Smith: Welcome to The Book Show. I'm your host, Tom Smith, of the New York State Writers Institute which is located at the University of Albany as part of the State University of New York system. It’s a great pleasure to welcome back to The Book Show the internationally acclaimed Irish writer Edna O’Brien, author of many lovely and lyrical and compelling works of fiction. Edna O’Brien first achieved literary fame back in the 1960s with her trilogy of novels, The Country Girls which focused on the romantic and marital adventures of two unforgettable heroines Kate and Baba and their pilgrimage from rural Ireland to sophisticated London. Since that time Edna O’Brien has continued to write superb fiction, beautifully crafted novels such as Night, A Pagan Place, and The High Road. And she has demonstrated her mastery of the short story with luminous collections like Fanatic Heart published in 1985 and Lantern Slides which won the Los Angeles Times fiction award for 1990. Her new book, Time and Tide, recently published by Farrar Straus Giroux, is a smashing critical success and just perhaps, the masterpiece of Edna O’Brien’s long and distinguished career. Edna, welcome back to The Book Show and congratulations.
“But how long can we hide from that which forms us, which is the very mucus of our being? The memories die away or are put down, the road rushes on rushes with an increasingly frenzied speed as is in our variety of clothing and disguises we are in turn husbands, wives, lovers, enemies, friends; but always sooner or later we are brought back to the dark stew of ourselves and the ancestry before us, back to the midnight of the race whose sins and whose songs we carry.”
That is not the whine or the sound of a victim.
“Once, in New York, on stage, she saw a woman, a black woman reenact aborting herself with one of those hangers, and so befuddled were her thoughts now that she believed that the child she was aborting in her memory was a memory child. She yearned to forget everything, even them. But nothing is forgotten. It follows you from city to the country, stoops with you as you bend to tie your shoelace, trots into the shed where you get the hose, even pursues you down into the bowels of a ship if you happen to be a seafaring man. Yes, their voices clear as bells lightish in tone, oh so long ago, like a refrain filtering back from beyond the cold immensities.”
O’Brien: Well, yes. To some writers, Proust I suppose being the archetype of it, memory is the stuff of their fiction. It is as if the life-lived, the mango half-eaten, the flower plucked or not plucked, the child one nursed, that that thing so enormous in itself has to be felt or made chrystalline through language. And the language is fueled by the memory. Memory is both a wonderful thing and in a way a very lonely thing because we crystalline have the same memory. Suppose we had a love affair, Towouldn'tuldn’t have the same memories about it.
O’Brien: Yes, alas. But it’s true I think for most things. That’s why memory to a writer is in a way one’s greatest tool. Tool is the wrong word but you know what I mean. It’s one of the greatest supports. And in another way it cuts you off from the very relationships that you are purporting to write about because it is a mental thing—memory—and it is exclusive to each of us. But it’s also one’s friend even if it causes me a few restless, not to mention sleepless, nights.
Smith: Let me ask you about the mother-son relationship which is a very powerful part of the novel. Is motherhood different in kind from any other forms of love and any other kind of suffering? I mean the relationship with Patty and Tristan, the two sons, are enormously complex. They are her only friends, her joy, her deepest torment but they are both outward bound. Certainly Patty, in a very tragic way, is outward bound from the mother, from Nell. But also in the beginning and then at the end so is Tristan. Is this a kind of no win situation?
O’Brien: No, I wouldn't put it as simply as that or as narrowly. This attachment is stronger, more umbilical, and more complex because the mother–child is, especially mother and son I think. Children have to leave the nest. Children have to repudiate she whom they love or they are demasculated. They are just a shadow of mother. The shadow exists anyhow. But to remain in love with mother. . . I think what I was trying to do was to convey that love which was so dear and so eerie and so visceral, again, chart the necessity for it to have to be cut. That’s one of the laws of life. It’s one of the laws of nature. Animals, foxes with their cubs, ducks with their young little babies, have to let them go. Now we can't speak to ducks or foxes so we can't know what they suffer but in the case of mere mortals such as myself that separation seemed to me to be as great and as perpetual, I think is the word I'm looking for, as the separation I experienced, but have sublimated and half-forgotten, when I came out of the womb. For better or for worse Tom, it’s not the most modern stuff to write about. I am obsessed with connection and at the same time fear that the connection will not take place. And that connection between mother and child before the child is born, and this applies to our mothers and to their mothers and back, back forever, is something so important to us, so vital, so intrinsic to us. Yet it’s something we I'm delve into. So I was trying in my little way to do that, but to do it from the other side, to have the mother ruminate, for want of a better word, on this separation, journey, and yet hidden love that always remains between mother and child.
O’Brien: Edna, you are much too modest. I think the mother-son relationship is the most effective and most profound representation of it in fiction. I have to go back to D. H. Lawrence’s Sons and Lovers to think of anything on that level of resonance, that has all the ambiguity and the depth of Time and Tide. And not just relationships with one son but both sons, both Paddy and Tristan.
Smith: Let me ask you about Nell’s other men besides Paddy and Tristan. It seems to be a pretty rotten lot. She goes from her awful parents in Ireland to her husband Walter who is certainly not loving and really a very alienating character to Duncan who abandons her in Morocco to Dr. Rat who abandons her on an LSD trip and her own father who is like Duncan, drunken. Where do these men come from? Or let me ask you a question that generates out of these characters. What’s wrong with men? These guys are not one-dimensional. They have the ring of truth and authenticity about them as characters but what do you think is wrong with men?
O’Brien: Well, I think we would have to differentiate first. There are some very important differences here. These men are certainly not A-1 to put it mildly. But this isn't men in general. What is wrong with men and what is wrong with these men in Time and Tide are not one in the same thing. What I was attempting to do again in this, unconsciously, because everything I do is always unconscious, is a follow-on to the sins of the fathers, the legacy of the fathers. The woman had a father who harmed and deformed her. It was inevitable because we do repeat our pain, we do repeat our mistakes. Otherwise there would be no need for psychoanalysis. Sigmund Freud, everyone knows this. Everyone who has sat on the couch knows they repeat the very thing that they are trying to avoid. So in this case of this woman she marries a tyrant. He might have different color hair than her father but his tyranny is the same. She falls in love with a bard, a poet, an Irish poet called Duncan. He’s not technically a poet, but he’s a poet in his soul. The fact that he lets her down is as inevitable as the daffodils coming out in spring. He can't help it, but he’s not a bastard. However, Dr. Rat. I think one of the greatest evils—and the dictators of the world have proved it and they are men—one of the greatest evils in the world, throughout history and present time even more so, is those who want to manipulate others. Manipulation, for me, is the greatest crime. Dr. Rat with his LSD is a manipulator. He wants her mind because he is jealous of her mind. He doesn't want her body. She wants his body, but he wants her mind. So he sends her on this trip from which she cannot come back. But these are extreme and special cases but I stand by them because that is what I wanted to do. I wasn't writing about a nice domestic marriage or the ups and downs of marriage. I was writing about the fate of someone who repeats what happened to them in the very beginning. And that happens a lot. When a critic says, this woman hates men, I wasn't hate men. If it were so, the two sons in this book would be written differently. I love men. Now men in general let’s go to it if we have a few more minutes.
Smith: We have about 30 seconds.
O’Brien: Men in general are very different to women. And it’s something that takes one by surprise everyday. Men are men and women are women. I happen to actually be besotted by men. I like the company of men and on a higher, more hopeful note, I think the men that I am drawn to now are not quite in the same odious level as the men I was drawn to when I was younger. But I would not like to go off the air giving the impression that I just hate men and Simon getting back on men. Thaisn't’t true. This is a particular story and a particular group of men.
Smith: Time and Tide just has the ring of authenticity and truth and no one who reads the book could come out with that simplistic notion. Edna, we have run out of time. Let me just say that I want to talk about your Yeats and Maud Gonne play, but we'll have to save that for next time.
O’Brien: Well, when it opens. God Bless you Tom.
Smith: This is Tom Smith saying so long until next time on The Book Show.
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Smith: Welcome to The Book Show. we'll your host Tom Smith of the New York State Writers Institute which is located at the University at Albany and is part of the State University of New York system. My guest today is the internationally renowned Canadian fiction writer, Margaret Atwood. Margaret Atwood is a prize-winning poet as well as a celebrated novelist. Among her many literary works are the much-acclaimed novels, Surfacing which was published in 1973, Lady Oracle which appeared in 1976, The Handmaid’s Tale which came out in 1985, and Cat’s Eye in 1988. Her new book recently published by Nan Talese-Doubleday is a delightful and delicious, wise and compelling novel entitled The Robber Bride which is already a best seller like The Handmaid’s Tale and Cat’s Eye were. Margaret Atwood, welcome to The Book Show.
Atwood: Thank you.
Smith: And congratulations. The story is very funny and at the same time it’s strangely moving and like the villainess of the piece, Zenia, it’s quite beguiling. Let me ask you right off the bat, your title, The Robber Bride refers or alludes to the Grimm Fairy Tale, The Robber Bridegroom about a maiden-devouring monster. Is that how this fable, this contemporary fable began, with the gender reversal of that fairy tale?
Atwood: Well, no it didn't actually begin that way, but that got into it fairly early on. One of the reasons it’s called The Robber Bride is that one of the three women from whose point of view we hear the story has twin daughters and when they are about five they decide that all of the characters in all of the stories that they are hearing have to be female. So, of course, if all of the characters are female then you're inevitably going to have a female villain as well.
Smith: Well, Zenia is not only a man-eater, but it seems to me she eats just about everybody.
Atwood: She’s very hungry.
Smith: I want to ask you certain things about the development of this story. But Zenia, she’s been a destructive presence in the lives of very different middle-aged Toronto women, Tony, Charis, and Roz. Is Zenia something of archetypal trickster because she seems to appear and disappear and reappear and takes many forms and guises in their lives? They met in college in the early 60s and then in the successive decades she does a number on each one of them. She seems to be a magical archetypal trickster figure.
Atwood: Well, she is certainly a slight-of-hand artist and let me just say that in the early 70s I worked for a small literary publishing company in Toronto that was named the House of Anansi. It was named that after the African trickster god because one of the founders had worked in Africa and knew about this trickster figure. There is an organization in Canada called the Committee to Re-establish the Trickster. One of the guiding geniuses behind it is Thompson Highway who is a native Canadian playwright and the trickster appears as a sexually ambivalent figure in one of his plays. Although Mr. Jung more or less dismissed trickster figures as not being important in his pantheon of archetypal figures, in fact, every culture seems to have had such a figure or god. There is no particular reason why such a person cannot be female since such characters usually shift their shape.
Smith: Zenia not only appears and disappears and reappears in their lives--I mean as people do--but she literally appears. I think she comes in Tony’s window one night. And she just sort of appears in that magical way--unannounced.
Atwood: Well, there is a fire escape and a tree involved. She Anas just fly.
Smith: I Anas want to suggest that there is anything implausible about The Robber Bride but she is quite a force--Zenia. Now you once said that your novels, all your novels begin with a scene or image, in the gestation and evolution of the writing of the story. This one too? The Robber Bride too?
Atwood: Yes, this one too. But the scene went through some transformation. The Handmaid’s Tale began with the hanging scene and then that scene migrated to the back of the book. A very similar thing happened here because at the back of the book there is a scene involving a very artsy craftsy ceramic urn in which Zenia’s ashes at that time are placed. That urn started out as an ashtray, and then it turned into an urn and moved to the back of the book. It started out at the front of the book. So you see how things get moved around in the process of writing. But I had also been thinking of writing a female military historian for some time.
Smith: You have a poem do you not?
Atwood: Yes, it precedes the novel and it is the voice of a military historian who is female so it has been an interest of mine for a number of years. The question was what kind of a book would she appear in.
Smith: I was wondering about the scene which is toward the beginning of the book in the Toxique Restaurant in Toronto. The historical flashbacks of the three characters are sort of framed by the lunches in the Toxique Restaurant. I wondered if that scene, where Tony and Charis and Roz see Zenia once again, five years after she’s suppose to have been blown up in Beirut, was the germination of the story.
Atwood: Well, it got written fairly early. But as you can see it got written three times from three different points of view because in the beginning of the book each of the three characters gets up, has breakfast, goes to work, and then meets the other two for lunch. So we get all three of them seeing the entrance of Zenia and each one of them has a different reaction. Charis, for instance, who Chris really believe in death, thinks that Zenia is in fact dead and is just making a re-entrance as a spirit. Then after a while she figures out that this person actually has a body. But that is not Tony’s first thought at all. Nor is it the thought of Roz. So each one of them sees her walk in, but each one of them has a different reaction and each one of them very selflessly decides that in order to protect the other two she alone will take Zenia on.
Smith: Incidentally, does the Toxique Restaurant exist in Toronto? If it Torque, it should.
Atwood: Well, that’s what I think. The most amazing things happened. It Torque actually exist yet, but I keep saying it will, it will. Restaurants like it exist. It’s kind of a blend of several of them. I got a letter from England saying, oh, we're so excited. Did you name the Toxique after our restaurant which has the very same name? Somewhere in Somerset or Kent and I’m invited for a free meal if I happen to be in the region. So, this restaurant exists in England.
