That happened a lot in Montreal when I used to be nostalgic for the South.
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Southern women are good story tellers. So that's how a lot of those stories came about. A-M G: You lived a long time in Canada, so you probably know a number of female Canadian short story writers? I just think that it happens that sometimes you have more women writers and sometimes more men writers. I don't think of it as a competition.
I wonder if the short story is a domestic genre? Everything depended on shock tactics. I meant someday to write some more Marilee stories, but I just never have gotten around to it. You were criticized for saying some people just have to be left as alcoholics; it's okay. Did you get blasted for that? There have got to be some things you can count on There are a whole lot of things in my stories that are really there, or that have really happened. But then the story seems to work around all those in an imaginary creation. That Presbyterian church hand—that's reality.
Didn't you ever see it?
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We speak so often of southern writers who use their past, like when we speak of Faulkner as a historian. The house that you describe, the remains of that house are not really looked at nostalgically. It's as though the southern underbrush, the stuff that remains, has importance, but there's also life to be lived. This is part of us, but we'll go on. It's quite beautiful, a ruin like that. They preserved it, but I think in preserving it now, they've sort of ruined it because they tried to do something artificial to make it still stand, and it looks kind of awful. It used to just stand there out in the old grounds.
You have the purists, though, who would object to its being exploited in some way. A-M G: Yes. Very often people say that Southerners have a strong sense of time, a fascination for time, but in your case doesn't it go even further, that is, a fascination with destruction and death? Things gone and being wiped out; what to do, nothing. A-M G: Do you see the short story as an appropriate genre to express metaphysical fears?
If it works, it must be possible. I wrote a lot of those stories during the seventies because I had put a good deal of hope in that novel The Snare , and it was published at the wrong time. It came out just before Christmas and didn't get much notice as a result. A lot of people seemed to like it, but I had thought that it was a notable book.
Ship Island | The New Yorker
I got very discouraged about writing novels, and that's when I started just pouring a lot of material I had into short stories. I thought, I might as well see her. She was already on the phone to my agent, and I'd already been to see the top editor, and they said they were quite enthusiastic. So that was the turn I took in the road toward short stories. It was very odd: all the stories were out there, and I'd published one small volume called Ship Island , but I hadn't thought to do another one. One thing she did, though, that I didn't like: she put Knights and Dragons in that collection, and I don't think that was a good idea at all.
I tried to oppose it. About metaphysics, I would say I admired Walker Percy's approach to life and literature, which is so firmly based in his religion. I feel I do have a base in religion, but I don't know how quite to explore that through the lives of my characters yet. Maybe someday I will. I don't altogether swing with the way Walker does it a lot of times, but sometimes when it succeeds I admire him very much.
I haven't thought about my characters in terms of hopefulness.
Elizabeth Spencer - b. 1921
I think The Salt Line is a very hopeful book. To me, that ends on a very positive note. And if you give Jeff the slightest possibility of coming back from Vietnam, then The Night Travellers is a hopeful book. They've lived through all that, you know. I think one of my big preoccupations is that you can't say you've arrived anywhere unless you've lived through something to get there.
You can't be these characters who are just living on the surface of things and never understanding or recognizing the reality.
It's a testing of the mind. She had no such intention, and yet, I can't look on her as negative because it was her love for people that made her seem that way. I mean, she kept on and on trying to love her mother. Maybe another girl would have said to hell with that, you know. It was impossible to love that woman. She was too schizo. It was finally realizing that made Mary split with her.
I didn't mean to stumble into such a long book. I had wanted to write a short novel about this girl in Canada who had been somewhat abandoned because of the political passion of her husband or boyfriend — I wasn't quite sure — but to have a child there, and then having to get it back from her mother. It seemed me there's something rather touching about having to kidnap your child from your own mother, and then I know all that countryside. I know how it is crossing the border and how you have to do this and that if you've got anything you don't want them to find and then the encounter in Vermont and all that.
I thought it might make a good short novel. But the questions it raised were more profound than I had realized: why is the young man absent? So I began to explore, and it began to stretch out. She doesn't know where he is, and then they have that little picnic in the countryside.
If he was in business trouble he didn't want her family to get hold of the details of it. You had to read between the lines to get that, but it was a part of the Montreal scene and the Quebec scene as I saw it at that time. But your answer suggested to me that you didn't see a connection.
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In a way they're the same type of women. They have this sense of devotion and fragility, but, you know, there's a strong center of holding on and being devoted to their own feelings.
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Marilee is the only one, I think, that worked out. There was a character in my first novel, Fire in the Morning , who was from the Delta and married to a man who was unsatisfactory, and ran away, went away from him at the end of it. She was from the Delta and her father was a Delta planter, and I thought their story might be interesting to tell, but I got involved in telling it, and she turned out to be just a minor character in the story. So it's a very slippery thing, because every work is its own powerful self and then it takes away what you intended to do with something.
Faulkner was very successful in all that. He could take splinter characters from one work and make them central to another work, or continue — Quentin Compson is continued — through a number of stories and novels. Maybe I don't have that kind of grasp. I did a play that was produced in Chapel Hill a few years ago. The young man in the play had come back from Mexico where he had run away to get over his failed marriage. There were a lot of lines in it when I wrote it first about his experience in Mexico.
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