Interviews | September 01, 1997
Interview With Bobbie Ann Mason
Interviewer: How did your background, growing up on a Kentucky dairy farm in the forties and fifties, contribute to your becoming a writer?
Mason: It was a somewhat isolated social setting, although we lived close enough to town that its pleasures and privileges seemed within easy reach. I suppose the desire to go to town helped make me ambitious, and the allure of the worlds that came in over the radio also helped. But the rewards of growing up on a farm were far greater in many ways than life in town. There is nothing that compares to the familiarity with natural detail: with knowing about grasshoppers, the anatomy of a leaf, the texture of high weeds, the color of a robin’s egg.
Interviewer: Is that part of the reason you returned to Kentucky, after living in the Northeast for a while?
Mason: I moved back to Kentucky eventually for family and cultural reasons. I’d returned to nature, so to speak, during graduate school, when I was writing my dissertation about the nature imagery in Nabokov’s Ada. I moved to the country in Connecticut and planted my own garden then. Most of the time I was in the Northeast I lived in the country, and I think that helped me to discover my material for writing.
Interviewer: So your home, the place you came from, and your interest in nature gave you a lot of material. Were there also ways in which these things gave you the motivation to write?
Mason: My motivation to write was complicated: for some reason, probably because I was the first-born, I was treated as special. I lived on the farm with my parents and grandparents. I had no playmates as a young child, and I was indulged. I helped my grandmother piece quilts, and we made pretty albums, an old-fashioned pastime. We cut poems and pictures out of magazines. I suppose I had the sensibility of a write—the attentiveness to texture and detail and sound, and the desire to learn. But in order to become a writer, I had to rebel against the limits of my surroundings. We weren’t poor, but we were well defined, circumscribed by generations of folkways and the rigid expectations of a farm culture. I wanted to get out. I wanted to go places, see the world. This ambitiousness developed at a time historically when it was first possible to leave—to go to college, to seek a livelihood other than farm wife. So you could say the early ambition to write was part natural sensibility and part idealism.
Interviewer: Was the feeling of being constricted more intense, do you think, because you’re female? Gender roles seem to be a concern in your early work especially. Sam Hughes, for example, is disgusted by her friend Dawn’s pregnancy and her own mother’s new baby, and she’s very aware of the limited—and limiting—potential of her relationship with her boyfriend. Norma Jean, in “Shiloh,” is discovering her capabilities in a way that Leroy doesn’t understand; he’s worried that it’s “some Women’s Lib thing.” Would you say that was true of you and your ambition? Was part of your desire to achieve, and get out, a feminist desire?
Mason: I rejected the traditional notion of “women’s work,” but I never thought of my early ambitions in a feminist way, exactly. Primarily I rebelled against apathy and limited education. I was rejecting a whole way of life that I thought trapped everyone. I didn’t see women doing much of anything in my region except having babies and slaving away on the farm. They might work in stores or factories or teach school, but none of that was for me. But I didn’t see men doing anything I wanted to do either. When I went to college, all the intellectuals and writers were men, so I aspired to crash into that world. I never had that feminist sense of wanting to prove myself by having a job. I didn’t know of any women trapped at home in a fifties paradise with nothing to do. The idea of working outside the home as a matter of principle was a middle-class notion that I had little knowledge of. My mother worked in a factory some of the time, and she didn’t do it to make a point. She did it for money. I was trying to get an education so I could escape from the labor force.
Interviewer: You’ve said elsewhere that your early reading was typical: children’s series like the Bobbsey Twins and Nancy Drew. You’ve even written a book about female detectives in some of those books, The Girl Sleuth. How, if at all, did those series influence you?
Mason: The Bobbsey Twins and Nancy Drew fed my aspirations to see the world, to become something else. The Bobbsey Twins always went on vacations, and of course a dairy farmer does not take a vacation, not even a day off, because the cows have to be milked. The Bobbseys frustrated me with their endless travels. The girl detectives’ adventures made me long for something exciting to happen. I got the notion that everything exciting happened elsewhere, so I was filled with desire to go places and find out things. I tried to write stories patterned after the girl detectives, and that was the first thrill of writing—finding adventure through it.
