Furman, Laura (J.) 1945-
Furman, Laura (J.) 1945-
PERSONAL: Born November 19, 1945, in Brooklyn, NY; daughter of Sylvan Seymour and Minnie (Airov) Furman; married Joel Warren Barna (a a writer and fundraiser), 1981; children: Solomon. Education: Bennington College, B.A., 1968.
ADDRESSES: Office—English Department, University of Texas at Austin, One University Station, B5000 Austin, TX 78712. E-mail—[email protected]
CAREER: Writer. Freelance copyeditor in New York, NY, 1968-73; Menil Foundation, Houston, TX, editor, 1973-78; Houston City magazine, Houston, senior editor, 1978-79; Southern Methodist University, Dallas, TX, lecturer, 1981-82; University of Texas, Austin, 1983-, began as lecturer, currently professor of English; founding editor of American Short Fiction, 1991; Writer-in-residence, Wilkes College, 1977. Visiting assistant professor, University of Houston, 1980.
MEMBER: Authors Guild, Texas Institute of Letters, Corporation of Yaddo.
AWARDS, HONORS: Creative Artists Public Service Award in fiction, New York State Council on the Arts, 1976; residence grants, Yaddo, 1972-78, 1984, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2004; short story award, Texas Institute of Letters, 1980, for "Eldorado"; Jesse Jones Award for best book of fiction, Texas Institute of Letters, 1981, for The Glass House: A Novella and Stories; Dobie Paisano fellowship, Texas Institute of Letters/University of Texas, 1981; Guggenheim fellowship, 1982-83; Ritchie-McGinnis Award for Best Work of Fiction in Southwest Review, 2000, for "Melville's House"; Smart Family Foundation/Yale Review Prize for Best Short Story, 2001, for "Beautiful Baby."
The Glass House: A Novella and Stories, Viking (New York, NY), 1980.
The Shadow Line (novel), Viking (New York, NY), 1982.
Watch Time Fly: Stories, Viking (New York, NY), 1983.
Tuxedo Park (novel), Summit Books (New York, NY), 1986.
(Coeditor with Elinore Standard) Bookworms: Great Writers and Readers Celebrate Reading, Carroll & Graf Publishers (New York, NY), 1997.
Ordinary Paradise, Winedale (Houston, TX), 1998.
Drinking with the Cook (short stories), Winedale Press (Houston, TX), 2001.
(Editor) The O. Henry Prize Stories 2003, Random House (New York, NY), 2003.
(Editor) The O. Henry Prize Stories 2005, Bantam, Doubleday, Dell (New York, NY), 2005.
Contributor to Sisterhood Is Powerful, edited by Robin Morgan, Random House (New York, NY), 1970. Contributor of stories and essays to periocials, including New Yorker, Redbook, Fiction, Texas Humanist, Mademoiselle, and House and Garden. The O. Henry Prize Stories, series editor, 2002-. Reading of her short story "That Boy" was recorded for the Library of Congress, 1990.
WORK IN PROGRESS: Story Collection; The Right Place for a Widow (novel).
SIDELIGHTS: Laura Furman's writing has received a steady stream of critical praise ever since her first published stories appeared in the New Yorker during the 1970s. In his assessment of Furman's story collection Watch Time Fly, Washington Post Book World reviwer Eliot Fremont-Smith called Furman a "precisionist. As with her first collection, The Glass House, and her [novel] The Shadow Line, there is never the slightest doubt as to who is in control: her observation is as acute as her sense of timing, her language that exact. Her art, so calculated, is the art of comedy, though with an eerie edge." In a review of Drinking with the Cook in the Detroit Free Press, Marta Salij commented, "That Laura Furman isn't better-known, in spite of her two short-story collections and two novels, is a puzzle we may have to solve in the hereafter."
On the whole, Furman has focused her work on a few themes. For one, she emphasizes that, as individuals, humans are and will always remain separate and distinct despite their many attempts at uniting with others. For another, she underscores the importance of developing coping abilities in a world that offers no guarantees and often doles out hardships. Both of these themes spring from the event Furman herself acknowledges as the most pivotal in her life: the loss of her mother to ovarian cancer when Furman was thirteen years old. As she explained in her memoir Ordinary Paradise, her family coped with this devastation by refusing to speak of it. She eventually dealt with that loss in her memoir, writing "out of a desperation to remember," as she explained to Anne Morris of the Austin American-Statesman.
Furman's first book-length work, The Glass House: A Novella and Stories, garnered positive critical attention for its subtlety, precision, and exacting prose, although there was some negative criticism regarding characterization. New York Times Book Review writer Lynne Sharon Schwartz called Furman's style "lean and strictly functional, quite unlike the elaborately baroque dwellings she invents. But in the novella of the title she allows herself space, and the still understated language becomes streamlined and obliquely beautiful. 'The Glass House' is a jewel of a piece," the critic added, and "Furman plays out her glass-house metaphor with delicate composure."
Furman's recurring theme in this collection involves coming to terms with the adult world of instability and insecurity, which is made complete by letting go of past mistakes, hurts, and disappointments. The characters who "emerge most admirably" in the stories, remarked Washington Post Book World contributor Stephen Goodwin, "are the stoical, sensible young women who lose husbands, lovers, or parents and yet manage to stay upright on their own two feet and to walk forward on them." Goodwin felt that the characters in The Glass House "aren't quite large enough to fill the space Furman allots them," but he later expressed confidence in the author's future undertakings: "She is a resourceful, discriminating writer, and her glass house may prove to be only a miniature, a model for the more substantial edifice that she will construct in books to come."
The Shadow Line and Watch Time Fly address issues similar to those found in The Glass House with a style that is equally clear and precise. In The Shadow Line, a mystery novel, New Yorker Liz Gold moves to Houston as a means of uprooting herself from a troubled past. Life in her new environment, however, is every bit as troubled. As a journalist assigned to solve a twenty-year-old murder mystery, her life becomes endangered; as a widow whose guerrilla activist husband either committed suicide or was killed, painful memories restrict her from promising herself to David, her new lover. In the Dictionary of Literary Biography Yearbook, William J. Scheick maintained that for Liz, "the shadow line she must cross [is] between a childish hope for something stable and a mature acceptance of the impermanence of everything, including life itself…. Ideally Liz must accept the reality of isolation of self in a world where 'people expect security out of the very thing that's the most insecure' and at the same time the reality of the self's need for others, who nonetheless remain separate, strange entities capable of betraying the closest of friends."
In a favorable Washington Post Book World review of The Shadow Line, Suzanne Freeman maintained that "Furman has constructed her story just as painstakingly as her shorter fiction and with the same strong results. But if those earlier [stories] were like small, well-made buildings, this book must be a kind of Houston high-rise, tall and solid and wrapped in clouds…. Furman has given her novel a solid structure—a real plot with a mystery to be solved…. The real point here is that in sorting it all out, Furman's heroine, Liz Gold, has to sort out a tangle of other issues involving family and friends and money and love, all of the things that Laura Furman has written about so well before."
In line with what Furman has written previously, her well-received novel Tuxedo Park centers on the theme of our ultimate separateness from other humans. According to Scheick, "Of all of Furman's women characters, the one who most resists the fact of [the] fundamental solitariness of the self is Sadie Ash, the protagonist of Tuxedo Park. Orphaned at the age of twelve, Sadie felt from that event as if time had stopped…. She seeks human connections, attachments which would (she thinks) contribute to the firming up and stabilization of her sense of identity." Thus, in 1945 and at age nineteen, Sadie meets and immediately falls in love with Willard Weaver, a failed painter whom Frances Taliaferro in the New York Times Book Review said "might as well be of another species. He is handsome, clever and rich. He is a chilly voluptuary." Sadie and Willard get married after Sadie becomes pregnant and, for Sadie, this is where her life starts once again, for she believes marriage is a fated, forever thing.
Several years and two daughters later, Willard moves his family to the ancestral home in Tuxedo Park that he inherited when his father died: "Tuxedo Park is a declining bastion for the very rich," explained New Republic reviewer Laura E. Obolensky; "but to Sadie, who has sensed with some alarm Willard's growing restiveness, the Weavers' 'brick Italianate mansion' … looms as a haven. Here on his ancestral ground, the tug of genetic memory will assist her in convincing Willard that he's 'bound to her by fate,' that family is life's only sanctuary." Soon after the move, however, Willard demands a divorce from Sadie, and his wife's objection sends Willard fleeing with his mistress Cherry Wilde, a rootless, failed painter like himself. Additionally, Sadie's objection to the divorce subjects her and her two daughters to poverty because Willard will provide only a subsistence income unless Sadie agrees to terminate their marriage.
In the opinion of Los Angeles Times reviewer Elaine Kendall, through her actions Sadie "unconsciously recreates the limbo in which she spent her adolescence, waiting now for her real life to resume as she once waited for it to begin." Scheick surmised that "Sadie can no more live inside her childish dream of a safe haven for her self than she can maintain her mistaken hope in merging identities with Willard." Ultimately, the critic added, tragedy forces her to give up "her dream as if it were 'one of the last beautiful days of summer,' and she faces the reality of life's insecurity (most evident in death) and of the irremediable loneliness of each self."
