From her home in rural Pennsylvania, Bobbie Ann Mason examines life in her native Kentucky, writing about homespun characters whose lives are spinning after being cut loose from all sense of home. They are plain-speaking people in a world in which increasingly little is plain; working-class characters caught in limbo between the new ways represented by malls, subdivisions, fast food franchises and tanning salons, and the old ways of farm life, family and back-breaking work.
Her first collection of stories, Shiloh and Other Stories (1982) won the PEN/Ernest Hemingway Award for first fiction. A novel, In Country (1985), about a teenage girl’s search for her father who was killed in Vietnam before she was born, and a short novel Spence + Lilah, about a long-term marriage threatened by illness, followed. A movie version of In Country directed by Norman Jewison and starring Emily Lloyd and Bruce Willis will be released this fall and Mason is currently working on the teleplay for Spence + Lilah for American Playhouse Productions. Her new collection of stories is Love Life.
Craig Gholson We’re both from Western Kentucky, and I always refer to it as the South. But I have friends, particularly ones that come from further south, who pooh-pooh the notion of Kentucky as being of the South. They talk about it like it’s a plain stepsister. Is Kentucky of the South to you?
Bobbie Ann Mason It’s a border state. I think the place we come from, the Jackson Purchase, has a lot of history. And it seems to be more Southern that other parts of Kentucky.
CG Your stories are rife with aphorisms and sayings particular to Western Kentucky.
BAM I get them from my mother.
CG They’re phrases I heard all throughout my childhood, like: “If ‘ifs’ and ‘buts’ was candy and nuts, we’d have Christmas every day.” And: “It’s as ugly as homemade sin.” I put the book down and laughed for five minutes on that one. Do you use a notebook to keep these phrases? Do you remember them? Or do you use them yourself?
BAM No, I write them down in a notebook. My mother is always coming up with one. And she does it quite unselfconsciously. She’ll come out with some expression that either I’ve never heard before or remembered, or it’s something I had forgotten and I’ll whip out my notebook. Or I’ll say, “Now, what did you say? Say that again.” And she’ll protest that she didn’t know where it came from, and she wasn’t even aware that she said it. It’s just so natural to her. And, of course, I then make something out of it.
CG So you go on these fact-finding missions.
BAM (laughter) You might say that, but I happen to be there, anyway.
CG I think one of the ironies presented in your work is that these older clichés have the ring of truth about them, and seem profound compared to the latter-day clichés that have replaced them. In “Hunktown,” Debbie says, “We’re always caught in one cliché or another.” It almost seems as if one of the tragedies of modern life is that everything, including clichés, have been devalued, or marked down, or means less.
BAM The nature of language is that metaphors die, and then they are just used unthinkingly, and they lose their meaning. But my mother’s language, for example, seems fresh and new because it’s so old that we’ve forgotten it, and she still uses it. And she usually can’t explain to you the source of it. My father uses a lot of it, too. For example, our dog was very happy, so he was running around in figure eights, in circles. Daddy said that Oscar was “cuttin’ didoes.” Do you remember that one?
BAM I guess it’s D-I-D-O. Cutting didoes. I said, “What in the world does that mean? Where did you get that expression?” “Well, he’s cuttin’ didoes.” “What does it mean?” “Well, it means he’s happy.” “But what does the expression come from?” And he said, “Well, it just means cuttin’ didoes.” (laughter)
CG I think some of the most poignant passages in your work come when your characters make up facts. It’s a kind of poetry of misinformation. For example, Joe, in “Memphis,” tells his kids that marabou feathers come from the marabou bird, which is a cross between a caribou and a marigold. These are pure storytelling moments and they are some of the few moments when your characters really seem connected with one another and are really happy. But those moments are basically lies.
CG Yes, because they’re nontruths. Is that a more cynical reading than you would intend?
BAM I think so. I thought all people told their children stories and made up things. I don’t know.
CG That particular example just happened to be a father and child. There are other moments when adults do that amongst themselves, too.
BAM Let me ask you something, since you come from that place. Do my stories seem depressing or bleak to you? Some people—usually people from quite far away from that world—think they are.
CG I don’t think of them as being bleak and depressing. They are, however, lives of middle-class hardship.