Interviewer: How has the traditional farm culture that you came out of changed in the past fifty years or so? If you were growing up on the farm now, how might your trajectory be different from what it’s been?
Mason: Growing up on a farm nowadays is not that isolated or autonomous, and the family farm as I knew it hardly exists. You couldn’t feed a family on fifty-four acres now. Anyway, the wide world is much closer and more accessible than it was when I was little, so a kid today would have more choices. My ambitions were fed mostly by illusions and lack of information. I had little to go on except the movies and songs on the radio. I often dwell on that impossible question—what would my life have been like if I had had more advantages? Or what if I’d had fewer; what if I had lived in my grandmother’s time? That’s the personal question underlying Feather Crowns. I can’t really answer it.
Interviewer: You made a foray into academia before becoming a writer. You went to graduate school at SUNY-Binghamton and the University of Connecticut. Did you plan to teach literature?
Mason: I went to graduate school in literature because I wanted to read and write and didn’t want to work at a meaningless job. I had no plans for a teaching career. I was just trying to find a situation where I could read and write for as long as possible. I had wanted to go to a writing program, but there were only a few of them then. In fact, I had applied to the Stanford creative writing program but I wasn’t accepted. So I went into literature. I was a graduate assistant, and I taught freshman English, but the class wasn’t only composition. It was a survey of Western literature course.
Interviewer: What was teaching like for you?
Mason: Frightening. At Binghamton all the students were smart, sophisticated kids from New York City, and as a quiet Southerner I was terrified. I look back on that time with a shudder because it was so embarrassing, difficult, and scary—that classic situation where you feel everybody else in the room seems suave and articulate. That was what visiting a professor’s house was like, too. At one such gathering at the University of Connecticut I found myself seated next to the poet John Berryman, a genuine luminary who had just given a reading at the there. I was nobody, with nothing in my head, unable to speak. Poets lived on another plane. What would you say to a poet? I found myself catapulted into situations like this, where I felt I didn’t belong, and I had neither the confidence nor the social graces to manage.
Interviewer: How did the experience of living in the North affect your notion of regional differences?
Mason: The North was, in our Southern mythology, the land of arrogant Yankees. They were the authorities. We felt inferior; we were losers. When I lived up there, I subscribed to that notion so completely that it was years before I could begin to get out from under it. Jimmy Carter had to be elected before the South in general could get ahold of its shame and start to turn it around. In the North, I was in few situations where I could tell about things like my Granny wringing a chicken’s neck or how my chore was washing the milk cans twice a day. If I did tell people a little about my background, they tended to misinterpret it in terms of quaint stereotypes, something out of Ma and Pa Kettle. There was a yawning cultural gap between North and South in those days, and bridging it seemed almost impossible for somebody as bashful as I was.
Interviewer: Do you think of yourself as a Southern writer?
Mason: I’m a writer from the South and I write out of a Southern culture, but I’m not immersed in the South. I think my exile in the North gave me a sense of detachment, a way of looking in two directions at once. It’s an advantage. I don’t want to celebrate the South more than it deserves-which it does to a great extent, of course, but I’m wary of too much regional pride. It’s important to pick a place and be there, but not to be provincial about it. So much country music wallows in that provinciality—like saying “I’m ignorant and proud of it.”
Interviewer: Did you “pick your place” early on, or did your subject come to you over time?
Mason: I think, given my background and my earnest endeavor to lose my Southern accent—to find my place in the North—that it was unlikely that I would know early on what my material was. I started writing fiction in college, but it took me a number of years to get the right perspective on my material. I hadn’t really recognized what I had to write about. I was looking outside. In the late sixties I wrote a novel about the Beatles, inspired by Donald Barthelme’s Snow White. Finally, in the early seventies I wrote the obligatory autobiographical, comingof-age novel. These were great practice and got me started, but I was slow to get into focus.
Interviewer: It’s hard to imagine the Bobbie Ann Mason who wrote “Shiloh” and In Country being inspired by an experimental, satirical book like Snow White.
