Volume 2
No. 3


Summer 1998


Features:
Belfast Redux, William Kennedy, Alice McDermott, Edna O'Brien, Sharon Olds (2), James Salter



Edna O達rien

Transcript of The Book Show (July 16, 1992)

Smith: Welcome to The Book Show. I知 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痴 a great pleasure to welcome back to The Book Show the internationally acclaimed Irish writer Edna O達rien, author of many lovely and lyrical and compelling works of fiction. Edna O達rien 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達rien 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達rien痴 long and distinguished career. Edna, welcome back to The Book Show and congratulations.

O達rien: Thank you. I heard all of that.

Smith: What can I tell you. It痴 no clich. You池e simply getting better and better. I want to really get into Time and Tide. Your heroine Nell Steadman痴 pilgrimage through the crucible of love as daughter, as wife, as lover, and especially as mother, is a powerful and beautiful and very sad story. Now Nell痴 lonely suffering seems to take place on a much deeper level than that of conventional victim, whether it痴 victim of a culture or victim of man or of her awful parents. And I wonder if that痴 what makes this book very remarkable and moving. Is there a deeper notion of fate than the way we use the word victim today?

O達rien: I知 sick of that word actually because, I don稚 mean it with you, but she痴 not a victim. If we look at life, if we look at our own lives, the lives of people we know, and indeed, read great works of literature like Doestoevsky or Gogol or whoever, life is not a bunch of roses. Life is full of vicissitudes and it is that journey, that odyssey, that pain, that makes up the summer of life and makes it, in short, a story. The reason that the word victim, and it has been used about my writing, irritates me is this: I am trying to graph what might happen and does indeed happen to a semi-liberated woman, and I use that term advisedly in the latter part of this century--that she痴 a mother, that she can take drugs and she can go out and solicit a young man and maybe regret it later and hold as well the inner core of both feminine and maternal truth and passion within herself. Now the fact that things befall her that are not very jolly doesn稚 in my eyes make her a victim. But there痴 something even more important about her that I壇 like to say and you are giving me the opportunity. Prose is prose and I believe that all prose should have the rhythm of poetry. When people talk about my heroine being a victim, they seem to completely ignore the nature of the prose and the writing. I want to write, and hope I write, with vigor, with muscle. I don稚 care whether I知 a man or a woman I want to write as an androgynous person for whom language is sacred and for whom language is the powerhouse through which this story is told. So the word victim makes it seem as if it is another half-baked psychological novel. I wouldn稚 want that. Do you know? I feel very deep, and indeed very fiercely, about things and what I wanted to do was present not just a woman but characters around her battling the multitude of different forces that assail her and assail all of us.

Smith: This gives me a perfect way in to quote her and quote a few sentences from the end of Part 3 of Time and Tide and this is on the subject of the language you just mentioned of the novel and also the depth and singularity of the heroine Nell痴 fate:
釘ut 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.

O達rien: It痴 the voice of someone who is very reflective, who is perhaps very deep, but not a victim. It is not whining. You know we only have one life and I am obsessed both in life and in fiction to delve into the variation of what that life means spiritually, physically, and metaphysically. And I think that race, and the race that I come from is Ireland as we know, plays a very important part both in one痴 psyche and in one痴 writing. Ireland is in many ways a tragic country. It is a wonderful country. But it carries in it a kind of core of sadness and of suffering through it痴 history, it痴 geography for that matter, it痴 being an island, it痴 being cut off. I couldn稚 but myself have inherited some of that predilection as well. You know there痴 a difference between sorrow and depression. And it痴 a difference I think that ought to be pointed out more. What you have just quoted熔ur lives are a road. We are both stationary on it, jumping forward and jumping back, so we池e assailed by memories. We are the sum of everything that痴 happened to us. But we池e also on a tenterhook about what will happen to us because we池e all afraid of death whether we admit it or not.

Smith: Absolutely. You know when I came to the end of Time and Tide I was thinking of the concept of simply the spectacle of enduring suffering without self-pity, without whining. It reminded me of the term, 鍍ragedy of endurance, that I came across several years back. It was applied to Oedipus, and Samson Agonistes and other great classic works. But I thought of that when I came to the end of Time and Tide.

O達rien: Well, one friendly critic reviewing Time and Tide in the Washington Post talked about suffering and the Michelangelo painting 鏑a Pieata (the pity) and I was very pleased (which is a trivial word) but I was reassured by that because, of course, most of religion or religious painting and most of history depicts suffering. The crusades were heroism and suffering. It痴 not something new to the language of our lives but people are afraid of it and they are afraid to read about it because it disturbs them. I don稚 set out sadistically or for that matter masochistically to disturb people. But I do want the feelings opened up. That痴 what literature does. Constable said of his paintings, 選 use paint to depict emotion. I use words to depict emotion. In this day and age emotion is in short currency, not because people don稚 need to feel it but because they are afraid of it, they are ashamed of it. Most modern vernacular advertising magazines make it seem like everything is fine. Everything is not fine and it痴 only by looking clearly and fearlessly into things that we develop as human beings, not just solitarily but with each other.