BAM It seems like some people look at a story and think, “Well this is about a factory worker. How depressing.” Or, “These people don’t read books, they watch television. How depressing.”
CG Well, who only wants to read stories that confirm their own reality?
BAM It seems to me that the reader, then, is judging in terms of his and her own experience and value judgments. Whereas I feel that in the world of my characters whether they read books or not is beside the point. Of course they don’t read books, they’re doing other things. And I don’t feel that their lives are at all bleak or depressing. The factory worker, for example. If you work all day in a factory and you get a chance to go to Disney World and take your family, that’s great. That’s a big deal. And the same way with the shopping malls. A lot of sophisticated people find shopping malls and people who shop in shopping malls very depressing. But the thing about my characters that maybe others don’t notice is that my characters don’t actually have a shopping mall. They have to go all the way to Paducah. And people come to that mall from a hundred miles around because it has a certain strong presence.
CG For me, those people have an immediacy to their lives that I, basically, don’t have anymore. That’s the way I read them. They have a different set of problems. However, one of the ways that I think that people may see the stories as depressing, is that a larger theme of your work is that the center doesn’t hold anymore. Your characters constantly say, “I don’t understand what’s happening to people, the way they can’t hold together anymore.” In “Sorghum,” Ed and Liz are getting their pictures taken in Wild West costumes, and the woman who runs the booth says, “Everybody gets a kick out of this, because it takes them back to a simpler time.” And Ed says, “If there ever was such a time.” Do you think that there ever was a simpler time?
BAM No. I mean, yes and no. There is a lot of nostalgia abroad for a simpler time. And I think that simpler time was full of hardship. It didn’t have the same set of problems as we have now. Basically, what I write about is how people are dealing with their relationships in the face of the phenomenal swirl of change going on in this world. And it’s what we’re all doing, all of the world. And it’s very confusing and scary and hard for the center to hold, and hard to know where you belong and what’s going to last. But, on the other hand, these characters are facing change and what they think of as progress, and they’re getting a lot of advantages out of it, opportunities that their parents’ generation didn’t have. There’s a lot of optimism and positive value coming out of this. I may find it more exciting than some of the characters do because they’re the ones who have to go through it. For example, in the story “Memphis,” Beverly is cutting loose from a marriage that no longer works. It’s scary and confusing, and she’s not sure what she’s going to do or how she’s going to make it. But in thinking about this, she’s thinking about her parents’ world, in which people stayed married whether they liked it or not. And nowadays they don’t have to. There’s a passage toward the end which has her thinking about how many choices we have these days. And she’s seeing this in a very positive way; it means that she could do something with her life. And so it takes courage, and I have a lot of hope that she will make it through this chaotic time and make some sense of her life, and get beyond the trap that she was in. So, in that way, I’m very optimistic, and I feel that there’s a lot of energy emanating from these characters, because they’re not jaded. They’re not really disillusioned yet. A lot of them are holding onto the tag end of the American Dream. So I’ll go with them and see what they’re doing and care about them, and hope that they have the courage to get through it and not turn cynical.
CG One of the things your characters constantly struggle with is expression. Words seem to fail them. In “Hunktown,” there’s a line: “Debbie had her tubes tied rather than tell her husband in plain English to treat her better.” There’s this myth that has grown about the oral tradition in the South, about how storytelling has fed the fiction coming from the South. Your fiction seems to go contrary to that, and I’ve read something in which you talked about how nonverbal your father was. Or that he wasn’t particularly loquacious. Do you think that that particular oral storytelling tradition is a myth of the South, or just wasn’t pertinent in your particular case.
BAM I really don’t have any way of knowing. I think there must be a strain of reticence, especially among farm people, who don’t see a lot of other people. This may be a cliché, coming out of the South, but the idea is that some people will say what they think, which means that those people are uninhibited and straightforward and not hypocritical. And then other people will put up a pretense, put on a front and be polite. But some people are bold enough to say what they think. And the character you just mentioned, Debbie, apparently didn’t have the courage to say what she thought in her marriage.