Washington Post writer Jonathan Yardley described Tuxedo Park as an "intelligent, affecting, agreeably old-fashioned novel. Its only serious flaw is that Willard is a spineless, characterless man; that Sadie should fall so madly in love with him is an utter mystery, one … Furman never manages to solve." Nevertheless, Yardley concluded, the novel "is something we see too little of these days: genuinely adult fiction." In the opinion of Obolensky, with Tuxedo Park "Furman proves once again that she is a writer of enormous grace and sensitivity who possesses a keen if unsettling genius for stripping the psyche of its deceptions … in order to reveal the subliminal conceits that at their most insidious make human compatibility such a formidable challenge."
In Ordinary Paradise, a "haunting" memoir, as a Publishers Weekly reviewer described it, Furman lovingly describes the first thirteen years of her life, which were dominated by the loving presence of her mother. The family divided their time between the Upper West Side of Manhattan and their summer vacation spot in the New Jersey countryside, and in both places Furman and her two sisters enjoyed an enviable balance of freedom and protection. Life changed drastically after her mother's sudden death from ovarian cancer, however. The family failed to grieve in a normal matter, and Furman's father soon married again, to a woman who made it plain that she would not be a mother to her stepdaughters. Adolescence and the first decades of adult life were spent running from this terrible loss instead of facing up to it. "Furman's need for a way to cope with her mother's illness and death is spun out with steely clarity," remarked GraceAnne A. DeCandido in Booklist. The author's memory was praised as "a beautifully tuned instrument" by Houston Chronicle writer Emily Fox Gordon, who further stated: "Furman's memories spill out naturally, as would the intimate recollection of a friend, without much regard for chronological order. She writes with simplicity but also with great control…. This memoir is the purified product of much reflection, much internal struggle." As Furman admitted to Morris in the Austin American-Statesman: "It's kind of an unusual book. People who have read it respond with their heart and their own memories. They respond to my impulse to remember." As Morris noted of the memoir, "More than anything, Ordinary Paradise serves as testimony of the value of bringing to light our deepest emotions."
In Drinking with the Cook Furman offers thirteen short stories that are mainly concerned with women whose inner lives are solitary, even when they are in the midst of relationships. A Publishers Weekly reviewer found these "sensitive, well-crafted" tales to be filled with "quiet observations of lonely lives" that "ring true." The success of these stories "depends on adroit characterization rather than flashy denouements," concluded the reviewer. In the title piece, the narrator leaves her successful life in the city to live in the country home of her lover, only to find him taciturn and uninviting. In "What Would Buddha Do?," a woman who lives a comfortable, sheltered life in Texas is torn between following her husband to New England, where he has a promising new job, or staying put to look after her younger sister.
Many of the stories are studies "in disappointment and regret" that end with the protagonists "not any wiser in the choices they make," noted Barbara Liss in a Houston Chronicle review of Drinking with the Cook. Discussing the collection in a New York Times Book Review, Deborah Mason remarked many of the characters—like the author herself—seem to be deeply scarred by loss of a mother. "Furman's portraits of her characters are rich in telling detail, showing them utterly and convincingly rooted in their worlds," Mason noted. "Her luxuriant histories of grief are sure and exact, drawing the reader in and rarely loosening their grip." Liss concurred that the stories, as well as Furman's entire fictional output, share some similarities, but did not identify this as a shortcoming. While they "all describe the progression of ordinary domestic life in which people put one foot in front of the other and end up surprised where they land," Liss concluded that "Each book feels completely new."
Furman was chosen to become editor of the O. Henry Prize stories series in 2002. These stories, culled from short fiction published in U.S. magazines, have been collected annually since 1919. When Furman took the helm she expanded the qualifications, proclaiming that English-language stories published in North American periodicals could be included. This and a few other changes made under Furman's guidance made the 2003 collection "one of the strongest," according to a reviewer for Publishers Weekly, who cited the book as a "collection of literary gems that would surely please the man for whom the prize is named." Nola Theiss noted in her review for Kliatt that "There is something for everyone in this collection of excellent and varied tales," while Dorman T. Shindler, writing in the Austin American-Statesman, praised: "All the stories in this year's O. Henry collection are never less than entertaining. And that fact reflects brilliantly on the selection jury as well as Furman, whose editorial guidance bodes well for the future of an anthology series that celebrates the art of a tale well-told." The O. Henry Prize Stories 2005 contains stories chosen "in honor of the centennial of Anton Chekov's death," explained Marta Segal Block in her Booklist review. It is fitting, then, that the stories, according to a Publishers Weekly reviewer, "tend toward the polished, dense, and emotionally complex." Though the Publishers Weekly felt the collection lacks humorous stories, a Kirkus Reviews contributor considered the collection to be "a first-rate sampler of the best from the little magazines … as well as the more commercial."
"There are intimidating aspects of being series editor of the O. Henry," Furman explained in an essay for Beatrice.com "The editorship carries with it a responsibility to the writers of the many short stories submitted each year, to the magazine editors, and to the readers of the annual collection who expect a variety of excellent, challenging, and moving stories. My principal mission is to believe in writers and the original ways the best of them find to face the ancient challenge of telling a story."
Furman lives in Austin, Texas, the same city where William Sydney Porter (who wrote as O. Henry) enjoyed the best times of his life.
AUTOBIOGRAPHICAL ESSAY: Laura Furman contributed the following autobiographical essay to CA:
When I was nine months old, my parents bought a brown-shingle house, an abandoned one-room schoolhouse, and seven acres in Long Valley, New Jersey, in what my father called dairy country, about two hours from New York City where we lived. We spent every possible weekend in the country, all summer (my father commuted on weekends), and holidays. I played with my sisters and other friends whose families spent the summer nearby, and I was allowed to explore the lawn, the playhouse, even the woods alone. The time I spent alone was one of the great gifts my mother gave me. The capacity for solitude, cultivated early, has stood me in good stead as a writer.
The Drakestown schoolhouse was across the field where we picked wild blueberries in summer. I pumped the dusty organ, making it groan its few remaining notes, and read the sums and salutations of the last class. The schoolhouse had closed so long before we came upon the scene that the chalk marks could not be erased from the slate boards. On the other side of our house was a brook; beyond, our farmer neighbors, the Skinners. The brook was later enlarged to a pond that reflected the trees and sky beautifully but leaked constantly. Once when I was playing on the driveway, my sister released the emergency brake of our car and it—carrying Emily, missing me by inches—rolled backwards into the pond. Our neighbor Harvey Skinner came to the rescue with his tractor. Behind the house were the woods where I traced my path to the old spring which was covered by a rusted iron cone. If I stood on tiptoe and leaned against the corroded metal I could see the spring water far below; it looked like it was the cleanest thing in the world and the coldest. A hump on the lawn ran from the playhouse (formerly a giant doghouse) across to the red barn that was crowded with tools, my father's workbench, his canvasses, his skis, our bikes, our junk. Near the barn was an ancient apple tree that I napped under as a baby, on a pink satin quilt that is one of my earliest memories—a quilt faded and dulled with washing, stained by rotted apples. The tree was lost in a hurricane, along with a maple that was taller than our house. One winter there was a memorable storm, and my sister Emily and I (Hester was not yet born) dug tunnels in the snow that had piled up on the lawn.
The hump on the lawn marked the boundary between the original lawn and a place where someone had added topsoil to make a real lawn, better than a mowed pasture. The hump marked the edge of our croquet games and made a place to roll somersaults; when I lay dizzy, I could rest my head against it. Beyond the treetops, I tried to locate the center of the sky and to read in the hieroglyphs of clouds what my fate would be. By this I meant what story I would be heroine of, for I was convinced that I would live a life that would be like a story. When I was a child I was often afraid, though I thought I would be brave if called upon to be so.
Only in rare moments did the city rival the country. Sometimes when we were on a bus going through Central Park in the rain, the trunks of the trees, the rough stones of the tunnels and walls, the empty benches shone something like the shine of sky, apple tree, barn, green lawn—the shine of the country.
There was no place like our apartment, when my father was at work and my sister at school, when there was no one at home but my mother and me. To this day, being home in the middle of the day feels luxurious to me. Then being home was a luxury to be earned only by sickness. Some of my happiest childhood memories coincide with illness—chicken pox, endless sore throats, fevers unattached to names, sniffles. Mornings when I was home sick, I listened to my mother cleaning the house, vacuuming, dusting, sweeping, washing dishes, until in my sickroom I smelled the harsh familiar detergents and polishes. At noon we'd have lunch, I in bed if I were sick enough, otherwise at the kitchen table, and after lunch I'd return to bed and sleep on and off until the evening when the quiet and my sole possession of my mother would end. I took myself to the living room and curled into a corner of the high-armed couch, and there I hid, still listening for my mother, still savoring the day. I can sometimes recapture the feeling when I am reading and the house is quiet; more rarely when I am writing and become unaware of my actions or thoughts, as absorbed as if I were hearing a good story.
