A Conversation with Robert Mooney & Christine Lincoln
THIS INTERVIEW TOOK place in Youngstown, Ohio, on Saturday morning, November 15, 2002, the morning after a reading by Christine Lincoln and Robert Mooney sponsored by the Youngstown State University Poetry Center. The occasion of the reading was the publication of Lincoln’s first book of stories, Sap Rising, and Robert Mooney’s first novel, Father of the Man, both from Pantheon.
The reading celebrated not only the publication of two fine books, but the success of this unusual pair of writers — an African-American woman and an Irish-American man — linked because Lincoln studied creative writing under Mooney’s tutelage at Washington College, Maryland, where Mooney directs the Creative Writing Program. Two years ago, Christine Lincoln won Washington College’s Sophie Kerr Award, the largest undergraduate literary award in the country, and her success, covered by such forums as the Baltimore Sun and the Washington Post, gained national attention, leading to an appearance on The Oprah Winfrey Show and to the publication of her prize-winning manuscript, substantially revised, as Sap Rising. Since then, while balancing writing and family life, Lincoln has studied at the university in Durban, South Africa. In this informal talk conducted at my dining room table, we delved into a number of writerly matters — ethnicity, place, myth, the role of creative writing workshops — as well as discussed various issues arising from the themes and composition of these two interesting books. Sap Rising, which Christine Lincoln describes as “a novel in stories” delves into the lives of African-American men and women in Grandville, a mythical town in Maryland. Set on the eve of the Civil Rights movement but hearkening back to family narratives from slave times, Sap Rising portrays related individuals struggling to come to terms with their lives and identities under enormous tensions emanating from many sources — personal, cultural, and racial. Meanwhile, Robert Mooney’s Father of the Man takes place in Binghamton, New York, in 1982, when Dutch Potter, veteran of World War II and father of a son missing in action in Vietnam, dons his old uniform, collects passengers aboard his BC Transit bus, then veers off route, careening into the woods of northern Pennsylvania, where he holds seven hostages to his one demand: return my son.
Sap Rising and Father of the Man are distinguished for their brilliant, lyrical prose, recalling African and Irish storytelling tradition. So it’s not surprising that these two friends who first forged a bond as student and professor should while away a relaxing morning with entertaining, insightful conversation from which this interview is culled.
—Philip Brady, Providence, Rhode Island, December 28, 2002
Philip Brady: I’d like to begin with the role of place in story-telling. Bob, last night you talked about how Binghampton, New York, is really one of the characters in Father of the Man. And Christine, you had said that the main character of Sap Rising is the mythical Grandville, Maryland. So, I wonder if you could both elaborate a little bit about this storytelling place you are coming from.
Robert Mooney: Father of the Man is set in a very real place in the world with, perhaps, the exception of the area in the Pennsylvania woods where the bus ends up. Although I’ve often driven around the wooded area south of Binghamton near the state line, there isn’t an area so close to Binghamton — at least that I’m aware of — that would precisely correspond to the geography rendered in those sections of the novel. So to a certain extent this wooded area is an imagined place, and I like that because it serves as a transference of the novel’s action from an actual city, accurately reconstructed in language, into an unknown that, in a sense, becomes representative of any or every “deep wood,” which in turn traditionally represents the subconscious, a sort of Dionysian place where order has broken down. The woods, say where Hansel and Gretel are abandoned, or the “dark wood” where Dante begins his pilgrimage in the Divine Comedy. As for the scenes set in Binghamton, my goal was to achieve an accuracy of reconstruction of place of the type that Joyce boasted to have achieved in his rendition of 1904 Dublin in Ulysses. The stores and theaters and churches and diners and streets in Father of the Man were all there in Binghamton in 1982. The city and what was there then-how it was laid out and how it functioned — give, I hope, this novel a form within which its story can take shape. And so the city itself, in my mind, is certainly a character. And I guess I tried, in some way, to further develop that character of place as represented in the specific individual characters who were at least partly shaped by where they came from.
Christine Lincoln: In Sap Rising, Grandville, Maryland is fictional, but it’s based on Lutherville, Maryland, which is where I grew up, and where my father grew up, and where my grandmother grew up. Our family has lived there, so far, for over 150 years, in the same house. When I was growing up Lutherville was a different place, but I listened to the stories of my father and he used to tell me about the horses that would come through, and about the orchards, and about how there were no stores and no highways, just farms. He remembers when the first highway was built. His father used to take him out to where it ended, to see the woods, and how each week it would get farther and farther. And this sense of place also comes from my grandmother who came there when she was three to live with her aunt and uncle. And even though I didn’t actually live in that place that they describe, it’s still there. I think Lutherville was even an all black community at one point. It’s not any longer, but you can see how that sense of place affects the character. It makes the people. It’s not just individual personality, but what the environment means, the natural world. I would have been a completely different person had I just been raised in the city and not had this rural experience. So when I was developing my characters, I couldn’t separate them from this land, from this place, from this community.