Smith: Well, I’m sure that there'll be one in Toronto.
Atwood: It’s also the name of a novel by Francoise Sagan, believe it or not.
Smith: You mean the Toxique Restaurant. Is that right?
Atwood: She wrote a novel a long time ago called Toxique which is the French word for toxic. And I think of it as a blend of toxic and boutique. It’s in the boutique area of Toronto.
Smith: Now among other things The Robber Bride is a war story. I mean it begins in time present at the brink of the Gulf War, October 23 1990. The principle characters are all three, I must say all four although Zenia’s something else again, war babies. They were born during the war and their lives have been lonely and orphaned and in some way abandoned by their mothers. Tony is a military historian as you said and, of course, there’s the battle of the gender wars, the battle of the sexes in which Zenia is a double-agent. I was fascinated by the whole notion of this as a war novel, but a guerrilla war. Tony is saying, Zenia had been in her life, she had also been at war and then she goes on to say, "an unofficial war, a guerrilla war, a war she may not have known she was waging but a war nevertheless. Who was the enemy? What past wrong was she seeking to avenge? Where was her battlefield?" I've been haunted since I read the book about this notion of this on-going guerrilla war that seems to be deeper or longer than simply the gender wars or the battle of the sexes and I just wanted to ask you about that.
Atwood: Well, if you think of all of the four characters, Tony, Charis, and Roz are all hooked into the fabric of society although tenuously as you say. They were war babies. The missing father is a factor in all of their lives. Two of the fathers come back altered by the war. The third one never comes back, and in fact, the war never ended it just moved around and it is still going on. We are still living the effects of the Second World War. Look at Yugoslavia. It shifted around. And the guru of war these days is John Keegan who says that in the future wars are much more likely to be guerrilla wars then they are to be the kind of everybody in, huge conflict that we had last in the forties. So all of the characters are hooked into society, each one of them inherits. Tony inherits from her parents. Charis inherits from her grandmother. And Roz inherits from her father. So they all have a hook into society. But Zenia doesn't. Zenia is in a way in complete free fall. As far as we know, she has no family. She doesn't have any financial fallback of that kind. She is in the Robin Hood position. I mean she is essentially an outlaw.
Smith: And she robs the rich.
Atwood: She robs the rich and doesn't give to the poor.
Smith: She robs the three women not only of their men, although one of them alas comes back, and she robs them of money among other things. Now I must say there is a wonderful footnote to the war story part of this because time present is on the brink of the Gulf War. But the epilogue, the outcome, the second funeral of Zenia which takes place in Lake Ontario is November 11, which is November 11, 1991, which is of course what we used to call Armistice Day down here. It’s now Veteran’s Day but the day that the first World War ended. I thought that was a great touch.
Atwood: We have an even better name for it. We call it Remembrance Day.
Smith: Yeah, Remembrance Day that’s a better name.
Atwood: So much can fit into that idea of Remembrance Day. I mean what exactly are we going to remember. Well, it doesn't say so we could remember anything at all.
Smith: Is Zenia a projection of the inner life, the dark side, the repressed fears and desires of the three women because there are all kinds of signs to that? I think Tony says once, I’m paraphrasing, I shuddered because it was too close to what I thought. Is she some kind of shadow of each one of them?
Atwood: Well, she gets the shadows of each one of them. In other words they project on to her a good deal of their psychic material, but we do that in our lives, too, primarily on to two kinds of people. We'll leave the political leaders out of it for the moment and the movie stars. But we project on to people our psychic contents, number one, when we fall in love and suddenly those people that we are falling in love with become much bigger than life, and more charismatic and more wonderful and they glow with a soft inner light and, number two, people that we hate. They become much bigger and much more threatening and more evil than they probably are in real life. So Zenia, presenting a more or less blank screen, and then helping people along with her suggestions about herself is like a great big movie screen for the psychic lives of the other characters.
Smith: She’s like a mirror? I think the mirror figure is what one of the characters refers to, what is she doing on this side of the mirror, something like that, and it seems that Zenia certainly is this for Tony, Charis, and Roz. This kind of character presents the mask that we want, tells us what we want to hear and that’s why she’s such a chameleon.
Atwood: And that’s why she’s so successful as a con artist. Because that is essentially what con artists do whatever form their con takes. They're offering you something that you want and the difference between that and a legitimate transaction is that they aren't really going to give it to you. They are going to take the money and run. But you have to want it first or you wouldn't let them in the door. You know if you're not in the market for a refrigerator, you'll just say, no, thank you very much I already have one.
Smith: And that’s absolutely true with her. After the three historical remembrances of their past, their girlhood’s etc. their traumatic experiences with Zenia, then you come back to time present October 23, 1990 and those encounters are absolutely shocking and staggering because Zenia has the truth. I mean she has given you the illusion . . .
Atwood: Hang on a second here. Can you believe somebody who has lied so much?
Atwood: They don't know whether to believe her or not.
Smith: Yeah, you're right.
Atwood: They don't know.
Smith: Well, isn't it Tony who says a little later on, Zenia is history. And, of course, what you can believe of history is the question that she hasn't solved and perhaps none of us has. In that sense the revelations that Zenia gives to them staggers them, particularly the details about their sexual egos and vanities and all of that. I felt there was something cathartic about that. . . I mean I was absolutely horrified, but I said, you know every once in a while when something involuntarily shocks your worst fears, your worst images of yourself out, why there’s something truly cathartic about it. I felt that that was true of that last part of the book.
Atwood: Well, it is true as Lewis Lye says, we'll get back to your trickster idea. But the trickster is also the messenger of the gods as Mercury, in the Olympian pantheon who is, number one, the god of thieves, number two, the god of money, number three, the god of communications, and number four, because he’s the god of communications it is he who brings the messages. I remember Mercury because he used to be on the front of our telephone book in the early U.S.. There was Mercury with his wings and his staff and wound around his middle and coyly concealing his private portions was a great big telephone cable. Did you have a telephone book like that?
Smith: I remember that some years ago. I was always fascinated by Mercury, especially all the cables strangulating the messenger. And I always wondered how to read that.
Atwood: Well, there he was flying through the air.
Smith: The three heroines or principle victims of Zenia’s seduction are wonderfully developed as characters in they’re own right. Now Tony, tiny Tony, a military historian--talk about against type--she who can read like a historian should, she who can read backwards as well as forwards and who has a relief map of Europe in her basement. Then there’s the spiritual Charis--now that character could be a trendy new age joke. She works in a boutique, I think it’s called Radiance and yet her story I found genuinely tragic. And Roz, overweight Roz from the high-powered money world is absolutely delightful especially with her twin daughters and her son Larry. How could you resist not writing whole novels about each one of them because I was very taken with each one of them?
Atwood: Well this novel is perfect for recessional times because it does have three for the price of one. You get each of those stories and three whole different life stories.
Smith: And of course Zenia gives each one of them the past that is her alleged past that they want. She has three different passports to the Second World War and beyond.
Atwood: That’s right.
Smith: For each one of them. Now on the other hand, the male characters don’t figure as prominently and they seem marginal. Are they symbolic?
Atwood: The men are the loot.
Smith: They’re really objects?
Atwood: Well, usually in a real war what gets killed is the men and what gets stolen are the wome--in wars as we have known them over the past 2000 years. But because this is one in which we reverse the genders, the men get to be the loot. You know that there are a lot of men who will enhance their own notions of their own sexual prowess by stealing their friends’ girlfriends. Well, there are women who do that too. It’s a form of power to make off with somebody that one person of your same sex values.
Smith: The men are objects or loot as you say and they really don’t stand a chance. On the other hand I found them differentiated. For the benefit of the people who have not yet read The Robber Bride I must say this is not a man-trashing book at all. But the vision of men that you have throughout is really very interesting.
Atwood: The female characters indulge these men and make up excuses for them because if you love somebody and value them and want them back you can’t believe it was them who did it. Right? You have to believe that it was this other person who came and stole them rather than that they walked off willingly with the third person. So the women, in fact, take a quite indulgent view of these men and see them as putty in Zenia’s hands and Zenia finally says to them, look these guys made choices of their own.
Smith: Absolutely true. It’s like the three women really are not only protecting them but in some way like a mother buffers them from reality, from history not just from some of the truths that Zenia really catalyzes in this way.
Atwood: Well, the women quite frequently--this is true of women in real life situations--think that men have all of this power. But when it comes down to a particular man they happen to be involved with they’re quite likely to feel that this person is more fragile than they are and that they have to therefore indulged this person and cover up and rearrange reality a bit to make it easier for him. You find all of these women doing this. Sound familiar any female listeners?
Smith: Well, let me say to all readers who like not only very beautifully written books but also very thoughtful and haunting books that The Robber Bride, recently published by Doubleday, will be a really great delight. And Margaret Atwood, thank you so much for joining us. We’ll look for more magical and meaningful stories from you in the future.
Atwood: Well, Thank you.
Smith: This is Tom Smith saying so long until next time on The Book Show.
McDermott: So should we just start with the questions? I don’t have anything prepared. Last week I was in Cincinnati to give a lecture at the library there. They have an Irish American Branch. And some old Irish American died and left the library a lot of money to bring an Irish American writer in to lecture. They asked me specifically not to read from the fiction. I guess in the library they feel that they can read it themselves, and I realized how uncomfortable I am lecturing about anything. It made me recall something my older brother said to me when I was first starting to publish. Both of my older brothers are engineers and lawyers so you can imagine what they think of fiction writers. And my brother said to me, you know I finally figured out why you wanted to do this. You always wanted to be an expert at something, but you never wanted to study so you just make things up and then your the expert. I realized that is the only thing I’m an expert on--what I’ve written. So any questions you have, I’ll be happy to respond to, but I don’t have any words of wisdom to begin with.
Question: So many of these people are young writers and writing students and I’m sure would love to hear how you get a novel published like A Bigamist’s Daughter before you’re thirty years old. That’s an interesting story anyway. Maybe you could start off with that.
McDermott: OK. That I know. That I’m an expert on. My first novel I began pretty much just out of graduate school. I went to the University of New Hampshire and did stay on for a year. I was there for two years getting my masters and then stayed on for a year to teach when I finished that. And I was writing short stories and had begun to publish a few short stories, you know, unsolicited manuscripts. It really does happen occasionally and then I got married and moved to New York. My husband was in graduate school down there. And we sort of pooled our meager resources and decided that I could have six months in which to mostly write fiction. I had to bring in a little bit of money, and I did that by actually by reading unsolicited manuscripts for Redbook Magazine for which they paid 40 cents a manuscript so it was a very little bit of money. I also did some reading for Esquire--free lance stuff. So I had this six months and if within six months it didn’t look too promising, I had to go out and get a job. So I thought at that time that I was going to write short stories--that’s what I had been doing. But I found dealing with writing every day and having the time to write difficult. It was very difficult to finish a short story Tuesday night and then be at your desk at nine o’clock Wednesday morning and start another. So I faced up to it and said, all right everyone has to write a first novel sooner or later and I’ve got this time. I might as well get it out of my system. So I did that. I just began a novel with absolutely no burning idea. You know there’s always that idea that everyone has one novel in them, I wasn’t sure that I had one novel in me. I was going to have to pluck it out of the air somehow and that’s really how that novel began, just OK here I am--it’s nine o’clock and I’ve got all this time, what am I going to write about? When I had about 100 pages of the novel, I told one of my former teachers at U.N.H, Mark Smith, who was a wonderful novelist by the way, that I had finally bitten the bullet and had begun a novel. He said well, then you should have an agent. At the time his agent had a partner who he really admired and he just said, give Harriet a call. I’ll write to her. I’ll tell her that you’re going to be contacting her and show her some pages and see what happens. So he did that. He wrote her a letter--greatly exaggerated, glowing letter, something like you’re going to kiss my feet in Macy’s windows for what I’m about to do for you. He’s a fiction writer. And I brought down fifty pages of the novel and a couple of the short stories that had been published. I was so certain that she was going to laugh at me that I didn’t put them in the mail, I actually walked down to her office in mid-town and slipped them under her door so I wouldn’t have to put a return address on them. I knew that she was Saul Bellow’s agent, and I thought somehow that I’d get a letter that would just say, ‘I’m Saul Bellow’s agent, I’m returning your manuscript, I mean, c’mon.’ But oddly enough she called me back a few weeks later and said, do you have more of this novel and I said, yes. And she said I’d like to see it and I’d like to see whatever short stories you have around and I’d like you to come down and we can meet. And that time I actually went in the office and sat with her and she said, we’ll submit the novel. And here I really had only 100 pages and at the time I wasn’t really sure that I was going to finish it. I thought, I’m doing this because this is what you’re supposed to do and she said, do you prefer a male editor or a female editor? And again I thought if you can find a literate editor whose going to buy this book, that’s fine. And she (this is one of the advantages of an agent, I learned very quickly) she immediately named three editors who had come to mind as she was reading the first fifty pages. The very first one, was Jonathan Galassi who at the time was at Houghton-Mifflin. She said, he’s the first person I want to send it to. I think he would respond to this work. A week later, she called me and said, Jonathan Galassi wants you to come down to his office and meet him and talk to him about the novel and about what the rest of it is going to be about. So on the bus on the way I sort of made up in my mind what the rest of the novel was about--very quickly. My undergraduate days in Oswego of drinking all night and then trying to take an essay exam paid off very well because I could make things up very quickly. Jonathan said, you know even though it’s not finished and it’s a first novel, I think we’ll take a risk. Just a week after that, suddenly I had a contract and then was faced with the fact that I had to finish it, that people were really taking me that seriously. So I had a very painless process in getting a first novel published. That doesn’t mean to say that I hadn’t already collected a file-folder of rejection slips for my short stories. I think the one thing that you should know about publishing is how much of it depends on being in the right place at the right time, and having someone say ‘look at this’ to the right person, having an agent who knows, having a friend who is a writer who knows an agent, people opening those doors for you because it’s so easy for things to go the other way. And so much of it has little to do with your work. It’s just getting your work in front of the right people. So that was my first novel.
