Part 2: Lisa Locascio talks to author Judith Freeman about writing, madness and the creative spark.
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JUDITH FREEMAN is the author of six books: four novels (The Chinchilla Farm, A Desert of Pure Feeling, Set For Life, and Red Water), one story collection (Family Attractions), and an intensely researched narrative of Raymond Chandler’s relationship with his wife Cissy Pascal, The Long Embrace: Raymond Chandler and the Woman He Loved. Her first two books, Family Attractions (1988) and The Chinchilla Farm (1989), depicted the lives of women within or recently departed from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (whose adherents are better known as Mormons), a cultural milieu almost entirely absent from American literature at the time of Freeman’s debut. Thirty-seven years old when her first book was published, Freeman’s fiction bears the melancholy air of experience. In his New Yorker review of The Chinchilla Farm, John Updike praised the protagonist’s “levelness (strength without aggression, observation without nervous judgments), a cool and uncondescending view of class, and passages like ‘Time had stopped going forward and backward and was rising and falling, up and down, like mercury in one grand column.’”
Freeman’s recent work resumes her interrogation of her Mormon heritage. Red Water, published in 2005, explores the lives of the wives of John D. Lee, the Utah pioneer convicted of organizing the Mountain Meadows Massacre, the 1857 murder of the Baker-Fancher wagon train organized and overseen by Church leaders but long denied by the Church. Last autumn saw the publication of Freeman’s essay “The Mormon Chronicles: A Meditation in Four Parts” in The Los Angeles Review of Books (http://lareviewofbooks.org/essay/the-mormon-chronicles-a-meditation-in-four-parts/), in which the author unpacks her family’s history of polygamy, revealing a nineteenth-century connection to former American presidential hopeful Mitt Romney. This essay became the impetus for the memoir on which she is now at work.
Born and raised in Utah, Freeman divides her time between Los Angeles, where she teaches writing at the University of Southern California, and rural Idaho, where she and her husband, the photographer Anthony Hernandez, own a home that serves as a creative retreat. In a generous conversation from this sacred space, Freeman shared her ruminations on work, life, and literature with me.
What are you working on right now?
I’ve taught in the University of Southern California’s Master of Professional Writing program for about ten or eleven years. Last fall I got a contract for a new book, a memoir, actually, something I’ve never really been that interested in writing, but as a result of certain things I felt like I had figured out how I might do it. You know, a certain tone. And so I talked to my editor about it and he was really thrilled and very excited that I was finally going to write a memoir. So I taught in the spring, but now I’ve taken the whole year off and I’m spending a lot of time up here in Idaho, in this little place in the country we have. It’s a very good place for me to write. It’s wonderful to have a break from teaching. I’m really enjoying it.
LISA: Where in Idaho are you?
JUDITH: About an hour south of Sun Valley, so it’s southern Idaho. It’s big, high prairie, about ninety miles from Boise and about fifty miles from Sun Valley.
LISA: What does your memoir focus on?
JUDITH: A lot of it will deal with growing up in Utah in a big Mormon family, and how that experience affected— [laughs] I was going to say infected—the way it was phrased in the contract was how those experiences, coming out of that culture and religion, affected my worldview. But I think it’s also about how I became a writer. I really don’t know at what point it’s going to end. Maybe it will end with the publication of The Chinchilla Farm, when I was about thirty-nine. It’s a book that I’d like to be about many things, not just about how I grew up. I’d like it to be able to connect that experience of that culture, that religion, to a much bigger picture and a set of experiences. I’m having a very interesting time writing it. I’m very glad. It feels like the book that I’ve been preparing myself to write.
LISA: I first became aware of your work because of its connection to Mormonism. As I’m sure you know there is a true dearth of good writing about the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. When I first became interested in the Church, I could only find theological texts, evangelical Christian conversion narratives, a lot of inspirational literature, and the occasional novel. I’m always very grateful to your work because it is engaging on the subject of Mormonism but never morally black and white. I loved “The Mormon Chronicles,” your essay in the Los Angeles Review of Books. Is your memoir connected to it?
