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A Conversation with Maureen Howard

in conversation with
[AUTHOR]
“Are you talking about the danger of losing the reader if we shake up the form, or the danger of losing our minds?”
Unsung sources of suspense:
The delays of a meandering narrative
The invention of competing voices
Table tennis
by Joanna Scott
Illustration by Tony Millionaire
header-image

A Conversation with Maureen Howard

in conversation with

[AUTHOR]
“Are you talking about the danger of losing the reader if we shake up the form, or the danger of losing our minds?”
Unsung sources of suspense:
The delays of a meandering narrative
The invention of competing voices
Table tennis
by Joanna Scott
Illustration by Tony Millionaire

A Conversation with Maureen Howard

Joanna Scott
10 Snaps

Joanna Scott is the author of two collections of stories and eight novels, most recently Follow Me (Little, Brown, 2009). She has lived with her family in Italy, pursuing her fiction, but is settled in upstate New York, where she teaches at the University of Rochester. Joanna is a recipient of a MacArthur Fellowship, a Lannan Award, a Guggenheim Fellowship, and the Rosenthal Prize from the American Academy of Arts and Letters.

Maureen Howard is the author of nine novels and a memoir, Facts of Life, which won the National Book Critics Circle Award. The Rags of Time (Viking, 2009) is the last in a series of novels celebrating the four seasons. She is the recipient of the Academy Award in Literature from the Academy of Arts and Letters. She was born in Bridgeport, Connecticut, and made her way to New York where she has lived for many years with the comfort of family. She teaches at Columbia University’s School of the Arts.

Scott and Howard met when they were seated next to each other at dinner at a Houston writing festival one night in 1991, and continued talking at a PEN/Faulkner gathering in Washington, D.C., later that year. Joanna was expecting her first child. Maureen and Joanna have been talking children and writing ever since. Their girls are now well grown. The exchange that follows took place over email in the winter of 2009–2010.

 

JOANNA SCOTT: Maureen, I’ve been thinking about your memoir Facts of Life and its relationship to the fictional remembering that goes on in your new Rags of Time.  I wonder if  I’m right to sense that the two books share an energizing tension?  On the one hand, a home is a writer’s necessary refuge—the work gets done behind a closed door.  On the other hand, a home can be a “stifling refuge” (a phrase you use in Facts of Life), and the world outside the door, with its layered history, is always beckoning.  The first thing your fictional writer does in The Rags of Time is to head out, away from home, into Central Park.

MAUREEN HOWARD: The exploration of place: I say that as though to introduce a classroom spin. Today we will concern ourselves with Flannery O’Connor’s confinement to Millidgeville, Georgia where she discovered the saved and the damned; to Naipaul’s childhood in Trinidad which became sacred to him in England.  Well, if I seem unable to swing free of Bridgeport, even now recalling the chug-chug of factories in WWII, it may be to reconsider the best of times.  In Natural History, both a novel and history of my city, I romanticized the myths of Barnum’s Winter Quarters, and the secrets of City Hall. These many years in New York I’m quite at home, know the bus routes and where to scout out the Extra Virgin! olive oil, but often turn to the memory bank in a mix of melancholy, mockery and affection hoping I have not over invested in the double feature at the Rialto, the parish church.

I envy your possession of  the island of Elba in Liberation.  In Follow Me you place a map of the Tuskee River to guide both the writer and the reader of the novel.  It becomes your Yoknapatawpha County.  Mind if I call in the gentleman writer?  I must believe that when we leave home, we are ready to leap over the gender gap.

JS: Yes, it’s a wonderful freedom we have on the page.  We can start by presuming that anything’s possible, and then we step across those borders that in the real world might be impassable. But wherever we go, we take the baggage of our memories with us.  Your fictional New York is really a version of Bridgeport, stretched to fill a bigger map. That makes perfect sense. New places mirror our first formative experiences when we were figuring out how to get from one address to another. “Pay attention to here and now” your fictional writer reminds herself as she heads out once again into Central Park: “Delighted to be released from Bridgeport, just for the day.”  But still “that old stuff’ presses in.  Bridgeport won’t let you forget it.

