Wrestling with the Angel of the House: Collections of Interviews with Women Writers
Terry Martin, Central Washington University
And all these questions, according to the Angel of the house, cannot be dealt with freely and openly by worn en: they must charm, they must conciliate, they must-to put it bluntly-tell lies if they are to succeed. Thus, whenever I felt the shadow of her wing or the radiance of her halo upon my page, I took up the inkpot and flung it at her. She died hard.
Virginia Woolf, "Professions for Women"
Many of us who teach English language arts love to read and write, and love to listen to our favorite writers read and talk about their work as well. Whenever possible, I seek out the company of writers by attending workshops, conference presentations, public readings, and literary films. I've always enjoyed listening to, viewing, and reading interviews with writers. In the past year, I've read more than a dozen published collections of such interviews, and have found some of them to be good and others problematic --especially in terms of their treatment of women writers.
This article addresses four questions: First, why the interest in interviews with women writers in particular? Second, how are women writers represented and treated in most interview collections? Third, what are some of the best books of interviews with women writers I've found? And fourth, what do these outstanding collections have in common?
Why Women Writers?
Why collections of interviews with women writers? In her introduction to Women Writers at Work, Margaret Atwood states, "To some the answer would seem self-evident: women writers belong together because they are different from men, and the writing they do is different as well, and cannot be read with the same eyeglasses as those used for the reading of male writers." (in Plimptom, p. xi). Some would disagree with Atwood, of course. After all, art is art, right? What's gender got to do with it?
Lots. Women writers share a number of challenges particularly related to their gender. Pearlman & Henderson (1990) claim that women who write "do so (at least initially) with precarious financial backing coupled with the major responsibility for the emotional upkeep of family members and the literal upkeep of family 'mansions.' In many cases, writing comes fourth (or forth) after mates, children, and earning money to support the writing habit, at least until the 'habit' becomes self-supporting" (p. 9).
But it's not only on the 'home front' that women writers encounter and respond to additional expectations and responsibilities. They are routinely asked to contribute their time and energy to the ongoing professional discussion of gender issues and writing. As Atwood puts it, "Male writers may suffer strains on their single-minded dedication to their art for reasons of class or race or nationality, but so far no male writer is likely to be asked to sit on a panel addressing itself to the special problems of the male writer, or be expected to support another writer simply because he happens to be a man. Such things are asked of women writers all the time, and it makes them jumpy" (in Plimpton, p. xiii).
The relationship between gender and writing is complex, to say the least. Atwood notes, "Virginia Woolf may have been right about the androgynous nature of the artist, but she was right also about the differences in social situation these androgynous artists are certain to encounter. We may agree with Nadine Gordimer when she says 'by and large, I don't think it matters a damn what sex a writer is, so long as the work is that of a real writer', if what she means is that it shouldn't matter in any true assessment of talent or accomplishment, but unfortunately it often has mattered to other people" (in Plimpton, p. xiii).
And if, as prolific author Joyce Carol Gates claims, women are not as readily embraced by male critics and therefore not as widely known, interviews with women authors serve as a counterpoint. Gates, when asked about being a woman writer, noted that gender determined seriousness of attention, "Since, being a woman, I can't be taken altogether seriously by the sort of male critics who rank writers 1,2,3 in the public press, I am free, I suppose, to do as I like" (in Plimpton, p. 382).
Representation and Treatment of Women Writers in Most Interview Collections
Most published collections of interviews with working writers include few, if any women. Pearlman and Henderson claim that such books "are skewed, lopsided, and often wrongheaded: 'women writers' are usually tokens, one or two of whom are tucked into a collection with 'men writers' (a label nobody uses), mostly, it seems, to avoid feminist wrath" (p. 2). They point to The Paris Review interviews called Writers at Work (emphasis mine), as an example of such a collection. Published in eight volumes, it includes 113 interviews of which only 19 are with women. Each volume includes at least one interview with a woman; no volume includes more than three. (It should be noted that in 1989 The Paris Review issued a single separate volume of previously published interviews called Women Writers at Work, edited by George Plimpton). Author Jane Smiley is outspoken about this favoritism to male writers in the publishing world, claiming that "as far as promoting (and the acquisition of books) is concerned, there is a kind of "cronyism..." (Pearlman, p. 102).
