American author Mary Gordon was born in 1949 in Far Rockaway, New York. She was an only child to her mother, Anne, who was Catholic and her Jewish father, David, who converted to Catholicism when he was a young man. The death of Gordon’s father when she was seven years old deeply impacted her life. She used her grief as catalyst for many works of fiction and nonfiction, and finally to research her father’s life. Her research was painful, not without secrets and surprises, and resulted in her 1996 memoir, The Shadow Man: A Daughter’s Search for her Father.
In 1978 Gorden’s Final Payments was published to high critical acclaim. In 1981 The Company of Women was published, and that year she also wrote the foreword to the Harvest edition of Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own. In 1984 she was one of 97 theologians and religious persons who signed A Catholic Statement on Pluralism and Abortion, calling for pluralism and discussion within the Catholic Church on the Church’s position on abortion. Then a four-year hiatus occurred after the birth of her two children, Anna and David, during which time she wrote poetry, essays, reviews and nonfiction. Gordon’s Men and Angels was published in 1985, followed by Temporary Shelter in 1987, and then The Other Side in 1989.
Since 1991, Gordon has written eleven more works of fiction, nonfiction, memoirs, and essays, including her novel Spending: A Utopian Divertimento, Reading Jesus: A Writer’s Encounter with the Gospels, and the biography Joan of Arc: A Life. She is currently working on a novel about the Spanish Civil War.
Gordon received a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1993. Her other awards include a Lila Wallace Reader’s Digest Writers’ Award, an O. Henry Award, and Academy Award for Literature from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. In 2007, The Stories of Mary Gordon won the Story Prize. In 2008, New York Governor Eliot Spitzer named Mary Gordon the official New York State Author and gave her the Edith Wharton Citation of Merit for Fiction.
Cheryl Wheelright: Let’s talk about your writing career; your teaching career, your beginnings as a poet, and some of the works that you’ve written. From a very young age you were a poet, and then you transitioned from poetry to several different writing genres. You said poetry was easy compared to “all those words” in prose and narrative. How did you make the transition from being a poet to being a novelist and a writer of fiction, nonfiction, and now biography?
Mary Gordon: It’s really a triumph of the Women’s Movement. I was at Syracuse University getting an MFA in poetry, and it was 1972-73, and you know, it was the height of the Women’s Movement. We women in the program were very irritated that there was not one female faculty member that we could study with, and that the men were getting all the awards and all the prizes. So we met at a local Women’s Center, kind of a basement—it was sort of like an AA meeting—and we did an alternative writing workshop just for women. We just felt that we weren’t getting the support that we needed. And it was in that group that my friend said to me, “You know, your poems are getting longer and longer and longer, and more and more narrative. Maybe you’re a fiction writer.” I said, “No, no, I can’t do that.” And so one of the women challenged me. We were all PAs and we were all teaching freshman composition, and she said, “You know, you are very good at taking exams. So I’m going to give you a blue book. I’m going to put you in a classroom. And I want you to pretend you’re taking an exam, and at the end of three hours, I want you to have written a short story.” And I did that and that was my first short story. And then when I realized that I could do it . . . you know, just the little blue book, it seemed contained enough, and then I just started doing it when I realized that I actually have it in me to tell stories. Virginia Woolf was terribly important to me because I looked at her prose and I thought to myself that her writing does a lot of what poetry does, but it’s prose. I just think that if it hadn’t been for the Women’s Movement—I don’t think that I could never have had a career at all—I just don’t think I could have been a prose writer.
CW: Is it somewhat fascinating that the little blue book gave you the parenthesis in which to write prose?
CW: Are you still friends with any of the women in that group?
MG: No, although Julie Alvarez was also in that group, and we have been in kind of email contact, but I haven’t seen her in a long time, but she was in that group, too.
CW: I read your 1999 essay, Putting Pen to Paper but Not Just Any Pen or Just any Paper, and in that essay you wrote of what it takes to get to the frightening task of just getting your thoughts on paper. You said, “There may be some writers who face a day’s work without dread, but I don’t know them.” Do you still feel a sense of dread or foreboding or an intense pressure to just get it out?
