A Conversation with Mary Gordon
Mary Flinn: This is Mary Flinn with Blackbird sitting with Mary Gordon and various members of the VCU English Department and Blackbird staff on Monday, November 12th. You’ve just published a memoir about your mother, Circling My Mother, that I assume is sort of a companion piece to The Shadow Man, a book about your father. And one thing that is curious to me is where you find memory as an authority working for you rather than confusing you. As memory and fiction to my mind have a lot of things that sort of walk along the road together.
Mary Gordon: Well, I think you have to redefine authority. And not assume that it is a univalent concept and there is no other source than memory if you want to write about somebody that really lived. And yet, you have to constantly be questioning where invention has stepped in and taken on the cloak of memory. So, I think you have to give up the idea of getting it right. And yet I do believe there is an ethical component to writing what you’re saying is nonfiction—it can’t make stuff up. Understanding that you may think you haven’t made stuff up that you in fact have made up. So it’s a very unstable plane where I think the ethical has to have its place, where you try your best to tell it like it was to the best of your ability and yet are open to the sort of signals that memory is given. So it’s constantly playing a double game of trying to be both vigilant and porous. And I think that kind of doubleness is what you have to experience.
MF: I was amazed with how good your memory is before you were seven years old when your father died. It made me sit down and try to remember what the house I lived in when I was seven actually looked like. And, how was that, in terms of what you’ve recaptured—what was real, what you told yourself, could you sort of figure that out?
MG: Again, I think that because my father’s death was such a trauma for me and because I kind of went into almost a living death for a few years after he died, those memories were more lively because that was really where I lived. Instead of living in the present, which was to me a dead zone and a place of numbness, the years when my father was alive were the place of liveliness and vividness. So, I think I lived there in a way that many people didn’t—they were kind of having a normal life and doing normal things between seven and twelve. But I feel like between seven and twelve I was numb and so the only not numb place was the years when my father was alive so I think I have an access that’s a little bit singular to those years. But also I have a really beloved cousin who for years said, “How do you remember that? How do you remember that? I don’t remember that.” And also anything dark he didn’t remember and I really did. What’s interesting is as we age he is remembering more things that I always seemed to be able to call up. So, I think it’s a peculiar thing. But I think because I felt like such an outsider and I was living so much more in my own head which was a more comfortable place, that my memories were particularly and maybe peculiarly vivid of those years.
MF: Were there different ways that you chose to examine and tell the story of your father verses the way you chose to tell, examine the story of your mother? What were some of those?
MG: Well, there were no secrets in my mother’s life and there was nothing that I had to research. And nothing that I had to kind of go into the archives for. And there were a lot of shocks in exploring my father’s identity. There were no real shocks in exploring my mother’s identity. And so it was a difference in process that I didn’t have to research anything. What I had to do was recover, in my mother’s case, some of the aspects of her life that had been lost to me in the years in which she had Alzheimer’s, in which she was nothing but an afflicted person. And so what I had to do was sort of mine things that were available to me but that had been repressed because I was dealing with this person who was not recognizable as the person who had been lively, intelligent, entertaining. So it was a process of recovery rather than research.
MF: And so much of her life was involved with her involvement with the church and with her faith. I know that—I think Darcey Steinky maybe said it was a vocation—that really. And vocational thinking about one’s self is something that I don’t think is real common to a lot of young people now. I don’t think they know that language that goes with religious calling that then transfers over into art a lot of the time. Where did your mother’s vocation come from? Was it her family that started her connection to the church? The fact that the church gave her a place to be somebody?