Lack of representation is only one of many problems evident in interviews with women writers. The emphasis, substance, tone, and tenor of the interviews is another. Margaret Atwood says, "I have had it suggested to me, in all seriousness, that women ought not to write at all, since to do so is to dip one's hand, like Shakespeare's dyer, into a medium both sullied and sullying" (in Plimpton, p. xii).
The questions women writers are asked can be problematic, too. Gender-polarized questions and analyses can "reach beyond subject matter and point of view to encompass matters of structure and style: are women really more subjective? Do their novels really end with questions?" (Atwood in Plimpton, p. xii).
In their careful examination of The Paris Review interviews, Pearlman and Henderson found that "women were usually asked different, more stereotypically gender-defined questions resulting in interviews that were markedly different in tone and seriousness and were often less evocative and useful" (p. 2). In such collections it is not unusual to find an interviewer asking questions about personal details of the woman's life--gossip, sexual matters, domestic arrangements and social involvements--instead of questions about the artist and her craft. Too often "the works themselves are frequently overlooked in favor of rather blase, and often presumptuous discussions of the writers' personal lives" (Tate, p. xviii).
Another problem evident in published collections is that interviewers sometimes seem to confuse the life of the woman writer with the life of the female character(s) she has created. Susan Fromberg Schaeffer puts it this way: "Nobody inquires about the relationship between a man's latest marriage or affair and what's going on in his books, but this is a regular, chronic reflex action when you read about a woman novelist." There is, she suggests, probably an "underlying assumption that if a woman is going to expose herself in public, she deserves what she gets," and she points out the double standard, saying "If (interviewers and reviewers) did this to men, they would be taken out behind a building and kicked in the mouth" (in Pearlman and Henderson, p. 74). With so much emphasis placed on the interviewer and his/her questions, the interview may "miss" the woman writer almost entirely.
The Best of the Bunch
In spite of the unfortunate trends and potential traps I've noted above, some excellent interviews have been done with female authors, and some outstanding collections of those interviews do exist. I have found four that I consider to be top picks in their consideration and treatment of women who write: Backtalk: Women Writers Speak Out by Donna Perry, Listen to Their Voices: Twenty Interviews with Women Who Write by Mickey Pearlman, A Voice of One's Own: Conversations with American Writing Women by Mickey Pearlman and Katherine Usher Henderson, and Black Women Writers at Work by Claudia Tate.
Backtalk: Women Writers Speak Out is, I believe, the best of the four. Using a standard question-and-answer format, Donna Perry interviews Paula Gunn Allen, Gloria Anzaldua, Pat Barker, Mary Beckett, Rosario Ferre, Vivian Gornick, Jamaica Kincaid, Barbara Kingsolver, Maxine Hong Kingston, Valerie Miner, Gloria Naylor, Ellis Ni Dhuibhne, Joan Riley, Joanna Russ, and Leslie Marmon Silko--all authors who are committed to writing about people, especially women, who have traditionally been marginalized, stereotyped, or ignored in literature. In these interviews the writers speak frankly about their lives, their work, their politics, and the manner in which they interrelate. They share writerly obsessions and reflect upon what inspires, directs, sustains, and enrages them.
As an interviewer, Perry does not ignore or downplay volatile social and political issues; she sees racism, classism, sexism, and heterosexism, for example, as central in understanding these writers and their works. Many of the women in this collection describe the effects of silencing from inside and outside their families and their cultures, where they were to be seen and not heard. And many express, if not open anger, at least a certain ambivalence or dissatisfaction with aspects of the business of publishing.
Of special interest to English language arts teachers is the fact that many of these authors express frustration with the literary experiences they were provided in their school programs. As a result, they claim to have faced special challenges in imagining their lives as worthy material for literature, and in conceiving themselves as possible writers. Consider the following statements from Backtalk about the narrowness of the literary canon these women encountered in their English classes and the effects of that marginalization:
Paula Gunn Allen: "It's dreadful to go through the world and never see yourself anywhere" (p. 13).
