Susan and Porter Shreve
Special to The Washington Post
Monday, May 9, 2005 1:00 PM
Moms are the most familiar people in the world but also, sometimes, the most mysterious. So, for Mother's Day, The Washington Post Magazine encouraged nine grown children to seek answers to questions they've always wondered about but never put into words.
Read the story: Post Magazine: Go Ask Your Mother
Susan Shreve and son Porter, one of the nine pairs interviewed in Sunday's Magazine, were online Monday, May 9, at 1 p.m. ET to field questions and comments about motherhood, childhood and, perhaps, apple pie.
Susan Shreve is a novelist and professor in the MFA program at George Mason University. Porter Shreve is a novelist and director of the MFA program in creative writing at Purdue University.
A transcript follows.
Maryland: How did you get involved with this story?
Porter Shreve: I was contacted by Patricia Dempsey of the Post. Perhaps she saw the review of my recent novel, Drives Like a Dream, in Book World. The book is told from the perspective of a woman around my mom's age. She's not my mom, of course, but perhaps there are some similarities.
Alexandria, Va.: Porter: What was your reaction to your mother's answers?
Porter Shreve: I thought my mother's answers were very true. It took me quite a while to share this novel in manuscript with my mom because I worried that she wouldn't like my characterization of this woman who shares certain characteristics with her. I, of course, had tremendous sympathy and affection for Lydia, and I knew in the process of nine drafts that she had become a character only vaguely resembling my own mom. Nevertheless, I worried. The great advantage I had is that my mother is a novelist, and she understands how the seed of character can be found in autobiography. Her own work is testament to the ways in which imagination can expand and make greater the relatively quiet lives we lead. I hope in my book I was able to do some of that myself.
Silver Spring, Md.: Not a question, just a comment. Yesterday's feature was so touching to me. My own mother passed away a month ago. This is my first Mother's Day without her. My mother's life is an enigma to me. I don't understand or know what she thought, felt, desired, etc. She was a member of "The Greatest Generation" which worked hard and didn't talk about it. My brother and sister and I have spent hours since her death trying to piece together the few clues we have. Even though we are grown (I'm 50 years old), we still have this need to complete this picture. I have some regrets about not being bold enough to open the dialogue. I think most of us don't want to cause any pain the inquiry might cause. I have decided to open the dialogue with my 13-year-old daughter. I want that door to be open and to stay open! I am also going to ask my father some questions, starting with what he did in WWII!
Susan Shreve: Thanks for your lovely comments about your family. My mother was a talker but there are still so many things i want to ask her. She died when I was forty. But she did teach me to be a talker with my own children.
Cheverly, Md.: Question for Susan: How did you as a mother handle Porter's "troubles" at school (ex: getting kicked out several times)?
Did you question the authority or believe in Porter's justifications? Porter, how did you feel when your mother backed you up?
Susan Shreve: Porter is my eldest child and I tended to be fiercely protective when he was criticized. He actually was not a big complainer about school. Simply selective in what he chose to do and say. But I certainly was on his side and do still feel that schools have difficulty dealing with non-followers. I also had my own problems in school -- and in retrospect think for both Porter and for me -- we simply didn't understand at the time why we were so difficult for teachers.
Arlington, Va.: Has participating in the article inspired the two of you to talk more about topics you might otherwise avoid?
Porter Shreve: My mother and I have always had an easy time talking. We're both pretty open, not to mention shameless gossips, and we tend to tell each other what's on our minds. There's nothing worse in a family or any relationship than withholding or repressing emotions. We're talkers, and that's made it easy for us to get along -- as parent and child, as fellow writers, and as friends. I hope that came through in the questions and responses in the article.
Glover Park: Susan -- the main character in Porter's new book would like all of her children to live near her. Do you feel the same way? Have you succeeded in getting them to stay close?
Susan Shreve: I hate to confess that I would love to have all of my children in Washington -- and at the same time, they've been all over the place and my heart of hearts, I believe that freedom is wonderful. I have one child in San Francisco, one here, one in New York moving here in June and Porter at Purdue. Finally, I guess all any of us mothers want is our children's happiness and leaving goes with the territory. But I've always been a slow learner.
Virginia: Porter, did you feel pressured to follow in your mother's footsteps re: writing and teaching?
Porter Shreve: I felt no pressure. After all, no sane parent would ever want his or child to be a writer. God knows when I have kids I'll try to steer them toward anything else. Initially, I think my mother wanted me to be a journalist, like her own father was in his early career. But I wasn't so hot at telling the truth, and my temperament didn't suit journalism, so I found my way to novels. When it became clear that I wanted to follow the same path as my mom -- I didn't actually begin novel-writing until I was 30 -- she, and my father as well, gave me nothing but encouragement and support. My mom must have read my first novel The Obituary Writer a hundred times in manuscript. She literally mentored me through the entire process. I can't imagine where I'd be if I hadn't gotten that emotional support, structural advice, and line-by-line teaching.
Washington, D.C.: Were you really a terror? How did you grow up to be who you are versus living in your mom's basement?
Susan Shreve: I think this is for Porter and I'm taking the liberty of answering too -- he wasn't a terror, just easily bored and very inventive. But at home, he was great company. It was school that seemed to get in his way. I think in all likelyhood, my own mother would say the same about me. He'll have to answer the question about the basement --- though I confess our basement's pretty awful.
Poquoson, Va.: My daughter is a budding writer -- what advice do you have for me with regard to how to react to her writing, especially when I recognize the "seed of the character"?