MG: I don’t think it was her family. My mother—was—had a much more complicated religious life than the other people in her family. You know I think they remained—this sounds judgmental, it is—they remained on a level of rather primitive, almost peasant Catholicism. And my mother, and I don’t know where this came from—it’s a miracle, it’s grace, it’s mysterious—she was very smart. And I think she was actually just more gifted than the other people in her family. She was more curious. She was more courageous. You know, I think one of the tragedies of my mother’s life was being born a working-class woman when she was. She should have gone on to higher education. You know, she worked for a lawyer—could have easily been a lawyer. Wrote very well. If you gave her a kind of complicated book to read, she would never think she had the right to read it, but if you gave it to her, she always got it. And so I think she had—and I can’t trace this to her family—imagination, courage, and intelligence. And the church was a place where a woman could have an inner life that was taken seriously—if she had the luck to find a particular kind of priest in a particular kind of community. And she did have both the luck to find it and the courage to follow it through. And so she got to have an inner life in the church in a way that most women of her class and educational level wouldn’t have had. So, simply the process of examination of conscience, which was a part of the sacrament of penance, that means you have to say “Who am I? What did I do? Why did I do it? What else could I have done?” Most women weren’t given that diction. It was “You do it because, you know, you’re a woman. Don’t think about it.” So I think, oddly enough, the church, because she had the courage to find the right people in it, gave her a wider and a larger life than she could have had. Where that courage and intelligence come from—that’s grace, that giftedness, that’s accident, and mystery and I can’t explain that.
MF: That is very different from the kind of fifties, early sixties Catholicism that I can remember. I had a little aunt who converted and who, therefore, you know, read the party line down the whole, “I do this because the church tells me to do it” and it was for her, I think, very freeing not to have to make any of those decisions.
MG: Oh, my mother wasn’t making decisions. You know, if the church told her that she had to paint her toenails green she would have done it. On the other hand, within those confines, she still had to say, for example, “Am I as charitable as I might be? Am I as honest as I might be? Am I as valorous as I might be?” The standards were very high. Now, she wouldn’t have questioned anything, but she would have questioned herself. So she would not have questioned authority, but on the other hand, she would say, “How am I living this ideal?” And it offered her an alternative to domesticity. So, unlike many, many women of her generation, my mother had no romance about marriage and the home. She thought that was really for losers. And I think it’s because the church in having the image of the nun, the female martyr, the female saint—it was an alternative to domesticity. And again, that opened her into a larger life. But she would never question the authority.
MF: What did she think of your life as a writer?
MG: I think she thought that some bird had laid an egg in her nest that she would sit on but didn’t quite recognize. And that’s very moving to me because my father was a writer, but a failed writer. And so at a very early age they looked at me and they said, “Oh, you know, she’s his.” So my mother in some sort of way that I think, again, only moves me very much as I am a mother myself, looked at me and said, “Oh, she’s going to go in a direction that’s going to take her away from me, but I’m gonna let her do it.” And so I think in some inchoate way she supported me, not understanding what I was doing, but supported it. And I think, you know, she never praised my work. I never knew what she thought of it. The only thing that I knew was that when Final Payments came out she asked the priest if I had written a dirty book. And when he said no that was great relief to her. I think my books were the only kind of serious literature she ever read. She might have read Graham Greene—I think she read The End of the Affair. And I think she read Brideshead Revisited because that was in the culture, but that was it. So she had absolutely no idea what I did for a living but she was going to support it. And that’s really quite a loving thing to do and not an easy thing to do.
MF: What is very clear in your book about your father and in the essays that were in the geography, the Seeing Through Places, and what I’ve read from the book about your mother, is the real deep affection that was there between you and your parents—
MF: —and less apparent necessarily between your parents and each other. Now, that had to be something that gave you confidence as you moved out and went to Barnard and everything else.
MG: Yeah, I’m very grateful for that. I was like the miracle child. You know my mother was forty-one when I was born and a Polio victim. My father—I keep forgetting how old my father was because he lied so much about his age—but he was, in fact, fifty-seven when I was born. For most of my life I thought he was fifty, so it’s hard for me to make that calibration. But they really, really wanted a child and when I was born my father—I was born in a Catholic hospital—and my father pulled the nursing nun down to the hospital, made her kneel down and say the Te Deum at my birth. And I was like, “Dad, I’m not the emperor—ratchet it down a little bit,” but there was no ratcheting it down. They both absolutely gave me the idea that I was wanted, loved, prized, treasured, and extraordinary. And if you have that you can really get through a lot.