Valerie Miner: "In a certain sense, literature seemed audacious... (It) was really British literature by middle-class or upper class white men. My people, working-class people, were not represented in the literature I was reading" (p. 199).
Gloria Naylor: "Well, your standard high school English curriculum, even in the mid-to-late sixties, was basically classes in nineteenth-century male classics. That's what I cut my literary teeth on... I was not taught any book by or about black Americans" (p. 223).
Barbara Kingsolver: "I didn't grow up with the sense that [our] lives were the stuff of literature. What I learned in English class is literature is what happens between three men with swords or a man and this great white whale. Those are the elevated, glorious lives which are worthy of being immortalized in literature... Because people don't find themselves in books, their lives don't feel very important" (p. 152).
Because so many of these women didn't see themselves or the members of their families or communities in the literature they read in school, they told those stories themselves, "and most talk about feeling a strong sense of responsibility to their communities to get their stories right," (Perry, p. xv).
Rather than use the Q & A interview format that Perry employs in Backtalk, the authors of two other collections (A Voice of One's Own: Conversations with American Writing Women by Mickey Pearlman and Listen to Their Voices: Twenty Interviews with Women Who Write by Mickey Pearlman) have chosen to present their interviews in the form of mini-essays with long quotations from the writers. Pearlman explains advantages of this format: "The interview in essay form...allows more flexibility, depending, as it does, on the interviewer's ability to gain the writer's trust-in a matter of minutes-and on many intangible factors: the match in mood, style, sense of humor, and shared interests; and the impact of the sometimes unsettling setting on that mood" (p. 13). Pearlman and Henderson enumerate other advantages of the mini-essay approach. "The mini-essay enabled us to describe the writer's geographical space and to insert background information at relevant points in the interview. [It] also allowed us to bring together quotations on the same topic (we sometimes moved them, but never changed them) to a-chieve greater coherence and readability" (p. 8).
A Voice of One's Own: Conversations with American Writing Women by Mickey Pearlman and Katherine Usher Henderson features well-known authors and introduces some less familiar writers of growing pro-minence. The collection includes interviews with Alison Lurie, Amy Tan, Gloria Naylor, Gail Godwin, Joyce Carol Gates, Diane Johnson, Susan Fromberg Schaeffer, Marge Piercy, Carole Maso, M.F.K. Fisher, Francine Prose, Alice McDermott, Rosellen Brown, Carolyn See, Laurie Colwin, Joyce Carol Thomas, Shirley Ann Grau, Kate Braverman, Louise Erdrich, Anne Lamoft, Josephine Humphreys, Harriet Doerr, Elizabeth Winthrop, Janet Lewis, Irini Spanidon, Lynne Sharon Schwartz, Mona Simpson, and Nancy Willard.
Listen to Their Voices: Twenty Interviews with Women Who Write by Mickey Pearlman includes interviews with Grace Paley, Gish Jen, Janette Turner Hospital, Margot Livesey, Connie Porter, Fay Weldon, Joy Harjo, Jane Smiley, Cynthia Kadohata, Terry Tempest Williams, Jessica Hagedorn, Shirley Abbott, Jayne Anne Phillips, Sue Miller, Lois Lowry, Susan Kenney, Anne Rice, Sharon Olds, Lucille Clifton, and Melinda Worth Popham.
Black Women Writers at Work, edited by Claudia Tate, is a remarkable book of interviews, a "must read" for anyone interested in the works of black women writers. Here, fourteen writers, in their own way and in their own voices, take us into the heart of the creative process. Interviewees include Maya Angelou, Gwendolyn Brooks, Nikki Giovanni, Audre Lorde, Ntozake Shange, Alice Walker, Toni Morrison, and others. This very grouping, the juxtaposition of these distinctly different writers who are black and who are women enlarges and transforms this collection. As Tate says in her introduction, "Black women writers and critics are acting on the old adage that one must speak for oneself if one wishes to be heard. They are realizing that no one else can or will say what she has to say, and that silence condemns the silent to misrepresentation and neglect" (p. xxvi).