Susan Shreve: I have been told two things about becoming a writer -- and both I think mattered a lot to me. And maybe to Porter. My mother listened to everything I said, carefully -- not that what I said was particularly interesting but I was her daughter. And as a writer, "positive reinforcement" is so important not just when you're beginning but particularly at the start. So if you see the "seed of character", tell her. she'll get better. Writers get better playing to their strengths.
Washington, D.C.: Why this format? I feel like there were really brilliant stories to be written from these women and I feel like this format was just a tease. Is the magazine so short-staffed that it will just run interview snippets instead of good journalism? Disappointing.
Porter Shreve: I can't speak for the Magazine or defend their editorial choices -- I'm just playing along here -- but I agree that each of these stories is just the tip of the Iceberg. But the rest of that Iceberg can be found in, for example, Reading Lolita in Tehran, where Azar Nafisi more than touches upon mothers and daughters and the role of women in her own growing up. If the Magazine had selected only a few of these stories, we wouldn't have had even a small window, after all.
Porter Shreve: I'm replying here to the following question from Washington, D.C.: Were you really a terror? How did you grow up to be who you are versus living in your mom's basement?
I never thought of myself as a terror, and I don't recall ever planning to act out the way I did. As a student, the answer was pretty simple. I went from a rough public school in Houston, Texas to the rarefied campus of St. Albans in D.C.. I was completely unprepared academically; and I had never been around the kind of wealth and privilege that I found at old StA, so academically I couldn't cut it. And sometimes when you can't cut it you play the clown as a way to distract people from recognizing you're out of your element. And my response to all that money and privilege was Thank you, No. I was a scholarship kid, always on the outside looking in. If I'd been born on the inside, perhaps I would have been happy there. Who knows? As for basements, if you haven't lived in one, I recommend it. They're good places to think things through. Also, tunnels, caves, block rooms with little light, cabins in the woods.
Washington, D.C.: Porter -- Please tell your wife that Rachel from the old chat board says hello and hopes she's well!
Porter Shreve: Thanks, Rachel. I just called down the hallway here. She says hi, too. We're both in our pajamas. (Am I over-sharing?) Such is the glory of the writing life!
Virginia: So . . . any good apple pie recipes?
Susan Shreve: I don't bake pies. But Porter's wife is a master cook so I'm sure she has one.
Calgary, AB: My 85-year-old mother-in-law has had a remarkable life. However, she is a secret keeper. I have had many conversations with her about her life and she has told me many things that come as a shock to my husband. She wrote a very revealing story of her Middle Eastern family's assimilation into North American society when she was only 20. It's so fascinating to read because we hear of marital intrigue and struggles to be a modern girl with parents more comfortable with traditions. It was so intersting because the struggles she had, we've had with her, dragging her into the 21st century in terms of parental expectations. So it doesn't have to be a parent we speak to, in my case I feel my conversations have been a conduit for my husband to know of his history. I am a lucky woman.
Susan Shreve: That's so true. And sometimes it takes someone listening from the outside to tell the story.
Alexandria, Va.: Susan: Did you have any idea what questions Porter might ask? How long did you have to put together your answers?
Susan Shreve: I certainly knew the question would come up of my relationship to Lydia in his wonderful novel DRIVES LIKE A DREAM. And it did. I knew he'd probably ask about my reaction to his reaction to school. Which he did. But I answered the questions on the spot with no real chance to correct the syntax or rethink the response which was part of the design of the Washington Post piece so we as mothers would respond instinctively.
Anonymous: I always felt sorry for my friends because their mothers weren't like mine. Mother had no time for coffee klatches or gossip; she was too busy bonding and communicating with my sister and I about everything (well, almost everything, she couldn't bring herself to discuss sex), especially books, music, films and art. She taught us to read before we ever started school; taught us ballet and tap steps; gave us piano lessons. She made all our clothes. She copied Ingrid Bergman's gown in "Notorious" for my sister's prom dress. When we got home from school, she greeted us at the door with impressions and we had to guess who she was before we had our afterschool snack. You should have seen her as Marlene Dietrich "Cookies and milk dahlings"? We were her life. What I can't figure out is why she took her own life when I was 15. I think of her everyday.
Susan Shreve: I have to reply to this because it is not only a heartbreaking story -- that goes without saying -- but also brave on your mother's part to have given you that much life -- and on yours inadvertantly for being that much life to her.
Montgomery Village Mom: My mother passed away unexpectedly and suddenly last month and this story brings home to me how much I will miss not being able to ask her questions about our family history, about why she made the choices she made or how to be a good mom. I always chatted with my mom about parenting issues and although we didn't always agree it was nice to know that someone who loved me and loved my children (her grandchildren) was there to share her wisdom and experience with me. What a timely story for me.
Susan Shreve: I still wish I could call my other on the telephone -- and things she told me come back all the time. She didn't advise me, but told me stories. You have my sympathy.
Washington, D.C.: Porter: Were there any questions you asked that didn't make it into the article?
Porter Shreve: That's an excellent question, and I wish I weren't drawing a blank about the two or three additional questions that I asked my mom when we sat down with the Post reporter. Here's one I do remember, and perhaps I'll put this to my mom now: Are you glad I became a writer? Did you see me doing anything else? For my part, I figure I exhausted all other possibilities and came to becoming a novelist somewhat by default -- after failing at many other things.
Porter Shreve: Here's a question for you, Ms. Shreve, this from a Porter Shreve of West Lafayette, Indiana: Are you glad I became a writer? Did you see me doing anything else?
Susan Shreve: Dear Mr. Shreve. I'm ecstatic you became a writer -- most of the time it's the best job in the world because you're making the world in little corner of your room which is what you were trying all those years to do at school. Besides a writer? I'm your mother. I thought you could do anything you wanted to do, of course. And so you did. Yours, Susan Shreve
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