Monday, April 20, 2009

Interview with Bobbie Ann Mason

The Broadkill Review interviewed Bobbie Ann Mason over the last two-and-a-half months of 2007. Throughout the process she was a person with whom it was delightful to deal. TBR asks our interviewees to revise or edit the finished interview for clarity, but other than that, the questions originate from TBR’s editorial staff

TBR When did you first know that you were a writer? What were the circumstances?

BAM I always wanted to write, and I was always scribbling something, but I did not feel I had the privilege of calling myself a writer until Roger Angell at The New Yorker, in one of a long series of rejection letters, told me, point blank, that I was a writer. That vote of confidence was so uplifting and energizing that I flew into a dozen more stories until he finally accepted one of my stories. There's a mystique about being a writer; it seems that writers are often apologetic and unsure, but when they start to wear the label, they may get haughty and superior, as if they’ve found some rarefied calling available to only a few. I guess there’s less mystique about it to me now. Writers are just people. I don't know that our visions of the world make us superior. Writers, technically, are people who work with language. Bricklayers work with bricks.

TBR On another topic, whom do you write for? That is, writers, as storytellers, often talk about their audience as if they were familiar with them, even if in a somewhat amorphous form. Do you imagine an audience? I have to assume you write for a specific audience in your first journalstic endeavors.

BAM, No, I don't imagine an audience. It always surprises me that people read the stories. It is hard enough when writing to get into the world of the characters. To imagine their audience would probably make me too self-conscious. And then I'd start tailoring the story to suit this imagined audience. Along the way, in the revisions and corrections especially, one has to be aware of intelligibility, so that one doesn't unnecessarily exasperate the reader. For me, the true focus has to be the story.

TBR Who do you feel were the major literary influences on you; whom did you read?

BAM The early influences, in order: Louisa May Alcott, Hemingway, Salinger, Fitzgerald, Nabokov, Joyce.

TBR In your Penguin Lives biography of Elvis, you mention that you were raised in a home where “(w)e had been listening to rhythm-and-blues late at night on the radio for years,..” You also mention “big bands, pop hits, country, the opera” and gospel music as being influential in your childhood. Do you feel that the music itself had any effect on the development of your literary style? (If so, in what way? Given that music has certain cadences and rhythms, a certain pace to the flow, if you will, is there a rhythm or -- to use a theater term - a “beat” to your narrative style? I do not wish to suggest that this is in any way the same for everything you write, but, rather, that each piece’s natural “heart-beat” may reflect your sense of musical grounding. Please feel free to elaborate in any way you like.)

BAM I don't know if I can analyze this. I do know that cadence, rhythm, pace --the sound of it--are paramount. The phrase has to have just the right number of syllables. I always say that I revise something until it sounds right. I'm not sure anyone else notices. But the sound of it is important to the design, the meaning, the characters, the language. I don't have to read it aloud. I hear it in my head.

TBR I went into some length about your Elvis book and your comments about music, but need to ask the obvious question. Why Elvis? Did Penguin ask you specifically, or was it your idea? If theirs, was it because they identified you as a "southern" writer, or was there more to it than that?

BAM: James Atlas, editor of the Penquin Lives series, asked me to write on Elvis. He tried to match contemporary writers with historical figures. Roy Blount, Jr., wrote about Robert E. Lee, Larry McMurtry wrote about Crazy Horse, and so on. I had written specifically about a region that was quite close to Elvis's homeground. In fact, I knew a lot about Elvis because I knew about the social class, the place, the sounds of the culture. Even though this was far from an easy book to write, I did have an access to the material that some writers might not have had. Other writers, like Peter Guralnick, for instance, had the advantage of perspective and distance, but I had the advantage of familiarity with the culture. I had a feeling for who Elvis was and why he did what he did. I was particularly fascinated by his parents, Vernon and Gladys. I really felt I knew who they were.

TBR Sticking with the Elvis thread, did writing the Elvis book -- you described it as a journey of discovery -- influence your later work (i.e., characters or events) or style?

BAM: No, I don't think it had any effect on my later writing, not that I can tell. It was a project that took longer than it should, and I was glad to be finished with it.

TBR I have to ask, now that you’ve had time to digest (my former student) Alex Anton’s theory that IN COUNTRY was influenced by Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, if you had read the (former) book, or had the book read to you, when young? Was Mr. Anton correct in thinking that this was one of your favorites?

BAM [you may want to explain this in a note]
The parallels between IN COUNTRY and ALICE were fun to see! OK, I'll take credit. But I never consciously thought of it. Besides, isn't Moon Pie (the all-important pie-faced cat in IN COUNTRY) the Cheshire Cat? I'm surprised to see these connections made, especially since I wrote a story (now lost) when I was in college about a party in someone's basement, and it was full of Alice allusions. Going down into the basement was like going down the rabbit hole. The cocktails were mind-bending. The character was named Alice. However, I don't ever remember reading Carroll's book until I was in college. I must have read it then because I had a younger brother and sister, and I read them POOH and DR. SEUSS. I hadn't read those before either. Or Beatrix Potter. My childhood reading consisted of the Honey Bunch Series, the Bobbsey Twins, and Nancy Drew and those other mystery series.