Each interview includes a mini-autobiography, a dialogue between writers, and revelations about varying ways of working, of being productive. The book builds on the notion of linkage; the interviews are fashioned so that the writers share their conscious motives for selecting particular characters, situations, and techniques to depict their ideas. The interviews are also designed for the writers to comment on how aspects of their personal lives find their way into the work. They provide each writer with the opportunity to share her own assessment of her own work and the criticism that it has engendered, and to understand the assessment in the context of contemporary literature.
What These Collections of Interviews Have in Common
These four books share a number of strengths, including:
- The interviewers are adept at using the interview as an artistic medium. They ask thoughtful, incisive questions and do a good job of editing the results.
- The emphasis is placed on the writer, not the interviewer. It is impossible to read any of these interviews and "miss" the writer.
- The interviewees are well chosen. All are outstanding writers who have published consistently and extensively over a number of years, and who are doing interesting, cutting- edge work.
- The writers included are a diverse lot--in personal characteristics (race, religion, ethnicity, sexual preference, marital status, age, geography, class, and lifestyle) and in the genres in which they write (interviewees include novelists, short story writers, poets, and writers of non-fiction).
- The writers profiled are breaking ground and blurring boundaries by chronicling women's everyday reality. Readers of these collections will find that none of the writers chosen are producing what Anne Rice calls "the tired.. .small novel of manners about upper-middle-class-man-has-midlife-crisis-in-Ann Arbor" (Pearlman, p. 12).
- The varied testimonies of the authors are presented informally and intimately. Reading them makes you feel as if you're sitting across the kitchen table having coffee with some of the most interesting women writing today.
- The interviews are interesting and thought -provoking. In these conversations, writers talk candidly about childhood, religion, politics, racial and ethnic identity, feminism, the world of publishing, and the respective genres in which they've chosen to write. All of the interviews provide engaging chronicles of contemporary literary lives. All offer richly detailed commentary on the art of writing and the unique problems and advantages of being a woman writer in today' s world.
- The interviews are interesting and thought-provoking. In these conversations, writers talk candidly about childhood, religion, politics, racial and ethnic identity, feminism, the world of publishing, and the respective genres in which they've chosen to write. All of the interviews provide engaging chronicles of contemporary literary lives. All offer richly detailed commentary on the art of writing and the unique problems and advantages of being a woman writer in today' s world.
The women writers represented in these collections have all encountered and struggled with the "Angel of the House;" they have all developed their own effective versions of 'flinging their inkpots' at her when they have felt 'the shadow of her wing' or the 'radiance of her halo' upon their pages. In these interviews, they share their stories of this struggle candidly, humorously, without pretension.
Collections of interviews with authors are ideal resources for helping teachers and students learn more about women writers and their work. We can read interviews with our favorite female authors to discover how they lay claim to their writing interests, concerns, and areas of expertise, and to find out about other works they have published.
Such collections can also introduce us to new women writers and their work. I first encountered Gish Jen, Lynn Sharon Schwartz, Kate Braverman, Toni Cade Bambara, and Vivian Gornick in written interviews, and have enjoyed their work ever since. I have discovered wonderful poems, stories, plays and novels by listening to, viewing, and reading interviews with women writers.
In her new edition of In the Middle, Nancie Atwell suggests that author interviews can enrich our reading of a wide variety of texts. She and her students look across a favorite "published writer's oeuvre" and then read interviews in order to "tease out links, patterns, and anomalies" as well as to learn more about their own reading and writing interests and concerns (p. 129).
Clearly, learning about women writers and their work through collections of interviews can enrich the reading and writing lives of teachers and students alike. Published accounts of the practices of professional writers can help all of us learn more about the realities of writing and about the interview as a writing form with its own value, functions, and limitations.
Copyright 1999, The Women in Literature and Life Assembly of the National Council of Teachers of English (ISSN #1065-9080). Permission is given to copy any article provided credit is given and the copies are not intended for resale.
Reference Citation: Martin, Terry. (1999). "Wrestling with the Angel of the House: Collections of Interviews with Women Writers." WILLA, Volume 8, p. 24-28.