WAG: Having taught writing for so many years
and knowing that most of your students won't go
on to have writing careers, what's your perspective
on the value of those programs?
I have very mixed feelings about those
programs. On the one hand, I think we have a much
more literary culture than we had before we had
writing programs. I don't think it has to do with
writing programs, necessarily. I think what writing
programs create are a lot of better writers. They're
certainly not going to create the writers that make
My problem with it is that there
is a kind of uniformity (which George Mason does
a pretty good job of avoiding) and self-congratulation
and clubbiness. All things that are very much against
what the writing profession is really about, which
is the individual who can only write the story he
can write, and nobody else can write that story
that way. I think it tends to create a kind of fraternity.
At the same time—in a very
difficult fiction climate particularly, and also
serious non-fiction climate, and certainly poetry
climate—without the group to push itself forward,
it's very difficult to find a little corner of the
universe where you can exist at all.
I didn't go to a writing program.
It would have been a total disaster for me. I would
have been the kind of writer, as I sometimes am,
who would have been ridiculed for the kind of writing
I do. I think it would have been a disaster for
someone like Toni Morrison too, who would have been
told the same kind of thing.
When my son said to me, "I
want to go to a writing program," I said, "God,
don't do it, it's just ruinous." But it turned
out to be a very, very good thing for him.
I think you need to have a lot
of confidence to go into them. Not confidence so
much in your own writing, but personal confidence
in what it is you have to say in any way, even at
You did study with Peter Taylor. Looking
back, what do you think is the most valuable thing
you learned under him?
He didn't read our work. He would much
prefer to read Chekhov instead. That was really
extremely important. There were two things that
he did. One was that he was not awfully interested
in our work. And the other was that he told his
wife that I had talent. And his wife met my mother
in the beauty parlor and told her that he said I
had talent. Now, he never would have said that to
me. So he must have read a little bit.
He was a wonderful teacher because
he knew what he thought was important. And it was
also very true that endless—and this I also
don't believe in—going over student work in
class is not fascinating. It takes a very long time
to become a good writer. And he did it by teaching
Chekhov instead of us. That wasn't a bad thing.
It gave us a very realistic sense of what it would
be to write.
I had him for a year. He was the
first real writer I ever knew, and to have a real
writer of that caliber and that temperament and
that real capacity to tell stories was incredibly
important. And then in the old-fashioned way, which
still exists a little bit but not with a lot of
writers, he lent his name to my work, which, when
that work went out for the first time, meant all
the difference. He said, "You can use my name
in sending this to my editor," and he
was a narrative writer of character, which is the
kind of corner that I fit into. And so I used his
name, and as a result of using his name, his editor
read the book. If I just sent the book in, his editor
would have set the book aside.
What are you pursuing in your fiction? What
is the thing you want to explore or wrestle with
or get to the bottom of?
My real interest is character, and how
a person, whoever he is, can make a life in a world
that can make it very difficult to have a life.
In which you can find some sense of integrity. I
think that I'm an optimistic fiction writer in that
sense—though my books are not full of light,
they are really after how a person can make the
most of what happens to him, to make a life when
bad things happen, to survive with a cheer instead
of a sense of darkness.
You have managed a prolific writing and teaching
career while raising four children. How?
I am not a perfectionist. I have more
and more realized I am not a perfectionist as I've
done this. I really could take a lot of chaos and
work in it. If dinner wasn't delicious and certainly
if the house wasn't clean, I could deal with that.
I do have a sense of order
and disorder—I am disciplined. But
also I think that in some ways it's a fabulous career
for a mother. Your children come first—that's
quite clear, and if it's not clear, they make it
quite clear. Having a child brings up your own childhood
constantly, because as they get older again and
again you find who you were at that point surfacing—a
perfect sensibility for writing.
To say it is easy is certainly
not true. I cannot imagine any better combination
of two things to do. And always when you were a
failure in one you could depend on the other. One
of the hardest things right now is my children are
grown up, so if I have a book crash, I can't go
and invade their lives and say, "Let me teach
you how to do this a little better." I have
to just deal with the crashing book. When the children
were little, I could have these two opportunities
to be about work, and a chance of one working out
pretty well during the day.
You've written books for children as well
as for adults. Is there a significant difference
in the way you approach writing a children's book
as compared to the way you write an adult book?
Or are you interested in the same kinds of things?