Mason: Snow White was right up my alley. Early on, I was interested in stylists, writers who loved language and played with words. In college, I loved Max Shulman (“Rally Round the Flag, Boys”); his writing was sophomoric, but then I went straight to James Joyce. Barthelme’s story “Robert Kennedy Saved from Drowning” gave me the idea that you could write fiction about somebody famous. Snow White was written in short bursts and had a sustained tone of disconnectedness. The technique was very alluring. Nothing had to be explained, no full context and development—just hits. It looked easy and revolutionary. I wrote most of the Beatles book in 1967, the summer of “Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.” It was a time to throw the graduate school reading list out the window and just go with the times.
Interviewer: Were you also writing short stories during this period?
Mason: I wrote short stories in college, published one in the college literary magazine, but I didn’t write any more stories to speak of for fifteen years.
Interviewer: But then you started writing them again, and you made an immediate impact with the stories in Shiloh. How did that come about?
Mason: In the late seventies, as I neared the mid-life identity-crisis time, I decided it was now or never. I think the crisis went back to my childhood conviction that I was special, and I followed the notion, picked up in college, that writing was a calling, that writers were different and could indulge their sense of apartness by writing. All that seems a little silly to me now, but at the time it helped give me the determination I needed. When I realized that I hadn’t yet done anything of note, I got busy. I wrote a story that was about five pages long and took it to a writers’ workshop. I got some inspiration from seeing that people were actually writing and it looked possible, so I wrote a couple of other stories and immediately sent them to theNew Yorker. Do you see the ten-year-old child there answering the Famous Writers School ad in the back of a magazine? What was I thinking? To my surprise, I got encouraging responses from Roger Angell, one of the New Yorker’s most illustrious editors and writers. He took me under his wing, responded to all my submissions with great care and interest, and gave me the first real encouragement I had ever had.
Interviewer: What was the writers’ workshop you attended?
Mason: For three summers in the late seventies I went to a week-long workshop run by Joe David Bellamy from St. Lawrence University. It was at Saranac Lake in the Adirondacks. It was pleasant, a chance to hang out with some writers. I attended workshops run by Gail Godwin, Charles Simmons and Margaret Atwood. They were all encouraging, but I think what charged me up most was the rediscovery of a notion I had gotten in college that writing was a passionate commitment and an honorable thing to do. I had always believed that, but my writing ambition had gotten so dissipated by lack of confidence and various diversions. The typical story for women writers seems to be that they spend twenty years raising children and then they go back to their original ambition of writing. I didn’t raise children, but it took twenty years just to get my head together.
Interviewer: Love Life is dedicated to Roger’ Angell. What was that writer editor relationship like?
Mason: Roger Angell was the first person who said, “You are a writer.” His encouragement brought me to life as a writer. Finally, I believed I could do it. As an editor he has always been very professional, yet he deals with a story on the level of emotions; in those early stories he helped me understand that I should go deeper into the characters’ lives. His responses were subjective, never prescriptive. I heard how the story made him feel. He was always very careful not to tell me how to do it. He said he didn’t know, but he made me think that I did. The story “Offerings” was the first story he accepted—the twentieth one I sent in. He telephoned me and said he liked the story but thought there was something lacking in the portrayal of the absent husband. It needed something a little darker. I studied the story for a long time and worked on some revisions. I was going to New York about three weeks later and I was going to meet Roger for the first time—November, 1979. I took the revisions with me—only about three sentences’ worth—and met him in his office. He passed the story along to William Shawn, the editor, who made the ultimate decisions. The next day, a Friday, I met Roger for a drink at the Algonquin Hotel. I still did not have a story accepted—I would know on Monday—but there I was, being entertained at the celebrated Algonquin. It was awkward, but exciting. I kept looking for the Algonquin cat, Hamlet. On Monday I was to call about one o’clock, which was when the messages ordinarily came back from Mr. Shawn. I phoned from some place on Fifth Avenue, and Roger said the word hadn’t come yet. He said to call again in fifteen minutes. I called again. Still no word. Then I had another appointment and couldn’t call until 3:15. I called from the ladies’ room phone at Saks Fifth Avenue and learned that the story was accepted. Roger wanted to know my social security number. I spouted out some numbers, but realized later they were wrong. The rest of the day is quite unclear in my mind. I was probably never so thrilled in my life.
