An Interview with Mary Hood
An Interview with Mary Hood
Mary Hood is an accomplished writer who may be best known for her short story, “How Far She Went,” the title story of her collection of short fiction, which has been widely anthologized and won the Flannery O’Connor Prize. She has written another collection of short fiction, A Clear View of the Southern Sky, a novel, Familiar Heat, and two novellas, And Venus is Blue and Seambusters. I first got to know Mary while she was visiting Mercer University as the distinguished Ferrol Sams Chair. She taught a fiction seminar which I had the good fortune to audit.
From Mary, I learned the importance of small details, as well as the art of zooming in to see something up close. It was staggering to realize the encyclopedic range of knowledge that Mary possessed and how she could reference it with ease, not in a pretentious way, but for the purposes of explanation, of pulling the broader world together in a way that it made sense and was human. She was interested in the core of her students, the center, the sometimes buried place from which they write.
I remember going out for dinner one night with Mary and the director of the Creative Writing program at the time, Gordon Johnston, after Mary had given a reading. At the table Mary and Gordon were having a conversation which pertained to religion. I, ill-equipped to participate, had drifted off. The restaurant had many brightly-colored, unusual things adorning the ceiling and walls, and I became entranced in the absent-minded way that a child might. Mary later described in beautiful detail a mini-scene of two people who worked in the restaurant sweeping the floor. She told how one person started on each side, and they met in the center of the room where it looked as though their brooms kissed. I remember being awed and ashamed. Mary accessed this detailed description of actions which occurred while she was engaged in an in-depth conversation on religion. This is how I imagine that Mary perceives the world all of the time, by collecting all of the details around her, cataloging them, and using them to show herself and readers what is human. Mary does not miss a single detail; there is no background which she tunes out. In her writing, nothing is wasted. Every word counts and has weight.
I interviewed Mary while I was working on my MFA in Creative Writing. I had started researching the subject of time and how to manage it in fiction for an extended essay I was writing. Mary’s novella, And Venus Is Blue, was one of the works I wanted to study because of its innovative structure. Mary agreed to the interview, and I was delighted to have an opportunity to ask anything I wanted about the fascinating novella which had haunted me for some time. I e-mailed my tidy little list of questions to Mary, peppered with the jargon of craft I had been trained to use. What resulted was an in-depth correspondence about Mary’s creative process, which was far richer than simple answers to my questions. The conversation unfurled, expanded, and wound back together in a manner only Mary could accomplish. I will try to do it justice here.
Bear: Did you have the structure in mind for And Venus Is Blue as you were writing it, or did you write it chronologically first and then arrange it in its current structure?
MH: Before I wrote And Venus Is Blue in its final form, I considered other POV options. I considered each cousin, each “child” in the twilight, watching Delia arrive, go in, and then come out, to lean tilted in the door, rethinking everything. Each child would remember something vital to the whole story, yet disconnected from the others. Each child’s grief and distress and sense of being stunned would have its place in the mosaic.
As I worked on this idea, it seemed “easy” and somewhat lame. I don’t know why. Arrogant, maybe. Whatever. That just “wasn’t it” and nothing I could come up with would explain, as needed, and keep hidden, as in life, so that the gradual accumulation and revelation achieved one impact. Also Had’nt [sic] Faulkner done it?
I was trying for metaphor, obviously. Not “it’s this” and some actual thing portrayed, but the condensed and enormous impact of emotional response, “It’s like this!”
That meant something I did not know how to portray. I could not get my mind around it. I used to walk around the house, mornings, evenings, as though physically getting around it from all sides would reveal what I needed to know about how. I took longer walks. Went around the block, then around the neighborhood. Seven miles was the farthest loop.
One day I piled loose pages on the floor of my workroom. I had two doors on trestles, for an L shaped work surface. I gathered it all and just piled it, in no particular order. What difference would from ground up make? Or from top down? Lots of slipsliding pages and bits of drafts and tries and notes and such. Maybe a foot high. All it was was a hazard to my moving around. Beginning to weigh on my mind.
