Mary Gordon: Dropped by an angel

In The Writer Interview, Mary Gordon talks with editor Alicia Anstead about crafting scenes and dissects a paragraph from her book "The Liar's Wife."

Mary Gordon“It’s a theft” were Mary Gordon’s first words when I asked her about a particularly rich passage in “Simone Weil in New York,” one of four novellas collected in her book The Liar’s Wife, which was published last year. As I read the stories, I became fascinated by the lyricism I saw again and again in the rendering of characters, their inner thoughts and interactions, and the plots. When we met at the Miami Book Fair International, Gordon and I looked closely at that one passage as a basis to discuss craft. Gordon knew the passage well, as if she, too, had identified it as one of the “moments” in the book. The theft, Gordon explained, was from German writer Ingeborg Bachmann’s short story “Youth in an Austrian Town,” which begins with a description of a tree ‘’so ablaze with autumn, such an immense patch of gold that it looks like a torch dropped by an angel.’’ A found glory. We all know this fortuitous experience as writers, when the story shapes us instead of the other way around. I’ve been reading Gordon for a while. Her novel Final Payments was influential during my training in college. Later, when she spoke to a class I took with David Plante at Columbia University, I was struck by how absorbed she was in each student’s question, how infused her answers were with both warmth and hard-headed concentration. In my imagination, Gordon hovers in the company of Marilynne Robinson, Doris Lessing and Susan Griffin. In part, that’s because The Liar’s Wife is a study in interiority as well as imagistic storytelling with a style that both challenges and trusts the reader. That passage of note is published below, with a few contextual comments. An edited version of my conversation with Gordon about the craft of the paragraph follows.

ALICIA ANSTEAD
The passage in “Simone Weil in New York” leapt off the page at me. Do you remember what you were thinking when you wrote it?

MARY GORDON
I was very interested in the food metaphor because [the main character] Genevieve was so bizarre about food. And I thought it was very interesting to think about her bizarreness with food at a time when food was an issue because of rationing during the war. So I was interested in using food metaphors, like a torch thrown down by an angel. Even she can know something is like sugar. So I was very interested in that. And also it’s important to me to include what I think of as a lyrical, physical description, which is one of the things I most love in writing and what, I feel, has been a little bit excised from contemporary writing. I also wanted to put it in an urban context to show one could do that sort of lyrical writing about the physical world but in an urban context.

ANSTEAD
Let’s just talk about this – the first sentence, the alliteration. Could you talk about how a sentence like that happens for you?

GORDON
I began as a poet. My MFA is in poetry. So the orality of prose is very, very important to me. And a lot of times I hear it and then I have to shape what I hear. The rhythm and assonance and consonance are very important to me. I would like to say that everything is hard work but sometimes it’s just given; one just hears it.

ANSTEAD
And one’s ear tunes with life, too, doesn’t it? And experience.

GORDON
Exactly.

ANSTEAD
Tell me about repetition and how you use it.

GORDON
Virginia Woolf was an extremely important influence on me. I actually did a dissertation, which I never finished, on Virginia Woolf. The most important thing about writing my dissertation was not writing it but the fact that I copied out an enormous number of passages of Virginia Woolf by hand. Her almost incantatory prose, her use of repetition has always been very resonant for me. And I love prose that has that incantatory quality. And so, repetition is something that I use in, I think, the way that poets sometimes use it, too. It creates a string on which the beads of other words can arrange themselves.

ANSTEAD
What about variation in sentence structure? How do you think about the variation in rhythm and structure?

GORDON
One of the things that I try to do is to have a paragraph that begins and ends with a sentence of approximately the same length and verbal structure. “The late sun sparkles on the river.” “Only sometimes she yearns ashamed for the taste of sugar.” Whereas in the middle, the sentences would tend to be longer and more complex. My choice to break the sentence up with the word “ashamed” is also slowing it down so that it becomes almost a spondee at the end of a paragraph.

ANSTEAD
Why do you do that – short at the beginning and short at the end? What does that do for you?

GORDON
It allows for a kind of velocity to happen. It’s the place where you jump off from. A shorter sentence you actually have to read more slowly. I tell my students: If you are a writer, you have more power than the greatest tyrant in the world because of punctuation. You get to tell people how to breathe. And it is about breath. And so, a sentence that has very little punctuation, you actually have to read more slowly because you’re not stopping to breathe. So it’s a slowing down and then a kind of build up – a crescendo and then a decrescendo to the spondee at the end.