Apartment living, and living in the city in general, meant being aware of people other than my family. The steam pipe in the bathroom carried voices from the apartment below. When I took the elevator and it stopped at another floor, I could patch the ragged end of familial talk ("Later! I've got to go! I told you already!"), the slamming of a door, and the startled look of the person who hadn't realized I was in the elevator, hearing it all. In the mosaic-tiled halls of our building, I saw umbrellas and boots, I caught glimpses of apartments through half-opened doors, and sometimes I heard screams and arguments, oblique clues to the interior life. One of the first works of literature I read that matched and illuminated my unexamined experience was John Cheever's short story "The Enormous Radio," which features a radio that can be tuned from one apartment to another, exposing the cruelty and the generally miserable lives within, and the masks assumed in public. These differences—private and public, city and country—have defined my interests as a writer.
My father, Sylvan S. Furman, grew up in Brooklyn, in a Bensonhurst then filled with prosperous houses and respectable apartment buildings. He was the oldest of four children; he had two brothers and one sister who died when she was eleven. My grandfather, Louis M. Furman, was an immigrant tailor who had built a men's clothing business and who before the Depression had stores in Brooklyn and Manhattan. In the 1930s my grandfather lost the stores, and he moved with his younger sons, Dan and Paul, and his wife, Dora, to Florida, first to Daytona Beach and then to Miami Beach, and established Furmly's, a men's clothing store, eventually located on Lincoln Road in Miami Beach. Later there was a branch in Coral Gables. When my uncle Paul sold Furmly's in the late 1980s the Furmans were finally out of the retail business.
My father called my grandfather's "the heroic generation," for they came to America, often as little more than children, with nothing, and within a generation were established. Indeed, my father went to Columbia College and earned a bachelor's degree there, later two master's, one in psychology and one in psychiatric social work, a far cry from Ellis Island or shortening pants. (He had a long career as a social worker, but his avocation was painting.) My father used a saying of my grandfather's, "Never show a fool a half-finished garment," to comfort me years later when I was having trouble selling a novel, and I grew up hearing that the customer was always right. I didn't meet the Florida Furmans until I was twelve, though I saw my grandfather once a year, when he came north each summer on a buying trip and visited us in New Jersey for a few days. His passage from Ukraine, the large-familied and populated life in Brooklyn, seemed to me to have happened so long before my birth that it had nothing at all to do with me or my immediate family. There were Furmans and Goldbergs who were our relatives in New York and the surrounding area, but we rarely saw them.
I knew even less about my mother's family, aside from my aunt Molly who lived in the Bronx with her husband and two daughters. My mother was born Minnie Airov in the Cambria District near Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, in a coal-mining town where her father owned a little grocery store. They were the only Jewish family in town. My mother had an older half-brother Sam, and two sisters, Molly and Sophie, and a younger brother, Joe. The family story I grew up with was that come the Depression they moved to Atlanta because there were relatives in Chattanooga. It wasn't until I looked at a map and saw the distance between Atlanta and Chattanooga that I questioned the story.
My maternal grandfather, Morris Airov, suffered from Huntington's chorea, which was at first mistaken for insanity. My grandmother Ida (whom I never met nor did I meet my mother's father) kept the family together somehow, and my aunt Sophie married a gentle person named Israel Zimmerman, who owned a grocery store in a black neighborhood in Atlanta. He supported the family, according to what I heard, until Sophie's sisters were grown and gone, and Joe was educated and gone. (Joe became a professor of economics at Emory University, another immigrant leap.) I didn't meet the Airovs and Zimmermans until I was twelve, when my mother and sister Hester and I went to Atlanta for my cousin Hannah's wedding.
My parents might have wondered if they saw their families in Florida or Georgia as often as they should, or if my sisters and I needed to see more relatives. Maybe they'd grown up with plenty of relatives and figured they were doing us a favor. On rare occasions, my father told about a favorite aunt or cousin, and the stories sounded as if the people he spoke of were in another world, not just Brooklyn or Florida, because they were, to him, in another and finished life. Even at the end of his life, at a time when many people become intensely nostalgic, my father was not interested in returning to old scenes. He had remained friends with several of his college classmates, but passed up going to his sixtieth college reunion, saying, "Who would I know there?" He did think about the past, and told me that after a point it is all one long remembrance.
Of course, my parents' money was limited, and their time and energy filled by their lives in the city and the country and by our demands. I don't know if my mother went back when her mother and father died. In my memory it wasn't until the summer of Hannah's wedding that she returned at all to Georgia.
My mother left Atlanta one year after high school and worked in New York as a secretary. She met my father at the Lavanburg Corner House, a home for Jewish orphan boys where she was secretary to the director and he was a young social worker. They both lived there; room and board was part of their salaries.
On the wall of the room I write in, there's a portrait of my mother painted in 1939 by my father when she was twenty-seven. (They married the next year.) The colors of the portrait are mustard yellow, faded apple green, and maroon. Of all my father's paintings, the portrait is my favorite. It is much influenced by Matisse in the simplification of shapes, the patterning of the drapes behind her, the chair she sits on, the simple lines of her blouse. Her oval face resembles one of Matisse's odalisques, but she is recognizably my mother.
The summer before she died, when she went back to Atlanta, she was blooming. In Hannah's wedding photos she looks stockier than in the portrait but more animated and happy. In the portrait, she is self-contained, and she looks off to one side, away from the painter.
The wedding was held at a country club, a white building with columns and a swimming pool, decorated in a tradition I'd never seen before, with lots of cream, soft greens, and pink. This was in contrast with the Danish modern or German immigrant homes of my friends in New York, or the worn chintzes and stiff Sears furnishings of the country places. We stayed in the bungalow where Uncle Izzy and Aunt Sophie lived, where my mother had lived before she left for New York twenty-five years before. The small house was packed with people there for the wedding, and gifts lay on every surface, clothing hung from every door. An old black woman stood in the narrow hallway the whole time, pressing and starching clothing until each piece could stand on its own. It was confusing that the bungalow and country club were in what everyone was calling a city. Miami Beach, where I'd been a few weeks before to visit the Furmans, was slightly more urban, that is, more like New York, despite the sunshine, palm trees, and stucco houses. My mother and little sister came to Florida to pick me up, and we flew to Atlanta together. Aunt Sophie waited for us at the plane, and she embraced my mother and cried. I was amazed that there was a person in the world so attached to my mother that she'd cry at the sight of her, yet I hadn't seen this person before. She looked like my mother and didn't, with sharper features and a more oval face. The sight of my mother with Sophie, her older sister, made me see my mother as younger and more fragile, more like myself. But my mother was at the top of her form that summer, and so was Sophie, busy and happy directing her daughter's wedding.
My mother died of ovarian cancer the following May, when I was thirteen. Sophie, Molly, and Joe died of Huntington's (in Sophie's case, her death was complicated by lung cancer). I returned to Atlanta in 1980 and visited Sophie's bungalow. It was built to catch the breezes, with a wooden entry porch big enough for two rockers. It isn't far from the cemetery where Sophie is buried. There wasn't much for me as I stood looking at the yellow bungalow except the realization that in moving to Texas (where I'd been for two years), I'd come to live in a place where such bungalows were common.
Fourteen years after my mother's death I was on a tourist bus in Kenya, and the guide announced that the scene before us—the world halved—was the Great Rift valley. Here spread before me was a vast geographical expression of my small history.
I date all my childhood memories with the before and after of my mother's death. The apartment remained the same. No furniture shifted. We did not change outwardly. My older sister and I still quarreled. The room I shared with my younger sister was more often than not a battleground. My father still went to work in the morning and returned at night, made himself a drink, sat in the living room, waiting for dinner. But when I came home from school in my mother's place at the kitchen table was a large black woman with a shining necklace of a scar that reached from one side of her throat to the other. She didn't like us very much, and I became aware for the first time of the need to be liked in order to get taken care of, not to be loved but simply to be fed and clothed. No act of kindness or love, given or received, was automatic for me ever again.
After my mother's death, I felt diffident toward the past, too polite to search my own memories, and afraid to reminisce. I didn't understand my mother's illness, her treatment, or her death. She and my father chose not to tell us that she would die, though this outcome was clear from her operation in October. My only hope while she was dying was to ignore what I saw, what I heard, what I felt. In practicing obliviousness, I was trying for a miracle. I was trying to keep her alive, and the effort continued after her death.
My life went on: from seventh grade through twelfth grade I attended Hunter College High School. My father remarried two years after my mother's death, and he and my stepmother were married for almost thirty-one years, until his death. In time, I went to college, choosing Bennington College in Vermont, taking the part of the country and beauty over the city where she had died. I tried to forget in that I didn't remember. Yet I don't believe that I've ever written a word that has not been informed by my mother's absence and my loss. In writing, I come closest to remembering her and recognizing the loss. The impulse to write, to capture and create the private moments in my characters' lives that are deeply concealed in their public time, derives from my long vigil at my mother's absence.
If I wanted to be anything as a teenager, I wanted to be a writer; but it is more precise to say that by being a teenaged writer I found companionship—mostly in books, but also from a few friends—and a place where I could be comfortable and where I could lose myself. Being a writer then meant writing everywhere—in class, in coffee shops, on the bus and the subway, sitting on my bed at home; and on anything—napkins, class notes, textbooks, any paper would do. Words and sentences sprang to my mind, and images of myself that I transferred automatically into narrative. Writing was a way of telling the world, making it into a story I could understand or at least consider. One friend gave me a copy of Virginia Woolf's To the Lighthouse, for Christmas 1961, inscribed, "This is where I hid until four one morning in June, coming to school baggy-eyed and ecstatic…." The book was a revelation, a romp of words and characters that I rolled in happily. It wasn't until years later that I realized it was all about the death of a mother.