Brady: There’s a wonderfully resonant element here-first because you’ve each made those places interesting, and then because they correspond to actual places. But there’s another element in both pieces, both Sap Rising and Father of the Man, that brings these real places — or places that have roots in a kind of reality that you both have experienced — to another almost mythic level. I wonder if you could talk about how that process occurs, how one turns a real place into this universal setting, where things can happen of significance beyond those places.
Lincoln: I think the first thing was having to get out of Lutherville, because I couldn’t write about it while I was there. I had to move to Chestertown, the eastern shore, a completely different place.
Mooney: Another planet.
Lincoln: Yes, a whole other planet.
Mooney: Also rural, but wholly different—
Lincoln: Right, completely. And look back on Lutherville. And because you’re away from home, that in itself makes it rise to, I think, mythical proportion.
Mooney: Right, the disconnection allows the mythic to happen because you can see its shape when you step out of it. There’s a Japanese poem that goes something like, “A fish wanted to know what water was and when asked, the wisest of the fish said, ‘If you want to know what water is, you must first leave the water.'” I think it’s possible my experience in writing Father of the Man, as far as my relationship to Binghamton is concerned, was involved in something like what this poem imparts. I wrote the early drafts of the novel while living in Binghamton, but the later drafts were written elsewhere, in Maryland where I’d taken on another job. These revisions revealed a fundamental change in the nature of the story as I’d originally conceived it — some of which had to do with being able to see its setting in a different way, at a different angle, through a lens tinted with something like nostalgia — or having, from that distance, to use memory as a primary source of reference. And I think this distance may have may have allowed me to endow the story with more universal implications by way of creating a place we all recognize because of, rather than in spite of, those things that make it distinct. I had the experience last week of being interviewed on a public radio station affiliate in Binghamton, and the interviewer wanted to entice readers with the fact that their place in the world was now on a literary map. There’s a fictional story here, he said, but we can identify the place names in it, we’ve had experiences in those very places ourselves, so the book might be interesting on that account alone — or perhaps primarily on that account. That’s good, I suppose, and that kind of identification on the readers’ part may certainly add to the enjoyment of the reading experience for some. But of course if one needs to know Binghamton to get any substantial pleasure out of reading the novel or experience anything meaningful through the reading of it, the novel is obviously in deep trouble. And the first step away from that manner of failing-at least it was for me, in the case of crafting this particular novel — is working to conjure mythos, the mythical, laboring to endow the story with something like an epical bearing.
Brady: And, in fact, that mythical bearing, that greater universal bearing, was so clear in the readings last night where both of you took on the persona of the character as you read. And your readings were so powerful, partly because there’s kind of an oracular feeling that emphasizes this act of storytelling, the voice of the characters themselves. One of the things Christine said last night was, “I want you to hear Hiron’s voice.”
Mooney: And we did.
Brady: And we did. And, of course, hearing Hulda and her strangely self-fulfilling, neurotic concerns along with the other characters from Father of the Man, I’m wondering if you could both talk a little about all the individual stories of various characters that are contained in these works. This sort of storytelling may be where the writing stops being just of local interest and stops being just a chronicle of the times.
Lincoln: At the time that I wrote Sap Rising I was taking Robert Mooney’s Irish fiction class and reading a lot of Irish folk stories as well as contemporary fiction, and, at the same time, I was taking a Native American class. What they both had in common were the stories within stories. The narratives always kept going deeper. And I know that was one of the things I got from my grandmother when she would tell me the stories about people. They were stories within stories. And I think that also helps make it more universal. There is something deeper, and it goes beyond just this one particular story in order to mean something to a people and not just the individual. I really wanted to capture this with each one of the characters. And for that reason, in some of my stories there are as many as three narrators.
Mooney: One of the stories we read in the Irish fiction class was George Moore’s “Albert Nobbs,” where there is not only a story within a story, but yet another story within those two. The first of them, the top layer, so to speak, involves George Moore himself (or some reasonable facsimile of Moore) as a character being told the story by a native Irishman who has some of the qualities of a Seanachie, or storyteller. He is a character a little bit like Roberta, your grandmother — who tells stories that come blowing out of this past, the wind in the sails that pushes our perceptions into the future. We take these stories and pass them on and, in the process, it becomes our story. It ripples out from Binghamton, or Grandville, to the world.
Lincoln: Because it engages the audience into that same process.
Mooney: And that’s where you realize that the beauty of any sustaining truth worked out in African tales is the same beauty inherent in the Irish tales and in the tales out of Central and Eastern Europe, out of Asia and the Americas, and so on. You realize that we have this common experience, engendered by, among other shared experiences, our common sun and moon. We spin around the same star, sifting similar truths or morals out of falsehoods.
Lincoln: And trying to understand our place in this. The poem in the front of my book where Leslie Marmon Silko says we are all a part of these bundles of stories that make up a universe, a past and a present and a future. It’s that whole process, being a part of the bundle of stories.
Mooney: And just look at that word ‘universe’ — one verse. We’re all in the same poem. And it’s an epic.
