Burroway, Janet (Gay) 1936-
BURROWAY, Janet (Gay) 1936-
PERSONAL: Born September 21, 1936, in Phoenix, AZ; daughter of Paul M. (a tool and die worker) and Alma (a speech teacher; maiden name, Milner) Burroway; married Walter Eysselinck (a theatre director), March 18, 1961 (divorced, 1973); married William Dean Humphries, 1978 (divorced, 1981); married Peter Ruppert, 1993; children: (first marriage) Timothy Alan, Tobyn Alexander; Anne Lindsay Ruppert (step-daughter, third marriage). Education: Attended University of Arizona, 1954-55; Barnard College, B.A. (cum laude), 1958; Cambridge University, B.A. (with first class honors), 1960, M.A., 1965; additional study at Yale School of Drama, 1960-61. Politics: Liberal.
ADDRESSES: Home—240 DeSoto St., Tallahassee, FL 32303. E-mail—[email protected]
CAREER: During her school years, worked for Young Men's Hebrew Association, New Yorker, and for UNICEF in Paris, France; supply teacher in Binghamton, NY, 1961-63; regional director, New York State Expansion Program for Young Audiences, Inc., 1962-63; University of Sussex, Brighton, England, School of English and American Studies, 1965-70, began as assistant lecturer, became lecturer; University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, special assistant to the writing laboratory, 1971; Florida State University, Tallahassee, associate professor, 1971-77, professor, 1977-2002, McKenzie Professor of English literature and writing, 1986-95, Robert O. Lawton Distinguished Professor, 1995-2002, professor emerita, 2002—.
Costume designer, Belgian National Theater at Ghent, 1965-70, and Gardner Centre for the Arts, University of Sussex, 1965-71.
AWARDS, HONORS: Pulitzer Prize nomination in literature, 1970, for The Buzzards; AMOCO award for excellence in teaching, Florida State University, 1974; National Endowment for the Arts creative writing scholarship, 1976; runner-up for National Book Award, 1977, for Raw Silk; Florida Fine Arts creative writing grant, 1983-84; Florida State University Distinguished Teaching Award, 1992; Lila Wallace-Reader's Digest fellow, 1993-94; Reva Shiner Playwrighting Prize, Bloomington Playwright's Project, 1997; finalist, Playwrights' Center of San Francisco Annual Dramarama Competition, 1998 for Sweepstakes; Lawrence Foundation Award, Prairie Schooner, 1999; Arts & Letters Playwrighting Prize, 2001, for Division of Property; Pushcart Prize, 2002.
Descend Again (novel), Faber (London, England), 1960.
The Dancer from the Dance (novel), Faber (London, England), 1965, Little, Brown (Boston, MA), 1967.
Eyes (novel), Little, Brown (Boston, MA), 1966.
The Buzzards (novel), Little, Brown (Boston, MA), 1969.
Raw Silk (novel), Little, Brown (Boston, MA), 1977.
Opening Nights (novel), Atheneum (New York, NY), 1985.
Cutting Stone (novel), Houghton Mifflin (Boston, MA), 1992.
Garden Party, produced at Barnard College, 1958.
The Beauty Operators, produced at Gardner Centre for the Arts, 1968, produced by Thames Television, London, England, 1970.
(Contributor) Palmer Bovie, editor, Five Roman Comedies, Dutton (New York, NY), 1970.
Hoddinott Veiling, produced by ATV Network Television (London, England), 1970.
Due Care and Attention, produced by ATV Network Television (London, England), 1973.
(Contributor) Palmer Bovie and David Slavitt, editors, Complete Roman Drama Series, Johns Hopkins University, 1995.
Medea with Child, produced at Bloomington Playwrights' Project (Bloomington, IN), 1997.
(Adaptor, with Charles Olsen) Opening Nights, National Public Radio, 1997.
Also author of Division of Property and texts for dance performed by the Florida State University Dance Repertory Company: Text/Tile, 1991, The Empty Dress, 1994, Yazoo City Station, 1998, and Quiltings, 2000.
But to the Season (poems), Keele University Press, 1961.
The Truck on the Track (juvenile), J. Cape (London, England), 1970, Bobbs-Merrill (Indianapolis, IN), 1971.
The Giant Jam Sandwich (juvenile), J. Cape (London, England), 1972, Houghton Mifflin (Boston, MA), 1973.
Material Goods (poems), University Presses of Florida (Tallahassee, FL), 1980.
Writing Fiction: A Guide to Narrative Craft, Little Brown & Co. (New York, NY), 1982, sixth edition, Longman (New York, NY), 2003.
Embalming Mom: Essays in Life, University of Iowa Press (Iowa City, Iowa), 2002.
Imaginative Writing: The Elements of Craft, Longman (New York, NY), 2003.
Contributor of poetry to anthologies, including New Poems by American Poets No. 2, Ballantine, 1957, The Guinness Book of Poetry, Putnam, 1961, and Sound and Sense, Harcourt, 1973. Contributor of essays to anthologies, including A Certain Age, Virago, 1993, Minding the Body, Anchor, 1994, The Day My Father Died, Running Press, 1994, We Are What We Ate, Harcourt, 1998, Between Mothers and Sons, Scribner, 1999, and Letters to a Fiction Writer, Norton, 1999. Contributor of articles to periodicals, including Mademoiselle, Seventeen, Yale Review, Story Quarterly, Chronicle of Higher Education, Utne Review, World and I, and Prague Review. Fiction reviewer, New Statesman, 1970-71 and 1975, and New York Times Book Review, 1991—; columnist, New Letters, 1994—.
SIDELIGHTS: "Janet Burroway is a writer of wide range and many voices," wrote Elizabeth Muhlenfeld in Dictionary of Literary Biography. "[Her] themes are universal—love, death, the implications of choice, human culpability—and in the broadest sense, her novels are profoundly moral. She creates a determinedly realistic world, a comedie humaine with tragic implications, where evil is most often the result of blindness."
Burroway is noted for the meticulous research she puts into her novels; her best-known work, Raw Silk, was a seven-year project. The story of the ill-fated marriage of an American woman to an English businessman, Raw Silk is narrated by the wife, Virginia Marbalestier. Virginia is "an engaging character; she speaks with wry intelligence and rare honesty, and she fastens onto the details of her life with a characteristic humor even when she is suffering most deeply," according to Muhlenfeld.
While Burroway "is not saying anything radically new in Raw Silk," as Anatole Broyard pointed out in the New York Times Book Review, nevertheless "what makes [the novel] better than just another contemporary document are the good lines, like a form of personal attractiveness, which enliven its pages." Similarly, Mel Watkins, writing in the New York Times, found that what sets Raw Silk apart "is Janet Burroway's superb stylistic gifts....By focusing on the nuances of marital erosion, the silences, the minute fissures and crevices that go unnoticed until they become permanent breaches, [the author] has fashioned an affecting latte of ennui and dissolution."
In Burroway's 1992 novel, Cutting Stone, the author presents to readers an ambitious work of historical fiction, in the opinion of New York Times Book Review contributor Angeline Goreau. Set against the backdrop of U.S.-Mexican relations in the years before World War I, Baltimore blueblood Eleanor Poindexter has followed her banker-husband to the small Arizona town of Bowie to make a new home. While initially characterizing Burroway's protagonist as "a rehash of one of the most sentimental clichés of American frontier literature," Times Literary Supplement contributor John Clute went on to explain that the novelist's "conception has a redeeming intensity; she presents Eleanor as a figure whose responses to the world around her are almost preternaturally sensitive. Her twelve-month transformation—from spoiled and fainting wife into toughened optimist—reads like the metamorphosis of some transcendent, not entirely human creation. By the end of the novel she has become a kind of saint." Adapting to her new environment, the fictitious Eleanor eventually confronts actual history in the form of Mexican revolutionary leader Pancho Villa, who, according to historical record, camped out in Bowie in August of 1914.
While Richard Eder expressed a less positive view of Eleanor in his Los Angeles Times Book Review critique of Cutting Stone, the reviewer found "passages of persuasive writing" throughout the novel, particularly as Burroway describes the harshly beautiful landscape of Arizona, and the transformation of Sam, a vulnerable Chinese-American youth, who learns self-reliance through living off the land. Burroway's depiction of the character of the Mexican servant Maria and her energetic pursuit of a better life occasions "the best writing in the book," in Eder's view. While noting that her prose is sometimes hampered by a "lack of control or malfunction" with regard to the use of detail, Joseph Parisi praised Burroway's body of work in Contemporary Novelists, concluding that Burroway "has incisive power to reveal the moral ambiguities, contradictions, and rationalizations of her characters, especially the women."
Burroway's play Hoddinot Veiling was Britain's independent television entry at the Monte Carlo festival in 1970. The author's manuscripts and working papers are collected at the Strozier Library, Florida State University, in Tallahassee.
Embalming Mom: Essays in Life, is an intimate portrait of the author's life in essay form. The book is "alternately clever, humorous, lively, sad and charming," according to Pam Kingsbury of the Library Journal. Embalming Mom is a collection of sixteen essays which delve into Burroway's childhood, explore the similarities of the author with that of the poet, Sylvia Plath, follow her career aspirations, and humorously describe the asperity of failed marriages, child rearing, death, and other self-evolving experiences. Frank Bentayou, a writer for the Plain Dealer, depicted Burroway's informal writing style as "intimate as an after-dinner chat." Lynn McWhirter of The Review of Arts, Literature, Philosophy, and the Humanities RALPH noted "With writing like this, Burroway wins our hearts—and by the time she gets past the pools, and the cats and the writer worrries—she has us whole, has us entire."
Janet Burroway contributed the following autobiographical essay to CA:
This is the first thing I know about myself: My mother said, "When she was born, I was horrified to see she had coal-black hair an inch long that stuck out all over her head like an Indian." I must have heard this several hundred times; it was the opening sentence of the anecdote about the seventy-odd temporary "permanents" I had before I left home for college.
If it were the first sentence of a novel, I would set an exam on it. What expectations for female children are indicated? What attitude toward nonwhite races is implied? What does the choice of language tell us about the character of the mother? Which of the daughter's later problems and concerns can be traced back to the attitudes here exhibited?
Once when I came home from England, dandling a cherub on my knee, a wife, a published novelist, a university lecturer, a fashionable resident of the cultured country of my choice—a model candidate therefore for "seeing my mother as a person"—I said to her, breezily, "It must have been hard on you to have a stocky, straight-haired daughter."
"Oh," my mother said. "It was terrible. Terrible."
If I had four hundred pages instead of forty to spend at the typewriter, I might give full space to the Samson story, the fight against the cutting of my hair. I might tell the story of the ugly duckling, the stories of my coming to understand the power of bigotry, of the unwilling feminist, the addictive personality in a temperance family, the story of the search for home—all of which figure in my fiction as subject matter. But this is a "literary autobiography," so I will concentrate on the portions of those stories that suggest a writing life.*
My perfectly adequate but problematic body came into the world on September 21, 1936, in Tucson, Arizona, and was transported at some time before my memory begins to be raised in Phoenix.
My parents were both ex-Ohioans, of whom there were a plethora in the desert in those days. My mother had come about 1909, her father having been diagnosed as consumptive and having therefore left the bank in Lorain to take on the managership of a remote marble quarry in the mountains above Rowie. After a few years the quarry went broke—but not before my mother had learned the loneliness of being the only white child in Marble Camp, sitting on a rock watching the games of Mexican children with whom she was not allowed to play.
My father's father was a fishmonger and factory foreman in Canton, Ohio, and when my dad was six his mother died giving birth to his younger sister Jessie—after which my grandfather married his former wife's best friend.
The two households, rustic in Arizona and working class in Canton, were I believe models of Methodist moral rectitude, but my mother's mother had a flash of giggling madness in her that made for both more merriment and more angst. My mother herself was "frail," diagnosed at eighteen as having an ulcer. When she was of marriageable age it became obvious that Bowie, Arizona, offered her no match, and she went to Ohio to visit relatives, returning with my father as prize.
They were married in 1924 in the Little Church Around the Corner in New York, this being one of the titillating facts of their romance, since they had to travel from Ohio to New York unchaperoned before they faced the preacher. Their first house in Bowie was a barber shop, converted by railway-tramp laborers at a dollar a day during the Great Depression. In 1932 my brother Stanley was born in Tucson.
After my birth we moved to Phoenix, and my first three years were spent in "the house on Twenty-fourth Place." There I learned to "read," probably when I was two, because the occasion of it was my brother's difficulty learning in first grade (a manifestation of his resistance to being turned into a performer—truly another story). My mother therefore made flashcards, and since there was nothing in particular to do with me while Stanley practiced them, I was set on the couch beside him. I remember only two of the cards—a "Mexico" with a sombrero set askew on the M, and a "look" of which the two o's were long-lashed eyes—and it's perfectly possible that these are the only two cards I then recognized, but all the same I was trotted out for company and presented as precocious. Why my brother didn't murder me I don't know; it was years later that he broke my finger, and then for some lesser transgression.
I remember being freshly dressed for Sunday School, holding my father's hand and looking up to see beyond him the fronds of an awesomely tall palm tree, and beyond that the searing blue Arizona sky. In my first novel I gave this memory a more specific character, but really it is an image of religious awe.
Shortly after my third birthday we moved into an L-shaped stucco bungalow of my father's own design and making at 322 E. Alvarado Street. My father was a moral builder (I have tended to understand, and to render in print, true-caulked joints as the touchstone of good men) and the house still announces its modest solidity while many later jerry-buildings are desert dust. But the trouble with it in 1939 was that the street was newly scratched out of the sand, mostly bare lots, grudging to grass or a new hedge.
Arizona was too spare and barren for me. The real seemed bald. On our street there were few trees and small; behind us was a vast vacant lot (later a baseball field) powdery most of the time and slimy with mud in the rare rains. The farthest I could walk on my own was to the MacAlpine Drug Store across Seventh Street for a nickel ice cream cone that melted as I ate it. My bare feet got horn-hard on the hot dirt while I dreamed of being a ballerina. I seemed to have an instinctive distaste for western music and rodeo gear. Later I understood these attitudes as snobbery, and felt abashed before writers like Tom McGuane and Tom Robbins, who had the strength of spirit to celebrate American folk rubbish—but how did I conceive such a snobbery in the first place? By the time I was eight I had an entrenched conviction that the real world was elsewhere than Arizona, and I have never entirely changed my mind.
The significant legacy of those early judgments was not that I should find my home elsewhere but that I should never entirely find my home. It is the sense of no, not here that is my familiar. When my five-year-old son, transplanted to America, vowed that he would return to live in England where he was born, I never doubted him. I envied him rather, that such a passion, so early conceived, should be a longing rather than a rejection.
In the meantime the things that seemed "real" to me were the things that I would now describe as heightened, striking, technicolor. Christmas, for instance. My family had a true hedonistic talent for Christmas—a heritage I have tried to pass on, rigorously defending it against all charges of consumerism and commercialism.
Movies especially represented the world as it ought to be, and this passion was shared by all the family. We went perhaps twice a week to the Deco-decorated Fox or to the Orpheum with its Spanish courtyard and clouds moving across the plaster sky. I must have been aware even in the earliest days that the point of my mother's curling and steaming and twisting-roundher-finger of my hair, was that I should look as much as possible like Shirley Temple—which was also my heart's desire.
