This is the fifth in the Author, Author series of occasional interviews, interviews that consist of questions all of you helped me formulate. It’s been inspiring and interesting to do these. Next week, I’ll be posting the last in the series, an interview with Debbie Freedman, the author of Scribble.
Today’s interview is with Alice Mattison, whose beautifully written book, Nothing Is Quite Forgotten in Brooklyn, was one of the best things I read last year. Mattison is also the author of The Book Borrower, Hilda and Pearl, and The Wedding of the Two-headed Woman, four collections of short stories, including In Case We’re Separated, and a book of poems. Twelve of her stories have appeared in The New Yorker. Other stories, essays, and poems can be found in places like The New York Times, Ploughshares, and The Threepenny Review.
How’s your work coming along these days? What have you recently sent out into the world?
I have a new novel, Nothing Is Quite Forgotten in Brooklyn. It was published (as a paperback original) by Harper Perennial in September, 2008. It’s set in Brooklyn in 1989 and 2003, and is about a woman who is spending a week in her mother’s apartment while her mother visits an old friend. She discovers that someone has broken into the apartment and stolen her purse, and the book takes off from there. Everything in her life changes.
My present work is another novel-I’m just getting started on it.
People love to hear how writers overcome difficulties- the long slog of getting from a brilliant idea to the end of a work, the strings of rejection so long they could circumnavigate the globe, the mean reviews, the weird reactions of loved ones to your work, the moment you see your book on the remainder pile. Can you talk about the dark nights of the soul and how you kept going, even though the lights seemed to be out?
The dark nights of the soul? No! Some things are private.
Why do you suppose so many people want to know where you get your ideas?
It’s a recurring question, goodness knows. My opinion is that it’s because writing fiction is dangerous and alarming. I invent somebody, and if all goes well this person becomes so real in your mind when you read my book, that you may cry if she dies, or get scared if she is in trouble. Even if I simply write, “Anne walked into the kitchen, turned on the cold water faucet and thrust her hands under the water,” I can make you see a kitchen and a sink and a woman’s hands, and you may even feel the coldness of the water. What right do I have to invade your head?
I think some people are troubled by the idea of the imagination, because it can lead us to what’s strange and dark and bad, and they hope that maybe there is no such thing as the imagination, that we novelists don’t really make things up, that maybe we get our ideas just from looking around us and putting together what we see. Of course writers do get ideas from looking around them, but those ideas only become compelling when an innocent detail about life connects to the intense unconscious life of the writer (as Proust’s madeleine brings up the memory of Marcel’s childhood), and turns into something on the page that can make a reader laugh or cry. I agree that making things up is a frightening idea. We traffic in what’s unearthly and unsettling, at least when our books are any good. Maybe when people ask “Where do you get your ideas?” they mean “Is there really such a thing as the imagination?” And “Are you sure making things up and making them seem real is legal? Did you sell your soul to the devil?”
The business of being a writer – finding an agent, placing stories and poems in literary journals, getting a publisher to buy your stuff – can be difficult to navigate. What do you wish you’d known starting out?
I can’t think of facts about publishing I wish I’d known-I’m glad I didn’t know how hard it would be-but I wish I’d known people: specifically, other struggling fiction writers. When I published my first short stories I didn’t know other fiction writers who were getting published. I had written and published poetry and did know poets, but the problems that came up were different. Publishing has plenty of hard moments, and they don’t stop because you’ve had a little success, far from it. If an agent or editor said something incomprehensible or upsetting, or if I had a disappointment, I had nobody to discuss it with-at least, nobody who had been through anything similar. Some people I knew were so impressed that I’d begun to publish that they couldn’t believe I wasn’t happy all day long, and others thought I was ungrateful or greedy if I mentioned problems. In a sense publishing is no different from any other work: teachers need some friends who are teachers to gripe with, cooks need friends who are cooks, and writers need at least a couple of friends who are writers.
I gradually met other writers as colleagues when I began to teach writing, and then my former students began to become my fellow writers as well. Most importantly, my friend Sandi began publishing novels. Sandi Kahn Shelton (whom you’ve also interviewed) is someone I’ve known from a time long before either of us published fiction. When we met-we had babies in the same daycare center-we instantly became friends. For years I wrote poetry and taught English while Sandi was a journalist, but we were both trying to learn to write fiction. Eventually-after many years of struggle-we both began to write and publish novels, and now we sometimes look at each other and say “We actually managed to do this!” We’ve critiqued each other’s manuscripts and talked over problems for years and years. We never get together without talking about our work, and we are gloriously free to complain!
How do you balance the rest of your life with your writing life?
