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Catholic. Woman. Writer.
Enough with the good-girl shtick, says the novelist Mary Gordon, the author of The Atlantic's May short story

May 6, 1999

Mary Gordon

The novelist Mary Gordon writes often about women -- pious women, working women, artists, wives, adulterers, daughters, widows, and sisters. Considered in sum, her characters represent almost the entire range of female experience; considered individually, each is unique and always more complex than she initially seems. The nun in Gordon's current Atlantic short story, "The Deacon," for example, is an impatient woman who smokes cigarettes and watches videos with her girlfriends while puzzling out the ethical provisos of her faith. Like the nun (and Gordon herself), many of Gordon's characters are Catholic, which has led critics and reviewers frequently to observe that Gordon is a "Catholic writer." But Gordon feels that this is as misleading as calling John Updike a Protestant writer, and would rather have it said that she writes out of her experience -- as a woman, foremost, but also as a Catholic, the daughter of a Jew, a descendant of Irish immigrants, an art lover, and a literary critic.
Previous interviews with the authors of Atlantic short stories:

Nathan Englander ("The Gilgul of Park Avenue," March, 1999)

Beth Lordan ("The Man with the Lapdog," February, 1999)

Carol Shields ("A Likely Story," January, 1999)

Peter Ho Davies ("Today is Sunday," December, 1998)

Richard Bausch ("Par," August, 1998)

Colum McCann ("Everything in This Country Must," July, 1998)

Elizabeth Stuckey-French ("Electric Wizard," June, 1998)

Chitra Divakaruni ("Mrs. Dutta Writes a Letter," April, 1998)

Francine Prose ("The Lunatic, the Lover, and the Poet," March, 1998)

Lee K. Abbott ("Everything, All at Once," February, 1998)

E. Annie Proulx ("The Half-Skinned Steer," November, 1997)

Garrison Keillor ("Talk Radio," October, 1997)

Tess Gallagher ("The Poetry Baron," July, 1997)

Larry Heinemann ("The Fragging," June, 1997)

Cynthia Ozick ("Puttermesser in Paradise," May, 1997)

More Atlantic Unbound interviews.

Join the conversation in the Arts & Literature conference of Post & Riposte.

Gordon's first novel, Final Payments (1978), was published to critical acclaim when she was twenty-nine. She has since published eight books, among them the novels The Company of Women (1988), and The Other Side (1990), along with a memoir, The Shadow Man (1996). Her most recent novel is Spending: A Utopian Divertimento (1998). The recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship and a Lila Wallace Reader's Digest Award, Gordon has taught writing at Barnard College since 1990. She lives in New York with her husband and teenage son.

Gordon spoke recently with Atlantic Unbound's Katie Bolick.

Character Sketch
New York

B.A. in English, Barnard College; M.A. in Creative Writing, Syracuse University


First Publication
"To a Cow," a poem, New American Poetry, 1973

Last Book Read
The Trial of Sheila McGough, by Janet Malcolm

Writing Habits
"I get up at about 5:30 every morning and write until 8:00, when my family wakes up. After I get everybody out of the house, if I'm not teaching, I go back to it."

Advice to Writers
"Don't think of writing as a business; think of it as a vocation. And don't write unless it feels like a hunger and a necessity. If there's anything else you can do with your life you should do it."

Although you started out writing poetry you turned to writing fiction early on. How come?

It was actually a women's writing group I belonged to in graduate school that gave me the courage to move from poetry to fiction. All the women in the group kept saying to me, "You know, those poems are getting very long and very narrative. Why don't you write fiction?" And I kept saying, "No, no, I don't do fiction." But slowly I started moving into stories, and they seemed very congenial, so then I wrote a novel.

Wasn't it Virginia Woolf's sentences that made you understand you could write poetically in fiction?

Exactly. Woolf's prose was my hand into the world of fiction. I remember where it happened: I was twenty and had a summer job at an insurance company in Cambridge. I was sitting by the Charles River after work, waiting for a friend and reading Mrs. Dalloway, when suddenly my heart leaped up into my mouth. "Oh!" I realized, "I can do in prose the things I wanted to do in poetry -- and I can tell stories!" It was very thrilling.

The Shadow Man chronicles your own experience sleuthing out and dismantling the heroic myth of your father, who died when you were seven. You had often fictionalized your father in your novels; what was it like subjecting him to nonfiction's unforgiving glare? Why did you choose to write about him in a memoir rather than another fiction?

