Bobbie Ann Mason

Interviewed by Meg Pokrass

BLIP: Bobbie, will you talk about the writ­ing you did when start­ing out in the six­ties, dur­ing your for­ma­tive lit­er­ary time?

BAM: I love to look back at my inno­cence! When I got to col­lege I had read, approx­i­mate­ly, Little Women, Forever Amber, and Aldous Huxley’s Ape and Essence. Right away, in fresh­man English at the University of Kentucky, lit­er­a­ture banged me on the head–Thomas Wolfe, Salinger, Hemingway, Steinbeck. One assign­ment was to write a short sto­ry. What a rev­e­la­tion! Then I dis­cov­ered the school news­pa­per and admired two humor colum­nists, Gurney Norman and Hap Cawood. They woke up the muse, and I began writ­ing my own sassy, cute columns for the Kentucky Kernel.

Gurney was a few years old­er and on his way to Stanford on a Wallace Stegner writ­ing fel­low­ship. He encour­aged me to take a cre­ative-writ­ing class from Robert Hazel, so I took two of his class­es.  Hazel was a com­pelling fig­ure, a poet and nov­el­ist who kept us breath­less with his name-drop­ping of famous writ­ers he knew in New York.  I just knew then that I was des­tined to become a fic­tion writer. He made it seem both glam­orous and nec­es­sary, but he was dead seri­ous about writ­ing.  We kept in touch for years, but I did­n’t get the same encour­age­ment from him that he gave to his male pro­tégés.  He was too much of a flirt to know how to give the right atten­tion to me as a writer.

When Gurney was at Stanford and for years after, we kept up a cor­re­spon­dence about writ­ing. His teach­ers were Malcolm Cowley, Wallace Stegner, and Frank O’Connor. Larry McMurtry and Ken Kesey were in his class. All through the ear­ly six­ties he sent me the lat­est news on Kesey’s Merry Pranksters and the elec­tric Kool-aid acid tests and the psy­che­del­ic bus, long before Tom Wolfe (the oth­er Wolfe) got wind of them.  I would get let­ters about Perry Lane pot and pey­ote par­ties and how the crowd at Kesey’s would turn  the sound off the TV and then impro­vise the sound. Then came reports of LSD, with the breath­ing lamp­shades and trees that sang. (Kesey put loud­speak­ers out in the red­woods.) This was thrilling stuff, all cast in terms of open­ing up the imag­i­na­tion for writing.

Gurney stayed on the West Coast, and we kept on writ­ing each oth­er about writ­ing. He would write a page a day of a sto­ry and send it to me. I was writ­ing sto­ries and a lame, ado­les­cent, roman­tic nov­el that I abandoned.

These ear­ly influ­ences were a spurt of encour­age­ment and enthu­si­asm that I had­n’t rec­og­nized or cred­it­ed until here late­ly. Hazel’s class­es and Gurney’s let­ters instilled in me both the neces­si­ty and the joy of writ­ing. The real­i­ty was that I had to make a liv­ing and there were few writ­ing pro­grams then.   Bob Hazel was a men­tor to a group of Kentucky writ­ers who got Stegner fel­low­ships to Stanford. Besides Gurney, there were James Baker Hall, Ed McClanahan, and Wendell Berry. I did­n’t get into Stanford, so I went east to study lit­er­a­ture in grad­u­ate school.

But I became friends with all those guys, who even­tu­al­ly moved back to Kentucky, as I did myself, and because we had all been Bob Hazel’s stu­dents, I became part of the group. We had a per­for­mance reunion in Kentucky sev­er­al years ago and the poster called us the Fab Five, a play on the moniker for the bas­ket­ball team, the ultra-famous Kentucky Wildcats. I’m pic­tured in a col­lege snap­shot in my shiny black rain­coat, like the one Brigitte Bardot wore in Look magazine.


BLIP: When did you write your first nov­el, and what was it about?

BAM: It was the sum­mer of 1967. One must nev­er under­es­ti­mate the pow­er of  “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.”  I lived and breathed that album. I nev­er got into the drug cul­ture myself, except by cor­re­spon­dence. But I took LSD one time that sum­mer. The trees sang.  And I was still hear­ing sto­ries of the Merry Pranksters on the West Coast. Then Donald Barthelme’s bril­liant lit­tle nov­el Snow White came along and turned grad school upside down for me.