I was allowed dance lessons from the age of four or so, ballet and tap, later adagio, acrobatic, and—finally!—toe. I got to be measured for the tiny tutus or tap ruffles of Mr. Scholl's recitals. I watched, backstage, the annual painting for the same recital of the lady who went nude except for her leaf of gilt. It perplexed and dazzled me that this and only this particular public nudity seemed to be allowed.
More thrilling still was the Phoenix Little Theatre production of Guest in the House for which I under-studied and, once, performed the youngest role. Whenever I see mothers defend, and toddlers mouth their enthusiasm for, public performance and beauty contests, my knee-jerk reaction is that the kids are being used, but my memory tells me I was stagestruck of my own accord, and a stage mother was the mother I most wanted.
Most thrilling, held out like a promise of every year's completion, was the trip to California, to eat in the green-lit plaster grottos of the Waldorf Cafeteria, to buy a winter coat and a storybook doll at the May Company, to ride the merry-go-round and later the bumper cars at the greasy glorious Pike, and to be tumbled in the cold and terrifying wonderful Pacific surf.
Jumping, jumping in the surf; the water jumps so I jump, with every wave. It is a jumping competition. The sea smacks me in the face, upends me, drags on whatever part of me is nearest the ocean floor. I am towed under. I fight, right myself, stand and face the next wave, jump. Salt surges backward through my nose into my throat; coughing makes the membranes above my palate sting. I don't want to get out, I never want to get out. I ignore my parents' calling. Only exhaustion will finally shove me shoreward, dump me on the sand, because even if I feel "in my element," there is something I don't have in common with the ocean, that it goes on tireless, never pulls a muscle, heaves for breath, dizzies with churning head over gritty heels in the salt wet.
California also magically contained an extended family, a score of people one way or another connected to my grandmother, Gamie. With these people we had wonderful beach reunions. The most interesting family was that headed by my mother's cousin Walter Pierce, whose daughter Martha Anne lived in a beruffled attic bedroom in their Riverside house. Surf and trees were exotic enough, but stairs in a private house seemed like something out of books, and dormer windows...! I envied Martha Anne for most of my childhood.
The Pierces were connected to Louisa May Alcott by a route I could never trace. My grandmother claimed to be Louisa May's second cousin, and one of the Pierce sisters was named Premilia, supposedly after a Premelia Alcott—but Uncle Walter and I have searched in vain for corroboration. The real connection doesn't matter, of course; the important thing is that the family believed it, and had no difficulty crediting anybody's literary ambitions—indeed, always had an eye out for them. Gamie's brother, Uncle Ernie, was the author of a "privately published" book of poems called Infiniverse. Uncle Ernie was considered to be "a little cracked," and in later life no doubt he was—though I never felt as certain as my mother that I would be harmed by listening to his theories about the moon and the menstrual cycle. And I liked his explanation of his book's title: "One evening I was sitting around the dinner table with my sons, and one of them mentioned the universe. I thought, Why universe?! Doesn't it go on forever? Why not Infiniverse?" This idea thrilled me almost as much as it seemed to thrill Uncle Ernie—I particularly liked the throwaway part, "mentioned the universe"—but I don't know whether he felt any particular affinity for his great-niece poet.
California was also "real" of course because it was where the movies were made, and my parents were as excited as I to step in the cement feet at Grauman's Chinese, collect autographs on Hollywood and Vine, get free tickets to the broadcasts of "Stella Dallas" or "Amos 'n' Andy," and expensive ones to live shows. Once we saw a striptease by mistake, and once by more profound mistake my parents took me to a performance of A Streetcar Named Desire, which disturbed me in a way I could articulate to no one.
Much later I noted this irony: My mother had wanted to be an actress, and had been prevented from it "by her health," which dictated that she could not leave Arizona for the Emerson School of Oratory in Boston. I always knew that her own parents were somewhat relieved not to have to make a decision against the theatre on moral grounds, but they felt, and my mother passed on to me, a conviction that actresses were wicked. They were wicked for three clearly delineated reasons: they smoked, they drank, and they had a lot of husbands. In my late forties, when I sat to contemplate the shape of my life, I realized that my adolescent rebellion had taken some very obvious forms; I had then already given up a couple of husbands, and now I undertook to give up the drink and the cigarettes. As a friend had pointed out to me, there are two ways to let your parents rule your life: by doing as they say, and by doing the opposite.*
I suppose everyone has a first memory of being able to write. What characterizes my memory is a sense of fraud. I remember being at a little table looking onto the quarter-circle of backyard from my room in the house on Alvarado Street. I had not yet started to school, but I knew my alphabet and could make all the letters. I could already form Janet, and didn't consider this being able to write; it was like being able to make a cat out of two circles with ears and tail; mere drawing. I practiced these letters on cheap slick manila paper with turquoise lines. Then I called to my mother asking her how to spell Burroway, and as she slowly called out the letters from another room, I formed them. I copied them several times, then demanded that she look and see if I had it right. She must have praised me, but I don't remember. I remember writing the letters over and over again with a sense of breathless power. And then suddenly I was self-suspicious. I had not really done anything. Mom had spelled the name. I had only copied down letters I already knew. I was somehow taking credit for something not my own.
This odd sense dogged me. When as a teenager I won a dress-designing competition I was thrust into a despairing sense of fraud, confessed to my mother that I had taken a sleeve style from one dress, neckline from another, skirt shape from a third; the only original thing I had done was to add the applique of the fish and bubbles. Mom laughed. What did I think designing was? I caught the sense in the character of Miguel in my first novel, Descend Again. Miguel translates a Spanish lullaby, not understanding that translation is something different from plagiarism. But writing about it did not exorcize the tendency, which plagues me in the classroom: These students think I have done something for them, but it's only a fraction of what they could get from reading the books I've read.
I have learned to tell my writing students that in the world as we know it nothing is made or destroyed, only rearranged; and that the process of creation is selection and arrangement. I know this to be true. But somewhere the stubborn enemy in me does not believe it.
My mother liked to make stories of her children's accomplishments, and would assure anyone who would listen that I wrote my first poem at the age of five. Consequently, I seem to remember doing so, bringing my headful of lines out to my mother on the little red concrete front porch where purple verbena grew in a huge turquoise pottery vase, and I do remember the poem.
There once lived a man on the street.
He was sixty years old at that time,
And before he was ninety-nine
He prayed to the Lord: Lord, do not let me die
For I am the shepherd of your sheep.
Then he went outside, and a rope hanging from the sky.
He took hold of it, and up and up he went
Until he was in the sky.
Then he knew who he was.
He was Jesus, God's shepherd.
I've written worse. I still rather like the idea of Jesus not knowing who he was even though he declared it with conviction. But I also think that this effort could be duplicated by most of the first graders in a Poets in the Schools program, and that my mother's assigning it a prophetic character may in fact have been a cause of my later poetry.
No more poems were caused, however, until about the seventh grade, and I probably cared less about the first one than about my mother's praise. A slightly later memory marks for me the urgent connection I feel to language.
In this memory I seem very young and small, but it is crucial that I was able to write a letter, so I will put it at the summer between first and second grades.
I had been left to spend a week with my grandparents in Wilcox. At Gamie's house—it was never spoken of as my grandfather's, Gakie's; I suppose the bank was his place and the home hers—as in California, things were in sharper focus than at home, and in sharper color: the huge black and white squares of the checkerboard kitchen floor, the drawer filled with shining, miniature but real, pots and pans; Weedy the golden Pekingese who spent his waking hours padding across the checkerboard after my grandmother. The grass in the ample backyard was of some vivid apple green that we could not achieve in Phoenix. A black china cat slept on the hearth and a glass-fronted cupboard displayed a whole set of black dishes! The ceilings of the bedrooms were plastered in ochre over blue, and the blue shapes could be read as clouds can be, but they did not change, and became familiar: the hatted lady, the pig, the coolie hat. Over my iron bedstead in the guest room Gramma Pierce, Gamie's mother, stared stern and life-sized out of an oval frame, over the window seat and out the window, into the garden at the weeping willow—and I never hear the expression "piercing gaze," without remembering this private etymology.
Every day I walked the half-dozen blocks to the Valley National Bank where my grandfather was manager (it was my first experience of that heady female pleasure, Prestige by Association), and Gakie gave me a shiny dime, which I was then allowed to take to the Vandercamp Emporium and spend at once. Fifteen cents a week was my standard allowance; a dime a day was wealth. No one told me to save a part of it or to spend it wisely. I could buy a little frame, a book of paper dolls, a ball and jacks—anything! Back at Gamie's house I could go next door to the vacant lot and dance on a slab of concrete unaccountably laid as if for my private stage. Or I could poke into the old tool shed, sniff in the musty smell that I never otherwise encountered in my childhood, Arizona being so dry. As I recount this it seems to me a memory of longer ago than the 1940s, and I realize that part of the magic of Gamie's house was that even then, compared to the flat harsh light of home and its boxy houses, Wilcox had the feel of more graceful "olden times."
I loved the place. But one afternoon when I had been there for several days I was standing at the window seat in "my" bedroom sifting through a box of old Christmas cards. I looked up from the cards, out the window like Gramma Pierce, at the gently tossing ribbons of green willow—and I was struck a blow in the stomach of physical and yet not-physical pain. It was at once empty and lead-heavy, as if emptiness had been made lead-heavy in me. I had never felt anything like it and I could not take in the force of it. I gaped out the window, astonished, immobilized. I stood for a moment trying to breathe, and when I caught my breath I began to cry—not merely from the eyes or nose, but with desperate expulsions as if I could send the thing away, extrude it from my stomach with my breath.
Gamie came to me. "What is it, Dolly!"
I said, gasping astonishment, "I don't know. . . !"
She put her arms around me. "Oh, Dolly, you're homesick."
I believe that my need for words, my anxious and largely misplaced trust in definition, stems from that moment. The pain still choked me but its name had put it in the world. My grandmother knew what it was. It had been before.
My memory does a "cut to" here, to the fold-down writing desk beside the bed. "Dear Mom," I wrote, "I am . . ." I asked Gamie to spell the word and I painstakingly wrote it out. ". . . homesick." I was impressed at the length of it. It still sounded alien to my ears. My letters were blurry with tears, and now that I knew the pain was connected with the thought of home, the thought of home brought on the pain. But I knew what it was called and I could write it down. I could define myself by it. I was homesick. It was a mortally grown-up thing to be.
Let me not distort the meaning of this memory to me. The void is very large and the pride is scarcely a pebble. When I have lost a mother, child, marriage, lover, home—"homesick" is how I feel it. When I hurt, it is with that pain I hurt, and thousands of words must be thrown into the void before it begins to contract around them. I have been able to understand the concept of "black hole" only in emotional terms. But if my particular sort of pain took its form in that moment, so did the puny power to face it off.*
Mom gave "elocution" lessons, and had striking success correcting the speech defects of stammerers, split palates, and at least one girl with Down's syndrome. Most of her pupils, however, learned to "say pieces."
All through grammar school I took lessons from Mom, but she tended to be impatient with me; so I invented a game in which I left the house, toured the block, rang the doorbell, and presented myself as "Brenda." My mother approved this ruse, and on the whole she was successful in pretending that she must treat me with the politeness due a stranger's child.
I learned to recite "My Darling Little Goldfish" with appropriate inflections, and I advanced to prose, to monologue and dialogue situations in which a mother tried to telephone the grocer while keeping three small children out of trouble, or the salesgirl lost track of how much lace she was measuring as she complained about her job. There were relaxation exercises that I have since learned are yoga, and which I still use.
The goal then was that I should stand up, at intervals of perhaps two months, at Friday night socials of the Central Methodist Church, and bring glory on myself, my mother, Methodism, and the American Way of Life.
Understand that I fully concurred in this desire. Nevertheless I sweated and wished to die. From four o'clock on the relevant Fridays I sank into a stupor of dread and prayed that the cross should be lifted from me. I sweated. After supper I dressed—in yokes with Peter Pan collars, dirndles with ruffles, pinafores with rickrack trim, in peplums, puffed sleeves, peasant blouses, scallops—and sweated.
In the church basement I sat and watched while Mrs. Logan rendered "Mighty like a Rose" and the Robinson twins did their tap routine. I smiled and applauded, my heart banging without rhythm against my breastless fat. I strode forward with the appearance of nonchalance through the metal-backed folding chairs, paused, faced the crowd, gulped a breath, and spoke.
Afterward, four flower-hatted women and, if I was lucky, a middle-aged man, would tell me how talented I was, how charming, how to be proud of!
Do not suppose that I suspected some imbalance between the effort and the praise. I learned the lesson of my life. Praise and relief! Praise and to be done with it! Even now, when many thousand facings of a lecture hall have dimmed the anxiety, when I am free of the Peter Pan collars and my heart no longer pounds—even now, every time I speak I feel the atavistic pattern: dread, discipline, praise, relief.
On the knickknack shelf in the living room was a trophy that Stanley had won at the age of four or five in a KOY radio station competition, reciting "Moo Cow Moo" or "Nice Mr. Carrot." Shortly thereafter, however, he retired from public life and never to my knowledge acquired, desired, or competed for a trophy until, at the age of thirty-eight, as he left the Oakland Tribune for the Los Angeles Times, he was offered a slug from the press etched with the signatures of his fellow newsmen.
At the age of ten or twelve he decided to become a writer. He asked for a typewriter for Christmas and installed a lock on his door. He began to write for the Emerson Herald, the newsletter of our grammar school, and in the eighth grade became its editor. He went to North Phoenix High School with the intention of becoming editor of the Mustang Roundup, which he duly did. With two friends, he founded, wrote, and drew cartoons for the Fadical Tower, a sort of early Arizona cross between the Village Voice and the April Fools' issue of a campus rag.
My relationship with my brother went through the usual sibling changes, but I think it was quite early for a younger sister that I began, mostly secretly, to idolize him. A few of our California summers were spent in a trailer on the shore at Seal Beach, and when the hours got long, the swimming and the Monopoly grew old, Stan used to beguile the time with stories of stunning invention. A favorite series was called "A Penny for Luck," in which a sequence of characters down, out, desperate, or dying for lack of money briefly and ignorantly held in their hands a priceless collectors'-item penny, which at the end of the story each would spend for something tragically insignificant. I begged for these stories so often that Stan finally tired of them and had one of the characters flip the penny into a river. Once when I marvelled at his skill Stan invented a spur to my own invention: he asked me to name any three objects and then he wove them into a plot; then he named three and I had to make up the story about them. It was a literary version of our favorite drawing game, in which one person drew a quick scribble and the other had to turn it into a face.
These brotherly attentions were confined mostly to vacations, though, and when Stan was with his high-school friends I became the younger-sibling persona non grata. I suffered accordingly. I sat outside the door where the mysteries of Fadical Tower were being plotted, invented excuses to wander through, tried with singular lack of success to invent the sort of joke that would make Stan, Wes, and Fred laugh the way they did over their cartoons.
I don't know whether this forlorn adoration had anything to do with my eventually becoming a writer—certainly I wavered and moiled over my choice of profession, a far cry from Stan's early and absolute commitment. I do know that it had something for good and ill to do with my conception of love, both the clarity of the feeling in myself, and the anxiously low expectation of return. Having said that, I should also say that as adults my brother and I have become easy good friends, and we still carry on a bantering rivalry, begun when he was in high school and I in grammar school. When Material Goods came out in 1980, he sent me a poem that ended:
Awed by slim volumes, what am I to say?
