I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee
Enter the living room of Maureen Howard’s Upper West Side apartment and you will find yourself surrounded by pieces of the world. Huge pine cones decorate the mantel. Woven paisley shawls have been tucked with subtle care over the arms of the chaise and the sofa. In the dining room, the walls are covered with prints of jesters, clowns, acrobats. Half a dozen individual brass candlesticks stand in an uneven circle in the center of the long table, looking like a group of guests who have just stopped dancing and are waiting for the music to begin again. Enter the fiction of Maureen Howard and you find yourself surrounded by pieces of the world. She is an inventor who shapes her creations from found things, from the bric-à-brac of history—orange pencils (number two), gin and bitters, Georgian silver, rubber flip flops, angelfood cake decorated with miniature American flags.
In her new novel, A Lover’s Almanac (Viking), she invents a fictional winter in the year 2000, and follows two sets of lovers, young and old, as they stagger away from the 20th century. Using the embracing form of the almanac to shape her novel, Maureen draws anecdotes and paradoxes from such historical figures as Benjamin Franklin, William James, and Gertrude Stein, mixing the diverse voices to explore the effects of hindsight and the illusions of prophecy. Her characters must look backward in order to go forward into the next millennium. Memory, Maureen suggests, gives shape to the mysterious future. On the morning of the last day of 1991, I sat with Maureen in her dining room and talked with her about the past, the future, and her fiction. I’ve known Maureen for five years—she’s gracious and witty and can set anyone at ease. But to tell the truth, I felt myself growing tense as we prepared to begin this conversation. At first I thought the tape recorder was making me nervous, giving me the sensation that we were being watched. But then I realized that we were being watched by one of Maureen’s own things—a contortionist in a print on the wall, the figure bending in and out and around in order to look back at us from between his legs and dare, Now you try! And so we began—
Joanna Scott In A Lover’s Almanac you quote William James: “In point of fact all stories end.” So, let’s go back to the beginning of this novel. What prompted you, what sent you into the fiction?
Maureen Howard I began with the idea of an almanac. I suppose that idea grew out of a section of my earlier book, Natural History, which has about it a notebook quality, a way of collecting history that was at once related to and separate from the narrative. My draw to the almanac began with the Old Farmer’s Almanac, the little yellow book that you can buy in the supermarket, with a section that says how to predict the future accurately every time.
JS Every time?
MH Every time. It has about it a most wonderful sense of fact. The tides, the heavens. Walt Whitman made fun of the “learned astronomer,” but this learned astronomer makes sure that his facts are accurate. The almanac is very much a modern popular form, yet it’s been around for a long time. The Egyptians, the Incas, carefully calculated their almanacs, which were also religious texts. When the almanac got into the hands of Benjamin Franklin, it became wildly popular, a great best-seller. Of course, Franklin intruded his own story, his aphorisms: puzzles, entertainments, how to live, what to cook in season. He expanded the almanac into the fictional as well as the factual. I was very taken with the form. I believe it works for the problems that we face having to do with belief, disbelief, with indeterminacy and determinacy. See what I mean?
JS You’ve found the perfect form for blending fact and fiction. It gives you the freedom to move so liberally through the narrative, in and out of the characters’ stories, into the past, into the future. The form suits the genre so well, since the novel loves to incorporate so many different types of discourse.
MH When you think back, let’s say to George Eliot, or Dickens, the 19th-century novel, surely these were writers who had confidence to stop and tell us what they were about. About prisons, about matters of whaling and rigging and politics.
JS I noticed you begin the book with a quote from Moby Dick. I think you share with Melville the love of another compendium, the encyclopedia. Yet novelists have always been ambivalent about facts. Certainly facts that present themselves as true are important to your work, but you’re making the story, you’re changing facts, playing with them.
MH Yes, to question, to doubt the standard version, so there is a semblance of being able to control the whole spill of history. And what can you do with that semblance? You gather the facts, you say: Here is history. But how can we make it something less cool, less distant? How can we take it into ourselves? We can in the novel. Just as the almanac accommodates to fancy and information, to astrology and astronomy, the novel enlarges the field of play to use facts, and to confront them.
JS The novel has often positioned itself as a true document. Think back to the way Defoe offers his Robinson Crusoe as a found text. The need to claim that fiction is true, seems to me, to have both invigorated and haunted the novel…. I think
MH There is that statement in Cervantes, in which Sancho says to Don Quixote that he does not believe everything the master says. And that recurs in Calvino in Invisible Cities. The emperor does not always believe the Marco Polo story.
JS A Lover’s Almanac is very much a book about how to tell stories, how the rough stuff of life is made into a shapely story. It seems true of your work from the start, that you’ve always been interested in blending forms, different kinds of narratives. But suddenly, in Natural History, we get major interruption: narratives drawn from other texts, histories that are more tangentially related and fascinating in themselves.