When I think of myself without words I think of being late to school, leaving the apartment late because I couldn't find clothes to wear, missing the crosstown bus, standing on the corner of Ninety-sixth and Lexington, trying to decide as the minutes ticked by whether to take the subway, which I hated and was always packed at that hour, or to wait for the bus; then arriving at Hunter, worrying that I would go to the wrong classroom. By the time I was in the building my worrying was such that my vision was darkening and closing in, and I could barely see my way to the right room. Or I would get to class on time, then dream my way out of it, until, called on, I'd rush back from wherever I'd been, most likely just the other side of the window.
My favorite class was Latin, and my six years of Latin at Hunter probably gave me the most important foundation for reading and writing. My excellent English teachers brought such passion to literature that I heard Keats, Chaucer, Shakespeare as voices speaking to me. But Latin, which we were taught very slowly—the first year being divided into two—gave me a firm foundation in grammar and let me discover the satisfaction of seeing how sentences are put together, the words working to make a whole that followed the rules and that I could name and understand. One of the most satisfying things I learned in Latin was the past perfect tense, which expresses an action before the past of the narrative. When I understood the past perfect, a rich world of time opened for me.
It was not Latin itself that gave me so much, for surely Latin can be taught boringly. My teacher was Irving Kizner, short, portly, with a comic nose. The classroom my first year of Latin looked east over Lexington Avenue, and during morning class the room was often flooded with so much sunshine that Mr. Kizner had to pull down the enormous shades. Even without the darkness, there was a dreamy quality to the class. He was a born teacher, and his class was one of the few occasions during the school day when I wasn't distracted by my fears. When I didn't know the answer to a question, he helped me find it. When I knew the answer, it was exciting, not for the grades I earned but for the understanding, which felt like a steady place to stand. Until then my life at school had consisted of one terrible hurdle to be jumped after another. Our Latin textbook was full of stories about puêllae, using the verb esse in multiple ways.
After the daily grammar and vocabulary quiz, after our stumbling translations of the simple text, Mr. Kizner often told us a new chapter in his continuing tale about a GI who was lost in the middle of Italy during World War II. The soldier was a New Yorker, a native of the Bronx (Mr. Kizner lived in the Bronx and took the Lexington Avenue subway to school; I sometimes saw him on it). The soldier was separated from his unit and wandered in the Italian countryside (possibly Cumae) until he took shelter in a cave and found an old woman. She was incalculably old; she was a sibyl. Neither of them spoke modern Italian, and she no English. The only way they could converse was in Latin, which luckily the soldier had studied in high school and college. The soldier's story took on a life for me apart from the pleasure of understanding what he and the sibyl were saying in their simple Latin. The soldier was alone in a strange country, unable to speak the language; he wandered into a dark place and there found someone he could understand and who could not only understand him but also protect him by seeing the future. My whole life seemed like a riddle then—past, present, and future—but I felt that the answer was there, waiting to be heard, if only I could understand its language. Maybe I would wander into a cave, perhaps one of the tunnels in Central Park, and meet a sibyl who would tell me what would become of me.
Five years later, at college, I found another teacher who opened up a world of reading and understanding: Stanley Edgar Hyman. Mr. Hyman was a critic who taught two courses at Bennington, as I recall: Language and Literature, and Myth, Ritual, and Literature. The first was the beginning literature course that he divided into the study of four forms: drama (Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra), prose (Thoreau's Walden), poetry (various poets), and fiction (Joyce's Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and an excursion into Ulysses). Mr. Hyman showed, through careful understanding of the words, sentences, paragraphs, and sections of the text, that a large form echoes throughout a work, amounting to the secret reason for a work's emotional impact and integrity. My new acquaintance with the idea of form, of a formal backbone to works I loved, changed reading for me, or rather made two kinds of reading out of my former experience of immersed loss of consciousness. I still preferred being lost in a work (to this day I find it hard to stick with writing that doesn't capture me), but now there was another possible level: I could take apart a text and find its secrets, chart its course, discover its landmarks, and retell its story as my own. Of the books that I have loved and taught (an activity that forces understanding beyond the first romantic liking of a text), the ones that stand up to close scrutiny are also the ones that surprise me time and again. A really good book always keeps some of its secrets, and shows them only on the next reading, perhaps when the reader brings something new to the text. I think of William Maxwell's So Long, See You Tomorrow in this way, and I don't worry any longer that I will wear it out or use it up by repeated reading or teaching.
At Bennington I received my only formal training in writing fiction. I took one semester with Saul Maloff, a critic and novelist, and one with Bernard Malamud. In Mr. Maloff's class I mostly enjoyed approval. In fact, I basked in it. Mr. Malamud's class I took two years later, after a year away from Bennington. He required that we submit work to him before we were allowed to take the course, so I assume that the other students felt as I did when admitted—confirmed in some way and also frightened. I had submitted the little work I'd been able to do while working full-time at Harper and Row (as it was called in 1964) and living on East Eleventh Street between Avenue B and Avenue C with my boyfriend, also a college dropout. I'd set up a desk in one of our two rooms that I didn't use very often, not for lack of time but for lack of knowing how to go about writing.
I wish I could repeat lessons Mr. Malamud taught about fiction but I remember very few of his exact words in the classroom. What I do remember is the sense he gave that every word had to be chosen carefully, not just to make a pleasing sound or even to communicate information or a subject, but because the choice had a moral dimension. He brought to writing and to literature a strict and serious devotion that was almost religious in intensity. He once told me that to become a writer, you sacrifice your twenties—and then he went on with a sad litany of what happened to the other decades. He himself had undertaken to become a writer as a mission, not as a career or an opportunity for a certain kind of life. When he was my teacher he was already acclaimed. He had a keen interest in his work being counted among the best of his time. He praised freely writers he admired (such as Flannery O'Connor). Mr. Malamud set a standard that was very high and that, he let us know, was the one thing worth aiming for as a writer.
In class I kept track of who was getting more praise, who was better, who might get published, who was a real writer. I don't know if other students did the same, but it soured me on writing classes. Malamud's class was the last I was in as a student, and for years it influenced the way I taught. My first desire as a teacher of writing was to protect the feelings of my students (which I imagined to be identical with my own as a student), and to create a noncompetitive, helpful atmosphere in the classroom. At Bennington, senior literature majors wrote a senior thesis, an extended term paper, really. I wanted to write a creative thesis but was judged not to have enough feeling for fiction. Instead I wrote on the idea of friendship in F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ford Madox Ford. Students for a Democratic Society was just coming into the news, along with the Vietnam War, and my tutor upbraided me at every session: "Look what your friends are doing!"
At Bennington, I gained two lifelong friends, and I learned a trade. This I did by dropping out of school for a year and working in the college text department of Harper and Row. Once I returned to Bennington, I worked during each nonresident term and during the summer vacation at a publishing house, improving my skills in book production and copyediting. It was as a copyeditor that I made my living from 1968 when I graduated until 1974, when I had my first full-time teaching job.
When I graduated from Bennington, I wanted to be a writer but had no idea how to go about it. I knew that I had to earn a living, and there was a job waiting for me at Grove Press in Manhattan. I went down to the city, found an apartment, and began to work. My apartment was on Bleecker and MacDougal. I think I was the only non-Italian in the building. Before I moved in—I'd left a few suitcases in the apartment—I was robbed of most of my jewelry. This period of living in New York and working first for Grove and then as a freelance copyeditor for other houses was fruitful for the stories I later wrote (such as "Watch Time Fly") but essentially miserable. I had broken up with my college boyfriend and was seeing first a medical student and then a graduate student in anthropology at Princeton. Each I assumed I would marry; neither lasted very long. Days I worked and intended to write at night but I rarely did. At Grove Press I had a good example of a working writer in Gilbert Sorrentino, who was an editor there. Gil woke up early and wrote for several hours before coming to work. He was an example, like Malamud, of a fiercely dedicated writer.
Every few months my aunt Molly came down from the Bronx and we went out to lunch near Grove Press. She talked about my mother's death as if it had happened yesterday, but it seemed to me to be so long ago that I had forgotten it entirely, and forgotten the rest of my family as well. I wasn't engaged by my family story but by the future in which I would be living in the country, married, writing, and in a quiet and peaceful state that had nothing to do with living and working in New York. If anyone had asked me if I were waiting for marriage, country life, writing, I would have denied it hotly. The times were so noisy from 1968 to 1973 that the life I wanted—an echo of my happiest time as a child—seemed not only outmoded but inaccessible, as if the world in which one might be happy had come to an end. The noise came from the Vietnam War, and the antiwar movement, then from the women's movement, and from the more amorphous movement of many people my age to find new ways of living together. Social and political forces combined to such an extent that even those I knew who were primarily concerned with their own ambition and psychotherapy felt that their self-improvement was a political act. Everything was up for grabs. Everything could be reinvented. I imagined myself then as knowing and conscious, but I was blissfully unaware of much that would come back to haunt me and my friends: madness, drugs, jail terms, and for some a final disappearance into the underground political world. I wanted out but I didn't know where to go.