(My headlines growing cold, type going gray);
Just this: Three million readers, kid, TODAY!
About the seventh grade I began to write poems again. I was by this time thick of torso, my straight hair hidden under a fizz of home perm, my feet like my nose too large, my despair constant that I could never expect to look like Adena Wolf nor be the beloved of beautiful Vernon Godbehere—and in such self-dissatisfaction I took the path more travelled by and became the teacher's pet.
Our literature teacher was a Mr. Allsworth, blandly aging, slightly slow, with a head full of beautiful white hair. He was inclined to praise my efforts with a mild, not altogether satisfactory, benignity. One day we read a story about a defenseless wild animal—I think it was a rabbit—who defended her young against a vicious lone dog, and succeeded in some dramatic way that left the dog dead. I thought it peculiarly onesided. How could we be so sure that the dog was a villain? (I think I was predisposed to like dogs better than underdogs at the time.) I therefore concocted my first experiment in point of view—with no notion that is what I was doing—and brought Mr. Allsworth a new version of the story in which the dog was trying to save his injured master by feeding him until help could arrive. In my version the dog also died (so did the master), but tragically, hearing in his doggy brain a voice from the heavens pronouncing that his was a job well done. A little more satisfactorily than usual, Mr. Allsworth appeared to be startled.
Then I made a wonderful discovery. In our family there had always been two capitalized I's besides the ego's name. My father was in favor of anything that could be called an Idea. My mother had a mystical affection for Inspiration. I now discovered the value of the latter, for although bedtimes were considered absolute, and if I were caught under the covers with a Sylvia Seaman mystery and a flashlight I would be sharply reprimanded, it turned out that in my mother's opinion Inspiration was not subject to schedule but would come will-you nil-you, early or late, and there was nothing that a mortal could do about it. My muse suddenly declared herself to be of the midnight variety. In the space of a few months I wrote a couple of dozen after-hours poems, which made their way into the hands of Mr. Allsworth.
Now Mr. Allsworth did a much more satisfactory thing: he kept me after school on Thursday afternoons for a whole semester teaching me prosody. Dimeter. Rich rhyme. Spondee. Caesura. Envoi. (Every once in a while, when my job as a teacher seems routine and fruitless to me, I remember how profoundly those Thursday sessions have affected my life, how the iamb miraculously mirrored the rhythm of blood beat, how those Arabs folded their tents and in irregular anapests silently stole away.)
This was my first "workshop." I knew its purpose was to make me a better writer, not ever suspecting it was also a way to make a living. Later, lecturing on prosody to two or three hundred students at the University of Sussex, I observed (and have had no reason since to revise the observation) that grammar and high-school teachers somehow always seem to think you'll get the poetic feet later, and college teachers to assume you've had them, and unless somebody takes the effort to make sure, you'll miss a fundamental pleasure of poetry.
Mr. Allsworth reviewed my weekly efforts and made the following pronouncement: "I think the world may have found in you another Margaret Fishback." I have never learned who this lady was.
One of the poems I wrote, called "A Bundle for Britain," celebrated the birth of Bonnie Prince Charlie, and at Mr. A's urging I sent it to Buckingham Palace. I received in return a typed letter under the seal of the palace, signed by a lady-in-waiting to Her Majesty Princess Elizabeth. I was briefly famous. The letter was later stolen out of a collection of my poems at the Emerson Grammar School Hobbies Fair, and I always suspected Adena Wolf. I don't know why, unless it represents some sort of ineffable logic that the girl I so envied for her beauty should return my envy for the one thing I had.
By the eighth grade I had entered pubescent misery and more or less forgot about poetry. Much later I tried to track Mr. Allsworth down to thank him, but I was unable to do so. Many of my regrets concern not what I've done, but the failure to let people know how much they mattered to me.
I wrote one last sentimental parting poem for the Emerson Herald, then a valedictory address of equal and largely unfelt nostalgia. I was anxious to get on to high school where things had to get better.*
They did and didn't. There was a lot more of the same—starring in English class and standing on the sidelines at the basketball dance—and I may have been so busy doing what was then called "discovering boys" that I failed to notice I was also discovering friendship and kinds of competence.
Marilyn Lane was lanky, limber, and had a faulty muscle in one eyelid that produced an involuntary wink—usually when she was about to say something witty. I had never known a witty girl before. It was the myth of our friendship that we had begun as enemies, each finding the other conceited, which I believe was the only flaw that anybody was ever accused of. But I don't remember disliking her, only that we had a wonderful time assuring everyone that such dislike had occurred. Marilyn's parents were divorced, and she lived with her father and was good pals with her stepmother, all of which was vaguely shocking. Worse, she had a homosexual uncle she liked a lot. In my family such things were never admitted to.
"Mere" and I were both "good at English" and competed for grades and assignments on the Roundup, eventually in our senior year sharing its editorship, one semester each. The competition was real—neither of us ever pulled punches—but it also went along without in the least damaging our affection. I knew what the phrase "friendly rivalry" was all about (from both Stan and Mere) and later when I heard about the famous competition among females I thought what a fine thing it was.
Mere and I shaved our legs, ignoring my mother's admonitions about how we would regret it (we never did), jointly owned (this being a way to stretch our allowances) the largest collection of outsized earrings at North High, shopped for fabrics together, pored over dress designs, and taught each other to alter commercial patterns to our pleasure. Once Mere cleaned out the Baptist library and discovered a book of sex advice for Sunday schoolers. We learned horrific things from this book, and were both eager to assure each other of the truth, that we'd never heard of self-abuse. We figured out what it was. The close of one chapter admonished us to "Remember to take Jesus Christ with you in your sex life," and this became our secret greeting. "Remember...." When, in my junior year, my brother introduced me to his college roommate and friend Bob Pirtle, and Bob and I started dating, Bob introduced me to his brother Dave, I introduced Dave to Marilyn, and we made up a foursome. All the others in this daisy chain are far-flung, but Dave and Marilyn have been married for thirty years.
Through these years I wasn't sure that I wanted to write; both dress design and acting looked more glamorous to me, and although I spent more time in the journalism room, I enjoyed drawing and silk screening, oratory and acting much more. The drama coach suggested that I become a theatre critic, but that seemed dull to me.
By my junior year I felt myself to be in a crisis of indecision over my life's work. I clerked summers and weekends for a dress shop, also designing felt skirts for them which my mother made (sequins one by one on sea horses, hundreds of tiny hand stitches on the surrey with the fringe on top). I was cast as one of the sisters in Uncle Harry (a middle-aged dowager; just what I thought of myself and obviously what everybody else thought of me). But as a senior I failed to be cast as the Shrew for the taming thereof, and had to settle for designing the set—a bitter second best.
The Shrew, however, was to be directed by my English teacher Dee Filson, and I was in love with him. He was tall, graying, horn-rimmed, and intense. His classes left me breathless. It was my first experience of the connection between eroticism and the intellect. Mr. Filson insisted that we think of ourselves as adults. When we discussed family relations we were to "relate" to our potential children rather than our soon-to-be-abandoned parents. One day when one of the students used the word "Communist" in a sneering tone, Mr. Filson said: "Hey, whoa! Would you like to define Communism for us?" (This was still the early fifties.) He then spent the rest of the hour on Marx, comparing ideological communism to the practice of the Soviet government and also to various forms of Western democracy. He concluded, "When you look at it this way, Jesus Christ was the first Communist. And tomorrow . . . one of your mothers is going to call the principal to tell him I said so."
Rapt, I raced home to impart to my Republican parents, who had surely somehow missed all this inspiring information and explication, what Mr. Filson had said. My mother called the principal.
Now Mr. Filson somewhat took the sting out of my failure by deploring the practice of student committee casting, saying that if it was up to him I would have had the part of Kate. I set to designing (with no experience and no training), and came up with an elaborate and barely adequate series of castle rooms for the cumbrous turntable we were using. But for the road to Padua I was inspired, and adorned it with a single tree in the form of a variegated pink cloud impaled on a black prong. Dee Filson later told me that this tree was used, repainted, in North High Players productions for the next ten or fifteen years.
By this time I was involved in public speaking, though I was too self-conscious to be good at impromptu debate, and made the best showing where I could write and memorize my lines. The Knights of Pythias Oratorical Contest (do they still have that?) was just the ticket. The subject: Motoring Courtesy and How to Promote It. My gimmick: pretending to forget my lines and grinning foolishly at the audience to elicit a return grin, thereby proving that friendliness was contagious. Arrgh.
But I won in the city, in the state at Globe (occasion of my first television appearance: I bored my eyes into the screen during evening news, deciding that after all I didn't look that bad), and then went to Nogales for the regional contest. Dee Filson drove, the debate coach, Mr. Harvey, sat up front with him, my mother and I sat in the back; I won, we drove back, and when we arrived home my mother lashed out at me, shocked and shouting, outraged, scandalized, that married Mr. Filson and I had been flirting the whole way.
She was, I now realize, in pain. And she was right. I may then have scoffed at her, but I have since seen a dozen marriages founder on such attraction, and have myself married a student. It is always serious. The erotic bond between teacher and student is a kind of sanctioned incest.
For the opening night of The Taming of the Shrew I designed and made a dress in variegated pinks to match the tree, and Mr. Filson told me that I was beautiful. It seems to have been the first time I'd been told that, and certainly the first time I believed it. The next year when I was a freshman at the University of Arizona Dee came to see me two or three times, took me to lunch and for long walks in the mountains, told me that he was divorcing, and asked me to marry him. I was too terrified even to give it serious consideration. I can't think that there is anyone alive who would mind my recording this, but I don't underestimate the seriousness of the offer, to him or me. Years later I realized the sensitivity and restraint he had shown toward a virginal Methodist adolescent; and the gift he offered, which was the first dim sense that my intellect and my femininity were not each other's enemies.
When Gakie retired from the little bank in Wilcox, Daddy had built him and Gamie a home only a few doors away from ours. Now as I finished high school Gakie was finishing his life. It suddenly occurred to me that I took him very much for granted. Two memories from his dying time stay with me. In one I am sitting on the floor beside the living-room couch watching the first television set to make its way into our lives. Gakie lies on the couch and we are holding hands. I know that what I'm about to say is dangerous because it acknowledges his dying. But the urge is strong, and I have never shied from drama. I say, "I wish I had got to know you better." He squeezes my hand, pats it. He says, "It's all right. It's all right."
Some days later I had a phone call saying that I had won an Elks or Rotary scholarship, and my mother and grandmother did a dance of distress, agitatedly asking each other whether they dared tell Gakie—he'd be so excited it might give him another heart attack! It was perfectly clear they were going to tell him, and eventually they did. I stood across the room from where gaunt white-haired Gakie was propped in bed while Mom bore the dangerous tidings. Gakie listened, grinned at me. He said, calmly, "It's starting, Sissy." My grandfather's name was Dana T. Milner, and he was known as Dana T. Remember that; it comes up later.
My brother had transferred to Stanford School of Journalism in his senior year and was now on his way to being a newspaperman. Stanford was the college generally considered coolest among my peers, and it was really the only one that interested me, but to go there I would have to get a serious Stanford scholarship. Once my grandfather had owned Sunny-slope Mountain north of Phoenix; he'd bought it for $500, but sold it soon after, with a princely profit, for $2,000. Dad's home designs were being used to build 500 tract houses at a time, but because he had no architect's license they belonged to the architect whose stamp they bore, and Dad made nothing from them. Besides, he has confided in me since, he thinks it builds character to put yourself through college.
I didn't get the Stanford scholarship. Wait-listed meant that I would have to go to the University of Arizona at Tucson. I had so wanted, for so long, to leave Arizona. My brother's friend Fred Mendelsohn, who went to Harvard (when asked he would only say "I go to school in the East"—a measure of sophistication that the East imparted), urged me to try to get into Radcliffe or Barnard, but like Dee Filson's proposal, this seemed to me to require a leap into the void.*
Having lived nearly all my life in the same place, with the same people—and for a dozen years with a room of my own—it was hard to share a dorm cubicle with a stranger, a bouncy, horsey, good-natured blond Hawaiian who collected snake skins and mynah bird feathers. It was hard for a night person to make it to a 6:40 class five days a week, to be barked at by a grizzled prof: "Papa va aller à Amiens!" It was hard to face up to how much history had already occurred, and how many names and numbers there were attached to it. At the University of Arizona I was homesick a lot of the time, and ashamed of being homesick because I had made such a production of wanting to leave home.
I "rushed," pledged Kappa Kappa Gamma, got the lead in a play, dated beer-tasting boys on frat excursions to nearby mountains, got ceremonially pinned to a Phi Gam majoring in Range Grasses; and about all of this felt anxiously grateful but slightly askew to my center—something for which it took me many years to find a name: inauthentic.
But there were also moments that prefigured deeper excitement. University of Arizona had a surprising, superior faculty, some of them asthmatics held in the desert for health's sake. In spite of myself I began to care about history (Luther was dethroned from sainthood for me in one brilliant half-hour lecture), and then—science!
One morning I exited from a botany class, my notebook page covered with fresh diagrams of vascular bundles (a term of which I had lived in happy ignorance until that morning), broke a leaf off a magnolia tree, turned it stem-end-up—and saw the organic double of my diagram. It was the first time it had occurred to me that science had anything to do with my world. I performed the only sort of homage I knew how, and hotfooted it after an A in the course. Later, in Raw Silk, I gave Virginia Marbelestier the same sort of rudimentary love of that single science. I gave her the vascular bundles, too.
Mademoiselle magazine, Patrick McCarthy, and Helen McCann got me out of Arizona. I was actively pursuing the Mademoiselle College Board Contest, doing assignments from each month's issue of the magazine, now in writing, now in design, now in merchandising, trying to impress the editors with my nouveau Renaissance quality, hoping to get brought back to New York for the month of June, all expenses paid and salaried.
I was spurred on by my English teacher Pat McCarthy, one of the trapped asthmatics, a Columbia graduate, an energetic teacher for all the breath it cost him; a brilliant good guy. I wrote a piece for him about the excessive thinness of the theatre types, of which he said, "If I didn't know better, I would assume that this were written by a fat person." So far as I know this is the only time anyone ever managed to salve my secret wound while praising my writing. In one of his classes I demanded, "Doesn't it (writing) get easier?" to which he replied, "It doesn't get easier. It gets better." It was also in one of his classes that I disgraced myself over Keats's urn. McCarthy asked, "Why does he say 'O Attic shape'?" and I replied, "Where else would you find a Grecian urn except in an attic?" He thought this witty, but I was too slow, too drearily trained in Methodist honesty, not to admit I'd meant it. I was too dashed to open my mouth for a few weeks after that, and only realized in graduate school that I'd had a couple of genuine perceptions about the urn.
McCarthy urged me to start with Plato and read, read; I'd never heard of Plato. He gave me Catcher in the Rye and I thought it was a test—a dirty book; would I dare tell him it was trash? He urged me to apply to Columbia; I thought he meant Stevens College in Columbia, Missouri (very high prestige among the sorority sisters).