Smith: And that is really a description of the terrible beauty of Time and Tide. Edna, you know, I mention Nell痴 crucible of love which is really the trajectory of the story. To love that which is mortal, is that part of man痴 fate? Do we simply have to accept that if you are going to love that which is mortal you are simply going to suffer bitter, bitter loss one way or the other?

O達rien: Well, I think I would put it slightly differently that that is inherent in it. But I think many of us, including myself, are looking for God. And we replace a mortal love with the inner and often concealed notion of looking for immortal love. So because it is mortal and we are all fickle to some extent and we change and we grow old, and we do this and we do that, mortal love by its very nature has a time limit on it. We all know that. This has nothing to do with fidelity or infidelity. It痴 to do with the senses so that it is bound to bring not disappointment, although that could happen. But there痴 always the shadow over it that this is not forever. But I think the need for love is a wonderful thing. It still cheers me about human beings. This need for love whether it be sexual or religious or overlapping or some of both is a very wonderful and actually vital ingredient in people. It痴 not the same as promiscuity. It痴 not the same as sex. Sex is part of it, but it痴 not the whole story.

Smith: One of the things in the experience of reading Time and Tide I found is the relentless drama of how people you love simply seem to disappear almost as if one has dreamed them. You have a wonderful passage at the end of the prologue to Time and Tide about memory様oss and memory and how pitiless memory is. Let me read just a few sentences of that.
徹nce, 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.
Then the narrative proper begins with Part One. It痴 wonderful. It痴 like a chorus, like a Greek chorus the pangs and the relentlessness of memory.

O達rien: 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 don稚 have the same memory. Suppose we had a love affair, Tom. We wouldn稚 have the same memories about it.

Smith: Alas.

O達rien: Yes, alas. But it痴 true I think for most things. That痴 why memory to a writer is in a way one痴 greatest tool. Tool is the wrong word but you know what I mean. It痴 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洋emory預nd it is exclusive to each of us. But it痴 also one痴 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達rien: No, I wouldn稚 put it as simply as that or as narrowly. This attachment is stronger, more umbilical, and more complex because the mother膨hild 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痴 one of the laws of life. It痴 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稚 speak to ducks or foxes so we don稚 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知 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痴 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痴 something we don稚 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達rien: 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痴 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痴 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痴 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達rien: 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稚 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痴 not technically a poet, but he痴 a poet in his soul. The fact that he lets her down is as inevitable as the daffodils coming out in spring. He can稚 help it, but he痴 not a bastard. However, Dr. Rat. I think one of the greatest evils預nd the dictators of the world have proved it and they are men熔ne 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稚 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稚 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 don稚 hate men. If it were so, the two sons in this book would be written differently. I love men. Now men in general let痴 go to it if we have a few more minutes.

Smith: We have about 30 seconds.

O達rien: Men in general are very different to women. And it痴 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 I知 getting back on men. That isn稚 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値l have to save that for next time.

O達rien: Well, when it opens. God Bless you Tom.

Smith: This is Tom Smith saying so long until next time on The Book Show.

Edna O'Brien
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Alice McDermott

Transcript from Afternoon Seminar - 10/22/92

McDermott: So should we just start with the questions? I don稚 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知 an expert on--what I致e written. So any questions you have, I値l be happy to respond to, but I don稚 have any words of wisdom to begin with.

Question: So many of these people are young writers and writing students and I知 sure would love to hear how you get a novel published like A Bigamist痴 Daughter before you池e thirty years old. That痴 an interesting story anyway. Maybe you could start off with that.

