After Edmund White turned in his review of Mary Gordon's novel Final Payments, Book World asked him to interview the author. Their conversation took place over dinner in a New York restaurant.
Q. O.K. let me ask you the vulgar question: how autobiographical is your book?
A. I welcome the vulgarity, because no one will believe me that it's fiction. My father died when I was seven, not recently (I'm 29 now). And unlike Isabel I have not live a life of sacrifice.But the book, I think, comes out of a moral preoccupation with sacrifice. Though I'm not willing to immolate myself, I think it's scary the way people today have a nasty Freudian assumption that sacrifice is really sick. Something valuable has been lost.
Q. If you respect sacrifice so much, then why does your heroine decide at the end of the book not to stay with Margaret, the dreadful woman she had intended to help?
A. When Isabel served her father she was happy. You see, I think sacrifice for someone you love is pure, joy, the highest form of love, but sacrifice for someone you loathe is just egotism.
Q. Are you religious?
A. Yes. I was brought up as a strict Catholic. I'm well into a new novel, one that's a bit more experimental but that also deals with religion. I read theology for pleasure. Are you religious?
Q. I say I'm an atheist, though friends accuse me of being a crypto-Catholic. But I think it's more fun than being secular.
A. No, it's more fun to be religious; it may be more honest to be secular. Nothing is more interesting than religion. Right now I'm reading Simone Weil; she's an obsession. She also disturbs me because of her denial of pleasure. Just now I had some time to kill and I was having a drink in a bar, reading Simone Weil, but there was someone on television singing, "When I'm not near the girl I love, I love the girl I'm near," and half of me wanted to read and the other half wanted to sing along with that silly, wonderful song. I love show business. Just the other day I went to Radio City and really enjoyed that unspeakable show with the Rockettes as nuns dancing and kicking in the form of the Cross. Oh, it's all so confusing.
Q. Where did you grow up?
A. On Long Island in a working-class neighborhood right next to Kennedy airport. But I was a very ambitious child.Two of my girlfriends and I decided we would go to college; that was almost unprecedented at my high school. And we all succeeded! I got a scholarship to Barnard. That changed my life especially when I took creative writing from Elizabeth Hardwick. I think she's the greatest prose stylist in America now. At that time I was writing nothing but poetry, but Lizzie kept telling me, "You're a prose writer, honey," in that charming Southern drawl of hers. She was also a wonderful role model for me; until I met her I had no idea how to be a woman writer.
Q. How did you begin to write prose?
A. I think I was afraid of the length of fiction. But finally a woman friend took me in hand. She gave me a blue-book and told me it was like an exam; I had an hour to write a story. So I filled up the book - and I've been going ever since.
A. And the novel? How did it come to be published?
A. I was in London for a year with my husband. He's an anthropologist and we were there for his sabbatical. I was very lonely. One day I saw Margaret Drabble on television, and I liked her so much I wrote her a letter. She phoned me the next day and invited me to dinner - extraordinarily generous of her. We became friends and later I showed her Final Payments, which I was just finishing. She put me in touch with her American agent, who took me on as a client. Then, when I was back in the States, I showed the manuscript to Elizabeth Hardwick. She liked it, but she said, "Why did you write a first-person narrative in the third person?" You see, at that point it was all "she" rather than "I"; guess I was afraid of the "I." The idea of converting the entire manuscript into the first person seemed overwhelming, but Lizzie told me it would be easy. She sat down with me and did two pages; I rewrote the whole book quickly. It was instantly snapped up by Random House. Do you see how important my women friends have been to me?
Q. That's one of the things I liked about your book, the very human feminism. Mary, where do you live? Do you work?
A. I live in Poughkeepsie and teach composition and creative writing there at a community college. The work is sometimes a bit defeating. Most of the students are going to be welders or X-ray technicians, and they're just not used to the most essential thing in reading literature - the habit of introspection.
Q. Tell me about your background.
A. My father was an extraordinary man. He was a Jew who grew up in, of all places, Lorain, Ohio.His family - uncles, aunts - sent him to Harvard. He dropped out, went to Paris in the '20s, was a part of the high literati. Slowly he became, like Ezra Pound, disgusted with modern culture. He came back to the States and believe it or not started a girlie magazine. It was called Hot Dog. But then in the 1930s he sympathized with the Franco side in the Spanish Civil War - and that led him to convert to Catholicism. He gave up the girlie magazine and started one right-wing Catholic periodical after another. They all folded after a few issues. And he married my mother, his romantic idea: a working-class Irish Catholic girl. Although he died when I was seven, he managed to start teaching me French, Greek, philosophy; in a way he was not sexist at all. I was to be his intellectual heir. When he died, there I was, a morose, plain child who read all the time.
Q. And your mother?
A. We love each other very much, but she doesn't read my work. She's not a reader. We have our own fun - playing canasta, for instance. And for a person without much education, she leads a remarkably sophisticated spiritual life.
Q. How do you feel about all the attention you're getting, the fact that Final Payments is a Literary Guild selection and that there's a big paperback deal in the offing and that so many critics have flipped over your novel?
A. It's all terribly strange. I though I might reach just a few people, be published by a small press . . . It's almost embarrassing.