CG There’s a lot of noise in your stories. Mainly it’s from the television, like M*A*S*H or MTV, or the radio, where you’ll hear Bruce Springsteen or Michael Jackson. It’s noise that once, in another age, probably would have just been in the background, or for entertainment. Now, however, it’s a noise that has become louder both physically and emotionally. It’s insistent and your characters use it to shape their values and to define their thoughts.
BAM Well, if you take a story by, say, John Cheever, or somebody, if there was a TV set on in any of his stories—and I don’t know that there ever was—it probably would be just background, something not very important. But in my character’s world, TV is very important. They spend a lot of time with it, and they care about it. They get a lot of information about the outside world from it.
CG Yes, but I’m always surprised that the songs and TV episodes don’t just collapse under the weight of all the content that your characters put onto them.
BAM But there seems to be a difference between these stories in Love Life and where I’m headed now, and where the stories were in Shiloh. I think back then the characters were at home at night watching their favorite network shows, and the TV shows were very important. and they would never miss an episode of M*A*S*H or whatever. But by now, they’ve gotten cable TV or satellite dishes, and there are too many channels to choose from. So TV actually has less importance in their lives in an odd way. And I think it throws them back on their own resources, or it makes them seek out other diversions. So I think people are out and about a lot more in the newer stories.
CG What is it that you think that these things—TV and music—have replaced in these people’s lives? What do you think would have been there before that was there?
BAM I think you’d have to go back to about 1930, because we’ve had TV and radio constantly in our lives since then.
CG And what do you think would be there?
BAM (pause) I think the romantic view is that people would be telling stories and making their own music and having fellowship. The reality might be that people had to put up with each other a lot more. (laughter) I had a passage in Spence + Lila where Lila is remembering her childhood and how people sat around after supper. The uncle ruled everybody, and he did as he pleased. And the cousins bickered, and they had to do their work, like their ironing. They bickered, and there was no entertainment to do the work by. It was just each other and a very small world. I don’t think that’s so romantic. I’m sure it isn’t all like that, but I don’t think TV is the great destroyer that people want to think it is.
CG In “Sorghum” Ed says to Liz, “It’s a tradition, one of those things that’s supposed to mean something.” What do we end up doing with these lost traditions, these traditions that end up being a civilization’s detritus?
BAM I think that suggests that traditions lose their value. I never trusted holding onto traditions for the sake of tradition. I think I do look for value, and I don’t like empty ritual. I don’t like rituals for the sake of ritual, and I’m excited about things that are new and challenging, things that shatter the old ways. (laughter)
CG An example of that would be in “Love Life,” where Opal sneers at the tradition of the burial quilt that her niece, Jenny, wants to see so badly. A tradition unravels for one character, Opal, while another character, Jenny, reinvents the meaning of that very same tradition.
BAM Yes, yes. The contest in that story is between Opal, who hadn’t been much of anywhere and who hadn’t broken out of that small world, but who had wanted to and had been too afraid to. And Jenny, who had broken out much more easily and then came back searching for her roots, as young people are wont to do at a certain age.
CG And the burial quilt ends up serving a purpose. It unleashes all the feelings Jenny had about an old boyfriend who she lost track of, and found out had died. So the function of the burial quilt or its tradition, still, in a very oblique way, seems real.
BAM Oh, yes. We can’t get away from those basic processes in human life and nature: grieving and celebration, change, growth.
CG Another way of asking this question would be to ask how many ways do you think the Old South can die? Or has it died, or will it ever?
BAM Oh, dear, that’s a real broad one. I’ve not been very knowledgeable about the really deep South. I don’t know. I think the South is still very defensive. There’s a line I have in “Love Life” where the real estate agent, Randy, says, “We’re not as countrified down here now as people think.” Southerners have always, since the Civil War, had this sense of inferiority and fear that Yankees aren’t going to think that they’re as up-to-date or as sophisticated. This image of being "country"—Southerners have had a terrible time with this. And you probably know yourself, in going North, how Southerners feel about their accent.
CG Going back to when we were talking about characters that speak in a blunt language that cuts to the heart of things. A large preoccupation and a major source of tension in the stories is the way in which times have changed. Opal says: “Girls used to say they had the curse or they had a visitor. Nowadays, of course, they just say what they mean.” But really saying what they mean still doesn’t say it all. Yes, it’s a more blunt way of saying it, but it still doesn’t express all that it is and means.