Question: How much did the hundred pages change materially from what you showed the editor\agent?
McDermott: Not too much. The reason that my agent chose Jonathan first, she told me this sometime afterwards was that she knew how he worked with young writers, and she knew that he would not impose his own ideas on the novel. And I realized how much I appreciated that because I know at that time if he had said, Great kid, these hundred pages I love but in the next one hundred pages I want you to kill off this person and have a car crash, I would have done it. I mean if he was going to publish the novel, I would have done it. I was George Bush at that time, I had no moral fiber. If it means I’m going to get re-elected, if it means you’re going to publish it, I’ll do it, I’ll say it. So she was very careful and she told me later that she knew editors who would tend to mold first novelists in a way that may not really be true to their own voice. So he was very much hands off. And there were some changes that I made once I’d gotten through the whole novel but it was. . .
Question: How many pages did you write beyond the 100 pages?
McDermott: In manuscript it ended up to be about 280, 290 pages. But I tend to write that way anyway. Once something is down I don’t usually change it. I do my re-writing every day. I don’t rush to the end as I know some writers do, sort of get the whole story down, and then go back. So there weren’t too many changes that I had to make. Then when the novel was finished, and only when I said, well, I’ve gotten to some kind of ending, that we began to talk. The nice thing that Jonathan does is he just brings out what you already know. I would say, I think this doesn’t work and I think this isn’t very good. And sometimes he’d say, yes, you’re right, I don’t think that works, I think that could probably be better and other times he’d say, stop worrying about it, leave it, it’s worth it. He was very careful to let the novel develop on its own and let me discover what the novel was about, and then to urge me on my way when I needed to improve things and to re-assure me when I needed to be reassured.
Question: When I first read your work, I found myself reading it out loud and slowing down because I noticed the rhythms that I usually find when I read poetry. Have you written poetry?
McDermott: Not for a long time. I wrote poetry when I was braver than I am now. But that’s very important to me, the sound of the writing. When I read, I’m finding more and more the novels that appeal to me now are novels where the language is primary. But I need that too. Because I generally don’t have a good sense of what the story is about when I begin writing, and my novels certainly are not heavily plotted at all, I need that rhythm just to sort of spur myself on. If I don’t know who the characters are and what they are going to do and what the middle of the book is going to be and what the end of the book is going to be, at least I have a sense, I know how I want it to sound. I don’t know what it’s going to be about. I don’t know what the words are going to be but at least I have a sense that I’ll know when I hear it.
Question: Do you still write poetry? Even if you don’t publish it, do you still write it for yourself?
McDermott: No, no, I don’t even write letters anymore. Most of what I write is towards fiction. When I say towards fiction, I don’t even write notes about characters anymore. I write about the characters until something seems to stick. But no, I haven’t. I’m saving it for my old age, I think. Maybe I’ll feel brave again. I read a lot of poetry though. I’ve always read poetry. And that’s sort of what I go back to when I want to be reminded of what language can do.
Question: I’m curious about your creative process in That Night. Did you take an incident that you had actually remembered and then fill around it? I mean how did you--did you have a spot where you blurred the line into fiction. I’m really curious how that came about. I mean really it’s just all about one night and you wrote the book about that.
McDermott: Yeah, I’ve said that exactly to myself, many times. I took an incident that I never actually witnessed, I’d only heard about. The whole genesis of that was that I was working on what I thought was going to be my second novel, and was well into it, and had shown it to my editor, and had promised it to him. Then I went off and I was writer-in-residence down in Virginia for a few months and I found the characters in the novel that I was working on were sort of stopping in mid-scene and talking about their childhoods and they weren’t suppose to be doing that--this wasn’t about their childhoods. Or they would have these philosophical discussions about the nature of memory and is this true or is this not true and how do you know that? So finally I just had to say ‘stop.’ Clearly I need to take a break from this novel and since I don’t ski or fish or anything when I take a break from writing I usually write something else. That’s my hobby as well. So I thought I’ll write about memory and maybe it’ll be a story, maybe it’ll be something longer I don’t know. But clearly I want to write something about memory, about recalling something. So then I thought I want a voice, probably this is going to be a narrator talking about something and I recalled that where I grew up, there was an incident. As I say, I wasn’t there for it, I don’t know where I was in reality. But I missed it completely. I was probably watching television. A boy came to the neighborhood one night and had a shouting match with the parents of his girlfriend out on the front lawn. And it wasn’t violent but apparently there was a threat of violence and they were using language that in those days you didn’t use out on your front lawn in the suburbs. I remember people, my older brothers and my parents and people I’d grown up with talking about it. I had heard this incident referred to a number of ways. But usually it would be referred to as a way to point out what an aberration it was. How upset the people in the neighborhood were that this happened because our neighborhood wasn’t like that. It was quiet and it was peaceful and on a summer night everybody was agreeable and you didn’t scream four-letter words out at each other. So it seemed to me that was the kind of incident that people recalled and that also illustrated very much what this town was like. But I didn’t know any of the details. I just had this sense of an aberration. At that point it was just a matter of ‘Who is this voice?’ And where’s the girl and where’s the mother and where’s the father and what’s he shouting about? Then it was just discovering through the writing what this was all about. It turned out that after I published the book, my brothers and my family and a few people from Elmont said, that’s not what happened, that’s not the story at all, you’ve got it all wrong. It was a very interesting story. Apparently, this teen-age couple had eloped together and they ran away to Maryland. I don’t know what was so great about Maryland in those days, maybe you could get married under 16. And after they got married, she changed her mind and went back and he had come after her. Indeed, she was there and both her parents were there and they were trying to get it annulled or whatever. She didn’t want to see him; she didn’t want any part of him. So it certainly was a different story. But for me it was not knowing that made it much more fun. If I had known that I probably would have tried to write it and probably would have given up, because it wouldn’t be my story. But for me it was that idea, that she wasn’t in the house. That he’s out there yelling but she’s not in the house. Well, where is she? She’s gone. Well, why would she be gone? Why else in those days? So that’s what kept me with the story even though I kept saying this is only one very small incident, and this is going to be a real short novel if that’s all I’ve got.
Comment: I was caught up in that novel, That Night because of the rhythms--they were just beautiful.
McDermott: Thank you.
Question: I mean they were just poetry. Were you aware that you were doing that? Could you explain that structure? Did that just happen?
McDermott: A little bit of both. As I said, I wanted it to be about memory and how things are remembered. It always seemed to me that there’s a real parallel between fiction-writing and memory. I mean in some ways, for many of us, memory is our own way of writing fiction. What we choose to remember and how we remember it, and also the idea of how the past changes as time goes on. An event that happened when you were sixteen that you view when you’re twenty-five, you may see very differently at 40--the intervening events can change the way you see things, or you may see things you never seen before. There’s also the imaginative act. I know what I was doing when I was sixteen but I wonder what he was doing, what he was thinking. At the time I didn’t even think about him, but looking back maybe I can see things. So it was that whole idea of memory as a kind of story-building process. And so in many ways I didn’t know that would be the shape of the story but it developed organically, I guess, if I can hark back to my California days. It just seemed natural to the process of going over it again. Well, OK, I can get some information from here and then I can imagine this and I can see it in a different way. Seeing it through a specific character was the other thing I had to discover. I had to ask myself, who is this narrator and why is she interested and what is going on in her life that makes her go back and choose these details, choose to see it in this way? I suppose you could argue that she may have it all wrong, that may not quite be the story at all. But it’s the story that she tells herself and the way she puts her memory together and in some ways I think we all do that. I think there is a sense that we’re all editors of our own past. And it’s the filter of your own personality in many ways that distinguishes what you remember and how you remember it. Then there was the dramatic circling movement of the boys in the car--that was the first signal to me of where the novel should go and how it should be structured. I’m always telling my writing students that when you’re writing first drafts there are all kinds of road signs. Maybe your subconscious is pointing the way the story should go. Sometimes you ignore them or sometimes you have to write three or four drafts before you see them. But you almost know more than you know you know when you are writing those first few drafts. So I only needed the one kid. I don’t know why he brought all of his friends but there was a sense that I wanted to enhance the drama of it since I knew this was a very small event. Maybe that was the first reason I chose it, but then that sense of the circling that they do, I think was an indication for me that that might be an undercurrent for the novel.
Question: Can you talk a little more about the narrator in that story? It seemed a little odd that she knew so much of what was going on with this girl living across the street.
McDermott: The narrator is what started me on the novel. I remember at one point probably three quarters of the way through I wanted to kick her out. I should just tell the story and I should just go right into the points of view of all the characters and none of this--this might have happened or so and so told me this happened. I said I’ll cut all that out and say this is the reality. And as soon as I did that I lost all interest in the story. Right away it just seemed like this is the story of a teen-age pregnancy--two really not terribly interesting teen-agers, I don’t care. Because the impulse for me was the way the story is told, the way memory works. I think as far as I can tell, everything that the narrator comes up with is based on something. She doesn’t imagine anything clean out. She heard this from somebody. She knew that Cheryl had gone to Ohio. She heard what had happened in the gas station. She eventually put these things together but there’s also again, as I say, the imaginative act. I know this but I haven’t really looked at it this way. If she was there, then she must have been feeling this, and if she did that, if she later left, well then while she was there she must have felt this and there must have been someone who said this to her. So it’s not made-up out of the whole cloth--anything that the narrator comes up with. It’s also filtered through the narrator at a time in her life that seems rather bereft. I think she’s looking for that kind of reassurance that there was some kind of meaning to this and that these were grand passions that these teen-agers felt. She’s just been through a divorce and her childhood is really deteriorating. I mean the evidence of it. Her parents have sold her childhood home--it’s a kind of turning-over, and also her father has died which is mentioned very much at the end, but I think there’s that sense that she’s at a point where she’s looking back and trying to find the story of her childhood. Again I think that would spur her to acts of imagination. But as far as I can tell, almost everything that she imagines comes from something that she has heard. It’s not just completely made-up, as the story itself is. But I did have many questions about that, myself. There were a few reviewers who also had questions about it. So what really happened? You know. I love that idea. You want to say, "Look at the front cover and see. It’s a novel."
Question: Did I hear they were making a movie out of it? Did you help write it?
McDermott: No, I visited the set for as long as I could stand it which turned out to be about two hours. I’ve seen the movie though.
Question: Same title?
McDermott: Well, now it’s the same title. Originally the movie was going to come out in August, this past August, and it was going to be called One Hot Summer. But at the very last minute, they ran the trailers with that name, they did some promotional work, there were interviews in a number of national magazines with Juliette Lewis and I think there were interviews with some of the other people and with the director. I mean they really started the whole thing going and then as August approached the powers-that-be at Warner Brothers (again I don’t quite know how these decisions are made or if they ever really are made in Hollywood) decided that August was not going to be a good month, that a lot of the studios had kept back their movies until after the Olympics which meant that a lot of movies were coming out. So they decided that they would wait until this spring so then they didn’t have to call it One Hot Summer anymore because it wasn’t going to come out in the summer. So the last I heard was that they were going back to the title of That Night which is very nice except the title doesn’t make any sense anymore because the story has been changed so much. I would think that anyone who hasn’t read the novel would say, ‘what night?’ I suppose it’s still possible that it will change but oddly enough it’s a nice little movie. It’s not terrible which is really what I was braced for. And Juliette Lewis is wonderful. She plays Cheryl and she really does well.
Question: Who plays Rick?
McDermott: C. Thomas Howell, who’s also very good. They’re very likable. They’re very believable. The era is captured very well., This is the writer-director’s first effort. For his first effort he has had total control and there’s a real sincerity in the picture that I appreciated. There are also flaws that you can see. And some of the writing, some of the narration made me grit my teeth. But it’s sincere. He takes the characters very seriously which was the thing I worried most about.
Question: Is the narrator in the movie?
McDermott: The narrator is the focus of the movie.
