The Ecotone Interview with Alice Mattison

Alice Mattison has published six novels, including The Book Borrower and Nothing Is Quite Forgotten in Brooklyn. She has also published four collections of short stories and one collection of poetry. Her stories and essays have appeared in The New Yorker, The New York Times, Ecotone, Ploughshares, The Threepenny Review, The Writer’s Chronicle, and elsewhere, and have been reprinted in PEN/O.Henry Prize Stories, Best American Short Stories, and The Pushcart Prize. She teaches in the MFA program at Bennington College.

Mattison’s latest novel, When We Argued All Night, is the story of a complicated friendship between two men, Artie and Harold, which spans nearly 70 years. Mattison’s sixth novel showcases her distinctive voice, her gifts as a chronicler of Jewish-American life and her ability to embed complex personal relationships in a larger context of American history and politics. In a recent New York Times review of When We Argued All Night, Maria Russo wrote that, “Mattison always operates in both close-up and wide angle, and here the effect is often dazzling. Her prose is so crisp that along with all the pleasures of fiction she manages to deliver the particular intellectual satisfactions of an essay or a documentary.”

Would you describe When We Argued All Night as a political novel?

One of my ambitions as a novelist is to give the inward-turned, particular people I write about full lives. We live not only in bedrooms, living rooms, and kitchens, but in workplaces, meeting halls, voting booths, and at protest marches or rallies. Political life is important to me, yet until now I’ve found it difficult to give those settings full weight in my novels. Families and friendships come alive with detail while workplaces and political settings recede and become background. I think this is because the novel has done well so many more times with personal life than with public life, though of course public novels exist, as well as many novels about private life in which public concerns matter too, not just personal relations. In Howards End, for example, the effect of the industrial revolution on the environment and on the way people think matters on every page. That novel is primarily about personal relations—but as an endangered way of being, threatened by corporate thinking (“telegrams and anger,” Forster calls it).

In When We Argued All Night I think I succeeded better than before in showing how the wider world affects my characters, and how they think about it. And I make no attempt at political neutrality—the book is left of center, as I am. So in that sense, it’s a political novel. On the other hand, there’s a kind of political novel I don’t want to write—in which political issues matter more than psychologically realized particular people—and in that sense, this is not a political novel: making one person come to life, for me, comes first.

You often engage with political ideas in your work, but a common criticism of American novelists in general is that they tend to avoid politics and serious issues in their fiction, at least compared to their European counterparts. Do you think this criticism is unfair?

Not unfair, but maybe wrongheaded. It would be foolish to ask an author to write about serious issues when she’s aching to write a novel in which Kate saves her marriage despite Jim’s affair—as foolish as asking Cynthia Ozick or Toni Morrison to narrow their focus to Kate and Jim’s marriage. On the other hand, though I find novels about political ideas at the expense of human complexity boring, the Kate-and-Jim novels are at least as boring. Authors need to be encouraged, not so much to write political novels, as to put Kate and Jim into a context and take that context seriously. If Kate is not only upset about Jim but about her work at the factory, where she must decide whether to join the union whose goals are admirable but whose leadership is corrupt, and if Kate’s dilemma isn’t just a mention but a substantial subplot—or maybe the main plot, with the marriage a subplot—I read more eagerly.

We write the novels we want to read, but marketing departments seem to feel that human relationships are what sells, and it may not occur to a new author to include the character’s political and economic life. I don’t think publishers tell writers to leave it out, but they do emphasize the personal—the romantic and sexual—to the point at which we’re encouraged to see the novels we buy and read as personal stories, whether they have economic and political elements or not—and then we produce more personal stories. I don’t know whether this is because actual readers prefer them, or whether that’s a myth. I bet it’s a myth.

There is a never-ending debate in the literary community about the ways that novels by men and women are received based on the gender of the author. Novels by women are often labeled “domestic fictions,” whereas novels by men on similar topics are considered to be more universal, serious and important. Have you thought about how When We Argued All Night might be received? How is your work received more generally?

I’m lucky that my publisher (Harper Perennial) has come up with covers for my books that don’t suggest that they are about domestic issues or will appeal only to women. A few times I’ve had to reject a cover that did go in that direction before I got a good one, but often (and notably with this book) the first cover they sent me felt exactly right. It’s been a little more difficult to get back cover copy and pitch letters that didn’t emphasize personal relationships among the characters over the wider political and social context, but everyone is amenable when I rewrite what they send me. I think my editor understands what I’m up to and respects it—I feel heard by her.

