Voices of Simmons

Elinor Lipman ’72 Reflects on her Friendship with Mameve Medwed ’64

Elinor Lipman ’72  and Mameve (Stern) Medwed ’64 did not overlap at Simmons, but met later at a fiction workshop, bonding over their shared love of literature and writing. With 21 published books between them, and numerous awards and accolades, they exemplify that special something that Simmons graduates bring into the world. After Medwed died in December 2021, Lipman was eager to reflect on their long and deep friendship.

We were two peas in a literary pod from the time we first met, 43 years ago at a Brandeis Adult Ed fiction workshop. I was new to short-story writing; Mameve was advanced, having taught fiction at the Cambridge Center, but we were both there hoping to write stories worthy of publication.

I loved hers; I laughed when they were read aloud in class, and she returned the favor. We were under the same banner, loosely labeled romantic comedy. When the workshop ended, we formed a peer writing group that met at her house—good company, kind critiques, chilled wine. I took a step back when I had my son in 1982; didn’t write another word for two years until I joined a workshop she’d signed up for at the Radcliffe Institute.

Mid-semester, Mameve brought in champagne and croissants to celebrate the sale of a story to the Boston Globe Magazine. The whole class toasted and cheered. Two weeks later she had another sale, this one to Redbook, occasioning more champagne. The class’s less than enthusiastic, possibly green-eyed reaction to her news became a lifelong favorite tease of mine, one I always told when introducing her at an event. Oh, Mameve, we’re so… happy for you.

It was during that semester that I read in the New York Times Book Review that short story collections by young(ish) women were getting published. I called Mameve. Neither of us had enough for a whole book, but, I wondered, what if we combined ours? We chose eight apiece, titled them AWFULLY NICE WOMEN, sent them off to agents whose names we begged from every published writer we knew. That joint collection didn’t come to pass, but the friendship blossomed. Daily conversations about the project led to frequent conversations about everything. We had husbands. We had sons. We talked so often about work, about writing, agents, editors, publicists and husbands that we assigned numbers to these topics: 1 for editor, 2 for agent, 3 for publicist, 4 for husbands. I’d answer the phone and hear a disgruntled “Number four”—making me laugh, exactly what she was going for.

Our publishing paths weren’t in sync at the beginning. The agent who represented the joint collection decided to submit our stories separately. When mine sold and hers didn’t, an understandably disappointed Mameve celebrated with me—a huge testament to her character and generosity.

The cheerleading remained a two-way street. I switched to novel-writing, and nagged her to follow suit, especially after one of her published stories seemed as if it were begging to be the first chapter of a novel.

Unconvinced, groaning all the way, she complied. Her first draft made me ask if the happy ending might be with that guy and not that guy? A perfect rewrite emerged and Mail went to a new agent and then out to editors. What followed was a delicious bidding war and one of the most fun weeks of either of our lives. My own work was abandoned, waiting for her updates. She’d call me with every higher bid, culminating with a sale. Such joy—a first novel published at 55, with five more to follow.

She was my best audience, my sounding board, my confidante. I ran everything by her—every chapter, every essay, every book review, every blurb. I consulted her on matters of etiquette: did this email have the right tone? Should I send it now or not at all? In forty-plus years of close friendship, there were never any grievances to nurse, no harsh words ever spoken, never even a misunderstanding that needed an apology.

She was so smart. Her knowledge of literature and art was encyclopedic, though she’d be the first to deny that. I don’t remember when we realized that we’d both gone to Simmons, but we loved the coincidence. Eight years apart, we hadn’t overlapped, but both of us had—and still have— life-long friends from our respective classes, and both of us could always count on Simmons alums showing up for our readings, no matter how far-flung the event. (A joint one that we did at the invitation of Simmons’ Professor David Gullette was delayed while we got stuck in an elevator in 300 The Fenway for 40 minutes.) She’d taken Wylie Sypher’s famous Shakespeare class, and I had not, a lifelong regret, making her the more erudite between the two of us. “I don’t get that,” I’d say about a phrase in one of her book reviews. She’d say kindly, “It’s pretty well-known. It’s from Macbeth.”

Big-picture champions for sure, but I was the bad cop when it came to reading her rough drafts, and she was the good cop about mine. I’d send her a chapter, she’d read it immediately, call me, and rarely open with anything less than a laughing “Oh, I loved this.”

I was a harder marker. I’d say, “Too much! You have three examples when one would do.” Or “You already told us that.”

“Always the editor,” she’d murmur. (Attributable to Copy and Proof, which I took my sophomore year at Simmons, taught by Prof. Raymond Bosworth.)

This is who she was: She called me one morning, and yelped, “I woke up in the middle of the night worried that if you heard good news about your new book, you’d be afraid to tell me, thinking you’d hurt my feelings. (She had a novel coming out the same month.) I want to know everything. Besides, it’s dedicated to me. It’s my book too!”

It was. Every sentence had been run by her. We were the foster mother of each other’s books, thanked on every acknowledgments page. Two of my books are dedicated to her. We both knew she didn’t have long to live when I told her that my next book would also be hers. Neither of us acknowledged that this time her name would be preceded by “to the memory of…”

Her last novel, prophetically titled, Minus Me, was published the month her cancer was diagnosed. She lived one more year, and died on December 26.

Now it’s Minus Mameve—best friend, best reader, best audience. Her books live on, as does my hourly impulse to call her, to forward an email, to share good or bad news. It’s an adjustment yet to be made. She used to answer the phone on the first ring, which got me too accustomed to the sense that she was always there.

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