MH Sometimes I think I wrote Natural History because I live down the street from the natural history museum. (laughter) The Museum of Natural History has dioramas which are both wonderful and spooky, those re-created scenes of native life in Africa and Asia. They are highly theatrical with beautiful, very real details of other worlds. I’m very interested in worlds other than our own. Natural History is my own dark diorama of the town I grew up in—Bridgeport, Connecticut. I tend to use different forms at once in a work, and I wanted that book to be layered. A fiction writer is an amateur archaeologist, who dusts away the layers to see what can be discovered. Dust would be the narrative interruptions, the shards you suddenly come across. And there are many layers to a name, to a place, which in my mind all connect finally to the story.
JS When I was a child, I used to go to the Museum of Natural History and as I looked at the wild animals, poised in attack or running through a field, lounging or leaping, whatever they were doing, I thought they had been killed and frozen in that position. I thought I was seeing the moment when the animal confronts the hunter. The action of the dioramas—for years I thought this was the action of dying.
MH That’s because you are blessed with never having disassociated completely from a child’s imagination in your fiction.
JS At one point in A Lover’s Almanac you say, “Tolerant reader, I take the liberty of defending these aging children…they have not lived through wars.” What does that mean to come from this post-war generation? Does history really shape a generation?
MH Well, I think that not having lived through a war does shape a segment of the population. It has been brought up to me by my students when I’m talking about, let’s say Virginia Woolf’s Between the Acts, which is a war novel. Students say, “We don’t understand that,” and I think that’s true. I hope they will tolerate my prim, frumpy, patronizing narrative voice saying, “Tolerant reader.”
JS It’s obviously satirical.
MH Yes, but it’s just as true that my generation did not experience the heroics of the Second World War on home ground. The Civil War was the last military action of great consequence within this country, and it shaped us, as a nation politically for many years.
JS You seem to resist what in another book you call the packaging of history: the “gay ’90s,” the “roaring ‘20s,” the “’60s.” No, you say, it’s dangerous to speak of decades as though they were cereal boxes.
MH It’s parochial to speak of decades that way, as a foolish kind of packaging that disregards both the larger and the marginalized culture. When I ragged on decades in the novel, Expensive Habits, the woman was trying to explain to her son what she had actually lived through; that is, what storytelling is about, telling where you’ve been to those who will come after. It’s the mother writing her legacy for the son; that’s also true in another book, Before My Time, in which an older woman hands the past to a miscreant boy caught in the ’60s. The ’60s come up again in A Lover’s Almanac—the great failed romance. The yield was a lot less than any of us wanted it to be. Which, I suppose, is what this book is about. How we move on, track where we are.
JS But here you’ve gone beyond where we are and set the story a few years ahead, significantly, at the turn of the millennium. I was curious about that. What new requirements did you suddenly have when you moved the fiction forward?
MH One of the reasons why I wanted it to be millennial was because it’s not quite true. There is all that much debated business about the stars, and how the astronomers can fix the birth of Christ four years off from the calendar that we follow. And yet we believe the calendar to be absolutely accurate. Moving time ahead also released me into playing with stories within stories, what’s currently going on in America and what might come about.
JS There’s a wonderful passage in your novel Bridgeport Bus in which you compare a story to a German Easter egg. We hold the egg, which contains these delicate scenes, we look at it, but while we’re holding it we also look at our hands, that’s how you put it, the fleshiness of our fingers, the torn cuticles. So we’re seeing our fingers, we’re seeing the egg, we’re seeing the fiction and we’re seeing ourselves as we read it. I feel in your work and especially in this new novel that I am very much seeing myself holding the book. There’s an intense self-consciousness that makes me think about where I am in my life, where I am in history. Was that part of your intention?
MH Yes, I was conscious of that double effect of story time and reading time in Natural Historyand more so in this book, and of making a book, its physical presence. Books will be with us for a long time. I’m perfectly happy with the fact that we are moving ahead. The computer screen is in its infancy in terms of what it will hold for writers and readers. I’m delighted with that. But—we still have the book. This almanac is my book made to give to readers, whoever they may be. There’s that quote in The Lover’s Almanac, that lovely thing from Walt Whitman, in the printing it yourself, binding it yourself, selling it on the street yourself. We don’t do that ourselves these days. Unfortunately there’s the corporate apparatus—though the folks at Viking are very down home. In the high-’60s we had something called penny poems, which people wrote and sold on the street eliminating the dealer, in order to connect one-on-one for a penny, I like that.
JS It’s a romantic idea. And maybe that’s what the internet will give us too, we’ll eliminate the dealer and pass our narratives around for a penny. You do talk in A Lover’s Almanac about the novel as a bourgeois form: “that blowsy bourgeois form in which money is ever present.”