Brady: There’s another aspect of place at work behind each of your books, a place you’ve visited and that is very much a part of your identities. Africa and Ireland. Christine says that Grandville, Maryland is the biggest character in Sap Rising, and Bob says that Binghamton, New York takes on a kind of reality that shimmers out of its own local reality into myth. But also, behind that, there’s this other identification. Christine, you have these elements of Africa that come in-though at an angle-when Annie talks about the tribes and it’s misunderstood, misapprehended. There isn’t this totally authentic awareness of what it really means. These characters aren’t really in Africa, they’re in Maryland, and thus Africa becomes a kind of a story to them. Likewise, Bob, with Dutch, you consciously chose within an Irish-American storytelling community a protagonist who is not Irish, who’s German — which seems practically opposite.
Mooney: Like Bloom in Ulysses.
Brady: And I think I’m probably the only person who would say that German is the opposite of Irish, but who would even be thinking of the Irish? And yet, because of who you are, because of the story in itself, because of its nature, because you do look back to Ulysses and Joyce and Irish story-telling tradition, I do think of Dutch as not only being German, but as not being Irish. In the same way, I think of the characters in Grandville, Maryland, as having this absence of Africa. They have this hunger or thirst that they’re missing something-though, I certainly don’t think the people in Berlin are saying, jeez, I wish I were in Dublin. . . But, along with the strong sense of place, its transformation into myth, there’s Africa and Ireland. These overwhelming absences.
Mooney: Dutch’s German ethnicity underscores an inner struggle in Father of the Man. A German-American fighting Germans on the very soil the German-American’s family left four generations earlier italicizes something I think we all know to be fundamentally true regarding the nature of war-when we take up arms against an ‘other,’ we’re actually fighting ourselves. Of course this sounds obvious, even quite simple, until you take into account that in our culture we still feel it necessary to de-humanize, even demonize, the enemy before we are able to act against “them.” But embedding Dutch in Binghamton’s Irish community was probably a decision on my part that I made for personal as well as aesthetic reasons. Yes, his displacement in a kind of urban sub-culture highlights, from the start, the fact that we have here a man slightly different from those around him. But on the other hand, the Irish community in Binghamton is one I feel very close to, one I know well and find interesting. Of course, having Irish roots isn’t all of who I am, just as having African roots isn’t all of who Christine is. But whatever ethnicity contributes to our make-up, or however we identify with it as being important to our nature, it need not but nevertheless can form a metaphoric context within which we might begin to understand ourselves in the world. Why did my family end up here in this place, of all places in the world? Why am I here now? Does it make any difference that my forbearers left a country so that they wouldn’t starve to death, a country that they didn’t want to leave? Does it make any difference that Christine’s family is here because her ancestors were taken from their homes by force? This, as opposed, say, to somebody who has come her to find a better life.
Lincoln: I was writing my thesis at the time when I went to Africa, and it was the first time in my life that I was in a place where everyone was like me. I’d walk into a store, and everyone looked like me. And I’d walk down the street, and everyone was me. And when I came home, my father picked me up from the airport and took me to this store called Eddie’s. When I walked in, I started hyperventilating. I had a panic attack, and it was because when I was in Africa I was able to let my guard down. All of my defenses that I needed in the world here, I didn’t need over there. I hadn’t even realized how much I was unable to be myself here, until I left here and went to Africa. When I wrote “Bug Juice,” I was very conscious of that experience because Africa does have this huge mythos to us African-Americans. Even the way we say Africa, it’s with wistfulness, with yearning. It’s like, one day I’m going to Africa! You can see it in a person’s eyes. And here’s Sonny, who doesn’t know about Africa because his schools have been desegregated and he’s in an all-white school. And here’s Annie, who comes along and tells him a story about Africa. His experience in that school is summed up when he says, “I didn’t know there were so many white people in the world, and I didn’t know they hated me.” And it is because of Africa, but he is so unaware of this. So Annie comes in and gives him this story of Africa as this wonderful place, but he is living the repercussions of Africa. The way he is treated in this world is because of the color of his skin. The whites know that he is from Africa. And I wanted that to be in there, the fact that as a child he’s completely oblivious. He’s nine and a half years old — nine and three quarters, as he says — and he’s oblivious to what Africa means to his existence here in America. And Annie comes with this story of the women there, and how they all look alike, and that it’s all a family. Well, this is what Africa means to Sonny. So I wanted to start the very first story with that. I wanted to establish this other element of the existence of these people that they’re not even conscious of and show how it affects who they are, how they move through the world, and how vulnerable they are, and how defensive they have to be. So, I was very conscious of that place, of Africa.
Mooney: When you think of that place and your experience, do you think that since most black Americans probably won’t go to Africa, that it can hold a kind of force in their spirit as being not just a place, but almost an ideal that can give them strength, an ideal that would be altered if they did go?
Lincoln: Yes, because it forced me to have to really look at who I was. What am I? Not even being able to be comfortable just walking around or going into a store, and not even being aware that I’m this way? When I came back I had to reevaluate what it meant. What it means for me and for this son that I’m raising to be a black man in this world. And I didn’t have to deal with any of that before I went to Africa. Africa was just this place. It was Africa.