MF: And to switch a little bit to how you were telling the story in your novel, Pearl, and in The Shadow Man—and I haven’t finished your book about your mother—the title “Circling” seems to me to be an apt description of a lot of how you told the story as if you’re going down in a spiral trying to find the nut-meat at the bottom. I think you said in an interview that you had tried to open—become less controlling—as a writer in terms of—. So, how did the memoir free you up in a way from a plot or following a line that you followed in fiction more often?
MG: Well I think you have to understand it when you’re dealing with a real life. I mean, in fiction if you don’t like the way somebody’s life is going, you change it. And if it doesn’t seem to be making the narrative point, you change it. Well you can’t do that with a life and so you really understand how complex and contradictory and unresolved things are. In fiction we want a kind of resolution narratively that I think autobiography or memoir doesn’t demand. And so I had to understand that there were just so many ways of understanding, some of which were quite contradictory.
MF: And Pearl, that’s a little open-ended at the end too.
MF: And you have this narrator who seems to be sitting over here and knows everything about them, but is not as a sort of familiar omniscient narrator and I wondered where you plucked that one out and just a—
MG: Well, oddly enough, I pluck it out of Howard’s End. I was teaching Howard’s End and writing about Howard’s End and I looked at that narrator and if you read the voice it is an omniscient narrator who is not a character, whom we don’t know, who comments on things, who comments on the state of England, who comments on the nature of women, the nature of money—rather large issues—but isn’t a part of the action. So, I actually plucked her/him—
MF: Where it sort of came from.
MG: Yeah. So what I wanted was to include in fiction this notion of the open-endedness and unknowability or complicatedness of life because there were a lot of strands in Pearl. I wanted the narrator to keep a hold of the strands.
MF: One thing that’s interesting, you have Joseph’s mother and your main character have names that are almost exactly that same. In the Marie and Maria—so you have Mary, Joseph and the baby—but the Pearl part—also you’ve sort of got a little something that reminds me of The Scarlet Letter.
MF: But you seem to be very generous with those characters. They all come across with deep thoughts. But are people that you developed—you want to root for, at least by the end of the book. You take a lot of your own experience and put it into the mother, Maria, from the late sixties. And, are you using that kind of late sixties world more consciously now do you think?
MG: I am. As a matter of fact I’m now working on a novel which is going to be the people of a certain age looking back and chunks of narrative set at that time in the mid to late sixties. I think we’re still living it out. The last election was about the sixties. If you voted for Kerry you liked the sixties, if you voted for Bush you didn’t. If you voted for Kerry you thought the sixties were a good thing and you were probably against the war in Vietnam and if you voted for Bush you thought the Vietnam protests were the end of everything good in the world. So it just seems to me it’s such a flash point for who we are—how we identify ourselves as Americans. For some people it seemed like a liberation, for some people it seemed like the end of everything valuable. But we’re still very rooted there as the place by which we define ourselves. So I think it’s oddly potent as an imaginative source.
MF: Do you find in thinking of that in terms of other people who are from your generation, do you think there is somebody who has written about that in a way that gives it some of the dimension and complication that you feel it has?
MG: Not from a woman’s point of view. I think male writers have done it but I don’t think it’s been done so much from a woman’s point of view and I’m sure I’m missing something huge and you’ll all tell me but I haven’t found it.
MF: I couldn’t think of a woman who’d done—I think of Tim O’Brien—
MF: —right off the bat. But I was having trouble thinking of our contemporaries who are women who have gone—opened that bigger world. I know that Elizabeth Spencer, who is older than we are, wrote a novel that deals with a Vietnam War resister who goes to Canada, but I was having trouble thinking of somebody who really dealt deeply with that world and what it did to women.