BAM I feel that my style derives from the language of farm life which is very practical and not decorative.
CG It’s a language of service and serviceableness.
BAM And I hang onto that language, and polish it and care about each word, because I think that that style of language conveys an attitude that I want to get across, an attitude about the world that’s not layered over with a veneer of polite society or Southern hospitality. And it’s a class distinction. It’s not the language of Southern hospitality, the upper classes. It is, for the most part, more direct and closer to what people think than sophisticated, polite ways of dealing with people. And it can be blunt and hard—painful.
CG I’d like to talk about structure. The way I look at the structure of your stories is that they’re centripetal; they spiral in. They seem, to me, to track their prey. They circle and circle, getting tighter and tighter. And they’re usually moving in on a specific emotion or a specific image, and when that image or emotion gets stretched, taut, the stories end. Does that make sense to you?
BAM I never heard of that.
CG (laughter) How do you deal with structure? Do you have a structure that you go by? Is it instinctual?
BAM It’s instinctual. I never map it out. It’s what feels right. There’s a movement to it, and it comes to a certain point and you leave it.
CG In “Airwaves” there was a passage that illustrated how I think you structure stories: “It was that everything in her life is converging, narrowing, like a multitude of tiny lines trying to get through one pinhole. She imagines straightening out a rainbow and rolling it up in a tube.” When I think about your stories, that’s the motion I see in their structure.
Your stories generally do end in one image and it’s usually an image of stasis or entropy. It’s a moment, a pause, where things are about to change. They’re suspended moments; moments of very uneasy equilibrium. One that comes to mind, even in its title, is “Residents and Transients.” It ends: “I see a cat’s flaming eyes coming up the lane to the house. One eye is green and one is red, like a traffic light. In a moment I realize that I am waiting for the light to change.” Do you believe that there are resolutions in life? And, if so, what form do you think they take?
BAM Students very often want to know why the stories never come to a complete end, why they’re never wrapped up clearly. And I try to tell them they do come to an appropriate end, which is that they just place the image. And I point out that in life nothing’s ever wrapped up for very long. So resolutions in life are evanescent. Life has that structure of sunrise, sunset; day, night. It goes through cycles and seasons. The times of life. So there is something very natural about movement and balance and change, but resolution—final resolution—I suppose that means death. Or of living happily ever after.
CG Which is a form of death. Raymond Carver spoke about the “aftereffect image” of your stories. And I think this comes not only from the whole story itself, but from that one image that you end with. Do these images come to you and then you write towards them?
BAM Usually not. It’s usually in the process of writing that they burst out at the appropriate moment. It’s so exciting when it happens. It’s not that they’re all that spontaneous, but sometimes it happens, and then I’ll have to work on it to get it to feel just right. No, I don’t usually work toward the end. I don’t have the ending and write the story to fit it.
CG One of the biggest sources of grief for your characters is when they somehow get above their raising, so to speak. Like in “Memphis,” when Beverly calls Jim and Tammy Baker the biggest phonies she ever saw, her mother says to her: “Do you think that you’re better than everybody else, Beverly? That’s what ruined your marriage—you’re always judging everybody.” This essentially is a writer’s dilemma. Not that you judge everybody, but in the process of writing you have to pull away from them. You’ve spoken of yourself as being an exile. Have you become less connected to where you were born by focusing in on it?
BAM No, I don’t think so. I think I’d be much less connected if I had gone back to live in Kentucky. I think about it; I write about it. Lots of people move away from the South and don’t look back, so they are cut adrift. The one thing that is paramount is my relationship to my place, to Kentucky, to my family. Being a writer, moving into the world of being a writer, into the literary world—I can’t forget where I came from in the world. It’s very important to me to still be who I am, to still be from Kentucky, to still be that person and not to become a Literary person, with a capital L. That makes me very uncomfortable.
CG I think one of the real strengths of your stories is that you are infinitely compassionate to these people.
BAM Well, they are my people. I’m part of them, and so I see myself implicated and reflected in their lives. So I can’t become this Northern Literary person who looks back on them from some great distance and judges them.
CG No, you really seem like you’re among them,
BAM But, yet, in order to write about them, I have to have a certain amount of distance. Just enough.
