Late in 2018, I had a message from a stranger in the United States. He was delighted, he said, to see Bernard Leach’s A Potter’s Book included in my list of six favourites in a magazine he had been reading. He was a potter, his name was Jeff Diehl, and he thought the Leach classic was an unusual title to feature on a novelist’s list. I wrote back explaining that though my work was writing and designing book jackets, I made pots too (after a fashion).
Over the next months this kind stranger replied in careful detail to every question I asked him about kilns, glazes, pots, wheels. He sent me formulae for glazes he thought might work for me; he worked out programmes suited to my new kiln, sent video links, articles. The generosity was staggering. There also came fragments about Lockbridge Pottery, and his family and other animals: his potter-wife Donna, their two sons, their dog and cat. Our messages travelled on the internet, but they felt like letters.
After about a year of this archaic pen-friendship, a writing-related trip to America came up for me, and Jeff invited me to come and spend a week with them, learning. Lockbridge Pottery was in a remote part of West Virginia. I looked it up: a dot on the map, lost in vast washes of green and blue: lakes, mountains, gorges, and white water rivers. It was miles from an airport or train station; there were no taxis or hotels.
I never lock myself into situations where there is no escape route, even booking myself aisle seats on long flights so I don’t feel trapped. In the weeks leading up to the trip, I was battered by waves of panic. What did I know of this potter-couple beyond scraps from the internet and their emails? And though they were inviting me into their home, what did they know of me? This was not just high risk, it was lunacy.
I climbed into a train on a chilly September dawn at New York’s Penn Station, and started the long journey south. A mountainous, wheezing man in the next row of seats vacuumed up packet after packet of crunchies and watched reruns of Friends on his notebook. We went past Washington DC, Philadelphia, Baltimore, and soon my world of known place-names was gone. As morning turned to afternoon, we passed Alexandria, Culpeper and Clifton Forge. I had never heard of them. In the dining car, two men in Amtrak uniforms sat inhaling the scent of microwaved hot dogs, exchanging slow, rambling stories broken by guffaws. The hills and trees outside made you want to walk into the Blue Ridge Mountains, wander the trails, sit below an autumnal beech tree. There were tiny streets with level crossings, and at one of them, an elderly, bare-bodied man stood below a flag, waving at us, beaming like a child.
After ten and a half hours, I got off with my suitcase at White Sulphur Springs and looked around for the people I only knew from emails. Some reckless mutual leap of faith had led to this moment: two American potters waiting at a tiny station in the Appalachians for a stranger from a small town in the Indian Himalaya.
It was a picture-perfect autumn evening. The sunset coated everything with honey.
Early in our correspondence, Jeff had sent me a film about a friend of his, a master potter from Korea, Kang Hyo Lee. In the film, Kang Hyo spoke of his crisis of faith, a time when he had felt utterly adrift, and left home for several months to meditate and reason it out. After a period of hard thinking came a sense of the elusive truth: “In the past, I thought the important things were far away from me. So I worked hard and thought hard every day in order to get to those important things. But I realised these things were actually close by.”
When you look at the first half of Jeff’s career and compare it to his present, you wonder if such a moment of epiphany came to him too. He has had shows in Korea, at the Smithsonian’s Renwick Gallery in Washington DC, and taught students in Germany, China, Korea, and closer home. He has won a shelf-full of awards. Yet now, though he still loves to learn and teach...