MH: Actually, she pastes that line on a photo of her parents walking arm in arm on Fifth Avenue, pleased with their adventure just for the day.  That old stuff, but then again, Make it New, the old adage of modernism is with me still.  A vintage bottle, hasn’t lost its fine nose. To discover a form for each story—where to put the journalistic scrap, how to emboss the surface of setting, be it my Park of the new millennium or Frederick Law Olmsted’s plan for the Greensward, or the retreat of the Germans in your Liberation. We ask the reader to follow the turns of narrative, but if you put a coin in the slot there are multiple views which may contain the personal story.  Collage: the early paste-ups, the background of
brush strokes, history fractured with today’s news. I think of Sebald walking the byways of East Anglia, milling history for the daily bread of his writing. His discovery of place is more than setting, more than local history;  his discovery of past and adjacent lives is self-discovery.  In an early collection of stories, you wrote of historical figures—Dorothea Dix, Charlotte Corday—appropriated their lives to suit your purpose.

JS: Really, I think they appropriated me to suit their purposes!  That’s usually the case with my fiction.  There I am, just walking along, wrapped up in my own petty troubles, and I hear ghosts whispering from the shadows.  I like the feeling of that kind of discovery, when we’re caught by surprise, when the world reveals a portion of itself unexpectedly.  But it’s not enough for fiction writers to collect stories and retell them, is it?  Your notion of collage (something you enact visually in your books, with images and blocks of text) is beautifully apt—the past fractured with the present.  Writing fiction begins with a process of fracturing.  We chip away at known reality, take pieces of it, and then set off to elaborate and assemble in order to try to press toward the part of experience that resists knowing yet tempts us with the possibility of understanding.  And because a thing that is individually and lovingly made reveals aspects of the person who made it, the end product of this process of assembling, the collage that is fiction, involves self-portraiture. I’m taking the long route back to your idea about the writer’s personal involvement.  The author may be absent from the work, but she’s left her dirty fingerprints all over the pages.  I see you, Maureen, in your Rags, not just in your fictional writer but in the very structure and style of the book.  You’ve made something that can contain different points of view, contrasting impressions, and your characteristic blend of past and present.  And I sense that behind this multiplicity is an author who remains acutely concerned about the future.

MH: Which future?  An agreeable future of nuclear deterrence plotted in Geneva?  The future of the great melt?  A revival of the gold standard? Of my grandchildren who, I like to believe, live in a state of innocence?  Or the future of our stories, the weight of their fancy?  Ranting again, powerless, well aware my soapbox is cheap wood that splinters. I stole that line from Sinclair Lewis, gave it to the writer in Rags.  Thinking about the responsibility of fiction recently, I came across a prescription for searching out the word: the word that could stand as all the words covering the page, a word which if not truth itself, may perchance hold truth enough to help the moral discovery which should be the object of every tale.—Joseph Conrad.  If that sounds heavy duty, so be it.  Post it over my desk with a photo of Ethel Merman belting out “Let Me Entertain You”.  Concerned about the future?  Or did you mean the future of the book?

JS: I like to imagine Joseph Conrad and Ethel Merman sharing your wall.  About the future, it’s an elusive prey for those of us who work with narrative.  Isn’t it related to the notion of “moral discovery”?  I’m reminded of a beautifully intimate production of Chekhov’s Three Sisters I recently saw up at the Stratford Festival in Ontario.  As I walked away from the theater I found myself worrying about the disappointments ahead for those characters, as though the play hadn’t really finished.  And this made me think about the consequences of all choices that we dare to make.  I felt that I was more alert to the impact of my present actions,  thanks to Chekhov.  If nothing else, we come out of our immersion in an artfully told story with a new sense of urgency.  Time is short, and there’s so much to do. Time is short and you’ve managed to complete the whole of your Four Seasons. It was a daring thing to take on, Maureen.  Did you know what you were getting into when you started writing A Lover’s Almanac?