MG: Yeah, because for me, I just go down on my knees every morning and say thank you for letting me come of age when I . . . Even if you look at literature—if you look at American literature from 1950 to 1970, there are no women there. Women are really marginalized. If you think of the big guns in the fifties: Mailer, Roth, Bellows, Styron, Updike, Vonnegut, and the women who were doing fabulous work, like Flannery O’Connor and Eudora Welty, they’re mainly doing it in the short story and they’re very marginalized. Until Toni Morrison starts coming into the scene in the seventies there are no American women novelists for, you know, almost two decades. And if I had written Final Payments in 1953 it would never have been published. So I feel like as a writer, the sixties, as they created the women’s movement, created an audience for me, gave me the permission to write about my own life, and just all sorts of ways in which I didn’t have to be—it never occurred to me—I went to single sex institutions and I was at Barnard in the sixties—the idea that you would be afraid to say anything because you were a woman was like from Pluto. If I had been in a co-ed environment ten years before, I would have felt constrained. And I remember reading The Golden Notebook in 1969—I thought the world had opened up because there were things that were being talked about that simply hadn’t been talked about. So I’m very grateful for the possibilities that were open to me.
MF: Yeah. I had that same experience with The Golden Notebook and finding—though I had been lucky enough to find Eudora Welty and Flannery O’Connor and other women who were more southern who—but not so much other people like Jean Stafford or—
MG: Oh, isn’t she amazing? I’m obsessed with her.
MF: But the fact that a lot of us did go to women’s colleges and had girl’s school educations I think was of real critical importance to a lot of the women I know who are writing now—like Annie Dillard who, somebody who is writing to a degree with the Catholic experience.
MG: Well, she’s a convert.
MF: Yeah, she was a Presbyterian to start with, but—
MG: She didn’t suffer.
MF: But I’m just curious what differences you see in your women students now that you’ve been teaching co-ed classes for a long time.
MG: I teach at Barnard, which is a women’s college—
MF: Has it stayed—it hadn’t merged up like Radcliff and Harvard?
MG: No. So I do have some men from Columbia and I also teach at the graduate program at Columbia so I do have co-ed classes, though my classes are always hugely, preponderantly female. I love my students. I do not bash this generation of students. And maybe I’m in a privileged position but they’re marvelous. And they are a lot less constrained than we were. When I was in writing class, every other story would be about the loss of virginity. That’s just not a topic on the table anymore. It’s just not there. I think that this generation has a much less conflicted relationship with their mothers and I just find them less repressed in old ways. What’s interesting is there’re kind of body issues for women that didn’t exist when I was young. The number of eating disorders that women are now writing about and experiencing is just shocking and distressing to me, as if all their anxiety has been turned against their own bodies. I think that—you know people that come to work with me are self-selected so I don’t deceive myself that I can make any kind of large statements. But they seem to me savvy, smart, courageous, probably less angry at men than my generation was, more hopeful about working things out. The world is much worse for them than it was for me. Much less hopeful. To imagine a career as a writer now is much more difficult than it was—it was hard when I was starting but it’s much more difficult. On the other hand, I find them freer and more courageous.
MF: I would agree with you, with the people who come through Blackbird certainly—there’s a brightness that’s shining—and they don’t have a lot of those issues that deal with, “Where are you in relationship to men?” and “What are they thinking of you all the time?” and that even in women’s institutions was a pretty common since most of our professors were guys a lot of the time.
MG: Not mine. Not at Barnard. Never. That was what shocked me at graduate school. Suddenly I was getting taught by men—who are these people? What are you doing in a classroom, you’re a guy. It was like when my daughter, who had always had female doctors, when she was about six she had to go to an ear specialist and she said, “But he’s a doctor and he’s a man,” and she thought that was extremely puzzling. No, I was really taught most importantly by women in my whole life.