But one day I happened to notice an article in the local paper that a Miss Helen McCann, Registrar of Barnard College, was in the area recruiting from private girls' schools. There were only half-a-dozen hotels in town, so I called them until I found her. She came out to the university and bought me lunch. I have no memory at all of what I said to make her champion my cause at Barnard. But I do remember that she said to me, "It's not easy to be poor in New York, but everything in the city is at the end of a ten-cent subway fare."
I applied for admission and an alumni scholarship at Barnard. I wrote an article on bigotry called "Color Blind" for the Mademoiselle contest. It won the prize for that month's entries, which meant that I was going to New York as a contest winner, which meant that I could be at Barnard for the crucial interview.
New York, June 1959. I didn't know that my arrival was a classic. I followed from the airport, carefully mimicking a trim and confident young beauty with a chic hatbox on which I saw, as she descended from the bus at Grand Central, an Ames, Iowa, address. I stood on the curb there waiting for the cabdriver to come around and open the door for me. When his irritation had passed he recognized a rube, and on the way to the Barbizon told me, Bronx accent, "New Yawk is like a gigantic ice cream sundae. Y'eat it all at once y'get sick to y'stomach. Y'spoon it up a little bit at a time, kid, y'never get enough."
It was the year after Sylvia Plath's spot on the Made-moiselle College Board junket, though of course none of us would so have dated anything then. Twenty college girls—some greener than others and I the greenest; also the only freshman—gathered in a room whose walls were partly mirrored, partly papered in Victorian newspaper clippings full of bustles and parasols. Joan Didion was one of the twenty, so was Gael Greene (of Blue Skies, No Candy), Adri Steckling who now designs under her own label; and Jane Truslow—laid-back, compassionate, the one I felt closest to and would most have liked to know, though our paths only once crossed again. Betsy Talbot Blackwell, with a cigarette holder that seems in my memory to have been a foot long and rhinestone studded, in any case certainly announced, "We believe in pink this year."
I was assigned to advertising, taken out of it to do the editorial, sent to an afternoon or two on an article about Sylvia Plath, who had just won the Mount Holyoke Intercollegiate Poetry Competition ("Guest Editor Makes Good"), taken off of that, photographed in my frizzy curls, sent to fashion shows and cocktail parties and home to the Barbizon Hotel.
One of the perks of the contest was that each of us was to be allowed to interview for the August issue the celebrity of our choice. As a recent convert, I had given as my three choices, "J. D. Salinger, J. D. Salinger, and J. D. Salinger." The editors knew about J.D.'s reclusiveness, and as I was the only one of us who showed a particular interest in the theatre, had decided that I would interview the Swedish actress Viveca Lindfors, then starring in Anastasia on Broadway. I'd never heard of her. The only info I'd been able to find on her in Arizona was in the New Yorker blurb about the play. Mademoiselle required an advance list of questions I was going to ask her so, jaded, I went to the box office, picked up a playbill, and turned the "Who's Who in the Cast" notes into questions.
It happened that mine was to be the first interview. I had not seen Anastasia and my editor had not suggested I do so—probably because an excursion to that play was planned for the College Board the following week.
I was squeamish about the whole business, not less so when I realized that I was to be accompanied by a sinewy little photographer with a fast mouth, and a gum-chewing secretary who would take notes for me and therefore effectively remove my one device for hiding angst. I wore a blue linen suit I had made myself, a little white pique hat with a veil. Miss Lindfors' agent had forgotten to tell her about the interview, and when she nevertheless graciously let us into her cramped dressing room, she was in full furand-wool costume from the matinee, exhausted, sweating furrows in her greasepaint, and monumentally, breathtakingly beautiful. The secretary sat on her dressing table, chewing, swinging a leg. The photographer kept shoving my chair closer to Lindfors, my knees into hers, saying, "Cheat to the camera, baby; cheat to the camera."
Embarrassment, irritation, jadedness, angst—suddenly transformed themselves to a fist around my throat. I could scarcely squeak out my first banal question. I couldn't hear the answer at all. I sweated in the bank of dressing lights. I thought I would vomit, faint. The secretary saw that I had blanked and (chewing gum, swinging leg) prompted, "Janet!" Her panic deepened mine.
"Cheat to the camera, baby."
After perhaps the third question Viveca Lindfors handed me a copy of the playbill and said, "I think you will find all the answers to your questions in here." At perhaps the fourth she turned a dark appraising eye on me and said (with perfect justice), "You don't listen, do you?"
Chew, chew, swing. "Janet?"
"Cheat to the camera, baby."
Now I would not vomit or faint but would die. Nevertheless, somehow, perhaps to assuage her own boredom by saying something interesting, Viveca Lindfors began to talk. I could hear little, remember less, but I remember her saying, "You Americans are all so concerned with happiness. Happiness is not the most important thing. The most important thing is the work." This, no doubt, is the one thing I remember because it was so outrageous an idea. I could hear my mother saying, "All I want is your happiness, honey," which certainly meant that I was falling from virtue somehow and would pay for it, but beyond that certainly assumed (I assumed, Americans assumed, doesn't everybody assume?) that happiness, its pursuit, was the main thing, the summum bonum. At the moment, my personal pursuit was in disarray.
Outside the stage door, the photographer took me by the shoulders and shook me hard—he was so short that he had to reach up to do it. "If the others ask you, it went fine, hear? It went fine!"
The next week, though, things did go better. My editorial was accepted. At the ball on the roof of the St. Regis I met a young poet who kissed me in a hansom cab. I recovered somewhat. Who was Viveca to me or I to Viveca? I wrote her a thank-you note in which I shamelessly played on my own naivete (first trip to New York, first trip backstage, etc.).
But then we went to see Anastasia. Lindfors blew me away. She was dazzling, superb, powerful. When, in the second act, Eugenie Leontovich acknowledged Anastasia as her granddaughter, I experienced for the first time what is meant by a "recognition scene." I began to cry—for Anastasia, but also that I had not been recognized—and I continued off and on through the third act, to the quizzical embarrassment of my peers.
I couldn't let it go. When the show was over I left the others and shouldered my way to the entrance at the side of the stage. A hoarse-voiced, horse-faced woman blocked my passage, but when I blubbered out my story she opened the door a crack and whispered, "I didn't see you, hear?"
Lindfors had her maid and her little boy with her. She sent them away.
"When I got your letter I thought I had been hard on you," she said.
My words tumbled. "I told myself it didn't matter, but I hadn't seen you act. You're a great actress. I couldn't let you think all that of me. It isn't true I want to be an actress. I want to write. They had me say that. I'm sorry . . ." and so forth. I began to cry again, and Viveca Lindfors, statuesque in velvet and fur, began to cry with me! Then we sat and talked, and I could listen, and when I left she said, "You go out and write with all the sincerity you feel now, and you will be a greeeat writer, and I will buy your books!"
Eyes streaming, I sailed from the backstage door and hailed a cab. All the way to the Barbizon I cried while the driver clucked his tongue and suffered for me: "Broadway's tough, kid; Broadway's a heart-breaker."
The young poet asked me out again. His parents invited me to dinner. After a couple of weeks they invited me to vacation with them in the Adirondacks. I got my scholarship to Barnard and gave the pin back to my Arizona aggie.
I had no sense whatever of myself as representative of a historically experimental generation, no sense of myself as having a Hollywood-distorted view of romance and love. I certainly saw myself as engaged in a search for the right man to marry, and assumed that eventually to find such a person was my inalienable right. I had no sense that this particular holy grail required certain tests and qualities in the seeker's self, nor that I was, however virginally, embarking on a life of serial monogamy.
I did know that there was a painful discrepancy between what I felt and what I felt I ought to feel. After the somehow trying glamour of the Adirondack vacation, when my poet had gone off to England in a Fulbright batch with Sylvia Plath, I felt trapped and frightened. I had discovered the Philip Larkin poem that begins:
No, I have never found
The place where I could say:
This is my proper ground,
Here I will stay,
Nor met that special one
Who has an instant claim
On everything I own
Down to my name . . .
In the days before the Barnard dorm opened I lay in a hotel room monotonously reciting it, unable to make myself go out.*
But my three years at Barnard were a watershed. As soon as I arrived I went to Rosalie Colie, the Milton scholar on the Barnard faculty and a friend of my University of Arizona English teacher, told her that I was horrifically uneducated, and asked her to make a reading list for me. She began by assuring me that I overestimated my ignorance, ended by being amazed at it. Barnard students were mainly New Yorkers and it would not have been possible to grow up in New York as innocent of great works as I was. Armed with my list I went to library and bookstore, thence to the Cloisters, where—in suitable setting, I thought—I sat slogging through the Dialogues, then Aristotle, Sophocles, Aeschylus. I signed up for a masterpieces course, and began to get a little direction from S. Palmer Bovie, whose combination of erudition and irreverence helped ease me into my place in the world of books. (Bovie was, is, a fearsome fearless punner: years later when I wrote him from a Florida apartment on Pensacola Street he shot back: Is that the drink that makes you think? Boyle also taught me that the true goal of a pun is not a laugh but a groan.)
I lived with graduate and other transfer students in Johnson Hall, and in those days we walked freely along Morningside Drive and sat in Morningside Park to study. I could take a subway safely back from a party in the Village in the middle of the night. The racking homesickness passed after a few weeks or months, and I found another witty woman for friend in Judy Kaye, with whom I learned the routine and irreplaceable pleasure of the six-hour dorm talk.
I joined the Columbia Players, failed once more to get a part, but since my backward background had netted me the unusual ability to sew, I made myself indispensable by designing costumes. In the Players I made friends with Bruce Moody, who for introduction bit my knee, surely a paradigm of Bohemian behavior. (Once my grandmother came to New York. On the bus downtown to hear Norman Vincent Peale I spotted a bearded man with an earring and a woman in high heels and pedal pushers. "Look, Gamie!" I said. "Bohemians." "Oh, yes," she replied. "Or maybe Serbians.") Bruce also, when I protested that I couldn't go to a theatre party because I didn't drink, came to pick me up carrying a quart of milk and a two-quart brandy snifter.
Early in my first, sophomore, year at Barnard, something happened that had the feeling of portent as it occurred. I was one evening shoulder-deep in the tub in the dank dorm bathroom, spacey with having read a whole volume of Ogden Nash at a sitting, and an idea for a poem occurred to me. I hadn't written a poem for at least four years. "Dear Reader, I have no complaint,/As Long as you peruse my verse,/Concerning what you are or ain't. . ." It was a silly piece of Nashian verse, but my heart was racing in iambs, the rhymes kept leaping up into place, I could see the outline of the whole three-part thing and hung onto it round the edges of my mind while I filled in the center like strokes of a crayon in a coloring book, going back over and back over the lines from the beginning because I didn't have a pencil and didn't dare jar it out of my head by getting out of the now tepid water and going to my room before it was all filled in. Flinging on my robe, I went. I had enough of it memorized to be able to finish the rest, dogged, soggy, slogging. The funny thing about this verse was that, as the point of it was that the reader should not read a whole volume of me at one sitting, it only made sense if I went on to write at least a volume's worth of poems. I was excited in a way that has since become familiar. First cousin to my mother's old Inspiration-capital-I, this is the moment an idea demands to become a thing.
My alumni scholarship paid tuition, room, and board, and my folks were sending me thirty dollars a month for books and spending money. It wasn't going to be enough. I went to the Young Men's Hebrew Association and applied there to be part-time secretary to John Kolodney, who ran the Poetry Center. I lied about having shorthand, but anyway Kolodney interviewed by the original expedient of having me write a letter to Edwin Arlington Robinson inviting him, in spite of his deceased condition, to read at the Center.
Thereafter for two or three afternoons a week, for seventy-five cents an hour, I bused from class to Ninety-second and Lexington, made sketchy notes of Kolodney's dictation, and invented the letters I thought he intended to write. We got along fine.
One of the duties of my job was to make the coffee and the onion dip for the Young Poets' Reading Series, so I got to meet a dozen of these enviable creatures. Once when the recent Lamont winner Donald Hall was scheduled to read, I raced in before onion-dip time to the Doubleday's on Fifth Avenue and demanded a copy of Exiles and Marriages. "Say again?" the slow clerk asked, whereupon a personable young man behind him held up a copy of the book. "It looks like this."
"Where'd you get that?" I said. "Will you sell it?"
"I wish I could, but I'm afraid I have to read from it tonight. I'm Donald Hall.
"And," he added, "I can't tell you how often I've dreamed of walking into a bookstore and hearing a lovely young coed ask for my poetry."
Another of my jobs was the first screening of the Center's new contest, which was to result in publication by Harper and Row. I found this task grim and long; I was not daunted by the bad poetry, but the floor-to-ceiling piles of the mediocre threatened me. It was clear from the most amateur and superficial reading that the best manuscript by far was The Hawk in the Rain by a young Englishman, Ted Hughes—so clear that I was only glancingly pleased that the final judges agreed with me.
Contests and readings were in those days extremely rare, and the Center may have much to answer for. Also relatively rare was the practice of offering writing workshops, which both Barnard and the Center, however, did. I was gluttonous for workshops, and over the three years I spent in New York I sampled nearly a dozen teaching styles, learning something (usually about writing) from each. I studied with George Plimpton, Hortense Calisher, Walker Gibson, Louise Bogan. Marianne Moore was a fellow classmate in one workshop. The worst teacher was W. H. Auden, who, often drunk, always bored, sat reminiscing about the tramontana or reciting Dante in Italian, swinging a loafer on the end of his argyled toe. The best was Rolfe Humphries, who, inventive with exercises in rhyme scheme, vowel length, consonant clusters, and stanza form, ensured that we tune our ears by forbidding us to make sense for the first half of the semester.
In my senior year I took a playwrighting workshop with Howard Teichmann at Barnard, and he helped me to get a production of my play Garden Party, directed by Dolph Sweet, with Barnard women and (out-of-work) professional men. The play featured a God wearing Dacron (modern miracle) and a Satan who turned Eden into a subdivision called Paradise Lots. I described it as "a rewrite of Milton from a woman's point of view," though I had not heard of feminism, and my irritation at Milton's misogyny seemed unconnected to anything in my own life.
The experience of play production was excruciating. The actors would not get the lines right. The second act was crushingly dull. The director had no notion what I was up to. The longer they rehearsed, the more puerile the whole thing seemed. But on opening night I sat listening to lit humans talk words I had written, surrounded in the dark by others who responded, laughed, sighed. There's nothing like it. Fan letters for a novel are remote by comparison, posthumous praise of a creature long dead to me. I thought then, and I think now, that writing for the theatre would suit me best. Unfortunately, my best ideas have come as novels and would not yield their form.
As a result of this play, I got an agent at MCA. I also got a poem in the Atlantic, a summer as a junior assistant at the New Yorker, the Elizabeth Janeway Prize at Barnard, and the Intercollegiate at Mount Holyoke. I also got deflowered, drunk, entangled with a married man, and mononucleosis. I won a Marshall Scholarship to Cambridge, but, exhausted, I wandered into Palmer Bovie's office one afternoon feeling that I didn't feel what I ought to feel, and wailed (I had started reading Henry James), "I'm not sure I want to go to England."
"Life is a question of alternatives," Palmer reasonably pointed out.*
By the time I left New York I could not imagine why anyone would want to live anywhere else. Culture shock hit me again in England. I spent the first year at Cambridge always cold, often irrationally frightened, and sometimes suicidal. This is true even though I was active and excited by the beauty and the intellectual richness around me.