CG This exchange is from “Sorghum.” One character says: “I just feel like something’s going to happen.” And another character, Ed, says: “I always feel like I’m on the verge of something.” A cynic might say that the truth is that these people are on the verge of nothing, or, at best, they’re on the verge of just being on the verge.
BAM Again, that’s maybe somebody who’s way, way outside and is very sophisticated and has been through it and knows that it might not amount to much. But my characters don’t know that.
CG What is it, do you think, that they think they’re on the verge of?
BAM Something about to change for the better.
CG How do you think your first stories, the stories in Shiloh differ from the latest ones in Love Life?
BAM That remark I made about television describes one way I think they’ve gotten more complex. I hope they have. They seem more complicated to me, and I hope they’re more mature artistically. I find the whole process of writing gets more and more complicated. The more I know about it, the harder it is to do. Because I think one’s vision of things and how the story should be gets more complex. But the first draft of a story is just as clumsy and innocent and awful as it ever was. So the task gets harder, shaping it into something that matches your vision,
CG For me, the newer stories are more specific and more complex in fewer words. There’s more air in them. When I went back and looked at Shiloh, it’s inundated with details. The atmosphere is much heavier than in Love Life. Another way I thought that they were different was that in “Shiloh” for example, Leroy says: “Nobody knows anything. The answers are always changing.” In the later stories, it seems as if there are no answers, or the characters don’t look for them as much. I don’t know whether you think that’s true or not.
BAM I don’t know. It’s hard for me to really generalize about them as a whole. Things like that, I don’t know where that comes from.
CG You’ve said that the language of the place is the key. And in your stories, the wants and needs of the characters are very human and very general—what it takes to love and be loved. It’s the details of the stories that make your stories specific. I think it was Flaubert who said that “God is in the details.”
BAM And Nabokov said: “The detail is all.”
CG Does this minutiae of life constantly prey on your mind? Do you make lists and keep notebooks to make things specific?
BAM That’s really the starting point for a story, and it’s the raw material, and it’s your access to the heart. When you stop to think about it, you don’t really know many other people very well, very intimately, so if you see something you want to write about, if you see a person, you probably don’t really know what’s going on. And you have to use your imagination to get at them. So usually I find that physical details or description, observation, what’s going on in the outside—those are clues about what’s going on in the inside. And you have to use more imagination to get across what’s going inside, because you don’t have as much access to that.
“Midnight Magic” was prompted by a guy I saw one morning in a supermarket parking lot. He was in this blue car, hiked-up rear end. It had “Midnight Magic” painted on the rear and he was sitting in his car eating chocolate-covered donuts and chocolate milk, and he hadn’t shaved, and he really looked like hell. And I wondered, “Who is this guy? What is his story?” So I just took it from there. My first paragraph is that description. And then because those physical details sparked my imagination, I was able to make up his story.
CG What, to you, is the biggest misconception about your work? What really gets your goat?
BAM I think it’s attitudes that are elitist, or that come from people who may not have known people who watch television. (laughter) How should I say this?
CG So it’s people who think that these characters aren’t worth writing about?
BAM Yes. Who judge them in their own terms rather than in the character’s terms. And, you know, it may be my own failing that I don’t present them fully enough, but I do think the reader should judge the characters in terms of their own, and in terms of the character’s context, and not in terms of their own context. So, in general, it’s disparaging comments about these characters who watch television. The fact is that most people, most Americans, watch a lot of television. It’s quite an ordinary thing to do. Some people fail to understand that TV has a role in other people’s lives, and that they’re not necessarily having their brains turned to mush; they’re interrelating with it.
CG For your characters, a lot of their hard news information comes from 60 Minutes or 20/20, shows like that.
BAM I have a character in one of the Shiloh stories who finds a lump in her breast and has a mastectomy. I’m quite sure she wouldn’t have found that lump in her breast before television. And she wouldn’t have known what to do about it.
CG What do your parents think about the stories?
BAM Oh, they love them. They’re really proud of them and get a kick out of them and think they’re funny. And enjoy seeing the familiar, and they recognize a lot of the language and behavior.
CG Yes, I think we all recognize those things whether we come from there or not.