Question: So she’s a character but not the voice-over?
McDermott: She does narrate in the beginning and a little bit throughout and then again at the end. When she says, "I learned something that summer that I’ll never forget," those are the moments that I sank down in my seat. But she really is the focus of the movie, this ten-year old girl who the director named Alice, Alice Bloom though. I love that. I don’t know why that came up. But she’s Alice Bloom and she and Cheryl have a real friendship, and she sort of hangs out with Cheryl and Rick. It’s different.
Question: Do you feel flattered to see your work made into a movie or does it disturb you that they changed it and it’s no longer . . .
McDermott: I’m not sure flattered is right. It’s a kick; it’s fun. I guess I feel far enough away from the novel that I don’t feel they didn’t do that right. And since I didn’t have any involvement in it, I can be sort of detached. It’s fun. It was fun to go to the screening room and at least hear the names of your characters even if they don’t seem to resemble them in any other way. But in some ways I can’t shake loose this idea that a really good novel shouldn’t make it as a film, that a really good novel does so many things that film can’t do. I mean, there’s probably film majors here who don’t want to hear this. This is my prejudice, that I’m not sure it’s a compliment that you write books that can be made into movies. In some distorted way, to write a book that couldn’t possibly be made into a movie is better. But it’s fun to have the experience, and of course, people who know you are most impressed that you’ve written something that becomes a movie. It’s very hard to say, I’ve written a beautiful, lyrical novel that no one in Hollywood wants to film. It doesn’t mean as much as to say, ‘Oh, they’re making that into a movie. It must really be something.’ I’m not sure that means anything about the quality of the work. But it’s fun. It was fun to visit the set briefly and to see what nonsense goes on. I’m glad I’ve had the experience. I’m not sure that I crave it.
Question: How long did you work on That Night? Did it come out in one rush? You said you revised it daily.
McDermott: Yeah, it didn’t exactly come in a rush because I moved across country in the middle of writing it. So there was a kind of break there. The actual writing, if I can sort of filter out all the time I wasn’t able to write, probably took about two and a half or three years from the time I began it to the time I gave it up, handed it over for good. The first pages came very quickly. Then getting into the story and understanding it took a little longer. Knowing the end, where I wanted to bring it, was also difficult. I wrote that book in so many different places that it seems it took half my life time to get it out. I started, like I said, when I was writer-in-residence in Virginia. I finished it in California, having moved out, having had a baby, having done all these things in life, while the story was working itself out. So it seems it took forever.
Question: Are there any chunks of it that you didn’t want to put in the story?
McDermott: Oh, sure.
McDermott: Oh, lots. Everything I write has lots of pages that don’t belong there. And there’s one scene that almost got cut, my editor really slapped my hands at the last minute, and I don’t remember why. I don’t remember what I was feeling, but I felt very strongly that the scene with Rick in jail talking to the lawyer smacked too much of James Dean, and I yanked it out at the last minute. And my editor called me and said, stop. Do something else. Go take care of your baby. Leave the book alone. And we sort of went back and forth about that but it was time to give it up.
Question: So within the memory there are some things that don’t need to be there?
McDermott: Oh, yeah. There are plenty of pages. I write an awful lot and don’t keep much of it. My novels tend to be very short, but my stacks of pages are very high. It’s very frustrating for my husband who at the end of the day will say to me, how’d it go today? And I’ll always say, I threw out six pages or I wrote ten, but I’m going to throw them out tomorrow. And he always thinks it’s a negative--at this rate you’re never going to get your advance.
Question: Isn’t that an anxiety-producing situation if you don’t know where it’s going?
McDermott: I suppose, but I guess knowing seems so deadening to me. If I knew for sure where it was going, I don’t know that I’d bother getting there. The actual writing, hearing the sound and getting the words down is difficult for me. I guess that’s why I have to write so much and keep so little. If I couldn’t discover things every so often, if I was just re-affirming through the writing what I already knew, I think I would just say why bother? I know this story. Why bother messing with language and finding the right word and the right theme and all of that? So I need to feed myself these little cookies, to keep me going. I didn’t know that character was going to do that. Well, that seems right but I had to write to get there so I better keep writing because maybe there’ll be something else. Of course there are often months and weeks when that doesn’t happen. You are just writing, trying to find the story and that’s when the anxiety comes in, maybe I’m not going to find it, maybe there’s no more treats coming. And then you do it and you say, oh, I needed to write for those three months to figure this out. It took a long time but that’s what got me here and if I hadn’t done that I wouldn’t have gotten here.
Question: It seems you’re describing a . . . process where you are simply writing as opposed to plotting something. Do you ever find yourself getting in your own way? I guess you can trust the process that works . . . But isn’t it hard to trust it? And if you do get stuck, how do you get out of it?
McDermott: I don’t know. It does happen. I think I get to a desperation point where I say, it’s just all right, I’ll keep it until something better comes along or until it starts to make sense. You do sort of hold your breath at a certain point. I’ve gotten this far. I know the characters this well and I think I want to finish this so now I just need to keep going. It’s not so much that it’s intuitive. Really, it’s desperation. What else am I going to do? I’m not quite ready to give it up and start something else. Let’s just hope maybe there’s a way this can work out and.
Question: You don’t necessarily mean the actual project? You mean something within the story.
McDermott: Yeah, there’s that. But there’s also the project. My husband is a scientist and the best thing I’ve learned from him about writing is that the really good scientist is someone who knows when to abandon an experiment, who doesn’t keep doing it for twenty years only to say that the results were just what he thought they’d be. Negative. I’ve sort of taken that to heart with my writing, and it’s not easy, but it’s a sense of are you discovering things? Are you learning something new? Does the challenge seem still to be there? Then it’s worth pursuing even when it seems like months since you had a breakthrough. But if there’s that sense that I’ve really written this out. And you hate to say it and you love some of the chapters and you love some of the sentences and you’re sure it’s the best work you have ever done, but it’s time for another story or time to tell the story in another way. Then you don’t tell anybody what you’re doing. This last one, At Weddings and Wakes, was another--this is how patient my editor is--one where I had started a completely different version of the novel. So much so that it was another novel in many ways. And I showed the first 100 pages to my editor and he said, ‘This is fine. This is very interesting. OK, fine. Go ahead.’ And then I moved back cross-country again and had a few months where I was really away from my routine of writing. When I finally got back, I started reading this and I thought, I don’t want to write this anymore. So I started two other novels. I started two completely different pieces. And every time my editor would call I’d say, ‘Yep, it’s going OK, writing and writing everyday. Yep, sure am.’ Finally I had to call and say, ‘Remember that novel that I signed the contract for? Well it’s not quite the novel I’m writing. I’ve changed it somewhat. But then I’ve also started another one.’ So I sent him (again this is my great confidence) both of them and said ‘In place of that one I said I would write you, you can have either one of these. I have been working. I just haven’t been working on what I said I would.’ Pretty much the same thing happened with That Night. He thought I was off in Virginia finishing this other novel and I showed up with, well, this is something else. And he just wrote back, ‘I don’t care which one you finish, just finish one.’ So as I say, it’s just a matter of knowing when the energy isn’t really at its peak, isn’t really there. It’s not that you can’t finish it, it’s just is it wise to go on? Is this a good time to find another way into the same story or to start something fresh that seems more compelling?
Question: Alice, you talked about a period of time when you knew it wasn’t there, that the inspiration isn’t there but you are still writing or are you? I mean it’s not a case of not writing? It’s a case of not discovering?
McDermott: Yeah, it doesn’t feel right. It becomes rote. And I guess this is the whole thing--if you know the story. OK, today I have to work on that chapter where he says and then she says and then at the end, they have to be here.
Question: So you write it or you don’t write it or you stop and do something else?
McDermott: I write it. But it’s not fun, and I don’t mean that writing should be fun. I mean it’s seldom fun. But it’s not generating a new idea. It’s not showing me anything new. It’s just going from point A to point B.
Question: Is that usually the material that gets left out?
McDermott: For me, yeah. As I say it’s not worth it. There’s so many wonderful things to do with your time, why do that? It’s just that discovering as I write keeps me interested and challenges me. I don’t have any better idea of where it’s going or how all these things work, but I want to stay with it. I have a sense, and maybe this is intuition, I have a sense that things are lining up in a way I want them to line up although I don’t know what I want yet. The other kind of writing is just getting there. I’ve got this scene perfectly imagined and now I just have to write it down.
Question: Are there specific writers who inspire you?
McDermott: It changes. There are certainly people I go back to, sort of to remind myself. I think everyone who writes begins to write because they’ve read something they loved. You can generally sort those out. You’ve read things you’ve admired, you’ve read things that you’ve learned from, but it’s the things that just somehow captured your heart, I guess, that I think is where the seeds of your ambition are. And so there are writers I go back to just to be reminded of that. You know, how did I get on this course anyway? I remember vividly reading Nabokov’s short stories and saying if I could do that, that’s worth. And it’s been nice over the years to go back to those same stories and still feel the same way. And I do that. You forget. You get to the point where you are suppose to write and people are expecting you to write which is a nice change of pace from early in your career when nobody really cares. But then there’s that sense of well, why? Why am I doing this? Because I’m trying to concentrate on a contract that said that I would? Or because I have this great thing to say? I can never remember until I go back, and I read those books and say OK that’s it. That’s a worthwhile way to live. It’s always very reassuring to go back and find out it’s still there.
Question: You never do any outlines--you only write prose?
McDermott: I have done outlines. There are times I’ll write things down outside--remember this or maybe this means something. But I find I do less and less of that, mostly because my writing time has become more and more limited. When I was single or when I didn’t have any children and had a whole day to write, I could spend a half an hour writing in my notebook. And you feel very writerly, preserve these, these are for posterity. But when I know I’ve got to quit writing at 2:30 because I’ve got to pick up the kids, and I might get back to my desk that night and I might not, and tomorrow morning they might both wake up with colds and I won’t get there at all, I just want to get to what I know I should be doing and that’s working toward the text even if stuff doesn’t end up in there.
Question: I noticed you repeated one thing in That Night which was, ‘smell the summer dust on the window sills and lawns.’ I wondered if you knew you were repeating that or how that came about?
McDermott: I’m sure I did. Yeah, that’s one of those details, a tactile and real and physical detail that also seemed to me to be the sort of thing again in the memory and especially a memory that’s being filtered through someone who sees that time as being over--that things have changed, and there’s no getting back. That’s the kind of thing that illustrates that for me. And so I hope it makes sense in that way.
Question: I was wondering about your process or if you have a process of building characters? You said you were trying to get away from a scene that’s too much like James Dean. Do you ever find yourself modeling characters after people you know, or characters in film?
McDermott: I think some characters have begun as people I know. But the reason I’m a fiction writer and not a journalist is that I can’t stick with what’s real. I just can’t do it though I’ve tried. So I think there are some characters who begin, and I may even have the intention of taking them straight from real life and putting them in the novel, but I can’t resist. I can’t resist messing up their faces a little and changing their personalities and giving them a history they don’t really have. I don’t know that I could take someone from real life and put them in. But certainly parts of characters have come from real life. Some have begun with real life and then become my own. When At Weddings and Wakes was published, a cousin of mine wrote me a note. And she said, when she started reading the book, she started plugging in all of our relatives and then she said by about halfway through she got so frustrated because they kept changing. And the one who she was sure was Aunt Helen wasn’t Aunt Helen at all. She did things that Aunt Helen never would have done or had experienced. So she said she finally just threw up her hands and said, I don’t know these characters after all. I think that’s inevitable.
Question: Does it help to work against people that you know? To create something new? Like to take Aunt Helen and then make her not Aunt Helen?
McDermott: I don’t know if I could do that consciously, you know. That might happen too. But I really don’t think about sources. It seems to me that there are so many things that you have to think about when you are getting it down. I may grab from this and that but I absolutely never think about it. I never take the time. One of the first stories I published in Redbook was about a woman, this was before I had any children of my own, a woman with two small children, and they were both boys and they were a year apart. And as I was writing it, I wanted to keep straight in my mind which was the oldest and which was the youngest. Well I have two older brothers so I named the older character Bill and the younger one Kevin just as my brothers were because then I wouldn’t have to think twice about who’s older or who’s younger or look at my notes and see he’s four and he’s three. That was the only resemblance to my brothers in the whole story. This was a single woman who was delivering newspapers and lived in upstate New York. I mean nothing, absolutely nothing about my brothers. When the story came out, my brother called me and said, I can’t believe you wrote about us. And I said, what? It’s your names. What else? What else? And he said, you gave them our plaid blanket. I said OK, you had a plaid blanket and they have a plaid blanket. I didn’t remember that you had a plaid blanket. I may have somehow put the kids to bed and put a plaid blanket on them and somehow recalled that. But if my brother had said to me what kind of blanket did we have when we were little? I wouldn’t have said, Oh I remember the plaid one.
Question: This is from earlier on. When you go through the process of writing, do you start at the beginning and work your way through or do you start at the beginning and find out that’s not really the beginning and have to work backwards?