A break in the noise came on some weekends and in the summer when I and other friends went to upstate New York, just over the border from Vermont. I tried to write and to extend my ability to concentrate by following some advice from Susie Crile, a painter and friend from Bennington days, whose farmhouse slowly became the center of my life for years to come. She suggested that I sit at the typewriter for five minutes until that amount of time became bearable—not necessarily to write, just to sit—and extend that in small increments until I could stay there and work. The result of the exercise was that I grew used to being restless and nervous, and continued to work despite myself.
Susie's house is a turn-of-the-century farmhouse, not remarkable for itself—white asbestos siding, blue trim, big porch on two sides—but for its setting at the top of a hill overlooking other, smaller, rounded hills. Her land is mostly fields (half of them untillable for being wet or steep) that stretch to a wood. Especially in Susie's farmhouse and in a rambling stone mill that another friend had turned into a pottery factory/commune, I found a different life, still turbulent but quieter. I felt protected by the landscape, the isolation, even by the calm architecture of the Federalist and Greek Revival houses.
I quit my job at Grove Press because I didn't like working in an office, and began working as a freelance copyeditor on Sisterhood Is Powerful, an anthology of the nascent women's movement, edited by Robin Morgan for Random House. I moved back to the Upper West Side and was lucky enough to find work from other houses. The manuscripts I copyedited were varied: Hemingway's Islands in the Stream, The Greening of America, mysteries, and novels. Copyediting was an important part of my education as a writer; in fact it was a superior kind of reading in which I had to be able to recall a quirky spelling from hundreds of pages back and to organize a manuscript into the particular style of the house. Through one of the smaller houses I worked for I was given an introduction to Dominique de Menil, the art patron and collector who lived in Houston and New York. Mrs. de Menil needed a copyeditor for a large catalogue she was doing for a show of Greek and Roman art from Texas collections. When all the material for the catalogue was ready I went upstate for the summer. Susie's farmhouse had been badly damaged over the winter by burst pipes, and so Susie and I rented space above a drugstore in a nearby town. She set up a rudimentary painting studio and I made a big table area for all the entries which I then laboriously organized and styled into a manuscript. The catalogue entries were dry and technical, and I kept my radio tuned to the Watergate hearings, which were also dry and technical but with secrets and passions running underneath. The dull serenity of the catalogue's language was a reproach to my life in New York, which had begun to feel impossible.
At the end of the summer, the manuscript was sent off to the printer, and I was asked to go to Hamburg when the proofs were ready. It was my first trip to Europe. Once I'd completed my work in Germany, I took advantage of the open air-ticket and went to visit friends in Sweden. He was an American doctor who had left the army (a VA hospital in Staten Island). His wife was a friend from summer camp. They were living just outside Stockholm in a neighborhood called Solna, in a district called Hagalund whose gingerbread cottages were being torn down to make way for giant apartment blocks. My friends and other Americans I met were involved with the deserter/resister community in Sweden.
Hagalund was anything but noisy. It was a grinding halt, in fact. I stayed on for no apparent reason but passivity and an inability to decide to leave, which included not knowing what I would do if I left. I tried to write a story about my friend who made lists and transferred to each day's list that which was unaccomplished the day before, but I didn't get much past a stark beginning. My paralysis was broken by a letter from Dominique de Menu asking me if I would care to begin work on a project called "The Iconography of the Black in Western Art." This supposedly temporary freelance job would be my support for more than five years.
My winter in Sweden was the basis of my first novel (unpublished) "Talking about the Weather," a short story called "A Long Conversation," and now a long story "Hagalund," completed in the summer of 1992. After twenty years of trying to write it, I am finally content with the story.
I returned to New York knowing that I had to start writing in earnest, and indeed within a year I had completed enough of a short novel to apply for and be accepted for a stay of several months at Yaddo in Saratoga Springs. What the summer at Yaddo showed me, aside from how long a day can be when all one does in it is write, was that I had finally begun to work. No one at Yaddo—other than I—questioned my right to be there, though I had never been published and had written little. I was treated with respect and friendliness. I met others who were further along the road and had been battered by the journey. I thought that I would never feel bitter or neglected, nor would I ever share in shoptalk as if we were all plumbers or accountants. I assumed, as the young assume of aging, that these things happened to other people.
Most importantly, Yaddo gave me a model for a quiet life of concentration and work, a life stripped down to essentials. That it was a model with built-in distortions didn't take away from its lesson. I returned to the city, to my harum-scarum social life and to my friends who were at loose ends or worse. New York was by then a source of constant irritation. I never took the subway, only the bus or my car, and this meant that it took forever to get anywhere in the day and that I had to be home before eleven o'clock when the garage closed or risk walking on the street alone at night, which terrified me. I distrusted the water and the air. I took the city personally. The moments that were happiest to me were on the West Side Highway heading north for the country, and when I passed over the bridge into Bronxville I felt as relieved as if I'd escaped wolves snapping at my VW's tires.
In December 1972 I returned to Yaddo for another, longer visit. There were very few guests, and the mansion was closed so most of us were in West House. I preferred Yaddo with fewer people and with the lawns and woods covered by snow. The beauty of the landscaping was starker and easier to see, and the place just seemed more peaceful to me than in the summer and still does. There was a little of the feeling of being at an orphanage over the holidays, but it was for the most part a congenial group. I met Robert Towers during that visit, the critic and novelist who with his family became part of my life in upstate New York. One fond memory I have is of New Year's Eve when we all sat around on the rather uncomfortable chairs in the library above the Garage and passed the time by telling stories. The best storyteller was Curt Harnack (then director of Yaddo), who told of a friend's drowning that he'd always suspected was a murder. I learned more about the difficulties of being a writer when I saw the near homelessness of one old poet who wandered from colony to colony, nearly destitute. I felt my own loneliness at my self-imposed exile from New York. But my writing each day made up for it, or almost did, and in any case there was a balance that I had to make or else the rootlessness of a Hagalund life might repeat itself on a permanent basis.
In February 1973 I moved to Susie Crile's farmhouse. Taking all the good of my time at Yaddo and putting all the bad of my recent life on the city, I decided to see if I could live alone and write in the country. My friends said I was brave, but I felt as if I had no choice.
I tried to maintain the Yaddo quiet and the Yaddo schedule. I soon discovered that if I didn't have a measurable goal for the day's work, the day and the work stretched interminably. Also that even the small but regular sociability of Yaddo had so cut my loneliness and my anxiety that I could work ten times better there than alone in the farmhouse. But Yaddo wasn't a possibility for a real life and this was. I persevered and made rules for myself: I wasn't allowed to leave the house until I had done X amount of work; I wasn't allowed to go to town for the paper until I had done X amount of work; I wasn't allowed even to telephone anyone until I had at least started to work. Then and now, getting down to work is a maddening combina-tion of hacking away at a jungle of annoying tasks and volunteering to do any small and petty job to avoid work. I read once that John McPhee ties himself to his chair with an old bathrobe belt and it seems like a sensible idea. Once there in your chair, why fool around?
Alone in the farmhouse on top of the hill, I did a lot of writing, and I began to make country friends. A painter, Constance Kheel, whom I'd gone to Bennington with lived nearby with her husband and baby; a potter from the mill bad bought a farmhouse on the next road where she lived with her husband and daughter. Nearer to Greenwich (the next town) lived two artists, Gerald Coble and Robert Nunnelley, whose house I wrote about in a short story "Listening to Married Friends." When my first story was published and Gerald said it was as good as anything, I felt that I had the best praise I could want. He is a rare person who brings to all his tasks—gardening, cooking, working on his house—the patience, concentration, and integrity necessary to make art. When spring came along I was still in the country and still involved in the test that living there meant to me: could I survive on my own, could I survive and write in the quiet? I had the world polarized to that small part of New York State or New York City. I couldn't see beyond those two possibilities. I had embarked on another novel, one that was never published, that I called "Terrible Algebra," from a letter of Henry James's in which he wrote that when one is tempted to criticize the terrible algebra of another's life, one should consider the awful geometry of one's own, which now reads clearly as a plea for tolerance. Then it seemed to be a statement of the equal messiness of all the lives in my novel.
My potter/neighbor mentioned that there was a little house down the road for sale. I had been exploring the possibility of fixing up an eighteenth-century house in a nearby village. The white clapboard house I eventually bought was hidden from the road at the end of a dirt lane. It was in the brow of a hill, down the back of Susie's hill, and the small piece of land (about nine acres) ended in the woods that joined Susie's. There was a shed that the owner called a pig shed, a small barn, and a large hay barn with room below for cows or (as it turned out) for ewes and lambs. The owner was a musician whose wife had left him. The house was a mess. He'd decorated the living room with a poster of Jimi Hendrix with bicycle chains crossed over it. When he showed me where he and his wife had had their vegetable garden, he said, "It's a dream gone by," and I felt the same ten years later when I sold the place.
