A Woman’s Work
As a professor at Princeton and America’s foremost woman of letters, you’re presumably aware that the title of your new short-story collection, “Dear Husband,” could lead the reader to expect a tender remembrance of your longtime husband, who died last year.
It was just the strangest kind of ironic accident. The manuscript was all finished before Ray died. The husbandsin the stories are nothing like him.
Indeed, the woman in the title story is writing to her “dear husband” to explain how she did God’s work by drowning their young children in the tub. Why do you find violence so alluring as a literary subject?
If you’re going to spend the next year of your life writing, you would probably rather write “Moby Dick” than a little household mystery with cat detectives. I consider tragedy the highest form of art.
Although you grew up near Buffalo, you have often been described as the heir tothe Southern Gothic imagination of Flannery O’Connor, with whom you share a Catholic background.
I could never take the idea of religion very seriously. Other Catholics thought that God really cared if they ate meat on Friday and would be upset. I never thought that God could care at all what you were eating.
One of the most chilling stories in your new collection, “Special,” appears to draw on your own experiences as the older sister of a severely autistic woman.
When I look at photographs of Lynne, she looks a bit like me. It’s really ironic that I have a sister who’s never uttered one word and of course can’t read, and I’ve written all these books.
Perhaps you had a phobic reaction to her and felt you had to go to the other exaggeratedly productive extreme.
I think it’s actually completely unrelated. I was writing novels in high school and apprenticed myself in a way both to Faulkner and to Hemingway. I was a dedicated writer before she was born.
As the author of 56 novels, 32 short-story collections, 8 volumes of poetry and countless essays and book reviews, do you think anyone has read everything you’ve published?
I think I’m the only one probably.
Do you see prolificacy as a virtue?
No. I really don’t even see myself as productive, especially in the past year.
Do you have an assistant?
No. I’m too shy to hire anyone. I couldn’t even bear the thought of it. I remember Margaret Drabble saying that it was really hard for her to hire a cleaning woman because it seemed like hiring her own mother. We’re from a background where we did the cleaning ourselves.
It’s not too late to amend your ways.
The cleaning is something I use as a reward if I get some work done. I go into a very happy state of mind when I’m vacuuming. I think some of my male colleagues, like Philip Roth and Don DeLillo, are completely denied this pleasure.
Have you thought about writing a memoir?
I wanted to write a memoir about being a widow. It was going to be the opposite of Joan Didion. Hers is beautiful and elegiac. Mine would be filled with all sorts of slapstick, demeaning and humiliating things. Like trash cans whose bottoms are falling out.
Do you think widowhood is properly understood?
I think that Didion took it on a very high plane, and she does have assistants and maybe a maid. But it’s actually a very hardscrabble experience. It’s not placid and tragic so much as it’s physically arduous.
In your stories, you favor dramatic endings. Shall we attempt one here?
Yes. I’m game.
I hear you just became engaged. True?
To say how I feel about my engagement to Charles Gross, who is in the psychology department and the Neuroscience Institute at Princeton, is not really possible in such a small space.