McDermott: OK. That I know. That I知 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稚 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痴 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団lock 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致e 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痴 always that idea that everyone has one novel in them, I wasn稚 sure that I had one novel in me. I was going to have to pluck it out of the air somehow and that痴 really how that novel began, just OK here I am--it痴 nine o団lock and I致e 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値l write to her. I値l tell her that you池e 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池e going to kiss my feet in Macy痴 windows for what I知 about to do for you. He痴 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稚 put them in the mail, I actually walked down to her office in mid-town and slipped them under her door so I wouldn稚 have to put a return address on them. I knew that she was Saul Bellow痴 agent, and I thought somehow that I壇 get a letter that would just say, 選知 Saul Bellow痴 agent, I知 returning your manuscript, I mean, c知on. 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壇 like to see it and I壇 like to see whatever short stories you have around and I壇 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値l submit the novel. And here I really had only 100 pages and at the time I wasn稚 really sure that I was going to finish it. I thought, I知 doing this because this is what you池e 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痴 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痴 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痴 not finished and it痴 a first novel, I think we値l 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稚 mean to say that I hadn稚 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 鼠ook 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痴 so easy for things to go the other way. And so much of it has little to do with your work. It痴 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知 going to get re-elected, if it means you池e going to publish it, I値l do it, I値l 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壇 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稚 usually change it. I do my re-writing every day. I don稚 rush to the end as I know some writers do, sort of get the whole story down, and then go back. So there weren稚 too many changes that I had to make. Then when the novel was finished, and only when I said, well, I致e 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稚 work and I think this isn稚 very good. And sometimes he壇 say, yes, you池e right, I don稚 think that works, I think that could probably be better and other times he壇 say, stop worrying about it, leave it, it痴 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痴 very important to me, the sound of the writing. When I read, I知 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稚 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稚 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稚 know what it痴 going to be about. I don稚 know what the words are going to be but at least I have a sense that I値l know when I hear it.

Question: Do you still write poetry? Even if you don稚 publish it, do you still write it for yourself?

McDermott: No, no, I don稚 even write letters anymore. Most of what I write is towards fiction. When I say towards fiction, I don稚 even write notes about characters anymore. I write about the characters until something seems to stick. But no, I haven稚. I知 saving it for my old age, I think. Maybe I値l feel brave again. I read a lot of poetry though. I致e always read poetry. And that痴 sort of what I go back to when I want to be reminded of what language can do.

Question: I知 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知 really curious how that came about. I mean really it痴 just all about one night and you wrote the book about that.

McDermott: Yeah, I致e said that exactly to myself, many times. I took an incident that I never actually witnessed, I壇 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稚 suppose to be doing that--this wasn稚 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 壮top. Clearly I need to take a break from this novel and since I don稚 ski or fish or anything when I take a break from writing I usually write something else. That痴 my hobby as well. So I thought I値l write about memory and maybe it値l be a story, maybe it値l be something longer I don稚 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稚 there for it, I don稚 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稚 violent but apparently there was a threat of violence and they were using language that in those days you didn稚 use out on your front lawn in the suburbs. I remember people, my older brothers and my parents and people I壇 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稚 like that. It was quiet and it was peaceful and on a summer night everybody was agreeable and you didn稚 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稚 know any of the details. I just had this sense of an aberration. At that point it was just a matter of 糎ho is this voice? And where痴 the girl and where痴 the mother and where痴 the father and what痴 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痴 not what happened, that痴 not the story at all, you致e 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稚 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稚 want to see him; she didn稚 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稚 be my story. But for me it was that idea, that she wasn稚 in the house. That he痴 out there yelling but she痴 not in the house. Well, where is she? She痴 gone. Well, why would she be gone? Why else in those days? So that痴 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痴 all I致e 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痴 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池e 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痴 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稚 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稚 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痴 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池e all editors of our own past. And it痴 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知 always telling my writing students that when you池e 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稚 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値l 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稚 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稚 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痴 also again, as I say, the imaginative act. I know this but I haven稚 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痴 not made-up out of the whole cloth--anything that the narrator comes up with. It痴 also filtered through the narrator at a time in her life that seems rather bereft. I think she痴 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痴 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痴 a kind of turning-over, and also her father has died which is mentioned very much at the end, but I think there痴 that sense that she痴 at a point where she痴 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痴 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痴 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致e seen the movie though.

Question: Same title?

McDermott: Well, now it痴 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稚 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稚 have to call it One Hot Summer anymore because it wasn稚 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稚 make any sense anymore because the story has been changed so much. I would think that anyone who hasn稚 read the novel would say, 層hat night? I suppose it痴 still possible that it will change but oddly enough it痴 a nice little movie. It痴 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痴 also very good. They池e very likable. They池e very believable. The era is captured very well., This is the writer-director痴 first effort. For his first effort he has had total control and there痴 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痴 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痴 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値l 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稚 know why that came up. But she痴 Alice Bloom and she and Cheryl have a real friendship, and she sort of hangs out with Cheryl and Rick. It痴 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痴 no longer . . .

