Café Américain‘s features editor, Jewel Edwards, recently sat down with Professor Stephanie Grant for a chat. They discussed life experiences that have shaped Grant’s writing, advice she can give to fledgling students in the program, her missed career as a WNBA player, and more.
Grant, who teaches fiction workshops in the MFA program, is the author of two published novels, The Passion of Alice (Houghton Mifflin 1995) and Map of Ireland (Scribner 2008) and has just finished a third, titled Home Equity, a novel about contemporary marriage and debt. Grant has received many grants and awards for her work, including a Rona Jaffee Foundation Award, a Ludwig Vogelstein Award and a National Endowment of the Arts fellowship. She received her MA in English/Creative Writing from New York University, and her BA in French Literature from Wesleyan University.
CA: What are you drawn to write about?
SG: Initially I was drawn to write about the body a lot. My first novel, [The Passion of Alice (Houghton Mifflin 1995)] was about eating disorders and anorexia. I never experienced an eating disorder but, like many American women of my generation, I had a preoccupation with my body and body size and food. I wanted to write about that and the really facile ways that people saw it. It would either be about body image, “you’re perfect the way you are” or these other facile affirmations of body image; this sort of “everyone is fine.” Whatever lens or ruler that people brought to the discussion of body image felt like it wasn’t getting the full picture, so I wanted to try to write about that. I think because it was so visceral for me, that it was easy to access the pain of that and the distress of it. So that’s where I started.
My second novel, Map of Ireland (Scribner 2008), is set during desegregation in Boston, because I grew up in the suburbs where the schools were desegregated. That also felt very much like it was about the body, in a very different kind of way. The segregation in Boston was very much about neighborhoods; neighborhood schools were segregated because the neighborhoods were segregated. In this way, your neighborhood told people what you were, and so I was interested in wanting to talk about that. It was a really formative political experience for me growing up. We were in the suburbs so I wasn’t getting on the bus, but the white community that protested bussing desegregation was working-poor, working-class Irish. My dad was Irish American and had grown up in the city and had left the city, so it felt very close and it was a very painful view of what it meant to be Irish American. So it felt like an urgent story for me to tell.
So it’s funny, I’ve been answering this question in terms of what I’ve already written about, but certainly, the body, race, sexuality; things that are out there in the world that feel urgent to us.
CA: What life experiences inform your writing?
SG: In some strange way, all of them. This is an odd little thing, but something I’ve just come to notice about my own writing is that, there is a way that I write toward sentences that are from my life. My writing isn’t autobiographical; my narrator in my first book was in the hospital for eating disorders, I was never hospitalized or anorexic. There are certain details that don’t match up but the emotional content feels really urgent. And it occurred to me fairly recently, after I finished my third novel, that I’d written in both of them at least one line that is a line from my life, something that someone said. So I use the sentences in different contexts, but I write towards them. And I’m not really even aware that I’m doing it. So, there’s this odd moment where language from my life suddenly intrudes in a scene or comes up in a scene, so there’s clearly something unconscious way that I’ve been working towards it. And they’re very discrete sentences.
CA: What’s the best writing advice you’ve received or given?
SG: One of the best pieces of writing advice is very sad and it will make you feel very sad. My writing teacher at NYU told us that we can never be a good writer and a good anything else. What she meant really was that you had to accept not being good at other things if you wanted to write. You had to accept not being the best teacher, the best mother. And that we were pretty much people who wanted to be good at things. And it doesn’t mean that you have to be a bad teacher, or a bad mother, but that it is going to intrude. My mother used to say when I was a kid, “Either you can’t do everything or you can’t have everything.” She was a very stern Irish Catholic and she said it with this kind of relish, like, “You can’t have everything you want in life.” And as I’ve gotten older I’ve come to understand the ways in which it’s true. Obviously, I probably understood it when she told me when I was eight, but I’ve come to understand it as, I’ve got to make choices. As much as I want to be good at something, if I want to be good at writing as well, I can’t. I guess it’s realistic. It’s honest (laughs). Fortunately, one loves writing and what the gift and the pleasure of what that is, but it does mean that you don’t get to do some things.
CA: What would you say to a nonfiction or poetry writer who is apprehensive about, or not convinced that they should take, a fiction workshop?
SG: Well, I guess I would say that we know each other in the program and we know when someone is working in a genre that’s new to them. And we respect that and understand that it takes an enormous amount of courage to work in a discipline that is not your strength, or to do something you aren’t familiar with. You’re going to have an enormously supportive readership. And your primary work is going to get better because you will have a different sense of narrative. I really think of different genres as different methods of understanding. How we transfigure thoughts into poetry and nonfiction are really different. And by practicing the other form, we learn that difference in a more profound way. So, I think it’s great. I’m really impressed with the folks who’ve done it. And I was too afraid to do it when I was in my MFA program. It was discouraged, so let’s say I was easily discouraged. And I regret it.
CA: This one is a two-pronged question: What are some craft books that you recommend for someone unfortunate enough to not be able to take your class, and what are a couple of novels that are exemplary of the fiction genre?
