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A Conversation with Sheila Gordon

December 1996

Sheila Gordon's first published short story, "The Greatest Show on Earth," appears in the December, 1996, issue of The Atlantic Monthly. Among her books are the novels Unfinished Business (1975), Waiting for the Rain (1987), winner of the Jane Addams Peace Prize, and The Middle of Somewhere (1990), and the memoir, A Modest Harmony: Seven Summers in a Scottish Glen (1982). Gordon and her husband, Harley, have three children and five grandchildren, all of whom still live within a stone's throw of her front door. As she said at the conclusion of the interview, "It's a nice feeling to step out onto the street and find myself knee-deep in grandchildren."

Gordon recently spoke with The Atlantic Monthly's Tony Lechtman and David Watta.

Character Sketch

New York City.

B.A., English literature, University of Witwatersrand, Johannesburg, South Africa.


First Publication
Unfinished Business (1975), a novel.

Last Book Read
The Tragic Muse, by Henry James

Although I revere Henry James, I didn't care for this book. I tend to read, and re-read, nineteenth-century novelists: Trollope, Dickens, Tolstoy, and George Eliot, among others.

Writing Habits
I use a typewriter. Every weekday from nine until two I sit at my desk and write or read or think. When I can't sit any longer I simply leave. Often when I'm walking to the supermarket or stirring a pot of soup I find myself working out ideas about what I'm writing.

Advice to Writers
If you're going to be a writer, you'll write. Also, writing is very hard work -- to match the language to the idea or feeling you want to express is the great struggle. Sometimes it brings satisfaction, often, it brings frustration and despair.

If not Writing, What?
Reading. It is a profound satisfaction. But, I also garden, cook, take care of grandchildren.

Q: You grew up in South Africa, which is where "The Greatest Show on Earth" is set. Places in your work almost become characters in their own right. Are you consciously aware of bringing land to life in your fiction? How much of your sense of place is due to your time in South Africa?

A: Until you pointed it out I was not consciously aware of writing about place. I've lived more than half my life away from South Africa and I feel more at home here in the United States than I ever did there. But perhaps the place of one's birth is stamped indelibly on one's sensibility. Africa particularly: there's something so vast, lonely, dramatic, and primal about that continent. One experiences it vividly and profoundly.

Q: You have written a great deal of your fiction about community, family, race relations, class, and especially apartheid. What are your views about a writer's commitment to politics and international affairs?

A: I'm interested in where the personal and the political touch each other, in how prevailing society affects people's daily lives and relationships. While growing up in South Africa I found myself observing an officially sanctioned unjust society, and I could see how everyday lives were shaped by the politics of apartheid. I suppose one's political and moral commitments are intrinsic to what one writes about. I don't feel writers are obliged to be more politically committed than other citizens.

Q: You've written several novels and a memoir, A Modest Harmony: Seven Summers in a Scottish Glen (1982). How would you compare the challenge of writing short fiction with that of writing longer works?

A: Writing a short story is more challenging -- in a novel you have more space to work out whatever is going to develop.

Q: Do you choose your subjects or do they choose you?

A: When I'm taken with an idea, I write. The length is dictated by the idea itself. Waiting for the Rain, for example, deals with how children regard the "Other," or those who are different from themselves. The idea for the novel came as I watched on television a group of white soldiers riding into a township to quell an uprising of black schoolchildren. I saw how scared the white soldiers looked; the same fear was on the faces of the black children -- who were the same age as the soldiers. I was moved to pity by the situation; these children were pitted against one another by the conditions adults had laid down for them. Out of this brief image the whole novel developed.

Q: Your novels tend to employ a third-person limited-point-of-view narrator. "The Greatest Show on Earth," however, has an essentially omniscient narrator. Can you explain why you made this choice?

A: The omniscient narrator is what I am in that story; I created that world, those people from reminiscences I had heard. I wrote "The Greatest Show on Earth" without ever being in that part of the Cape Province, other than passing through on a train. Writing, after all, is about the power of the imagination -- and the ability to inhabit the being of the people you're writing about. But you can't do this consciously; it either works or it doesn't. In that sense writing is similar to magic -- one never knows exactly how it's done.

Q: How do you hope your writing will affect people? Can writing -- or reading -- fiction change anybody?

A: I don't think it's the writer's job to change people, although I believe that truly good fiction transforms, enriches, heightens awareness. When I write, I'm trying to tell a good story, to reflect on the pity and pain of how we deal with one another, and in a way that will engage the reader's imagination and heart.

Copyright © 1996 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.
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