A ‘friend’ of mine – well, some people might call him ‘a mental health professional’ – which, hey! would explain why I pay him, told me recently that one of the most devastating things to face in the world, especially for someone like me, is that we can do everything right, we can give it all we have, and it probably won’t matter. Our blissful religious faith is shattered for no reason we understand, our beloved spouse vanishes after a dream of an old lover. This is nothing but the Uncertainty Principle at work on the level of the quotidian, and those of us whose careers dovetail with our vocations, with what we love doing, are especially vulnerable. It’s a cliché by now, to say of some genius, “She never published a poem in her lifetime.” “He never sold a painting – that’s why he killed himself.” Even the Bible itself says a prophet is without honor in his own land.
My career has been so enviable I would be overwhelmed with self-loathing if I were capable of such a feeling. (I find neurosis to be more my style.) The first poem I ever submitted to a national magazine was accepted, when I was 21. In the years that followed I had one success after another: publications, grants, I was recognized by the Governor for excellence in poetry. Evan Bayh! A good one, no illicit love children in the Hoosier Governor’s Manse! When I moved from Indiana to North Carolina I lost the ability to write poetry, and those were a couple of dark years. I finally figured out it was because my imagination was entirely dependent on the Midwest landscape – which, once it gets under your skin – is so beautiful and grave and trying, I thought I would die from the loss. Many images that have shown up in my fiction were things that really happened to me, like a day I was cleaning out an abandoned house on our farm property. I was bent over, pulling ivy off the outer walls when something enormous passed over my head – the shadow was so big I thought it had been a helicopter, except there had been no sound, nothing. I stood up and found myself about six feet from a great-horned owl, his wings unmoving, sailing on a current down the long lane toward the road. He turned and flew back toward me and I don’t know how much time passed but it seems the moment lasts yet –I am still standing in the autumn twilight in a green army coat, and the house I have just purchased, the big one behind me, is haunted but I don’t know it yet, and if the bird intends to hurt me, I will stand and let him do it.
After being abandoned by poetry I thought I’d take a look at some essays about my hometown, a collection I’d started in seminary. And there it was – there was my voice again – I wrote two drafts of that book in a year. I went back to graduate school and Lee Smith gave me a list of agents. I sent it to two, and one picked it up immediately. She sold it to Doubleday (along with ‘an as-yet-unwritten first novel,’ something that should strike terror in your hearts) three weeks later. And from that point on, and this is where I’ve been trying to get to, I did everything right. I loved my editor, I did everything I was told to do, I charmed booksellers. I wrote the first draft of the dreaded undreamt-of novel in 28 days, I threw it away and wrote it again. When my editor moved to Simon & Schuster I moved with her, in part because I loved her and partly because I tend to be loyal, but that makes me sound noble and I don’t mean to. In my third book, the very unhappy Laura says, “If you consider something holy, you will not violate it and you will not betray it.” I believed I had been given the greatest gift imaginable, and I held it in my palms like a bluebird’s egg. I started writing at nine. I wasn’t sentient at nine – there were stray dogs in town with higher IQs than mine. I probably had scabies and rickets, or at the very least, worms. My family’s nickname for me was War Orphan – seriously – because of my feral and deranged appearance. And still I sat on the floor of my sister’s bedroom, on top of layers and layers of detritus, typing out a word at a time, veeeeerrrry slowly, on my mother’s first typewriter.
I was a godless failure at everything considered normal, but I never, ever stopped trying to teach myself to write. By 13 I was writing a poem a day. (If there is a Hell, that’s what will be waiting for me – box after box of spiral-bound notebooks filled with the most execrable excrement a single human being can excrete.) In high school one of my English teachers tried to fail me because she believed my mom had written my short stories. And then my mother, who saved my life countless times and in ways even yet unknown to me, moved me out of that rural school and into a laboratory school on a college campus.
In the first class I took we studied Hemingway for sentence structure, brevity, repetition; Virginia Woolf for the sublime. (The sublime! Imagine!) We read Kazantzaki’s Zorba the Greek, and The Last Temptation of Christ for character and scene, as well as the author’s fearless plunge into the depths of suffering and pain. Tender Is The Night, The Great Gatsby, Salinger, and finally, four writers who, along with Woolf, caused me physical pain. I don’t know how to describe it exactly, but I would lie awake at night (or more likely stay up playing the piano and smoking cigarettes all night) and think, “Well, if books like that are out there I don’t want to live.” I’m not sure why; maybe because they were so mercilessly out of reach. I can see them now, scattered around my room casually, although they were Olympians: Woolf, Flannery O’Connor, Carson McCullers, Eudora Welty, and Katherine Anne Porter. With a sudden intensity, as if she saw it clear for a second, she drew a line there, in the centre. It was done; it was finished. Yes, she thought, laying down her brush in extreme fatigue, I have had my vision. If I had written that, I too would have walked into a river with my pockets filled with stones. Well, in Indiana I’d probably have to lie down and ask someone to run over me with a tractor, but I understood Woolf, I thought.