MH The novel evolved as a form in the 18th century because suddenly there was an audience and means of commercial distribution. Yes, it’s so often noted the rise of the novel was connected to the rise of the middle class. Yeah, the blowsy form, a sense, even on the part of the writer that I’m co-opted into the system. Look what I’m doing, this performance, big production.
JS But it’s not. A few months ago you lent me the galleys of Hermoine Lee’s biography of Virginia Woolf. Not only did I read this wonderful biography, but I got to see the passages you marked and starred. One passage was about Virginia Woolf’s love of reading, and how reading for her was like an intimate conversation, or an act of love. You marked that passage. I think there is very much an intimacy to your book. It’s as if you reach your hand out of the book and say, “Reader, talk back to me. I want to have a conversation with you.” So you ask us questions, you encourage us to dive in and interpret, and all the while to think about our place in this and compare the hand to the wonderfully intricate design in the egg.
MH Yes, I want to connect. I would feel bereft finishing a book in which I hadn’t strived for connection. And yet, reading—as in reading out loud to others, reading in what must have been a lovely way, when the serial of the next installment of Dickens or James came through—that is lost to us now. Reading is connection, and writing is connection, both intimate acts yet acts that are done alone though not lonely. Do you see what I mean?
JS I do. You say you want to “connect.” Now, every art form creates a different connection between audience and object, so can you describe the connection you feel both as a writer and as a reader too?
MH I’m interested in voices. I like variation in voice, in tone. Sometimes, certainly in reading Virginia Woolf, the printed page has about it a tremendous musical effect, a composition in terms of the tone of the sentence, the crescendo of a paragraph. I love to hear that music and want very much to be able to incorporate, to tell stories like a minstrel. That great Dickens line—he does the police in different voices, it’s enormously important to me as a writer to do the voices, and hope they will be heard.
JS Bridgeport Bus ends with a single voice saying, “It is no great sin to be at last alone.” Often you leave us with solitary voices. And yet I feel comforted by your fiction of solitude. It’s not necessarily a despairing solitude as much as an acceptance of solitude.
MH At the end of Lover’s Almanac, both of the lovers who have finally found each other, settled into life, are still alone in their pursuit of what will come next.
JS They go their separate ways for the day.
MH They do. In that moment Lou feels she will paint again, though she may never do the big thing, but she gets back to work. And Artie goes back to his math and his science. It might be too late; like the pursuit of history was for his grandfather. They go back to that part of themselves, to their work, which can only be pursued alone. I just read, this very morning, a wonderful line that was quoted from Conrad, from Heart of Darkness, “We live as we dream, alone.”
JS Yeah, as we dream and as we write and as we read.
MH True, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that we have to step outside of the world of human connection.
JS You’re very much an urban writer, you write about the city, you write from the city. Your fiction is full of people wandering through Bridgeport, Connecticut or New York City, looking for connections and accepting their place in the city. I wondered how much you need the city to write. Do you need it as other writers need to look at a certain image or listen to music in order to write?
MH I want the city streets, I love the streets, I love the faces, the people, the hardness of the city, and then the miraculous moments of grace in that hardness. I grew up in a real city, which was a wonderful city at that time and I think New York is wonderful and exhausting, exhausting in terms of the events that can be observed.
JS How do you go about collecting those observances? How do you pick and choose?
MH Perhaps as the result of having too many things around me, which I have in my life, what I have to do is orchestrate. I have to see how much I can thematically tie together, which is itself a fiction. One of the things about the city that interests me in this book is that there is so much we don’t know. Sissy, that runaway child, we don’t know her, unless we are her social worker. One of the tragedies of living in the cities in America is that we are isolated. It’s wrong to say that we are savvy New Yorkers. I wish it were so, that we really knew those who we live amongst and that they knew us, but we don’t. It’s all too easy to let Sissy and Little Man become stereotypical runaways or druggie kids. Without even thinking, we make them background figures, and this is terribly unfair.
JS Sissy does have one beautiful moment to savor, doesn’t she? A moment that resonates.
MH Yes, she kisses Artie, and the kiss means something to her but nothing to him.
JS When I emerge from this book, I can’t let go of any of these characters, and she’s one of them. Yet we have to think about what we call these “peripheral lives.” Why are they peripheral? Why can we so easily turn from those lives in order to maintain our own peaceful days?
MH Despite all the good people working at soup kitchens or helping with literacy programs, there is still a tremendous distance, certainly for my characters. The characters themselves cannot make these connections, though they do sometimes in random intersections of life. But then there are some intersections that have consequences; stories are told, two lives meet. The old woman, Sylvie, finally tells the story she has withheld even from herself, of why she and her mother so abruptly left Austria, at the time of the Anschluss. She tells it to the young woman who has become family. There’s a good deal in the book about false parents and parents that do not function as parents. Sylvie becomes a perfectly fine substitute mother.