Mooney: The first time I went to Ireland I had a different experience. Before I left home, my father came to me and said, “So, you’re going back” — which was an odd choice of words, seeing as I had never been to Ireland before. Nor had he. He could have gone, he had the means, but he never did because, I think, there was this fear that Ireland would disappoint him — you know, that he’d discover it to be an actual place with actual problems, nothing really special about it at all-and Ireland was too important an idea to him to allow that to happen. So there I was, in his view, ‘going back’ to a place I’d never been, some place that had taken on a kind of mythical dimension in his imagination. And when I went — first in 1978, and then again just last year to do research for a book based on the 1978 trip — I saw a fundamental similarity in people, something close to a uniformity in dress and gesture and manner. All these Irish mugs, you know? And to my surprise I found this a little disconcerting, especially in the cities. As an American, I guess I’ve been conditioned to expect considerable social diversity when walking city streets. And, it was in this context I realized the degree to which I’m not Irish. I’m an American, and because I didn’t see any Hispanic people or black people or Asians or Hasidim walking the streets of Galway City or Limerick City or Dundalk, it threw me off. The sameness removed the challenges against which I defined who I thought I was. As a result, the place felt, to my American sensibility, unreal, fake — something Disney put together. I didn’t see or perceive the cultural mix, the cultural confusion, that define city life to me, and I think part of what I was coming to terms with then was how much these expectations for — and also defenses against — competing cultures in close urban quarters have been woven into who I am.
Lincoln: That was the thing with the characters in Sap Rising. Hiron’s insecurities, they’re who he is. It is who I am. It is a part of my existence. And that’s just it. We’re always trying to label things, oh that’s a good thing or that’s a bad thing. But it just is.
Brady: Bob, in the upcoming issue of Artful Dodge we’re publishing a story by you about a character who seems to be in search of a sense of place. But, you’re not just describing the places where she’s living, but you also list places she travels through. Mooney This listing of place names that occurs in the story — four times, actually — was not so much calculated as it was a matter of observing its emergence from the story itself, which is, after all, a story of quest. Kristie is a young woman looking for her place in the world, testing what she’s been taught to be true (the idea of original sin, for example) and testing it against that world itself as she understands it. Her physical travels chart the motion of her mind in its own search — first from the Midwest to the East, then back to the Midwest, and, once back there, a long circular day-trip around her particular part of the world, from Bemidji, Minnesota, up to the Lake of the Woods and back. The distinct character of each of these places in some way represents aspects of her own character as it changes through the story, moving, as it does, back and forth from a sort of upright Lutheran Midwest to a somewhat “corrupt” or corrupting East with its gambling and topless bars and casual romances. Come to think of it, it’s not unlike the symbolic geography we see at work in The Great Gatsby. Then, speaking generally, I see fiction as the art of things in the world, of nomenclature — the art of the Biblical Adam, who was the “namer of things.” Naming things makes them “real” to us in the fictive world, of course; but, on the level of human perception, naming performs the same function in the non-fictional world as well.
Brady: I want to ask both of you about the way you see fiction today. For instance, it seems to be expanding into these other genres, such as traditional storytelling or the classical epic. The Odyssey in Father of the Man comes to mind. Bob, you were talking to me the other day about the fact that each one of the chapters corresponds to another epic journey — the Stations of the Cross. And Christine, last night in your reading, you described Sap Rising as a novel told though individual stories.
Mooney: Early on I used the fourteen Stations of the Cross as a kind of scaffolding for the making of the novel — something to give it a form I could work within. It’s an idea that was hatched when I was writing a rough draft of the first chapter, where Dutch visits places in the city where he has memories of his son as, he thinks, “one might attend the Stations of the Cross in church.” As for The Odyssey, I’d have to say I was certainly conscious of this particular epic when I was writing Father of the Man. When you’re writing a story about a warrior late in coming home from war, and in fact late by a span of years roughly equal to the time that it took Odysseus to come back from Troy, you’re likely to evoke Homer’s poem on that account alone. So I was aware of that, and went with it to a certain degree. Of course, in Father of the Man it is the son coming home and the father waiting for “the return,” as opposed to the son waiting for the father, although there is, of course, that scene in Book XIII of The Odyssey where Odysseus approaches his own father disguised as a beggar. In fact, the questions that my character Dutch asks the man claiming to be his son are very similar to the questions that Odysseus’ father asks Odysseus in The Odyssey. Anyway, these preoccupations or approaches within the writing of my novel may reflect in part reflect how I see fiction today, particularly in the way that they demonstrate, at least to me, the degree to which it all comes out of a tradition-you know, that story builds on story, that there is an interwoven quality to this millennia-old, cross-cultural “conversation” that we call literature.
Lincoln: I wasn’t really conscious of any of that when I was writing Sap Rising, but I listened to a lot of music, and poetry played a large part as well. There was the idea of a novel, but I wanted to come at it from a different point of view so that all the voices could be heard through the stories, telling the novel in stories. So I wanted to break through all of the boundaries between music and even visual art and paint pictures with words and sound. I was very conscious of sound. I remember something that Robert Creeley said when he came and spoke to us, something about the primordial sound. Before language, there was sound. And even if people didn’t understand all of the words, something in the sounds of those words could evoke feeling and connect with something on a level that goes beyond intellect, before intellect. And I was aware of wanting to break through that. I would read something out loud and check for the flow. I would check to see if it could take me up like music does, like jazz music does when I listen to it. And if it could take me away, then I was succeeding in whatever it was I was trying to do, and maybe it would reach people on a whole other level, maybe a more primitive level, like you get with a poem.