There was a lilac hedge along the drive, hydrangea next to the little barn, a red lilac bush in the corral, and a view down the descending hills all the way to the Berkshires—or so I thought. The small piece of land was triangular, with a neglected apple orchard, a swampy front field, and a sloping hay field behind. My address was Fly Summit Road. With no savings in the bank, no job guarantee, and no reason to be there, I bought the house. (Before approving the mortgage, the local bank asked for a letter explaining why a young unmarried woman would want to bury herself in the country.)
The first summer I continued to live at Susie's while I and others worked on the house. By the fall I was living in my own house, getting ready for another winter. I had carved out a bedroom, living room, kitchen, and bathroom. By the time I left Fly Summit there was another room and the upstairs was waiting for walls. The responsibility of owning the place, the beauty of the setting, and the severity of my situation made me at times ecstatically happy and at other times despairing. I was lonely all the time. But I also became more able to rely on myself. It didn't occur to me until years later that I was trying to recreate our house in New Jersey where I had been happy as a child, and that I was trying to recreate my mother's presence by involving myself in the activities she loved: fixing up an old house, gardening, cooking. What was missing was a family. What I had was my writing which I made into the only cornerstone I had.
Wendy Weil became my agent the summer I bought Fly Summit and she remains my agent and friend. I finished "Terrible Algebra" at Fly Summit and survived its being rejected for several years until Wendy and I finally gave up. I had begun writing short stories on Wendy's advice, and five years after I began to write seriously the New Yorker bought "Last Winter." When my job with Mrs. de Menil ended, I was thirty years old, living alone in an old and unfinished farmhouse with two cats, a mortgage, and no steady means of support. I might have sold the place and moved back to New York, gotten an editing job, anything other than staying put, but staying put and surviving had come to be synonymous to me. For the next few years I lived month-to-month on a small grant from New York State, a one-term teaching job in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, research work for a friend's father, and, occasionally—the best of times—selling stories.
My editor at the New Yorker was Fran Kiernan, who had attended Hunter briefly. I had read the magazine since I was a child, and my idea of a New Yorker editor was a glimpse I once had of Rachel MacKenzie—white hair, fragile, white gloves. Fran, it turned out, was only a year older than I—pretty, blonde, funny, and sharp. Working with her for the next twelve years until she left the New Yorker was the education that I see students wanting from graduate school. She was (and still is) in many ways my ideal reader, able to understand my intentions and inferences. She asked the right questions that helped me open up a story. Fran and William Shawn were the best readers I've ever known, the most sympathetic, sensitive, intelligent, and tireless. Fran is my model as an editor in my relations with the writers whom I publish in American Short Fiction, the quarterly I founded in 1990.
Summers at Fly Summit went by too quickly, as summers do in the East. During the winters, I read and wrote, jogged or walked or tried to ski in the hay field, chopped wood, cooked, saw friends, hoped for visitors, and waited for spring. I read and re-read Anthony Powell's A Dance to the Music of Time. I'm not sure why. It was not the specific English subject matter of his masterpiece that fascinated me, but his accomplishment in expressing change as it takes place over time—change of personality, change of scene, and also the unchanging nature of character. The relaxed skill of Powell as narrator allowed me as a reader and as an apprentice writer to connect to his work. When I think of peaceful winter times at Fly Summit, I think of afternoons when my own writing was finished for the day, and I read on the extra-long orange velvet couch that friends had given me, twelve feet from my busy woodstove. I have never recovered from the nervous anticipation I developed during those years about the mail. My mailbox was a half-mile away, at a neighbor's farm, and I had to decide each day whether to walk, jog, or drive to it, guessing if the mail truck had been there yet or not. I had the feeling that anything could come in the mail, and that something might change my life.
By 1978, I was ready to leave Fly Summit. I did not think of it this way. I thought that I simply had to find a more stable way to make a living. I was spending so much time worrying about money that what I was supposedly gaining by living in the country—peace and quiet and a lack of distraction—was destroyed. I interviewed for jobs at two universities and, by chance, also talked to a friend in Houston who was starting a magazine and who needed a copyeditor. Though I felt then as if I were being expelled from the only appropriate life and place for me as a writer, I view leaving that beautiful place as one of the first wise moves I've ever made, also my choice of a magazine job in Houston, Texas, rather than either of the jobs I was offered in small university towns. In October 1978 I drove from upstate New York to Houston in my blue Pinto station wagon that was loaded with everything I could cram into it, and settled into an apartment in a neighborhood across from the eventual site of the Menil Collection. The people I worked with at Houston City Magazine were young and bright. There was an improvisational air to the magazine. I found myself with energy for more work, more friendships, more activity than I'd seen in years. I woke early in the morning and wrote for two hours until it was time to dress for work. At night I went to concerts, attended the opera for the first time in my life, and had dinner with friends. My first book was accepted for publication by Viking Press that fall, and the publication felt like a full-circle achievement to me. I had begun the title novella The Glass House as a short story called "Four Way Stop" after an extended period of work in Houston for Mrs. de Menil, and I had finished it my last year at Fly Summit.
At first I viewed my time in Houston as temporary. I planned to return to Fly Summit as soon as I could. But I was offered a teaching job the following year at the University of Houston and I stayed on after a summer visit East. My staying on has continued for fifteen years.
My discovery of Texas happened over time, as did my slow but lasting love for it. It never occurred to me that I would stay in Texas, partly because I had come from a beautiful landscape and Houston, for all its virtues, doesn't offer much in the way of physical beauty. But it offered people I liked who seemed delighted that I was here, and then it offered interiors with a beauty I hadn't seen before. Sooner or later, my eye began to adjust and instead of looking for the sights I was used to, I was able to enjoy the quirkiness and individuality of the new place. I have changed too much to be comfortable living in the East again. Sometime when I wasn't noticing, my sense of proportion altered. The sky in the East looks too small, the horizon too crowded.
I saw pieces of Texas during my first three years—Galveston, Port Aransas, Lake Whitney, Dallas, Austin—but it has taken me years to understand and really be able to distinguish the different zones and landscapes. My first Christmas in Texas, my younger sister joined me and we drove to a friend's house on Lake Whitney. We cooked out Christmas Eve over a wood fire and congratulated ourselves on being warm for a change at that season. When we woke up the world was covered by two inches of ice, there was no power for miles around, and I had to chip at the lock to open the Pinto. I took this bewildering experience as an aberration rather than as a Texas rule. Changed as I am, I still wait for northern weather that stays the same for months at a time. Here in Texas I can't date memories by remembering the weather and knowing it is spring or winter. I have never gotten used to the fact that cold doesn't last here but warmth does.
I met my husband, Joel Warren Barna, in January 1979 when he started as a writer for Houston City Magazine. We married two years later during a snowstorm in Westchester County at our friends Michael and Elinore Standard, and a few weeks later I took off for the Paisano Ranch, near Austin, while Joel stayed in Galveston to edit the magazine of which he was then part owner. For the six months I had the Dobie Paisano fellowship, I lived alone (with our dog Blanche) at the 240-acre ranch outside of Austin, and Joel and I were together on weekends, either at the ranch or in Galveston. My father visited me at the ranch, a visit I remember fondly, and other friends from New York and California. But mostly I was alone and I had a chance to work and to explore Barton Creek and the land. I wrote most of my second book, The Shadow Line, on the ranch, and I set my fourth novel there, "The Stars at Night." I came to love the ranch and to see it as the heart of Texas, though Texans from other regions might disagree. It was a hardscrabble place, never grand or prosperous, and being there was an initiation into feeling at home in Texas.
After the ranch, my husband and I moved to Dallas briefly, then to Austin, where we lived in a hand-built stone house on a cliff on the outskirts of the city while I worked on Tuxedo Park and enjoyed a Guggenheim Fellowship. In 1983 we moved to the small town south of Austin where we still live in an old house that little by little we have made comfortable. I sold the house in Fly Summit a few years after we moved.
In 1983, I began teaching at the University of Texas at Austin. I never expected to become a teacher, though it is a logical and often convenient job for a writer. When I graduated from Bennington I had a feeling of triumph that at last I had escaped and that I would never again have to enter a classroom. Given such a feeling, my first few years as a teacher were predictably rough. I doubted that what I was doing was either honest or honorable. I didn't know what I could teach to the undergraduates who were sure that they were writers or to those who were looking for an easy A. Although each year I found one or two students whom I liked teaching, it wasn't until I had the kind of good graduate students that I have now at the University of Texas that I realized what I have to offer. I have my skills as an editor, my experience as a writer, and whatever patience and wisdom I possess. If I am able to do anything as a teacher, it is to convince students that writing is its own reward, and always will be. If I can interest the students in the process of writing and help them to understand how to work past a promising (or even unpromising) first draft to a story's final form, then I've done what I can do. After almost ten years of teaching, I sometimes even enjoy myself. I have started to teach literature, and I've had to work hard to learn this new skill. Partly through teaching a graduate course in nonfiction by fiction writers, I've begun to write a memoir about my adolescence, a shift that surprises and interests me.