Inspired, I wrote a short nov­el about the Beatles!  The Day the Bubble Burst.  The Beatles were always being asked what they were going to do when the bub­ble burst.  This nov­el was writ­ten in flashes…little bursts. What you might call flash fic­tion!  A Merry Prankster-like group was head­ing cross-coun­try in a VW bus to the Beatles con­cert at Shea Stadium.  It was great fun to write, but I nev­er did any­thing with it. A year lat­er, Gurney pub­lished his ver­sion of a cross-coun­try bus trip, Divine Right’s Trip, in the Whole Earth Catalog. One page of the nov­el was on the low­er right-hand cor­ner of each page of The Last Whole Earth Catalog .


BLIP: How did you move toward find­ing your iden­ti­ty as a writer?

BAM: Finding focus and con­fi­dence was a long, slow process dur­ing the six­ties and sev­en­ties. I spent the rest of the six­ties and ear­ly sev­en­ties in grad school and got dis­tract­ed from writ­ing fiction.


BLIP: What was grad school like?

BAM: Terrifying but total­ly absorb­ing. Coming from the South, I went into cul­ture shock for years. I bare­ly made a peep in class, but I loved the intri­ca­cy of lit­er­ary study. It appealed to all my predilec­tions for the abstruse and the cryp­tic. I seized on Nabokov and Joyce. Then after grad school, I grad­u­al­ly got focused on my real ambi­tion, to be a writer. Writing a nov­el was so dif­fer­ent from read­ing one! You could­n’t just sit down and bang out a Moby Dick. I wrote a lit­tle nov­el about a 12-year-old girl on a farm in Kentucky. It was so ele­men­tary and juve­nile, com­pared to what I had read in school. Why could­n’t I leap up to the lev­el of real lit­er­a­ture, some­thing  breath­tak­ing­ly intri­cate and beau­ti­ful?  Now I know that a writer always starts from scratch. You always invent it anew.  My edi­tor Ted Solotaroff  was fond of say­ing that a writer’s first draft always looks like some­thing writ­ten by a 12-year-old. That’s cer­tain­ly true of every­thing I write.


BLIP: How did your rela­tion­ship with the New Yorker begin, and how did it feel to you when it hap­pened? What kind of pres­ence in your writ­ing life did your rela­tion­ship with TNY create?

BAM:  In my late thir­ties I knew it was now or nev­er. I had to keep that promise from col­lege days. I went to a writ­ing con­fer­ence in the Adirondacks one sum­mer. Not only did I make some last­ing friends there, but I got the need­ed boost to plunge into writ­ing sto­ries. Naively, I shot the first one off to the New Yorker!

Roger Angell, senior fic­tion edi­tor there, took an inter­est  in my sto­ries, and he encour­aged me and made me feel I had tal­ent.  I went into over­drive, a state of excite­ment that kept me busy churn­ing out sto­ries. For a year and a half I sent in sto­ries till he final­ly accept­ed one.  It was the twen­ti­eth sto­ry.  Finally, the urgency I had felt in my twen­ties in col­lege was renewed and val­i­dat­ed. I felt I was get­ting some­where, and I was ready to work hard.

When I hear peo­ple say they were dis­cour­aged because they got a rejec­tion let­ter from the New Yorker, I jump on them because if they got a let­ter, some­one was pay­ing atten­tion! Out of the thou­sands of man­u­scripts sub­mit­ted, theirs was sin­gled out for com­ment.  Stay with it! This is what to tell students.


BLIP: Was it was clear to you (as it must have been to your edi­tors) ear­ly in your career that your works were to become an impor­tant pres­ence in the land­scape of con­tem­po­rary literature?

BAM:  I did­n’t have a clear idea of what larg­er per­spec­tive they (edi­tors) had of my writ­ing. I did­n’t have enough per­spec­tive myself on con­tem­po­rary lit­er­a­ture. I did­n’t know what to com­pare it to (Milton and Chaucer?), where­as the edi­tors were immersed in new fiction.


BLIP: How did you feel about the crit­ics who labeled your work as min­i­mal­ism and/ or shop­ping mall real­ism.

BAM: I hate the label, of course. It has been used in a pejo­ra­tive way. I think it is a con­ve­nient dis­tanc­ing tech­nique for peo­ple who might be con­de­scend­ing or uncom­fort­able with read­ing about peo­ple who aren’t up on Milton and Chaucer.

Anatole Broyard reviewed Shiloh in the New York Times and said that the char­ac­ters were as “exot­ic as French peas­ants.” Where was he com­ing from? That was hilarious.


BLIP: To me, the term shop­ping mall real­ism con­jures none of the mag­ic of your enor­mous humor, embed­ded wor­ry, native intel­li­gence; poignan­cy, long­ing and urgency your char­ac­ters own. Shopping mall real­ism almost sounds brain­less moral­ly devoid or something.

