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?
BLIP: What 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, movies…feel 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.