MF: Elizabeth Hardwick was one of your main mentors. Do you still visit with her or share—
MG: I do. She’s very, very old now and frail.
MF: Eleanor Taylor is somebody I’ve known that’s sort of a contemporary of hers and I know Eleanor’s getting a little shaky. But is Elizabeth still—?
MG: You know she’s physically very frail, but you know she’s still that razor sharp mind.
MF: Yeah. I heard her speak once at something for Peter Taylor and she was very sharp and sort of terrifyingly so.
MG: Yeah, she’s terrifying.
MF: So are you going back to fiction now?
MG: I am. I’m on sabbatical this semester and the next novel that I want to write is set in Rome. I’ve just come back from a month in Rome—
MF: Ah, research.
MG: —research. And so because I had to go at a time when my sabbatical was, I put down another project that I was doing to start this novel. I’m actually writing a book about Jesus which I have put down for the moment and will get back to next week. Then I’ll put the novel away and let it bake until I finish the Jesus book.
MF: What part of Jesus is—?
MG: It’s called Reading Jesus and it’s an attempt to create a different model of reading from the fundamentalist model because one of the things that worries me a lot and distresses me is the growth of fundamentalism, but I don’t think that it’s helpful to say they’re all wicked and idiots. So I try to say what appetite is being fed by fundamentalism that more intellectual approaches to religion have not fed? And it seems to me that to be a literary person you might be able to bridge those two—that is to use the mind, to use the critical faculty, and yet to speak emotionally. And so it’s a very personal experience of what is my reading of the gospels, what is the experience of reading the gospels. I was brought up as Catholic—we weren’t supposed to read the bible. We really weren’t. You could hear it a church on Sunday’s but you were not encouraged to read it. So I never read the gospels all the way through, you know I really knew them as fragments. And so that’s been a very interesting experience. What I’m searching for (you know I don’t know whether I’ll be really about to achieve it) but it seems to me the dominant tonality in our world now is fear and fundamentalism is successful because it speaks to fear. And I try, I really try to understand that. So I am afraid of turbulence on airplanes. And when an airplane gets turbulent I stop thinking. If the pilot got on and said, “You know, um, I’m pretty well trained, uh, and I think, uh, I’ll be able to get the plane down—it’s a very complicated machine—a lot of things can go wrong. You know, uh, I really know how to deal with most of them. But, you know, the computer could go on the fritz and we could really crash. But I’m pretty sure I can deal with this.” I’m saying, “Get me off this plane!” I want the pilot to say when I’m in turbulence, “Don’t worry I’m going to land the plane.” And I think that’s what fundamentalism says, “Don’t worry I’m going to land the plane.” And if we keep saying, “You know, the computer could really go and I don’t really—I’m not sure how to fix it. I’ll try.” That’s basically what it is to be postmodernist I think. You know how complicated everything is, you know you can’t understand it all, you don’t know how to fix most of the stuff that’s wrong. So then how do we deal with that uncertainty and that fear without lying about complexity? And how do we give hope and consolation in a very shifting and uncertain environment? Anyway, that’s what I’m trying to do.
MF: Where is your reading of the gospel leading you with that?
MG: I end with The Seven Last Words [of Christ] and I don’t know how I’m going to get there yet.
MF: Where did you start?
MG: I started with a quote from Eliot, “These fragments I have shorn against my ruin.” So, I’ve divided the book into three sections. It’s the parts of the gospel that are very dear to me. And mediations on the parts of the gospels that I love. And the second section is called “The problem of Jesus” which is the part of gospel I really don’t like and how to deal with that. But I think it’s important to say, “You know some of the stuff that he said I really don’t want to live by and I’m really not comfortable with and I wish he hadn’t said that.”
MF: Which are those?