BAM: Thank you for say­ing that. However much I dis­like labels, I do think I have helped to open up ter­ri­to­ry for a lot of writ­ers to write about ordi­nary peo­ple who lack priv­i­lege and high cul­ture.  There was a flood of them com­ing out of the south in the eight­ies.  Of course these char­ac­ters shop at Kmart instead of Saks. Duh.


BLIP: Re: Your clear mas­tery of time-trav­el in fic­tion: Can you talk about the art of blend­ing seem­ing­ly ran­dom, yet uncon­scious­ly rel­e­vant mem­o­ry togeth­er with the present life of your char­ac­ters? 

BAM: In short sto­ries, con­trol of time is tricky, espe­cial­ly in the present tense. I used to write sto­ries in the present, and it was always a chal­lenge to move for­ward. I had a prob­lem get­ting a char­ac­ter from A to B with­out deal­ing with doors and car keys, etc.  Skipping for­ward eas­i­ly does­n’t seem nat­ur­al in the present tense.  But writ­ing in the present tense is a direct influ­ence of TV and the movies. Using the present is like watch­ing a movie or TV. You need quick cuts to get from one place to the next.  And you can’t sum­ma­rize three months. In the past tense you can say, “It was hot that sum­mer, and every­body hung out at the lake.”

Getting from A to B in real time is hard­er for me than going from A here-and-now to B in the past. Readers have won­dered how I man­aged to zoom around in time with my char­ac­ter Marshall Stone in The Girl in the Blue Beret. He is in the present, which is 1980, but mem­o­ries of the war in 1944 keep com­ing up. It seems com­pli­cat­ed, requir­ing elab­o­rate charts, but the psy­chol­o­gy of it is sim­ple.  It was so nat­ur­al to have him read in the present an old let­ter he wrote his sweet­heart from his air­base in 1944, and then have a mem­o­ry of a scene at that air­base spring to life. That’s the way it works in the movies! And it works that way emo­tion­al­ly. So fol­low the emo­tion. The tech­nique will be there.


BLIP: How much of your world-view lives in the char­ac­ters you cre­ate? Which character(s), in all of your many nov­els, is the most like you?

BAM: I think the gen­er­al sen­si­bil­i­ty sneaks in with here and there, but for the most part the char­ac­ters are in much dif­fer­ent sit­u­a­tions from mine.  The only char­ac­ter who is very much like me is Nancy Culpepper. I see myself in her, with pret­ty much the same back­ground, though she has led a rather dif­fer­ent life after mov­ing north.


BLIP: How do you feel about pub­lish­ing on the web vs. pub­lish­ing in print?

BAM: It is hard to let go of the val­ue of the tan­gi­ble book, that love­ly reward for one’s labor.  I haven’t pub­lished any sto­ries online, but I’ve writ­ten a few things for Web sites in the ser­vice of book pro­mo­tion, and it is hard to know if any­one noticed or what will ever become of them.  Roger Angell told me that writ­ing a blog is like mak­ing a paper air­plane and sail­ing it out the window.


BLIP: Are you com­fort­able with the self-pro­mo­tion that seems to have become essen­tial to writers?

BAM: No, not real­ly.  Bragging was­n’t in my upbringing.

A good way to think of it is that you are shar­ing your work. That is what you do at a read­ing.  You aren’t actu­al­ly ped­dling your books on a street cor­ner, although I have hoard­ed a lot of remain­ders in case I need to buy med­i­cine in my old age.


BLIP: Do you have an inter­est in e‑books? Do you use e‑readers?

BAM: Real books have space and time.  You know where you are in a book. You see that you are two-thirds through.  You remem­ber that a cer­tain char­ac­ter showed up in a scene near the front…on the left-hand page, toward the bottom.

On the oth­er hand.…I began read­ing War and Peace, plan­ning to lux­u­ri­ate in this hefty tome for weeks ahead. I sat down with it and imme­di­ate­ly real­ized it was just too heavy to hold. I’ve per­ma­nent­ly injured my fin­gers by lift­ing weights, and this book was a dumbbell!

Ten min­utes lat­er, I had it on my iPad–just this excep­tion, I thought. And then I dis­cov­ered what is  built into an e‑book. I could define any word with a touch. I could  Google. I could make mar­gin­al notes.  And I could flash-for­ward to the foot­notes! Books are so clum­sy to han­dle when the foot­notes are at the end instead of the foot that I tend to skip them.


BLIP: What are you read­ing now?  

BAM: War and Peace! Just fin­ished it.


BLIP: What are you read­ing next?