I had first seen Sylvia Plath at a Fulbright reception my first fall in New York. I had worked on an article about her poetry for Mademoiselle, I had later pretended jealousy of her to my poet at Oxford, and he flirted back by mail that her name was really Plass, but she had a lisp; later he'd written that she was engaged to Ted Hughes, whose manuscript I'd read for the Poetry Center. Now I found that I was to live in the same room she'd inhabited at Cambridge, in the Whitstead House annex to Newnham College—a room occupied in the interim by poet Lynne Lawner, and which therefore had a tradition to keep up.
On the Marshall Scholarship application I had been asked why Cambridge was my first choice of British university. I had no real reason. Of course I was going to choose Oxford or Cambridge, and I'd been told that Cambridge was prettier. Besides, the poet had gone to Oxford, and that love affair had not worked out. The only thing approaching an intellectual justification was that I admired David Daiches's literary criticism. I put down that I wanted to study with Daiches, assuming, however, that he would not supervise a student outside his own college. Now I was told that Daiches had agreed to take me on, and I went to his tutorial rooms at Jesus College once a week, at the civilized sherry hour, to study the English Moralists ("From Plato to Sartre" as this course was unofficially known). The following term he taught me the period 1880-1910; after that Tragedy, and the second year the Moralists again; I shared supervisions this time with Margaret Drabble, of whom I was intellectually in awe.
I was and am convinced that the accidental pattern of my studies—the American format, with fifteen class hours a week, constant assignments and frequent exams; followed by the English tradition, a week of constant reading culminating in a paper and a single hour of class—was an ideal way to cure my Arizona academic innocence. The freedom at Cambridge certainly added to my terror, but it also stretched me. I remember that one day Daiches said, "I think Forster this week. Yes, read E. M. Forster."
"What of Forster's?"
"Oh, there isn't much of Forster."
I wasn't one to defy authority. That week I read all of Forster. Another week I read seven novels of Henry James, huddled over a shilling-meter gas fire so close that the fingers outside my book turned red while my thumbs on the inside were still numb with cold.
The lectures at Cambridge, attendance voluntary, ran the gamut from sublime to bathetic, and I attended my share, but it is also true that most of the learning was not done in the classroom. In New York the social unit had been the couple. Men and women were not allowed in each other's rooms, so there had to be somewhere to go and a reason to go there—a "date." At Cambridge the social unit was the group, and there was always a group to join, for morning coffee, afternoon tea, evening wine, Sunday sherry. It was 1959, and the debate raged over C. P. Snow's Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution. Opera, for some reason, was also a hot topic. So was Spain. I felt myself flourish, and then suddenly I would feel myself a fraud, a cowgirl in sheep's wool.
Once more I acted, designed costumes, wrote poetry and fiction for the literary magazine Granta, which was edited by the American triumvirate of Richard Gooder (still at Cambridge), Andre Schiffrin, and Roger Donald (now editors at Pantheon and Little, Brown, respectively). In theatre and writing there was so much talent that I believed the British were inherently superior, never mind their superior school system. I was convinced of this for all the six years until I came back to live in England, by which time it was both news and common knowledge that my particular years at Cambridge were phenomenal for talent. My colleagues in the theatre and literary groups, for instance, were Jonathan Miller, Dudley Moore, Peter Cook, Corin Redgrave, Ian McKellen, Derek Jacobi, Eleanor Bron, Margaret Stimpson, Margaret Drabble, Clive Swift, Bamber Gascoigne, Andrew Sinclair, Simon Gray, A. C. H. Smith, Jonathan Spence.... David Frost was given the editorship of Granta as I was leaving, but was generally recognized as an entrepreneurial, second-rate mind.
For spring vacation that year Andre Schiffrin, Lena de la Iglesia, Roger Donald, and I drove down to La Napoule on the French Mediterranean and rented a yellow stucco house overlooking the sea, eighty dollars for the month. I had begun my first novel in my senior year at Barnard, and had believed I would make it my first priority at Cambridge. But I'd made no headway. Now I threatened to spoil the vacation for myself, sitting in the courtyard in the sun, my typewriter on the paving stones, blocked, hating every word that managed to transfer itself to the page. I remember feeling that, having found writing a solace, I now found it the very cause of the depression it was meant to relieve.
Nevertheless, I managed to write a scene or two of Descend Again. Lena—full name Maria Elena de la Iglesia—one afternoon trilled, "Oh, put my name in your novel!" so I obliged by naming an Arizona Mexican schoolgirl after her. I think it helped me write the scene. Lena was delighted—"Oh, put my name in all your novels!" I have done so, freely translating her into Mary Helen Church, Lena Fromkirk, Ellen Chiesa, and so forth. Lena and I see each other once a year at most, but the private joke is a powerful bond.
That summer Roger, his mother, and I did the American race through Europe—approximately one country, seven cathedrals, and twenty thousand calories a week—too rich for my budget, as was the running-water sort of hotel we chose—so that by the time they left me in Paris and flew for home, I was flat broke. I had not yet learned or decided that the middle class never starves, and I spent a worried week until I was taken on as a temporary secretary by UNICEF's office at Neuilly—which later became the setting of my second novel.
Meantime I had got my European sea legs, and this two months alone in Paris, renting a room from a kind, motherly petit bourgeois woman in the eighteenth arrondissement (so that I was playing house, not touristing) passed in a kind of exalted energy. I contracted the myth that I could write in Paris, and although I now had a full time job, I began to write lunch hours, evenings, and weekends—managing all the same to see plenty of the Seine and the Left Bank. I wrote all but a couple of chapters of Descend Again, and finished those as soon as I returned to Cambridge. When I had a letter from Charles Monteith at Faber and Faber that he would publish it, I literally fell, hard on the left kneecap, on the stone kitchen floor.
I went down to London to meet Monteith in the old Faber offices in Russell Square. In my mind's eye I see myself wearing the same white piqué hat and veil with which I had confronted Viveca Lindfors, but that is hardly possible; it must have less to do with sartorial fact than with the quality of the apprehension. Monteith had told me he wanted to discuss a few changes, and I was convinced he would say, "The male hero doesn't live. Make him live." I knew about that, and knew nothing to do about it.
However, Monteith's suggestions were minimal, practical, and possible. He himself sat monumental in a swivel chair, shining of dome and fob (twenty years later he looked not a day older to me), and said, "Miss Burroway, I don't think either of us is going to make a fortune—or indeed a living—out of this book."
I had been in England for over a year by then, and I neatly translated how positive a remark this was. If he proposed to print a book with which he expected to make no money, it meant he wanted to buy into my future.
Monteith was editor to both Hughes and Plath, and through Faber I finally met them. Anthony Smith at Cambridge had introduced me to the Indian poet Zulfikar Ghose, who was going to publish a slim—emaciated—volume of my poems at the University of Keele; and Zulfi and I went to dinner with the Hugheses at their flat just behind the London Zoo aviary.
Sylvia and I acknowledged how oddly our lives had touched without our having met before. But what I mainly remember of the evening is Sylvia's hassled handling of the few-months-old baby while she cooked. I awkwardly offered to help but she refused; I recognized the anxious inability to discommode a guest. Finally she came out to the living room and handed the baby to Ted, who held the bundle in a simian crook of arm, his body in alien relationship to the swinging bundle as he described how he lay awake at night and listened to the animals in the zoo. That second year in Cambridge I lived with three other women in a little terrace house, mine the attic bedroom with the four-poster bed. I acted less, wrote more, had a gentle romance, and in general a gentler time than the first frenetic year. In the final term I managed to "gear up" for the tripos, had some serious luck in the exam questions (this is not modesty; on the night before I sat the exam for the English Moralists I noticed quite by chance that Plato used "love" as a verb, Paul as a noun. The exam next day asked, "Compare the concept of love in Plato and Paul")—and I sailed back to America with a First in my fist.*
It was through Charles Monteith also that I had met Curtis Canfield, dean of the Yale School of Drama, and now I had the NBC-RCA Fellowship in Play-wrighting—a one-year award, unrenewable, which meant that I had come to the end of Grant Road. Next year I would have to earn my living.
Bruce Moody drove me up to New Haven from New York with the books and sewing machine he had stored for me while I was at Cambridge, and we painted my second attic apartment. Always a nester, I made what was by then the half-dozenth set of curtains and bedspread for a college room.
Yale was a disappointment after Cambridge, a regression from the self-discipline of the tutorial system, and my seventh year of college was my poorest and least (though I think we didn't use the word yet) "motivated." I could not seem to make myself memorize dates and proper nouns for Theatre History. John Gassner, who taught the playwrighting course, was a brilliant critic, a vast repository of knowledge about American realism, and a warm, sweet person; but he'd been left behind by the Absurd and had no way of dealing with the plays his most interesting students were writing then. I was trying to be "experimental" myself, and was very bad at it, and Gassner could not help me.
So it was not a profitable year for me as a writer. What unexpectedly opened up was the world of costume design. It was the rule at the drama school that everyone must take a turn at every aspect of production. I was a seamstress (I had been given a naked doll at five, and a hank of calico; by high school I made all my clothes) and an experienced amateur costume designer, so I was more useful than Frank Bevans's crews expected of a playwright.
They put me to work, got me excused from stage shifting and prop crews, gave me the most intricate pleating and pintucking to oversee, taught me to make wigs, strand by strand of polyester glued on buckram head forms. By the end of the year I had barely passed four courses and had written a consummately mediocre play, but I knew how to run a costume room from sketch to strike. As with Mr. Allsworth's prosody, I loved the learning and never supposed it was a possible profession.
But the profession of wife had meanwhile presented itself as an alternative to going back to New York next year as a secretary. John Gassner's assistant was Walter Eysselinck, a Fulbright scholar from Belgium, a director as well as a playwright, a graduate in Germanic philology from the University of Ghent (native language Flemish but equally at home in French and English), a wine connoisseur, and gourmet cook.
I think we were ready to marry—he on the verge of his Ph.D. and I facing the employment void. I also think we had so many genuine interests in common that it masked the fact we differed in some basic values. My friend Julia Kling years later observed that Walter and I would have made a fine arranged marriage—if only we hadn't had to believe we were in love. I remember asking Walter one day in New Haven if he was "glad" that I was American. What I meant was that I was glad he was European; it seemed to expand my own scope (Prestige by Association). Walter, no doubt understanding exactly what I meant, angrily said, "Not at all!" However, he was glad I was American.
It was a nervous business, telling my parents I was marrying a foreigner, but made easier by the accident of his name. There were Walters all up and down the ranks of the cousins Pierce. If I had been marrying his brother Hans, it would have seemed more foreign altogether.
More serious was the issue of my parents' fanatical anti-tobacco/alcohol stance. I had been smoking and drinking for five years, but I now thought that if I didn't say so, my parents would later blame these mortal sins on my new husband. I think this was a sound impulse, but my mother accused me (not, to my shame, altogether inaccurately) of wanting champagne at my wedding rather than her—and she and dad decided not to come. On the eve of my wedding day I received from my father a forty-eight-page closely handwritten letter on the evils of smoke and drink, connecting these two habits to every known sin from uncleanliness to prostitution. I felt immensely righteous on the receipt of this letter (the second I had ever received from him)—and worldly, and sorry for my father that he was such a hick. I don't know why I carried the letter around the world for twenty years after that, unearthing it in my mid-forties to discover that it was full of sense, and love, and impeccable advice.
Walter and I were married by William Sloane Coffin at the Yale chapel. I was "given away" by John Gassner, our reception was held at the Canfields' home, and in a car borrowed from a generous former boyfriend (and in which, God help me, I taught Walter to drive on our honeymoon) we traveled to Vermont where we spent a week not alone but in the excellent company of Walter's Bennington friends the Gils and the Mamises.
The following summer we bought a two-year-old Dodge, all chrome and fins, and took off on a 9,000-mile camping trip. We had a flawless attitude toward camping. We carried no tent, only blankets and blowup mattresses. If it rained we had to go to a motel. With a shower and a mattress-night's sleep, by this expedient, every three or four days, we made our way across the Northern states, down the West Coast, and back across the South, visiting my relatives all along the way. My parents turned out to like Walter a lot, though my father did warn me that it would be "hard to live with a European" in ways that I "didn't yet understand." Again I pitied his provinciality.
We spent three weeks in New Orleans recording and photographing Walter's octogenarian jazz musician friends and holding the kitty at Preservation Hall; then we headed north to New York and Walter's first job on the theatre faculty of Harpur College, SUNY Binghamton.
We spent two years in Binghamton, one in the third-floor apartment of a molding clapboard house (Salvation Army furniture and Sears pots), the second in a plastic and polyester dorm apartment as counselors. I began to learn something about the petty politics of university life. Nesting in earnest now, I also began to learn how easy it was, without any academic pressure or expectation, to dawdle through the day's minimal housework and fail to make it to my typewriter at all.
I took a job in the continuing education department at Harpur, teaching the masterpieces course to secretaries and tool and die workers from Ansco, IBM, and Endicott shoes. I liked the students and the classroom, but I hardly felt I had a career; it had always been clear to me that I didn't want to teach.
I also costumed for Walter, mounting one show in which two assistants and I produced fifty-six costumes and twenty-three wigs. I had immediate pleasure of any day spent in the costume room, but paid for it in guilt that my second novel was not progressing.
Toward the end of the first year Walter was warned that he would be deported under Public Law 555, which decreed that Fulbright scholars could not trade their student visas for resident status until they had spent two years in their country of origin. Under this particular statute his marriage to an American made no difference, and in fact the customs officials several times tried to trick him into saying he had married me for citizenship. The law made a general kind of sense, since Fulbrights were often given to law and medical students from third world countries. But Flanders was not hurting for another playwright/director.
My mother, who had only reluctantly transferred her Republican loyalties from Taft, now wrote Barry Goldwater in the U.S. Senate, and Goldwater introduced a bill "For the Relief of Walter Eysselinck." This bill had not a hope of passing, and the deportation orders continued to arrive every month, but as long as the bill was pending, the orders did not have to be obeyed.
We moved into the dorm to save money, and I went to work for Young Audiences, Inc., a non-profit organization that provided chamber-music ensembles to rural schools throughout the state. I was hired for this job by Sue Winston, a woman with a silver upsweep and a golden soul. When I explained (that Arizona honesty) the tenuousness of our situation, Sue pulled her glasses down on her nose and peered over them. "My dear. Do you really think you can go through life beholden to Barry Goldwater?"
Probably not, and after half a year of it, it became obvious that we didn't want to go through life under deportation orders either. Walter began applying for Belgian jobs. In the late spring he was hired as a director by the Flemish division of Belgian National Television. I was two months pregnant when we left for Ghent.*
If the lack of academic structure had been bad for my writing, depriving me of the English language was good for it. Walter and I spoke English at home on Vaderlaanstrasse, and friends, relatives, and waiters were always anxious to practice their English on me, but the topics were pretty well confined to food, tourism, and my Expectation. I became fluent in French on these three topics with my mother-in-law, and I began a rudimentary Flemish vocabulary with the shopkeepers and wives. But the theatrical conversations that interested me were in fast Flemish, and exclusively conducted by males. I had no one with whom to talk literature. The bookstores stocked almost no English fiction. The local library had all of Hemingway, Faulkner, and Jane Austen; I read or reread those. And I wrote. In the two years we spent in Belgium I finished my second novel and wrote the third.
