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Off the Page: Maureen Howard

Maureen Howard
Award-Winning Novelist
Thursday, September 16, 2004; 1:00 PM

Maureen Howard is America's A.S. Byatt.

A scholar as well as a novelist--she is often called upon to write introductions to new publications of classics, such as Virginia Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway and Edith Wharton's The Age of Innocence--Howard creates a rich backdrop of history and ideas in her fiction. But this never overwhelms the bright, complicated, and sneakily funny characters that are the heart of her eight novels.

Her new novel, The Silver Screen, traces the mixed-up lives of the children of a star of silent movies, who forsakes Hollywood for a suburban life in Rhode Island. Which world, do you suppose, is more mythical?

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Howard was online Thursday, Sept. 16 at 1 p.m. ET to answer questions about her work. A transcript follows.

Host Carole Burns is a fiction writer with short stories published or upcoming in Washingtonian Magazine and several literary journals. Twice a fellow at The MacDowell Colony, she's at work on a novel.

Editor's Note: Washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions.

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Carole Burns: Hello, and welcome back to the first fall show of Off the Page. I'm happy to be introducing the esteemed writer Maureen Howard, who is ready to answer questions from New York. And off we go...

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Washington, D.C.: I haven't read your book, but I'm fascinated by the idea of silent films as a backdrop to the interplay of characters. How does one right about silence? What role does it play in the novel? And did it ever seem convoluted to be writing about a medium that is constrained to the visual (and two-dimensional, black and white) through another medium, constrained to the page?

Maureen Howard: There's a great deal of silence in the book. Hidden stories, stories never told, secrets of life. And one of the things that I was interested in in terms of the silent screen, was the fact that Bel, who has a career set up in silents and has made a name for herself, comes to the point where she has to cross over into talkies, and I was interested to make sure that it was understood that she could easily have crossed over. So many actors and actresses could not, but she could have, and chose not to. Her choosing not to is turning away from a life and a career, to put it very simply, as she does to the young woman that attaches herself to Bel, the photographer Gemma, she says very clearly, it was not my life. And the choice is again spelled out, I think very clearly, though people have wondered about it, like Gemma. Why did you give it up when you were about to be a star? The big thing was there for you? Because it was a moral decision. It was a choice, a moral choice, not to go with that life she had been leading, not to go with the Hollywood life.

And the book has some miracles in it. The one miracle here is that when she does the test for her voice for the studio, for MGM, she hears her mother's voice as she sees herself on screen speaking, she hears her dead mother's voice, and the text of the mother's admonition is, you will never be horrid, will you? And of course she feels that she has been living a false and somewhat horrid life. And so it's really all there, and therefore the idea of silent movies and talkies, the idea of silencing oneself, in this case.

I use the opportunity of this silence to have several scenes in the book in which the characters, Joe the priest and his sister Rita, are all interviewed and caught on screen, and what's caught on the screen is distorted. So the visual in this way is a distortion. The record, the witnessing, as it is so often by the use of the camera, is such a distortion. If you take a text that someone speaks and you cut it, it's not what was intended, it's skewed. So that's another kind of silencing, which I think we live with a lot in terms of the media.

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Lyme, Conn.: I kind of thought Connecticut was a little more mythical than Rhode Island, but each person has different tastes. Why did you pick Rhode Island as a setting?

Maureen Howard: I'm from Connecticut, and I 've used Connecticut a lot in my work. Indeed I use it in The Silver Screen. I very much wanted Bel, the Murphys, to be somewhat displaced people. And they are somewhat displaced in Rhode Island. It's not home, though they make it home. It's kind of like a new leaf, a place where given her past and she was recognizably Bel Maher, the actress, it's a way of escaping reality. I also suppose that I visited Rhode Island, where my daughter and family go often in the summer, and could see the possibility of the sea and how that would tie in with Melville. Whereas the industrial river towns of Connecticut don't quite do that for me. I didn't have a particular town in mind to name... I could point to it on a map but I didn't want to give it a name. The actual place would be quite different now.

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Carole Burns: The last sentence of your book is lovely--I will resist giving it away--and very simply brought together a lot of the themes in your novel. But it prompts me to ask: In what ways are all your characters living their own movies, in front of an audience? Maureen Howard: I intend quite a bit. First of all, it hooks back to Bel's performance in the Bijou, when she finally is released into the idea that she has this talent and she could get the hell out of that town and the proposed marriage and she could find her talent and get away. And of course the Vaudeville song she sings is a song having to do with marriage, but she is playing to an empty house then. There's no one there but that Vaudeville guy, and the idea of going back to that theme and calling it up again, and saying, we do not play to an empty house, has a lot to do with our performances with others, our daily performances in life, our performance of our life. We are not sealed off, we have an audience to present ourselves to with our vast range of emotions. And of course above all, with openness and love having so many secrets, having kept the real story in, we do not play to an empty house.