I piled it on the west wall worktable/door. It lay like a spray of flowers on a casket. That riveted me. The one place I had not looked at it was from below. So I got down on the floor and crawled under the door on its trestles, and lay there. An amazing thing happened.
I went to sleep.
I was waked by children’s voices, children trampling down the hall, running in to the room in which I lay, and the oldest child calling back to her mother–nobody knocked at the door or held back–Here she is mama, she’s not dead.
Which brought her mama right on!
Well, I got up, said I had been working and got tired and took a nap, but was ready for some fun and a snack, and off we went to the kitchen and then the porch.
Friend (not a reader) looked at me from corner of her eye, deciding. Cutting those big eyes all around. Deciding. All of them barefoot. Me too. In a bit, they all descended into the back yard, crawled into the Oldsmobile station wagon, and went on.
I went back to the workroom and as I walked through the door, I inhaled. I always did, entering into that room. Books and paper and home. Oh, deepest nest-fit ever. I looked at the table, and the pile of stuff. I felt something inside, like humor but also like joy. Did I dare? Something was over. Something was beginning. Something was about daring. Not about knowing. So I must already know, I thought. So why can’t I dare?
It doesn’t have to make sense, I said. Every way it makes sense on paper is lamed by the policies of reason.
I never asked what is it? again, about the way it needed to be told. I asked, only and often, Is this it? But from the first morning, that next day–I was on the way. It came out pretty much a final draft. I did not have time for many more versions; deadline was in six weeks, and this took it all, and the manuscript got there on the last day of my contract.
The fracturing of it, the complete linearity in Delia’s mind of her life, but the utter fragmentation of what Forster calls the–uh . .flatworm of time? Tapeworm? Whatever he calls it. I set out, and itt gathered as it went.
I just remember getting more and more excited every day, as I worked, because I was really out in the rough; wasn’t going to be able to putt it in from there. Going to have to make a giant pitch, and an eagle, and when I had done, I knew I had. I went out into the woods and lay down, and looked at the winter sky. I could feel the earth slowly turning. I hadn’t broken the world from orbit, and I was still on board. Birds and a squirrel came and looked down, then went home. And so did I.
Bear: In general, do you write first drafts chronologically?
MH: In general I don’t write first drafts. I am hoping they are final drafts, but by that I don’t mean I believe they are good enough. I mean, I don’t start until I have a sense of the true beginning. If I knew the middle I’d go mad with boredom. That’s the fun part. And a pretty good idea of that final thud on the last page, I am aiming for. Don’t always know the words, or the mood, or the scene. Sometimes one of those. (for the last chapter and words) I think this is because I am essentially a short story writer, going long. Once I begin, I go on. What I call “begin” is that feel [sic] I have that the sound it makes, as I tell it to myself (I type [sic] out loud and transcribe), is the real voice I need to hear. Maybe some of this comes from having so long to have been working at another job. Writing was going on “underneath” like a spring, underground for a few miles. I caught back at it when it sprang up again. But all along, awake or asleep, and especially doing repetitive work, it was under there.
Someone reported walking in a park with Beethoven, both of them in conversation and light mood, and he would jerk to a stop, scowl, then walk on. A bit more of it, he’d say . . .and walk on. The music was making its way to his surface. He was no means done with it to it with him, but his process sounds a bit like mine. I have a series of novels going on now. Something comes up, or I jot down something I hear, and I wonder which folder to put it in. By the time I get the folder out, I know. Although it may have been dialog with no clue as to who is speaking or in what context, I will suddenly know. A whole new part of the book comes with it, even though the thing I overheard, and somehow knew to add, only just came along.. If I don’t know where, I post it in sight and in a little while, a day or a week, I know.
Do I backtrack and backfill?