Mooney: And the epics tend to begin with an invocation of the Muse to “sing.” “Sing of the return,” for example. “Tell of the return.” And there’s a cadence that constitutes the meaning before the intellect — the rhythm as meaning.
Lincoln: Yes, that’s where I was coming from, because anybody can connect with that, and that’s what Creeley was saying. Anybody, I don’t care where you live, who you are. You can connect with the rhythm of the sound. You can connect with the moans and the screams and the dance and all of that, more than you can connect with this is a particular culture or this is a particular setting.
Mooney: It’s pre-code.
Mooney: Because even the written word is a code and you have to learn it, but we were all born with that kind of pre-intellect. We all know what the sounds mean.
Brady: Having talked about those primordial forces, having talked about the personal places that have, in a sense, illuminated this mythic space within us, what about individual writers, people who have shown you this possibility, shown the path. Any particular models or people that you have leaned on or looked to?
Mooney: In my early twenties I was working in a bookstore, writing on my own, living a very simple life free of the distractions of television, phone, car, living far away from where I’d grown up and the people I’d grown up with. And, there I realized that, quietude and simple lifestyle notwithstanding, I needed someone I could trust to show my work to or develop a sensibility under the aegis of. At that time — this was in the late 1970s — the novelist John Gardner, who had quite a name for himself as both a writer and a teacher, was making himself available to his students with a storied and generous energy. I sought him out, and our association was very positive. It’s how I ended up in Binghamton, in fact. Anyway, I think it’s important to have someone, not so much to teach you how to write — which I don’t think is what happens — but to provide a psychological space within which this compulsion one has to write is respected, nurtured, deemed worthy of the time and energy it takes to get it right. It’s also important for a writer to have access to a number of living “masters” of the craft who are willing to respond to the young writer’s efforts. And just as important in a writer’s education are the mentors who mentor solely by the power of their work. Some of these mentors for me have been Cervantes, Austin, Dickens, Dostoevski, Tolstoy, Kafka, Woolf, Fitzgerald, Faulkner, Garcia Marquez. As Yeats reminds us, there is no “singing school.” There is no academy one can enroll in to master the production of art. But Yeats goes on to say there are “monuments of its own magnificence,” and “studying” them is an essential mentoring for any artist. And so, too, is becoming part of a community of writers. I mentioned this about Christine last night, and I meant it from the bottom of my heart: when you’re in close association and correspondence with somebody like her who is engaged so deeply in the writing life, truly committed to the endeavor that is so much a part of who she is, well, having the opportunity to spend time with that person makes all the difference. Her being there provides a meaningful and inspiring demonstration for me, as a writer, of those things that can never be taught: honesty and courage. And then of course you’re sustained further by not wanting to disappoint a person you admire by compromising your own art.
Lincoln: When I first started reading individual writers, I just read as someone who loved to read, a voracious reader. I read constantly. But then I had Mooney and he taught me how to read as a writer would read, to see what these people were doing to make the writing work. That, to me, is one of the greatest gifts he could have ever given me because it transformed the way I experienced everything, not just reading, but anything and everything, even the way I hear music, because my writing corresponds with music a lot. And because I now read as a writer would read, there are times when everything can just catch me. Sylvia Plath’s work had a huge influence because of the risks she was willing to take in her writing, the level of honesty. There was one poem in particular where she talks about her children and their cries as being like claws in her, and that was the first time I ever heard of anyone saying something about children and how they can almost kill you. You always hear about babies being so wonderful and cute and cuddly, but she was the first one who said, no, they have claws that pierce your skin and draw blood. And that’s how I felt about my child, and it was the first time someone put it into words that I could understand. So I read everything that she wrote, even biographies about her, to see where that came from. How did she get so brave to tell the truth? So those are more the kinds of things in individual writings that have inspired me, that bravery to say what other people don’t want to say because it’s not correct or it’s not very nice.
Mooney: That’s right, it’s not the world as we wish it to be. One of the functions of the storyteller or the artist is to deal with the world on its own terms — and if you’re a great poet like Yeats, to beat reality at its own game.
Lincoln: That’s right. They can’t sugarcoat it because the storytelling process is about survival. That’s what I learned most out of the Irish folk tales. They weren’t telling these stories to entertain people and make them feel good. They were telling these stories because they needed to pass something on to a generation of children who needed to survive and understand that these are the bombs that are out there. It’s a minefield, and this is how you have to step through it in order to make it.