McDermott: I know writers who have had that happen. I haven’t had that happen yet. I guess maybe I start at the wrong beginning, and that’s when I try another way into the story. But again I need to hear the voice first, and I need to have a sense of the point of view and the language and the voice even to move on. I tend to find the first scene and to find the first sentences and move on from there. I’ve not yet had the experience of getting to chapter three and then realizing this is really where it should begin, although I know that happens. It may still happen to me, but generally I get to chapter three and I think, I don’t want to tell this story anymore. Let’s try something else.
Question: How did that work in the evolution of At Weddings and Wakes. You mentioned a while ago the analogy between memory and fiction which I find absolutely fascinating, the rhythm of that novel. Early on you suspended conventional suspense. So early on in the book we know that Aunt May, the ex-nun will marry and then die, we know the children’s parents will separate. So there’s no conventional suspense. And how did that work? I mean did you know that that was going to be there when you were writing that first chapter or so, or what?
McDermott: That I discovered as I went along. I had no idea that that was what the story was about when I began the first sentence. I wrote the first chapter in order to get to the evening of that day. The first chapter begins with a journey, these three children and their mother from Long Island into Brooklyn. I did that because I wanted to get them back out that night because I had been sitting in my son’s room looking at a poster from Maurice Sendak’s In the Night Kitchen and, as I say, had begun a very different version of the novel that I wasn’t happy with. I was just waiting for him to fall asleep and was looking at this cityscape that Sendak had drawn which is made up of cereal boxes and kitchen utensils. It just struck me. I identified it immediately. I knew those streets, and I also knew that wasn’t a real place at all. You know what it’s made up of. And just looking at it I thought what a kick, wouldn’t it be fun to try and do that in prose, to describe a place that’s so familiar and yet as if you’ve never seen it before, really a child’s eye view. The delightfully strange and yet concrete, an identifiable place in some way. So maybe that’s this whole story that’s floating around, maybe it’s another story. But I really like to try to write that scene. First I knew I had a child’s point of view, but I didn’t want it to be sullied by an individual character. In That Night the narrator is an individual person and everything is filtered through her personality. I didn’t want that narrow a scope. So it had to be a collective childish point of view, more than one child seeing this, and so I thought I’ve got to get them in and get them some reason to be coming back again and driving through streets that were familiar. But that they couldn’t say I know what street that is, that’s clearly not a place where they live so that they can have some of that strangeness. That whole chapter was just a way for me, kind of an experiment to get them in and then have them drive out again and then to describe the city through their eyes. So it was much like the process of discovery with That Night. I had to ask, who are these kids and if they’re going into the city who are they going to meet there? When they climb up the stairs, who’s going to answer the door? And I remember very clearly in the composition that the door is opened by May. And just as I was writing it, I described the way that she bent. I guess, I could see it as the children came in. She bent and I did it like a nun, it was a nun’s gesture. And as soon as I saw her do that I thought, that’s what she is, she was. She spent some time in the convent. That’s interesting. I didn’t know that. And how does she fit into this family? And somehow I knew and maybe this is that Irishness coming out someho--I knew that there’s tragedy here. There’s bad luck. The convent didn’t work out for her, and she’s in this apartment and she’s crazy about these kids. And you know in the old world when you went to the movies, when you saw a soldier adopt a puppy, you knew he was going to get killed. This is the guy who’s going to bite the dust. In some ways I guess that’s how it was. I liked her immediately. And yet I knew something. But I wasn’t quite sure. And it wasn’t until the next chapter when she took the children out that I knew that she loved them. She takes them out for a treat as a release to get them out of this apartment with the other sisters and the grandmother. Then the mailman came along. And then it was like, ‘Have I got a guy for you!’ There’s something going on here. So again that’s the kind of thing that keeps me writing. You know, tomorrow I’m going to find out who this mailman is, so tomorrow I want to go back to my desk. Rather than oh, tomorrow I have to write the scene where the mailman is going to marry her and then she’s going to die. It’s more let’s find out who this guy is. Question and answer period following McDermott’s evening reading . . .
McDermott: I have to tell you that the last time I read that much of my work out loud was this summer when I did a recording of an abridged version of At Weddings and Wakes which was absolutely one of the worst experiences of my life. I was sort of locked into a small sound room by myself with tape all around where I put my hands and where my bottom was so that every time I took a break I could come and sit down in exactly the same place and with a frustrated producer out in the recording room who thought he was Steven Spielberg and who would interrupt me every other sentence to come in and talk about the motivation of the character in this scene. And there were certain horror things flashing through my mind as I was reading here, that somewhere I’m going to hear a small voice saying, ‘Alice can you stop for a minute? Can we talk? Let’s talk about that scene.’ Maybe I’ve purged myself now that I’ve read it once more. We have time for questions or conversation, whatever.
Question: I’m of Irish descent. I was really struck by the Irishness of your book. And I happened to read and hear a quote from you where you said, it could almost be any nationality. I’m surprised by that because to me it could only be the Irish.
McDermott: Certainly. It’s particular in many ways to the Irish, but I think the re-hashing of family history is universal. The sense of passing stories, family stories and anecdotes on and missing a lot of it, and the misinterpretation that goes on between the generations. I suppose I said that because my husband is a Midwestern WASP, and I thought that only the Irish fought and stopped speaking to each other until I got into a Midwestern WASP family, and boy, they can do it too. As my mother once said to me, every family is peculiar. I’ve heard from a lot of readers who don’t have an Irish background saying they share that sense of paying homage, the journey back to grandma’s place which may be changing now with the generations. Now that grandma lives in Florida and is busy doing other things. But for my generation that sense of going back and those long afternoons of visiting relatives and the dynamics that went on, that children are somewhat attuned to but don’t quite understand--that seems to happen in every family in some way. So I guess, it’s particularly Irish in the novel but it’s not peculiar to the Irish, I guess, is what I meant.
Question: Alice, you made the allusion to the Maurice Sendak cityscape. Maybe you want to tell the folks how that was a kind of germ of the idea for At Weddings and Wakes.
McDermott: Yeah, this is my domestic anecdote. I had another kind of version of this story, at least it was a generational Irish American story. It was similar in that way and I was working on it and not terribly pleased with the way it was going and not feeling completely inspired by it. One evening (my son was going through a stage of wanting to have someone sit with him while he fell asleep) I was sitting on his bed waiting for him to be asleep enough so that I could get up and leave without him opening one eye. He has on his wall in his bedroom (he’s seven years old now, this was a few years ago) a Sendak poster from In The Night Kitchen and it’s just this wonderful cityscape, dark cityscape which is, if you’ve seen it, made up of oatmeal boxes and kitchen utensils. And yet you know it’s a city so it’s that wonderful dream-like state and In The Night Kitchen is just that. It’s a kind of dream. But it’s a childish dream of a city and it’s very familiar in some ways because you know that as a child you saw things in much the same way. So just looking at this, it occurred to me that it would be fun to try to do that in writing, to try and describe something in that way, to try to get that sense of seeing something as totally different from anything in reality and yet so much like reality that it’s identifiable. I just thought that might be fun to try and since I wasn’t too happy with the way things were going, I began a first chapter with these three children. And of course, it occurred to me right away that you would need a child’s point of view. An adult couldn’t look at a cityscape in quite the same way. An adult would know what street that is and where we’re going and where we’re coming from and would have all kinds of associations with it. You know, last time I was here I got a flat tire, whatever. So you’d need a child’s point of view to see it in a fresh way. So right away I knew it has to be a young narrator but I didn’t want to have a particular character, I really just wanted to have the childish point of view. So I had a collective, used a collective point of view--three children. The whole first chapter was really my attempt to get them from Long Island into New York, into Brooklyn so that it could get dark and they could go home and they could drive through the city and I would have an opportunity to describe it through their eyes in that way. So it was that long journey and of course along the way something’s got to be happening and characters are going to be popping up and that was really where the novel began. I began to see who are these kids and where are they going and why is their mother taking them there and what’s the mother like and who’s going to greet them when they get there. And I discovered all of those things but I was still just reaching to get to that point. I think it’s the longest first chapter I ever wrote. It kept eluding me. Just when you know what you want to get to in writing, it’s always the hardest thing to get to. I just wanted to get them in so I could bring them back and have that sense. By the time I got to that scene I had all these characters who had begun to come to life and I had to start working out what I had started with them: who Aunt May was and what Momma was all about and what this relationship was all about and what this slow afternoon in this city apartment meant to the children and how it would be recalled. I had all that material and it really just started. If I could draw, I probably would have just ripped off Sendak and done my own version so I had to do it through words, and this was just a long roundabout way of getting an opportunity to describe something that way.
Question: When you change from scenes with the mother in first person to scenes in the third person in scenes with other people, can you tell me the reasons? I thought it worked but I was curious.
McDermott: Yeah, I had reasons. I’m not sure I would accept them now. They are the kind of reasons that if a student of mine came and gave the elaborate explanation for that that I am about to give you and that I gave to my editor at the time, I would say, that’s really nice, but is it necessary? But at the time it seemed to me in that book that the third person narration, the present narration was not really trustworthy. You had a point of view character who did not know the truth about herself, did not know the truth herself and so there was always the thought: can you trust what she’s telling, how she’s relating it, how she’s seeing it? Is her vision clear? It seemed to me that was necessary for those scenes. In my first novel, my character is a so-called editor at a vanity press, that is a place where people pay to have their books published and it is not a very good vanity press--I don’t know if there is such a thing--it’s a place where anything gets published so long as it’s not pornographic or libelous. She, of course, tells all of these pathetic writers that they are wonderful and that their dreams have come true. They’ve got a big New York City publisher interested in their work, they just have to cough up the bucks to support it so she’s dealing in illusions, she’s dealing in untruth. So I was aware that that third person narration was not completely trustworthy. And I wanted to make that clear. I wanted to put aside that question, Is this character really telling the truth? Is she seeing things clearly? Don’t we, the readers, really see more than she sees? In those sections I didn’t want that to be a question and it seemed to me that by using the direct voice I would eliminate the question and then just what was happening would be primary, not the illusion of or the impression of what was happening. Is that what you would have guessed? Good. There’s always the sense with a first novel, as much as I hate to admit it, of trying to see what you can do. I wrote this whole explanation out in my notebook so that I knew what I was doing, but I probably also just wanted to see if I could write both in first person and in third person.
Question: There was really sort of a wonderful way in which the narrator goes into other points of view throughout the film (That Night).
McDermott: The narrator is a character, really the central character of the film. The ten year old girl who narrates the story, you see her and you walk around with her and she has a relationship with Cheryl and goes off with Cheryl and Rick on one of their dates. So she’s there very much and it’s very much through her eyes and she’s very much a manipulator. She actually changes some things about their relationship.
Question: Did you have anything to do with the film?
McDermott: No, I didn’t. But the screenwriter paid me the compliment of naming the little ten-year old girl Alice which came as quite a shock to me when I visited the set because he named her that but didn’t tell me. I visited the set and I walked in and I said, I’m Alice McDermot and the director told me to come to this door and someone turned around and said, ‘It’s the real Alice.’ Who? Her name is Alice Bloom though, and she’s not Irish so I don’t have to worry too much about that but she is the central character so you don’t have too much from the separate point of view. I think she’s in just about every scene. There are a few, when Cheryl and Rick first meet, with just them which I suppose would be somewhat parallel to using their point of view. But most of it is when she’s around and that’s why she’s participating. It’s a very sweet movie. I mean I see so many movies that I can’t believe were ever made and compared to them this is not bad. It’s certainly not the book. It’s very different. But the thing I liked about it is I think that the director tried to demonstrate a lot of respect for these characters, that he really is fond of all of them, the little girl and her parents who also have a much bigger role, and Cheryl and Rick. There’s a real sincerity in the picture. I mean I was prepared for it to be just terrible. While I was on the set--this isn’t being recorded is it--I had never been on a Hollywood set before and I was astounded by how many people are just sitting around being paid to yell ‘Rolling’ into a microphone when the director says ‘Rolling’, and all of these seemingly superfluous people. One of the scenes that didn’t end up in the movie was of this little girl, this little ten year old Alice sitting in the kitchen of her suburban Long Island home with a baked potato wrapped in foil. She was sitting on a stool in the kitchen and she had a fork in one hand and a baked potato in the other and they began rolling and the director said, OK now take the fork and stick it into the potato and she went like this and he said pull it out and she took it out and he said do it again, pull it out. And this went on about three or four times. The final time he said, pull it out, cut. And all the people standing around said, oh wow. I found myself backing from the room saying, get me out of here. They were saying, he’s such a professional, he’s such a professional. And I wanted to say, she stuffed the fork into the potato--he had to tell her what to do--great idea, that’s wonderful. So my reality and their reality just don’t mix. I realized at that moment that it was time for me to leave.
Question: Also being an Irishman from the New York area I’m amazed that you also wrote about my childhood because At Weddings and Wakes, that was my family. I have all those Aunts. Having been raised with the Irish Catholic guilt, superstitions and so on, are your writings also therapeutic for you? Is this the way you deal?