We lived in the striking grey stone bas haus that Walter's architect father had designed in the thirties. Under the contrasting tutelage of Walter (more butter, more spice!) and his mother (more subtle, more vitamins!) I got to be a pretty fair gourmet cook, although a first pregnancy is not the best time to acquire this skill.
On the other hand, Ghent was a wonderful place to have a baby. "Natural" childbirth was in full vogue, and I took a tram weekly to classes in "kinesthetic training," monthly to an extraordinary clinic staffed by nuns and lorded over by a mammoth doctor who had no "second," never took a vacation, never got sick, delivered two or three dozen babies a week with hands each as big as a newborn. When Timothy Alan was born I was attended by this doctor, my familiar kinesthetician, my husband, and several nuns; and Tim was brought to me in a white lawn smock I had designed and made—fifteen minutes old in a button-down collar. I shared a semiprivate with a young woman who translated my Flemish into gutteral Ghentenaar for her mother, and with a parade of visitors to both of us, bearing azaleas and candied violets, whom the nuns offered beer and champagne.
Adjustments, I may have mentioned, come hard for me. For the first few months after Tim's birth I fought postpartum depression. Tethered to a hawk's cry by a small metal ring in the pit of my gut, I walked my diminished round. I had pushed myself hard to finish The Dancer from the Dance before Tim was born, and Faber was to publish it, but Descend Again had never found an American publisher, and now my New York agent Phyllis Jackson reported little success with this one. By the time Tim was five months old it became alarmingly apparent that he was going to walk early. I felt that I had lost any identity outside of "Tim's mom," and that if I didn't write a novel before he walked, I would never write another. I had an outline for a tight twenty-four-hour story, so I set a schedule and went at it, piling the desk with playpen toys that I handed down one after the other through the morning. Eyes was finished in five months, and accepted together with Dancer by Al Hart at Little, Brown.
Meanwhile Walter and I had left Tim behind with "Gramma Belgium" for a short Irish vacation, and on the way had visited my old tutor David Daiches in his new job as director of the School of English and American Studies at the University of Sussex. Daiches had banteringly offered me a teaching job, which I refused on the grounds that I had a husband. "Well," he said, "we're looking for a director for the arts centre . . ."
Whenever I am introduced in a lecture hall by someone reading through my curriculum vita, I have the impulse to point out that, as I die by drowning, this is not the life that will pass before my eyes. At fifty, I find that I am mainly interested in my childhood and, of adulthood, what's going to happen in the next year or so. I'm also conscious that many authors have written their autobiographies only up to the point that they began to write other books: A Childhood: One Writer's Begmnings. Childhood contains all our mystery; adulthood only secrets.
As I lived the events of 1965 to 1971 in England, life's changes seemed most marked by the acquisition of a house, the birth of a second son, the loss of a third baby, domestic violence, the decision to leave the marriage. Work was what happened every day. If I was lucky some of the work was at the typewriter. I had come firmly to identify myself by the activity of writing, but a mother/teacher/writer inevitably deals with the claims of those professions in that order: the baby's cry/the class preparation/the chapter.
Nevertheless, as I look back on it, it was the commitment to writing that steadily deepened and changed its nature in those years. My first novel had come out in England to the kind of clattering acclaim that makes promises to the writer it dubs promising. The Dancer from the Dance had a cool reception, Eyes was praised but without any exclamation points attached. In America, both of these novels fell into the critical void. When Walter produced two of my short plays, The Fantasy Level and The Beauty Operators, for the Brighton Festival, one London paper treated me to the experience of rapier attack.
I had always known that I did not write for money—that was easy. Now between the publication of my first novel and my fourth, a total of ten years, I came to understand that, my childhood lessons notwithstanding, I did not write for praise. Writing is very hard for me, I'm very slow, and a lot of the time I simply hate doing it. Nevertheless that labor and the love of that labor are who I am. The work is the reward.
The Gardner Centre for the Arts was lavishly conceived and, in the years we were there, ambitiously pursued. Walter oversaw the construction of a theatre designed by Sean Kenny, cleverly transformable from an intimate round to a full proscenium, with several sorts of stage between. The building also had artists' studios, a scene shop, and a costume room.
It seems very odd to me now that I organized this room, equipped it, found crews, and designed the first couple of shows, without its ever occurring to me that this was the sort of work one should get paid for. I did not think of myself as a professional costumer, and it would be true to say that at the time I costumed mainly in the capacity of the director's wife. Later I got a small fee for shows at the Gardner, of which I costumed eight or ten, and also at the National Theatre of Belgium, where Walter continued to direct from time to time.
There are advantages to not being a professional, though. I always felt detached from the work, which meant that I could take an easy and immediate pleasure in it. I would be incapable of saying, "Isn't my new novel wonderful?" But I could perfectly well rush backstage with an armful of brocade or patched leather and demand, "Isn't this terrific? Didn't this turn out great? Look at this!"
I spent long hours in the costume room at the Gardner Centre, including many long nights, and some of my well-wishers deplored the loss of my writing time. But, unlike teaching, costuming exercises mainly the hand and eye, which is both a relief from the typewriter and an important teacher of sense detail. The costume crew offered me the richest camaraderie of my life, too—a relief from the solitude of writing. And then, one never knows where a novel is going to come from. Most of the plot and setting, and all of the professional detail, of my most recent novel, Opening Nights, came out of the hacking, tacking, binding, blind-hemming, and breaking-down of those days in the Gardner Centre basement.
The first year Walter, Tim, and I lived in a drearily modern rented bungalow, but the second year, with immense trepidation, we borrowed twelve thousand pounds for a brick box surrounded with two acres of garden under the Sussex Downs at Westmeston near Ditchling. This house was called "Green Hedges," which seemed both boring and untrue (in winter the hedges were brown, in spring leaf red), and for Walter's love of jazz we renamed it "Louisiana," which made us very unpopular with the neighbors.
We could not see the neighbors, however: roses, daffodils, orchards, and vegetable beds surrounded us; sheep fields and downs stretched to the horizon on every side. The house had been built in 1939 for the farm bailiff of the local manor. It had an entrance hall eighteen feet square with a manorial fireplace and a skylight thirty feet overhead. It had a living room twenty by thirty, a scullery, butler's pantry, wine cupboard, "box room" (I never did find out what that was; I kept boxes in it)—as well as seven bedrooms of which two comprised the "staff flat." The house had been lived in since the Second World War by two aging women who had retreated to one downstairs corner of it. Nothing had been painted in that time. The spiders and mice had flourished. There were a hundred and eight broken window panes. I was seven months pregnant when we moved in.
If Belgium was a good place to have a first baby, Sussex was a magical place to have a second. The British assumption is that, after a normal first pregnancy, the second child will be born at home. I was therefore scheduled on the regular rounds of the district midwife, who instructed me in filling biscuit tins with cotton wool and baking them at rice pudding temperature, and so forth. She was, however, appalled at the condition of the house, which had one temporary electrical source and no heat, and suggested that I might want after all to consider hospital. I argued her down, feeling more like a pioneer than I ever had in Arizona.
I picked the smallest bedroom, gave it yellow eyelet curtains and a two-bar electric fire, and my second boy was born in a storm on Guy Fawkes Day with the celebratory fireworks bursting over Lewes six miles to our east. The midwife cheered me on, Walter mopped my brow with cologne; five minutes before the birth our four-month Irish setter Eh La-Bas wandered in and jumped on the bed.
"On the whole," said staid Dr. Rutherford, "I don't think we want that dog in here." He ushered the puppy out and washed his hands again. The midwife said, "Just pick a spot on the picture rail, aim the head for that, and push." Dr. Rutherford positioned his hands to receive the baby that I, of my labor alone, joyfully delivered. (Like the vascular bundles, I later gave this experience in slightly altered form to Virginia Marbalestier of Raw Silk.)
But I had expected a girl. "Ah," I gasped. "We'll have to have another," to which Dr. Rutherford replied that he couldn't recall ever hearing the suggestion quite so soon before.
For two days this creature of the unexpected gender had no name. I am by profession a namer of things, and this was very painful for me. When Tim was born, I had tried to sell Walter on the idea of "Dana" as a name, after my grandfather, for either a girl or a boy, either first or middle. He would have none of it. Now I tried again to convince him, but Walter simply didn't care for the sound. Finally we agreed that we both liked "Toby," but not "Tobias." The Oxford Etymological Dictionary of Names yielded "Tobyn," and we concurred in the choice of Tobyn Alexander Eysselinck.
I telegraphed my parents in relief that the decision had been made. A week later I had a letter from my mother. How odd, she said. Did I remember that Gakie was always called Dana T.? The T. stood for Tobin, which was his mother's maiden name. But he had always hated the Tobins, and had pretended that it stood for Timothy.
I have slim patience for astrology and related pseudosciences. But I do believe that much of what we call ESP is simply memory and intuition imperfectly understood, and that telepathy probably has less in common with magic than with radio waves. The naming of my sons is one of half-a-dozen striking instances in my life of my having made a connection I am not quite willing to attribute to coincidence. Or, as I put it in the mouth of Galcher in The Buzzards, the novel I was then about to write, "coincidence comes from God."*
While Toby and the Gardner Centre were being born, I started teaching at Sussex, sometimes full-time, sometimes half. Even half-time teaching allowed me to hire a nanny, to repaint a few walls, and replace a few window panes. Earning my own nanny was important to me—I knew that it was necessary for me to "waste" innumerable hours at the typewriter, and that I could not be beholden to Walter for the time that, as W. H. Auden observed, you don't know "whether you are procrastinating or must wait for it to come." I also wanted to teach for the experience itself, and for the comradeship of the faculty. I taught the basic courses on a modified tutorial system—usually two students at a time, occasionally small seminars—and, as at Harpur College, I enjoyed both the students and the sense that the dormant actress in me was getting exercised. But I cared less about it than about house, boys, theatre. Until I came to Tallahassee, teaching presented itself to me as a job, not a metier.
Occasionally I gave a university-wide lecture, and these always filled me with the terror of the early elocution student, so that I prepared heavily and long for them. The very first of these lectures was to be on Aeschylus' Oresteia, which had been a work of signal importance to me since the days of Palmer Bovie's great-books course.
We had begun the refurbishing of our ramshackle house with the "staff flat"—in order to rent it, in order to pay the gardener; and our first tenants were two male American graduate students. One of these—I'll call him R.—had until a few months before been engaged to Valerie Percy, daughter of the senator from Illinois. It was not long after he moved into our house that Valerie Percy was stabbed in her bed in a house full of sleeping family members. R. went home to the funeral.
When he returned he needed to talk, frequently and often late into the night. He was particularly haunted by the realization that now, at Sussex, he was popular because of the murder. His connection to celebrity-tragedy meant he could date any girl he wanted. He had not much liked Senator Percy, but he now identified grimly with the sense that Percy, who was up for reelection and would certainly win, would never know whether his victory resulted from the murder of his daughter.
So there I was, in the evening solacing this troubled student, in the daytime writing a lecture about a king who must have his daughter killed in order to make war on Troy. The plot fell on me: an American politician who must risk his daughter for his career. I had never seen myself writing a political novel, and I was afraid of the size of it; but Goldwater had run for the presidency by then, and at the distance of four thousand miles from Arizona I had often felt that the people I grew up with were peculiar aliens. This plot was one I needed to explore, in order to make some connections between the cowgirl and the lady of the English manor.
For more than a year, though, I costumed, mothered, and taught, only daydreaming this book as I drove over the downs each day to the university.
My American editor at Little, Brown helped me by sending me dozens of press handouts of speeches from Percy, Goldwater, Rockefeller, and Robert Kennedy, until I got the feel of the rhetoric. I was determined that, although there was a reference to the Oresteia on virtually every page, the story would be coherent to someone who had never heard of any Greek but Spiro Agnew. (I succeeded all too well, and no one—agent, editor, critic, scholar—has noticed my arduous theft until I point it out.)
The Buzzards came out in 1970 in both London and Boston, and although it was nominated for a Pulitzer in America, its real success was in England. I think I had been away from home for long enough that the perspective I had of America was detached. I don't mean by this that it was untrue; on the contrary. My journalist brother, when he first read the novel, responded that I didn't realize how dirty American politics were. When he read it again ten years later, he told me that I had "invented Jimmy Carter."
Meanwhile, the rapier attack notwithstanding, The Beauty Operators had been produced by Thames Television, and I had written a television play (which ended up with the dreadful title of Hoddinott Veiling) that was taken to the Monte Carlo Festival as British Independent Television's entry.
I could now make, if not a living, at least my nanny's living writing television plays, and I quit the university. I had also written a children's book, The Truck on the Track, and after a long search for an illustrator I more or less literally stumbled (he and I being stumblers both, of the amiable sort) into John Vernon Lord. John's painstaking detail and sharp colors reflected two of my own work methods (his wife describes it as "knitting"), and his vivid pictures helped sell the book to Jonathan Cape, afterwards to Bobbs-Merrill. In the last year in England I set John Vernon Lord's story The Giant Jam Sandwich into verse. After the publication of The Buzzards, I reviewed fiction regularly for New Statesman magazine. Once a month a stack of thirty books would arrive; I'd skim them, read eight or ten, pick four or five to review. I could get in bed at nine at night, curl up with a novel and call it work—my kind of job!—except that it was no living wage either.
The vogue in my early-mothering years was for natural childbirth and permissiveness. In the same period in my mother's life it had been for a germfree environment—with the consequence that I hadn't had the usual complement of childhood diseases. During the costuming of A Doll's House at the Gardner Centre I got the mumps. I remember sitting in bed miserably hemming a skirt with fourteen yards of ruffle, wondering why I had ever put so much energy into such an endeavor. Now, when Toby was about a year-and-a-half old, I lost a third pregnancy to rubella.
The Gardner also hit rough times. A British recession strapped the university for funds, and the arts appeared among the expendable expenses. Walter ran afoul of the students, who resented the Centre's professional orientation. The fine English actor Patrick Wymark, then dying of alcoholism although we didn't know it, failed to learn his lines and put the audience through an excruciating opening night. He fully redeemed himself by his performance the following season in Eduardo Manet's Nuns (and by bringing into my life his friend Bernie Hopkins, who later sustained me and the children through difficult months)—but that production, the happiest I ever took part in, was a harbinger of disaster for all its participants. Wymark and the theatre designer died of heart attacks, another actor hanged himself, a third was institutionalized for a breakdown, the set designer died of leukemia—all within a year.
Walter and I separated. One way of describing this is that I started to write a comic novel about a couple impossibly at odds; and as I wrote, it became less funny.
The novel began as Warp, was eventually published as Raw Silk. I had chosen the textile industry as background because I figured that I knew enough about cloth to have a head start on the research. I had no intention of writing an academic novel, and in any case it is my practice to write from autobiographical feelings, housing them in fictional characters and events. (In the case of Raw Silk this turned out to be no favor to Walter; readers accurately picked up on the feelings and inaccurately assigned Oliver Marbalestier's rape and assault to him.)
I had by that time noticed that several themes, unchosen, had chosen me; each of my novels contained a parent in some way abandoning his or her children (a thing I could never do), a suicide or attempted suicide, and a strong older man/younger woman relationship. I resolved this time to choose the unchosen, and to face these themes head on. "This morning I abandoned my only child . . ." the book began.