JUDITH: They’d been urging me to write a piece because Romney was running. I had tried for months to write something. An editor there named Laurie Winer—she’s also a good friend—she was just so patient, and kept urging me to keep trying. I was having a very difficult time finding a tone, finding something to say. And then I wrote that essay very quickly, over a period of a few days before the Republican National Convention, and once I’d written it I realized, “Oh, that’s it. There is a certain cool, detached way of looking at this that I can adopt and extend it out from me.” And so I took that twenty-three page essay, “The Mormon Chronicles,” to my agent and said, “Let’s use it as a proposal, because I think I’d like to write a memoir.” My editor jumped on it immediately and said “This is the book I’ve been waiting for you to write. And it’s a book that I feel that no one else could write.”
When The Chinchilla Farm was published in 1989 that it was one of the first novels, if not the first novel, to really bring that experience into American literature. There had been other Mormon writers who published novels, but I never thought of them as books I necessarily wanted to read or did read; I didn’t think of them as literature, and they didn’t make it into the canon. And I felt like The Chinchilla Farm brought into mainstream literature this experience of a culture, an awareness of it that was quite fresh and quite new. Critics and reviewers treated it that way, and it had a really wonderful critical response. Anyway, yes, that piece, “The Mormon Chronicles,” very much became a foundation, the thing that helped me see how I might write a memoir.
LISA: One of the things that transfixes to me about Mormon culture is that so much of the history is so recent. We feel distant from the past, especially when it comes to religious history, but in the case of your familial history as related in that article, and in the fictional universe of The Chinchilla Farm, is this sense that history is not only not distant, but that it is still extraordinarily influential. Part of the function of the faith is to ensure that connection.
I’m fascinated by the way you handle race and class in The Chinchilla Farm. Midway through the novel Verna makes a statement of alliance with the men she observes in MacArthur Park, who she describes as “poorer people trying to make things work out okay and just looking for places to pass time until that happened.” This strikes me as such a strong statement of commonality: she self-identifies with them. What were you thinking about while you were creating her transition from this really flat milieu in Utah to the extremely colourful world that she enters in L.A.?
JUDITH: I’m always interested in the dualities, what’s attractive, what’s negative, the plus charge and the negative charge. Almost every experience, almost every culture, almost every family has these polarities. One of the most attractive things in Mormonism is a kind of empathy, a real goodness. Kindness. I saw that with my own siblings, the way we were raised. I see how kind children can be to elders, how my siblings and myself have a great deal of affection for old people, and are sort of naturally drawn to showing them kindness and being empathetic. When Verna finds herself among the homeless, there is that quality of empathy that emerges. It’s the same, even, when she picks up Duluth Wing, the hitchhiker, on the road, and then later lets him go along on the ride to Mexico. It’s why she helps Inez escape her abusive husband. I suppose you could think of it as a Christian impulse.
But it’s also about moments of epiphany, a manifestation. Small moments of epiphany where you feel coming through you—Verna feels coming through her, we feel coming through us—that impulse toward empathy, which really breaks down what I could also make an argument for as more male-inspired barriers in the world, which have to do with power structures. I think women have to find their way around those structures.
Verna was enclosed in this very claustrophobic world, where she received a steady drip of indoctrination, in a system that was completely dominated by a patriarchy. And actually moving out into the world, and finding herself in this polyglot culture, this great big bad world of characters and people and experiences, is a classic transformation. I wouldn’t call it a device, because I never thought of it as a device. I just thought this would be the journey.
A novel is such a big animal. It helps if you can see parts [The Chinchilla Farm is divided into three parts: “Utah,” “Los Angeles,” and “Mexico.” –Ed.] You can write to the end of that part, and then to the next part. But it’s also a movement, not just through landscape, but through sensibility, with the cauldron being Los Angeles, the transformative place of the city. It moves from a cold, northern, stripped, religious, small, repressed world to the liberating and illuminating city, which is where people have always transformed themselves. And then even further south into Mexico, this world of intense colour and light, a different culture, where there’s a looseness, and a very different set of icons, so to speak.
