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Hatpin Mary

Check out this excellent Paris Review interview with the novelist/screenwriter, Richard Price:

INTERVIEWER

I want to apologize for asking a personal question, but would you tell me about your hand?

PRICE

My hand? Well, I was born with a mild case of cerebral palsy. It’s no big thing on a day-to-day basis; mostly people get uncomfortable when they have to shake hands with me. What the hell . . . of course, I’d like to be a weight lifter, but I can’t.

INTERVIEWER

You’d like to be a weight lifter?

PRICE

Anybody who has something wrong with them physically is kind of obsessed with their appearance, so I’m always dabbling with weight lifting. My left hand’s twice as strong as my right hand, so I never get anywhere with it, but…

INTERVIEWER

I don’t want to get too abstruse here, but do you consider there’s any connection between all this and your becoming a writer?

PRICE

If you’ve got something obviously awry in your appearance people treat you differently, like you’re a special case. It never stopped me from playing sports. I played handball for my high-school team. You have to be ambidextrous to be a good handball player. I developed a backhand to compensate. It was no big deal. But, then there would be all this drama. The gym teacher would see me playing with that fouled-up hand and he’d call me over with tears in his eyes and he’d say, Son, you can always play on my team.

It’s not like you walk around thinking about it all day. But as you grow up with this sense of yourself being singular, in some way you get hooked on the singularity of yourself. To be an artist is to be singular. I think, in some people, before the desire to write there is the desire to be special. That’s not exactly healthy, and there’s nothing relevant to creativity in that. Maybe I was just trying to maintain that sort of special thing by writing.

My grandmother, who was a big influence on my life, would take me under her wing because there was something wrong with my hand. She was a very unhappy person herself, very heavy, about five feet tall. Really overweight. Like two hundred pounds or more. It was her against the world and she saw me as her ally. I think she tended to see herself as a freak. There was something wrong with my hand, so we were fellow freaks . . . although she never said that to me. To go to her house on a Saturday was like getting parole for a day. I didn’t understand how unhappy and isolated she was, but she’d be all filled with this melodrama about everything. We’d sit and look out her Bronx kitchen window and watch the East 172nd Street follies. She’d see a black man who lived across the street and she’d say, Oh, this one is a gentleman, married to this white piece of trash. She goes with anything in pants. She has him wrapped around her little finger. Do you know how much of a gentleman this man is? If he goes into his building lobby to go into the elevator and he sees a white woman there who’s gonna get spooked by him because he’s a black man, do you know what he does? He steps out of the lobby so she can go up the elevator herself. Now, this is a gentleman. But that whore he’s married to . . . ?

Then there’d be some other guy: Oh, this son-of-a-bitch, he’s a junkie. Every time he sticks a needle in his arm it’s like sticking a needle in his mother’s heart. She comes to me, she says, Mrs. Rosenbaum, what can I do! What can I do! Richard, what am I going to tell her?

It was this constant rat-tat-tat. I’m six and I’m with the fattest, biggest ball of love to me. This is my grandmother. Then we’d go all day to monster movies. She’d be talking back to the screen the whole time.

INTERVIEWER

Monster movies?

PRICE

In a neighborhood you wouldn’t go into with a tank. We’d watch The Attack of the Praying Mantis, along with The Crawling Eye and The Creature From Green Hell. She’d be the only person over fourteen in the whole theater. Not only that, the only person over one hundred and fifty pounds. She’d pack up these big, big vinyl, sort of, beach bags. She’d make sandwiches, thermoses of coffee, and chocolate milk, and bring plums and nectarines. If there was a turkey carcass, she’d wrap it in silver foil so we could pick on the bones. We’d go into the movies with all this. We were ready for anything. And when we came out of the theater we’d have those little light dots in front of our eyes because we’d gone in at noon and we’d be coming out at five o’clock. Coming out, she’d walk all hunched over. She was only in her fifties, but she was so arthritic and rheumatic and heavy. We’d walk all the way back home, about one block every twenty minutes with that nonstop commentary about everybody who crossed our path. She lived on the third floor of a walk-up, so that took another hour, one step at a time. Then we get up there, and even after the triple horror feature we’d watch Zacherly’s Shock Theater, pro wrestling, Roller Derby—everything—drama, stories, tragedies, drama, drama.