Interviewer: What about the editing of your books? Do you have any insights into the working relationship between a novelist and her editor?
Mason: I have been fortunate to have had some of the great editors—Roger Angell, William Shawn, and Ted Solotaroff. I was spoiled by the New Yorker, and so I expect careful, close editing that serves the work. Ted Solotaroff’s great quality is his ability to penetrate the heart of a work and to push for something deeper. In the early stages of writing In Country, he pushed me to confront the subject of Vietnam. I’d worked on the novel for some time before I realized it really was about
the effects of the Vietnam War. When I did realize it, I felt somewhat intimidated. How could I write about such a big subject? What authority did I have? But Ted helped give me the confidence to stay with it.
Interviewer: Critics said of your first book something to the effect of your being, already, a full-fledged master of the short story form.Shiloh and Other Stories was nominated for the National Book Critics Circle Award and the American Book Award, and received several other honors. With the exception of the Nancy Culpepper stories, the characters are all ordinary, small-town people who work at ordinary jobs—the “K-Mart crowd” as they’ve been stereotyped. You were obviously well on the way to developing your vision by the time that collection was published. How did that happen?
Mason: I don’t know how I developed a cohesive “vision,” if that’s what it is. The subject matter is a given. The vision is something internal, and writing helps me find it and bring it out. For me, the process of writing is a matter of dealing with inhibitions, to find out what I have hidden down inside; if I can get it out, it seems to fall loosely into shape, and then I help it along in a more deliberate way. My stories typically start out very rough. But if I see there’s something in a story, I’ll work and rework it over and over, making small improvements with each draft until it finally reaches its finished shape. In writing most of the pieces in Shiloh, I just fooled around with what randomly came to mind. In that way I made discoveries that I could work with. I wrote about fifty stories, of which sixteen went into the collection.
Interviewer: Most of your early short stories are told in third person, and they’re almost all in the present tense. You use present tense and the same center-of-consciousness viewpoint in your first two novels, also. Why is that natural for you, and what do you think are the respective advantages and disadvantages?
Mason: The later stories moved into the past tense-stories like “Memphis” and “Coyotes”-when I got really tired of that convention of present tense. Present tense seems quite natural for characters meandering through a vague situation. It prevents the author from overtly asserting authority, the privilege of saying “Once upon a time . . . this happened, and I know how it is going to end and I’m going to tell you how it was.”
Interviewer: Critics and readers have commented, too, on the consciousness, in your early work, of popular culture and of the media, especially film and TV
Mason: I’m a little sensitive about being reduced to the terms of “popular culture,” since it’s often a pejorative term. I don’t think the culture of the people ought to be dismissed like that. Their lives are just as important as the lives of those who read the New York Timesand go to the opera. I often write about characters who happen to watch TV. Most Americans do watch TV. It’s a big deal in their lives, especially if they work hard at some mind-numbing job. I try to write what is appropriate to the characters, the attributes and interests that are meaningful to them. For most of them, the TV is not a malignant force droning in the background, as it might be in a Cheever story. For many of my characters, it’s a source of pleasure and escape, although that’s changing now, as they get cable and find fifty-seven channels with nothing on. As a writer I can maintain a bit of detachment from the characters, showing them in their world and seeing a little bit more than they do. But I’m not looking down at them.
Interviewer: You’ve had some magazine writing experience, also. You’ve written quite a bit of nonfiction for the New Yorker.
Mason: Since I began publishing fiction in the New Yorker in 1980, I’ve been contributing occasional nonfiction pieces as well. I’ve done a couple of dozen “Talk of the Town” pieces, some humor pieces, and some reporting. I had a little background in journalism—writing columns for my college paper, and teaching journalism for a while during the seventies. In certain ways, I was influenced by Tom Wolfe and Lillian Ross and some of those “new journalists” anthologized by Wolfe.