McDermott: Probably in a way I could never admit. I guess so. I guess so. Although I don’t really feel that the Irish American experience is really my subject. My older brother asked me about that before he had read the book but he had read an interview somewhere and found out what the book was about that way, called me up and said, what do you know about being Irish? Our parents were Republicans. What do you know about being Irish? Clearly in this book that certainly is my subject. But I think that it may be the Catholicism more than the Irishness that shows up again and again in my work that brought me to this in the first place--that sense of there’s got to be more than this, and there’s got to be some sense to it, and that there’s a story that you can tell whether it’s Christ’s story or Aunt May’s but there’s a story that you can tell that will make sense of it. I really think probably that Catholicism has me by the throat and the soul more than Irishness, but that might be saying the same thing. They may be one and the same.
Question: It really is who we are no matter how much we distance ourselves from it. It is who we are because I’m exactly like my mother and father.
McDermott: Sure I think that’s very true. Someone told me that the Catholic education is a time release capsule. That is, you think it had no effect, I took it but it had no effect. And twenty years later there it is.
Question: I sometimes say that my Catholicism did not prepare me for this particular situation.
McDermott: Yeah, I think it’s probably more that I did not grow up in a particularly Irish household but we were certainly Catholic. There was no question in that.
Question: When did you know you had a voice as a writer? Did you have to find that voice each time you set out to write a novel?
McDermott: I don’t know if you ever realize you have a voice as a writer. You may realize that you have a voice in a particular piece. And yes, each piece you do is brand new. I just keep waiting for that moment that writing gets easier because I have done it before and it hasn’t happened yet. I remember after I published my first novel I was asked to be on a panel with two other fiction writers. One was also a first novelist and the other had written a few novels. Somehow in the discussion the older woman of the two said that the way she wrote was that she just was inspired by the Holy Spirit. The other novelist immediately said, oh yes, me too. It’s the only way you can explain it--you’re inspired by the Holy Spirit. I was the only Catholic in the bunch and I’ve thought well, I’ve never been inspired by the Holy Spirit. Maybe I will be someday. I’ve still not had that sense yet. With each story, it’s learning to write all over again in many ways because it’s a story you’ve never told before, it’s characters you’ve never dealt with before, it’s a voice that you have to learn. In some ways it gets harder because there’s also the sense that I don’t want to do what I have done before and I don’t want to repeat myself. I want to find another way of doing it. So in some ways it gets even more challenging. With my first novel I thought it was pretty neat to use first person and third person and show that I could do it. I wouldn’t let myself do that now. Now that’s not enough. But there is that sense of finding a new voice each time and never being sure you’re going to. The Holy Spirit has yet to come.
Question: Does the voice ever feel totally foreign to you personally?
McDermott: No, I can’t shock. I’m Irish Catholic you see. I can’t shock. I don’t know. I suppose not. I’m looking for the voice that feels right. And I probably would flee from anything that struck me as foreign. But I guess I’m not that aware when I’m looking because when I’m looking through a story it’s not as if first I find the voice and then I find the story. It goes hand in hand. So, it seems to me that it would be unusual for me to find something that’s completely not my own. I have written things that I knew were not my own and discarded them because they felt that way. Imitations of one sort or the other that you have to eventually face up to and say that’s not really me. Whatever my work is worth, this isn’t it. But no I haven’t had that otherworldly experience of someone speaking through me yet. Even when I was in California it didn’t happen.
Question: In That Night, the love that Rick and Cheryl share, did you get those descriptions from your own life or was it just there?
McDermott: It was theirs, it wasn’t mine. If you’ve felt passionate about anything, then you know something about passion and you can fit it to someone else’s life with a little bit of imagination. I think the seriousness of Rick and Cheryl, that they take themselves very seriously and they take the way they feel very seriously is something that I can identify with from my own life. I was a very serious adolescent. I took myself seriously but never let anybody know it. One of the really nice things about that novel was that not too long after it was published, I had a letter from a woman who was a birth mother who had gone through a very similar experience to Cheryl’s at about the same time. She had gotten pregnant, had been sent away, had given up the baby for adoption and she wrote a newsletter for birth mothers. There was a whole network of women like this and she wrote to me and asked if it would be all right if she reviewed the book and wrote a little piece for this newsletter. Well, a couple of months later, I started getting all these letters from women who had the same experience from all over the country and it took me awhile to make the connection. Where are all these unwed mothers coming from? And then I thought it clearly must be through this newsletter. But so many of them wrote and said that what they really appreciated about that relationship was that it reminded them that they didn’t just become pregnant, troubled teen-agers. At the beginning there was this very serious and very deeply felt emotion, this love that they had for this boy. And it seemed as soon as they got pregnant, especially at that time when it was such a stigma, that was completely forgotten. No one ever asked them how they really felt about this guy and they couldn’t even recall nostalgically themselves, how wonderful the moment of that relationship was, because it had been so skewed by what came later and how it changed their life. So they said what they appreciated was that there was a certain amount of respect given to what they had felt. She wasn’t just a girl who got in trouble and he wasn’t just a hood looking to get laid. They really felt something about each other and that was in the novel and that helped them to remember that. That was very reassuring to me. Almost all of the letters ended up saying that I must have had this experience and would I like to join the network. But that was really rewarding to me, that they saw it that way, and that it seemed to be somewhat parallel to their experience.
Question: First of all I’d like to thank you for coming, I really enjoy your work. I wanted to ask you do you find in your writings that you identify more with one character than another? Sometimes I find in my own writings either intentionally or unintentionally somebody in my story I identify more with.
McDermott: I don’t know that I can say that there’s one. There are certainly characters that I like, that I feel good about or that I just have more affection for than others. In At Weddings and Wakes, it’s Momma. Momma’s my favorite character in that book. Someone wrote somewhere that there’s a scene early in the book of the youngest of the three children being in school and she tells her fourth grade nun about what had happened to her aunt, that her aunt had gotten married and then died and she does it just to tell the story to get the nun’s attention. Someone wrote that was clearly the author because she was a storyteller and I was a storyteller so that the novel was really self-referential, which I loved.
Question: What kind of things do you think about when transitioning from writing to screenwriting?
Salter: Well, you certainly don’t get too fancy. Films are largely about dialogue--with some of them having more of it than others. There is very little description in them. So I would say you have to concentrate on honing your sense of drama, structure, the story your telling, and on dialogue--be able to portray character successfully through dialogue. I don’t know how much it changes your style, but dialogue imposes its own demands. You have to write lines for the people you imagine are in the film. I don’t want to say it’s a simple matter, it’s simply a different writing. Also they are shorter. Filmscripts are one hundred and fifty pages double-spaced. There’s not as much in them, but the road is tough. There’s a lot of them out there. Lorenzo Semple told me years and years ago that one year, oh this must be at least a generation ago, the Writers’ Guild had received 30,000 scripts. And as he pointed out, he had never heard of anyone who had sent their script to the Writers’ Guild. There are a lot of people writing and the competition is keen. It’s kind of like the New York Lottery actually.
Question: How does one think about one’s style?
Salter: Well, I don’t know. I don’t think you self-consciously think about it and say, does this sound like me? I don’t think that question ever arises, but after a while your habits of writing reveal a vocabulary like a fingerprint. Where’s the professor who discovered all of that? At Iowa? Yale? Who’s the one who on a computer identified pieces being Shakespeare’s? I don’t remember where he is but anyway. Where? Vassar--exactly right. So I think that’s true of every writer. You have certain words-- it may be 10,000 words--but you’re using those and they are instrumental in comprising your style, naturally. I would say eventually it becomes second nature to you, and there’s no self-conscious quality involved. You don’t say, are people reading this? Will this sound like me? Will this be OK? You just try to make it good, to write better, to do as good a job as you can.
Question: What are good books to read, important books to read?
Salter: Well, I’ve been teaching this fall. The books we have read this fall, in the literature class are all books written by writers when they were very young, that is to say in their early twenties, in some cases not yet twenty. There’s Tolstoy: Childhood, Boyhood, and Youth--Boyhood made him famous when he first wrote it. He was in the hospital for venereal disease in the Caucasus when it was published and it was noticed absolutely immediately. Later in life, he didn’t like the book. He said, it’s not up to standards; I’m not proud of it. As for Boyhood and Youth, which were succeeding books all in the same volume, he liked those even less. But they are marvelous. You’ll see all of his qualities in them. In a sense, in chapter ten there’s a description of his father in Childhood. You can practically learn all you need to learn about writing just by reading that one chapter. But that’s one book. Another book was Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. We read Nikolai Gogol’s Dead Souls. If you haven’t read that, there is a book you should read. That is simply a sensational book. As often happens with ambitious writers, he thought it would be the first part of a mighty trilogy which would redeem, save, or glorify Russia. The other two portions he never was able to write. One of them he wrote part of and then burned just before he died after working ten years on it. But in any case the first part survives. It’s not all he thought it was or thought it would be, but marvelous. We read Mikhail Lermontov’s A Hero Of Our Time. Then Kipling wrote Plain Tales from the Hills. Kipling is very much discredited now, and you can’t find him taught because of his British, Imperialist, Colonialist, and Racist attitudes--quite ordinary in his era but still objectionable now. He wrote Plain Tales from the Hills which has at least, I would say, five wonderful stories--there are about thirty of them in there. He wrote those when he was 20 and 21 at the rate of one a week for the Gazette in India where he went as a young man unable to join either the army or the church. They said, well why don’t you join journalism and he did. Then, if you care to go on, there is Buddenbrooks. This is a long and really superior novel by Thomas Mann. It is still popular and made his reputation. It was published when he was 25. He wrote it from 22 to 24. And lastly we’ve just finished reading Appointment in Samarra by John O’Hara. Gee, this is a wonderful book. It’s a bit more modern. But I’m sure you haven’t read it. This is a wonderfully written book by an author whose name is down in the past couple of decades--almost invisible, in the silt on the bottom, we don’t know what will happen to him. You can make a list of 20 or 30 more. Any one of those would be worth your time.
Question: Did you read in the army?
Salter: No, you don’t have that kind of time. Well, first of all it’s an entirely different kind of life, different culture. You may read a little, but you can’t read too much or you’ll be suspect to begin with. I wouldn’t say those were useful years in that respect. I did most of my reading a little before, but most of it after. [inaudible question about Salter’s screenplay]
Salter: Oh, lots. Of the movies of mine that were made, I would say that the main defect in them was the script. I don’t believe I ever quite, well I don’t know, let’s not be too self-effacing, there was one that had some possibilities, but it received, it’s the way things happen sometimes, the wrong director and utterly the wrong cast. So it was a completely different film in every way from what I had written. But I mean there are lots of movies that I would be proud to have written. I just don’t know what to name. I mean you’re talking about fifteen years--there’s just heaps and heaps of them. I was saying earlier that I had forgotten somebody offered, asked me in France. It was about 1967, maybe 68 asked me if I would be interested in writing an Italian . . .. I said whatever I was involved in I didn’t have time for that. (Tape fades out)
Question: Where did the idea for the book Solo Faces come from?
Salter: The idea for the book Solo Faces began as a film script, for Robert Redford as a matter of fact. He wanted to do a film about climbing. I don’t know why. So I spent at least a year, a year and half, maybe two years working on the film. And in the end it was never made. Some of the people involved looked at the script and they liked the story very much. So they said, why don’t you write a book based on the same thing? So I did. The film had been based loosely on the life of Gary Hemmings. He was a charismatic, a singular figure, in Europe, in California in the 50s and made a celebrated climb of the Druid. He was a companion I think at one time of John Harmon. These are names long dead. Dead 25 years ago or more. And based on Hemmings’ life I had imagined--that’s how the book came to be. [inaudible question]
Salter: This is a question about my short story Dusk. It’s about a woman who has been divorced--she had a man she was very close to for a couple of years after the divorce and he came to tell her it was all over. . . . Here she is left alone. It’s the hunting season. And at the very end she’s alone and there’s a paragraph which . . . . But the question is: is this to parallel or to signify a great deal of the story? And I guess the answer is no, not a great deal but it is meant to finish the story in a way that you will understand even if it is not literal, but it’s just meant to be the end of something, that she was thinking about, no more than that. But I mean what you see in it is what the reader sees in it, not what the writer sees. I’m only telling you what I intended, not what the story actually says.
QUESTION: You started writing in earnest as a poet relatively. Your first book was published when you were 37. Did you have a backlog?