McDermott: I知 not sure flattered is right. It痴 a kick; it痴 fun. I guess I feel far enough away from the novel that I don稚 feel they didn稚 do that right. And since I didn稚 have any involvement in it, I can be sort of detached. It痴 fun. It was fun to go to the screening room and at least hear the names of your characters even if they don稚 seem to resemble them in any other way. But in some ways I can稚 shake loose this idea that a really good novel shouldn稚 make it as a film, that a really good novel does so many things that film can稚 do. I mean, there痴 probably film majors here who don稚 want to hear this. This is my prejudice, that I知 not sure it痴 a compliment that you write books that can be made into movies. In some distorted way, to write a book that couldn稚 possibly be made into a movie is better. But it痴 fun to have the experience, and of course, people who know you are most impressed that you致e written something that becomes a movie. It痴 very hard to say, I致e written a beautiful, lyrical novel that no one in Hollywood wants to film. It doesn稚 mean as much as to say, 前h, they池e making that into a movie. It must really be something. I知 not sure that means anything about the quality of the work. But it痴 fun. It was fun to visit the set briefly and to see what nonsense goes on. I知 glad I致e had the experience. I知 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稚 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稚 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稚 want to put in the story?

McDermott: Oh, sure.

Question: Lots?

McDermott: Oh, lots. Everything I write has lots of pages that don稚 belong there. And there痴 one scene that almost got cut, my editor really slapped my hands at the last minute, and I don稚 remember why. I don稚 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稚 need to be there?

McDermott: Oh, yeah. There are plenty of pages. I write an awful lot and don稚 keep much of it. My novels tend to be very short, but my stacks of pages are very high. It痴 very frustrating for my husband who at the end of the day will say to me, how壇 it go today? And I値l always say, I threw out six pages or I wrote ten, but I知 going to throw them out tomorrow. And he always thinks it痴 a negative--at this rate you池e never going to get your advance.

Question: Isn稚 that an anxiety-producing situation if you don稚 know where it痴 going?

McDermott: I suppose, but I guess knowing seems so deadening to me. If I knew for sure where it was going, I don稚 know that I壇 bother getting there. The actual writing, hearing the sound and getting the words down is difficult for me. I guess that痴 why I have to write so much and keep so little. If I couldn稚 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稚 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値l be something else. Of course there are often months and weeks when that doesn稚 happen. You are just writing, trying to find the story and that痴 when the anxiety comes in, maybe I知 not going to find it, maybe there痴 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痴 what got me here and if I hadn稚 done that I wouldn稚 have gotten here.

Question: It seems you池e 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稚 it hard to trust it? And if you do get stuck, how do you get out of it?

McDermott: I don稚 know. It does happen. I think I get to a desperation point where I say, it痴 just all right, I値l 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致e 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痴 not so much that it痴 intuitive. Really, it痴 desperation. What else am I going to do? I知 not quite ready to give it up and start something else. Let痴 just hope maybe there痴 a way this can work out and.

Question: You don稚 necessarily mean the actual project? You mean something within the story.

McDermott: Yeah, there痴 that. But there痴 also the project. My husband is a scientist and the best thing I致e learned from him about writing is that the really good scientist is someone who knows when to abandon an experiment, who doesn稚 keep doing it for twenty years only to say that the results were just what he thought they壇 be. Negative. I致e sort of taken that to heart with my writing, and it痴 not easy, but it痴 a sense of are you discovering things? Are you learning something new? Does the challenge seem still to be there? Then it痴 worth pursuing even when it seems like months since you had a breakthrough. But if there痴 that sense that I致e 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池e sure it痴 the best work you have ever done, but it痴 time for another story or time to tell the story in another way. Then you don稚 tell anybody what you池e 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, 禅his 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稚 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壇 say, 塑ep, it痴 going OK, writing and writing everyday. Yep, sure am. Finally I had to call and say, 然emember that novel that I signed the contract for? Well it痴 not quite the novel I知 writing. I致e changed it somewhat. But then I致e also started another one. So I sent him (again this is my great confidence) both of them and said 選n place of that one I said I would write you, you can have either one of these. I have been working. I just haven稚 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, 選 don稚 care which one you finish, just finish one. So as I say, it痴 just a matter of knowing when the energy isn稚 really at its peak, isn稚 really there. It痴 not that you can稚 finish it, it痴 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稚 there, that the inspiration isn稚 there but you are still writing or are you? I mean it痴 not a case of not writing? It痴 a case of not discovering?

McDermott: Yeah, it doesn稚 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稚 write it or you stop and do something else?

McDermott: I write it. But it痴 not fun, and I don稚 mean that writing should be fun. I mean it痴 seldom fun. But it痴 not generating a new idea. It痴 not showing me anything new. It痴 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痴 not worth it. There痴 so many wonderful things to do with your time, why do that? It痴 just that discovering as I write keeps me interested and challenges me. I don稚 have any better idea of where it痴 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稚 know what I want yet. The other kind of writing is just getting there. I致e 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致e read something they loved. You can generally sort those out. You致e read things you致e admired, you致e read things that you致e learned from, but it痴 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痴 short stories and saying if I could do that, that痴 worth. And it痴 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痴 that sense of well, why? Why am I doing this? Because I知 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痴 it. That痴 a worthwhile way to live. It痴 always very reassuring to go back and find out it痴 still there.