None of this was exactly planned. I start a book with the character whose husband is leaving and it’s going to launch her into the world, and then all of this is revealed and it comes out that one person is going to be the guide, and take you through this journey.
LISA: Throughout the book, Verna is very intuitive. She feels and understands things about herself and other people through nonverbal cues, observations of the landscape around her, and music. She’s so strong—self-esteem and self-assurance are the wrong terms, but I thought it was astounding, when I read it, that there’s this woman who’s really on the outside of culture and the mainstream, and yet she doesn’t seem to lack grounding in herself. The people around her are either just struggling to survive, or in the case of Vincent, I find him a wonderful character because he’s both neurotic and obsessed with appearances and self-obsessed, but also fundamentally good, and complicated in that way. Verna functions as a conduit between these people. I wonder if, in her scenes of interaction with others, you saw her as a conduit, a mediator, or simply as someone living and observing?
JUDITH: I think one critic pointed out that she’s a very reliable narrator, in the sense that she’s almost more interested in the resolution of other people’s stories than she is in her own. I do think that there’s a quiet sadness that pervades her person, but I think it’s accepted. It’s not that she’s struggling against it. She does have some power, some ability, because of her quietness, to affect people around her, people who might be very troubled, like Duluth or Inez or certainly Vincent. Many people have said to me, “Wow, I don’t know how she ended up with Vincent, I really don’t like him!” And I always say, “I don’t either!” You know, I didn’t find him all that terrific either. He’s very wounded. And it had something, again, to do with that idea of opposition, which I think you always have to have in a novel. Two things that are in opposition to one another create a tremendous charge. Vincent was that thing. He was that rich kid, that privileged kid, that uptight educated kid who had those strong snobby opinions about Schubert and Patsy Cline.
At some point in our lives we are all looking for someone to help shake us loose from the verities and the sureties and the things we’ve always believed. I’m fascinated by the moment in which someone can reach inside you and cause you to doubt, to say, “Wow! What if I haven’t been right about this all along?” That’s a moment of epiphany. In it’s own way it is a surreal event, an internal realization.
These surreal events can be so commonplace that they’re hardly worth noting, and yet somebody does note them. It might be Verna sitting in that apartment in MacArthur Park, saying, “What about loneliness, then? People say that absence makes the heart grow fonder, but it doesn’t do that at all.” I often go to that passage in Chinchilla Farm because that’s a slightly surreal moment, when she twists the received ideas and realizes, no, that’s not real, it’s surreal. It’s beyond the nominally ascribed idea of reality. It doesn’t make the heart grow fonder, absence. It makes it unhappy, full of longing and aching.
It might be driving through the landscape between Utah and Las Vegas with Duluth and seeing those strange, almost sinister buildings out in the desert that are either mines, or factories, or places where they process God knows what, and smoke is billowing from the smokestacks, and suddenly that image can be arrested into another state of perception. She says to him, “What do you think people do out there?” And he says, “Probably masturbate a lot.” And that’s a reality—to him, that’s a very coarse, real reality, but she doesn’t like that. She says it seems dirty and she resists it. But on the other hand, that little image becomes both real and surreal.
LISA: I think of the scene, too, where Verna looks at herself in the mirror. “I stared at myself until I became objective and I could say, truthfully, You’re not exactly pretty. You’re like a man in some ways. But there’s something there that’s okay, that might even be better than being pretty—something that could be attractive in either sex.” That statement of self is so penetrating because it looks beyond the ways that people—male or female but especially female—are taught to see themselves. With Verna I saw it as this beautiful cocktail of, as you say, both the positive parts of her upbringing that taught her to see the world in a slightly different way than someone who maybe isn’t from an insular religious community and a huge family. It’s also very individual and doesn’t rely on anyone else’s definition of what she is and what her self should be or should feel like.
JUDITH: Right, right, that’s a singular moment. And it’s just either preceded or followed by hearing the kids jump off the bed upstairs. And hearing the mother yell at the kids. And again it’s an empathetic moment, because Verna’s thinking, “Poor kids. You know, they’re going to lose all their privileges.” And the mother’s upstairs saying, “If you jump off that bed one more time I’m going to smack your butt and you’re not going to go to the lagoon, and you’re not going to be able to do this, and you’re not going to be able to do that.”