Although I have been asked by editors for “more” and amaze them by immediately writing it. Because it is real to me. It is not made up. It is discovered. It is one thing to look for a brick in the yard.It is another thing to see a hole with bricks and point to that one, that one right there and know it is the one. I do not guess; I discover.
The wonderful Elizabeth Bowen wrote in “The art of novel making”–”Plot is the whittling of alternatives.”
I see what she means, but most folks seem to think–and write this way too, so who knows which is the way? You have to find the way you work best, and the way the story comes best–that is what is meant is that you toss up ideas and see if one works. I think one can only look at EVERYTHING and ask, Is this it? And trust the book, inside you, using you to bring it to be, to let you know: YES, or NO!
Trust your instincts. Honor the story. All you are doing is telling it.
Bear: How did you decide which parts of the back-story were most relevant to include in And Venus Is Blue?
MH: Do you mean by back-story what events and revelations come in each “age” of Delia?
Let’s talk about this some more, I’m not sure what you mean but I am willing to try to say, if I catch on to what is meant. Remember I studied writing by reading that which was published; I never studied writing in any class. I have missed some major stuff, for sure. Back-story is the background?
Here is what I did, about each “scene” at each “age” of Delia. I collected myself to that moment in whatever way I could. Remembering the dappled shade from my grandmother’s huge wild cherry tree, the snap of sheets drying in the breeze. The sound of robins. The feeling of being away, off center, not “at home” but in an important place. How I used my body as part of how I did things–opening the door, pushing back against it, braced, slow till it hit the wall, then stopping. The way I’d stand and turn the little hand carved wood block used to keep the bottom cupboard shut, but when it opened, the smell of mothballs, paper, winter clothes. I made me go back in time to her age, if I could. Her events weren’t mine. I had to think how that would be. How truth would come in, to such a young mind. How one hugs with all one’s length and strength. How hard it is to let go. How easy to turn away. Next. With nothing explained, ever, to the point of satisfaction.
Then it was a matter of, how to make this do what it needs to.
I think you were as surprised as I, when James killed himself the second time.
And the next.
And the next . . .
Wow. The more he died the weirder I got, there came a day I threw caution to the winds. Was I flying? Falling? Like James says, you flying till you land.
Each scene knew what it had to show, as it revealed the story. The other part of the story was the shock, the ruin. And the way, as it accumulated, the way the gunshot was active . . .moving along through every page of her life.
I had to tell it like that, and I cannot tell more how it came to me to be except from long brooding, prayer, and the mercy of God, who is a better author than anyone on earth. And is more than willing to help.
I used my emotional self, but not my life. I used the poet part of me. And It was like dancing on swords, like my feet knew how to stay alive. I did not have any part of anything that was “back” since it all felt like it was simultaneously now, the eternal now. I just cannot explain it better. Of course I knew the story, the one I wanted to tell. But I could not, apparently, tell it straight. Yet how crooked is it? Time goes from morning, noon, to night. One day in a girl’s life, that is the whole thing. That is how I knew to do it, and I did not know that all at once, or at first. But once I started with morning, I knew that was what I would do, since I did so long to achieve it somehow, and make it let me go.
I have given time a great deal of thought. If there are places in time, right now, where the Holocaust has not happened, there are also places in time, right now, where it is happening.
A dog no one knows comes at dark–winter and summer for years–to sleep on James Racing’s grave. In the morning the dog leaves. No one knows where he goes. Night after night this happens. This happens after the “book” is over.
No book is over.
If this isn’t what, ask me more questions. I really don’t know how to explain. Those six weeks were a miracle to me. Meanwhile I just went on living my real and daily and ordinary life. It all seems rather amazing now. As somebody says in Mother Goose: Lawk a Mercy, can this be I?
Bear: Was the epigraph the seed for the story, or was it a later addition?