TBR Scott Fitzgerald once said something to the effect that all he did was write autobiography – that, in a sense, because every character had to be filtered through his own creativity, he was revealing himself in each of his characters. In light of your own work, do you agree or disagree, and why? Would you be willing to give examples?

BAM I don't try to write about myself, but I do find that I sometimes give traits to characters that come from me, not them. If they're interested in wordplay, or cats, that might be a sign of me. Nancy Culpepper is the only character I really identify with, because she has a sensibility a lot like mine.

TBR The country setting of your fiction (I am thinking in particular of “Shiloh” and In Country) is filled with characters who are the antithesis of Flannery O’Connor’s “grotesques.” By that I mean that you seem to care for your characters, warts and all. I cannot speak to Ms. O’Connor’s sense of affection for her characters, but wonder if you feel that a writer has an obligation to “love” her/his character-creations.

BAM. No, I don't think there's any obligation. I don't know how much affection Faulkner, or his readers, have for Colonel Sutpen. And did Nabokov think he could be buddies with Humbert Humbert? No, a writer should keep enough distance to be able to write about a character deeply and truthfully. It's scary to write about a character who is a criminal, or who may have some unpleasant flaws. It would be hard to make him likeable. I'm not sure I've had the courage to write about one of these people yet. In "Midnight Magic," I was inspired by a scary-looking guy I saw in a parking lot, but by the time I got going on Steve, the main character, I couldn't pull it off. In humanizing him, I found that he might have some traits that, if not adorable, were understandable. It may usually be that way, but it's a big challenge for a writer to create somebody compelling, like Humbert Humbert, whom you might not really be fond of. The popular market seems to want to love the characters. But I don't think writers should promise that.

TBR Your comments about Humbert Humbert in response to my query about authorial affection (I thought the quotation marks around "love" carried an ironic intonation) for one's characters suggested to me that I missed the mark in my question. Flannery O'Connor writes wonderfully about people for whom the reader (speaking solely for myself here) has no attraction whatsoever -- and the reader (still me) is left with the question of why the author bothered. John Gardner's essay, On Moral Fiction, tries, I think, to address the same question. Isn't the world already full of enough ugliness and selfishness and greed and misanthropy? My feeling is that the very problem which you mention having had with Steve in "Midnight Magic" stems from this capacity to see that, as you said in your earlier interview with Lyons and Oliver, "We've all seen thousands of people who don't have any sense of responsibility but they want to be liked, they want to do right." In that capacity, that ability to see through to the whole personhood of the character for whose personality you may be searching for a key or linch-pin, I believe you can (here come the quotation marks again) "love" your characters. And while I'm not sure Nabokov could have been buddies with Humbert Humbert, I've always felt that HH was a manifestation of -- if not Nabokov's personally -- the male id. Is there nothing redeemable about Humbert Humbert in Nabokov's eyes? (I loved Ada by the way.)

BAM: Nabokov once said that Van and Ada, the main characters in ADA, were "terrible people." Obviously they were solipsistic, and they hurt Lucette. But as I understand Nabokov, the power and poignancy of the work always come from the way the character at the center is telling his story and going to great lengths to try to justify himself. The sheer verbal energy of the effort at creating the layers of self-deception draws the reader into feeling sympathy. I think it is usually true that it is more affecting to see someone trying to contain an emotion--grief, say--than to see him bawling and blubbering. The effort at containment is more complex and interesting.

TBR Back to O'Connor, her characters seem to be two-dimensional caricatures of ugliness, where your characters, despite their flaws, do not seem to be caricatures, but wholly realized and thus, at a certain level, sympathetic because wholly human.

BAM/ Thank you.

TBR A few years ago one of my students responded to something I said in the classroom by asking “What’s so great about the Sixties?” I answered by saying, “Sex drugs and rock’n’roll, right?” They agreed. “For starters, the Sixties were more than that,” I said. The classroom was filled with young people of every race, gender, region of the earth, sexual orientation. “Look around,” I said, “Take a look at your fellow students. Now imagine that they are all white hetero-sexual males with short hair. Is that preferable?” Stunned looks resulted. A healthy discussionabout the changes that had occurred as a result of “the Sixties” ensued. How much or to what extent do you feel that the Sixties, good or bad, affected you as a writer? (Other than with regard to the raw material from which you craft your fiction?)