In 1989 my husband and I adopted a baby, and since then my life has been changed more than by any other event, with the exception of my mother's death. The happiness I had before was incomplete, and I still thought that my work as a writer was the most important thing I would do in my life. Now my work as a writer, though crucial to me, can take its place in a more balanced life. Often when I'm with my husband and son, I remember Fly Summit and I see that they were what I was missing in my idyllic setting and my life devoted solely to writing. With more external demands on my time and energy than there have ever been before, I am working on the sequel to Tuxedo Park. In an interview, Anthony Powell said that when, after the war, he had to decide what fiction to start writing, he chose a series of novels with the same characters because all writers use the same characters over and over, giving them different names and locations, so why not use the same ones?
I always wish the day were longer but I no longer feel that I must work quickly before disaster overtakes me, as I did when I was younger. The balance between a full life of family and a job on the one hand and my writing on the other often seems impossible to achieve. At the best of times I forget to try to balance and I find myself midway across the tightrope, not looking down.
Laura Furman contributed the following update to CA in 2005:
THE PARTICULAR HAPPINESS OF WRITING
The house I owned in the 1970s, in Cambridge, New York, where I lived alone and wrote, was not broom-clean after the closing. The seller had removed the poster of Jimi Hendrix from the parlor wall, but he'd left a bamboo couch, a chair with one broken wing, an old secretary, damp magazines, and empty beer cans. It didn't look as though he'd sold the place so much as been evicted from it, and I would get to act the part of landlord, sending the abandoned possessions scuttling to the garbage pile. Upstairs, I found a different order of mess; his was contemporary, this was historical. Three rooms were filled with shadowy objects: a broken quilting frame, an early sewing machine, lengths of laces and pieces of material that cracked when unfolded.
One artifact is with me more than thirty years later—a collection of twenty-three diaries from 1874-1902. In the nineteenth century, many people kept diaries, or daybooks. My diarist, Mary Ann Rathbun, was not unique in her quotidian recording, nor is it especially uncommon that the little books would end up in the hands of a stranger. In attics, at yard sales, in the bottom of mystery boxes sold at country auctions, such records can be found and acquired.
The diaries in my house didn't seem important then, nor did I feel particularly as if I owned them. They were just there. Overwhelmed by the immediate task of moving into the house, I didn't pay much attention to the diaries, but over the next few years I'd visit them periodically where they waited in their box upstairs. In the early years, the diaries were in medias res, and the later ones less varied, but I did notice a phrase that was repeated through all the years, "I done what I could."
At twenty-seven, faced with a house that needed everything and a budget that permitted little, with my hopes of writing and only writing for a living, and of making a home in the shell of another life from another time, that phrase, "I done what I could," sounded fatal. It spoke of resignation, of a life lived by inches rather than bounds. So I shut the diaries and left them until the next time I returned upstairs and opened them again. I thought I was waiting for them to tell me something I needed to know, but I was, rather, waiting to become the person who could hear what they had to say.
At the conclusion of "The Writer as Illusionist," collected in A William Maxwell Portrait, William Maxwell asks why anyone would want to be a writer, given the endless difficulties, internal and external, of the enterprise. He dismisses immortality as a bet with very long odds.
Money? Well, money is not money any more. Fame? For the young, who are in danger always of being ignored, of being overlooked at the party, perhaps, but no one over the age of forty who is in his right mind would want to be famous. It would interfere with his work, with his family life.
Still, the act of writing is the basis of life for a writer.
You might as well ask a sailor why it is that he has chosen to spend his life at sea.
When I first read his words, I was under forty and, though I knew that Maxwell was right, I wanted everything he dismissed.
What did he mean that money wasn't money anymore? In 1982, when a friend handed me Maxwell's essay in a privately printed pamphlet, I was teaching in a university, something I, a lifelong school-phobe, had never intended to do. The job had landed me and my husband, not entirely happily, in a city where neither of us wanted to live. Money looked a lot like freedom to me.
As for fame, it didn't seem as though it had to be a bad thing. In the sixties, I witnessed the lives of a few famous and rich artists. The complications and confusions of their lives seemed to have nothing to do with fame and money, and everything to do with the twists of their own characters. Anyway, I didn't hope for so much as they had, only enough to feel secure and to be able to be free to write. However addled by the demands of their income and the public expectations of their art, the artists were free to work only on their art. No day jobs for them.
Nowadays when I spot in certain graduate students the fierceness I felt about my future, the recognition makes me uncomfortable for them and for myself. The madness of their desire for fame, publication, and money is appropriate to their age and stage, as it was to mine, but that doesn't make it any prettier to watch, especially for one who is past it.
But past what? A certain meridian perhaps, a shadow line, that appears in every life, the before and the after, not of disaster but of ambition. It's a useful emotion to keep you going when you're young and hungry but terribly destructive as you live longer and have more important things at stake than success. When I was young, success in publication and in writing seemed synonymous. It wasn't yet clear that there are different kinds of ambition and the kind that has to do with the business of writing and making a living can undermine the better kind of ambition, which leads one back, forever, to the art of writing.
In Maxwell's phrase, I'm a sailor who must go to sea, but who finds that the next voyage is easier when the world tells you you're doing the right thing. In the beginning of my writing time, I had a lot of good fortune: a supportive agent, an editor who made a profound difference to my writing, and my own persistence and willingness to keep working no matter what.
In 1982, I had published one book (a collection of stories and a novella), and I'd just finished a novel. Between then and now I've published two more collections of stories, another novel, a memoir, and an anthology about reading that I co-edited with a dear friend. In 2002, I became series editor of The O. Henry Prize Stories, which is an honor and a pleasure. My day job is a good one, Professor of English at the University of Texas at Austin. My family and I live in Austin, a city we love, in a house built in 1972 and rebuilt by us in 2002. By any reasonable measure, any sensible measure, my life is rich.
By the less-sane measure of ambition, I am in a state of wanting. Though I've published a good number of books, I've written more. Coming to peace with the unpublished and probably never to be published work of years is difficult, but my plight is far from unique. In the past, in America, it was possible for a writer's work to sell three thousand copies and be considered respectable. In the days before corporate ownership, publishers preferred to make money. Now they must do so. Corporate pressure on editors finds its way to writers. Mid-list writers with small, steady sales and good critical reputations have for over a decade found it hard to get their work published. One solution to the problem of dwindling commercial publication is to find a small publisher, and in this, too, I was fortunate with my last two books. But the assurance of a long-term relationship with a publisher—large, small, commercial, academic—is a thing of the past for me and for the majority of writers. In the absence of serious hope of publication or remuneration for years of work, my youthful ambitions proved painful.
Mid-life is the time to abandon the illusions and hopes of youth, and to determine what is still possible and what is worthy; do I need to say that this process of evaluation is no fun at all?
Yet from this process, I've come to understand what William Maxwell meant.
Fame, even if it only takes the form of worrying about reputation, is an insidious disruption, depleting time, energy, and integrity from work. Time is something that sensible people past forty realize they don't have much of anymore. With that realization, time to work becomes more precious, as does time to be with family and friends you love.
Immortality? Now that I've seen literary reputations go through boom and bust cycles, immortality seems like a crapshoot, not the righteous result of greatness or talent, as I imagined when I was a young and naïve reader.
And what about money?
Having money makes many things in life easier, but it doesn't suffice. There's an old story that John D. Rockefeller was asked how much money is enough, and he replied, "Just a little bit more." We're talking about the illusion of satiety and security, an illusion that goes with experience. Money isn't what it used to be, that is, what one used to believe it was.
What's left to me as a writer, once the goals of fame, immortality, and money are eliminated, is an inner restlessness that can only be submitted to: my need to write.
The creation of problems and the search for their repercussions: this is the essence of writing. You think of a character, a woman standing before a window, a pine table nearby and bookshelves, a fireplace with a wing chair on one side, an armchair and ottoman on the other. It's evening, almost dark, and outside the window snow is falling, the kind of dry big-flaked snow that piles up by morning. It's an old window, eight-over-eight panes, and some of the glass is bubbly. Is she alone? There's a man in the wing chair, and he's slumped over a book. What is she about to do, and why is he so still?
There's no greater pleasure for me than being absorbed in my work. Each of the six novels I've written, published and unpublished, has taken me years to write, and during those years the most unconscious, the deepest part of me, lives for the writing. I don't live in the world of the book, I hover in it like a ghost, watching, analyzing, hoping for revelation. When I am concentrated on writing, transmitting the visions of the fictional world into words, I am finally at home, and nothing else matters. The only thing that can bring about the particular happiness of writing is one's self. The internal world of writing costs nothing but a lifetime of devotion. The experience has nothing to do with how any reader will judge the final effort.
An old friend, an artist in Albuquerque, has a terrible time continuing to make art when her work seems without a place in the world. To continue to work for herself, sometimes showing the work and sometimes not, seems to her immoral and self-indulgent.
But the business of showing, of publication, is not the business of at least certain kinds of artists. With difficulty I've come to accept that I have no control over whether or not anyone publishes, reads, likes my work, whether or not the work gives me any sort of recompense, emotional or material. Such matters are absolutely none of my business, and involvement in them has brought me nothing but trouble. The worst trouble comes when I'm not working, a disconnection and pain far worse than being broke, unknown, or forgotten when I'm dead.