MG: Well, I always do, of course. I always feel like that, and it gets worse as you get older. The culture is less friendly to fiction in general, particularly fiction by women and particularly fiction by older women. You get the sense, who cares? Why am I doing this? And also the feeling of, “I won’t be able to do this,” but the gap between what’s in your mind and what’s on the paper always seems so enormous. Then sometimes it just seems like a tremendous labor, and for what? More and more you feel like who cares if I write this or not? And why don’t I just go watch another British mystery? So always the gap between what’s in your mind and what’s on the page is so enormous and horrifying that it’s like standing in front of an abyss. Just having to concentrate so hard and not to let your mind wander is difficult. And not to leave what I call the stinky place, the place where you know there’s something wrong with the writing, and it’s a mess, and you don’t know how to fix it, that’s pretty awful, too.
CW: One of the things I admire about your work is your memoir about your father in The Shadow Man: A Daughter’s Search for her Father, and how you delved into what I call the scary place. We all have those scary, painful places we often feel a need to write about. How did you face that? What was your process like writing about your father?
MG: It was very painful in a way that nothing else had been, and again, I guess it was an accident of the Women’s Movement. I had begun and was challenged by an English feminist writer, Ursula Owens, who was putting together a book about fathers and daughters, and I wrote an essay about my father. And then I . . . it just came on me that I wanted to explore it because one of the things that I felt was that people were writing memoirs, but I didn’t want to write a memoir. I didn’t want to write about myself. I wanted to write about a time, a place, a way of life, a larger issue, a kind of representative case. And I felt like my father’s situation was so important in the history of Jewish life in America and in the history of immigrant life in America, that when I began to lose heart writing about my own father, I thought, well this is an important subject and I don’t like the way other people are writing about it. And so that kind of got me through the swampy places sometimes.
CW: It takes an incredible amount of skill as a writer to be able to write to and about those painful memories as you did in The Shadow Man.
MG: Yes, oh, thank you. But I also felt that one of the things that interested me was being able to honestly say in a memoir, “I don’t know if I got this right. I don’t know whether I’m remembering this right or whether it is just a picture that I saw,” and also saying, “There are these things that I’m never going to be able to find out because the record is just gone.” So I was interested in a way in playing with the form that included an acknowledgement of the limits of the form. So when the subject matter itself got overwhelming, what I was able to be supported by was the sense that I was exploring the form and also exploring an historical and cultural moment.
CW: And what you accomplished by being able to say, “I’m not sure if I recollect this,” was establishment of your credibility as a memoirist.
MG: Yes, I feel very moralistic about memoir. I feel like if you’re going to call it memoir, you’ve got to tell the truth. If you don’t want to tell the truth, call it fiction. That’s fine; that’s great. But don’t say it’s the truth if it’s not the truth. And if you don’t know, say, “I don’t know,” because that’s the truth. But don’t fudge.
I feel like if you’re going to call it memoir, you’ve got to tell the truth. If you don’t want to tell the truth, call it fiction.
CW: Yes, and the reader will often know it.
MG: Well, they don’t always know it. People get away with an enormous amount.
CW: You make an excellent point there, too, which leads me to my next question. How do you define creative nonfiction? Do you consider this a new or an old genre? Do you consider creative nonfiction the appropriate appellation for the genre?
MG: Well, all writing is creative in that you have to shape and form. I don’t think you could call it “inventive nonfiction.” You can’t invent stuff, but you can create in that you choose the sentences, you choose the structure, and that’s where the creativity comes in and you’re still listening for the poetry. You still have an aural responsibility. You still have an imagistic responsibility. But, I don’t think you get to make stuff up. I think there’s a difference between creation and invention.
CW: We touched a bit on the following subject earlier when we talked about the scary, swampy, stinky places. Phillip Lopate in Writing Personal Essays: The Necessity of Turning Onself into a Character said: “The student essayist is torn between two contrasting extremes:
A: I am so weird that I could never tell on the page what is secretly going on in my mind. Or;
B: I am so boring nothing ever happened to me out of the ordinary, so who would want to hear about it?
You might have heard some of these kinds of issues come up with your students. What do you say to these students to get them started writing?