Question: You never do any outlines--you only write prose?

McDermott: I have done outlines. There are times I値l 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稚 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致e got to quit writing at 2:30 because I致e 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稚 get there at all, I just want to get to what I know I should be doing and that痴 working toward the text even if stuff doesn稚 end up in there.

Question: I noticed you repeated one thing in That Night which was, 壮mell 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知 sure I did. Yeah, that痴 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痴 being filtered through someone who sees that time as being over--that things have changed, and there痴 no getting back. That痴 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痴 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知 a fiction writer and not a journalist is that I can稚 stick with what痴 real. I just can稚 do it though I致e 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稚 resist. I can稚 resist messing up their faces a little and changing their personalities and giving them a history they don稚 really have. I don稚 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稚 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稚 know these characters after all. I think that痴 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稚 know if I could do that consciously, you know. That might happen too. But I really don稚 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稚 have to think twice about who痴 older or who痴 younger or look at my notes and see he痴 four and he痴 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稚 believe you wrote about us. And I said, what? It痴 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稚 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稚 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痴 not really the beginning and have to work backwards?

McDermott: I know writers who have had that happen. I haven稚 had that happen yet. I guess maybe I start at the wrong beginning, and that痴 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致e 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稚 want to tell this story anymore. Let痴 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痴 parents will separate. So there痴 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痴 room looking at a poster from Maurice Sendak痴 In the Night Kitchen and, as I say, had begun a very different version of the novel that I wasn稚 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稚 a real place at all. You know what it痴 made up of. And just looking at it I thought what a kick, wouldn稚 it be fun to try and do that in prose, to describe a place that痴 so familiar and yet as if you致e never seen it before, really a child痴 eye view. The delightfully strange and yet concrete, an identifiable place in some way. So maybe that痴 this whole story that痴 floating around, maybe it痴 another story. But I really like to try to write that scene. First I knew I had a child痴 point of view, but I didn稚 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稚 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致e 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稚 say I know what street that is, that痴 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池e going into the city who are they going to meet there? When they climb up the stairs, who痴 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痴 gesture. And as soon as I saw her do that I thought, that痴 what she is, she was. She spent some time in the convent. That痴 interesting. I didn稚 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痴 tragedy here. There痴 bad luck. The convent didn稚 work out for her, and she痴 in this apartment and she痴 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痴 going to bite the dust. In some ways I guess that痴 how it was. I liked her immediately. And yet I knew something. But I wasn稚 quite sure. And it wasn稚 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, 践ave I got a guy for you! There痴 something going on here. So again that痴 the kind of thing that keeps me writing. You know, tomorrow I知 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痴 going to die. It痴 more let痴 find out who this guy is.

Question and answer period following McDermott痴 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知 going to hear a small voice saying, 羨lice can you stop for a minute? Can we talk? Let痴 talk about that scene. Maybe I致e purged myself now that I致e read it once more. We have time for questions or conversation, whatever.

Question: I知 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知 surprised by that because to me it could only be the Irish.

McDermott: Certainly. It痴 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致e heard from a lot of readers who don稚 have an Irish background saying they share that sense of paying homage, the journey back to grandma痴 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稚 quite understand--that seems to happen in every family in some way. So I guess, it痴 particularly Irish in the novel but it痴 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痴 seven years old now, this was a few years ago) a Sendak poster from In The Night Kitchen and it痴 just this wonderful cityscape, dark cityscape which is, if you致e seen it, made up of oatmeal boxes and kitchen utensils. And yet you know it痴 a city so it痴 that wonderful dream-like state and In The Night Kitchen is just that. It痴 a kind of dream. But it痴 a childish dream of a city and it痴 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痴 identifiable. I just thought that might be fun to try and since I wasn稚 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痴 point of view. An adult couldn稚 look at a cityscape in quite the same way. An adult would know what street that is and where we池e going and where we池e 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壇 need a child痴 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稚 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痴 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痴 the mother like and who痴 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痴 the longest first chapter I ever wrote. It kept eluding me. Just when you know what you want to get to in writing, it痴 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知 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痴 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痴 telling, how she痴 relating it, how she痴 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稚 know if there is such a thing--it痴 a place where anything gets published so long as it痴 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致e got a big New York City publisher interested in their work, they just have to cough up the bucks to support it so she痴 dealing in illusions, she痴 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稚 we, the readers, really see more than she sees? In those sections I didn稚 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痴 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痴 there very much and it痴 very much through her eyes and she痴 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稚. 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稚 tell me. I visited the set and I walked in and I said, I知 Alice McDermot and the director told me to come to this door and someone turned around and said, 選t痴 the real Alice. Who? Her name is Alice Bloom though, and she痴 not Irish so I don稚 have to worry too much about that but she is the central character so you don稚 have too much from the separate point of view. I think she痴 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痴 around and that痴 why she痴 participating. It痴 a very sweet movie. I mean I see so many movies that I can稚 believe were ever made and compared to them this is not bad. It痴 certainly not the book. It痴 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痴 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稚 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 然olling into a microphone when the director says 然olling, and all of these seemingly superfluous people. One of the scenes that didn稚 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痴 such a professional, he痴 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痴 wonderful. So my reality and their reality just don稚 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知 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稚 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痴 got to be more than this, and there痴 got to be some sense to it, and that there痴 a story that you can tell whether it痴 Christ痴 story or Aunt May痴 but there痴 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知 exactly like my mother and father.