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California: From the introduction on today's schedule:

..."Her new novel, The Silver Screen, traces the mixed-up lives of the children of a star of silent movies, who forsakes Hollywood for a suburban life in Rhode Island. Which world, do you suppose, is more mythical?..."

When I was in my late 20's, I made a conscious decision to avoid becoming "famous" in any way after recognizing that "celebrity" in our bizarre mass culture was something you could never really turn off once it got started. I did not want to forever sacrifice my privacy, anonymity, and chance just to be a "normal" human being.

Can you talk a bit how these themes run through your latest work, if at all?

Thank you.

Maureen Howard: I think that the performance, the idea of ourselves as performers, is important, and there is a way in which writers are performing. They may not think of it that way, but there is a kind of performing self, which can block reality. It can block the real role that you should be fulfilling in life, or might want to fulfill in life. Seeing yourself as a part of mass culture might be to many horrifying. But of course, one of the things in the book, which isn't really written about celebrity--I was thinking more of our public and private lives, and in a sense how we live through the years the small history of our personal lives against the backdrop of history, which dwarfs or sets our own performance in perspective. But the father's war wound is the First World War, and we do all the way up to the present. There is the Second World War when they go on their excursions in Connecticut, there's the war in El Salvador--all of the wars are swept into the book, and life is lived against this enormous backdrop of public history. There are several places in which the reader would know Bel's leaving the public world of films, of stardom, of seeing her image on the screen, that there are some regrets. There are at times some regrets, and wistful regrets. It can't help tearing at her, what might have been.

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Carole Burns: There are times that your characters seem thwarted from reaching fulfillment--neither succeeding in the bigger world, nor retreating to a private world, seems to work. Or does it? Maureen Howard: I think Bel is fulfilled in her garden. I think she is fulfilled in her safe house, though she can laugh at calling it Land's End. I think she is fulfilled, somewhat falsely, in her dreams and hopes for her son, which she knows are not quite real. I think that the ending of the book, Father Joe comes to a realization that the miracle is every day. Every day he watched his father drive a car with that rotten arm. Every day of Bel's life, and he realizes that the one achievement is to outlive your myth. And that's what Bel does--she outlives the myth of the film star, and enters her family. It's a triumph to outlive a myth you're saddled with. It's an excursion of self-discovery. It may come late, but it comes to him. And for that matter, Rita has outlived the myth of being the dumpy spinster. She has outlived that. But it's true that Gemma, for all her success in the world, does not outlive it. She goes back to being a photographer, to being a copyist. And the little girl model, Pet, doesn't live free. So I had a good time thinking about that, about Pet's inability to cut from the glamour of her life.

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Washington, DC: Which classic writers do you return to, for inspiration, and what do you like about their work?

Maureen Howard: Well, that's a big one. Dickens, of course. The range of Dickens, as he got deeper and deeper in his later work, and the way in which he could weave separate strains of his story together, is terribly important to me. We think of Dickens an enormously accessible, and he is, but in his later work he is also very demanding that we put together the stories. It's wonderful when you think about what he does in Bleak House, that he separates out separate stories for voices to interact, which is something I like to do. Of course I use an awful lot of Melville, of Moby Dick. Moby Dick demands a lot of the reader, but it's an adventure for the reader. It's a book he wrote first as an adventure, and in a letter to Hawthorne, he said he couldn't write in that way anymore. He sat down and took the whaling adventure, and rewrote the entire book, because he knew he could not write another whaling adventure and not write all the others stories that spilled out from it, stories of art, of myth, scenes from Shakespeare, an amazing adventure that you're on. Which Bel doesn't really get. She doesn't quite ever make it all the way through.

Then of course the thing about Melville, his career was such a failure, after the to-do of the early novels. Moby Dick was a terrible failure. The publisher didn't want much to do with him after that.

I have just been looking at Edith Wharton, and House of Mirth and Age of Innocence are wonderful books, and Virginia Woolf, of course Virginia Woolf, To The Lighthouse, and the book she wrote just before she committed suicide, Between the Acts. It spans all of history. She does something I reach for.

