Mia shows off her snippet-compiling abilities.
I love a snappy Q&A almost as much as I love sassy lady role models. So you can imagine my delight when, this past autumn, venerated literary magazine, “The Paris Review” made its archive of author interviews – dating back to 1953 – available for free online. I hardly need say that the ratio of male to female interviews is greatly skewed to the dudely side, but the ladies who were interviewed brought their A-games. Below are some of my favorite excerpts.
INTERVIEWER: Is it difficult to write from the point of view of a male?
ATWOOD: Most of the “speakers” or narrative points of view in my books are those of women, but I have sometimes used the point of view of a character who is male. Notice I try to avoid saying “the male point of view.” I don’t believe in the male point of view any more than I believe in the female point of view. There are a good many of both, though it’s true that there are some thoughts and attitudes that are unlikely to be held by men on the one hand or women on the other. So when I do use a male character, it’s because the story is about something or someone that can’t be otherwise conveyed or that would be altered if it were to be conveyed through a female character. For instance, I recently published a story in Granta called “Isis In Darkness.” It’s about the relationship—the tenuous relationship over the years—between a women poet and a man who has, I guess, a sort of literary crush on her and how the woman affects the man’s life. If I’d told it through the woman herself . . . well, you can’t tell such stories about romantic infatuation from the point of view of the object of the infatuation without losing the flavor of the emotion. They would just become “who is that creep hanging around outside the balcony” stories.
INTERVIEWER: [James] Baldwin also said that his family urged him not to become a writer. His father felt that there was a white monopoly in publishing. Did you ever have any of those feelings—that you were going up against something that was really immensely difficult for a black writer?
ANGELOU: Yes, but I didn’t find it so just in writing. I’ve found it so in all the things I’ve attempted. In the shape of American society, the white male is on top, then the white female, and then the black male, and at the bottom is the black woman. So that’s been always so. That is nothing new. It doesn’t mean that it doesn’t shock me, shake me up . . .
INTERVIEWER: I can understand that in various social stratifications, but why in art?
ANGELOU: Well, unfortunately, racism is pervasive. It doesn’t stop at the university gate, or at the ballet stage. I knew great black dancers, male and female, who were told early on that they were not shaped, physically, for ballet. Today, we see very few black ballet dancers. Unfortunately, in the theater and in film, racism and sexism stand at the door. I’m the first black female director in Hollywood; in order to direct, I went to Sweden and took a course in cinematography so I would understand what the camera would do. Though I had written a screenplay, and even composed the score, I wasn’t allowed to direct it. They brought in a young Swedish director who hadn’t even shaken a black person’s hand before. The film was Georgia, Georgia with Diana Sands. People either loathed it or complimented me. Both were wrong, because it was not what I wanted, not what I would have done if I had been allowed to direct it. So I thought, Well, what I guess I’d better do is be ten times as prepared. That is not new. I wish it was. In every case I know I have to be ten times more prepared than my white counterpart.
INTERVIEWER: In every one of your novels we find a female character who is misled by false notions and who is threatened by madness.
DE BEAUVOIR: Lots of modern women are like that. Women are obliged to play at being what they aren’t, to play, for example, at being great courtesans, to fake their personalities. They’re on the brink of neurosis. I feel very sympathetic toward women of that type. They interest me more than the well-balanced housewife and mother. There are, of course, women who interest me even more, those who are both true and independent, who work and create.
INTERVIEWER: None of your female characters are immune from love. You like the romantic element.
DE BEAUVOIR: Love is a great privilege. Real love, which is very rare, enriches the lives of the men and women who experience it.
INTERVIEWER: In your novels, it seems to be the women—I’m thinking of Françoise in She Came to Stay and Anne in The Mandarins—who experience it most.
DE BEAUVOIR: The reason is that, despite everything, women give more of themselves in love because most of them don’t have much else to absorb them. Perhaps they’re also more capable of deep sympathy, which is the basis of love. Perhaps it’s also because I can project myself more easily into women than into men. My female characters are much richer than my male characters.
INTERVIEWER: You’ve never created an independent and really free female character who illustrates in one way or other the thesis of The Second Sex. Why?
DE BEAUVOIR: I’ve shown women as they are, as divided human beings, and not as they ought to be.
INTERVIEWER: Do you see yourself as taking part in a tradition of women’s writing explicitly, or is that something that you eschew in favor of a broader sense of tradition?
WINTERSON: It’s both. I feel that the broad tradition is mine; it has to be because I claim it. It’s an inheritance, which is given to you, but you have to be worthy of it; you have to win it to make it your own, then you have to use it. It’s rather like the parable of the talents in the Bible. The great lord gives out the various bags of money to his servants and says, What are you going to do with it? and then goes off. Some invest it, and one person buries it in the ground. We are given this enormous literary heritage—certainly you are as a writer—but then you have to make it work for you. You have to use it. If you just bury it in the ground, it’s dead. So for me it is vital constantly to use the broadest tradition and to get as much from it as I can. But at the same time, within that, I recognize that strand in women’s writing of which I am directly a part and which speaks to me in a very personal way. It has to, because I am part of that struggle.
As well as being a writer neither male nor female, I am a writer who is a woman. I am very conscious of that. I am conscious that the voice does get stronger all the time, the voice of the woman writing. Which is why I feel I have to continue, and do a bit more and take the bat on a little bit further, if possible. Otherwise, I am letting down the past as well as the future. You’re insulting those women who did it absolutely to the best they could, making huge sacrifices at the time. There is a passage at the end of A Room of One’s Own where Virginia Woolf says we have to work for women writers so that they will appear. My work is to do that work.
INTERVIEWER: There have been so few novels about women who have intense friendships with other women. Why do you think that is?
MORRISON: It has been a discredited relationship. When I was writing Sula, I was under the impression that for a large part of the female population a woman friend was considered a secondary relationship. A man and a woman’s relationship was primary. Women, your own friends, were always secondary relationships when the man was not there. Because of this, there’s that whole cadre of women who don’t like women and prefer men. We had to be taught to like one another. Ms. magazine was founded on the premise that we really have to stop complaining about one another, hating, fighting one another and joining men in their condemnation of ourselves—a typical example of what dominated people do. That is a big education. When much of the literature was like that—when you read about women together (not lesbians or those who have formed long relationships that are covertly lesbian, like in Virginia Woolf’s work), it is an overtly male view of females together. They are usually male-dominated—like some of Henry James’s characters—or the women are talking about men, like Jane Austen’s girlfriends . . . talking about who got married, and how to get married, and are you going to lose him, and I think she wants him and so on. To have heterosexual women who are friends, who are talking only about themselves to each other, seemed to me a very radical thing when Sula was published in 1971 . . . but it is hardly radical now.
INTERVIEWER: Were you a big reader growing up? What work if any had an influence?
MUNRO: Reading was my life really until I was thirty. I was living in books. The writers of the American South were the first writers who really moved me because they showed me that you could write about small towns, rural people, and that kind of life I knew very well. But the thing about the Southern writers that interested me, without my being really aware of it, was that all the Southern writers whom I really loved were women. I didn’t really like Faulkner that much. I loved Eudora Welty, Flannery O’Connor, Katherine Ann Porter, Carson McCullers. There was a feeling that women could write about the freakish, the marginal.
INTERVIEWER: Which you’ve always done as well.
MUNRO: Yes. I came to feel that was our territory, whereas the mainstream big novel about real life was men’s territory. I don’t know how I got that feeling of being on the margins, it wasn’t that I was pushed there. Maybe it was because I grew up on a margin. I knew there was something about the great writers I felt shut out from, but I didn’t know quite what it was. I was terribly disturbed when I first read D. H. Lawrence. I was often disturbed by writers’ views of female sexuality.
INTERVIEWER: Can you put your finger on what it was that disturbed you?
MUNRO: It was: how I can be a writer when I’m the object of other writers?
INTERVIEWER: What kind of work did you do at Vogue?
PARKER: I wrote captions. “This little pink dress will win you a beau,” that sort of thing. Funny, they were plain women working at Vogue, not chic. They were decent, nice women—the nicest women I ever met—but they had no business on such a magazine. They wore funny little bonnets and in the pages of their magazine they virginized the models from tough babes into exquisite little loves. Now the editors are what they should be: all chic and worldly; most of the models are out of the mind of a Bram Stoker, and as for the caption writers—my old job—they’re recommending mink covers at seventy-five dollars apiece for the wooden ends of golf clubs “—for the friend who has everything.” Civilization is coming to an end, you understand.