MH: The epigraph came to me later as I tried to explain why James was dying so often. I felt it needed saying somehow. I worked and worked. But it didn’t fit within the story. The editors at Ticknor & Fields wanted to know. I said I had thought of how the pictures of John Kennedy playing with his children at the beach, tearing along the sand, laughing, were just privileged and beautiful people until he was shot. Then I found each image of him deeply sad. His unruly hair, windblown, so tight to the scalp that would fly off in Dallas and Jack would instinctively grab and hold, in case there was a cure. How to catch that, in words, that way of everything being blood-spattered, afterward, every Christmas tree, every birthday cake, every hour of our life. And then imagine suicide, someone making the lists, pro and con, and how would it feel to be on that list–on the stay list, and you aren’t enough. There was rage in my making that epigraph. For someone who would never read it. Cork Smith said, “Write it down-the short version–and use it as the epigraph.” So I did.
Bear: You used several techniques deftly to manage back-story in And Venus Is Blue including, sections of flashbacks, short exchanges in dialogue within the present story to indicate past events, and italics to indicate the speaker’s current thoughts when recalling past events. Do you have a favorite technique?
MH: I did what I could, in each place and moment, to make it work, and ato keep it as accessible and lucid as possible. If I had been able to think of other ways, I would have, probably. I real multi-media event.
Bear: How do you determine when it is safe to venture into longer sections of flashback and when a half-scene or a short remembered scene is enough to provide clarity for the reader?
MH: For AVIB I knew each “hour” in that day would have one significant complete scene, and I would amplify if needed with the little postcards or snapshots.
Other than that, all I can say about this question is that I felt–and feel–my way along. I think part of that “feeling” is about attention deficit, which is really a load of attention, but not easily called to heel. To keep me interested as I wrote AVIB–and I had been wrangling to make aathis stosry work for some time–I was so familiar with all the story–and my moods–I approached the whole thing in a series of Scherazad-isms. For the reader and for me too. What is “enough” and how do we know? Part of it is captioning. If you make the scene clear, you then can caption. That includes foreshadowing, revelation of the hidden, un hiding of evidence or truth by one or the other or both. All of the wonders of dialog in general, which is in fact plot. Or ought to be. Part is thinking, from the first, Every time one speaks, or one acts, let it be “in character.” I knew each one would have a sound, a theme, like in music. Or in a great play, where you can take one character’s dialog and read just it and meet the whole character. Every writer has to work with that, and knows to try, if lucky. Someone can teach you that. Instincts have to be honed, and liberated, allowed. And there is gift and talent. But some of it is just reading, and thinking, and trying this or that, then seeing if it works. Studio stuff. Daydreaming stuff. I was trying to keep it small and brief, for some reason. So I worked in that way. I did not know about the pleasures of micro-fiction at that time, but working in that short short form is a help for knowing what to use, how to make it pay off in a hurry. And also, to gather along so it pays off later.
I think at this point I had the writer’s job to do. There is no formula. The groping and devisings and trials and honings–especially the revisions–should be fun. They are the job. I was spared some authorly confusions at the time because Delia could know no more that her own age’s worth of “reality” at any one “age.” Looking back, all that, yes, but each new age was a new page for her. I tried to find, for each section, things that would be going on in her life and illuminating that around her and within her, just for that exact moment. Necessarily illuminations and moments would connect backward, for the reader; and later, the whole book would “add up.” Devoutly to be wished.
I can say this: I never set out to upset the conventions of fiction. I never strained toward anything nouveau. Nothing metafictional. Metaphoric was all I hoped for, and a minimally blighted effort. As time went on, and the walks around the mess got larger, I knew I had to call myself back to heel, and the day of the nap I gave up thinking I would ever “grasp” whatever it was I was somehow seeking in my perimeter-hiking. My brain was not able. So I had to work with what it was able to do.
The nap under the work table woke me. Recall how I woke–a child’s voice saying, “She’s not dead.”
That is the metaphor. That was somehow what I needed to hear. I was able to rise to the challenge, and begin. I knew nothing more than before the nap. Except I was done wandering, and napping.