McDermott: Sure I think that痴 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痴 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稚 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稚 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痴 the only way you can explain it--you池e inspired by the Holy Spirit. I was the only Catholic in the bunch and I致e thought well, I致e never been inspired by the Holy Spirit. Maybe I will be someday. I致e still not had that sense yet. With each story, it痴 learning to write all over again in many ways because it痴 a story you致e never told before, it痴 characters you致e never dealt with before, it痴 a voice that you have to learn. In some ways it gets harder because there痴 also the sense that I don稚 want to do what I have done before and I don稚 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稚 let myself do that now. Now that痴 not enough. But there is that sense of finding a new voice each time and never being sure you池e going to. The Holy Spirit has yet to come.

Question: Does the voice ever feel totally foreign to you personally?

McDermott: No, I can稚 shock. I知 Irish Catholic you see. I can稚 shock. I don稚 know. I suppose not. I知 looking for the voice that feels right. And I probably would flee from anything that struck me as foreign. But I guess I知 not that aware when I知 looking because when I知 looking through a story it痴 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痴 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痴 not really me. Whatever my work is worth, this isn稚 it. But no I haven稚 had that otherworldly experience of someone speaking through me yet. Even when I was in California it didn稚 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稚 mine. If you致e felt passionate about anything, then you know something about passion and you can fit it to someone else痴 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痴 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稚 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稚 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稚 just a girl who got in trouble and he wasn稚 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壇 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稚 know that I can say that there痴 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痴 Momma. Momma痴 my favorite character in that book. Someone wrote somewhere that there痴 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痴 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.

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James Salter

Question & Answer following his reading 12/4/97

Question: What kind of things do you think about when transitioning from writing to screenwriting?

Salter: Well, you certainly don稚 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稚 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稚 want to say it痴 a simple matter, it痴 simply a different writing. Also they are shorter. Filmscripts are one hundred and fifty pages double-spaced. There痴 not as much in them, but the road is tough. There痴 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痴 kind of like the New York Lottery actually.

Question: How does one think about one痴 style?

Salter: Well, I don稚 know. I don稚 think you self-consciously think about it and say, does this sound like me? I don稚 think that question ever arises, but after a while your habits of writing reveal a vocabulary like a fingerprint. Where痴 the professor who discovered all of that? At Iowa? Yale? Who痴 the one who on a computer identified pieces being Shakespeare痴? I don稚 remember where he is but anyway. Where? Vassar--exactly right. So I think that痴 true of every writer. You have certain words-- it may be 10,000 words--but you池e using those and they are instrumental in comprising your style, naturally. I would say eventually it becomes second nature to you, and there痴 no self-conscious quality involved. You don稚 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致e 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痴 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稚 like the book. He said, it痴 not up to standards; I知 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値l see all of his qualities in them. In a sense, in chapter ten there痴 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痴 one book. Another book was Jane Austen痴 Pride and Prejudice. We read Nikolai Gogol痴 Dead Souls. If you haven稚 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痴 not all he thought it was or thought it would be, but marvelous. We read Mikhail Lermontov痴 A Hero Of Our Time. Then Kipling wrote Plain Tales from the Hills. Kipling is very much discredited now, and you can稚 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稚 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致e just finished reading Appointment in Samarra by John O辿ara. Gee, this is a wonderful book. It痴 a bit more modern. But I知 sure you haven稚 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稚 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稚 have that kind of time. Well, first of all it痴 an entirely different kind of life, different culture. You may read a little, but you can稚 read too much or you値l be suspect to begin with. I wouldn稚 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痴 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稚 believe I ever quite, well I don稚 know, let痴 not be too self-effacing, there was one that had some possibilities, but it received, it痴 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稚 know what to name. I mean you池e talking about fifteen years--there痴 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稚 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稚 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稚 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痴 how the book came to be.