OLDS: Not really. I think, in my twenties, for ten years I was trying to write like George Oppen and Gary Snyder. I was reading Caterpilllar magazine and the fact that I didn’t understand poetry without the sentence, poetry with the line and the space around the lines, that I didn’t understand it, couldn’t do it, was to me at that time, a good sign that I was trying to do real poetry. But I couldn’t figure it out at all. And then when I was 30, I gave up trying to do that. I had kind of a religious experience. I made a vow to Satan on the steps of Columbia University, probably not the first or the last person to have done that. I had finished my doctorate degree which had taken me many, many years and a lot of near misses. I was not very good as a scholar. I loved books, but it took me a long time to figure out the way to talk about them. But I actually had that piece of paper that I realized, as I left, they could never take away from me. So I didn’t have to try to do the right thing according to someone else’s standards, which I had never been able to understand anyway, not being gifted in the area in which I was a graduate. I was in a certain way in the wrong field, but in another way I was working with what I loved, which is books. Now I thought it was Satan who I was making this vow to, that’s just what came into my mind. One reason it was so hard for me to get through graduate school is illustrated by the fact that I couldn’t think of Faust, I just thought of Satan which really meant that what I wanted was rising up in me. When I was a child, generally what I wanted that would rise up in me was not what I should want. So I said, I will give up all I have learned here if I can just write my own poems and I don’t care if they’re good. I just want to write my own stuff. I hadn’t actually learned that much there so it wasn’t the most fair bargain. And I was actually, as I realized later, talking to some part of myself. And it was not that I thought that what I could do would be good. It was not from confidence that I was saying my vow. But I think it had something to do with almost all my teachers having been and many of the writers that I had read as a child having been men--that wasn’t all of it at all. But I was sort of drenched in experience that wasn’t in many of the books I had read while I was coming up. The half generation before me--Muriel Rukeyser, Galway Kinnell, Anne Sexton, Sylvia Plath, Adrienne Rich, who am I forgetting--had written about children and a little about the birth room. So it was clear to me that those subjects were a part of poetry.
QUESTION: What was your doctorate about?
OLDS: I can say both my dissertations were on Ralph Waldo Emerson. The first one that was rejected at the last minute, and rightly so, was--they both had the same subject--the prosody of poems 1850. Was it a tone deaf person’s prosody or was it new? Was it looking forward to the 20th century? Or was it a poor, bumbling person who tried to belong and couldn’t do it. I had done all this stuff with counting, and later someone said to me when something that was being done called structuralism, that that was what I had been doing, in a way. But I didn’t have a computer, or I didn’t have a calculator. I just made lists. And I was trying to really understand form by just getting inside it. But when my first dissertation was written, my adviser said he was very impressed with it. He had never read a dissertation quite like it. I got all hopeful, I thought, Oh, my God I’ve got something new. It had many metaphors in it and it had no footnotes. I went into my defense and my adviser was not there and I fought for my life. There was a wonderful woman scholar there who, when I left the room and they said, this is an easy one, said, you can’t do that. Her adviser is not even here. He never told her that this is not scholarship, that this is some strange creature. Give her a chance. Tell her to give us a new one. So I gave them a new one less than a year. No metaphors, a footnote on every page, and I passed. When I was walking down the stairs, I seem to remember I was carrying a small person on one hip and holding another small person by the hand. But I may have dreamed that. But I know in my backpack I had this PhD and that’s when I made my vows.
QUESTION: I have two questions. I want to ask you what did you find out, what did you decide about Emerson? The second one is could you talk briefly about the MLA a couple of years ago on Muriel Rukeyser? I would love it if you would speak more about that. I’d be really curious to know what it was like studying with her.
OLDS: Let me start there. I had been writing all the time for about five years after my vow when I realized I was not re-writing and was not re-writing as I wrote. It was like I was afraid to change anything, as if I would probably censor myself. The stuff I was writing was pretty wild stuff. I mean I think there was probably at least one toilet in every poem. I needed help. I just didn’t know what I was doing and I could tell that. I called up the "Y" and asked who would be teaching there in the fall. They said Muriel Rukeyser and I applied to the workshop. It was not a workshop actually. There were about 20 of us. We memorized poems, not our own. We read to each other from other people’s work, not our own. Every few weeks she’d have each one of us read a poem and we’d say things about each other’s poems and then we’d go on to talk about what poetry is. It was just wonderful. It was remarkable. She was very blunt and very impassioned at the same time. I was afraid of her. I didn’t fear any harm from her, but I was so in awe of her. She was so much herself. She wasn’t exactly shy though she was clearly deeply reserved and private. She had the most beautiful voice, beautiful low resonant, with a certain kind of New York accent. I was kind of in love with her in a way. I would bring her flowers each week. I knew I was just so lucky. We were all so lucky. We were all very close to each other during that class. It ended up being the last class that she taught. Then I got to have lunch with her a few times. But I was always just so nervous because I was with Muriel Rukeyser, wow. But she’s just remarkable--so much herself. Emerson, well if I only had a memory I could give you a sense of what I . . . Maybe I could remember just a few lines:
Give all to love;
‘Tis a brave master;
It requireth courage stout,
Souls above doubt,
It will reward,-
They shall return
More than they were,
And ever ascending.
Leave all for love;
But when the surprise,
First vague shadow of surmise
Flits across her bosom young
Of a joy apart from thee,
Free be she, fancy free;
Nor thou detain her vesture’s hem,
Nor the palest rose she flung
from her summer diadem.
Though thou lovest her as thyself
QUESTION: Did you come to Emerson through the journal?
OLDS: Through that poem. I went to a lecture in New York City when I was like 19, and Leslie Fiedler cited that poem. And I’d been waiting to hear that poem. I would say that poem to myself so when it came to think of whose work I wanted to look at so close and dwell with--something about him too, something about his life. He just seemed like a fun person.
QUESTION: I wanted to ask you about the process when you wrote the book, The Father. Did you find it--this is a leading question--did you find it healing? Did you find that some forgiveness issues came up? I’m just thinking it must have been a really tough piece to write. Was there some sort of reward beyond what is normal in writing poems?
QUESTION: Do you want to describe the book The Father for those who may not have read it?
OLDS: Well, it’s a book of poems. The point of view is a daughter. The subject is a father, who is dying and then who has died, and then the last third of the book has poems written the ten years or so after that death. So it’s kind of like a story. I have tried writing poems. I have tried not writing poems. And I find not writing poems to be much harder than writing them. When one is holding something and one doesn’t bring it forth, I find that really hard. The other is by comparison fun, fun. I think art is great fun, joy and pleasure. It’s fun to make something. It just seems to me a kind of amazing thing to be as if one were free, as if one were allowed to sit down and try to say what really seems true, to describe or to put into words something one has seen or heard. What an amazing thing, to have time to do that, to have even a half an hour a day to do that. It just strikes me as amazing, fantastic. It can be painful and all of that. I don’t think I knew what I was going to say ever when I would sit down to write. I did not think that I was writing a book. I was just writing a poem on a particular day. There was so much going on in terms of language, experience, vision, point of view, trying to be accurate. It’s sort of gripping, kind of like if we were great basketball players, would we be thinking theory while we were playing? I wouldn’t be. Even when I tried to play basketball, it went so slowly that there would have been time to think, but I didn’t. So I would say I suppose I have a feeling to try and make a work of art in honor of another person, even if it’s kind of tough. Well, I guess, I always thought I wouldn’t mind if that would have been about me. So it seems to me it’s like recognizing someone and paying attention to them and saying yes, you existed or yes, you mattered. In other words, we write about stuff we care about very much. I think that’s when our writing works a little better. I think I’ve written a lot of stuff that has not cured me or made me understand my life. When I was younger, I thought that I was probably cured and that I probably understood. That doesn’t mean that young people think that and older people are right. It just meant that I didn’t get it. I think it’s possible for some of us to make some kind of art and not see what we’re saying or understand it. In The Father there’s a poem I read now sometimes at readings. It’s about the father paddling this boat across the River Styx. At the end of this poem the speaker is saying when I die, I know this father figure will come pick me up and row me over. This is all the speaker wants, just to spend eternity in some grave with this father. It’s a very sincere poem. I read it and I think, that is really sick, but I believe it. It seemed very sincere. And I don’t hate it. But that just came into my mind as an illustration that we write maybe where we are. Is it unhealing not to write when we have a poem inside? I think so. But I want the poem to work. Whether I get well or not is something else. I want the poem to not be false. I want the poem to not have to carry any stones in its pocket for my sake, that are my stones to carry. I want it to be free as it could be.
QUESTION: Just as long as we’re talking about the subject, you’ve also written about your children. You’re one of the few writers as you mentioned, who’s actually constantly devoted your work to your children. And I wonder if you could comment on that.
OLDS: Well, one thing that comes to my mind is when I saw that I was having this good fortune, that I had not expected, of being read, I went back and took the names [of my children, and others] out of the books. I don’t know what I’d been thinking. Well, I hadn’t been thinking. People would say, you’re brave. And I’d think, oh, good, because I know that I am a complete chicken. Later I realized I was kind of a sociopath. It wasn’t really brave. It was that I didn’t get it about not putting real names in the poems. And the other people who got it were saying, oh, I wish I could do that and I’d say oh, don’t worry, maybe when you’re older. They were moral people. It just took me a little longer to understand these things, so I would not definitely call my own example an ideal. I’ve been much more careful in the last years. At the same time there is a side of me which feels that, as far as I know, no serious or terrible harm has been done. There’s a part of me that sneakily--this is the sociopath in me--is glad that I didn’t know not to, so as to be thorough open, especially in poems with sexuality and children. If I had been scared of myself, I wouldn’t have published much. I didn’t know to be scared of myself because I didn’t have a clear enough vision of those things. I wrote as if free. I’m not totally sorry about that. There are just edges of it that I change, change lines, take things out. So I want to take the chance now to say, it’s funny how no one I could hear was saying to me, are you sure this is completely the right thing to do? Before I just heard, this is wonderful, or you are a monster which they didn’t say in a way that I could hear.
QUESTION: Could you describe your writing process?
OLDS: I think that I see, that I become aware that I am hearing the tip of the ear of a poem below where I can see. I see this faint triangle or I hear it. So I’ll write it on my hand. [She ‘writes’ on her palm with her finger.] Now I’ll remember that. I write all over again. And they have the same images that are weird images, too. So, ok it’s a poem. Then, when it’s quiet and I’m alone, which could be on a train or a bus--not a subway, it’s too short of a ride--then I start. Maybe with my eyes closed. Actually I guess my eyes are open, but I’m in a state. I don’t want to be too critical but I do want to steer it enough the right way that I don’t get all the wrong words, all the wrong sounds, and then I’m going to be going on from those sounds to other sounds. So I just try not to be false and not to push. And then, I don’t look at it for at the worst, ten years, at the best, a week or two, unless it won’t let me go. Then I think, that’s fake, that’s not fake, and then I go back. I hate to go back, but then I look at it--it’s not so good. If I just write it and leave I think, ahhhh, not always but sometimes, then I feel sort of cheerful for the rest of the day and that’s very exciting. So then I’ll type it up and then I’ll try to take out—I figured this out once what I try to take out—self-pity and adjectives. There’s always too much of those two things in my poems. I also try to make the line breaks for the first four lines. This is something Philip Levine told me. He said, you know, not all of us grew up in that church, Sharon, where it goes da-dah da-dah da-dah da-dah so we don’t understand what you’re doing when you start undoing that from the very beginning. Couldn’t you just give us the first four lines in da-dah da-dah da-dah da-dah and then once it’s established then we could start cutting it up. So I type up not very many of the poems that I write. I mean, I write a lot more than I type up. I read them to see if they’re worth typing up. So often they aren’t. That’s kind of it. Then I’ll read them. I’ll read always at least one new poem at a reading, sometimes more, and then I’ll see how it sounds. Those books where you can read about people’s process are so interesting because everyone’s process is so startlingly different. Part of when I was walking down those steps at Columbia had to do with me being tired of feeling that my process, which wasn’t just like the ones I heard about, had to be wrong for that reason.
QUESTION: Sharon, you may have just answered this question. But the poem, "The Moment the Two Worlds Meet" I was just curious how that came to be?
OLDS: How does that start?
QUESTION: It starts "That’s the moment I always think of--when the slick, whole body comes out of me, . . ." If you’d like to read it--
OLDS: Oh, no, no thank you. It sounds over-written to me. That’s why I’m saying "slick, whole body." Find out who wrote that poem! Probably I thought that that’s the moment I always think of. I just probably thought about life. Do you mean like that? I probably thought of that moment, and then I thought I always think of that moment and then I was probably thinking, when that moment begins you’re in one universe and then when that moment is over we’re all here. What happens between then was a mystery to me a mystery about reality in a way. So I just started meditating on it. To me ‘slick, whole’ sounds, at this point in my life, a little bold. It just sounds so bold. But maybe you don’t mean that at all in terms of how I did it?
QUESTION: This is the first time I read it and it just struck me. How did she do this? I mean, I understood. I’m not a mother. I just didn’t have the experience, but I understood.
OLDS: It’s weird to me. In a way, that poem implies a gentle reader, doesn’t it? There’s a way in which it just starts talking out of an ordinary life as if to another person who doesn’t mind reading it, right? It’s like a confiding in a way. I guess it just would sound totally sentimental to say, well, I thought you were there somewhere? And yet I know that feeling in other people’s poems. If I were to read a poem of yours and I would feel the connection with it, then you would have been right when you wrote it that there was someone there, which had been me. In other words, we aren’t misunderstanding the nature of the human when we think that we want to hear each other, that we’re willing to hear each other, that we need to hear each other, that we’re lonesome. We want to know what experiences we haven’t had and what experiences we have had. Or what the source would be of my thinking that I could just sit down and do that. Well, I had given up poetry. I had quit. I wasn’t going to do that. I was just going to write my own stuff and I didn’t care if it was bad. I’d had it with that other thing. You know, one’s life always belonging to the others on their terms.