MH: I knew the stories would continue, the time allotted in the earliest season might not be enough.  We were heading to the millennium, a date of reckoning so the media thought, the computer folk, too.  I had no crystal ball, just faith that our stories must go on as they always have—in the cave, the schoolroom, on screen, and in a generosity of time offered by the novel.  I had come across Benjamin Franklin’s Poor Richard’s Almanac portioning out the year with entertainments, fanciful stories yet always wise in Franklin’s advice. I have an astronomer friend who calculates the heavens for The Farmer’s Almanac, so the phases of the moon, sighting of the North Star are exact.  My Almanac is a Winter story of late love and young love in need of a thaw.  Continuing themes? I presumed I could take Audubon’s ambition in Big As Life, place his magnificent folio of American Birds next to my birdwatcher’s sketches: his big drama, her accuracy of singular observation. Perhaps I thought four seasons would see me out.  Out of the workroom into Central Park is all I mean.

JS: Did you begin with themes then?  How did the characters emerge?  Looking back at the beginning of Lover’s Almanac, I wonder which came first, the name “Louise Moffet,” or her predicament?

MH: Little Miss Muffett sat on a tuffett. Not frightened, my Louise Moffett.  She packed up, left the farm with her portfolio of drawings, flagged down the bus to New York.  I have long been interested in that promise, the bold investment in the future. Way back in Bridgeport Bus I mapped the route to the big city.  The predicament?  Will she make it? Of more importance, will she make a life? We can call upon characters we once called heroines—Wharton’s Lily Bart, Esther in Bleak House, Doris Lessing’s Marth Quest, your Sally Werner in Follow Me—all get on the bus for the chapters that lie ahead. Reading Sally’s story I feel you are writing in ballad form, each part of her journey gathering new lyrics, new entries in her story.  Sorting playful from upward and onward, taking the trip each time is the serious game of fiction.

JS: Yes, the journey continues from writer to writer.  The Ballad of Sally Werner was in fact one of my early working titles.  I never meant it to be a final title, but I did have the model of the ballad in mind as I was writing.  And a bus really is the perfect narrative vehicle for fiction.  Did I ever tell you about the bus trip I took across country when I was eighteen?  I went from Portland, Oregon to New York City with seven dollars in my pocket, a jar of peanut butter, and a loaf of bread.  I still have vivid memories of the people I met along the way.  That would have been a novel, if I’d known how to write one back then.  I had to read Beckett first, and you, and plant myself in the basement of a library for a few years.  Also, I had to sharpen my skills on my typewriter, a big pink IBM electric I bought used on 27th Street in New York.  And then I had to catch up and learn the functions of various word processing programs.  So how does technology come into play?  This is a subject that you recently brought up in an email.

MH: Cleaning up my back room after years of work in progress, I came across an article from the New York Times, August 19, 2002, testimony to my curiosity in new adventures for readers: a photo of words swirling on a wall with sound effects; an inset photo of traffic on a highway, presumably New York City.  Interesting bricolage, but what rocked me was the commentary of a professor at UCLA on electronic writing:  “For centuries literature has been delivered in a vehicle with a narrow sensory interface: the print book.” She welcomed “a richer sensory input.”  Joanna, do you feel impoverished, undernourished by the page?  Do you ever stifle a sob at the end of a moving passage? Not the passing of Little Nell; perhaps Lillie Bart embracing death; or laugh at the endless physical impairments of Beckett’s fortunate family Lynch in Watt?  Want to throw a feeble story across the room? Anyway: same article pictures Robert Coover in a virtual-reality chamber at Brown, computer generated lines of Moby-Dick swirling on the walls.  “I’m not convinced that it’s going to work to deliver literary art,” Coover says, “ but I don’t want to be excluded from it.” Nor do I, and I’m particularly taken by that shot of  traffic overprinted with Melville’s words—“There now is your insular city of the Manhattoes, belted round by wharves… “It’s extreme downtown is the Battery…” and so forth as the writer jumps ship for the many stops along the way of his great adventure.  Recently I sense you have been out of sorts with the well-told, so, does the cure await in the interactive?