BAM: I plan to re-read the very dif­fi­cult Nabokov nov­el, ADA. I wrote my dis­ser­ta­tion on this nov­el, and I spent months labo­ri­ous­ly search­ing the library for clues to a vast net­work of allu­sions.  I am going to read this in e‑book form, where most of these will be at my fin­ger­tips. Then I want to read Madame Bovary in a dual French-English e‑edition. Touch a line and voila! Translation.

Most oth­er books can with­stand being read in print on paper pages, and one should have the prop­er tra­di­tion­al respect for those love­ly pages made of dead trees.


BLIP: A recent quote by a book review­er: “Dysfunctional fam­i­lies are bor­ing.” This made me laugh. I fig­ured Shakespeare and Tolstoy may have tak­en issue. What do you think about this statement?

BAM: You know, dys­func­tion­al fam­i­lies are bor­ing in a way.  That is, if some­thing can be labeled, it is dimin­ished and becomes just anoth­er exam­ple.  If you say, “here I am read­ing about this dys­func­tion­al fam­i­ly,” then you may be dis­mis­sive and supe­ri­or.  But if you are read­ing a book, and you are think­ing, “I won­der why this woman won’t speak to her run­away kid? Isn’t the nosy aunt a bad influ­ence?” then you are involved in the specifics of a sto­ry that has grabbed your imagination.


BLIP: Yes.. Before the word/label dys­func­tion­al fam­i­ly they were just families…

BAM: If the sto­ry lends itself to label­ing it may seem just one more of a type. Of course dys­func­tion­al fam­i­lies have more inter­est­ing prob­lems than reg­u­lar ones, but good sto­ries aren’t always about fam­i­lies.  The Great Gatsby, for instance.


BLIP: What are your favorite recent books? new(ish) authors?

The Right-Hand Shore by Christopher Tilghman and  Brooklyn by Colm Toibin are my favorite recent books.  I read a nice nov­el by a new writer, Sarah Gardner Borden, called Games to Play After Dark.


BLIP: Why is it hard for good writ­ers start­ing out these days to find a lit­er­ary agent? We hear war sto­ries… 

BAM: I have only ever known one agent, and I’m very lucky to have had her from the begin­ning, so I don’t know much about this des­per­ate quest.

Let’s face it.  Agents are hard to get because the MFA pro­grams are turn­ing out more writ­ers than the mar­ket­place can sup­port.  It some­times seems that there are more writ­ers than read­ers. The expec­ta­tion is a liveli­hood, with pub­li­ca­tion. There is a ter­ri­ble con­tra­dic­tion here, because a writer usu­al­ly can’t write as well when the pri­ma­ry aim is pub­li­ca­tion. The pri­ma­ry goal should be to write some­thing good.  Do the work, then won­der if it is fit to print.


BLIP: What inter­ests you the most now, what are you con­sid­er­ing in-between things here… since you com­plet­ed your last novel?

BAM: I’m going through a phase which involves revis­it­ing my younger selves. Life  turns out to be like a nov­el, with themes and motifs and plot, etc. I don’t want to know how it ends, so I will try to keep the plot going in a com­pli­cat­ed way for as long as I can.

The revis­it includes my grade-school read­er, “Alice and Jerry;” the French lit­er­a­ture I read in col­lege; grad school stud­ies. I feel a need to round out my edu­ca­tion, feel­ing I have either for­got­ten what I learned or nev­er learned it, so there are  a lot of his­to­ry and Great Works to explore. Also, I’m learn­ing French–it’s like being in first grade, learn­ing to read!


BLIP:  THE GIRL IN THE BLUE BERET, your lat­est nov­el (which I just fin­ished) is his­tor­i­cal fic­tion, set in France. This is so dif­fer­ent from any­thing else you have writ­ten. Talk about this a bit, if you will

BAM: I always like to try some­thing dif­fer­ent. I tend to jump in over my head. I fig­ure I will get out some­how.  When I wrote The Girl in the Blue Beret, I leaped right into World War II, a male bomber-pilot’s point of view, the French Resistance, the French lan­guage! What did I think I was doing?  But isn’t that the best way to write fic­tion? Go where you’ve nev­er been before? Without a map?


BLIPWhat is a typ­i­cal day like for Bobbie Ann Mason… between nov­els and study­ing French?

BAM: The days are the same, nov­el or not.  I rise ear­ly, have a long, leisure­ly break­fast while I do cryp­tic cross­words or study French. Then I work as a ser­vant in a large house­hold of fif­teen, includ­ing myself, prepar­ing meals and engag­ing in var­i­ous phys­i­cal activ­i­ties. At two or three I sit at my desk until six, then return to my ser­vant job until about nine or so.  Then I read War and Peace.


BLIP: I know you take care of many cats and dogs (so do I!) Cats appear in so many of your nov­els and sto­ries. They are impor­tant characters.

