to improvement in the narrative. Like Columbo, his appearance was deceiving, like the character’s seemingly faltering style, the sudden remembered question to ask, Eyster’s comments on each student’s work were never less than concrete clues that led to the solution of a story. Like Columbo, as played by Peter Falk, at the end of each episode, there is a realization of being fooled by appearance. Warren Eyster was never less than a brilliant teacher in disguise, kind and caring of his student’s success, and always willing to impart everything he knew about the craft of writing.
Thank you, Mr. Eyster.
Any writing achievement is from the association with you.
In recognition of your accomplishments, your name will always be mentioned.
Raymond Cothern studied writing at LSU under Walker Percy and Vance Bourjaily and Warren Eyster. He is winner of both the Deep South Writers Conference and the St. Tammany National One-Act Play Festival. Two of his plays have been produced in New York City, The Long Hymn of Dilemma as part of the DTE New Play Festival, and Fat Girl From Texas in the Distilled Theatre Company Short Play Festival. He was also a 2011 semifinalist in the Playwrights First Award sponsored by the National Arts Club of New York City and a finalist in the 5th Annual Play Tour sponsored by cARTel Collaborative Arts Los Angeles. His fiction, poetry, and essays have been published in the North American Review, Manchac, Intro 8, Two Thirds North, American Antheneum, Burlesque, EWR: Short Stories, Run to the Roundhouse, Nellie, and in the book Meanwhile Back at the Café Du Monde. He recently completed work on a novel, The Pallbearer’s Social, and on a memoir, Swimming Underwater, about growing up in Louisiana and framed by the story of the devastating effects of viral encephalitis on his daughter and of her triumph in achieving a normal life.