Mooney: It’s a cultivation of wits. Look at folktales that focus on children in some sort of peril — Red Riding Hood and the wolf, Jack and his beanstalk and the giant, Brier-Rose and the witch’s spell. They’re learning how to survive in a dangerous world, and the children who hear these stories learn by their example. I talk to parents who are put off by fairy tales because they’re so violent with their mean step-mothers and giants and witches and ogres and the like. But so is the world with all its step parents and giants and witches and ogres, and you’re not preparing little Johnny or Susie for that world if you’re reading only the pleasant stories where nice people do nice things and no one gets hurt or put in harm’s way. When children are exposed to Grimms’ tales, say, they are given an invitation to develop some of the brand of savvy and acumen they’re going to need to survive in the world, to think quickly while in danger, to survive by knowing how to use one’s inherent wits. We see this in Perceval, who, in his quest, has everything he needs — but only at the exact moment he needs it, and he also has to have the smarts to know how to use it. That knowledge doesn’t just happen, it isn’t innate. Or, if it is, it needs to be activated, worked out, practiced. And I believe that it is activated, or can be, when children hear stories that aren’t afraid to identify and dramatize manifestations of their very deep and real fears. And story itself tries to allow us to survive so that story itself can survive. It’s all woven into so much of what is essential to us in this life.
Lincoln: And anytime I read or come across a writer who does that in their work, who deals with the raw reality, it excites me and inspires me to try to do the same in my work.
Mooney: In one of my creative writing workshops a few months ago I handed out a copy of a Hallmark poem titled “Let’s Grow Old Together” — I literally took it from a Hallmark card-and next to it on the page I’d typed Yeats’s poem “When We Are Old.” I asked the young writers to read both poems carefully and talk to me about the differences between them. “Let’s Grow Old Together” was certainly sincere for what it was. It was very pleasant, upbeat, but it made no mention of the more unpleasant aspects of growing old — of the body failing, for example. Of death. It was the process of geriatric progression scrubbed clean. Yeats, of course, doesn’t do that in “When You Are Old” — though on the surface it’s “about” virtually the same thing as “Let’s Grow Old Together.” And Yeats’ poem is art, or certainly is closer to art, or it aspires to it, and this Hallmark verse isn’t and doesn’t. Why? I’d say in part it’s because of what it ignores.
Lincoln: When I was in your class I had to hand in something to you every week. I would come to your office and we would meet and discuss it, and you would say it’s great, but it’s not a story, it’s just a sketch, and I would go back home. And finally, you said to me, “You know, you’re not letting anything bad happen to your characters.” And I did love them, even the ones like Hiron Fuller. Although I hated Hiron Fuller when I was writing about him, and was glad when he died, I loved him still. So it was true, I didn’t want anything bad to happen to my characters. It was as though I was protecting them from what I knew and from what I could see coming. That was a major breakthrough. I was at home and you kept saying, “You’ve got to go deeper, you’ve got to go deeper with these characters, you’ve got to let go and let whatever is going to happen to them happen and know that they’re going to be okay.” And it was 2 o’clock in the morning and I was writing “All That’s Left,” and I wouldn’t let her get behind that barn. Do you remember, I would get right up to that point and then—
Mooney: I remember.
Lincoln: I wouldn’t let her go behind that barn, and finally that night I let her go.
Mooney: You were very different from so many I’ve worked with over the years. When someone asks, “Am I a real writer?” a teacher or mentor often can’t easily answer the question beyond saying, “maybe, if you keep at it and master the craft.” But with you it was evident you were the genuine article. For one thing, your characters, even in early drafts, had depth, and acquired that depth in large part because in creating them you weren’t avoiding conflict like many young writers tend to do. They avoid conflict because they know they’re going to have to know what they’re doing in the process — which takes confidence and trust in one’s own intuition and mastery of craft, none of which has perhaps yet been developed. It’s all very hard, very time-consuming, and because there’s no guarantee the effort is going to pay off, it’s emotionally taxing as well. Failure may aggravate their view of themselves as writers, so better to play it safe, lay low, keep the risks to a minimum. But with you, any such avoidance, if it existed at all, had to do with the deep empathy you felt for your characters — empathy one can’t feel, by the way, if one has only sketched out a stereotype. With Hiron Fuller, for example, you had a man that had done despicable things — and still you didn’t want harm to come to him. In one of our many discussions we talked about how God might feel creating human beings out of love and not wanting bad things to happen, but having to let go, let happen what will happen, even if what happens is catastrophic. And any act of creating a work of fiction goes back to the model of all creation, Genesis, where we see that even God had to come to grips with the fact that He couldn’t keep wiping out the people He’d created just because they weren’t doing what He wanted them to do. You’ve got to stay with the draft. It’s like Sydney Sheldon once said about the writing process: “The blank white page is God’s way of telling the writer how hard it is to be God.” So is the half-filled page, so is the rough draft. So is the final version. With Hiron Fuller, you had a character you didn’t like, perhaps even detested, or at least you were appalled at what he was capable of doing to other human beings, yet you still didn’t want harm to come to him.
Lincoln: I didn’t want him to be a monster, either.
Mooney: And the way to do it is to get into his head and be him.
Lincoln: You know, he’s molested a child, but I still felt like I had to do him justice even though he had done this monstrous thing. I thought it was too easy to let people see him as this horror, this creature, because I wanted him to be real. I wanted them to connect. And it’s funny because readers refuse to believe that he did what he did.