MG: You know, it’s interesting. I think that, “I’m so boring, nothing ever happens to me,” is something that happens to young women more than young men.
CW: Do you think there’s a sense of shame for that?
MG: Yes, and so I just try to say, focus on the language and, again, the formal issue. And what I say to them is this: You know, nobody said to Proust, “What do you do? What are you going to do? Are you just going to write about yourself?” And nobody said that to Joyce. And so the issue is really an issue of language. How can you create a beautiful, kind of iridescent object out of the moment and concentrate on the most important unit of time, that is, the moment? And if you think about it that way, you don’t have to think of it as boring, or not boring, because no moment is like any other moment. So I get them to think about the moments, and that’s what they get to start with.
CW: Referring to the essayist or memoirist, the writer, poet and teacher Grace Paley once said: “Every story is two stories; the story of the story, and the story of the writer.” She referred to the writer inserting herself into the story. Do you agree or disagree, and how so?
MG: I loved Grace. I think she was a great writer and a great person. Well, what I think what Grace always said was that the writer is always inserting herself into the story, and so to pretend that you’re not is a kind of false objectivity. I think she was just talking about the ability to not shut your self off, to not keep the “I” out if it wants to come into the story, and to not have a kind of false Puritanism about the “I.”
CW: Your first novel, Final Payments, was initially written in the third person in 1978. Then your mentor, Elizabeth Hardwick, suggested you rewrite it in the first person, and you very successfully rewrote it in the first person. How long did it take you to rewrite it, and how did you feel on receiving that feedback from her?
MG: I wanted to throw up is how I felt. But once I got started, it did not take very long because it was how it was supposed to be. What she told me was to look at all the times when I said, “ She thought to herself,” or “She remembered,” or “She imagined.“ or “It seemed to her.” When I looked at all those places, I realized that she was right, and in fact, the first person then came much more naturally, but I was worried then about being a woman and writing first person. I thought that grownups were a very distant third person, and she had given me the permission to write in first person.
CW: That must have felt liberating to you at that time in history and in your career.
CW: Also, in Final Payments, your opening sentence was, “My father’s funeral was full of priests.” And your last sentence was, “There was a great deal I wanted to say.” For me, those were two perfect sentences for your novel. I loved the story.
MG: Oh, thank you, but you know, now I could never begin a novel with, “My father’s funeral was full of priests,” because everybody would read, “My father’s funeral was full of pedophiles.”
CW: I didn’t get that from my reading.
MG: The way the pedophilia scandal has changed so much the way that the Catholic priests are understood in the larger imagination, today I couldn’t write either of my first two novels the way that I did then.
CW: An interesting point, but for me, you telescoped that Catholicism would be heavily involved in your novel. And your final sentence fit the moment perfectly. It not only ended the story on a light note, I thought perhaps it telescoped that you really did have a lot to say, and you have had a lot to say since that time. I wonder if you were aware of that then. How did you derive that final sentence?
MG: It would be great to say that I derived it. I think it was given to me; I heard it. You know, it wasn’t any intelligence, but I wanted to end it hopefully. And, in a way I thought that’s really a hopeful sentence, feeling that you have a lot to say.
CW: It was, and I thought the ending to your story was cathartic. I looked for that because the tension was building. Isabel’s final act of virtue freed her completely.
MG: Yes, it did. I mean, I originally remember thinking that she was going to kill herself. I was living in London at the time and went to a concert of the Jupiter Symphony by Mozart, and I thought, “Wait a minute! I don’t want it to end with a suicide. I want it to end with hope and joy.” And so I changed my mind kind of half way through my planning process.
CW: It’s great that you’ve considered all the arts within your own art. Mozart had such a great sense of humor in much of his music. I’m curious. You’ve also said that you like to do your writing by hand with a certain pen and with notebooks. Do you still collect notebooks, and do you still write by hand?
MG: Yes. I was reading a collections of letters, it was a three-way correspondence, between Rilke and Pasternak and the great Russian poet Marina Tsvetaeva, and I had always felt kinship with her, but then I read a sentence she wrote that really made me feel kinship, and she said, “I’ve been only possessive of two things in my life: my children and my notebooks.” I love notebooks. And I have only one pen that I’m quite faithful to, a black Waterman, but I collect notebooks from all over. I really love them. They’re getting harder and harder to find now, and it’s kind of upsetting. Except now they have these moleskin ones which are kind of like the Yuppie notebooks. I think they’re kind of like the “Starbucks” of notebooks. They’re all the same, you know? It doesn’t seem like it’s very exciting anymore.