Writing that book was emotionally grueling for me, because I couldn't make my father into the person I needed him to be to suit my writing agenda. I had to stick to the person that he was, whether or not that person was attractive. I couldn't protect him anymore, which felt like a betrayal. The only way I assuaged those anxieties was to realize that the story wasn't just about me and my father; it was also about Jewishness. It was a story about America and assimilation, about memory, about the pastness of the past, and about the past's recoverability or irrecoverability. When I felt I was shedding too harsh a light on him, I would say to myself, It's not just him, and it's not just me.

Sometimes giving up illusions can be more difficult than accepting facts.

Yes, but the two are linked. You find out that the fact has changed, and then you have to dismantle the illusion. For me, discovering the facts was shocking, and then dismantling the illusions called up grief. I wrote the book as a memoir and not a novel, because I wanted that process of discovery to be part of the subject. I wouldn't have been able to comment on what I was experiencing if I had been writing fiction.

Katha Pollitt wrote in The New York Times Magazine recently that the 1970s slogan "the personal is political ... has morphed and mushroomed into something quite other than originally intended -- indeed, almost the opposite." Do you -- as somebody who has managed to write both autobiographically and politically, without lapsing into personal testimony -- agree?

I really agree with her, and I'm very worried about that tendency in the world. If the political is only personal then it becomes excessively limited and, in a way, defanged -- everything just becomes Oprah Winfrey. I would like people to think about solutions that are outside their biographies, to be a little bit more hard-headed and ferocious, and to talk about issues that don't affect their personal comfort and emotional well-being. Basically, to have a larger view.

In the novel I'm working on now I am exploring why it is that we who were political in the sixties don't have political imaginations anymore, and why our daughters don't. I think it's because everything has become so privatized, so terribly atomized -- we're in cars, we use e-mail, we rent videos instead of going to the movies. Increasingly, because people don't collect in public spaces -- in churches, say, or for political meetings -- they don't see themselves in collective units, and so there has been a tremendous loss of faith in all sorts of public ways of being. People no longer believe in getting together with other people to make anything better. And they haven't seen a political success story in a long time.

What are your thoughts on "third-wave" feminism?

I wish I had more faith in it. Feminism is very much a part of a lot of my student's lives, but they're not going to march about it or take a public political stance. And I think more and more young women are claiming that they're not feminists -- even though they are. They say things like, "I want to be a neurosurgeon, but I'm not a feminist," or, "I want to be the head of Smith Barney, but I'm not a feminist." I want to say to them, "Well, you wouldn't have even been allowed to formulate that sentence if it weren't for the women's movement." I have to battle against a certain amount of impatience with that. I think they'll become feminists when they're older -- when they hit the glass ceiling, or when those who have given up their professions get bored at home and can't quite get back into the work force in the way they thought they could. I think these people are in the clouds, but I think they'll wake up.

Again, I think the problem is larger: people are not political today. They are so privatized that they don't work with others for anything, and feminism's a victim of that. I also think that younger people are less idealistic. I wasn't thinking about my pension plan until about two years ago. When I was in my twenties the idea that you'd be thinking of taking a job based on its health-care policy was completely foreign. But these days young people are thinking about these things. They're becoming middle-aged a lot earlier.

You wrote in The Shadow Man that you are "the media's usual suspect when they need the insiders' rap sheet on the Catholic hierarchy or the pope," yet you resist the tag "Catholic writer," preferring instead to be considered a "woman writer." Why is this?

"Catholic writer" seems like you have an agenda of evangelization, as if you were somehow influenced in your choice of perspective by dogma or canon law. That has nothing to do with me. I don't have a lot in common with other "Catholic" writers. I love Flannery O'Connor, but I don't think we're very alike. And I'm not like Graham Greene or Evelyn Waugh. I feel a great affinity with Flaubert, but I don't think it's because of Catholicism. So I think to describe me as a "Catholic writer" is misleading, whereas I do think a lot of my subject matter is informed by the experience of being female, which is a much larger and more elastic envelope to fit into, and it doesn't have the suggestion of evangelization.

Then there are those, like Gertrude Stein, who didn't like being referred to as a "woman writer."

Neither did Elizabeth Bishop or Mary McCarthy. And I'm sure if Flannery O'Connor were alive she would have said something incredibly mean about being called a "woman writer." But I think that goes back to the belief that declaring yourself in the camp of women is to put yourself in the provinces, or on the farm team, or to suggest you're not playing in the big leagues. Well, everybody reads in a gendered way. Everybody reads a woman writer as a woman writer -- that is, as a slightly exceptional case. So to pretend there's some Olympian level in which gender doesn't enter reading -- at least for a moment -- is delusional.