[inaudible question]

Salter: This is a question about my short story Dusk. It痴 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痴 the hunting season. And at the very end she痴 alone and there痴 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痴 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知 only telling you what I intended, not what the story actually says.

James Salter, State Author
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Sharon Olds

Afternoon Seminar, January 29, 1998

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稚 understand poetry without the sentence, poetry with the line and the space around the lines, that I didn稚 understand it, couldn稚 do it, was to me at that time, a good sign that I was trying to do real poetry. But I couldn稚 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稚 have to try to do the right thing according to someone else痴 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痴 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稚 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稚 care if they池e good. I just want to write my own stuff. I hadn稚 actually learned that much there so it wasn稚 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稚 all of it at all. But I was sort of drenched in experience that wasn稚 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痴 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稚 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稚 have a computer, or I didn稚 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致e 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稚 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痴 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壇 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稚 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痴 work, not our own. Every few weeks she壇 have each one of us read a poem and we壇 say things about each other痴 poems and then we壇 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稚 fear any harm from her, but I was so in awe of her. She was so much herself. She wasn稚 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痴 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;
Obey thy Heart;
Friends, kindred, days,
Estate, good-fame,
Plans, credit, and the Muse,-
Nothing refuse.

禅is a brave master;
Let it have scope:
Follow it utterly,
Hope beyond hope:
High and more high
And dives into noon,
With wing unspent,
Untold intent;
But it is a god
Knows its own path
And the outlets of the sky.

T蜘as never for the mean;
It requireth courage stout,
Souls above doubt,
Valor unbending,
It will reward,-
They shall return
More than they were,
And ever ascending.

Leave all for love;
Yet, hear me, yet,
One word more of thy heart behoved,
One pulse more of firm endeavor,-
Keep thee today,
Tomorrow, forever,
Free as an Arab
Of thy beloved.

Cling with life to the maid;
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痴 hem,
Nor the palest rose she flung
from her summer diadem.

Though thou lovest her as thyself
As a self of purer clay,
Though her parting dims the day
Stealing grace from all alive
Heartily know,
When half gods go,
The gods arrive.

That痴 Emerson.

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壇 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知 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痴 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痴 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稚 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痴 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稚 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痴 sort of gripping, kind of like if we were great basketball players, would we be thinking theory while we were playing? I wouldn稚 be. Even when I tried to play basketball, it went so slowly that there would have been time to think, but I didn稚. 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痴 kind of tough. Well, I guess, I always thought I wouldn稚 mind if that would have been about me. So it seems to me it痴 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痴 when our writing works a little better. I think I致e 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稚 mean that young people think that and older people are right. It just meant that I didn稚 get it. I think it痴 possible for some of us to make some kind of art and not see what we池e saying or understand it. In The Father there痴 a poem I read now sometimes at readings. It痴 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痴 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稚 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池e talking about the subject, you致e also written about your children. You池e one of the few writers as you mentioned, who痴 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稚 know what I壇 been thinking. Well, I hadn稚 been thinking. People would say, you池e brave. And I壇 think, oh, good, because I know that I am a complete chicken. Later I realized I was kind of a sociopath. It wasn稚 really brave. It was that I didn稚 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壇 say oh, don稚 worry, maybe when you池e 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致e 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痴 a part of me that sneakily--this is the sociopath in me--is glad that I didn稚 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稚 have published much. I didn稚 know to be scared of myself because I didn稚 have a clear enough vision of those things. I wrote as if free. I知 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痴 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稚 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値l write it on my hand. [She 層rites on her palm with her finger.] Now I値l remember that. I write all over again. And they have the same images that are weird images, too. So, ok it痴 a poem. Then, when it痴 quiet and I知 alone, which could be on a train or a bus--not a subway, it痴 too short of a ride--then I start. Maybe with my eyes closed. Actually I guess my eyes are open, but I知 in a state. I don稚 want to be too critical but I do want to steer it enough the right way that I don稚 get all the wrong words, all the wrong sounds, and then I知 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稚 look at it for at the worst, ten years, at the best, a week or two, unless it won稚 let me go. Then I think, that痴 fake, that痴 not fake, and then I go back. I hate to go back, but then I look at it--it痴 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痴 very exciting. So then I値l type it up and then I値l try to take out悠 figured this out once what I try to take out耀elf-pity and adjectives. There痴 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稚 understand what you池e doing when you start undoing that from the very beginning. Couldn稚 you just give us the first four lines in da-dah da-dah da-dah da-dah and then once it痴 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池e worth typing up. So often they aren稚. That痴 kind of it. Then I値l read them. I値l read always at least one new poem at a reading, sometimes more, and then I値l see how it sounds. Those books where you can read about people痴 process are so interesting because everyone痴 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稚 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痴 the moment I always think of--when the slick, whole body comes out of me, . . ." If you壇 like to read it--

OLDS: Oh, no, no thank you. It sounds over-written to me. That痴 why I知 saying "slick, whole body." Find out who wrote that poem! Probably I thought that that痴 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池e in one universe and then when that moment is over we池e 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 壮lick, whole sounds, at this point in my life, a little bold. It just sounds so bold. But maybe you don稚 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知 not a mother. I just didn稚 have the experience, but I understood.