Remember what I said in class about headlights. They only light the night pavement about 100 feet, but with them, you can drive all night.
MH (one more answer without a question): I thought of something you didn’t ask, but which I am sure has to do with why I write a certain way, or aim toward it. Certain books have an enormous impact. Two which did were moments, really, not the whole books. One was in Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse, where the reader turns the page, and Mrs. Ramsay, who is the world, has “been dead” these several years. It had an enormous effect on me, something opened in my mind, to possibility. As though I had never seen in 3-D before. The flats of things went round, and also, time’s dimension added even more to it. The modern age arrived in my brain. It was a bomb, and left craters and debris. Another moment was in V. Woolf’s Jacob’s Room, when his mother comes out of the bedroom with Jacob’s shoes. “What do we do with these?” Also–in Eva Trout by Elizabeth Bowen (I love her short stories best, but this novel taught me some things)–as she steps up to go on the train, overhears something, and lightly asks, having hehr attention caught by a random overheard word, “What are concatenations?”
Another huge influence on terseness, brevity, irony, and deliriously focused moments and casual everything-in-it remarks, thrownaway or muttered–Hemingway’s “A Clean Well-Lighted Place.” It is a masterpiece. I actually sank to my knees on the floor and after a time remembered to thank God.
Words about words and how to’s have not been the teachers that reading has been. One never knows when those moments will come, but they have often come to me when I was reading beyond my comforts, perhaps facing “names” I had not use for, or will for. Not assigned, not required, sometimes accidentally encountered, and read in the defeat of sheer boredom. Nothing in an artist’s path or detours is accidental. It is as I said last night, or tried to: seek and it will find you.
These books and stories I mention did not necessarily have the freight or impact on others as on me. They did not all arrive in my life on the same day, either. Restlessness, seeking more, or a quicker way to convey thoughts or events (my father was a get-on-with-it listener) while making the glory of it all, even the overlooked, every grain of gold dust part of the final weighing (my mother loved Dickens and thoroughness) were part of my heritage growing up. I loved Dragnet, the black and white version with Joe Smith as the sidekick. The way the cameras moved slowly face to face the clicks of visages on screen, as the abrupt just the facts dialog conveyed–everything–and in such a slow way, sparse-spoken, I learned to read those faces, and ato hear irony. That salt trained my palate from my first schooldays. Life, to a child, is much like that–seeking clues in faces, when the words don’t tell enough . . .And always–surprises.
I learned narration from how life offers us our own story.
And from birth order. Yes.
I was the baby, and was always catching up. Short-cuts were a strategy, in narration, in not being fooled.
Adult, I love surprises, the lightning of the load of slow accretions, the sudden arrivals at destination after being distracted by glimpses out the window at other scenes, the reflections in the glass overlaying, laundry on a line, a bridge and groom on the steps, a woman in one show, bent to scream into a car, pointing, screaming, her dress covered in mud . . .One of my main ploys now is to detour into a dazzling and sudden “next” or other . . .and then dump the reader right back into the flow, somehow ahead, although not from the linear narration. I used this technique in my novel, Familiar Heat. It IS my novel. Wheels in wheels. And of course, that means it is about time, how it moves us around, or we ignore it at peril, and surprises us with what “home” is or means. I had not thought of that until just now. So maybe I am not the one to explain it, but it seems true. I would never again, I think, be doing exactly what I did in AVIB, to convey time and convey the reader through time, to simulate time and now-ness and gone-ness. But those considerations are what I care about, and are driven to explore, besides the story. How to make the telling honor or at least acknowledge the dimension of time and its effect upon our consciousness, individual as well as group.
I think a writer can be a writer without such things. I just think that part of the art is trying to find ways to freshen results, keep expectations high yet untrained. To frustrate expectation and reward attention. And to seek whole-heartedly, at whatever expense to oneself, the gratification of the other.
It is about hospitality in some ways. And it is like sex, in others.