I spend more time worrying about sales than worrying about how my books are “received,” but since you ask, I have to say that I think that if my books had been written by men, they might be taken a little more seriously. They are reviewed, but otherwise they are non-events. I’m ambitious, but I haven’t always felt that my books were regarded as ambitious.

When We Argued All Night is wide in scope, spanning nearly 70 years, from 1936 to 2004. You focus intimately on the lives of your characters while also writing about the major events of the 20th century and beyond, from the Great Depression and McCarthyism to the Vietnam War and the appearance of Barack Obama on the political scene. Were you daunted by the challenge of writing such a novel?

I guess there are two ways in which this might be daunting. It’s hard to create a structure spanning so much time, incorporating enough stories and themes and open questions to draw the reader along. And it’s hard to know enough to write about so much of the twentieth century. As for the structure, that was difficult, but every novel is difficult, and in some ways When We Argued All Night was easier than my previous novels. Virginia Woolf’s novel The Years, which follows an extended family from the time when some characters are children to the time when they are very old, is suspenseful though it has little plot, because you wonder what will become of people you’ve read about, whether they will grow up as you think they will. The bare question “What happens next?” can get a writer through a whole book more interestingly if the book spans many decades than if it covers a few weeks or even a few years—during which nothing much may happen in anyone’s life. In 68 years, plenty happens.

As for my qualifications to write so exhaustively, I remember some things, my parents’ stories supplied some details—though the book is not directly about them—and for the rest I read books and, especially, newspaper stories. I hope I didn’t make any big mistakes. I am no historian, but mostly I am claiming something that I think any novelist can claim: not that a certain idea or attitude was inevitable or even common at a particular time, but that someone might have held it, that it was possible. Given the variety of human experience, I think my characters might have been real. As for the events—well, I hope I got things right.

As a writer, you excel at exploring the complicated, intense relationships between women, but this new novel is about the life-long friendship between two men. What was it like writing about men? Was there anything remarkably different about the experience?

The fact that they were men wasn’t as important to me as that they were Artie and Harold. I’ve written several short stories from the viewpoint of men; I don’t think of Artie and Harold as being like them as much as like my bolder women—Marlene Silverman in Nothing Is Quite Forgotten in Brooklyn and Berry Cooper in The Book Borrower. Brenda, the third main character in this book, has to learn to be bold, but they in their different (and somewhat insecure) ways are bold from the outset.

I’m not sure the man vs. woman distinction matters much. I have half a dozen friends who read and comment on my manuscripts, and several of them are men, so I knew they’d tell me if I got something terribly wrong about men.

Why is friendship such a compelling subject for you?

Do we ever know why a subject is compelling? The compulsion comes first and the explanation second. I’ve had intense friendships all my life—big shock—and though love matters to me as well (and I’ve been married for decades to a man I love), I may be more curious about friendship. If you told me a long story about a difficult friendship of yours, I think I’d be more interested than if you told me about a difficult romance.

You grew up in Brooklyn and it features prominently in this new novel as well as in many of your other works. Is Brooklyn your literary milieu?

Brooklyn was the opposite of literary when I was in it, except for the books in the library and the books my parents owned. I like writing about it, but I’ve also written several books set in New Haven, where my family and I have lived for many years and where two of my children returned in adulthood.

Where are you from in Brooklyn? Do you ever visit the old neighborhood?

Nobody ever asks me that! People don’t seem to know how large Brooklyn is. I lived in Flatbush until I was almost eight, and then we moved across the borough to the northern part of East New York, out near the Queens border—which felt like a hundred miles when I was a child, but which I eventually learned is a very long walk. The neighborhood we came to is sometimes called Cypress Hills. I haven’t been back there for years—it’s close to an hour on the elevated train from Manhattan—but I’ve been to my original neighborhood. When I wrote Nothing Is Quite Forgotten in Brooklyn I invented a lost elevated train line to link the two sides of the borough—the part where I was small and the part where I grew up. To plan the route of the imaginary train, I started walking in Flatbush near my old apartment house and walked the route to the edge of East New York, noting places where a nearly-forgotten train route might have existed along the way.