I just find the writing of fiction to be one of the most wonderfully mysterious things, because it’s like—I’ve never said this before, and it’s funny, it’s not a very good metaphor—it’s like dreaming. Where do those stories we tell ourselves come from, at night? They’re so artful, they’re so metaphoric, they’re so playful, so full of image and language. Somewhere in our brains, we’re busy creating. Writing fiction is a little bit like that. It’s like, wow. It comes together. These things coalesce and form without full consciousness, I think. It really does come from a much deeper place, where you do seem to have these forces helping you, aiding you. It’s you, but if you tried to sit down and plot that out beforehand, you’d get a stiff, crummy, empty, linear, boring story.
Once you descend into that process, you really are descending into a place of absolute mystical possibility. One thing attaches to another. You don’t see the pattern in the carpet. You could never make that pattern. But the pattern is being made. Then, when it’s all done, people point out these patterns that you didn’t even see. And that’s quite wonderful too, because everybody brings that part of themselves to a work of art and says, “Oh, this is what I attached to that scene. This is what I attached to that character.” That’s the universality of it, and to me it’s really quite amazing.
LISA: Two moments in The Chinchilla Farm, which are somewhat surreal and which aren’t that sad but have a melancholy air, always stick with me: the scene where she and her siblings are searching for the lost chinchillas and the scene where she re-encounters the pilot whose life she saved. They are strange events that are both completely plausible and utterly odd, and one of Verna’s strengths is that she’s not precious about these things; they’re just in her filing cabinet of memory. Were these stories that had been related to you, or even that you yourself had experienced, or were they stories you were constructing for their symbolic value in the novel?
JUDITH: The latter. I didn’t know anyone who had chinchillas when I was growing up. I never rescued a pilot from the lake, but that lake itself is a very strange, otherworldly mystical place, it’s so inhospitable to humans. That scene of the pilot floating in on the log. I think of it now and it almost has a biblical quality to it. Just arriving there at night, as she’s standing there after a lousy card game with her in-laws. Nature itself is highly mystical for me, highly magical.
With the chinchillas, clearly I wanted to work with the idea of animals that mate for life. Whether that’s true or not, I don’t even know. It’s said to be the case that chinchillas do mate for life, like snow geese, that there is a great mourning if they should lose a mate. I suppose there was some romantic part of me when I wrote that, that wanted to believe that there was something noble and good about two human beings bonding to that degree. But the interesting thing about the pilot in the lake story is that it leaves you with just the opposite idea. You don’t have to bond for life in order to have an absolute connection, a really profound mystical connection, that you can be really so grateful to someone and can have the serendipitous luck that puts you in a particular place at a particular time to influence another person, and you can disrobe right down to taking off your most sacred piece of clothing, and make love in a barn, and walk away from each other and never see each other again, and that has its own profound moment of deep bonding.
LISA: I generally think that the proliferation of graduate writing programs and small magazines in the last twenty years is a positive development, but one of the dangers that it contains is that the focus on craft can really squash the mystical part of this act of writing. This is probably, as you say, one of the most mysterious things that humans do. With the echoes and the patterns that you talk about, if there’s a conscious hand trying to line them up, the work immediately suffers.
All of your novels, and The Long Embrace [Freeman’s 2007 biography of Raymond Chandler], but especially The Chinchilla Farm and A Desert of Pure Feeling, have a very holistic shape, by which I mean that both narratives culminate in a psychic healing or release for the protagonist.
I’m not sure if you’re aware of this reading of The Chinchilla Farm, but in her book Landscapes of the New West, the scholar Krista Comer argues that, for all of Verna’s relationships and alliances with other disenfranchised people, the book’s ending is effectively some sort of fairy tale deus ex machina, in which she is saved by a rich man who swoops in like Prince Charming. She calls it a Cinderella ending and suggests that it undermines the book’s message of sisterhood and community.