Your book The Other Side is about four generations of an Irish-American family. Why did you decide to write this book?

My grandmother was Irish, and the whole subject of immigration was intensely appealing to me. As a metaphor for loss and change immigration is very rich, and I felt like the losses of immigration had not been addressed because of the whole streets-are-paved-with-gold mythology. I thought that people were very sentimental about it.

Immigrants are very tough people. You can't experience that much loss on the whole without suffering emotional loss. Some immigrants prospered and some really didn't. I'm talking about people who were really uneducated, and who stayed in Irish ghettos at a time when other ethnic groups were mixing and talking. The Irish were still pretty silent. The Irish are very full of lore, but don't kid yourself: they talk and talk but they don't reveal anything. Freud once said that he didn't think psychoanalysis could work on the Irish.

Some of your female characters -- because they are simple, or simply quiet -- are considered saintly by the people in their lives. Could you talk about this tendency to confuse serenity with saintliness?

I'm very interested in what genuine goodness is. One of the things that really angers me is that for so many women goodness is synonymous with chastity, or being quiet. First of all, that's a very limited moral palette, and second, it can also just be a blind for fear or begrudgement. I'm very suspicious of women who are begrudgers, of women who, because they don't seem to be taking pleasure for themselves, are seen as saintly, when one of their real stocks in trade is begrudging -- telling on people, taking people to task, putting people down, humiliating them. I was always the person who got in trouble when the girls who were good in penmanship, and who were tidy, told on me, because they thought I got away with too much. Tidiness is synonymous with goodness for women. I don't like quiet and I don't like tidy. How is are they fun? Fun is you talk to your girlfriends and you laugh. Does Greta Garbo seem like she's a lot of fun? Would you want to talk to her? No, people want to look at her, for about ten minutes. And then you move on. I am just so tired of that.

Your most recent book, Spending, is about a painter named Monica who finds herself suddenly with a wealthy muse, lover, and benefactor all rolled into one. Monica has a difficult time, however, accepting her luck and the self-indulgence it allows. Did you know when you went into that book that Monica would have such a hard time indulging herself?

Yes! Women are so anxious about being perceived as unserious. So many of us when we were young were good girls -- the ones who didn't fool around, because if we fooled around, everything would have been lost. The way we kept from getting pregnant when we were sixteen was to say, "That's dangerous and I'm serious and I can't do that" -- basically, to deny ourselves pleasure.

So Woolf's suggestion of 500 and a room of one's own isn't enough, then?

Women have to allow themselves pleasure. Woolf does make the point that the women are eating custard and prunes and the men are having these incredible meals, but for the most part, A Room of One's Own is so blue stocking -- you have freedom but it's rather solitary, rather cerebral. Women have to learn to honor the animal in themselves. A lot of women just work too hard. It's time now to allow ourselves pleasure and play. One of my great theme songs is Cyndi Lauper's "Girls Just Want to Have Fun." I want to put that alongside A Room of One's Own.

You have written about Woolf's belief that genius not be encumbered by "fear, or rancor, or dependency.... [that] the writer must be born into a world that never allows grievances to appear, or must be born of a soul made of stuff that will not bear the impress of resentment." In this day and age, though, resentment or "angst" seem almost to be requirements for self-expression. Do you think they can be useful creatively?

Yes, I think anger can be useful creatively. Look at Swift -- he's pretty angry, as is the great satirist Evelyn Waugh. Rousseau has a tremendous sense of grievance, twenty-four hours a day. It all depends on what you're writing about, and whether your language fits your subject. If you're rancorous and your language is small and mean, then you're going to have a limited work of art. Not so if you really go for it and create a wonderfully baroque, rancorous language. Look at Dante! Who ever wrote from more personal rancor than Dante? Does anybody say he should have got a grip on himself and been more objective, or that he shouldn't have been putting all those people that he knew into Hell? If you can find a language appropriate to your subject, you can write however you want.

But I never write angrily. I believe it's Auden who says it's bad for you. I even try not to write bad reviews, unless I think something's really the work of the devil, and I can't help it.

What are you working on now?

I just finished a book of essays about six places that were important to me in my life, called Seeing Through Places. That book will be published in January. I'm also working on a biography of Joan of Arc, and a novel about mothers and daughters.

Join the conversation in the Arts & Literature conference of Post & Riposte.

More Atlantic Unbound interviews.

More on books in Atlantic Unbound and The Atlantic Monthly.
Katie Bolick is an Atlantic Unbound editor.

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