Essentially, I am interested in the same
kinds of things. I am interested in character, I'm
interested in family, I'm interested in story. But
a children's book, because it is written from the
point of view of the child—however complex
their minds may be, and their emotional dimensions
may be—is nowhere near the complexity, in
terms of language expression, as an adult's. And
a children's book is linear, because children are
not terribly interested in back story, because their
sense of the world is very much what's happening
today. It is easier—it's a lot easier. I think
that it has to do with the fact that it's more graspable.
That somehow you can get it completely in your mind.
Your son, Porter, now has his first book
out (The Obituary Writer—and it came
out at the same time as one of your books (Plum
and Jaggers). How has that experience been?
It's been a nightmare. There was nothing
more fun than doing this, because we did talk back
and forth and establish a relationship, and the
idea that he would be doing the same sort of thing,
and that we would be able to have these conversations
is certainly something that is wonderful...particularly
from the point of view of the parent, to be able
to talk—at a real level of understanding—with
What has been so difficult was
that for a very long time he was terribly worried
that his book was going to get lost in the fact
that mine was the lead book of Farrar, Straus and
that it was expected to do extremely well. I completely
As it turned out, his book did
wonderfully well, and Plum and Jaggers got
a killer review in the New York Times. It's
doing fine, but it just didn't have that life. So
suddenly there was this reversal, and he felt completely
horrible that my book had not done as well as his.
And of course as a mother, you
are much more interested in your children's success
than you are in your own, so it didn't affect me
in the same way. But it meant that there was a time—after
having a completely open relationship—of great
delicacy that has gone on. I'm sure it will change
and we will never do this again. It was a terrible
mistake and we didn't do it on purpose. We were
both scheduled for the same month because I'm not
a famous writer and he is a new writer, and June
was a good month. I was not going to be competing
with Philip Roth and all those people who came out
in May and April. So there was an inevitability
about it that we had no control over.
But finally, I think it is really
wonderful to have a child of mine be in the same
field, including teaching. He's very different.
He is much more of a perfectionist and he is also
much more of a scholar.
I would think the hard thing—knowing
all the 'slings and arrows' that you run into in
a writer's career—would be imagining your
child going through those things and wanting to
protect him from the downside of the writer's life.
And he had the great good fortune of
not having it happen—and of course it will
happen, because it always happens—of not having
it happen in the first go-round. And I think that's
great, because if you go out and have it happen
that way the first time, it certainly is hard to
take the heart to go out again. I didn't and he
hasn't, so I was very pleased with that.
You and your son have been editing a series
together, which I think must be a very different
experience of being writers together.
It was a way we had of doing something
together that brought two generations together on
ideas. The first book was about Justice, and we
did it equally. The second book was about Progress.
This book is Education, and he has done it entirely
himself. He turns out to be the tougher editor,
and he's very good at this. I tend to be a little
bit more the idea person—though he has become
more the idea person too. It's been very fun to
do; whether we'll do it again....The education book
was really a lark, it was very fun.
When you are editing a book in this series,
do you solicit the selections and then edit that
work? What approach do you take?
We began by trying to get all original
work. We have come to getting a lot of original
work and some that is not. When you are getting
work that was not just written for the book, then
you edit it in terms of how it works for the book.
Essentially, when we do these
books, we think, "What is the subject, what
fiction writers or creative non-fiction writers
really resonate with this subject? Who would be
able to write about this subject in a way that students—because
in a lot of cases, these books are to be used in
classrooms—that students would really connect
with?" For example, when we were doing the
Justice book, the first person that came to mind
was John Edgar Wideman, who has a son in prison
for life, for murder, and a brother who is also
in prison. And who has dedicated a lot of his own
thinking and life as an adult writer to justice
in America, and he wrote a knock-out piece because
the subject was one very close to his heart.
Some writers fantasize about when their books
are turned into the big Hollywood movie. Your book
Daughters of the New World was turned into
the television miniseries, A Will of Their Own.
Any reflections on that experience? Did you watch
I did see it. I watched it. It was an
interesting experience for me. I was able at that
point to have a completely cavalier attitude about
the fact that it was trashy.
It "flew" in the middle
west. I went to a wedding shortly after that and
people came rushing up to me when they heard that
I had been the author of this thing called A
Will of Their Own, but there was not a single
line that I had written in the book, in the miniseries.
And my students said, "You wrote like that?"
It was a very mixed feeling, but
the reason I was cavalier about it was that my daughter
was getting married and I had not a penny when she
announced her engagement, and this was a case of
taking the money and running.
Of course, it's always in your
mind because the movies are the arbitrators of what
people read today; they're very, very important
in what people read. There are an awful lot of serious
fiction writers who have their books made into movies.