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Carole Burns: Can you talk about the structure of your book? It is so intricate--and that completely fits with the way the lives of your character are so interwoven. Is structure important to how you go about writing a book? Maureen Howard: Structure is very important to me. The structure of a novel never loses its interest for me. I'm obviously not attracted too often to straight linear narrative. I think that the idea of memory, the memory of my characters--memory calls up so much and contains so much of life for them and for us, and it connects to imagination, so that you imagine so much that you think you remember exactly, yet you are constantly making up the past, and the past is constantly intruding on the present. And so I find that I have different places that I go to when I'm writing. For instance, it's the priest who can't get over the fact that he does not have a deeply spiritual life. Every time he tries to connecticut to the exercises of Ignatius Loyola. I hope people will find it funny. This poor guy is trying to live on a scale of high-flown belief, and he goes back to family stories. He just can't make it to that pure place of contemplation. His head is full of fragments of poetry that he thought would do the spiritual thing for him. Even poor Rita is displaced in California, she keeps thinking of the man who fit her shoe and the man who worked at home. This free beautiful life is cluttered with sadness and memories of the past.

I like a number of different voices, and different voices can bring me to different places. I do not mind an intrusive voice on my part. I'm not at all shy about that. The 19th century novelists--George Eliot could easily do a gloss on politically where she was. I'm talking about an authorial voice coming in. I'm not shy about that. That gives the writer a lot of freedom. I don't think it's all that old-fashioned. I'm thinking of Javier Marias, who uses himself all the way through. Naipaul, all of them. They're telling a story.

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Bethesda, Md.: Carole compares you to A.S. Byatt -- I asked A.S. Byatt this question, and would love to hear your answer: A writing instructor once told me to write for the smartest reader I know. But critics -- and readers -- are wary of books that are too "complex" or "opaque." How do you balance the two? Do you write for your best-educated reader, and just hope for the best for the rest of us?

Carole Burns: A.S. Byatt's answer can be found here: April 22: Byatt discussion.

Maureen Howard: I want to tell my stories. I don't think of the best-educated reader at all, I don't think of it on a scale of 1 to 10, I want to appeal to the reader, and make everything quite accessible. I do love language, and the rhythm of sentences and the rhythm of paragraphs. I think that there's a lot of good fiction being written, that is not in any way dumbed-down. And the other thing is, to go back to an old story, I think if you try to write down, if you say, I'm going to write a real dumbo murder mystery or thriller, I think if you don't have that talent, I don't think you can do it.

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Carole Burns: This is the third book in the series you're writing based on the seasons. How did this idea come about, and why did you choose this story for summer? There are times the themes feel more like winter. Maureen Howard: It's been done, with the Four Seasons. Anthony Powell did it, Vivaldi. The idea of the natural flow of nature and how we live with it and in it, and what we give to it and what we expect from it. One of the things that we expect in almost every season is a yield, some sort of regeneration. At the end of A Lover's Almanac, there's the sense of regeneration, of spring, and of course spring itself, Big As Life, are stories that bring forth some miracle of growth in each one of those tales. And with summer, and heavy hot dogdays, a living through and carrying on beyond the death of Bel, the star, the idea of the garden, her ruined garden--of course the garden is where the most famous story began. The idea of her ruined garden, and of Gemma's failing at the garden, and the idea of once again the coming to terms with the full blossoming of your life, the full blossoming finally of Joe and Rita's lives, their coming together at the end. The estrangements that then come together, with Manny and his daughter, a blossoming of love again.

I will be writing about fall next. I have to think about all this. Whatever we mean by fall and the fall. Which leads us of course up to Christmas, which leads us close to a beginning. I'm just reading and thinking and making some notes. I have my characters that repeat in all three books. It's like having a company of actors who you call upon for different roles, at different times. It's an idea that's out of comedia del'arte, or out of a troup of actors.

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Washington, DC: Who are you voting for?

Maureen Howard: Oh, Kerry! That's loud and strong. I'm part of a reading where students at Columbia got together a reading to raise money to benefit Kerry. We're all working as hard as we can for Kerry, and enthusiastically. We can't live another four years with this man, with this crew. We're not reading our own work. I'm thinking of reading Whitman, some of those beautiful poems about the soldiers who were dying when he was a nurse in a hospital. I thought it might be political enough to make its point.

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Carole Burns: I'm interested in the theme of home in your book, whether "You can't go home again," but whether you have to go home. This is true of most of your characters in this book. Can you talk about how you use this in The Silver Screen? Maureen Howard: I think the problem is you can't go home to the myth of home. You have to go home to the reality of it--what it was, what it is. So that actually when Joe is in the house by himself when everyone is gone, he says, I never realized the rooms were that small. The whole physical space feels different. He's been out in the world, he's been in a way. The idea that you can go home, but in the case of Gemma, who thinks she can be part of Cotrell Street again, it's a false idea. She can never be part of Cotrell Street. It's something she thinks will liberate her from her own photography she doesn't value much anymore. She thinks she can be like the people down the street, but she can't.

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Carole Burns: That's all we have time for today. Thanks for signing into "Off the Page!"

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