I wonder what you make of these different ideas about the shape in which the whole narrative comes together. Do you feel a sense of proportion or outline when you’re writing, or is it more about the intuitive process, about realizing where the character needs to go as they get there?
JUDITH: It’s more intuitive. All through the book, I wait for the character to tell me where it’s going to go. Then, as I get closer and closer to the end, the ending becomes clear. Through the force of everything I’ve written and who she is, the character takes me to whatever conclusion seems right. There was never any other idea for a conclusion to that book.
It sounds very simplistic, this other reading. It sounds incredibly simplistic. But I also don’t think I’m in a position to say whether she’s right or wrong. This other critic, Diane Johnson, reviewed The Chinchilla Farm for the New York Review of Books. That was a great place for a first novel to be reviewed, and it was reviewed in conjunction with another book that dealt with Mormonism, with which Johnson has some experience; I think she was married to a Mormon guy when she was very young. She came to the same place. She obviously admired the book, obviously considered it a literary novel. But she said that at the end, Verna ends up getting married, and for all her voyaging and searching and bravery, she ends up with the traditional woman’s resolution.
Of course I had never thought that I would be accused of that. It was just what happened. I did something that later, a friend of mine said, “Oh, you must never ever write a letter to the editor when you’ve been reviewed.” But the New York Review of Books is a little different in that there’s a great conversation that goes on after many articles and reviews are published, where people who do take exception with the way their books have been addressed have a conversation with the author of the review. I didn’t really know that. I just wrote in and said something to the effect of, “That wasn’t my intention at all.” I never intended for Verna to portray this traditional solution. I never thought of it that way!
Diane Johnson—who I met later, and who I really like—wrote back! And what she wrote was really beautiful, and I don’t have it memorized and I’m not going to quote it well, but what she said was, “Unfortunately, what novelists often think they do in their books, is really not what they do at all.” And so she was saying, in spite of your best intentions with that ending, you may have presented an idea that you didn’t intend. What she was saying was that to deny it now was really impossible.
Who am I to say? People take away different things from books.
LISA: Your last two books, Red Water and The Long Embrace, are significant stylistic departures from your previous work. I wonder if you could talk a little bit of translating your historical research for Red Water into these scenes, which happens often in The Long Embrace, albeit in a different way. I’m thinking specifically of the Ann section of Red Water. Did it take a leap of bravery for you to write her interiority with this supernatural level of perception and connection to the animals? That must be another sort of balance, taking these established facts, or what we see as these established facts and primary sources, and turning them into a narrative over which you have complete control.
JUDITH: I relied on journals a lot for that section of the book. John D. Lee’s journals about the landscape, the hardship, the animals, the Hopis taking their melons and sharing it, going to the Hopi mesas. There’s a factuality that for me provided the ground from which I felt personalities arising almost like a miasma. If I could get the history right, and I could enter into the history and their view of that landscape and their daily routines and their engagement and dependence on animals, then I could enter into those people. I could come through that into those people and I could imagine lives for them, interior lives.
The Mormon church of the nineteenth century was very different from the corporate Mormon church of the twentieth century. Since the turn of the century, Mormons have been trying to refashion themselves and make themselves ever more mainstream. One might say ever more corporate. In the nineteenth century, they had the most extraordinary magic view of the world. It was a world in which magic existed in everything, in rocks and trees and birds, and it’s one of the reasons why they meshed rather well with the native world that they encountered. There was a similar magic worldview that both tribes shared, the native tribes and the Mormon tribe. From the moment of that founding story of Joseph Smith and the golden plates and the angel appearing and the glasses that helped him translate the plates, and then God appearing over and over to give him everything from the word of wisdom, what to eat, to take more wives, polygamy, to this is how you build a temple, practical matters as well as very esoteric manners. It was a world in which anybody could speak to God. Anybody could have that experience.
Of the three women in the novel, I probably feel most aligned with Ann, the iconoclast, who struck out, the woman between genders, the one who was less suited to domesticity, the lover of horses and dogs, the adventurer. But when I came to Rachel, I had no difficulty writing that character. If I could enter into the world through the historical account, I could begin to sense that personality. If I could remember the magic that pervaded that world, I could bring it to it my own version of that magic, which isn’t strange to me. It’s a part of me too.