I do have one that has been under option since I
wrote the book, which was published in 1989, called
a Country of Strangers, which is about race
in this country. I would not let go of artistic
integrity on that one. I would not be able to bear
having my name attached to something in which they
did something minor or Hollywoody about race.
What always strikes me as a challenge in
turning a book into a movie is that a book is based
on the language within it, and when you make it
into a movie you lose that language.
That is why so often they don't use the
language, they don't use the dialogue. The dialogue
doesn't translate to film, because nobody talks
well, nobody speaks as well as they do in a book.
The dialogue is abstract in books.
Who do you think are the freshest, most promising
voices in literature now?
The writers today, the people who are
making a difference today, tend to be from other
Without naming names, I think
that in a country that is an immigrant country,
in which we have for so long been dominated by white
male literature, we are very susceptible to new
voices. We love, as Americans, the new. So now we
are in a time in which all of these immigrant voices,
these first-generation Americans, are looking at
the world with a fresh eye and are seeing it from
an outsider's position. It's the perfect writer's
position, to be outside, and to look at the world
with a kind of innocent eye.
I don't have any question that
the new voices from different cultures have that
sense, that this sounds wonderful, this sounds new,
this sounds fresh.
Who will rise like cream to the
top? It's always a question.
When black voices first were heard
in a general way, Toni Morrison was early in the
black women's voices. She felt very new. Even though
there is something quite Faulknerian in her work,
she felt very new, and the magic and poetry and
operatic range of her work also felt new.
Then years have passed, and there
have been a number of African-American writers.
But the first popular, really popular, big money-making
but also popular voice, was Terry McMillan. And
that was a sign that that particular new voice had
settled into the populace. I think that is what
tends to happen. There are new voices, and some
last, and some fall away, and gradually those new
voices have a large enough audience to create a
It seems, however, that we are finally reaching
a point at which these voices from different cultures
are less often categorized as "black"
writers or "Latino" writers but rather
as writers, period.
One of the things that was interesting
to me was Jhumpa Lahiri—a very young writer,
on a first book of stories, winning the Pulitzer
among many other awards. She was not consciously
Indian. And I think that was part of it. She was
Indian, but it was much more stories about relationships,
Indian or not.
I do think it is an interesting
time. It's going to be harder and harder to find
a place as a writer. Not necessarily getting published,
but finding your audience. It will be interesting.
The way that multiculturalism has divided rather
than brought together. I think that it eventually
will bring together. I think you have to go through
these periods of division. What this will do to
literature, it's hard to say. I always think that
good stories will last, and the books get known.
But not easily.
What do you think is the worst thing plaguing
writing today? Is there one single threat or problem?
It's a very long-term problem. The worst
thing plaguing writing is the conglomerates, the
fact that books have never made money.
It's a small audience for serious
books. Most other books serve a purpose, to teach
an audience how to cook, eat, have sex.
It's all about the bottom line
now, so that the serious editors are not able to
look around for the best books. It's hard to persuade
the company that a book that sells only 10,000 copies
is worth publishing. It's a serious problem.
My sense is that like everything
else, it will shake out. I don't think the Internet
is the worst thing, I think it could be helpful.
I think that one of the things it's going to create
is a longing for real connection. Books give you
a better sense of connection than the screen does.
I mean that the physical book does. You can take
it someplace and imagine a world.
I do think the conglomerates are
having the worst effect on the publishing industry.
And that we are in a time when style supersedes
Why do we write? Why do you write?
I suppose I write because I love it.
I think you write to make a connection. I think
that is why you read, too, is to connect. It's the
old E. M. Forster, 'only connect.' I'm never conscious
of a reader when I'm writing, I'm really conscious
of myself as my own reader. But when a book is out
there, it gives me such enormous pleasure to feel
that someone has not so much liked it, but
gotten it. We all go through life feeling
that nobody gets us; that teenage feeling that nobody
understands you does continue. The sense of being
understood and having an opportunity and creating
a world that might be better understood is terrifically
satisfying. Beyond which, it is pretty nice to wake
up in the morning and say, "Well, this is what
I wanted to do today," and do it.
There is no part of the process
I don't like, except the publishing. The writing,
the re-writing, the criticism—I really love
One of the things about being
a mother and a writer is that we have to be very
economical about our time. And so a lot of work
happens in our mind while we are doing other things.
I remember when I watched Porter starting to write,
I was appalled and embarrassed because it seemed
to me that he was sitting at the desk all day. I
never do it for more than two hours. And that's
because he had the time to work all day. And I think
that makes it—if I sat all day, and had a
bad day, then I would hate writing.