“She would have been a good woman,” The Misfit said, “if it had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life.” Time Magazine called “A Good Man Is Hard To Find,” “Highly unladylike.” The New York Times said of O’Connor, “Her talent for fiction is so great as to be almost overwhelming.” I still have my high school edition, and the biographical note reads, “The author lives in Milledgeville, Georgia, where she raises peacocks.” I remember describing her style to a friend as ‘high irony’ or ‘high satire,’ some phrase I’d picked up, but also saying she scared me – the grotesquerie, the mixture of religion and brutality, the open sexuality, because how did she know all those things, walking on her crutches in what I imagined to be a dirt farm where it was always 100 degrees, followed by peacocks? She imagined it, but it was true nonetheless – she seemed unafraid of the terrible, funny world she had created. There were implications in O’Connor more bone-chilling than in any of the men we read.
The Heart Is A Lonely Hunter is McCullers’s masterpiece, and by the time I read the last page my life force was utterly denuded, and then I found out she’d written it when she was like, three years old, and she TOO was from Georgia – but she’d exchanged peacocks for whiskey in her morning coffee. But then I read The Member of the Wedding and when I’d finished it I actually wrote a deeply tragical suicide poem that contained images of swollen police cars, flickering lights in an all-night diner, and cockroaches. It’s a book I’ll never read again – I’m not an idiot. It was much much too close to me then and now if I just glance at the prose on the first page I feel needles pressing into my chest. It happened that green and crazy summer when Frankie was twelve years old. This was the summer when for a long time she had not been a member. She belonged to no club and was a member of nothing in the world. Frankie had become an unjoined person who hung around in doorways, and she was afraid. Nobody needs to be told the plot of this book – it’s all right there. A twelve-year-old girl. A loneliness and boredom so fantastic they have their own glare and gravitational pull. A fulcrum year when a girl might make a hundred small mistakes or one permanent one – either way, she damn well better be afraid.
Talking about Ms. Welty is nearly as blasphemous as talking about Faulkner (Jackson and Oxford, Mississippi, respectively – it’s no wonder I ended up in the south), and while Welty can seem more genteel on the surface, it is her work that made me understand one of the most important facets of fiction, and why southerners are so bloody good at it. There are two ways of looking at the way we communicate: one is that our politeness is essentially false, a purposeful obfuscation. But having grown up with hillbillies (Ed. note: Haven’s family may have come from Kentucky, but she herself was such a filthy little ragamuffin, and her accent was so disgraceful, she could have been photographed by Dorothea Lange. The same could not be said of any of her relatives) and having now lived in Mississippi, Louisiana, and North Carolina for fourteen years, I don’t think any of that thinking is correct. We elide. We speak at a slant, to borrow a phrase from Dickinson. I never, ever heard my southern grandmother speak an unkind word about anyone, ever. She never spoke coarsely, either; I can no more imagine her swearing than I can imagine her boarding an airplane. For some reason in this culture we’ve come to believe that using a certain code – one of restraint and civility, but which nonetheless contains all the information both parties need to hear – is a violation of our fundamental human rights. In order to escape the bourgeoisie (good luck, chirren) and in a desperate attempt to feel real, to feel something, all conversation and all writing must contain orifices, virulent racial slang, explicit and unsettling sex scenes, cocaine and/or heroin, ennui, vampires, Cuban gun-runners and/or Columbian drug mules, oh, and date rape is good, but lying about getting on an airplane too drunk and stoned to walk – WITH A GAPING HOLE IN YOUR FACE TO BOOT – in order to get to rehab? Golden.