I had an aunt who could speak in tongues. In the 1950s her bishop told her that she couldn’t do that anymore, because it made the Mormons look too peculiar. But in the nineteenth century, it was incredibly common for women to speak in tongues. It happened all the time in Relief Society meetings. What I thought was interesting was that men apparently didn’t speak in tongues as much, either because they didn’t possess the same types of linguistic skills or because they didn’t want to look that foolish, that irrational. So to be able to see the faces of God in those flaming rocks—if you spend any time in southern Utah, it’s a holy landscape, it’s an otherworldly landscape, it’s a surreal landscape, and it’s probably an occult landscape. It lent itself to mysticism and superstition. But that was already a part of the culture.
So the ending of that book and Rachel and her religious fervor—that must be a part of me too. That must be something I can touch and tap into.
LISA: I have spent some time in southern Utah, and I agree. When the pioneers saw it for the first time, it must have invoked an epiphany all on its own.
JUDITH: Exactly, and it was so harsh! It was so beautiful and it was so brutal. The droughts, the rains, the storms, the heat, the dryness, the lack of water—all those things. It’s just a brutally beautiful, harsh world that’s just aglow.
I loved writing Red Water but it did take me up to a certain edge at some points, where I felt that I peered over. It was just fantastically—I don’t even know how to say it, to enter into a sense of not only that world, but the religious fervor in that world.
LISA: That power of belief is present in all of your work. In The Long Embrace, you write near the end of the book that Cissy was Chandler’s entrance into the world of fable. I can’t help but connect that statement to a different one you make in The Long Embrace, where you describe becoming strange to yourself through your fascination with Chandler. I love that line, partially because I feel like I know the feeling, but also because it reminds me of your essay “The Dance of Memory and Imagination,” in which you describe how writers produce autobiographical fiction early in their careers because they’re trying to understand the rhythms of that dance. This issue of navigating yourself in the text—that’s one of the lovely things about the book, that you don’t remove yourself from the narrative, you’re there with them—and reading the book suggests the importance of the emotional experience the author is going through while writing and creating all of the characters’ worlds. It goes back to this question about the mysticism of writing. What did it feel like to become strange to yourself? Is that something you often feel while writing, or was that specific to Chandler?
JUDITH: Obsession reveals our strangeness, because we can’t explain it, and so we have to just exist with ourselves as we try and work through the questions. What is this? Why has this taken me up? And try to resolve that and answer that, and the only way to do that, if you’re a writer working on a book, is to try to go into it further.
I think we are strange to ourselves. I think we are stranger than we most often can afford to admit, because you have to keep a life together, and you have to have a face for that life, a public persona. But when a story or a subject claims you, it’s as though you haven’t really made that decision. Something has claimed you. Something has come from the outside and said, pay attention to me. Maybe even write about me. And that certainly happened with Chandler. I don’t even read mysteries, I’m not that interested in them. And again, if we were to really tie it together, and maybe this is too neat—but just as Chandler said that Cissy was his entrance into that world of fable, well, what was that? She was a woman who needed a lot of care. She needed a lot of empathy. She was so much older. She was going to age at a different rate. She as going to require that he had that empathy, that their relationship not be made on the normal tropes of, you know, sexuality, attraction, parity, that kind of thing.
And then he creates this iconic character, Phillip Marlowe, who was all about empathy. He’s all about helping people who can’t get help through normal channels. He gets beat up by them. He goes out into the world for them. He tries to find people for them. He tries to prevent them from getting more injured. So in some ways, maybe that’s what drew me to Chandler. I’ve never thought of this before, but just as Verna has that empathetic ability to move through the world without obsessing about her own problems and psyche, so Marlowe is able to move through the world much more interested in the resolution of other people’s stories than their own. And both of them have intrinsically endemic, loner, outsider, outlier personalities. They are both outliers, outside their cultures, outside their families. This idea of the westerner as an outlier as something I’ve been thinking about a lot. Strange people came west.