JS: I think what you’re referring to is my occasional impolite expression of impatience with tales that threaten to oversimplify experience.  It’s not that I object to the “well-told,” as you put it.  I love those tales that flaunt their elegance (the stories of Isak Dinesen and Angela Carter come to mind).  But I also love wild explorations of madness.  I feel a little less alone when I encounter characters who are working through befuddlement.  We’ll never run out of things to say about the struggle to make sense of confusion.  It could be that the notion of the interactive is making narrative more flexible in its rendering of groping thought.  But I don’t think we’ve come close to realizing all the possibilities of the printed page.

MH: Poor old printed page sporting its careful, or do I mean conservative fiction, at times chancing an energetic style, lacking the risk of imagination. Pat, pat, turn the page for there the reader will find the assurance of ongoing narrative without seeming misdirection, no sidebars.  Except, of course, there’s Powers and Wallace (RIP), Jeanette Winterson, Zadi Smith, Belano just now–his doorstop as postmortem; three voices on the triangulated page of Coetzee’s Diary of a Bad Year.

JS: Are you saying here that a story that charges toward its end is necessarily conservative?  You’re arguing in favor of a narrative made up of digressions? But I wonder if those sidebars can be deceptive.  I think of the footnotes in Nabokov’s Pale Fire—these end up moving the plot forward in sneaky ways. Each of Nabokov’s apparent digressions manages to add to the suspense.  But maybe that’s your point.  Suspense can come in many flavors.  It isn’t just generated by a sequence of actions.  There might be suspense in the delays of a meandering narrative, or in the invention of competing voices.  As a reader, I love to get caught up in paragraphs that are full of vivacious details.  Confusion can be very suspenseful, if we’re able to move through the murk.  I’m convinced that the most essential suspense in fiction is generated within each sentence.  There might even be a suspenseful element to this conversation!

MH: As in table tennis?  But you are far more agile of mind. You do actually ride horses, set the post high.  Where might we end?  Not in discord, not likely.  Your probing is inspired yet reasonable. Your consideration of what’s genuine in a story right on; while I mouth off on the ingenuous:  The weight of discourse in George Eliot; and, after her first novel, the serious play of Virginia Woolf, particularly the endgame of Between the Acts.  Having parodied all of  England’s history from prehistoric man, half human, half ape to a day in June, 1939 when the blitz had destroyed a good deal of London, she brings the panoramic down to a domestic scene between a disaffected husband and wife: “Then the curtain rose.  They spoke.” The simplicity of small sentences, their weight.  The reader does not have to know that Mrs. Woolf was about to write a last note to her husband—“I want to tell you that you have given me complete happiness…”, that she put stones in her pockets to end her own story.  Revealing diaries, letters, A Sketch of the Past, the brave adventure of her writing life were over though she never appeared unmasked in her fiction, a post-modern gesture.

The search for form is dangerous as a cut into stone that makes or defaces the sculptor’s work; or like the tailor’s stitches ripped to let out the binding collar of linear time.  As for your post partum sorrow for Chekhov’s abandoned provincials, their future may be imagined by the writer.  Perhaps a Scott appropriation on the fate of Uncle Vanya’s medical career?

JS: There’s an idea—Uncle Vanya moves to upstate New York.  Your last question reminds me to consider dimension as well as direction in narrative.  Maybe it’s in the depths of their characters, in the hidden sources of singular voices, where writers like Eliot and Woolf and Chekhov establish the assurance of continuity.  And at the same time they let us experience the potential for arbitrary turns.  But I wonder about your comment that the “search for form” is dangerous. Are you talking about the danger of losing the reader if we shake up the form, or the danger of losing our minds?

