Monday, February 26, 2018

Interview with Mary Lawlor: 'I loved words and knew I wanted to spend my life thinking about and playing with them' @marylawlor5

Mary Lawlor grew up in an Army family during the Cold War.  Her father was a decorated fighter pilot who fought in the Pacific during World War II, flew missions in Korea, and did two combat tours in Vietnam. His family followed him from base to base and country to country during his years of service. Every two or three years, Mary, her three sisters, and her mother packed up their household and moved. By the time she graduated from high school, she had attended fourteen different schools. These displacements, plus her father?s frequent absences and brief, dramatic returns, were part of the fabric of her childhood, as were the rituals of base life and the adventures of life abroad.

As Mary came of age, tensions between the patriotic, Catholic culture of her upbringing and the values of the sixties counterculture set family life on fire.  While attending the American College in Paris, she became involved in the famous student uprisings of May 1968.  Facing her father, then posted in Vietnam, across a deep political divide, she fought as he had taught her to for a way of life completely different from his and her mother’s.

Years of turbulence followed.  After working in Germany, Spain and Japan, Mary went on to graduate school at NYU, earned a Ph.D. and became a professor of literature and American Studies at Muhlenberg College.  She has published three books, Recalling the Wild (Rutgers UP, 2000), Public Native America (Rutgers UP, 2006), and most recently Fighter Pilot’s Daughter: Growing Up in the Sixties and the Cold War (Rowman and Littlefield, September 2013).

She and her husband spend part of each year on a small farm in the mountains of southern Spain.


At what age did you know you wanted to be a writer?

I knew I wanted to be a writer in first grade. One day during recess a Vietnamese girl came up and started talking to me,  as if she thought we should be friends. She told me she came from a different place in the world and that her family spoke a different language. My mind reeled. I was amazed at the thought of a language other than my own, a completely different set of words and ways of saying things. I asked her how to say “lipstick” in Vietnamese. “Son môi,” she said. Dazzled, I tried to say it myself. She laughed at my clumsy pronunciation but helped me get it right.

You might take from this that my inspiration was to be a translator but it was the magic of words themselves, designating something in particular that could also be designated in another language that the Vietnamese “lipstick” made so vivid.  It lit a fire in my brain. I loved words and knew I wanted to spend my life thinking about and playing with them.

Has writing always been a passion for you or did you discover it years later?

Since first grade, as I just recounted, writing has been a passion for me. I’ve always wanted to make up stories and spent a good deal of my girlhood fantasizing. Since my family moved a lot I often found myself among strangers and discovered early that I could make things up about myself. Nobody knew my background so I could exaggerate or even fabricate things. I could tell other kids my grandparents had a castle in Ireland, that I had a tiara, that we went to Paris in the summers. In reality my father was an Army pilot, and neither he nor my mother had inherited any family money. We could hardly afford such things as summers in Paris. I’m sure the other kids thought l I was pretty strange and probably full of baloney.

At some point I started writing stories instead. The interesting thing was they became more realistic. They weren’t as fantastical as the things I made up for other kids at school. Something about writing made me think the story had to be believable. Maybe it was the idea that written words were tracks, records left behind for anybody to check out later, whereas I must’ve thought spoken ones evaporated like I did when I moved.

I wrote during school, after school, during vacations into my early college years but only took a creative writing course quite late in the game. That course confirmed my desire and some ability, but I didn’t follow up until much later. I studied literature in graduate school, thinking this would help me write; but ended up becoming a professor instead. I produced a couple of academic books before writing Fighter Pilot’s Daughter. In the end, the years in literary studies prepared me well for creative writing but it took a long time to get there.  

Can you name three writing tips to pass on to aspiring authors?

Trust your inner ear—listen to it and take it seriously, even if you don’t know entirely what it’s saying.

Write every day, even if only for twenty minutes.

Keep your work to yourself until it’s really ready to be shown; and then show it only to those whose criticism you trust won’t be motivated by anything but care and thoughtfulness.

Do you let unimportant things get in the way of your writing?

Inevitably. Most of the time I at least try to resist them. Sometimes, if I see it as the sign of a need for a break, I’ll give in to the impulse to get up and do something else. At others, the anxieties of other demands are overwhelming. To ensure I get some stretch of time to keep writing through the day, I to away to a writing residency or find a retreat somewhere a couple of times each year.

What are you reading now?

I’m reading a long list of classics I haven’t read in ages (or in some cases ever). These include novels of Balzac, Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, Henry James, Virginia Woolf, Willa Cather, Thomas Mann, and others. These grand old story tellers are not remembered and taught all the time for nothing: they have a fantastic sense of plot and ability to shape unforgettable characters. They all have an amazing sense of the narrative power of history and its influence on peoples’ lives. And of course they have style, style, style. The old masters are endless writing teachers.

I’ve also been reading wonderful current fiction recently: Anthony Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See, Thomas Pynchon’s Bleeding Edge, Don DeLillo’s Zero K, Elena Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend, Nell Zink’s The Wallcreeper

What are you currently working on?

I’ve just finished a novel called The Time Keeper’s Room which my agent is showing to publishers. It’s set in Spain and tells the story of a young woman whose mother is American and whose father is Spanish. She struggles with identity on several levels—personal, familial, national. Travel in Spain and Morocco, visionary experiences, and the love of her boyfriend helps her work through the most difficult of her dramas.

I’m also working on another novel titled The Stars Over Andalucia, also set in Spain, about an American woman who’s trying to find a place for herself in a small Andalusian town and figuring out what it means to be a foreigner: how to understand her differences from those around her, how to recognize when she’s accepted, where she never will belong, what the benefits, pitfalls, and ethics of foreignness are in the twenty-first century.

I live in Spain for half the year and have done so for quite some time. The experience of being a foreigner in a place I love and whose landscape enchants me has been a theme in my thinking and writing for some time. The Time Keeper’s Room and The Stars Over Andalucia both take up this idea and play it out in the lives of different American, English, and Spanish characters of different ages and backgrounds. 

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