Color us excited. It's Richard McCann day over at the Happy Booker and we can barely contain ourselves.
True story: The Happy Booker recently ran into Richard McCann at a local gathering of writers. We didn't know him well, other than the fact that he wrote one of our favorite short stories, "My Mothers Clothes: The School of Beauty and Shame." We hadn't seen him in almost six years, but he was just as warm and welcoming as ever, and we fell into an easy conversation about blogs. He informed us that he had just found a wonderful literary blog and had been discussing it with his friends over lunch that afternoon in Dupont Circle. He was pleased with his discovery and thoughtful enough to make a recommendation. "It's called the Happy Booker," he said. "I really think you'd like it."
Yes, we have a mutual thing going on. But I am not alone in my appreciation of Richard's work.
This Sunday, The Washington Post ran a glowing review of Mother of Sorrows, the book McCann has been working on for the past eighteen years. The review describes McCann's prose as "full of achingly sensual detail and imagery". Amen to that. The Post , clearly impressed with McCann's vivid evocation of life in postwar years suburbia, a time of " languid, chain-smoking, highball-drinking mothers driving welcome wagons while their angst-ridden children converted laundry rooms into bomb shelters," called the book "combustible."
The LA Times, not to be outdone by our local paper, described McCann's writing as "Proustian." And Michael Cunningham, author of The Hours, has revealed that his copy of Mother of Sorrows " immediately joined the small body of books I keep close by, for the times I need reminding of the heights we can attain using only ink and paper."
That's right. And now he's here today on the blog. Yes, we're very happy. And for those who haven't yet had the pleasure of reading Richard McCann , or those who need a little background on his work, his fiction, creative nonfiction, and poetry have appeared The Atlantic, Esquire, Ploughshares, Tin House, and in numerous anthologies, including Best American Essays 2000.
Today Mother of Sorrows is finally available! While we're busy over here futzing with Amazon and trying to order copies for our friends, please settle in, make yourself comfortable, and take a look at the interview we did with Richard McCann.
A few Q's and A's with Richard McCann
It's no secret that I am a huge fan of your short story, "My Mothers Clothes: The School of Beauty and Shame". The first time I read it gave me chills—that hair rising on the back of the neck feeling when you know you're reading something that is extraordinary. (I had similar feeling when I first read Michael Cunningham's White Angel, which later became part of A Home at the End of the World.) When did the idea come to you to build and expand on this story and these characters, and was it this story that inspired you to write Mother of Sorrows?
"My Mother's Clothes" is one of the first stories I ever wrote, after having written and published only poetry for some years. I began writing it shortly after I returned to Washington, D.C., where I grew up, after having lived abroad for some years, in Germany, Spain, and Sweden. It was the act of moving back to my hometown, to the place I'd left behind willfully and abruptly when I was seventeen, that made it important to me to write prose: I needed to explore my relationship to my own mother and to understand the difficult narrative I'd had come to live within. And then, not long after I moved back, one of my brothers died; and his death, too, made the writing important.
Can you talk about the structure of Mother of Sorrows. We have 10 beautifully rendered and connected stories. What makes this a novel and not a story cycle?
I don't have a clue! I don't know that I would call it a "novel," though that's how others sometimes see it--I think of Mother of Sorrows as interwoven stories that fit together into something like a novel, in that we see the lives of recurring characters as they're revealed over thirty years. In my mind, it's a narrative mosaic--a book assembled from smaller pieces that are brought together by juxtaposition . What matters to me, however, is not whether the book is seen as a novel or as a collection of stories; what matters to me is that the stories accumulate force and momentum as they go along, in the way a novel does.
Many writers take some time off between books: Steve Goodwin recently released Breaking her Fall, after almost two decades of fiction silence. Marilynne Robinson took 24 years between Housekeeping and Gilead. Your fiction readers have waited 18 years for this novel, can you tell us a little bit about the writing process and why it took so long?
I write prose the same way I write poetryword by word, revising obsessively as I go along; I'm also interested in working only with materials that feel quite difficult to me, in personal ways, so that while I am writing, I often feel quite as though I'm poised on the edge of what Peter Handke once termed "extreme speechlessness." But I wasn't in fact speechless for 18 years: While working (and not working) on Mother of Sorrows, I also published a book of poems and edited an anthology.
And then there is this: Although I'm by nature a slow writer, I was also slowed—and sometimes stopped dead—by Life Itself. In 1990, for instance, I was diagnosed with life-threatening liver disease; in 1996, I underwent a liver transplant, which is almost as much an evisceration as it is a restoration. So I was quite busy, for some years, with the work of dying and then being resurrected. When I finally rose from the sickbed, I wasn't struck first by the urge to pick up a pencil: I was struck first by the urge to go canoeing and to get a suntan.
I'm now writing about this experience of illness, in a memoir I'm calling The Resurrectionist, portions of which have already appeared in the Washington Post Magazine, Tin House , and Best American Essays 2000.
I have read that this book touches on some autobiographical facts of your life, yet you decided to write this as fiction, not memoir. Where do you draw the line? And is it necessary for the reader to draw the line? Have you deliberately blurred this line and should there even be a line?
I never really "decided" between fiction and memoir. I started, as I always do, with facts; eventually, I saw I had deviated far enough from the starting points as to have made a work of fiction. There was a cartoon in The New Yorker a couple of years ago that I loved: a man is standing in a bookstore in which the sections are marked with titles like "Memoirish" and "Fictionish," as opposed to "Memoir" and "Fiction." That's a bookstore, I suspect, in which my work belongs.
I am reading this book slowly, savoring the whiff of Shalimar and the beautiful lyricism. Mother love, brother love, bitter disappointment, loss, anger and longing, its all here already and I can tell this book is going to break my heart. Can you talk a little bit about the impossibility of a happy ending.
It used to be—or so I've heard— that a "happy ending" meant that a story ended with a kiss or a wedding. But the love story in Mother of Sorrows is really between the mother and her youngest son, who worships her, so it seems, in this case, that a wedding wouldn't be a happy ending. Think: Oedipus Rex.
That said, I should add that Mother of Sorrows is a book about loss, and it therefore seems to me important that it ends on an image of two close friends performing Kaddish at night in a rowboat—the narrator, who is sick, and his best friend, who has suffered the twin woes of having lost her son in an auto accident not long after she herself was diagnosed with breast cancer. They're a battered pair, these two, but they're survivors, at least provisionally, which is all that anyone really is.
Want to know my idea of a happy ending? It's the last sentence of Beverly Lowry's brilliant Crossed Over: A Murder, A Memoir, in which Lowry chronicles, among other things, what she has learned about coping with loss from her friendship with death row inmate Karla Faye Tucker: "You bump up against the final, most unacceptable thing, you see what you can come up with."
Richard, thanks for stopping by the blog for a visit. The welcome mat is always out if you want to come back again! Before you go, can you tell us what you're reading these days?
This afternoon I read, with great pleasure, Marjane Satrapi's Embroideries I'm a huge fan of her graphic memoirs, Persepolis and Persepolis 2. I've just read Victoria Redel's beautiful novel Loverboy, which I recommend; and I just recently reread Michael Cunningham's A Home at the End of the World, a novel I've loved over time, in order to stave off my hunger for his soon-to-be-published Specimen Days. As it happens, I love rereading thingsonce a year, I reread Jean Rhys's Good Morning, Midnight, always with utter admiration.
The other thing I seem to be reading is The Happy Booker (heard of it?), to which I've grown rather addicted. Before I became a Happy Booker junkie, I just used blogs "recreationally," as they say.