Interviewer: How did those writers influence you?
Mason: I absorbed them because I had to deal with them so much in teaching journalism: Tom Wolfe’s use of point of view—”the down-stage narrator”—and his accumulation of what he called “status detail.” Lillian Ross’ wonderful deadpan reporting. Those writers wrote about real events by using techniques of fiction. It was the techniques of fiction I was most interested in, and so I picked up on some of them.
Interviewer: What would you say are your literary “roots”?
Mason: I think my aesthetic principles derive from James Joyce and Vladimir Nabokov. From Joyce I learned about how a work is organic—how sound, for instance, is meaning, how the language is appropriate to the subject. If the story is about a journey, then it should be a journey. From Nabokov I learned that the surfaces are not symbolic representations, but the thing itself, irreducible. Rather than depending on an underlying idea, an image or set of images should be infinitely complex—just the opposite of what we’re sometimes taught about symbols and themes as hidden treasures. You can hack off an image and examine it, but it would be like trying to cut away light and shadow. The work should shimmer.
Interviewer: You mention Joyce as an influence, but you generally es-chew the Joycean epiphany as a way of ending a short story. In your stories, because we’re so much in the minds of characters who aren’t necessarily all that self-aware, the “recognition”—if there is one—is left up to the reader. How deliberate is that?
Mason: The goal is to leave the story at the most appropriate point, with the fullest sense of what it comes to, with a passage that has resonance and brings into focus the whole story. It has to sound right and seem right, even if its meaning isn’t obvious.
Interviewer: How, in your mind, is that different from what a novel does?
Mason: It’s principally scale, the size of the canvas. I write novels in much the same way as I write stories—that is, the process is the same, but the effect is larger, more developed. In either case, though, I revise and revise. I fuss over every word.
Interviewer: While we’re on the” subject of what fiction does, perhaps I should ask what you see as the role of the writer in society. How does literary writing matter—other than, obviously, as a sort of catharsis for the person doing it?
Mason: It is tempting to say that writing does serve the writers first; I often think many of us are misfits who can’t hold a job and who achieve, at best, some kind of mystique by virtue of our quirks. But I look back to Emerson and Thoreau when I think about why literary writing matters. It’s easier to see the writer’s role in the smaller world of Concord, Massachusetts, in the mid-nineteenth century. Thoreau was certainly a quirky misfit, but Walden comes down to us as an instruction manual for the heart and soul, as well as for getting a crop out. Emerson was famous, a very public figure, but both of them were quite visible in their community. In Concord, a town of two thousand, they could simply go to the Lyceum and give lectures. They engaged their neighbors in their discoveries. As writers, Thoreau and Emerson were lively and curious and demanding. They took on the world and tried to figure it out and then to translate what they found to the public, all in terms of the deepest questions about the nature of reality and morality and aesthetics. They led with their genius, turning their observations of nature into poetry and essays. They were standing on the verge of our time and they could almost see what was going to happen to us. They were leading their readers and listeners into the future. Writers belong on the edge, not in the center of the action. Nowadays we don’t have leaders who are worth much when it comes to the heart and soul, but if writers can make us feel and appreciate and explore the world, then I think that’s an extremely valuable function; it goes far beyond entertainment and steers well clear of politics.
Interviewer: How do you see your own role as a writer?
Mason: I don’t make any claims for myself. I’m sitting on the toe of Thoreau’s boot. I’m not a natural storyteller. I see writing as a way of finding words to fashion a design, to discover a vision, not as a way of chronicling or championing or documenting. In other words, it is to applaud the creative imagination as it acts upon whatever materials are at hand. Creative writing is not to me primarily theme, subject, topic, region, class, or any ideas. It has more to do with feeling, imagination, suggestiveness, subtlety, complexity, richness of perception—all of which are found through fooling around with language and observations.
Interviewer: You’ve written two story collections, two full-length novels, and Spence + Lila, which is really more of a novella. Your work has been pretty much equally divided between long and short fiction. Do you consider yourself a novelist first, or a short story writer first?