MG: You know, stuff about divorce, being eunuchs for the kingdom of God—I’m not crazy about that. And then there’s a tremendous amount of contradiction. You know “I come not to bring peace but the sword,” or you know, “My peace I leave you my peace I give you.” So who are you? A lot of the apocolypticism I’m not very comfortable with. Some of the contradictions and some of the harshness I’m not particularly comfortable with. There’s a lot of anger and then we’re told not to judge, but he’s judging up the whazoo. “Blessed are the peacemakers” but “I come to bring peace not the sword.” Don’t bury your father. If he had said to me, “Don’t bury you father” I would have said “see ya later.” There’s a lot of asceticism. Jesus is really not a family values guy. He really says leave your father, leave your mother. Don’t bury them, don’t talk to them. I don’t have a mother; I don’t have brothers and sisters. I’m on a mission. And so some of that harshness is hard to take and one doesn’t want to live by it.
MF: And that eye of the needle seems very, very thin.
MG: The eye of the needle is very thin but then, “Come to me because my yoke is easy and my burden light.” Well, what is it? Can I relax? Or do I have to be on guard all the time? And yet I think that’s the richness of the text that—that what I don’t like are these pastel Jesus’ with—that look like Breck girls. So it’s an interesting and actually very painful project.
MF: Now, have you talked to theologians at all?
MG: I have. But I’m not relying on biblical scholarship and I’m not relying on theology because I don’t think that’s the range that fundamentalists hit. It’s very personal and I’m trying to speak emotionally. You know, what are the feelings that are evoked by these moments, by these narratives, by this character?
Audience Question: Can I break in right there with a question then—you know the fig tree? This is the one in the gospels that I’m constantly stuck on. He finds that fig tree and it doesn’t have the fruit and he’s just like—
MG: And it’s out of season.
PV: And it’s out of season. And it’s such a stumper to me—that’s one of those moments in the gospels and it’s repeated. Why there out of all the times and what am I supposed to learn from that moment?
MG: Well you know Simone Weil writes about that very wonderfully and it haunts her cause she feels like it is a curse on non productivity—not doing enough. I think it’s the moment in which he can’t stand causality. He’s just enraged by it—by the limits of nature and by his own limits. So then you have to say well, “Is this divine? Could God be enraged by—?” It’s one of the moments that I fix on. How do we understand that? But it’s sort of wonderful because it’s so difficult. Jesus is a very difficult character, and you know as somebody who’s read literature I can love that, but you’ve got to pay attention to it. So that’s what I’m trying to do is try to pay attention to these—where do I go with this? moments. Which are very painful I think. But you should read Simone Weil on it. She was somebody that worked like an ox and she writes “Oh I’m unproductive, I haven’t done enough, and Jesus will curse me.” I think it’s a moment that’s very poignant for those of us that worry that we haven’t done enough. It could be a site of meditation about that.
MF: Has she been an influence on you in terms of how you think about things dealing with the bible or the Catholic Church or whatever?
MG: She’s been very important to me, although I think she’s a total nut case. I think what is so important to me about her is her understanding of the centrality of human suffering and her notion that the most important ethical issue is to not make a thing of the other and not to use force to make a thing of the other. And her absolute understanding of suffering and the centrality of suffering is very, very moving to me. And her kind of heartbreaking, and usually failed attempts, to be in the ordinary world when she was such an intellectual. I mean she was going to help in the Spanish Civil War and she went over but she stepped in a vat of hot cooking oil the first day there and burnt her foot so she had to call her father, who was a doctor, to come over to Spain and bring her home. You know it’s just that kind of poignance—somebody really trying to make a difference in the world that just was so ungifted in those areas but kept trying, you know, and so I find her combination of deep spirituality and deep social commitment. Even though I think she was neurotic and I think she had real problems with being a self-hating Jew so I don’t think it’s an open and shut case, but the poignance of her insistence is very moving to me.
MF: I can see that interest in Pearl as a character, that in terms of trying to take on, to suffer, to atone for what she feels was something that she did to that little boy. And one of the things I found interesting in what you did with her is the fact that as she begins to be nourished she becomes hungry and that was just an interesting detail of starvation and recovery from it—but she’s trying to bleach herself out to a nothing too. So starvation sort of becomes a little motif in that book. Have you ever felt the desire to be an ascetic yourself?
MG: Oh yeah, and it usually lasts for about four minutes and then I think, “That’s not very comfortable, I think I, that doesn’t feel good, I don’t think I’ll do that.” When I was twelve I thought I should adopt penitential practices and I put thorns in my shoes during Lent. But then I thought, “Oh, this hurts.” So I would like try to walk on my shoes so that it wouldn’t actually hurt, but it didn’t work. And so I have a great ambivalence about asceticism. I keep thinking I should be more ascetic, but I’m extremely pleasure loving. So, I think it’s the fact that I’m Irish, Italian, and Jewish. That the Irish wants me to be more ascetic but then I have this Italian side that thinks, “Maybe we could just have some pasta.”
MF: Thinking again about Norman Mailer’s death—the idea about what makes great fiction or what makes important fiction that was so tied to people like Mailer in terms of: it’s got to be about war, it’s got to be blah, blah, blah, blah and that Gilbert and Gubar sort of turned on its head. Do you still feel that the domestic, if you want to call it that, in fiction is less valued than the stretch, big novel like Ancient Evenings?
MG: I think the difference is the domestic, if it’s centered on males, is still fine. So Philip Roth is hardly writing the big canvas but we’re supposed to be really riveted by the fact that he’s now wearing adult diapers, which is the last book. I’m not making this up. I think it’s interesting to look at Roth, who really mines the area of the personal, but it’s the male personal and the personal read as sexual and we’re all supposed to agree that that’s important. If you were writing about a book centered around a woman’s body—can you imagine writing a book about female ageing? That would just creep people out. They would never buy it. It would never be published. I’m not even so sure that it’s the domestic or the personal as opposed to the large, but it’s the male verses the female and that I think is more important than ever. Denis Johnson is somebody I admire a lot. I haven’t read the book yet, but it is considered the important book because it’s about war and men and it’s like you have to read it or you’re kind of a moron. Compare it with Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead which people thought was important but well, you don’t really have to read that. It would be nice if you read it. You sort of feel like if you don’t read Denis Johnson’s book you’re a slacker. So I think that the male absolutely trumps in the notion of what is important or great.
MF: It has struck me that that has continued. And it’s curious because you see a lot of men dealing with the personal, like Jeffrey Eugenides or Jonathan Franzen, and there still seems to be so much more noise about those books than there would be about say something like Pearl which is a very interior book but it’s a woman’s interior more than otherwise. Cause it’s a book about forgiveness and sin and horrible things—I mean it’s a big book. Do you still feel that sometimes if they want a Catholic woman they’re going to call you and you come and say what a Catholic woman should be saying as the writer of the day?
MG: I kind of feel like there are a lot of things about me that are alienating to people. Being Catholic, being female, being a feminist and being literary. So, putting those four things together a lot of people say, “Don’t need to go near her.” Because they really—I don’t mean to sound self-aggrandizing—but I’m not sure that anyone has ever tried to put all those four things together and it’s a combination people don’t want. So you can be a Catholic woman, you really shouldn’t be a feminist. If you’re a feminist you really shouldn’t be too literary. If you’re literary you shouldn’t be Catholic. I’m trying to put together a lot of stuff people don’t think belong together. I can’t think about that—that’s kind of their problem.
MF: So much of the market of people who buy books is made up of women much more than men.
MG: But I think women still think to read a man is reading up. Men never think reading a woman is reading up. So one of these days I’m just gonna lose my good manners and deck the next man who says to me at a reading, “My wife reads your books.” No language can penetrate the stupidity of that remark. ‘Cause you want to say, “So, what are you doing with your life that is so pressing that you don’t have time to read me?” Like the notion that that’s an okay thing to say. I mean I once had a gigantic confrontation with Norman Mailer who said to me, “I’ve never read you. My secretary has read you. I don’t want to read you because supposing you’re not good then I could have trouble with my secretary.” You can’t even imagine a conversation like that with a man. I said to him, “Mr. Mailer, you’re really very busy and I really don’t care if you read me or not. Maybe you’re reading other things that you would like better.” So actually it was really one of my finest moments—we were then on a panel together and I was you know really irritated with him. And it was about fiction writers who write nonfiction and I was talking about writing The Shadow Man and why I couldn’t write it as a novel. I was saying that my father was Jewish and I had talked about being Irish. And so Mailer said, “May I interrupt you?” and I said, “No, you can wait till I’m finished.” So then I was finished and he said, “Well, perhaps out of the mercy of your Irish-Jewish heart you could now allow me to speak.” I said, “I’m a quarter Sicilian, we don’t do mercy.” At which point he came up to me afterwards he said, “Why don’t you like me?” And at that point I had a seven-year old and I said, “You know Mr. Mailer, I have a seven-year old and he will make a gigantic mess, act badly, and then say, ‘Mommy why are you mad at me?’ I find that objectionable in a seven-year old, in a seventy year old it’s really unattractive.” I said, “First of all you tell me you don’t read my books that I’m not worth your time and then you wonder why I don’t like you? You know, what is your problem?” So, then he said, “Oh no, come on. You know, let’s just have a drink.” And I said, “No, not going to do that.” So I went up to my room, and then he sat and had a drink—after this conversation, I mean this is now a four-tier conversation—he’s saying to the people having a drink, “I don’t know why Mary Gordon doesn’t like me.” What do you do?
MF: Thinking of things that you’re reading now, who are you looking at—particularly young writers?
MG: Well, this is a former student of mine, so it sounds prejudiced but she’s a great writer, Maxine Swan just did a book called Flower Children, which is a beautiful book. Meg Wolitzer, also a former of student of mine, is wonderfully witty and elegant writer.
MF: And I’m thinking too of something you said in an interview once in terms of people whose styles are different, that Fitzgerald as opposed to Hemingway has what you could almost has a lusher, more emotional, more lyrical sort of voice, but the Hemingway pose is the one that captured what American prose is. Do you still see that working itself out to a degree?
MG: I do. But then there’s a kind of hyper-lyricism that seems to be out of control like the Cormack McCarthy which I just—I can’t go there either. And what I wish is that there’s an alternative tradition, a female tradition in American Literature, there’s the Willa Cather tradition, which seems to me to combine lyricism and a real carefulness of styles. So everybody thinks you have to do Faulkner, Fitzgerald, and Hemingway and those are the only people that ever wrote. But I think Cather is a great forbear that we need to look at. Katherine Anne Porter—fantastic writer. So I think that there are alternative traditions that haven’t been mined yet. It is so much, you know, the prejudice in America that bigger is better, that the short story hasn’t been honored and some of the most wonderful American work has been in shorter forms.
MF: Oh I agree with you absolutely on that.
MG: So Porter, Welty, O’Connor, Cheever, Peter Taylor, Malamud. Their best work I think is done in the short form.
MF: What are you, beyond the Jesus book and the novel—do you have things that you want to try out for yourself in terms of what you tackle?
MG: I do. It has occurred to me that I am going to die. And it has occurred to me that I may not get to write everything that I want to write which is a good problem to have. I have now ten years of projects in my brain and that’s exciting in different forms. I’m now working on prayers; I’ve gone back to writing poetry. I feel like there’s a lot cooking in my brain which I realize I may not get to do. I collect notebooks and I’m very fetishistic about notebooks, I have a closet full of notebooks and I went in the other day and I said, “You know, I might not live long enough to fill all these notebooks.” And it was quite a sort of sobering thing to realize that my life is probably two-thirds over. At the same time to have all these ideas and to understand that I may not get to do them is an interesting place to be.