That’s hard, and in truth there are three things to try and balance: one, writing my books; two, living my non-writing life (being with family and friends, managing ordinary life, working as a volunteer in a soup kitchen, etc.), and, three, doing work that arises from the fact that I’m a fiction writer, but isn’t the writing of fiction: answering this question, for example, which is fun but cannot be described as working on my novel, or teaching writing, which is good for my writing but interrupts it. Or giving readings. Or being one of four women who run The Ordinary Evening Reading Series. Or writing essays and reviews.
Superficially, I think I’ve solved the problem pretty well. I know how to say no. I rarely give away writing hours. The problem is that writing fiction is hard and often frustrating, and competing demands can be legitimate and pleasant. It’s often easier to meet them than to break away and be mentally alone enough to do good work. I keep some rules: I don’t get together with friends until late afternoon or evening, I don’t work on student writing except on designated days. I keep lists of what I want to accomplish, so nothing is forgotten for long. Still, achieving the balance-getting to the hard work of fiction-remains difficult. On the other hand, writing fiction is emotionally intense. If it’s any good, it goes to the center of thought and experience. I don’t want to do it glibly. I think I do it better because I have to fight to do it, even sometimes fighting myself.
Talk about the books you’ve loved.
I couldn’t begin to talk about all the books I’ve loved over a life of reading, but I can say that I learned what I know about writing primarily from reading poetry-my graduate work was in seventeenth-century British poetry-and I find reading poems essential for keeping alert to words and the sounds of words and sentences. I have many favorite poets, and keep my subscriptions current to magazines that publish good poetry, like Poetry, Ploughshares, and The Gettysburg Reveiw. As for fiction, I have to mention Grace Paley, Tillie Olsen, and William Maxwell as the authors who made me feel able to attempt the short story. My alltime favorite novel is E.M. Forster’s Howards End, about two intellectual, right-thinking sisters at the turn of the twentieth century. I’ve written about friendship between women for much of my life and I found some kind of permission to do that in Margaret and Helen Schlegel.
The novel that made me think that maybe I could write a novel-or that made me want to try-was Lore Segal’s Her First American, about a Jewish woman, a refugee from Vienna who comes to America after the second world war and falls in love with a black professor. I think the subject of blacks and whites trying to know one another is essential to our culture and time, but I don’t know of many books (especially by white people) that attempt it. Lore Segal, while I’m mentioning her, has a recent book of stories about the same woman (or, sort of the same woman. She isn’t above a little shape-shifting now and then). The book of stories is called Shakespeare’s Kitchen, and typing that title makes me realize that in two words it represents what moves me most in literature: I want books that know about Shakespeare (and all literature and art) and also know about kitchens: about ordinary life.
Do you think most writing is autobiographical?
Fiction writers use autobiography in two ways. Some people write fiction primarily to come to terms with what has happened in life, and so they fictionalize real events, but only enough not to be sued. For other writers (including me), their own lives are just supply cabinets. If a story requires an incident that starts two people arguing, or an event that could spoil a picnic, I may remember an occasion in my own life and use that. I’m not writing a novel to make sense of my life, I’m borrowing from my life for the sake of the novel. If what results is autobiographical, that’s trivial.
But fiction that is not directly about the life of the writer is often autobiographical in a different way. We write certain stories at certain times in our lives for some reason. A novel won’t work if it doesn’t matter intensely to the author, and one story may matter intensely at one time, another story ten years later. But the connection with our own emotional history may be mysterious. Perhaps the story that comes to mind is a metaphor for what one has lived through: a divorce becomes a journey, or a failure at work becomes, in fiction, a death. Nobody may ever know how the book is autobiographical; even the author may not know. But the life of the author is the source of its power.
What other jobs have you had, besides your job as a writer?
I’ve taught all my life. I wanted to be a teacher from the time I was a child, along with wanting to be a writer. In graduate school (in English literature) I was a teaching fellow. Then for three years I taught English in two community colleges, one in Connecticut and one in California. I found that I loved remedial classes, though they were hard to teach. Trying to get people not to be afraid of reading and writing-some of them people who were scarcely literate-was thrilling, challenging work. Later, when my kids were growing up, I taught Freshman Composition in a continuing education program on Saturday mornings. The students were mostly women who were finally going to college-sometimes when their youngest child started first grade, sometimes when their youngest child started college. I loved working with them, and there, too, building up confidence was a lot of the job. They were surprised to discover they could write something I liked reading.
Now I work with graduate students, but in a way, teaching writing remains the same. Since 1995, I’ve taught fiction writing in the low-residency MFA program at Bennington College in Vermont. This is a program in which students and faculty gather at the college for a week and a half, twice a year, and work by correspondence in between: in two years, students earn a Master of Fine Arts degree in writing and literature. Once a month I receive packets of work in the mail from students, and write them long letters. I also teach in writer’s conferences, most often at the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, MA. What I love in particular about this kind of teaching is that I’m working with people who are as excited about books and writing as I am.