Mason: I don’t know. I’ve written only eight or nine stories in this decade. In the eighties, I wrote about seventy-five stories. I have been busier with novels and nonfiction in the nineties. But in the future, it could go either way. There’s more of an immediate gratification in writing a story, but in the long run, writing a novel is more deeply gratifying. It’s not really something I can consciously control. But I try to be wary of jumping into a novel too casually. Some notion has to really grab me hard for me to get into a novel. Stories come and go. If a story doesn’t work, it’s no great loss to throw it away. But a novel .. . that’s years of my life.
Interviewer: And a bigger challenge?
Mason: Yes. The challenges keep getting more and more complicated, as you become more aware as a writer. Committing to a novel is so risky and uncertain, and there is so little to go on when you begin. With In Country I couldn’t find the story that held those characters together; with Feather Crowns I had to sustain a long narrative on a subject that threatened to be grotesque. I had to show how the characters’ actions were justifiable in the terms of their world.
Interviewer: That novel was quite a departure for you. Like your other fiction, it’s set in Kentucky but it’s Kentucky of the turn of the century. What made you turn to historical fiction?
Mason: I don’t think Feather Crowns was a major departure. It’s the same people, the same landscape I have been preoccupied with since the start. The contemporary characters in my stories are the descendants of the rural people who were rooted on the farm for generations. On the farm, they were independent, land-owning yeoman farmers—in rural terms, the middle class. The Depression, the decline of the farm and the lure of cash sent them out of their culture into what they called “public work.” In many ways, it was a demotion. In working for a boss, they lost their autonomy. That transition since the Depression has had profound effects on rural and small-town culture. It formed my expectations that I would have to work in a factory or at a clerical job. I dreaded and feared the loss of independence. Writing was my way of keeping my own life.
Interviewer: Can you say something about the genesis and writing of Feather Crowns?
Mason: The book was inspired by a true story, the birth of quintuplets in 1896. It happened in my hometown—in fact, across the field from where I grew up. I did not hear the story until 1988, and there wasn’t much information about it, but it was enough to inspire me. I had been wanting to go back into the world of my grandparents when they were young, and that true story was just right for the journey. I seized on it for my own, as a chance to get into the language and folkways of the rural culture of the turn of the century. These things have a deep connection to the present, because the old ways are still hanging on; change is much slower than we imagine. So I see continuity between Feather Crowns and Shiloh more than I see a radical juxtaposition.
Interviewer: The project itself was somewhat different, though. For one thing, it must have required a lot of research. It’s also a bigger novel than any that you’ve written so far—longer, more characters, richer and more complex thematically. Did you feel at all like Christie, at the start of the book, who fears that the baby inside her—which is actually five—is so big and wild that it must be a monster?
Mason: The historical research wasn’t as extensive as you might think because I knew that world intimately, through my parents and grand-parents. The language, superstitions, landscape, farming methods—all of it came down to me in my lifetime. The rural community didn’t change that much from the turn of the century to the nineteen-forties. Much of my research involved asking my mother questions, and much of it I simply knew firsthand. I spent about the same amount of time writing it as I did writing In Country. The story was clear to me from the beginning, whereas with In Country there was so much I didn’t know about what was going on. I actually spent more concentrated time writing Feather Crowns, whereas with In Country I spent most of the time searching and trying out various directions for the characters. No, I didn’t feel quite like Christie. I knew from the beginning that it was a big book, and I could see what it required in terms of pacing and emotion and goal. I had to invent most of it—the characters and their world—but I had a clear sense of direction.
Interviewer: Among other things, the novel is about the loss of privacy, and Christie and James’ inability to defend themselves against the damaging effects of the public’s curiosity. The babies are the product of a very intimate kind of desire, but they thrust the Wheelers’ personal lives into public view. Christie is referred to by someone as having “dropped a litter,” and James is leered at by other women, who assume he’s extremely virile. Eventually the Wheelers’ grief, too, becomes a public affair. Was that part of the real story you learned, of the 1896 quintuplets? Or is that your imagination, operating on the historical incident?
