A Patchwork of Bobbie Ann Mason: An Interview with Curtis Smith

Bobbie Ann Mason’s first short stories were published in The New Yorker during the 1980s renaissance of the short story, when writers such as Raymond Carver, Ann Beattie, and Tobias Wolff came to prominence. Mason’s first book of fiction, Shiloh & Other Stories (1982), won the PEN/Hemingway Award and was nominated for the American Book Award, the PEN/Faulkner Award, and the National Book Critics Circle Award. She received an Arts and Letters Award for Literature from the American Academy of Arts and Letters.

Her first novel, In Country, (1985) is taught widely in classes and was made into a Norman Jewison film starring Emily Lloyd and Bruce Willis.  Mason’s newest novel, The Girl in the Blue Beret, ventures into World War II and the ways it is remembered. Marshall Stone, a former bomber pilot, returns to France in 1980 and tries to recapture his younger self. Mason’s memoir, Clear Springs, about an American farm family throughout the twentieth century, was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. Her book of linked stories, Nancy Culpepper, is inspired by this family, and she says that while the circumstances are different, this is the work of fiction most closely identified with her own life and sensibility. She is former writer-in-residence at the University of Kentucky

 Curtis Smith: Let me start by going a bit fanboy and confessing Love Life and Shiloh and Other Stories were very important to me, especially early on in my writing career. Both books are now over thirty years old—and I’m guessing you returned to them when putting together your latest, Patchwork (more about that later). How was rereading these pieces after the passage of so many years? Do you hold a different lens to them now— appreciate them in a new way? How have you changed as a writer since those first published stories? How have you stayed the same?

Bobbie Ann Mason: Thank you. I always reread early work with a detached awe—I wrote that? Really? Even an old college term paper. Really? I was that smart? (Or, how could I have been so naive?) I suppose this feeling is due in part to having to create each new thing from scratch, and you never think you’re any kind of genius when you’re staring at a blank page or a mess of fragments, not a treasure trove. My first stories were almost easy, especially “Offerings” and “Shiloh.” I just whipped them out of my imagination. So they amaze me. Later on, I suppose I became more self-conscious, so it was more difficult to grasp the consistency of tone and direction that I think those two stories had.  But I’ve learned how the process works for me, what to expect.  For example, when writing a novel, I’ve learned to expect that the first year is spent in avoidance.      

 CS: That’s interesting—I think a lot of folks will identify with that thought. May I follow up and ask what’s entailed in that avoidance? Are you trying to talk yourself out of a longer project? Do you find yourself returning to the notion over and over—and if you return enough, you finally give in and start? During this year of avoidance, what do you learn about the novel? Does it take shape to the point where you know it pretty well by the time you start? And have there been any such years after which you decided not to write the novel after all?

BAM: It’s simpler than that. I don’t think about it very much. I know I have the seeds for the novel, and I know I’m going to write it, but plunging into it scares me, so I put it off. From time to time, I take a number of stabs at it and get a little on paper, but it is not until I get quite a bit on paper that I start to have something to work with, and then I can ease into the adventure. No, I don’t think I’ve abandoned any novels.

CS: I’m always interested in a writer’s process. Are you a planner—or at the very least, do you like to have an understanding of a piece’s basic shape before starting? Or do you plunge in and see where the tides take you? What are the benefits of your approach?

BAM: I don’t plan. No. It’s best to meander and jump in here and there. I write in order to find my hidden resources, for the delight of those discoveries and the way they begin to take shape. With a novel, eventually a form appears and it is a guide, but I can’t begin with it all thought out. That would be like a coloring book.    

CS: Are there any other rituals you’d care to share? A special chair/desk? Special journals and pens? Times of day when you feel most in tune with your work?

BAM:  All those questions pertain, it seems to me, to the physiological basis of creativity. I need to be comfortable and full of energy. I write on an iPad because there is minimal stress to the fingers.  It is the fingers that do the work.  I don’t have a thought in my head until my fingers let loose. Their work is like playing a piano.  They act as my voice.  And usually in the late afternoon. 

CS: I think some folks are writers first and foremost—and others are motivated not so much by writing but by the desire to create, their careers full of attempts and failures until they find their place. May I ask about your journey? Was it writing and nothing else from the beginning? Or did you have other areas you tried first? If you weren’t writing, what other creative pursuit would provide the kind of engagement that writing does?

BAM: It was writing, from the beginning. But the way was far from clear, for lack of encouragement, and I took a number of side trips—mainly graduate school and teaching journalism. I might have enjoyed art as an alternative creative pursuit, but I didn’t go in that direction originally because it didn’t have words in it.       

CS: By the time Clear Springs came out, you’d already published a number of novels and story collections. How did your background as a fiction writer help this transition? In what ways was the process similar—and in what ways was it different? When you returned to novels and stories, did you find the time you’d spent writing nonfiction had changed your style or voice?

BAM: Nonfiction per se is very difficult to write, and I try to avoid it. But I like to fool around with the conventions. I approached Clear Springs like a novel, with setting, characters, dialog, the works. Everything I write seems to be built of arrangements of details. I didn’t want Clear Springs to be a typical memoir. I wanted it to be about something other than, and larger than, myself. I didn’t want it to be chronological, as in “I was born in … and here is the self-involved story of my wonderful life! I took my first steps at age…” Instead, I found that I was recording the life of a family in a particular place over a hundred years. So it had a plot, characters, setting, a way of talking.  And drama.   

No, I don’t think this nonfiction writing changed my voice or style technically, but I did think that after Clear Springs I was finished with my own history and the world of my past. I was ready to enter the twenty-first century.  And so were my characters. Times had changed.  Again.    

CS: Congratulations on the release of Patchwork. How did the idea of the book come about? How difficult was it to look back over your career and pick and choose what to put in? It’s quite an honor, but I imagine the experience, being so different than your other books, also brought up new emotions.

BAM: The University Press of Kentucky urged me to put together a reader, and the interim director, Jonathan Allison, persuaded George Saunders, the contemporary star of the short story, to write an introduction. I am thrilled with his intro and with the extraordinary and colorful cover the Press produced.  It is my favorite cover of all my books. It wasn’t terribly difficult to select the stories and excerpts. I tried to pick the stories I thought were the best of my work, but it was interesting to reread some of them and discover that I barely remembered them.    

CS: You’ve been writing more flash fiction in the past few years, correct? What sparked your interest in the form? What do you find most rewarding about it? What are its challenges?

BAM: I’ve experimented a bit with it. A friend, Meg Pokrass, an accomplished flash-fiction writer, challenged me to do it, and she sent me prompt words to kindle my imagination. She would send a couple of dozen interesting words. It was easy to use them for a springboard, but that approach lends itself to absurdity. It was fun, but I’m not sure where I would go with it. Genuine flash must be hard as diamonds, warm as poetry.  

CS: What’s next?

BAM: I have been writing a novel for about four years. It began as a novella, but I’m not calling it that now. It does have a title, Dear Ann, and it is somewhat epistolary. It continues my preoccupation with war (Shiloh, In Country, The Girl in the Blue Beret).

Curtis Smith has published more than 100 stories and essays, and his work has appeared in or been cited by The Best American Short Stories, The Best American Mystery Stories, The Best American Spiritual Writing, The Best Short Fictions, and Norton Anthology New Microfictions. He’s worked with independent publishers to put out two chapbooks of flash fiction, three story collections, two essay collections, four novels, and a work of creative nonfiction. His latest books are Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five, Bookmarked (Ig Publishing) and the novel Lovepain (Braddock Avenue Books).

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