OLDS: It痴 weird to me. In a way, that poem implies a gentle reader, doesn稚 it? There痴 a way in which it just starts talking out of an ordinary life as if to another person who doesn稚 mind reading it, right? It痴 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痴 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稚 misunderstanding the nature of the human when we think that we want to hear each other, that we池e willing to hear each other, that we need to hear each other, that we池e lonesome. We want to know what experiences we haven稚 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稚 going to do that. I was just going to write my own stuff and I didn稚 care if it was bad. I壇 had it with that other thing. You know, one痴 life always belonging to the others on their terms.

QUESTION: While you池e here, can you just define for yourself what is poetry?

OLDS: I can稚. I couldn稚 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痴 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痴 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痴 never been a group without it--that rhythmical utterance. Now why rhythmical when caring the most? Well, probably it痴 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稚 notice. But we are rhythmic beings. I think it痴 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由obert Stone, and Allen Ginsberg, a different guest every week預nd 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痴 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痴 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痴 the letter, the first letter of the first word, of the first line, of the poem. That痴 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痴 like the chase. It痴 like going hunting together. It痴 so powerful and so unnerving because I wasn稚 so good at. But it wasn稚 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壇 be able to guess part way ahead in a word when we壇 have a few of the letters. It was just extremely exciting and wonderful. There is a difference between that workshop and others that I致e 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痴 like, but there痴 no excess. There痴 no complaining even though there痴 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致e 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稚 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 疎pparently personal as much for the sake of the writers that I知 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稚 have our minds changed that anything that anyone in this room brought in that had an 選 in it was absolutely autobiography, that everything in it purely happened to them, I think it wouldn稚 be as good. I think we wouldn稚 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稚 true. That is, we are saying we don稚 know that this is literally true every single moment. Now if I知 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知 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値l say to them, unfortunately, I致e taken a vow to not talk about this part of my own work. So I can稚 actually come out and say, I write about what I care about the most and I don稚 make things up. I can稚 say that because I致e 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痴 life-- trial and error, error and trial--and there痴 not one answer that痴 right. I like the phrase 疎pparently 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知 going to talk about my poems in the same way. I知 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知 not so worried about that. It痴 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壇 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稚 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痴 meant to be arousing, that痴 it. And perhaps it痴 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稚 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痴 been just a little over the edge. But when you池e writing pornography, are you thinking about the stranger having their experience of what you池e writing? Well, in that case no. It痴 not even an erotic experience for me to write love poems, that are sexual love poems. Is that safe to say? It痴 an experience, it痴 probably a great erotic weakness for me, but I think it痴 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痴 a thought. So then I decided I wasn稚 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池e all in the same boat. We池e writing first drafts together; we池e not working on revision, which of course at NYU is what we do a lot. We池e just doing this new stuff and hearing each other. In the wilderness, there痴 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痴 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痴 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稚 tried before with our promise being that we will not criticize each other during that time. Whatever anyone goes for we値l be there for. Even if we池e scared because we usually are, but we池e all in it together. There we are. Thank you.

Sharon Olds, State Poet
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Sharon Olds

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稚 write books. I write individual poems. I don稚 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池e about I try to put the best ones in a book, and if it ends up having no theme, that痴 too bad. That痴 just the way I work. With these things it痴 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痴 book, as if that, at that time, seemed to me like something less than a man痴 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稚 try to write on things. I think it痴 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稚 work at all. We care so strongly the art can稚 handle it. But that痴 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稚 organize in a clear way. So many magnificent poets don稚. They don稚 think that way. So I guess the secret is just to bear it, that we池e going to be different from each other and that one痴 own way is what one has, and one should follow that.

Question: I知 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稚 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稚 know psychology then. So I said to Satan, I will give up all I致e learned at graduate school, not really letting on how much that was, if I can just write my own poems even if they池e bad. And it wasn稚 because I thought they壇 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壇 just been trying to get along, get by, hope I wouldn稚 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稚 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知 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稚 really hurt anyone else. So that痴 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稚 believe.) I could probably do a living room too. So I don稚 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壇 get my rejection back and I壇 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壇 by now have to say everyone in a way--having thought of Muriel and Gwendolyn Brooks and Ruth Stone--that痴 a particular generation that for me was just so powerful and important. Thank you.

Sharon Olds, State Poet
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