Mason: Some of it was true, but there was very little information on the 1896 quintuplets. I know they were besieged by the public. I think the litter-dropping and a sense of the public invasion was also part of the reports surrounding the Dionne Quintuplets. Everything else I had to imagine.
Interviewer: One of the very significant events in the book, which actually takes place prior to the main action, is Christie’s trip with her friend Amanda to the revival at Reelfoot Lake. It becomes a sort of a focal point for Christie—and not just because it’s one of the only times she’s ever been away from James and her children. What, in your own mind, is the importance of that event in the novel?
Mason: The focal point had to do with guilt—Christie has impure thoughts about that sexy evangelist, Brother Cornett. So she builds on this guilt when she realizes her pregnancy is unusual. She imagines she’s carrying a monster, a devil. But the true monster turns out to be the public response. Also, in her attraction to Brother Cornett and the sideshow atmosphere of the camp meeting, we have the seeds of her vulnerability to celebrity that she encounters later. Her innocent desire to experience something new also leads her into danger.
Interviewer: Can you comment on your current writing project?
Mason: I don’t quite know what to say about it, as I’m still in the midst of it as we speak. It’s called Clear Springs and I hope it will come out sometime in 1998. It is a personal story of the fate of the family farm—my family’s farm. It includes a lot of memory of childhood and some autobiography, but I don’t think of it as a memoir. It’s less about me than about my family, especially my mother. By extension, it’s about a way of life that’s disappearing—the small family farm, the small rural community, that was once seen as the ideal for American civilization.
Interviewer: How does your notion of what Bobbie Ann Mason, the writer, is about differ, do you think, from the public and/or critical perception of your work?
Mason: I don’t think of myself as the K-mart realist. I hope that what I’m trying to do is more than document patterns of discount shopping in the late twentieth century! Many teachers and scholars seem primarily concerned with themes and ideas, but that’s not the way I think. If that was what I was after, I’d write a term paper. I think more in terms of literal details and images, as well as sound and tone—all the textures that bring a story to life. Sometimes it seems I’m working mostly with sounds and rhythms, the voice in my head. I write a story over and over until it sounds right. If it works, then the themes will be there. I don’t plant them.
Interviewer: So you’re more concerned with character and place than with any overriding theme in your work.
Mason: I’m not saying I’m uninterested in what a story means, it’s just that I find it hard to isolate that, either during the process of writing or in the final analysis. I think theme sometimes gets separated out too much from a work. The themes are important, but the artistry is just as important. Ideally, form and function are inseparable. That’s what I read for most: writing that can’t be torn apart, a story that can’t be told any other way. I read a writer for theway he tells the story. And when the substance and style are perfectly wedded, you can’t reduce the story to a set of abstractions.
Bobbie Ann Mason’s short stories have appeared in the New Yorker, the Atlantic Monthly, Harper’s and the Paris Review, among others. Her published fiction includes three novels: In Country (1985),Spence + Lila (1988) and Feather Crowns (1993), along with two short story collections: Shiloh and Other Stories (1982) and Love Life (1989). She has been a finalist for’ the National Book Critics Circle Award, the American Book Award and the PEN/Faulkner Fiction Award. Her other honors include the Southern Book Award, the Ernest Hemingway Foundation Award for best first fiction, a Guggenheim Fellowship, and grants from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Pennsylvania Arts Council. She is currently finishing a nonfiction book about her family’s farm, to be published in 1998. She lives and writes in Kentucky.
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John Balaban is the author of thirteen books of poetry and prose, including four volumes that together have won the Academy of American Poets’ Lamont prize, a National Poetry Series
Aug 05 2019
A Conversation with Janet Burroway
Janet Burroway, Lawton Distinguished Professor Emerita at Florida State University and recipient of the Lifetime Achievement Award for writing by the Florida Humanities Council, is the author of eight novels
Jan 12 2015
A Conversation with Mary Roach
Mary Roach’s wildly successful books, including New York Times bestsellers Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers and Spook: Science Tackles the Afterlife, blend serious scientific inquiry with uproarious comedy,