MH: Oh, we’re performing for the reader: at times a high wire act; at times the comfort of telling a fireside tale, the love story again. As for losing my mind?  It was lost long ago.  I gave over so thoroughly to the pursuit of fiction.  You write reviews and criticism, though I think your devotion is to stories, to the construction of novels in particular. Is it addictive?  I have seldom taken a break that wasn’t claimed by the pleasures or problems of family life.  Or teaching: I recall being envious of you the semester when you read just Dickens with you class.  I’ve never had the opportunity to do that: delve.

JS: I’m surprised that you would say you don’t delve.  What about Woolf, or Cather?  Or P.T. Barnum, for that matter?  Or Olmstead or Audubon?  I’d call you a supreme delver! And I know you’re thinking about the possibility of delving into something new. We talked about this the other day on the phone.  You’ve just finished years of an ongoing project.  What’s next? the world asks.  And you’re asking, what do we do when we’re not writing?  Well, there’s always life to keep us busy.  And we can read about other people’s lives.  If we’re lucky, we might be able to stand close to paintings and examine the brush work.  Some of us go to parties or travel or play music or drink.  I admit I find it hard to know what to do with myself, or at least with my imagination, when I’m between projects. But yes, it’s a time to get recharged, to gather up influences and discover what we missed while we were absorbed in our dreams.

MH: What are you working on?  I call that a provocative question. As though the dough must be rising, if bread not already in the oven.  I’m about to teach a course in self-portraits, written portraits of course, but also a look-see at the many self-portraits of Rembrandt—costumed, flamboyant when young, signs of illness in old age.  And that moving study by Agnes Martin, revealing herself naked in old age. I was ticked off by a review of my Rags that reported me as eighty.  I am seventy-nine, says so in the virtual page of my story. I might try my hand at biography, not the bio pics I’ve loved writing, but fear I might lose the years left to another life. Thomas Hardy went back to poetry, but I’ll not try friends with attachments of my versification. Questions: Add to a book of stories never collected over the years? That’s the easy way out.  I do have a model, a book like Fitzgerald’s The Crack Up, the confession, arrogance intact, pathos of letters to his daughter.  Delete Bridgeport?  I’m losing my mind, as you suggest.

JS: Those are all wonderful possibilities.  And I’m so heartened by your determination.  I read just the other morning that the last bookstore in Laredo, Texas has closed.  Now if you live in Laredo and want to browse in a bookstore, you need to drive 150 miles to San Antonio.  And the cover story of this week’s New York Times magazine:  a bestselling writer farms out his ideas to co-authors while devoting most of his own time to marketing the franchise of his fiction.  We’ll see how it plays out.  But you’re right, the point is to press on with new explorations.  Until we give up on words altogether, we’ll need literature to keep teaching us how meaning can be made.

MH: Or sought in the next lap of our stories. Yes, a voice comes to me in the dark. Scripto ergo sum.

JS: Well, I’m impressed, Maureen.  You’re looking forward toward a new book though your seventy-nine-year-old self hasn’t even completed the year.  I’ll be turning fifty this summer; you’ll be turning eighty.  So what if we can’t keep track of our errant minds?  We must celebrate!  I was supposed to hang upside down from a trapeze on my forty-fifth birthday.  Just my luck, a storm moved in while I was waiting to climb the ladder, a bolt of lightning lit up the sky, and my trapeze swing was cancelled.  Maybe we should try that high-wire act you mentioned earlier?  Wouldn’t it be something to be as fearless as Philippe Petit, who walked on a tightrope from the top of one twin tower to the other?  I hear he does occasional reprises on a low rope in Washington Square.  He also can push a baby in a stroller while riding a unicycle.  Maybe we could learn how to do that.

MH: I sign off now.  Only words in my teetering balance.  In the middle of the journey of our life…Stately plump Buck Mulligan…I was born…Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins…I will arise and go now, and go to Innisfree…In my younger and more vulnerable days…And God called the light day and the darkness light…I was born…Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself.

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