One time she took me to a wrestling arena in the early fifties in the height of summer. She had me on her lap and when one of the villains walked by she jabbed him with a hatpin. She was what was known as a Hatpin Mary. So, for the next match, when Nature Boy Buddy Rogers, this peroxide pompadoured villain, who wore a leopard-skin Tarzan getup, came strutting down the aisle, people were looking at my grandmother and they started chanting, Stick him! Stick him! He heard the chant and stood right over us, daring her. She was paralyzed, so he took her hand with the hatpin, a woman who probably felt very unloved by the world, bowed down and kissed it, said, “Madam.” And then he continued walking toward the ring. At which point my grandmother dropped me, just dropped me on the floor. I remember ten, fifteen years later, when I would watch wrestling with my grandmother, every once in a while she’d say, I wonder how Nature Boy Buddy Rogers is doing. He’s such a nice guy.

[Photo Credit: MPR]

Time Well Spent

From the Paris Review Interview with Jeffrey Eugenides:

INTERVIEWER

Do you write with a sense of your audience? Or is it more like Gertrude Stein said, that you write for yourself and strangers?

EUGENIDES

I tell my students that when you write, you should pretend you’re writing the best letter you ever wrote to the smartest friend you have. That way, you’ll never dumb things down. You won’t have to explain things that don’t need explaining. You’ll assume an intimacy and a natural shorthand, which is good because readers are smart and don’t wish to be condescended to.

I think about the reader. I care about the reader. Not “audience.” Not “readership.” Just the reader. That one person, alone in a room, whose time I’m asking for. I want my books to be worth the reader’s time, and that’s why I don’t publish the books I’ve written that don’t meet this criterion, and why I don’t publish the books I do until they’re ready. The novels I love are novels I live for. They make me feel smarter, more alive, more tender toward the world. I hope, with my own books, to transmit that same experience, to pass it on as best I can.

[Photo Credit: Land-Sh]

As Long as it Takes

The other day, Glenn Stout mentioned this 2010 Paris Review Art of Non-Fiction Interview with John McPhee.

I hadn’t read the piece in a few years but was happy to revisit it:

INTERVIEWER: What were your first impressions (of New Yorker editor William Shawn)?

MCPHEE: He spoke so softly. I was awestruck: the guy’s the editor of The New Yorker and he’s this mysterious person. It was the most transforming event of my writing existence, meeting him, and you could take a hundred years to try to get to know him, and this was just the first day. But he was a really encouraging editor. Shawn always functioned as the editor of new writers, so he edited the Bradley thing. So I spent a lot of time in his office, talking commas. He explained everything with absolute patience, going through seventeen thousand words, a comma at a time, bringing in stuff from the grammarians and the readers’ proofs. He talked about each and every one of these items with the author. These were long sessions. At one point I said, Mr. Shawn, you have this whole enterprise going, a magazine is printing this weekend, and you’re the editor of it, and you sit here talking about these commas and semicolons with me—how can you possibly do it?

And he said, It takes as long as it takes. A great line, and it’s so true of writing. It takes as long as it takes.

McPhee is talking about writing here but I think can apply to anything. And it’s a wonderful, necessary reminder that nothing worth having comes fast.

MCPHEE: The thing about writers is that, with very few exceptions, they grow slowly—very slowly. A John Updike comes along, he’s an anomaly. That’s no model, that’s a phenomenon. I sent stuff to The New Yorker when I was in college and then for ten years thereafter before they accepted something. I used to paper my wall with their rejection slips. And they were not making a mistake. Writers develop slowly. That’s what I want to say to you: don’t look at my career through the wrong end of a telescope. This is terribly important to me as a teacher of writers, of kids who want to write.

And this:

INTERVIEWER: After you’ve done your reporting, how do you proceed with a piece?

MCPHEE: First thing I do is transcribe my notes. This is not an altogether mindless process. You’re copying your notes, and you get ideas. You get ideas for structure. You get ideas for wording, phraseologies. As I’m typing, if something crosses my mind I flip it in there. When I’m done, certain ideas have accrued and have been added to it, like iron filings drawn to a magnet.

And so now you’ve got piles of stuff on the table, unlike a fiction writer. A fiction writer doesn’t have this at all. A fiction writer is feeling her way, feeling her way—it’s much more of a trial-and-error, exploratory thing. With nonfiction, you’ve got your material, and what you’re trying to do is tell it as a story in a way that doesn’t violate fact, but at the same time is structured and presented in a way that makes it interesting to read.

I always say to my classes that it’s analogous to cooking a dinner. You go to the store and you buy a lot of things. You bring them home and you put them on the kitchen counter, and that’s what you’re going to make your dinner out of. If you’ve got a red pepper over here—it’s not a tomato. You’ve got to deal with what you’ve got. You don’t have an ideal collection of material every time out.

[Photo Credit: Peter C. Cook; painting by Paul Cezanne]

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