ANSTEAD
This particular passage also has dialogue in it. How does that fit into that rhythm? This, to me, is almost a short story unto itself. This passage has a final quotation at the end as well, but within it there’s a quotation.

GORDON
Quotation marks are a powerful spice because they say, “OK. Pay attention.” And it is a way of slowing it down, too. So you have to account for that in the rhythm; you have to make a nest for a quotation.  What I was doing in this paragraph was talking about the relationship between language and how a mind turns a visual image into a language act.

ANSTEAD
Do you remember writing this particular passage?

GORDON
Yes, I do.

ANSTEAD
How did you feel about it as you were writing it?

GORDON
I was very happy because I was actually walking on Riverside Drive [in New York City] with my dog, and I saw light coming through clouds and I said, “It does look like spilled sugar.” And I thought, “I hope I’ll be able to use that image someday.” And then as I wanted to give the sense of these two French women being in New York it was useful once again.

ANSTEAD
You just painted a picture of yourself cultivating your ideas away from your desk. Where does writing happen for you?

GORDON
I think if you’re a writer you’re always writing. But the important thing is to sit at your desk and hold on to it because if you just think about stuff and you don’t write it down, you can lose it. So I’m a great believer in just putting your tush in the chair every day and sitting there. And I always carry a little notebook with me to record images that I have. But I feel like one has to be sitting and really making a space of silence and time, and that’s one of the things that’s harder now. When I was younger and I had very young children, I could wake up at five o’clock in the morning. There was no voicemail, no email, no texting. That was free time. Now I think it’s increasingly difficult for us, even for me, and I’m not such a techno nut. But to create that silent space where what you’ve been taking in in the course of living and what you’ve learned from reading can come together, and then you make this thing that you’re making.

ANSTEAD
What didn’t make the cut in this section? Do you remember anything that you took out? It strikes me as a place where you would have to kill some “darlings.”

GORDON
I don’t actually remember that part.

ANSTEAD
What would you like writers to know about the importance of crafting so carefully at this level?

GORDON
That it takes time and that you have to sometimes make a real mess before you get the thing that you  want. One of the things that can hold us back is the fear of making a mess initially. I think that you have to not be ashamed of making a mess at first, because nobody can see it but you. I think a lot of us inhibit ourselves, because it’s not going to look good. Sometimes I look at a first draft and think, “Who wrote that? I mean, somebody who’s never read a book must have written that.” But I think that is what’s painful. Sometimes you have to sit in the mess for a really long time, and you don’t know how to fix it and you don’t know what needs to be done. You just know it stinks. But at least it’s alive if it stinks. You know, one of the things in movies about writers is they type, type, type, and there’s a wastebasket, and at the end of the day they have something. Well, it might not take a day or one wastebasket. So, you have to be patient and humble and unashamed to do that crafting. It’s hard; it’s really hard. And sometimes you think nobody cares enough but you have to do it.

Alicia Anstead is editor-in-chief of The Writer. She teaches journalism at Harvard University Extension School and is the editor and cofounder of the Harvard Arts Blog.


Mary Gordon_The Liars WifeA passage from “Simone Weil in New York” from The Liar’s Wife by Mary Gordon

Genevieve, the main character in the story “Simone Weil in New York,” is walking with her baby in New York City with Mlle Weil, her formative and formidable teacher from France. Genevieve and Mlle have a complicated past in France, where they met as teacher and student. Now, Mlle Weil, who is Jewish, has fled war-torn Europe with her parents to America, where Genevieve lives with her American husband, their baby and Genevieve’s brother Laurent, whose brilliance can de-rail attention from Genevieve’s own self esteem. The interior thoughts that begin this passage are Genevieve’s.

THE LATE SUN SPARKLES on the river. She has not given up the habit of trying to find the right words for the color of the sky. Pearl grey, she thinks, and then changes from pearl to oyster, the inside of an oyster shell. And all at once, there is something like a rip in the matte greyness, and light pours through, as if someone had slit a great cloth bag of sugar, and the sugar had spilt out. Only one tree is singled out by the light, and that one called a maple sugar. It amuses her to say to herself, “The sugar light falls on the sugar maple,” and then she wonders if she thought of sugar because of rationing. She believes that she spends an inordinate amount of time thinking about the food she can’t have. She has been told the sacrifice is honorable, and she believes it is, and is glad to do it. Only sometimes she yearns, ashamed, for the taste of sugar.

Mlle Weil says: “The tree looks like a torch thrown down by an angel.”

Once more, in relation to Mlle Weil, Genevieve finds herself abashed and feels she must accuse herself. She is thinking of angels and I of sugar.