SG: So, I kind of have a long list of craft books. The very first one for people who are really new to thinking about fiction is The Art of Fiction by John Gardner, who is considered the father of the writing workshop in some way. The book is his notes from having been in writing workshops – they’re very good notes. So that, as a primer. Madison Smart Bell has a book called Narrative Design that I think is terrific because it looks at a bunch of specific stories he unpacks them and it’s like getting to be in a workshop with him. He talks about things like tone and plot and time in a story in ways that I just find riveting. I don’t always agree with him, but I love reading what he says about the stories that he publishes in the collection. Charles Baxter has a couple of different books that I have read. One of them that I just taught this semester, which is called The Art of Subtext is terrific in talking about how to create subtext in scenes, how to create a kind of thickness in our fiction. And then he has a bunch of essays; also a book called Burning Down the House, which is a little more theoretical. I like to make this distinction when I’m talking to folks about craft books; some of them are really “crunchy,” meaning they give you very practical advice about how to solve a specific problem. John Gardner is kind of theoretical and crunchy because there are a lot of examples in the book. For instance there is a section with common mistakes that people make, and he talks about constructing complicated sentences and syntax, so he’s at times very crunchy. At other times he’s theoretical; he has a theory about the way that fiction works and he explains that to you. And then there’s new book that I’ve been teaching, and it’s online, by Michael Byers, and it’s called Faking Shapely Fiction. It is one of the crunchiest of all of the writing craft books I’ve ever looked at and it’s really terrific because he takes up things that nobody else takes up.
[As far as the exemplary examples of fiction novels] I’m teaching this book by Colm Toibin, who’s a contemporary Irish Writer, and it’s called Brooklyn. In it, he’s writing about an Irish immigrant to the United states, which feels like a story we’ve read before, yet he manages to avoid every major stereotype and resist every cliché about immigration that exists, really, I think, quite consciously. He does an amazing job giving us this culture, which is a middle class Irish culture, not Catholic, but very reserved Protestant Irish culture where people don’t say what they feel, ever. So there’s a lot of silence and repression of feeling, and I think it’s extraordinary the kind of feeling he can generate from that. And the narrator is really, really passive and it’s very frustrating. It’s totally appropriate to her station in life and her time and all of that, and I think that’s a tricky, tricky thing to do dramatically, to write about a character who doesn’t act when people around her do act. I think it’s really beautifully done. So that’s a book that I just adore.
I read of bunch of things this summer. So I’ll just mention these novels; it’s not that I think they’re perfect, but I found them really enjoyable. Elaina Farrante, an Italian writer, has these books that are being translated into English, and it’s the Neapolitan series; Neapolitan as in Naples. It chronicles a friendship. The first one is called My Brilliant Friend and it starts when the girls are very young, and I don’t think I have ever read a chronicle of female friendship like this one before in terms of the seriousness with which she takes their friendship, but also their intellectual development. It follows them from post World War II Italy. And these are fat novels. I’ve been more interested in compression these days and not these fat novels, but I read a bunch of them this summer. So I resisted the accumulation of the first book, but then I turned a corner and was amazed at what she was able to do in terms of creating a portrait of the time and the place while maintaining her focus on these two women. One fun detail is that her name is a pseudonym and no one knows who she is, and she has not gone public about who she is in Italy yet she’s received a lot of praise and has a huge readership. So,I think she’s really interesting and talented.
CA: If you weren’t a writer of fiction, what would you be doing?
SG: I think I’d be a shrink. It’s the only other thing I came close to doing. I remember a writing teacher who said that it’s really the same job because you are constructing narratives. And that’s what you do in therapy, you construct narratives. So I think that’s the only other thing I’d be really good at. I’m also really sad that I’m not a great basketball player and that I’m not in the WNBA. So, if I could do anything, I would be in the WNBA! But because that’s extremely unlikely and I would have to support myself and my family, I’d be a shrink.
I talk about this in class, I was on the couch for many, many years, in therapy for many, many years. I had a psychoanalytically-bent therapist. She was an MSW who had studied psychoanalysis, and I find it a really useful frame for thinking about stories and characters and the kinds of things that they do. It allows me to understand fiction that I read and it allows me to think about the complexity of things. One of the smartest things that my therapist every said to me was that one gesture can accomplish many things, so that a simple thing like getting in a fight with you sister-in-law can express your anger, but it can also push the families further apart, and it can also upset your brother. We may act as if we didn’t mean to do all of those things; you know, “I just got mad at my sister-in-law,” but a psychoanalysis would ask you to step back and look at your unconscious motivations. Maybe there are unconscious desires to upset your brother and cause a rift in the family, that you aren’t even aware of. That kind of complexity, where characters are doing things that they don’t fully understand, doing things where their conscious and unconscious are intertwined is really interesting. Once I learned to think this way, I found it really helpful for understanding my own writing.
Jewel Edwards is the features editor at Café Américain and a third-year candidate in the American University’s Creative Writing MFA program.