Mooney: And that’s the truth that you were talking about in life. Often our monsters can move quite convincingly in the guise of respectable human beings. So we have this conflict ourselves, where we wonder how this person could have done such a thing. And the minute you ask that, you’re beginning to truly examine the complexity of existence. I thought that way with Dutch Potter. When good, solid, respectable men do awful things. And, when awful men do good things. Isn’t this what is at the heart of Shakespeare’s tragedies? And you see it too in the best of the Irish story-telling tradition, as I understand it, with its proclivity for making tragedy hilarious and comedy tragic. When I was talking to the novelist Jack Vernon one time about Father of the Man, I said, “Well, I’m almost done. But I have to do one more thing: make all the comic parts tragic and all the tragic parts comic. Then I think I’ll have nailed it.” It’s a dichotomy embodied in the literary DNA of the characters.
Lincoln: And the heroes in the folk tales, I remember one of the essays I wrote for that Irish class for you. The heroes were always these sly, cunning, ne’er do well characters, and yet they always ended up on top and it was great.
Mooney: Yes, these flawed heroes.
Lincoln: Very flawed.
Mooney: Flawed heroes. And villains not without real virtue. In the brand of melodrama that deals with simple absolutes — the good guy with the white hat, the bad guy with black hat — we have works that are ultimately disappointing. It’s true that they can entertain, maybe in part in they way they can give us a sense of relief — that maybe there is order in our lives, a cosmic justice that makes everything turn out OK. But then we close the book or walk out of the theater or turn off the TV and see that life as we live it is not nearly so clear-cut, and the “artistic representation” we’ve just experienced has done little or nothing to prepare us to negotiate the moral mine fields of our lives.
Brady: Speaking of preparedness, and knowing that both of you have shared classrooms together and have had a number of academic experiences involving writing, I want to ask how these experiences might prepare us as writers. What happens in a classroom? The good, the bad. What should happen and what does happen?
Lincoln: I was reading Becoming a Writer by Brand, and she was completely against creative writing classes. She thought they were horrible and did a complete disservice to the writer. And I disagree because what Mooney did in his classroom was create a safe place. This society does not support its artists the way that it should. It does not create safe places for you to go and contemplate and write, or just to find your voice as a writer and discover this whole process and what it means to you, the individual, and the way you see your life.
Mooney: It’s not the Renaissance.
Lincoln: Right, and it was there during the Renaissance everywhere you went. People gave money to writers so they didn’t have to work, so they could just concentrate on the craft of writing. And we don’t find that here. So where do we go as young writers trying to really understand the art of writing? Not just to be published and make money, but to understand what this means to who I am and how I experience the world. And that’s what I got in Mooney’s classroom. He created a safe place, a haven where I could explore what all of this meant and come into myself. For example, going to him with sketches that weren’t quite there yet, and he encouraged me and told me it was okay to jump off the cliff, I’m here to catch you. A community of people, other writers, struggling like me — or some more established, as he was — and saying that it’s okay for you to let these things happen to your characters.
Mooney: And it’s a good thing. It’s worthy of the deepest respect and admiration and not something to be ashamed of. Many young writers do feel shame or embarrassment, because society is stingy in giving encouragement or any type of positive feedback.
Lincoln: And you tell people, your family, and people who love you, that you’re writing, and they say, what in the world? You know, get a job. Do something real.
Mooney: They see it as daydreaming.
Mooney: Unless there’s good money involved to validate it. But you know, a very small percentage of writers in this country are able to live off the money they make from their writing. So we’re talking mostly about the Danielle Steeles and Tom Clancys and Ken Folletts of the world, writers whose novels may be entertaining and very good for what they are, but are nevertheless more out of the tradition of melodrama we were talking about earlier-formulaic works that offer diversion from the realities of existence rather than serious fictive examinations of them. As a result, it’s not the kind of writing that will last long after they’re stricken from the Best Seller list, not the kind of writing that aspires to literature that, as Pound defined it, is “news that stays news.”
Lincoln: That’s what the classroom can do for the individual who wants to know about this crazy thing called writing. That’s what it did for me, that’s what your classrooms did for me.
Brady: Bob, going back to your story “A Body and an Earth,” why did you decide to make Kristie a veteran of an MFA writing program?