In 1997, I began a novel I'm still working on, though several times I thought I was finished with it. The book has changed many times but has always contained a woman of a certain age who finds a collection of nineteenth-century diaries. Among other plots, she tries to understand why she finds them so intriguing.
The diaries have been with me since 1973, and are with me still, resting in two boxes underneath my writing-table. The diarist is better known to me now that eleven of the diaries are transcribed. The family graveyard where she, her husband, and her in-laws, as well as several of her children, are buried isn't far from where I lived, though it took me decades to find it. My Xeroxed copy of the genealogical record of her husband's family is well-worn; I've been using it for years to trace the names in the diaries. I've visited a family house, and walked the land she and her husband farmed. There are no photographs of her, so I don't know what she looked like, though she mentions that they went into Greenwich to have their pictures taken. She was born in England in 1823 and came to the United States as a child in the 1830s. One source has it that her father's name was Humboldt and her mother's Woodhouse, but I've found nothing about the port where she landed at about the age of eight, the location of her parents' graves in America, why she ended up married to a farmer in Washington County, New York, or how she met him. As far as my research goes, you could say that I've done what I could. The rest is up to my imagination.
The diaries aren't easy reading. The diarist is matter-of-fact. Her moments of emotional expression in the years of diary-keeping can be counted on one hand. On August 12, 1877, she comments: "It was a long lonesome day and very warm," this on a Sunday, the day devoted to family visits. If no one came, or not enough people, or perhaps not the right people, she repeated this comment, but not many times in her long life. She was, rather, a reporter of daily accomplishments and events, when the rye was planted, the beef slaughtered, bread baked, the wash done, dried, and ironed, when she and her daughters began, worked on, and finished a garment or quilt. She recorded visits, illnesses, deaths, and births. She prepared bodies for burial, stayed with her adult children when they were ill, cooked, baked, and did all she could. Faithfully, she recorded the weather, how hot, how cold, how a freakish hard freeze destroyed all the peaches on May 12, 1875. Taken one by one, the entries aren't interesting. It's only when the cumulative effect of many such entries takes hold, that a reader is, that I am, in the grip of the life she lived.
There are several reasons for my abiding interest in Mary Ann Rathbun, but the most important is my fascination with her writing—not with her style and not even with the content of the diaries, interesting as it is as a record of life on a nineteenth-century farm. My faithful interest is with the fact of her writing at all.
Here was a woman who worked every day of her life. When she wasn't well enough to work, either because she was ill or in her old age, she still did what she could. The activity of keeping the household and farm going formed the basis of her life. She did not ask why she should work, why she should sew, mend, cook, clean, decorate, why she should help with anything that needed doing for any of her daughters and sons and their daughters and sons. This work was her sea and she the sailor on it.
Yet at the end of a long day of work (there's internal evidence that she wrote at night), she gave herself another chore, to record what the day had brought. If something happened at night that should be included in the diary, she took the trouble to add it to her daily entry. For example, one winter, on the way back from Schuylerville where he'd gone to get his anvil fixed, her husband was forced to take shelter at a friend's house from a bad storm. In the absence of the telephone, she couldn't have known either his whereabouts or what kept him from home until his arrival the next day, yet the entry reads as if she knew it as it happened. She cared not only to make the daily record but to make it right.
Given that the diaries could have been destroyed as arbitrarily as they were preserved, the question has to be asked: Make the record right for whom?
She wasn't a reader. In her world, only letters are read as a commonplace. Once, her son Kinnie, or Kenyon, came home from town with a magazine, and the diarist reads it. She doesn't say what magazine it was or what subjects it covered, only that the magazine was there and that she read it. In the absence of the habit of reading on her part or her family's, who could she hope would read her careful record?
The question can never be answered. My surmise is that her potential readership wasn't a problem for Mary Ann Rathbun. She devoted her life to things that require care, skill, and nurturing, things that perish and are forgotten. The house, the animals, the garments and quilts, the meals and washing and ironing, and even the people, everything she cared about would pass; why not the diaries too?
Mary Ann Rathbun's diaries are examples of steadiness, devotion, and even simplicity. When I look into them, I search for the complications, the liveliness, the son who wandered to the West and became a private detective, the teenaged daughter whose death and funeral were never mentioned, the forces that keep a family together. But this is my fictionalizing. Her text stays the same, "I done what I could," "The bees swarmed today," "Today the bluebirds came."
If I've learned anything from the time I've spent reading and researching Mary Ann Rathbun's diaries, it is to admire her accretive piling-up of small details into a life. At a glacial pace, her world was recorded.
My life as a writer, anyone's life as a writer, involves making a commitment not once but over and over. Part of what makes writing possible for me is a devotion similar to Mary Ann Rathbun's, but in my case I would also call it a liberation. When I'm free of ambition, desire for recognition, the old idea of money, at last the room is quiet enough for me to start my work. As I grow older, the possibility of such clarity, despite the real and cherished demands of the rest of my life, is increasingly dear. Now I know what's possible to do, and it's worth a lifetime's effort.
When I'm able in my writing to create a person in a moment in a place, then I can feel that, in this passing instant, I've done what I could, and, until the next impulse moves me to begin the next sentence, I'm happy in my work.
©Laura Furman, 2005
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Baxter, Charles, Michael Collier, and Edward Hirsch, editors, A William Maxwell Portrait, Norton (New York, NY), 2004, p. 228.
Dictionary of Literary Biography Yearbook: 1986, Gale (Detroit, MI), 1987.
Furman, Laura, Ordinary Paradise, Winedale Publishing (Houston, TX), 1998.
Austin American-Statesman, September 20, 1998, Anne Morris, "Furman Uses Memoir as Balm for Pain," review of Ordinary Paradise, p. D5; November 2, 2003, Dorman T. Shindler, "O Henry. Would Be Proud of Prize-winning Stories," p. K5.
Bloomsbury Review, January, 1997, review of Bookworms, p. 14.
Booklist, November 15, 1996, Donna Seaman, review of Bookworms, p. 566; September 1, 1998, GraceAnne A. DeCandido, review of Ordinary Paradise, p. 57; September 1, 2003, James Klise, review of The O. Henry Prize Stories 2003, p. 59; November 15, 2004, Marta Segal Block, review of The O. Henry Prize Stories 2005, p. 562.
Detroit Free Press, April 11, 2001, Marta Salij, "Short Stories Have a Pow-Pow-Pow That Novels Can't Get Across, and These Are Three Good Ones."
Houston Chronicle, October 25, 1998, Emily Fox Gordon, review of Ordinary Paradise, p. 25; December 16, 1998, Barbara Karkabi, "Memoir Traces Painful Path to Forgotten Past," p. 1; May 20, 2001, Barbara Liss, review of Drinking with the Cook, p. 16.
Kirkus Reviews, July 15, 1998, review of Ordinary Paradise, p. 1014; August 1, 2003, review of The O. Henry Prize Stories 2003, p. 977; October 15, 2004, review of The O. Henry Prize Stories 2005, p. 976.
Kliatt, January, 2004, Nola Theiss, review of The O. Henry Prize Stories 2003, p. 26.
Knowledge Quest, May, 1998, review of Bookworms, p. 58.
Library Journal, June 15, 1982; November 15, 1996, Nancy Patterson Shires, review of Bookworms, p. 62.
Los Angeles Times, September 13, 1982; October 10, 1986, Elaine Kendall, review of Tuxedo Park; April 2, 2001, Merle Rubin, review of Drinking with the Cook, p. E3.
New Republic, January 5, 1987; January 12, 1987.
New York Times Book Review, November 9, 1980, Lynne Sharon Schwartz, review of The Glass House; October 9, 1983; September 28, 1986, Frances Taliaferro, review of Tuxedo Park; January 24, 1999, Andrea Cooper, review of Ordinary Paradise, p. 18; June 3, 2001, Deborah Mason, review of Drinking with the Cook, p. 53.
Publishers Weekly, August 3, 1998, review of Ordinary Paradise, p. 64; March 19, 2001, review of Drinking with the Cook, p. 75; October 13, 2003, review of The O. Henry Prize Stories 2003, p. 58; January 10, 2005, review of The O. Henry Prize Stories 2005, p. 39.
Tribune Books (Chicago, IL), January 11, 1987.
USA Today Magazine, May, 1997, Steven G. Kellman, review of Bookworms, p. 80.
Voice Literary Supplement, November, 1982.
Washington Post, August 20, 1986, Jonathan Yardley, review of Tuxedo Park.
Washington Post Book World, October 19, 1980, Stephen Goodwin, review of The Glass House; September 19, 1982, Suzanne Freeman, review of The Shadow Line; October 16, 1983, Eliot Fremont-Smith, review of Watch Time Fly; November 10, 1996, review of Bookworms, p. 12; November 22, 1998, review of Ordinary Paradise, p. 9; April 8, 2001, review of Drinking with the Cook, p. 13.
Beatrice.com, http://www.beatrice.com/archives/001318.html/ (April 4, 2005).
Random House Web site, http://www.randomhouse.com/anchor/ (May 6, 2005), "O. Henry Prize Stories."
University of Texas Web site, http://www.en.utexas.edu/ (May 6, 2005), "Laura Furman."