LISA: For the past year I’ve been at work on a project about the life of the author Roberto Bolaño. I’ve visited the town in Spain where he lived three times, and last summer I realised my research goal of interviewing his widow. Only then did I realise that I had been using The Long Embrace as a guide, really a form of permission to go on a quest like this, and when I think about your work as a whole, I feel like every book has an element of the quest and the seeker who is after something that only they can ascertain, which is ephemeral even to themselves. Is that, in any way, how writing feels to you? Is it a search for something? Or is it more the sense of having a notion and wanting to draw it out?
JUDITH: I never start with big ideas, although I did try to do that in Set For Life. I was very disturbed by the rise of the white supremacist movement in northern Idaho. It was so ugly and so disruptive. They thought that they could move into these areas of Idaho and Washington and create these insidious little cells. I thought, I’m going to write a book about that: white supremacy in America, the rise of white supremacy in the West. So I started thinking about that, and then I found the true story of a man who had received his grandson’s heart in a transplant.
But really, it’s not such a great idea to write fiction based on big ideas. It doesn’t work. It’s a great idea to write fiction based on characters that you feel for, who feel and move through the world in some way that allows you to talk about things that are important to you. Sometimes you’re not even aware what those things are, but there’s a guide, a character, who is going to help you maybe discover some of that. That’s the seeking part of it.
But truthfully, what I seek more than anything is just to write a strong story that isn’t faked up. Something that’s really grounded deep. I don’t even know what I could say that something is. It’s not just me. I just want to tell a story.
I’ve never liked the idea that writers write to discover themselves. That always seemed so stupid to me. So inward looking, egotistical. I’m sure that’s a huge part of the motivation, though, that we want to rummage around in our own psyches and see what’s upstairs, what we haven’t discovered. Who are we? What’s that mystery? What is behind the face?
I think it was Ralph Ellison who corrected Joyce’s Stephen Daedalus, who said he was out to discover the unrecognized something of his race [The full quotation, from Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man is “I go forth to forge in the smithy of my soul the uncreated conscience of my race” —Ed.]. Ellison said no, it was the quest to discover the unknown face. [The full quotation, from Invisible Man, is: “Stephen’s problem, like ours, was not actually one of creating the uncreated conscience of his race, but of creating the uncreated features of his face.” —Ed.] I’m really butchering that, but I think that there’s a large component of that. It seems way too simplistic to try to confine it as just that.
LISA: In the last twenty years, most of the things that have happened in literature that have been, in my opinion, destructive to the discourse, are the death cries of the self-obsessed male author. I guess that’s a horrible generalization to make. I’m talking about certain authors who are invested in representing and recreating a world in which they felt comfortable. While I understand the popularity of these books, it’s such a misuse of the form to spend your time in fiction trying to create the world as you wish it would be. The least interesting things that happen in fiction are stories that stubbornly hang onto a vestige that only serves the writers’ ego or vanity. It’s not that literature can’t be comforting, but I think it should be the business of surprise. For it to keep working it has to keep being the business of surprise.
Since we’re talking about the self and the novel: over the time that I’ve worked with your fiction, I’ve pieced together a semblance of your biography, but I wonder if you would tell me a little bit about your own story.
JUDITH: Well, you know that I came from a big Mormon family. Eight kids. Deeply rooted in Mormonism. When I was researching Red Water, the interesting thing was coming across the names of my ancestors so often, because they played such a role in the early church. Growing up in Ogden, Utah and getting married at seventeen, the day after I graduated from high school to a series of circumstances in Minnesota, where I took my son to have heart surgery. Being able to take classes at Macalester College, where my husband had taken a job as the director of a dormitory, which had just gone coeducational. So at nineteen, I became a dorm mother, and half the kids were really older than I was.
It was the moment at which I really stepped out into the world, and it was such a rich and extraordinary world, Macalester College and those students there. They were so smart, so well educated, so well read. They knew music, were protesting against Vietnam, everything. That really was the place where I discovered reading. You could put a gun to my head and say, “Name a book you read in high school,” and I’d probably have to say, “Go ahead and shoot me.”
