Open Destiny of Life
Ann Charters: Some literary critics think that short stories are more closely related to poetry than to the novel. Would you agree?
Grace Paley: I would say that stories are closer to poetry than they are to the novel because first they are shorter, and second they are more concentrated, more economical, and that kind of economy, the pulling together of all the information and making leaps across the information, is really close to poetry. By leaps I mean thought leaps and feeling leaps. Also, when short stories are working right, you pay more attention to language than most novelists do.
Charters: Poe said unity was an essential factor of short stories. Do you have any ideas about this in your own work?
Paley: I suppose there has to be some kind of unity, but that’s true in a novel too. It seems to me that unity is form. Form is really the vessel in which the story or poem or novel exists. The reason I don’t have an answer for you is that there’s really no telling—sometimes I like to start a story with one thing and end it with another. I don’t know where the unity is in that case. I see the word unity meaning that something has to be whole, even if it ends in an open way.
Charters: You mean, as you wrote in “A Conversation with My Father,” that “everyone, real or invented, deserves the open destiny of life.”
Charters: You started writing poetry before short stories, and the language of your fiction is often as compressed and metaphorical as the language of poetry. Can you describe the process of how you learned to write?
Paley: Let me put it this way: I went to school to poetry—that was where I learned how to write. People learn to write by doing various things. I suppose I also wrote a lot of letters, since it was the time of the Second World War. But apart from that I wrote poems, that’s what I wrote. I thought about language a lot. That was important to me. That was my teacher. My fiction teacher was poetry.
Charters: What poets did you read when you were learning how to write?
Paley: I just read all the poets. If there was an anthology of poets, I read every single one. I knew all the Victorians. I read the Imagists. At a certain point I fell in love with the Englishmen who came to America—Christopher Isherwood, Stephen Spender, and W. H. Auden. I thought Auden was the greatest. And I loved the poetry of Dylan Thomas. Yeats meant a lot to me. I paid attention to all of them and listened to all of them. Some of them must have gotten into my ear. That’s not up to me to say. That’s for the reader to say. The reader of my stories will tell me, “This is whom you’re influenced by,” but I can’t say that. I feel I was influenced by everybody.
Charters: Why did you stop writing poetry and start writing stories? What did the form of the short story offer you that the poem didn’t?
Paley: First of all, I began to think of certain subject matter, women’s lives specifically, and what was happening around me. I was in my thirties, which I guess is the time people start to notice these things, women’s and men’s lives and what their relationship is. I knew lots of women with small kids, and I was developing very close relationships with a variety of women. All sorts of things began to worry me, and I began to think about them a lot. I couldn’t deal with any of this subject matter in poetry; I just didn’t know how. I didn’t have the technique. Other people can, but I didn’t want to write poems saying “I feel this” and “I feel that.” That was the last thing I wanted to do.
I can give you a definition that can be proven wrong in many ways, but for me it was that in writing poetry I wanted to talk to the world, I wanted to address the world, so to speak. But writing stories, I wanted to get the world to explain itself to me, to speak to me. And for me that was the essential difference between writing poetry and stories, and it still is, in many ways. So I had to get that world to talk to me. I had to reach out to it, a very different thing than writing poems. I had to reach out to the world and get it to tell me what it was all about, because I didn’t understand it. I just didn’t understand. Also, I’d always been very interested in people and told funny stories, and I didn’t have any room for doing that in poems, again because of my own self. My poems were too literary; that’s the real reason.
Charters: What do you mean, you had to get the world to tell you what it was all about?
Paley: In the first story I ever wrote, “The Contest,” I did exactly what I just told you—I got this guy to talk. That’s what I did. I had a certain guy in mind. In fact, I stuck pretty close to my notion of what he was, and the story was about a contest he had told me about. The second story I wrote was about Aunt Rose in “Goodbye and Good Luck.” That began with my husband’s aunt visiting us, and saying exactly the sentence I used to start the story: “I was popular in certain circles.” But the rest has nothing to do with her life at all. She looked at us, this aunt of his, and she felt we didn’t appreciate her. “Listen,” she said. “I was popular in certain circles.” That statement really began that particular story. That story was about lots of older women I knew who didn’t get married, and I was thinking about them. These are two examples of how I began, how I got to my own voice by hearing and using all these other voices.
Charters: I suppose “A Conversation with My Father” isn’t typical of your work, because the story you make up for him isn’t what he wants, the old-fashioned Chekhov or Maupassant story, and it’s not really one of your “voice” stories either, is it?
Paley: No. I’m just trying to oblige him.
Charters: So that may be one of the jokes of the story?
Paley: It could be, but I never thought of it that way. . . .
Charters: Did you make up the plot of “A Conversation with My Father,” or did it actually happen when you were visiting him before he died?
Paley: My father was eighty-six years old and in bed. I spent a lot of time with him. He was an artist, and he painted pictures after he retired from being a doctor. I visited him at least once a week, and we were very close. We would have discussions. I never wrote a story for him about this neighbor, but he did say to me once, “Why can’t you write a regular story, for God’s sake?” something like that. So that particular story is both about literature and about that particular discussion, but it’s also about generational differences, about different ways of looking at life. What my father thought could be done in the world was due to his own history. What I thought could be done in the world was different, not because I was a more open person, because he was also a very open person, but because I lived in a particularly open time, the late 1960s. The story I wrote for him was about all these druggies. It was made up, but it was certainly true. I could point out people on my block whose kids became junkies. Many of them have recovered from being junkies and are in good shape now.
Charters: Did you know any mothers in Greenwich Village who became junkies to keep their kids company?
Paley: Sure. It was a very open neighborhood then, with lots of freedom. But my father was born into a very different time. He was born in Czarist Russia and came over to America when he was twenty and worked hard and studied medicine and had a profession.
Charters: When you were growing up did you read the writers your father admired—Maupassant and Chekhov?
Paley: Actually, he had never mentioned Maupassant to me before. He did mention him in that conversation. He did read a lot, he loved Chekhov. And when he came to this country he taught himself English by reading Dickens.
Charters: So the idea for the story came to you when he mentioned Maupassant?
Paley: Well, not really. He had just read my story “Faith in a Tree,” and there are a lot of voices coming from all over in that story. And so he asked me, “What is this? All those voices? Voices from who knows where?” He wasn’t actually that heavy. But when I wrote about our conversation it became a fiction, and it’s different from what really happened. . . . He did tend to say that I wouldn’t look things in the face. That things were hard, and I wasn’t looking at it. I didn’t see certain problems with my kids when they were small, and he was in some degree right. In “The Immigrant Story” a man says, “You have a rotten rosy temperament.” But then he says, “Rosiness is not a worse windowpane than gloomy gray when viewing the world.” They’re both just prisms to look through.
Charters: Is that what you still believe?
Paley: Well, I do believe it, but I also believe that things are bad.
Charters: A theme that some students find when reading “A Conversation with My Father” is that one of the things you don’t want to look in the face that your father is trying to prepare you for is his own death. Were you conscious of that when you wrote the story?
Charters: Can you see that theme in it now?
Paley: No. But maybe you’re right. As I said, that’s not up to me to say. Maybe the reader of a particular story knows better than the writer what it means. But I know I wasn’t thinking about that when I wrote it. I wasn’t thinking of his death at all. I was thinking of him being sick and trying not to get him excited.