CW: On teaching, what is the best part about teaching writing for you?
MG: The best part about teaching is that it’s hopeful, and I guess it’s very easy for me to feel sometimes that it’s all over, that the things that I cared about are obsolete, and nobody cares about serious writing anymore, and nobody cares about fiction. Everybody’s tweeting or twitting, whatever that word is, or they’re playing video games. And, being with students, you just get this sense of continuity in the sense that it’s not going to end with you. And when you see somebody who is excited, by the same things you were, and still are, excited about—even if most of the world isn’t—it gives you hope, and it’s very, very feeding to me.
CW: Yes, and your students, I’m sure they are of the same make-up as you, or they wouldn’t be there.
MG: Yes. And I feel like I’m very privileged teaching at Barnard because the students are very good, and the female student is the default setting so I feel very privileged to be teaching where I’m teaching.
CW: Do you ever use writing prompts in class with your students, and would you share one with our readers?
MG: Yes, I do. I have one I use to demonstrate plot. I pair them up, ask one to whisper gossip to the other, and then I ask the person listening to write about what they just heard and come up with a plot sentence.
CW: You have often written boldly using the Catholic religion as a backdrop. How has being a member of the Catholic community formed you as a writer and as a person?
MG: Well, I think that one of the things that I like about Catholicism, and there is a huge amount that I loathe, but what I like is that the terms are large, and that life is taken seriously. And that it’s not just about being comfortable, and that it’s not just about your little self. So I think that the sense of something enormous being at stake in life is very important, you know, and that it’s not just about you; it’s about the ideal, to give everything. And what Catholicism, the kind of Catholicism I was brought up in, gave you was a real organic connection to a long history and to the whole culture of the West. And, just the experience of contemplative prayer is very, very life-laden. And, being Catholic, I can kneel next to people who are really, really different from me; in class, in race, in language, in experience and worldview . . . it really is a Catholic church. It’s big, and it can go around the world and find people saying the same things that you are, and I like that very, very much. But as a writer, I think that it has probably hurt my larger critical reputation when I tell people I’m Catholic.
CW: It impacts your larger audience negatively? How so?
MG: Yes, absolutely. And particularly for almost for my whole career, John Paul II or Benedictine XVI have been on the throne in the Vatican which means that the Catholic church has moved in the direction of repression and conservatism, sexism and homophobia, and punitiveness. So anyone, quite rightly, would question why anybody with a brain cell would want to associate with an organization like this. I get that, but I feel that Catholicism now is associated with mindless repression and, even worse, the pedophilia scandal and the cover up of sexual scandals. People feel if I identify as Catholic, I must be repressive, stupid, and have all sorts of bizarre sexual ideas.
CW: Your characters, however, are depicted as very human, flawed and . . .
MG: Yes, but someone would have to read me to find that out, and I feel that this sort of prejudice happens before anybody goes into the book store or logs onto Amazon.
CW: Have your prizes and awards influenced your writing in any way?
MG: No. Not at all. And anyway, I don’t think I’ve received all that many. It’s more like, “Who me? Do you mean me? Are you sure you’re not referring to someone else? It’s a great feeling for about a day, but then back to the writing.
CW: Some writers express sadness when their story is finished. Do you?
MG: No, because I’ve always been very fortunate to have another new writing project tugging at me.
CW: Mary, let’s talk about your love for Madison, Wisconsin. How are you involved in that community? What’s going on in Madison for you?
MG: Well, the main focus of my love of Madison is my two grandchildren; Jonah who is three and Max who is one. I am an obsessive and besotted grandmother and it’s just a joy for me to be with them, so I try to be there with them as much as I can because my daughter is doing an M.D./Ph.D., and my son-in-law is doing a Ph.D. They have no money and no time so this is the time they need me that I can be of help. So it’s a really good thing for me just to be with these children, which is such joy for me, and to feel that I’m actually doing something good and sensible.