BAM: There are dogs, too.


BLIP:   And songs, moviesfeel like char­ac­ters in you work. Speaking of which… What are your favorite songs of all time.. and what are your favorite films?

BAM: Movies: A Hard Day’s Night.  Pandaemonium. La Dolce Vita.  Help!  Casablanca.

Some songs: “Point Blank” by Springsteen.  “We’ll Be Together Again” by Frankie Laine.   “With or Without You” by U‑2.  “Norwegian Wood” by the Beatles. “Forever Young” by Bob Dylan. “Stardust.”  So many songs–it’s impos­si­ble to fash­ion a Top Ten.


BLIP: Thoughts about what makes good writ­ing endure the test of time? Reading In Country again, a nov­el that I love deeply, I find that noth­ing feels dat­ed, and the emo­tion­al res­o­nance is even stronger for me as a mid­dle-aged read­er. The first time I read it, I was in my twen­ties

BAM: Thank you for lov­ing that nov­el. Test of time.  Hmm.  that’s pret­ty ineffable.…

The end­ing pas­sage of Gatsby…

Transcendent moment.  Boats against the shore.…it nev­er ends .…

If blogs are like paper air­planes, then great nov­els are flat-out jum­bo jets, with strong wings and supe­ri­or land­ing gear.…all that means is that they are bet­ter writ­ten, with a sto­ry that soars and lan­guage that does­n’t get stale.  And mys­tery that is nev­er com­plete­ly solved. Maybe I mean that it has no land­ing gear at all. It just stays up there.


BLIP: Most like­ly, will you begin on anoth­er nov­el soon?

I’m wary of get­ting sucked into anoth­er nov­el. I’m not look­ing for that. What I don’t like about writ­ing a nov­el is that I get involved and then I look up and five years have passed and I don’t remem­ber it.  So my delib­er­ate plan after the past three or four books is to try to do oth­er things that I miss out on when I am in that soli­tary hole, writ­ing. Eventually that wears out and I’m seized by anoth­er book.


BLIP: How long does it take you to write a nov­el, an esti­mate if you will

The first year is just fool­ing around, avoid­ing the blank pages. It takes anoth­er year to get the first draft. Then there are a cou­ple of  years of revi­sions, then the fine-tun­ing that can go on for months. In a way it seems that noth­ing new is being writ­ten after the first draft.  But it hap­pens. The lat­er stages are the most fun, get­ting the pieces to all fall in place, pay­ing atten­tion to what the sto­ry is telling me. During that process, I go back and forth between read­ing it crit­i­cal­ly and work­ing at it cre­ative­ly. The slap­dash muse likes to make mud pies. Then the artist has to work hard on those crude con­fec­tions to cre­ate a cas­tle (with a moat if desired), con­sult­ing the muse at every oppor­tu­ni­ty (she is often spar­ing with her indulgence).

The writer goes back and forth through the swing­ing doors between the right and left brains. It’s dizzying.


BLIP: What gets your cre­ative work going? Are you ideas driven?

I’ve  found that writ­ing a sto­ry is prompt­ed not so much by an idea, or a top­ic, or a sit­u­a­tion, but just a build up of cre­ative ener­gy, a pos­i­tive sense that it is time to sit down and write, know­ing it will feel good. Also, if I start to fool around with some words and images, I often quick­ly see a sto­ry emerg­ing and then I’m off.

I seem to be get­ting all my phi­los­o­phy these days from the House series, which I watch from an ellip­ti­cal bike. In today’s episode a jazz musi­cian com­pared a musi­cian’s obses­sion to Dr. House’s obses­sive­ness as a doctor–the way they block out every­thing nor­mal, such as wife and kids, so they can nour­ish that One Thing in their lives.

I don’t want to be that obses­sive about writ­ing.  So peri­od­i­cal­ly I try to have some breath­ing space so I can do oth­er things. I don’t usu­al­ly do much, but at least I’ve read War and Peace. And I’ve devel­oped a pret­ty good rou­tine with the cat boxes.


Bobbie Ann Mason majored in English at the University of Kentucky and received her Ph.D. at the University of Connecticut. Her first short sto­ries were pub­lished in The New Yorker and her first book of fic­tion, Shiloh & Other Stories, won the PEN/Hemingway Award. Her first nov­el, In Country, is taught wide­ly in class­es and was made into a Norman Jewison film. Mason’s newest nov­el, The Girl in the Blue Beret, ven­tures into World War II and the ways it is remem­bered. Her mem­oir, Clear Springs, about an American farm fam­i­ly through­out the twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry, was a final­ist for the Pulitzer Prize.