Mooney: This is a good question because I generally consider mentioning such things as creative writing programs in stories a risk. Or, say, creating protagonists who are themselves writers. It has to do with the way such things have of calling attention to any given story as “story,” which risks breaking for the reader what John Gardner used to call the “vivid and continuous dream” that defines all good fiction. But I allowed this bit of biographical information about Kristie enrolling in a creative writing program to stand in “A Body and an Earth” first and foremost because it seemed to me to be something she’d do at that point in her life, given her particular interests and nature of her creative energy and the way she seemed predisposed to spending that energy. You know, these programs are out there, they’re real in the world, they serve a function, such as it is, and she’d likely see them as an option open to her and where her particular quest has led her to. Also, the availability of these programs seemed to play naturally into the issue of authority that arises in the story — of the notion regarding guidance and finding “voice” in one’s world by accepting or rejecting that guidance. Kristie’s minister father is trying to temper her character, he’s trying to “author” her life in a pretty significant way, and she rejects some of his beliefs and methods but clearly loves him and perhaps needs him — at least early on. It is a contentious relationship that draws her and repels her — not unlike, I’d say, a writer’s relationship with a mentor in a community of writers. The need, however one might begrudge it, for “authority” — even as a foil — to find one’s voice or personal vision or self. Most of us at certain points in our development want to be both told the way, to be led, and also to find the way by ourselves. In any case, Kristie plays off of her father’s image of how she should perceive and approach life, and throughout the story she endeavors to find, through experience, her own image of self that seems true to who she is in the world she has inherited. And she finally ends up “co-authoring” herself as she, and maybe we, perceive her. But, you know, the creative writing program of college campuses can look like a frivolous enterprise. It really depends on the motives, not only of people who direct workshops, but of the people who enroll in them-their motives and expectations. And there seems to be a growing prejudice against these programs — at least in some sectors of our culture. A review of Father of the Man in the Washington Post last week began, “Robert Mooney has written a first novel, and you would think that someone who was educated, in part, in the craft in creative writing programs, and then went on to run a creative writing program, would have two strikes against him. Fortunately this isn’t true for Mooney.” So this reviewer is demonstrating his prejudice right away by begrudgingly admitting that someone has written a pretty good book despite his affiliation with these programs. What’s that all about? If creative programs at colleges and universities are among the very few places where young writers can go to find guidance, to find an atmosphere wherein they might learn and practice the craft, and these programs are argued out of existence by reviewers and publishers, then where does the young writer go for help?
Lincoln: Exactly. Years ago you would have these successful writers, Fitzgerald or Hemingway, and they would study under someone for long periods of time, years even.
Mooney: Their editors, primarily. But the publishing house editor of the 21st century isn’t the editor of the 1920s and ’30s. It’s a very different relationship. Publishing has become much more corporate, much more profit-oriented than it was back then.
Lincoln: Exactly. It’s a classroom, although it’s not in the classroom, it’s still the same kind of thing.
Mooney: Who cares what it’s called? When we worked together we didn’t even call these weekly meetings of aspiring writers “classes,” although some of those gathered persisted in referring to their short stories as “papers.”
Mooney: And, when you hear that, you think, “Oh boy, I can’t wait to read this one.” But to be fair, the confusion some students experience is an understandable result of this apprenticeship in the arts being instituted on a campus governed by academic rules and standards, which often operate at odds with what is at the heart of trying to guide — and to learn — this craft. So, yes, we’re occasionally going to be asked, “How long do you want my ‘paper’ to be?” Or even just, “How long do you want my story to be?” Then the good workshop director answers, “As long as it needs to be.” And often the confused student thinks that you are either kidding him or her, or you’re into Zen, or you’re being vague just to aggravate them, and they walk away mumbling, “Thanks a lot!”
Lincoln: Thanks for nothing (laughs).
Mooney: Yeah. Well, those are would-be writers still serving self over story, transcript over draft. Such a student of the process doesn’t yet know what a story is at all, and perhaps isn’t even interested beyond upping the cumulative average and having a little fun at the same time.
Lincoln: But they do want a code. You were saying earlier about people wanting the magic code — what do I have to do to create this thing? Well, when they come to the classroom, they find out that it’s not there, that it’s something else altogether. And they’re not really ready to do or give what it takes to get to that point.
Mooney: They’re like the characters in fairy tales — the older brothers who proclaim they will venture forth and get this or that, the water in the well at the end of the world that will cure the illness of their dying father the king, and in the process win a kingdom for themselves and the fairest maiden’s hand as well. But their motives are selfish and they proceed by plotting and planning, and they get bushwhacked. They get turned to stone. And it’s the youngest brother, a ne’er do well — at least as far as the other brothers are concerned — who doesn’t plan but improvises, pays attention, is led by his heart rather than his glands, and does what needs to be done by his wits. And so he answers the crone honestly, but perhaps with a little necessary cunning. Not because he wants the kingdom and the fairest maiden’s hand, but because he wants to get the water from the well at the end of the world to save the dying father — which was supposed to be the whole purpose of the quest in the first place, not the receipt of valuable prizes given to ‘the winner.’ The ones who want the princess and the kingdom are like the young writers for whom the workshop is a waste of time, a devastating blow to the ego, if there’s not an ‘A’ involved. This underscores some of the inherent and apparently unavoidable problems with academic creative writing programs. Fitzgerald didn’t have to worry about getting an A from Charles Scribner. Gertrude Stein didn’t mark Hemingway. And, frankly, the idea of being obligated to mark young writers is not something I’m comfortable with — never mind the overall sense of false security and misleading system of reward and punishment that a curricular structure imposes. In many ways, academic sponsorship of writing communities creates an uneasy alliance of enterprises that do not always share the same education values, and if writers had a better alternative to learning craft under the guidance of those who have mastered it and at the same time meeting other young writers with whom they might form communities bound by a strong common interest, that would be welcome. But where is it?
Lincoln: Exactly, it’s not there. We don’t have a choice. This is it.
Mooney: It’s unfortunate, maybe, but it’s there — and it’s something.
Lincoln: And it is going to work for those who want it to work. It is. It does, and I’m an example of it.
Mooney: And look at you. . .
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