BAM Any decade, whatever happens in your life, will affect your growth and vision. The Sixties were a time of searching and experimenting--and anguish and confusion and rebellion--among young people. I experienced all of that, even though the war did not intrude on me personally (family or friends). But it was there, in everything. The intensity of the sixties is what creates such powerful emotions looking back: the veterans who knew even when they were in the jungles of Vietnam that nothing else in their lives would ever be so intense; we look at the music that way; and Woodstock; and peace marches; and sit-ins on campus. It was all so intense. But what really powers the nostalgia is the memory of our youth. We were young then.

TBR Did you have the sense then that what you were experiencing was regionally different, say, than what your peers in the east-and-west-coast cities were experiencing?

BAM I was in graduate school on the East Coast during the Sixties, so I couldn't really say, except that I had the general sense that the Sixties were about ten years late in Kentucky. When things became fashionable--long hair, bell bottoms, and war protests--then they caught on.

TBR In his interview with TBR Robert Pinsky told us that he writes “Whenever it is inconvenient” and mentioned public transportation, or commuting in the car as examples of those inconvenient times. When do you write? Is there a particular time of day during which you feel most comfortable writing? Do you have set hours to which you adhere and/or to which you limit yourself?

BAM In the past, I have found more inspiration writing on a train or in a bus station than at a desk. But I rarely do that anymore. Rather, I write when it is convenient. On a given day, I can't get my energy focused until three or four o'clock. Then, I could probably go on until eight or so, but I get hungry and have to stop.

TBR How do you write? Ernest Hemingway is said to have written standing up (because of chronic back pain) with a number two pencil.

BAM Sitting down. I sit at my desk with two or three cats crowding around in front of me.

TBR Jill Kremnetz published a wonderful compilation of photographs of writers’ workspaces; where do you work, and is your workspace orderly, disorderly, piled high with reference material?

BAM No reference material, just stacks of stuff I can't deal with that have nothing to do with writing. (Catalogs, magazines). Actually, it is fairly uncluttered, except for the cats and all their beds. I have a computer desk that closes up to protect the computer from the cats. And I have a rolling table that gives me more flexibility. Now that I have a laptop, I can sit in front of the window, instead of huddling in the computer desk. But I have to be careful that the cats don't sit on the laptop. Or pee on it, which I'm sure they'd like to do.

TBR How do you get started? Do you ever have trouble beginning, or picking up where you left off the day before?

BAM I think waiting until four p.m. shows that I have trouble getting started. That's for a given day. Getting started on a project has its own impediments. Beginning a novel takes about a year, just to fool around and do everything but face the blank page. I tend to do too much research, and go off on unrelated tangents. Once I get really involved in something, then it's easier to plunge back in, day to day. But I'm easily distracted.

TBR Do your stories follow some plan or outline which you have composed before-hand, or do they generally come to you in the process of writing them? (Or a combination of both, sometimes to a lesser or greater degree one or the other?)

BAM Outlines can be deadly. The pleasure of writing a short story is just taking off and seeing what happens. An outline evolves as a novel begins to take shape, as a guide to what I'm doing, not as a program to follow. In writing a novel, at some point I start a notebook that tracks my discoveries of what I'm doing--the image patterns, the structure, the motifs. These are not imposed on the work, but as I begin to notice, for example, that images of dancing are cropping up frequently, I wonder what that's all about, and that helps me understand what to do with that thread. I get insight into the characters.

TBR When I asked about plans or outlines, I had in mind John irving's comment that he always writes the last sentence of each book first, and then writes to get to that sentence.

BAM: I think I would get really hung up if that last sentence were hanging over my head. I like to be surprised when I get to that last sentence. I like it when I don't see it coming. And suddenly it's there.

TBR In what way was your writing of the Elvis biography different for you from writing a short story or novel?

BAM I always find non-fiction much more difficult. It took a long time to write about Elvis, even though it seems to be a simple, brief essay. I spent more time than I should have just trying to get inside Elvis' life and figure him out and try to feel what it was like to be him. Writing non-fiction isn't simple and straightforward for me. I can't write chronologically or journalistically. I have to go in circles and spirals, with image patterns and allusions and setting and description. In other words, I have to write it like fiction. With fiction, you can fly around and take off in new directions. With non-fiction, you have an obligation to certain facts and ideas.

TBR Can biography fall into the category of “Creative Non-Fiction?

BAM I'm not sure about labels or the exact definition of that category. But I guess so, given what I just said before.

TBR You are at the University of Kentucky. Are you teaching currently, and, if so, how have you had to adjust your approach to your own work in order to take on the task of teaching in addition?

BAM I am not a teacher. I have limited experience teaching. I taught literature as a graduate student to freshmen; and I taught journalism for a while in the Seventies. I did two or three creative-writing workshops in the Eighties. I have a position at the University of Kentucky called Writer-in-Residence, where my job is to write. In exchange, I do some readings and visit some classes and a few other things that come up.