JS We are looking into the future at the end of the novel, but it’s a celebration. To borrow your phrase, you give the blowsy bourgeois form a happy ending.
MH Yes, I think it’s a bit of a risk, but so what?
JS How so?
MH Come, come. One of the great received truths of the present is that of our disaffection, isn’t it?
JS Especially when we’re talking about the millennia! (laughter)
MH But if you think of Shakespeare’s Winter’s Tale, there is a bittersweet ending for young lovers and old. The reunions at the end are undercut by haunting problems of the past and doubts of the future. A romantic comedy—there is a marriage.
JS Well, Artie and Lou actually don’t get married do they?
MH No, they don’t get married! (laughter) But it’s a love story.
JS Fiction comes out of the tradition of the romance, though now we use that word in a different way, in a way that’s less interesting. You mean it as adventure.
MH Yes, their romantic adventure is a quest of self-discovery for both the old and young lovers.
JS A Lover’s Almanac takes place during one season?
MH Just one season.
JS And the almanac is four seasons.
MH If I’m granted the time, I’m going to write the four seasons. But not in almanac form, I do not think the form of this book, which I appropriated for winter, could possibly be sustained for four seasons, so I have quite other forms in mind for the other seasons. Spring will be three tales. I’m interested in the tale, I think the difference between story and tale is less familiar to us now than it was for Hawthorne and Poe.
JS What is the difference?
MH Tales can be much more magical. More mythic, yet strictly objective—told with their moral, their enchantment. I think that many of Angela Carter’s stories are tales. I think that many of Joanna Scott’s stories are tales.
JS Does it mean to be more magical, to have more license to invent?
MH Yes, and to tell a kind of romance which is very inventive, less bound to verisimilitude—summer is a pastoral. Then I thought it would be fun to do the last season as an Advent card.
JS Oh, wonderful! With the chocolate inside. (laughter)
MH With the chocolate inside and the little toys. They used to only advertise the religious; open the little flap and there’s another angel or another bit of blessed information. Now you have to eat the chocolate to get to the religion. (laughter) We’re very silly wanting constantly to be entertained. I’m distraught by how much we need to be entertained.
JS But then you are working in an art form in which you are entertaining.
MH I know, it’s a bind.
JS Do you want to change people?
MH You mean change readers?
MH The work may move people, but the idea is not to ask art to deliver a therapeutic value. I distrust that.
JS How about political value?
MH Ah, political value. Think about awareness, who we are, where we are. In A Lover’s Almanac, Louise’s aunt, who is a brilliant doctor, takes her out on a walk at the farm at night and cries out, “We are in it. The Milky Way, the Holocene”—it’s the old micro/macro—so easy to forget our responsibility to our time.
JS We forget that we are here now, in this place, at this time. The book is full of the number 2000, but this is not a futuristic novel, it is a novel about possibility. Perhaps this awareness you described opens us up to possibility. There’s a passage in Expensive Habits where Margaret is thinking about the possible lives she didn’t live. Maybe that’s something fiction can do for us, wake us up to possibilities.
MH But we don’t live those other lives. It is a romantic idea, a turning away from reality, though perhaps a necessary fiction. It is awfully hard to be realistic about 1998, in America, in New York City, in this apartment. (laughter)
JS Happy New Year, by the way.
MH Yes, Happy New Year. (pause) Another thing I’m interested in is the glut of information that is available, which is much like the constant quoting and referencing that is in almanacs. We are awash with information. The Science Times on Tuesday… It’s amazing, I love it. And yet it’s too much to handle, the bottom of the sea, and the stars, and thus the collage forms.
JS That’s how I’d describe your last two books, as collages.
MH Yes, but what can I make of it in a personal way? I don’t want to be subjective, but how can one say that all this information sets some control on the randomness of daily life. Collage and weaving are ways of describing the process. But I was very taken by a video that my daughter gave me of David Hockney discussing his delight in Chinese scroll painting. You look at scrolls, and there are different stories along the line, as in a room full of tapestries. There is something going on in one corner and something going on in another corner; there are different scenes happening and the eye travels from story to story to story. Yet we look upon one work of art.
JS In another time you might have been called an experimental writer. I’m curious, do you set yourself in a group of writers, a group of peers whose ideas you share?
MH Do they have to be contained to my generation? (laughter) Experiments I always say are for the lab. There have been certain periods where writing has been experimented with—automatic writing in the 19th century, the Dadaist games. But then if the experiment works, it’s proven, it’s no longer experiment.
Johanna Scott is the author of four novels and a collection of stories. Her most recent novel is The Manikin (Owl Books/Henry Holt).
I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee