[(interview date October 1995) In the following interview, Wilhelm talks with Mason about her background and its influences on her writing.]
[Wilhelm:] How have your early experiences influenced your writing?
[Mason:] When I was growing up, there were two pastimes that were most important in shaping my literary direction. One was my early obsession with jigsaw puzzles. I loved to work puzzles, and all the women in my family still do. We love putting together the colors and patterns and seeing the full design emerge. It's thrilling and satisfying, especially discovering that the most unlikely piece belongs. Second, I helped my grandmother piece quilts, and that was another version of working a puzzle. These childhood loves are probably my strongest early artistic sources.
And so I loved words, which are bits of language you can piece together to make stories. I was always fascinated by words. New words were little mysteries, sounds without meanings, tunes that caught in my brain insistently. My favorite course in high school was Latin, and then I took French in college. To my regret, I didn't learn to speak it. When I went to France, I thought I had never heard such a beautiful language. In college I took a course in etymology, and I wrote columns for the school newspaper in which I got to indulge my fondness for word play. My friends and I would read Shakespeare and go around saying "Hark!" and "Prithee!" because we thought they were funny things to say. From Cyrano de Bergerac, I think, we got "magnolious" and "magnelephant," words we dearly loved and used continually. In graduate school my first course was Old English which had wonderful words like "upgang" and "langung." My husband and I named our first dog "Beowulf."
What writers influenced you?
As a child, I loved Louisa May Alcott. But I didn't turn on to any other writers until I was in college. When I was a freshman, I was passionate about Thomas Wolfe. After that, it was F. Scott Fitzgerald, and then Salinger.
In graduate school I discovered James Joyce and Vladimir Nabokov. I would say they are the principal writers who influenced me, even though I don't write at all like them (and I certainly don't claim to be in their league). But it was the sense of what could be done with language that dazzled me. The possibilities were endless. A writer could arrange words to suggest the most complicated feelings and visions. I admired stylists, the ones who found the most interesting and pleasing ways of getting at the deepest matters. In the best ones, form and content were inseparable.
I had not read widely and I was not very sophisticated about anything. As a student, I had been for the most part looking for answers and intellectual systems and ideas and didn't have much of a sense of aesthetics. So the academic discipline of graduate school didn't inhibit my creative spirit, as so many writers complain. Just the opposite. I had been trained all my life to memorize lessons and not ask questions. So the discovery of what creative minds had done was an awakening--probably something that happens to most writers long before they encounter graduate school. Somehow I didn't catch on to the competitive career goals of graduate school or to critical methodology. I was more caught up in the literature itself. It was thrilling, because it was so complicated and detailed, like a million-piece puzzle with an elusive design--but much, much more. Through the music of language in Joyce and Nabokov, I discovered how literature could both embody and also transcend ideas. Literature is principally about textures and feelings, not themes and symbols, which are sort of like lead weights on the bottom of a shower curtain. They hold it in place and give it shape, but they aren't the curtain itself.
How did you get from that point to your own concerns about place--your persistent focus on small towns in western Kentucky?
My artistic interests and influences had nowhere to go for a while, until I could get clear in my mind what I valued most and what my passions were. The artistry is what you bring to bear on the raw material that's foremost in your mind and heart. The art is what you use to work this into shape.
Eventually, after graduate school, I had enough distance from the place I had come from to realize that the language of my family and region was a rich resource, rather than something I took for granted and even wanted to get away from for a time. So that language led me into discovering the place and its people as real materials for fiction. And by then I began to realize that the place of my origins--my little literary turf of western Kentucky--called to me because that's where my heart and soul are, what I love most. So it's natural for me to want to tell the story of that place and not the story of, say, Boise, Idaho (although ultimately what's true in one small place is true everywhere). Write what you know--the old bromide is true.
The journey I've been on is a common enough one. First, you go out into the world in quest of understanding. Then you return to your origins and finally comprehend them. It wasn't until I had pursued my education that I was able to know where the subject of my fiction was. Education has a way of being abstract until you can link it up with experience. I loved the abstractions, but then at some point, I planted a garden, and everything started to come together. Life, art, cats, family, fiction, words, weeds.
When I finally did "come home" in this sense, I realized how haunted I've always been by the lives of the people I grew up among. The history of western Kentucky is rich and in many ways literally central to American history. It resonates for me--not as something abstract, but as something very concrete and real, in the lives of the people of the area. Their experiences are what I try to capture in my characters. I feel very close to them. My forebears came to this area several generations ago, so my roots here run deep, and I think I know the people here. What I write about essentially is culture shock--the bewildering experience of moving from the land into modern urban life. Culture shock has been my experience, in moving from the South to the North, and I see versions of it in everybody at home as they deal with change. My characters live in a place where generations ago the American dream was actually accomplished, through hardship and sacrifice and adventure--as well as the familiar crimes of the frontier. It was the dream of land and freedom. But in this century, the shift from the independence of rural life is a profound upheaval. Now many people are likely to punch time clocks, while their grandparents would have told time by the sun. People are being redefined as working class, which is a reduction in status, for the yeoman farmer was his own boss. It was a whole different way of life, and the transformation is emotionally complicated.
You described the language of your region and family as a rich resource. Can you say more about how language functions in your writing?
Early on, I discovered the significance of tone--how language sounds, what attitude comes through. The sound of words is related to music, and although I really don't know very much about music, I have an ear for the way characters talk. I find music and poetry in the plainest of language. I think sometimes the qualities are too slight for some readers to notice or care about, especially if they are not familiar with Southern dialects. But I hear these nuances and work on whether a phrase should end in two syllables or three syllables, for example. My early short-story period was so exciting for me--I was busting out of school and finding out what I could do on my own. I was claiming my imagination and enjoying being playful and bold. My best stories of that period came out of sudden bursts of creative energy that I would then work on endlessly to refine and shape. So basically, in school I discovered literature and then I went out to see if I could do it. It was a shock. Even though I'd read Moby Dick and Ulysses and many other great works, I found out that in writing you have to start from scratch.
In an introduction to one of the many reprintings of "Shiloh" [in American Voices], you describe the creative process as "the not knowing that leads you to the knowing." Can you elaborate?
I don't know in advance what I'm going to write, so the process of writing is a way of finding out what's on my mind. I experience writing as a process of digging through writer's block, or the inhibitions that prevent me from getting access to my resources. You can't get at these things through intellectual procedure. And I find that I am guided first by the subject matter, not by artistic method or intention. Form follows function? Sometimes you don't even realize what you've dredged out of the unconscious. It's delightful later to discover patterns and parallels that you didn't consciously realize were in the work. Sometimes they have to be pointed out for me by readers.
Can you comment further on your affinity with Nabokov, the subject of your doctoral dissertation?
The reasons I felt drawn to Nabokov go beyond his style. It was the way he used words to tone down and contain and hold at a distance emotions so strong that they would otherwise blubber all over the page. The artistry of that containment, and those diversionary tactics he used, created a powerful tension between the conscious mind and the world. Also, I was interested in how he refused to reduce everything to two levels--a symbolic level and an underlying significance. He saw that everything was on the surface level, but that it is so infinitely complex that it radiates and shimmers into some kind of transcendence. Reality is like a kaleidoscope. Each facet has its own reality, and how you see it depends on where you are standing. So there are infinite ways of looking. For Nabokov, the scientist and the artist have the best chances of escaping this subjective prison. Nabokov wasn't satisfied with the appearance/reality division of Western thought. As a Southerner, I know that appearances are reality. So I found Nabokov's vision very appealing, especially his imagery of sun and shade, light and shadow. He would play with the mingling of those images endlessly, it seems. There is not simply light and dark, good and evil. But they are mingled, flickering, casting shadows and flashes. "Dappling" was his favorite word for the play of light against dark. It seems to me that chaos theory, which has come along recently, is perfectly suited to Nabokov's grasp of the universe. Chaos is a misnomer, because within the seeming chaos there are extraordinary patterns--paisleys mostly, it seems, to judge by the computer models. Nabokov's way of seeing the world is like a dynamic, reflecting patchwork quilt, and I find that view very exciting. I love the notion of chaos, with the uncertainties it implies, because it holds the challenge of discovering something new, some pieces that fit together in startling ways.
So the image patterns in your stories could be analogous to the patterns of shape and color in a complicated quilt?
I guess so. I never consciously thought of this quilt business when I was writing the early stories. In retrospect, this is one of the metaphors I have discovered for articulating my original sources. I'm most attracted to the crazy quilts, which seem closer to chaos theory. But most of my early training was regimented--coloring books, neat little quilt blocks, following the rules at school, and so forth. So it has been important for me to get beyond those limits. I'm not especially interested in quilts, actually, and it has been a long time since I tackled a coloring book.
Did living away from your native region enable you to write about it more perceptively? How has your recent move back to Kentucky altered your perception of your fictional materials?
During my years in the Northeast, I was able to develop a perspective I would not have had if I had stayed home. That's a common enough experience. Being an exile seemed to give the place more importance as an inspiration and an impetus for writing.
Now that I'm back in Kentucky, it's no longer that place I come home to. It's where I live, and so I may risk losing some of the perspective I've had. But, on the other hand, I needed a closer familiarity with what is going on in Kentucky now, since I had found it necessary to write about the place. After I moved back, I became preoccupied with the historical forces that shaped the world I'm from. Those interests culminated in the novel Feather Crowns, and even though I finished that some time ago I'm still preoccupied with the history of the people and the place. Since I began writing contemporary short stories set in this place, it has changed so rapidly that I may have to turn a sharp corner into the unknown in future stories.
Is delving further back into local history a way of reestablishing roots?
Only a strongly rooted person would celebrate chaos! There was never any question about my roots or where they were. It's not that I felt dislocated. It's a matter of curiosity, of going deeper into those roots, digging them up, so to speak. Growing up in the country on a farm, which was on the edge of town, I was rooted but heading out in all directions. I felt confident in leaving because I was pretty sure of where home was. It had been there for generations, and there was no chance of it disappearing. Actually, my motive for delving into the past is an overwhelming curiosity to find out what-all went into the stew we live in. In moving back to Kentucky, I had to take this route, to get my bearings. Maybe that's what you asked.
And a short story doesn't allow enough scope for all that? Is that why you have concentrated lately on novels?
That might be the case. I don't categorize my interests quite that way. The boundaries blur. Fiction and nonfiction blend. Stories and novels. Sun and shade. The early stories were surprises. I enjoy thinking and remembering the excitement of discovery, the workings of the imagination, how those stories seemed to come out of nowhere and to be delightful and puzzling at the same time. To write them one after the other and not ask why, just let them come alive and work on them until they seemed right. It was a joyous experience, but writing a few stories is less rewarding in the long run than writing a novel.
In contrast to many early stories with very contemporary settings, your writing now involves more research into historical materials?
I'm not sure what that has to do with my writing. It's an infusion, a way of figuring out things about the world. I'm compelled to ask questions and to expand my understanding about how the world works and to bring everything I can to bear upon the fundamental concerns about our place in the universe. The raw material is the language and landscape of a particular place, but by using those personal and particular terms I hope to create a new place--a simpler one in a way but one that has carefully chosen furnishings and a lively, unexpected center of action. Writing is a way of delving into your buried resources--the turbulence of experience--and coming up with shapes, patterns, stories. All those dazzling pieces waiting to fall into place.