I just wasn’t a reader. I was interested in debate, and I was interested in ideas, and I had been allowed to develop a very inquiring mind, in part because I had a liberal father, a Democrat, in a world that was packed with Republican conservatives. The atmosphere at our dinner table enabled me, when I was a teenager, to join the constant conversation about politics and world events, my father’s attitudes about justice, classic liberal attitudes about fairness. It permitted me to begin to develop a mind, which I used in the few classes I took at Macalester—literature classes where I discovered reading and writers, and thought, this is really what I want to do.
After that there’s just this long string of moves and men and thinking and trying and reading, more than anything reading. Trying to figure out how to make a book. How to make a story, how to move characters through scenes. Teaching myself to write. Moving to LA in order to be in the greater traffic of ideas and around people who were doing what I wanted to do. Writing, and writing again. Not really showing the stories to people, not getting a lot of feedback, but reading a lot.
Gradually I began to meet people who worked at book reviews, who gave me opportunities to review books. Writing those short pieces made me begin to feel, “I am a writer, I am, I’m going to be a writer!” So I made the book of thirteen stories. A friend said that he would send the stories to his agent in New York, and she loved them. She said, what do you want to do? And I said, well, obviously, publish them as a book. And they were bought by the third editor she showed them to, Jerry Howard at Viking. I recently had lunch with him in New York—he’s no longer my editor, but we’re still friends—and I remember when he called me after he bought the book, and the first thing he said was “Who are you?” And I just loved it, because one of the things he was saying was, where do these stories come from? Because they were not like stories he had read before, they came from a different place and they had a different feeling about them.
It was wonderful for me that the book was reviewed by Michiko Kakutani in the New York Times. In a way, she said the same things. And that my work was reviewed in The New Yorker, and they said the same things, more strange and wonderful things. Who knew that people polished their houseplants with mayonnaise? And from that point, I guess it was just never looking back, and just saying, well, what’s the next book, and what’s the next book.
It helped that I married an artist, that I ended up with a man who is so single-minded and so focused about his art that I think he helped me to be very focused and single-minded about my writing [Freeman is married to the photographer Anthony Hernandez—Ed.] When we got married in 1986, neither of us had any money. He was working part-time at the Department of Water and Power. He had already been recognized for his photographs, but he had never had a gallery or show. Museums had collected his work, he was recognized as a very serious artist, but we both said, let’s not keep jobs. Let’s just focus on our art. Let’s see if we can do it. Let’s see if we can get by without teaching. Of course neither of us had degrees, we were self-taught, so that wasn’t even an option, but we decided that if we could live simply enough, we felt that we could just write and make art, and it worked out that way.
That was a gift, it was really a great gift. There have been people who’ve helped me all along the way. It doesn’t take much, but you really do need those little boosts. It’s such a lonely business, writing. So much of it is just self-motivation and belief in yourself. You really do have to draw all of your confidence from yourself, so that if every once in a while someone says, “Oh, I’ll take that piece,” or “I’ll help you get this published,” it’s just wonderful.
There was some great good fortune in me becoming a reader, sort of late in life, and then have mentors and people to help me continue to really teach myself to write. Friends. And when it comes to writing programs, I really think that’s one of the main things they can do. If you stumble across a mentor, if you stumble across maybe one or two people who help you a little bit, that’s a big deal. For me many of those mentors were the writers I read, the books I read.
It’s voice that makes such a tremendous difference in the way that we engage with a book. I know that there are writers who are postmodernists and who are tweaking narrative and using devices. And that’s one thing, and I know that it appeals to many people, but it doesn’t to me. What I love is voice. It’s not just a visual thing; you can hear it.
I had dinner with my editor recently, and he said: “You have something that I look for, and I look for, and I look for, and that’s voice.” And that’s what’s in The Long Embrace, that’s what makes it personal. I wasn’t going to disguise myself as the searcher, I was going to be present in my voice. And I’ve never thought of this before, but I think it’s a strength throughout my work.
It’s again something somebody else pointed to. It’s nothing I ever thought of. It’s just how I work. I want to speak to you, I want you to hear me, I don’t want you to just read me.