Bobbie Ann Mason‘s short stories, first published in The New Yorker, were included in her first collection of fiction, Shiloh & Other Stories which won the PEN/Hemingway Award. Two of her books, Feather Crowns and Zigzagging Down a Wild Trail won the Southern Book Critics Circle Award. Her memoir, Clear Springs: A Family Story, was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. She has received a Guggenheim Fellowship and a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, and an Arts and Letters Award for Literature from the American Academy of Arts and Letters.
Her first novel, In Country was made into a film starring Bruce Willis and Emily Lloyd. Her most recent novel, The Girl in the Blue Beret is in its sixth printing and was voted one of the best books of 2011 by the Chicago Tribune.
What is your feeling about having mentors as a writer? Talk about the mentor relationship if you will, its importance to a writer…
I have little experience here. My college writing teacher, Robert Hazel, was a deep influence because he cultivated a romantic image of what a writer was. But I didn’t get much encouragement. It was nearly twenty years before I began writing stories in earnest and sending them to the New Yorker.
Who do you read for pleasure?
Most reading I do is pleasure. I read fiction randomly, but my ambition is to read War and Peace, and some Shakespeare. For non-fiction, when I get interested in a subject, I tend to pursue it. For instance, I did a lot of reading about the French Resistance when I was writing The Girl in the Blue Beret. More recently, I’ve gone farther back in French history. David McCullough’s The Greater Journey: Americans in Paris got me interested in some of the artists he portrays, especially Augustus Saint-Gaudens, the illustrious sculptor who did the fabulous statue of Sherman marching into Central Park (actually, I guess he was marching into Georgia, but the statue is at the entrance to Central Park). Saint-Gaudens interested me not only as a sculptor but as a lively personality, and I want to read more about him. Now I’m reading The Age of Wonder by Richard Holmes, whose biography of Coleridge I am passionate about.
Have you come across any new writers who are not getting sufficient attention?
I know they’re out there. A friend of mine has written what I think is a brilliant and poignant but also wickedly funny send-up of community-college politics–it’s called Batman U–but the agents haven’t swooped it up. It seems harder to get an agent than to get into Harvard. If something this good can’t find a home, publishing just isn’t equipped to deal with all the fine writers out there.
Suggestions for making characters live? Do you know your characters beforehand, or do you find out who they are in the process? In Country is one of my favorite novels of all time – I’d love it if you could talk about that process, finding those people… how they came to you.
Normally, I discover them in the process. In Country was slightly different. Those characters and their relationship to each other came about suddenly at the beginning. There they were–Sam, Emmett, Lonnie, Irene. But I didn’t know what their story was! They interested me so much that I stayed with them. I tried a short story but it didn’t work. I tried a novella, and Emmett died of cancer. Too depressing! Then when I realized that Sam’s father must have died in Vietnam, I knew what the story was. And that it was a novel, with a significant theme. It may have taken me two years to get there.
What must we watch out for?
Animals on the road, especially when you’re driving at night.
What’s the best writing advice you ever got?
My editor at The New Yorker, Roger Angell, who patiently read and rejected nineteen of my stories before accepting the twentieth one, told me early on, “We don’t know who these people are. We don’t know how we are supposed to feel about them. We don’t want to be condescending toward them.” That was a complicated thing for me to figure out. But I realized that I had to work out my own attitude toward the characters. I had been too superior and judgmental. I had to try to stand at enough distance not to interfere, but close enough to be able to see them from their own point of view.
And/or the best living advice?
My grandfather said, “Always be saving.” I hear that voice from time to time when it comes to American wastefulness and greed, and I’m wondering what to do with this or that plastic bag. He also said, “Don’t be different,” but of course I paid no attention to that.
Please talk about how you find the music and rhythm when working with language, pace, timing… in your writing. How do you access this? Is it instinctual? What helps a writer (you specifically) in finding your rhythm?
The source is intuitive, but it is always what I am working toward. I write and rewrite until it sounds right. The sound is in my head. I don’t have to read it aloud. I become more aware of it when an editor suggests a word change and my response might be, “But that’s only two syllables. It needs three.” The sound involves tone, speech (the way people talk), the re-shaping of spoken word in a literary way so that it isn’t draggy and trivial. The sound has to be right for everything in the work–characters, images, etc.
I don’t write poetry, but I think the same impulse to make music is there. On page one of The Girl in the Blue Beret, there is a sentence I’m fond of because of the way the sounds of the words go together. “They walked through the furrowed field toward the tree, Lucien’s sturdy brown boots mushing the mud, Marshall following in borrowed Wellingtons.” It’s the last clause that I love to say. I’m not sure what to say about accessing one’s rhythm. You can’t just enter a password. Maybe it is a matter of knowing and trusting your own style, your way of seeing. That means having confidence. But that’s a long road, isn’t it?
What are you doing/working on now?
I have hardly done any writing since finishing The Girl in the Blue Beret. It takes a long time to get reoriented after a novel. I’m studying French and trying to clean up my room.
The Fictionaut Five is our ongoing series of interviews with Fictionaut authors. Every Wednesday, Meg Pokrass asks a writer five (or more) questions. Meg is the editor-at-large for BLIP Magazine, and her stories and poems have been published widely. Her first full collection of flash fiction, “Damn Sure Right” is now out from Press 53. She blogs athttp://megpokrass.com.