TBR What are you working on now? (Are you working on anything now?)

BAM I am beginning a novel. I've almost finished that first year of fooling around. I hope it is really going to take off in 2008.

TBR John Irving wrote of his “movie business” and I wondered if you were involved at all with the production of the film adaptation of In Country? Were you called upon to consult with the director? Did you visit the set? Get to observe the process?

BAM I was kept at arm's length. Those Hollywood people do an elaborate song-and-dance to make the writer feel petted and honored and in on it, but the truth is they don't trust the writer and are afraid the writer might try to interfere. I didn't want to interfere. I just wanted to be IN it. During the writing of the script, they consulted me for my reactions to the various scripts. And Norman Jewison asked me for some input on the production notes. But once it got started filming, I was not part of the process. They didn't even let the screenwriter, Frank Pearson, near the set. They allowed me to visit two or three scenes, toward the end of the filming. This movie was filmed in my hometown, and people were beside themselves with excitement. The movie, not the book, was the important thing. They probably thought I was too busy hobnobbing with movie stars to hang around. But I was kept away.

TBR How do feel Ms. Lloyd and cast did in representing the essence of your novel? Did Mr. Jewison share your vision as he shaped it for the screen?

BAM Emily Lloyd was a wonderful Sam, bringing to the character a special energy that really enlarged the character. I loved her. I think Norman Jewison's vision had more to do with the veterans than with Sam's story. In particular, it was more a movie for Bruce Willis. Norman spent more time with Willis than he did with Emily, who was an inexperienced actor and needed more direction and emotional support. I enjoyed the other cast members too--Peggy Rea, Jim Beaver, Joan Allen, John Terry, Judith Ivey. Bruce Willis was quite good.

TBR Finally, (and without regard to the previous two FILM questions) what happened to Sam when she returned to Hopewell with Mamaw and Uncle Emmett? Any chance of a “reunion” with her in the present-day?

BAM I don't know anything about what happened to them next. The novel ends at the wall in Washington.

TBR As a Viet-Nam-era vet who was lucky enough to be sent to Alaska to guard against the terrors of a n invasion of Soviet Moose, I have seen my peers (many of these friends) who DID serve “in country,” after their return, and I must say you got it SO right. Many who served came back apparently normal, and others came back obviously damaged or destroyed. The contention between those who served late, and were alienated from their peers and society, and those who served earlier, and were welcomed home, is a divide that separates us to this day.

BAM Thank you very much for this. I was in Washington DC on Veterans Day, 2007. It was the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Vietnam Memorial. There were so many Vietnam vets there, getting older. Many dignitaries--Jan Scruggs, Colin Powell. Maya Lin sent a message. It was a very moving scene. Then I went to hear Bruce Springsteen that night and the next. There were vets from the current wars backstage. A guy with no legs in a wheelchair was in the corridor. And then Bobby Muller, the former President of the Vietnam Veterans of America, rolled up in his wheelchair. It was something to see, for Bobby Muller has spent his career working to see that what happened in Vietnam doesn't happen again. And there was, right in front of him, this very young guy without legs. The next day Bruce went to Walter Reed Hospital and visited with the wounded soldiers, and he invited a bunch of them to the show, and there was a reception for them backstage. John Kerry was there. One of the songs on Bruce's new album, MAGIC, is "Who'll be the Last To Die For A Mistake?", which was John Kerry's line, from long ago. It's all so sad.

TBR Finally, whom do you read now? Are there any writers -- especially any new writers -- whose work excites you? Is the state of American literature moribund, as Philip Roth suggests is happening because people are no longer reading as they once did, or have you reason to believe otherwise? If you disagree, is this a difference in perception caused by age, gender, or regional orientation?

BAM. I am always eager to read books by Ian McEwan, J. M. Coetzee, Michael Chabon, Sebastian Faulks, and Alice Munro.
The best book I read this year was SUITE FRANCAISE, by Irene Némirovsky. Second best was A FINE BALANCE by Rohinton Mistry. You could say Némirovsky is a "new" writer in that her manuscript from 1942 was not read until quite recently, and people are calling it a masterpiece.
A new writer I came across this year is Michael Fitzgerald, whose RADIANT DAYS is unusual and perky, if not quirky. I liked the writing and the atmosphere.
I didn't read much American fiction this year, so I can't venture a conclusion about the state of American literature. There seem to be more good writers than I can keep up with. And there are certainly plenty of emerging writers and people who want to get published and who are in MFA programs. So people are writing and want to write. Are they also reading? I'm no expert on the demographics of reading. I have the impression that people don't have time to read.

TBR: Thank you so much for your cooperation. Our readers will appreciate getting to read your thoughtful comments.

BAM: Thanks for your challenging and thoughtful questions.

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