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.