The Optimist’s Daughter is, to be grossly reductive, a novel about how two very different types of southern women are forced to communicate. Laurel, the grieving daughter of the recently deceased Judge McKelva, returns to her beloved childhood home, which has been taken over by her widowed father’s freak of a white-trash fisherwoman (I made that last part up, except for the white-trash) named Fay, and it took me a long time to understand that I was reading a masterpiece. The situation appears to be comically black-and-white: The Judge, his REAL wife, Dead Becky, and his daughter are Good and the house should be Laurel’s and she should be the heir to her own history. And Fay is over-the-top bad (worst of all, she has bad taste) and her family is awful, and she’s going to get everything Laurel’s parents worked for, and at one point I thought, “Well? Unjust. Okay.” But OH MS. WELTY, YOU TRICKY MINX! “The guilt of outliving those you love is justly to be borne, she thought. Outliving is something we do to them.” It is something we DO to them. Fay, for all her treachery and goldduggery, understands Laurel much better than Laurel understands her, because Fay is beneath her attention. Laurel holds each artifact as if it were sacred, whereas Fay covers the marriage bed with shiny fabric (DEAD BECKY’S RIGHTEOUS BED) and threatens the most cherished object in Laurel’s story, her mother’s breadboard. Because Fay done gone and reckoned that outliving people is something we do to them, and no amount of craftsmanship is going to change that. You can burn the Judge’s sacred desk, crack the breadboard in two, the show is over and Fay wins. It’s a beautiful, excruciating book, in part because there’s never any chance that either woman will understand the other. It’s class, yes, and it’s money and education that separate the two, but what sets Welty apart from virtually all other American writers is her flawless, artful objectivity. Fay is just Fay, doing what she does, right out in the open, and Laurel believes that there are earthly laws that govern decorum, and Fay must recognize them. One of them is wrong, as it turns out.
Can you believe all of this was leading to the story that leads to the story I started out telling? Trust me, I’m a virtual racetrack when it comes to argument. I always return to the place I began, which makes me look less brain damaged than I actually am. (The trick is undermined by my misshapen head. I SAID IT FOR YOU, MELINDA.)
I had loved other books before the class I’ve described here, the one that leads to the story about the story. I read and re-read all of Vonnegut’s books until they were in tatters. (In fact I recently told John he has to stop teaching Little Augusten serviceable language because babies use it against you later. I demonstrated by teaching him to say, Hi-Ho! Could he use that to demand a popsicle? No. Could he point to something in the toy store and scream it? Thank you.) I loved Shirley Jackson and Thomas Tryon, and I’ve always said – I can’t stress it enough – that Stephen King taught me to write prose and Leonard Cohen taught me everything else. (Ed. note: She wishes.) But when we got to Katherine Anne Porter and I read “The Jilting of Granny Weatherall,” I swear I heard a click. (Remember the ‘click’ in Tennessee Williams’s Cat On A Hot Tin Roof? The ruined and probably gay Brick drinks until he feels it, and it allows him to survive another night, unaware he’s dying anyway. Tennessee Williams: b. Columbus, Mississippi.)
“The Jilting of Granny Weatherall” is quite short, and the tone in the beginning is near-comic. An eighty-year-old woman is dying but doesn’t realize it, and she’s being attended to by a daughter who isn’t the daughter she loved the best. Granny snaps, she’s funny and tough, but the prose is literally breathtaking. She imagines seeing her long-deceased husband, and in horror realizes he would be younger than any of their children are now. She thinks, It was good to be strong enough for everything, even if all you made melted and changed and slipped under your hands, so that by the time you finished you almost forgot what you were working for. What was it I set out to do? She asked herself intently, but she could not remember. A fog rose over the valley, she saw it marching across the creek swallowing the trees and moving up the hill like an army of ghosts. Soon it would be at the near edge of the orchard, and then it was time to go in and light the lamps. Come in, children, don’t stay out in the night air.
Lighting the lamps had been beautiful. The children huddled up to her and breathed like little calves waiting at the bars in the twilight. Their eyes followed the match and watched the flame rise and settle in a blue curve, then they moved away from her. The lamp was lit, they didn’t have to be scared and hang on to mother any more. Never, never, never more. God, for all my life, I thank Thee. Without Thee, my God, I could never have done it. Hail, Mary, full of grace.