CW: Absolutely. It’s sounds as if it’s a win-win-win situation.
CW: How are you involved in the Madison community?
MG: I’m part of a Benedictine ecumenical community in Madison that was formed by two Benedictine Sisters who decided, with the support of their community, that they would uncouple themselves from the official Catholic Church, but keep the Benedictine Rule because they are in an ecumenical community. And now there are three Benedictine Sisters; two former Catholic Sisters and a Presbyterian minister who is also one of the Sisters. It’s completely ecumenical. It’s really friendly to people of all sexual orientations, it’s very feminist, it’s run by women; sometimes people who were ex-priests who left to get married and who now get to say Mass again, and ministers of other denominations. We have a Moravian minister who gets to say Mass. And they are extremely socially committed: They won an award for being the most green building in Wisconsin. They are devoted to keeping the prairie going. They are involved in immigration, hunger, and homelessness issues. It’s just a wonderful place and makes me very happy.
CW: It feeds your soul.
MG: Yes, exactly. There are about five hundred full time members. The rest come in and out like any other church.
CW: Many writers have rituals they perform before sitting down to write. Do you have any pre-writing rituals?
MG: Yes. I always begin by reading something of a master writer who has done something really well that I’m trying to do. I always begin by reading. I’m very devoted to my notebooks and pens, so I will often begin a little journal writing before I begin my own writing just to loosen myself up, but reading is such an important part of my writing life. I’m always absolutely astonished by people who are trying to get MFAs, but they don’t actually want to read, and they particularly don’t want to read anything written before 1990. That . . . I find just astonishing.
CW: Do you still read Proust daily?
MG: Yes, I’d go insane if I didn’t read him every day.
CW: Do you still read in French?
MG: Not so much anymore. I read Proust mainly in English; I’m working on Italian now.
CW: You wrote the biography Joan of Arc: A Life, published in 2008 by the Penguin Group. The biography is part of the Penguin Lives series. How did you plan and write that biography? How do you prepare for such an enormous research and writing task?
MG: Well, what I did was, just to get myself inspired, I went to France to the places where Joan of Arc actually was to let the atmosphere soak in. And then I read a lot, realizing I wasn’t going to be a scholar and that I could not possibly read everything that has been written about it. So I had to sort of say to myself that this was an essay from my particular perspective. At that time, I had a seventeen year-old daughter, and Joan of Arc was seventeen when she went into battle. So that was sort of he way that I started, thinking, “My goodness, I’m looking at my daughter and what would it be like?” So in a way her youth was really the central motivation for my understanding of her.
CW: As we talk about Joan of Arc, I’m wondering if you know of anyone out there of that caliber and age today? Maybe Malala Yousafzai, the young Pakistani school girl who was shot in the head on a bus simply for going to school?
MG: Oh, yes, I think there are a lot of brave, wonderful young people out there, and we probably don’t know enough about them. We don’t know enough about them . . . yet.
Read a lot, and don’t fantasize.
CW: And, agents. What do you advise your students about agents?
MG: Oh, I don’t want to go there. I really don’t want to be a downer for anyone out there. It’s a very different world than the one I started out in, and I would never want to discourage anyone from writing. It’s very different now.
CW: What advice do you offer aspiring writers today?
MG: Read a lot, and don’t fantasize. Read a lot to learn about how your olders and betters have done it. Hopefully read a lot of genres; poetry, and read a lot of older things. Don’t fantasize that you are going to make a lot of money, or even that you’re going to be able to support yourself or make any money, because that’s when you are going to get disappointed and corrupted. Just do it for the love of it, for the sake of it, because you have to.
CW: You said you went to France to immerse yourself for a time in the culture and the sensations of that culture to write Joan of Arc. Do you do that in preparation for your other novels, too?
MG: Yes, for example I’m now writing a novel about the Spanish Civil War, and I’m leaving for Spain on Tuesday.
CW: You’re still living in New York, the home of your youth?
MG: Yes, I’m a New Yorker, born and bred.
CW: And now the Midwest is slowly encroaching on you.
MG: (Laughter) Yes, I’m really now dividing my time between New York and Madison.