There was another thing that I wanted very much to accomplish. Richmond Lattimore, in his introduction to the Oresteia, had opened up for me the secret of Aeschylus' use of interconnected image patterns. In The Buzzards, which drew heavily on the Oresteia, I had taught myself how to do this by building on the same symbol complex—the net, the web, wild birds and animals, their eggs and young, etc.—that Aeschylus had used. In the new book I wanted to create a complex of original symbols, "interweaving" images of cloth, water, travel, plant life, and balance.
The research for the novel took me into East Anglia, to textile mills in country I hadn't seen since I was a student at Cambridge; and then to Japan, the first time I had been on my own since before my marriage. Japan would not have been my choice of a new country to explore—the novel plot dictated it—so the intensity of my pleasure took me by surprise. I was humbled by my illiteracy and proud of nevertheless being able to manoeuver, from Tokyo to Nikko, Takayama, Osaka. I felt clarified by the clarity of Japanese sounds and colors, calmed by the patterns of gardens, temples, paintings, cloth. And, surprised by how much at home I felt, I was also startled at how much I loved being alone.
Years before in Binghamton, Walter and I had made friends with Blair and Julia Kling, and it had turned out to be a friendship that could survive transatlantic separation. We had all met again in Ghent, London, Sussex—and Julia and I discovered that we could take up a conversation mid-sentence after a three-year hiatus. Blair taught history at the University of Illinois, and Julia had in the interim become a family counselor there.
In December of 1971 I brought the children and returned to America. Tim was then eight, Toby five. Though I left England in manic spirits, high on freedom, it must in some dim corner of my brain have been clear to me that I was going to need my best friend and a family counselor, and so we went to Illinois.
First, though, I took the children home to Phoenix for Christmas, arriving with mystical appropriateness four hours after the death of my grandmother, so that I was able to arrange the funeral while my mother took care of the boys. Mom had for years now been subject to heart failure, and lived with an oxygen tank beside the bed while Dad cared for her and learned to give her the life-saving mercury shots. It is another of the coincidences I cannot explain, that while I arranged for the burial of her mother, and was myself unknowingly on the verge of miscarriage, I was able to offer Mom the happy distraction of Tim and Toby, their suitcase of Christmas presents to wrap. She was not, however, fooled by my blow-softening version of our surprise visit. "You've left him, haven't you?"
The next eight months in Illinois were traumatic in every way that I have since come to understand as normal, but which felt at the time as if I had invented some entirely new form and depth of pain. Luckily, I was totally ignorant of the sad state of American academic budgets, and I presented myself so persistently to the University of Illinois that they actually found me a job.
I was to teach freshman composition in a Special Opportunities Education program to students from "disadvantaged Chicago high schools." The pay was barely livable, but we got a bargain in a beautiful rental on a lake, and for as long as my freedom-high lasted, it seemed to me the best possible way to come home to America.
When classes began, I learned that the black students did not want to be taught white literature and did not want to be taught black literature by me. The two Chicanos wanted Lorca. The militants were articulate, quick, and ashamed of being at the University of Illinois at all; the moderates were cowed and quiet. Many of the students wrote well, a couple of them brilliantly, in a hip style it was my duty to destroy in order that they could produce term papers for history. They knew all this. I walked into the situation believing I would teach them Yeats. I am not sure to this day what was learned on either side.
My own emotional state so deteriorated that I could no longer write—or even cook and sew. In paralytic lassitude I tried to choose a pattern or operate a pair of scissors. I had a hundred and fifty pages of the novel done, but the only thing I could write was a journal that seemed to me to say nothing but "Help! Help!" (Actually it's not so bad, and has taught me how much of competence operates on automatic pilot, how much we misperceive our own performance or effect.) I relied heavily on Julia, both of us aware that the imbalance in this new relationship threatened our friendship. And I relied heavily on Gail Godwin, who was teaching at Illinois that year on leave from Iowa, and who lent me her house and her tough understanding when I needed them.
I knew I had to have a real job. The only appropriate opening in the graduate office listings was an associate professorship in creative writing at Florida State University in Tallahassee. I didn't know much about my future at that point, but I knew for sure I wasn't going to Florida.
I had bought a rattletrap station wagon. In the spring break I loaded Tim, Toby, and three students who would pay the gas, and went back to New York to seek help from the Barnard employment office. Tim had chicken pox on the way to New York (Toby on the way back). We ran out of gas in the middle of the night in the middle of Pennsylvania. When I left England, I had left everything of my own behind except one suitcase of my favorite clothes and jewelry. We'd been in New York a half hour or so when the car was broken into and this suitcase stolen. I went to Barnard in the jeans and sweater that were now the only clothes I owned. I felt as if, having left most of myself behind by choice in Sussex, the rest had been snatched away. There was no job to be had, and there was no me.
I did not see how I could live in northern Florida, a regression and in any case a contradiction in terms; and after I'd got the job I could see it even less. I told Julia that I was failing to cope with the children and would have to give them up to their father, but she was no help. She said, "Did they have breakfast this morning? Did they catch the school bus? Did they have lunch money? You're coping." I told a colleague in Illinois that I was going to have to commit myself, but he was no help. He said, "How many hours a day do you think there are in a mental institution?" I decided that I would give up and go back to the marriage, but I thought that perhaps it would be better to try teaching at Florida State first, to prove that I couldn't do it; otherwise I might always wonder if I could have.
I have elsewhere written of my arrival in Tallahassee, my conviction that it was a possible place to die but not to live, my abortive search for an apartment with a gas stove, my slow reemergence as a functional self. Though I have now been here fifteen years, longer than any other place except the place where I was raised, the Tallahassee episode is ongoing, and seems to have been brief, and I can't clearly tell which are its most significant passages.
In my first year here, my mother died in Arizona. For two years I made no progress on Raw Silk. I had conceived it as a comedy; now it seemed both tragic and melodramatic. When I was able to see it as both funny and painful, I wrote again.
But I wrote looking out onto an asphalt parking lot. At best, Tallahassee seemed no better than a stopgap, and the stages of my reconciliation came slowly one by one.
First I discovered it was a wonderful place for raising children. Mine, having had earaches and adenoidal infections from October to March in England, now lived all year outdoors and never got sick. Then it dawned on me that Florida State was an extraordinarily congenial place to work, my colleagues supportive and disinclined to politicking, my students as badly educated, and as eager, as I had been at their age. For the first few years I felt trapped in a corner of America ("You can get to hell from here, but you have to change in Atlanta"), but after the publication of Raw Silk I began to be asked to speak in places far and near, large and small, by people who sent me tickets to get there. I got a dog and bought a house, and then a bigger dog, and a bigger house.
I taught narrative techniques until I figured out how to do it, and then wrote a textbook, Writing Fiction. The British production of The Nuns continued to haunt me until I found a way to wrench it around into a plot, and wrote Opening Nights. I began to think about my mother's childhood in the marble quarry, and am at work on a first historical novel, Cutting Stone.
For four years from 1978 I was married to Bill Humphries, a.k.a. Lazlo Freen or, to his friends, The Freen; a painter, a gentle person, a former student of mine, eighteen years my junior. I have also told that story elsewhere, and will tell it again. Though the marriage ended, I came out of it warmly in favor of the older-woman—younger-man liaison; Freen and I came out of it the best of friends. This is a phenomenon I would not believe if I hadn't lived it, so I'll leave it to later fiction to try to be convincing.
My boys have grown up here, so different from each other that it seems impossible they were raised under the same effort of Spock and spaghetti. Tim is twenty-three, Episcopalian, Republican, polite, a sharp dresser, a gourmet, and a second lieutenant in the U.S. Army. Toby is twenty, a radical feminist, a left-wing anarchist, and an actor, busking around Piccadilly Circus in a mohawk and shredded jeans.
But he no longer goes by that name. Like his great-grandfather before him he rejected the Tobyn. He was eight, straight-haired and stocky, inclined to suffer in the shadow of his older brother, and to believe that anyone who praised his blue eyes meant that he was fat. He came to me and said, "Toby is a round name, isn't it?"
"Why yes," I said. "That's very clever."
"Tim is a straight-up-and-down name."
A couple of days later he announced that he had taken his middle name, and every time I got it wrong for the next two years—every time—he said, "My name is Alex."
We have traveled, together and separately, the boys to Belgium, Pittsburgh, Bavaria; I to France, Italy, India; and all of us to England, where Alex at seventeen made good his promise to take up residence. Florida State University has a London program on which I teach from time to time, so that I have been able to put back into my life the friends I left behind in Cambridge and Sussex in the total of ten years there.
Of the dozens of stories about people under the illusion that they are short-term sojourners (Magic Mountain comes to mind, and It's A Wonderful Life), my favorite is about the boy Krishna traveling with the godhead. He leaves his companion resting under a tree while he crosses the field to fetch the god a ladle of water from the farmhouse on the opposite side. The ladle is brought by a young woman with waterblue eyes that remind him of the eyes of the god. He forgets why he came. He marries the woman with the water-blue eyes, brings the farm to fruit, nurtures the animals, and fathers many children. When the woman dies he is an old man. He remembers his errand, fills the ladle, and carries it across the field. The god sits under the tree. He drinks. "Thank you," he says.
Ten years ago I moved, smack in the middle of the capital city of Florida, into a patently English house. It is white brick with forest green shutters, climbing ivy, a picket fence. The only thing that I added to the garden at Sussex was a magnolia tree; here my acre wears magnolias as its natural right; I have added the roses and the daffodils.
Spring and fall I often borrow a cottage on the beach at Alligator Point an hour away. I take a typewriter and my dogs Shirley and Pushkin. I sit and write looking out over the dunes, the sea oats, and the sand, to the Gulf of Mexico. The water doesn't jump or tumble here; it is not a competition. I am at peace, of a piece with the sand, grass, sea. I have never found the place where I could say: This is my proper ground. But I can look out at the waterblue gulf and up through the fronds of a palm tree at the searing sky, and it reminds me quite a lot of having a home.
Autobiographical notes after 1986:
In retrospect, the eighties seem a narrowing and thinning time. Tim left home for college, first for a year with his father at the University of Michigan, then transferring to the University of Florida at Gainesville. My second marriage ended in 1981, and when Alex and I spent a semester on the FSU London program in 1983, he stayed behind to finish first school and then college (and has been in London ever since). That same year I gave up drinking and two years later, with more difficulty, smoking; alcohol had been an abusive lover, nicotine a false friend.
In May of 1986 my father was diagnosed with lymphoma, and the chemo proved too brutal for his heart. It was clear that our stepmother, Gladys, was by that time in the early stages of Alzheimers and could not take adequate care of him; my brother and I flew to Arizona at least monthly, he from California and I from Florida, for the next seven months. It's worth remarking that when Dad and Gladys had visited us in Tallahassee for what proved to be his last Christmas, I had urged him to write an autobiography, and he (thorough, intense, and dogged, as always), had complied on the sort of yellow legal pad familiar from my childhood. He sent his memoir to Tallahassee in chapters that I typed on the computer and returned; he proofed them and sent them back to me for correction—so that by the time I sat with him in hospice in Sun City, I was able to read him his life from a bound copy of his "book."
If this wearing and grieving period had a positive side, it was that my brother and I discovered we could be generous, supportive friends. At one point Stan called, touched to find how thoroughly Dad had arranged his insurance so that we would not be burdened with his last bills. "What he's leaving us," he said, "is Gladys," and we solemnly vowed that, she being childless and without relatives, we would also share her care (she lived another ten years). In October Aunt Jessie, Dad's sister, came to spend the last few weeks in hospice with him. Dad died in November; Stan and I acknowledged the fearful strangeness of being orphans.
In many ways I welcomed living alone, though I had a feeling that the children's portion of the house lacked ballast and might lift off suddenly one night. From time to time unhappily married women I met at conferences or reading gigs wistfully told me how lucky a life I had. When I went to Alligator Point to write, what I felt was not freedom so much as pleasurable awe, born of solitude at the edge of the ocean. I was conscious of being unable to imagine ever again sharing my space and time with someone else. Loneliness, however, came and went. Involuntarily and inveterately verbal as I am, sometimes the best experiences seemed incomplete without a shared critique. I spent a delightful six weeks at Yaddo in the "little-season" with like-minded artists, and then a significantly less delightful summer session full of brat packers and agent-talk. The novel Cutting Stone ground along slowly at the center of my life, and I realized that when art is all there is, it can matter absurdly out of all proportion whether it's going well or badly.
Since the London semester in 1983 I had toyed with the idea of buying a flat in London. Now in 1988 (in the all-time peak for real estate, the worst time for such an undertaking) I used my small inheritance as down payment on a "studio," a single 15x20 room with a closet-sized kitchen and a bath, in the Ladbroke Grove neighborhood near Portobello Road. Writing Fiction, by then in its third edition, would cover the mortgage payments. I had reestablished many old, and contracted new, friendships in England, and it suited me wonderfully to write during the day and go to the theatre in the evening. My idea was that if I spent the academic year in Tallahassee and four-month summers in London, I would have the ideal writing life, and enough of both city and sun.
Almost immediately I fell in love with Peter Ruppert, who had a three-year-old daughter in Tallahassee and could not share such a schedule.
Peter and his wife Jeanne had been friends for all eighteen of my years at FSU. We had (we later figured out) arrived on the same day in 1972; Peter and I had met that first winter on a Ph.D. orals and immediately disagreed about Brecht; we three had been part of a social-intellectual group that evolved over the years to study German expressionist film and literary theory, celebrate major holidays together, and play cutthroat games of Risk and Trivia at the beach. As editor of the FSU press, Jeanne had edited my poetry collection Material Goods. Peter, a film, comparative literature and Utopian scholar in modern languages, often served as outside member on theses and dissertations in the writing program. When Peter and Jeanne adopted Anne in 1986, she had become part of the group, and once at Thanksgiving at our house, while Tim made gravy at the stove, I had famously dandled her on my knee, saying, "Don't you want to bring me one of these?" It did not then cross my mind that Anne herself would be "brought" to me.
Peter divorced Jeanne in 1989, and after a while he and I began going to movies together, then to dinner, where I apparently admonished him that we were "out as friends, not on a date." The truth is that I was prone to anxiety-ridden infatuation and had never before experienced a deepening, ripening friendship. By 1991 we were, however, "living together in two houses" and vacationing together in my London flat; in 1992, when Cutting Stone was published by Houghton Mifflin, we drove six thousand miles cross country for the publicity tour, and I showed him all the haunts of my childhood; in '93 we spent a semester in Italy on the FSU Florence program. Late that year we invited our friends to Saturday brunch, sneaked off on the Tuesday to Tortola, were married in St. Thomas on the Thursday, back on Friday. We put a white bow on the door by which our brunch guests entered: all the women got it; none of the men did. Anne, seven by now, and not entirely reconciled to this turn of events, nevertheless proudly showed off the iridescent purple party dress I had made her.