What do you think about the ways that Brooklyn has been gentrified over the past decade or so?  Parts of Brooklyn have undergone a drastic transformation, to the point that living in Brooklyn as a writer or artist is a cliché. I’m wondering if “Brooklyn” means something different in the public consciousness now?

Of course it does. But there were always some gentrified areas—or, I should say, gentrification started earlier than we may think, when creative people first noticed they could live more cheaply in unremarkable Brooklyn, say in Brooklyn Heights, than in stylish Manhattan. The Brooklyn Museum was there in my childhood, though it didn’t glitter then, and so was the Brooklyn Academy of Music. In truth, the gentrified areas aren’t very familiar to me. I remember walking around my neighborhood in East New York as a teenager, wanting to be a writer and thinking “No good writer could ever come from here.”  It was boring. There have always been writers and artists in parts of Brooklyn, but not much in East New York, not since Alfred Kazin walked around the streets where my parents grew up (where the characters in When We Argued All Night also grow up), just to the south of the area I lived in a generation later. Kazin wrote about that part of Brooklyn in A Walker in the City. Brooklyn to me means Jews, Italians, black people, Irish people, Latinos—ethnic people living ordinary lives. Despite the transformation, I think much of Brooklyn is still full of people like that.

In your work, you chronicle the Jewish-American experience in Brooklyn and elsewhere. Your work — in addition to being fiction, to being art — is also history. Do you think of it this way as you’re writing?

I don’t think of it as history because I’m not an authority, but I think of it as historical: I write about people living their lives in the light of history. When I began to write fiction, I couldn’t do that, and felt something was lacking, a dimension that mattered. Gradually I’ve found it possible to imagine my characters not only reacting to the people and places they are in direct touch with but also—as real people inevitably do—reacting to what is going on in the wider world, and to their own background and heritage. What happens in any life depends in part—sometimes only subtly but sometimes significantly—on the lives of grandparents and great-grandparents, as well as what’s going on in the country and the world.

Do you think about the ways that your work fits into the larger tradition of Jewish-American writing?

Many American authors who have influenced me have been Jewish: Lore Segal’s novel Her First American is a stunning example of a book about a woman of intense feeling who lives at a particular time and place, in a particular society. Its heroine is a Jewish refugee who comes to America and falls in love with an older, alcoholic, black professor. Grace Paley’s stories are at the center of my head and I’m always writing back to her in some way. Tillie Olsen’s lefty politics and deep humanity provide an important model. Alfred Kazin’s three memoirs, A Walker in the City, Starting Out in the Thirties, and New York Jew, as well as Kate Simon’s amazing memoirs, Bronx Primitive and A Wider World, are also books I couldn’t do without.

I feel less connected to the male Jewish-American tradition in fiction, though I especially admire Bernard Malamud and Henry Roth.

In When We Argued All Night, there are several references to Henry James. Early in the novel, a borrowed copy of The Portrait of a Lady has unexpected consequences and later on, Harold writes an academic book about James. Are you having a conversation with James in your novel? 

Yes. James and I are conversing about a number of topics…He was interested in Brooklyn, you know—Madame Merle in Portrait of a Lady was born in Brooklyn. What fascinates me in James’s work, among many other things, is the question of what it means to have a moral inner life. His characters participate in lively, complex moral dramas even when they do little in the practical world. In my own life I’m more interested in E.M. Forster’s vision of connecting—of using the inner life to change the outer world. But I love the way James looks at the particular person, the person as a self, an inner, private self—Isabel Archer, Maggie Verver—and asks what that self ought to be like. Which is not far from the question that my character Harold Abramovitz constantly asks himself. James is interested in action, despite what people say, but mostly in the subtle actions of private life: betrayal, for example. He writes women as full emotional persons, the way Jane Austen and George Eliot do. And he’s strangely and interestingly ambivalent about Jews. I think Harold in my book is on to something when he notes that James looks down upon the Jews in his stories, and yet often, they are responsible for making the plot turn. They act, or speak out.

When We Argued All Night is the latest novel in a substantial body of work. What are you writing now? What’s next?

I have an almost superstitious fear of talking about what I am writing until I’m well along with it, but I can say that though I’ve written a few short stories lately, mostly involving women at work, I’m now writing a novel, and it too will describe private life against the background of history.