QUESTION: While you’re here, can you just define for yourself what is poetry?
OLDS: I can’t. I couldn’t for the longest time. All I would say was, no one knows. No generation knows because then the next generation, the next writers come along and it’s different from what it was before. So I felt safe in saying, no one knows. But then I began to notice poetry as a spoken art, not as a read art. Obviously it’s both, and both are precious. I feel a very strong connection to the hearing, and the seeing seems to take care of itself. We are in such a seeing world. So what is poetry? Maybe it is what happens when someone in our species talks about what most matters to them. Maybe a rhythmic speech begins. Love, death, sex, birth, grief, rage, tribal, individual, whatever. When we utter in whatever language--every group of people has had poetry, there’s never been a group without it--that rhythmical utterance. Now why rhythmical when caring the most? Well, probably it’s just in our nature because of the natural rhythms of our heart and our lungs. There are something like seventeen bodily rhythms which we have that we mostly don’t notice. But we are rhythmic beings. I think it’s because we are rhythmic, and when we care most we utter in rhythm and then when we put it on the page, it comes out in these lines. The rhythm of the ear with a slight stopping or not comes out in shapes on the page.
QUESTION: Can you talk about your experience and what you do in Goldwater Hospital?
OLDS: When I was teaching there, in the beginning, we had many guests—Robert Stone, and Allen Ginsberg, a different guest every week—and I would just ask them to talk about becoming a writer. Many of the people in the hospital, before they were paralyzed were musicians or bankers. They did all these other things. It’s a cross-section of New York City people who were doing all kinds of other things beforehand. Now their ability, their capacity for expression in life and in art has been severely limited and so poetry and memoir and fiction are often ways of expressing that. There’s no difference really in the workshop except for the mechanics of the communication--the laser beam wand on the forehead, the typewriter, the cardboard alphabet card. I as the helper, the scribe, hold the alphabet card and point to the letters until the writer raises her eyes to show me that that’s the letter, the first letter of the first word, of the first line, of the poem. That’s when the computers are down, which is most of the time. There are also those who type with mouth sticks. But for me the experience of transcribing for someone who touches a large alphabet card with a toe to spell, or does eyes up, or one of those other methods of hitting a word on a board, was a big powerful experience. It’s like the chase. It’s like going hunting together. It’s so powerful and so unnerving because I wasn’t so good at. But it wasn’t something that was worth me apologizing for every three seconds because it was not as if we had enough time for that. Taking it on as a new task was hard to do. The writers there were very patient. Once I got better at it, I’d be able to guess part way ahead in a word when we’d have a few of the letters. It was just extremely exciting and wonderful. There is a difference between that workshop and others that I’ve been in. There is no self-pity in the writing at Goldwater which is almost eerie in a way. There is honesty about what it’s like, but there’s no excess. There’s no complaining even though there’s directness. I began to think of self-pity in my own writing, for instance, as kind of a luxury that just means that someone is not in extremely hard times. That was very startling to me. I’ve learned so much from being there and now that the writers from NYU go there. They come back on Tuesdays and the whole creative writing program is just excited. People are saying, how was it? Or someone is saying, Jody wrote this poem! People who aren’t involved in it are excited so the connection in the community is very important and wonderful. These are the things that come to mind.
QUESTION: I wonder if you could talk a little about your conception of the voice, your construction of the point of view. I mean you were talking a few minutes ago about The Father and about the father and the daughter in there.
OLDS: I say ‘apparently personal’ as much for the sake of the writers that I’m working with at Goldwater and at NYU or the places where I go and do intensive weekend teaching so that we will all feel as free as possible to write the poems that come to us. Say we were writing together, say we gathered every week and read each other a poem. If we all were absolutely convinced and couldn’t have our minds changed that anything that anyone in this room brought in that had an ‘I’ in it was absolutely autobiography, that everything in it purely happened to them, I think it wouldn’t be as good. I think we wouldn’t feel as free to bring in things that were on an edge, or things that were over the edge. If we acknowledge that, we can talk about the speaker of the poem, and not say, we know this isn’t true. That is, we are saying we don’t know that this is literally true every single moment. Now if I’m going into a high school and someone is saying should I write about what I experienced and I really care about, or should I make stuff up? Well, when I’m there then I will say, it sounds to me like it would be stronger to write about something you really care about instead of making stuff up. And I’ll say to them, unfortunately, I’ve taken a vow to not talk about this part of my own work. So I can’t actually come out and say, I write about what I care about the most and I don’t make things up. I can’t say that because I’ve taken a vow to try and separate a little. But then I think of what Muriel Rukeyser said, write about what they tell you to forget; write about what they tell you to forget, write about what they tell you to forget. Those are three lines from her poem. Now how is each one of us going to work that out in relation to courage and sociopathy protection of others, and loyalty and singing and freedom and not too much freedom? Well, this is one of the huge tasks of every writer’s life-- trial and error, error and trial--and there’s not one answer that’s right. I like the phrase ‘apparently personal’ because it says, when you read me your poem, I am not going to assume that every word in it is literally true. And I’m going to talk about my poems in the same way. I’m going to say, the speaker, because then I feel free in what I do. I wish for the writers whom I know to be free, to feel free within that world because I think they will also be taking care. Most people take much better care of their muses than I have, so I’m not so worried about that. It’s a part of the world of art, I think. The imagination, the imaginary imagination.
QUESTION: I do want to ask you something and you can tell me if you feel this may be too personal an issue. You had brought this up yourself in a conversation we had had. It shocked me. You had said that some people had reacted to your poetry as pornographic.
OLDS: Oh, right. I have been told that there are critics who have called my work pornographic. These things happen. But when you and I were talking, something made me realize that I’d taken that more to heart than I realized. When I first heard that I was shocked and then I was just too shocked to even think about it. I didn’t think about it for a year. Then I thought I should at least think what is pornography? So I thought pornography is stuff written about sex, or whatever, that’s meant to be arousing, that’s it. And perhaps it’s also meant to be sold for the purposes of being arousing and then the gain of the arousal goes to the pornography creator who can then out and buy, say, chocolates. You see where my eros is located this afternoon. And I thought oh, well this is just not pornography. But then I thought well, maybe it is for some people and not for others. Isn’t the purpose of my writing to shock? I have never felt that, but then when I heard "slick, whole," it sounded too bold to me so I think my writings probably had a flaw--excessive boldness, counterphobic boldness, I would say. And therefore it’s been just a little over the edge. But when you’re writing pornography, are you thinking about the stranger having their experience of what you’re writing? Well, in that case no. It’s not even an erotic experience for me to write love poems, that are sexual love poems. Is that safe to say? It’s an experience, it’s probably a great erotic weakness for me, but I think it’s an experience that has to do with art. What if everything about life, even those things which in the church in which I was raised were despised, could be made into art? What if art could be for anything? Hey, that’s a thought. So then I decided I wasn’t going to be that upset. But then when you and I spoke, I guess I felt as if being looked at that way had placed me as a kind of permanent outlaw.
QUESTION: Do you still teach at the Omega Institute and what is that like?
OLDS: I do four things a year besides NYU and Goldwater. One is Omega Institute which is a beautiful place that used to be a Yiddish summer camp for New York City with these wonderful bungalows on stilts and fantastic food. We gather together and write brand new first drafts. In a weekend we do three. When I work that way, I am happy because we’re all in the same boat. We’re writing first drafts together; we’re not working on revision, which of course at NYU is what we do a lot. We’re just doing this new stuff and hearing each other. In the wilderness, there’s no Xerox machine and in fact I now work at Omega and Esalen with no Xerox machine. The poems are read by the poet and then the copies are passed around. It’s very dear to me to hear for the first time the voice of a poet rather than hear and read at the same time, which to me is a mumbling of senses. For me it’s the all doing it together and all influencing each other like mad and inspiring each other to leap ahead and do things that we haven’t tried before with our promise being that we will not criticize each other during that time. Whatever anyone goes for we’ll be there for. Even if we’re scared because we usually are, but we’re all in it together. There we are. Thank you.Sharon Olds, State Poet
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Question & Answer following Reading, January 29, 1998
Question: Is there a point in your writing where you decide that a section for a book is done?
OLDS: The Wellspring has that patterning of a kind of chronology of a life. Was there a point in writing it when I decided to make it that way? Unlike most poets I don’t write books. I write individual poems. I don’t think about books. And then when I look at a year, two years, three years, work, I try to see what I think the best poems are. Whatever they’re about I try to put the best ones in a book, and if it ends up having no theme, that’s too bad. That’s just the way I work. With these things it’s so individual. My first book ended up with obvious themes. Well, the way that happened was I tried to disguise those themes, (this was a long time ago). I wanted it not to seem like a woman’s book, as if that, at that time, seemed to me like something less than a man’s book. But I had been raised in the Middle Ages so we can understand how I was so confused. But then someone said to me, why not make the sections as they are. Look at these poems: woman, mother, daughter. Why not do it? And I was very excited. So rather than hiding what the themes are, I let it show--the same with all the other books. I like order, but I don’t try to write on things. I think it’s true for many of us that we write the poems that we are going to like the best on the subjects that we care about the most strongly. Some of those poems don’t work at all. We care so strongly the art can’t handle it. But that’s how it works for me. I look and see. I take the best and then I see what I have. Do I have a form here? Chronology, being such a kind of direct form, is always a favorite with me. I look in wonder at the work of those who don’t organize in a clear way. So many magnificent poets don’t. They don’t think that way. So I guess the secret is just to bear it, that we’re going to be different from each other and that one’s own way is what one has, and one should follow that.
Question: I’m curious about the story that was mentioned in the introduction, about your pact with Satan. Could you tell it?
OLDS: Yes. My first book was called Satan Says. This was long before the new wave of Satanism came in about fifteen years ago. Of course that isn’t going to mean a lot to some of you, to say the new wave came in fifteen years ago. But when I was growing up, Satan had to do with going to church, warnings about sin, and the fear of hell. There was nothing like recreational Satanism or whatever you might call it. It was not that way. So I had a certain confusion about what the voice was I would hear in my mind which would be against pure virtue. Was it the voice I was raised to think of, the voice of Satan tempting me to sin? (It may very well have been when I look back and think about it). So, when I had been writing poems for a long time, and I was thirty, and I had finished my graduate work, I suddenly felt free. I was leaving graduate school with an actual degree, the piece of paper in my backpack and it came to me to call up Satan, which really meant myself, a certain part of my own mind. But I didn’t know psychology then. So I said to Satan, I will give up all I’ve learned at graduate school, not really letting on how much that was, if I can just write my own poems even if they’re bad. And it wasn’t because I thought they’d be good either. I had gotten the idea after thirty years that there was such a thing as human freedom, that there was such a thing as one life given to each of us to use in some unique way. I’d just been trying to get along, get by, hope I wouldn’t go to hell, and act normal so I could have friends. And so that was my pact. The first part of it worked. I don’t remember anything that I learned at Columbia. But I look on it now like how we feel when we have responsibility for another person. You know someone says, will you hold my baby, I’m about to fall over the side of the boat or something. This is very serious when we say yes, and we try to do that. Well, what if we had a responsibility toward our self which was like that? To try and be whoever it was we could be, wanted to be, if it wouldn’t really hurt anyone else. So that’s my story about the day I spoke with Satan.
Question: What poets influenced you and how long did it take you to get your first poem published?
OLDS: Muriel Rukeyser told me that she could have papered the inside and outside of a wastebasket and a whole bathroom with rejection slips if she wanted to. You know those slips that come back saying this is not appropriate for our needs at this time. (I saved some that said things you wouldn’t believe.) I could probably do a living room too. So I don’t remember in years but I remember in stamps. A guy I knew had a son in another country who collected stamps. So every time I sent out my poems and the rejection slip envelope, I would put pretty stamps on it. So I’d get my rejection back and I’d take the stamps to this guy and he would send them to his son. So every time I got rejected there was a gift involved to a child. So I felt I was just fooling them completely.
So many poets come to my mind. I mean when I think of all the poets who have done what Jane Cooper is doing--Audre [Lorde] and Stanley [Kunitz] and the whole list [New York State Poet awardees]. Muriel Rukeyeser has a very special place for me. I took a poetry appreciation class with her where we read aloud to each other--just a wonderful class. So many living poets. The poets at Goldwater Hospital, the poets at NYU whom I work with, the poets whom I read, the Through the Dark Light poets--Janine and Angelo and Kevin. I guess I’d by now have to say everyone in a way--having thought of Muriel and Gwendolyn Brooks and Ruth Stone--that’s a particular generation that for me was just so powerful and important. Thank you.Sharon Olds, State Poet
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