Home life became rich and easy; in the professional sphere things somewhat soured. My colleague Jerome Stern, who had for many years brilliantly directed the writing program, died, like Dad, but far too early, of lymphoma, and for a few years the program floundered. The University seemed to me, like the arts and the English-speaking world in general, money-mad, bureaucratically burdened, and caught up in corporate newspeak. For four years I worked on a novel called Paper, set in a Georgia paper mill I had thoroughly researched. I had a plot, a theme, and a device I loved—surely a bad sign—but the characters would not deign to come alive. Even their deaths were a yawn. One point-of-view character was a writer who couldn't write, and when he did, wrote more badly than I intended. I went to the desk each morning (or, more often, afternoon) leaden and trapped, only wishing for my pages to be done or the hours to end. When I had about two hundred pages I showed them to my agent Gail Hochman and my editor at Houghton Mifflin, Janet Silver. Janet came down to Tallahassee. She asked, "What do you love about this novel?" and I knew instantly that the answer was: not enough. I scrapped it. This was a fearful thing to do. I had never not finished a book I had begun, and superstition ineluctably suggested that if I didn't finish this one I would never finish another.
Nor do I believe that when one door closes another inevitably opens. But it must happen sometimes. My anger at university paperwork generated a short story that would, though I didn't immediately know it, provide the seed of the next novel. After the publication of Cutting Stone, I had begun writing regularly for the New York Times Book Review. Now in 1995 Bob Stewart at New Letters magazine called to ask if I would write a quarterly essay column—anything I wished to comment on re life or lit. I said no, not possible; my load was already heavy with teaching and recalcitrant fiction. But Peter said: why not? We generated, he pointed out, more than enough material over coffee at morning "mucky talk" (mucky being Anne's word for blanket). And with misgivings that now seem bizarre, I said all right, then, and set my hand to the unfamiliar genre of the "personal essay." Almost at once I discovered the relief and pleasure, given my heavy academic commitment, of being able to finish something and see it in print (—what's more, exactly as I had written it. Almost alone among editors, the guys at New Letters fix the typos and allow great latitude in matters of quirk and style.)
Meanwhile Lynda Davis in the superb FSU dance department involved me in texts for dance. This began modestly enough with a colloquy on the subject of inspirational sources with choreographer Nancy Smith-Fichter, then as a few exchanges of fiction and choreography classes. Eventually I was using writing exercises as "problems" for her choreographers to solve in dance while I held a microphone and fed back images their bodies suggested in a rough poetry-patois that the dancers dubbed "white lady rap." We publicly performed an homage to John Cage, "Dadadata," then a more ambitious "memory quilt" called "Text/tile," and a comedy, "The Empty Dress." We began doing annual performances, choreographed and written anew each time, for the annual quilt show at the R. A. Gray museum And there began to stir in me the long-dormant love of theatre.
As long ago as Cambridge and the Yale School of Drama I had believed that playwriting would be my major form, but for many reasons I had not written a play since I came to Tallahassee. Tallahassee was part of it—not a theatrical metropolis, and although the Drama department was good and getting better, there was the usual academic insularity between English and Theatre. I was also, after painful experience as the wife and chief feather-smoother of a temperamental director, to some extent relieved to operate in a more solitary venue. Most importantly, since my failure to write Cutting Stone as a film script in 1976, I had come to believe that my best subject matter was psychological, and that often I couldn't even find out what the story was until I entered—the entrance that playwriting denies you—my characters' thoughts. But now I started to itch for the communal, externalized, and energetic genre of spectacle. I remembered that my friend Eleanor Bron had, as a Cambridge undergraduate, once mentioned Medea as the part she most wanted to play. Our friendship had renewed and flourished with my London stays, and I now promised her a Medea. FSU awarded me a semester's grant to work in London, and with the help of an undergraduate improvisational crew, trying to use the "choreographic" methods of writing I had learned from Lynda Davis, I sat down every afternoon to produce a scene or a monologue without any preconception of who the characters were, when or where the drama took place, or what would happen. In these sessions I "danced it through," that is, continued to write dialogue in the conviction that with repetition and exercise, something would eventually happen. All I knew about the plot was this: daddy falls in love with a younger woman, and mommy says it's okay, but then she murders the young woman and the kids. It turned out to be a plot with which all of my student volunteers could one way or other identify. At the end of the semester, I had some hundred and fifty scenes from which I set about to shape the (stylized and anachronistic, however) Medea with Child. Eleanor has never (yet) had a chance to play the role, but it had a fine London reading under her direction, and was later produced by the Bloomington Playwright's Project, where it won the Reva Shiner Prize in the late nineties.
While I was at work on this play, my first husband and my boys' father, Walter Eysselinck, became ill. The boys visited him in both Egypt, where he had taught for a number of years, and in Belgium, where he died in the winter of 1996. Apart from the natural sympathy for Tim and Alex, each of whom separately grieved to me, "I always thought I would get to know my father"—apart from that, I had a curious reaction to Walter's death, which was disbelief mixed with the jolting sense: now the theatre is open to me again. I could not have foreseen, and could perhaps not have invented, such an impulse. With it, I recognized how clearly I had repudiated the theatre with the repudiation of that marriage.
Stepmother Gladys died in 1997, and I had meanwhile become the primary caretaker (at long distance) of the last family member of that Burroway generation, my father's only sister, beloved Aunt Jessie. Jessie's mother had died a day after she was born premature in 1910; she was not expected to survive (though in fact she lived to a vigorous ninety-two years). She had never married, had become the first Burroway Democrat and academic (historian), and had lived for forty years, in Oklahoma and then Missouri, with colleague Winifred White, in an old-fashioned sort of maiden-friendship—patently a marriage but never a love affair. Fearful that her money would run out before her life did, in her eighties Aunt Jessie had let herself get hooked on mail-in sweepstakes, her house full to bursting with boxes of china figurines, video and audio tapes, "semi-precious" jewelry, and kitchen gadgets. It took me, Stan, the attorney general of Missouri, and the collusion of the postman to put a stop to her shameless exploitation by Publishers Clearinghouse, U.S. Purchasing, Reader's Digest, and sundry other scams. Eventually we got back some of her money, and eventually Jessie saw she had been conned. In the meantime, with a sense not entirely free of my own corruption, I was inspired to use her plight in a further play, Sweepstakes, which I never showed her, but which was read at the Playwrights' Center of San Francisco as a finalist in the 1998 Dramarama and, through the help of actress Brenda Blethyn, at the National Theatre Studio in London. Charles Olsen, director of the Actors' Repertory Theatre of Tallahassee, had suggested and collaborated with me on the adaptation for radio of Opening Nights, which the company recorded in 1997. Now over a period of nearly a year they rehearsed and helped me with the Sweepstakes script, producing it in 1999. They also spent a winter's Sundays in helpful improvisation for a play that I have yet to write. In the meantime I revived an old idea in a one-act, Division of Property, which was selected by Lanford Wilson for the Arts & Letters 2000 prize and produced there and at the Stella Adler in Los Angeles. My London agent, who does not handle plays, dubiously and almost wistfully, asked, "Are you determined to be a playwright and novelist both?" A commercial indiscretion, clearly, to which the answer is by now a clear and commercially unviable yes.
Through their thirties, my wild boys steadied and settled. Alex found his partner in red-headed British Tricia Howard, and went to work first for the University of Wisconsin and later for the London Underground, putting his money where his mouth was—in the working class. His college degree would have allowed him to start in management, but he preferred to work his way up from station assistant one exam and promotion at a time, focusing on worker conditions and the necessity of public transport. Tricia gave birth to Eleanor Janet in 1994 and Holly Katherine in 1996, and they live in Morden, south London.
Tim put in a stint as security guard in Cameroon, joined the Army Reserves, and was sent from his base in Frankfurt to Bosnia, Republic of Congo, and Namibia, where he ran a de-mining operation. When this operation was privatized, he was hired to continue in the job he had done as a soldier. In Namibia he met and married Birgitt Coetzee, a third-generation colonial (German and Afrikaans) with a ten-year-old son—thereby becoming a stepparent like his mom. In 2001 they gave birth to a daughter Thyra; the next year Tim's Namibian job was completed and they were transferred to Ethiopia for the same sort of operation. If you had told me ten years ago that one of my sons would be running a humanitarian de-mining team in Africa, and the other Supervisor of London Underground's Oxford Circus Station, I would certainly have guessed wrong which would be which.
With our children spaced out among Florida, England, and Africa, Peter and I are happily forced to travel. In 1998 we sold the Ladbroke Grove flat and moved to a three-bedroom in Maida Vale, where we now spend two months every summer writing and playing with the granddaughters, taking side trips to Africa and the continent. I'm grateful to Peter for bringing me a daughter, and to my sons for having produced three girls, all of which makes up for the deprivation of a daughterless youth. Eleanor and Holly in particular would rather have costumes than clothes, so my old profession of costumier has an easy amateur outlet.
I've said almost nothing of the university to which I was beholden for my living, and that smacks of an ingratitude of which I am no doubt guilty. I have been enriched and perhaps kept young by my students, of whom a few have become close friends. I value my colleagues, who infuse my social as well as my professional life, and though teaching has always been my job, writing my work, the university treated me well. No one ever asked if I might rather have time than money, but I was granted a McKenzie Professorship in the late eighties (McKenzie being my paternal grandmother's maiden name, this was a matter of considerable excitement, for me and especially Aunt Jessie), given a Distinguished Teaching Award in 1992, and made a Robert O'Lawton Distinguished Professor in 1995. Nevertheless at some point in the mid-nineties I realized that I had stopped learning from my students—the graduates could still surprise me, but I had read every undergraduate short story I was likely to receive—and at the earliest opportunity, which was 1998, I chose "phased retirement," which meant teaching one semester instead of two.
A little to my surprise, greatly to my relief, I discovered that I had not been lying all these years, and that I write more when I teach less. The short story "Report on Professional Activities" expanded by fits and starts into a novel, Time Lapse, near completion. A self-contained section of it, "Deconstruction," was published in Prairie Schooner, where it won the 1999 Lawrence Foundation award. An aborted chapter became a short story, "The Mandelbrot Set," which appeared in Five Points and was reprinted in Pushcart Prize XXVII. The fifth edition of Writing Fiction appeared. Several of the essays I had written for New Letters and other magazines and anthologies suggested the shape I had perceived in my life, of diminishment and re-burgeoning: loss of mother and father, departure of the children, then love, marriage, stepmotherhood, and grandmotherhood. I collected these under the title Embalming Mom, and this book was published by the University of Iowa Press in spring 2002 as the launch volume of a new non-fiction series, "Sightline." That summer the sixth edition of Writing Fiction also appeared, along with a new across-the-genres text book, Imaginative Writing, which I had balked at writing but in which I enjoyed having my say about poetry, drama, and the essay as well as fiction. I retired in May.
It's forty years since I published my first novel, and it's inevitable that I'm aware of vast changes in the publishing business, which is more efficient, savvy, and international; also trashier, more cutthroat, and less welcoming to experiment. On the plus side, whereas I started out being "discovered" (more often and for more years than could feel comfortable) by older men editors; now I am aided, edited, and encouraged by younger women. On the other side, the accountants and the money managers make ever more of the publishing decisions, which implies and dictates a swing to the political right.
I know no serious writer who does not grieve at the arbitrary nature of the twenty-first-century Pub Bizz. The star system makes for ludicrous imbalance between quality and reward, and all of us are tainted by the scramble for advances, publicity, puffs, and prizes. My agent is the best in New York, but the nature of agenting has changed; in the fifties, the agent was a cheerleader for her clients; now her job is often to act as buffer between the realities of the market and the unrealistic expectations of art. I've been extraordinarily lucky in the intellect and goodwill of my editors, who, however, are also increasingly shackled to the bottom line. It's easy to see how a totalitarian state censors its writers through threat and bodily harm; it's less evident, but also insidious, how capitalism silences those who don't particularly suit themselves to Mammon.
All of this has left me with a double vision: my relationship to the language is full of joy, my doings in the public sphere mired in the ancient angst. The exception is public reading—perhaps because the readers' audience is self-selected, and we have a mutually vested interested in the pleasure of the word.
Aging, I find, gives with one hand what it takes with the other, balancing diminished looks with diminished vanity, offering concentration in the place of vigor, replacing lived melodrama with strange invention. At this writing, still polishing the manuscript of Time Lapse, I find myself with a second wind or, perhaps, a third act. I've written a new children's book, the first since Giant Jam Sandwich, which is still in print. I'm ready to write a memory play set in Arizona in the forties, Parts of Speech, and have a further novel heavy in my head (born out of the dregs of the abandoned Paper, and in answer to the question "What do you love about this novel?") I'm going to write a musical!—if I can get the rights to the novel I want to adapt; and in any case Peter and I, having more or less settled our disagreement about Brecht, will write a version of The Caucasian Chalk Circle set in the Civil War during the burning of Atlanta.
After that . . . but maybe I'd better not tempt the Gods.
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 6: American Novelists since World War II, Gale (Detroit, MI), 1980.
Booklist, April 15, 1992, Alice Joyce, review of Cutting Stone, p. 1500; March 1, 2002, Donna Seaman, review of Embalming Mom: Essays in Life, p. 1082.
Christian Science Monitor, May 28, 1992, Susan Miron, review of Cutting Stone, p. 11.
Glamour, July, 1985, Laura Mathews, review of Opening Nights, p. 116.
Library Journal, June 15, 1985, Mary K. Prokop, review of Opening Nights, p. 71; April 1, 1992, Charles Michaud, review of Cutting Stone, p. 145; June 15, 1993, Suzan Connell, review of Cutting Stone, p. 128; March 1, 2002, Pam Kingsbury, review of Embalming Mom: Essays in Life, p. 98.
Los Angeles Times, June 23, 1985, Richard Eder, review of Opening Nights, p. 3.
Los Angeles Times Book Review, June 23, 1985, p. 3; March 3, 1992, pp. 3, 7; April 11, 1993, p. 1.
Ms., August, 1977; June, 1985, Jennifer Crichton, review of Opening Nights, p. 67.
New Statesman and Society, August 12, 1977; July 31, 1992, Robert Carver, review of Cutting Stone, p. 36.
Newsweek, April 4, 1977; July 8, 1985, Walter Clemons, review of Opening Nights, p. 70B.
New Yorker, July 1, 1985, review of Opening Nights, p. 97.
New York Times, June 22, 1977; June 23, 1985, Jennifer Dunning, review of Opening Nights, p. 20.
New York Times Book Review, April 10, 1977, Anatole Broyard, review of Raw Silk, p. 14.; March 18, 1979, review of Raw Silk, p. 37; June 23, 1985, Jennifer Dunning, review of Opening Nights, p. 20; June 7, 1992, Angelina Goreau, review of Cutting Stone, p. 11.
Observer (London, England), July 14, 1985, p. 21.; June 7, 1992, Angeline Goreau, review of Cutting Stone, p. 11
Plain Dealer, June 9, 2002, Frank Bentayou, "Lively Ideas, Homey and Professorial," p. J9.
Publishers Weekly, April 26, 1985, Sybil Steinberg, review of Opening Nights, p. 70; March 23, 1992, review of Cutting Stone, p. 62.
School Library Journal, January 1991, Sharron McElmeel, review of The Giant Jam Sandwich, p. 61.
Times Literary Supplement, October 14, 1977; May 22, 1982; August 14, 1992, John Clute, review of Cutting Stone, p. 18.
Review of Art, Literature, Philosophym, and the Humanities Web site,http://www.ralphmag.org (summer, 2002), review of Embalming Mom: Essays in Life.