I’m pretty sure it was right about there I realized Ms. Porter was going to snap my scrawny neck. Eighty years old, and the light comes and goes; Granny imagines she sees the mysterious daughter holding a baby, but they vanish, and there is a shadow circling her like a predator bird – something she wants to hold back in order to save her soul. The pillow rose about her shoulders and pressed against her heart and the memory was being squeezed out of it: oh, push down the pillow, somebody: it would smother her if she tried to hold it. Such a fresh breeze blowing and such a green day with no threats in it. But he had not come, just the same. What does a woman do when she has put on the white veil and set out the white cake for a man and he doesn’t come? She tried to remember. No, I swear he never harmed me but in that. He never harmed me but in that…and what if he did? There was the day, the day, but a whirl of dark smoke rose and covered it, crept up and over into the bright field where everything was planted so carefully in orderly rows. That was hell, she knew hell when she saw it. For sixty years she had prayed against remembering him and against losing her soul in the deep pit of hell, and now the two things were mingled in one and the thought of him was a smoky cloud from hell that moved and crept in her head when she had just got rid of Doctor Harry and was trying to rest a minute. Wounded vanity, Ellen, said a sharp voice in the top of her mind. Don’t let your wounded vanity get the upper hand of you. Plenty of girls get jilted. You were kilted, weren’t you? Then stand up to it.
I was sixteen, lying on my bed, sobbing, thinking I couldn’t read the rest because it’s one thing to be Zorba, it’s just DANDY to be Zorba, and there was something unbearable in the sublimity of Lily Briscoe’s finished painting, and YES I was freaked out of my wonky skull over twelve-year-old Frankie and her crazy green summer, but what I feared for her was what was ahead of her. And with Ellen Weatherall I realized that what is behind us can be so grievous we suffer our entire lives for it, and then it kills us anyway. By the time I read these lines, Cornelia began whispering from a long way off, “Oh, is there anything you want to tell me? Is there anything I can do for you?”
Yes, she had changed her mind after sixty years and she would like to see George. I want you to find George. Find him and be sure to tell him I forgot him. I want him to know I had my husband just the same and my children and my house like any other woman. A good house too and a good husband that I loved and fine children out of him. Better than I had hoped for even. Tell him I was given back everything he took away and more. Oh, no, oh, God, no, there was something else besides the house and the man and the children. Oh, surely they were not all? What was it? Something not given back… Her breath crowded down under her ribs and grew into a monstrous frightening shape with cutting edges; it bored up into her head, and the agony was unbelievable.
And that was it, the moment I knew who I was and what I would do, and looking back I should have been trembling in terror. Fortunately, I was stupid enough not to know how much I didn’t know. And I didn’t care, really – I was going to learn everything there was to learn about writing and lucky me, that meant reading the Western canon (and eventually arguing against the Western canon) (later being grateful I had read Moby Dick) and in every book there was something valuable, even if it was something NOT to do, and I put my head down like a bull and just began plowing through 4,000 years of history and literature and I still haven’t stopped.
So imagine how seriously I took my job, once I had a #1 New York Times bestseller, a critically acclaimed novel, another finished, a contract for a third? I went to every bogus interview set up by a publicist who was just trying to make me look busy; I went on book tours that were led by Virgil himself. I performed at events that I STILL don’t understand. I got food poisoning in San Francisco and fainted in the Houston airport, something I continue to have nightmares about, in part because it’s called The George W. Bush International Airport, and when I came to I was surrounded by Homeland Security, I AM NOT KIDDING. I left my children for weeks at a time. I paid for photo-shoots, I went to every radio station, I got up at four in the morning to get to the airport in a near-blizzard in Minneapolis, and through that I produced a book every year, and always to my editor’s precise specifications. The only time I ever disagreed with her was if she was factually mistaken about something, and that’s not the same as arguing.
My third novel (fifth book), The Used World, was a big thing – long and dense – with shifts between the past and present and multiple points of view. It was sort of like wrestling with a drugged grizzly bear. My editor dutifully wrote precise editorial letters for all five drafts. I finished the last draft eight months pregnant, on bed rest, and with a separated pelvis, and delivered it on time. So to speak. Because by that time I couldn’t imagine that anything was going to change my world. Then I found out that my editor had taken another job and there wasn’t anyone there to read what I done to my pelvis anyway.
I hung about in limbo for awhile and eventually I was assigned an editor I adored – I could not have been luckier. And now, a mere 782,000 words later, I will tell you how I came to write Iodine. New Editor was smart, very sophisticated, calm and kind, and she said words to me that to this day give me a little jolt of happiness. They sounded like this (imagine bells *tinkling*): “I want you to write exactly the book you’ve always wanted to write, and I want you to be as smart as you feel like being.” No pandering to a middle market, no imaginary game plan that never works anyway – I’ve had a few happier moments but LAWD that one is high on the scale. I did an insane, health-scarring amount of research and then wrote the first draft very quickly, and Beloved New Editor completely got it, made it better, was my advocate in every way.
And then, about a month before the publication date, Free Press fired me. Well, they couldn’t really fire me. Yes, yes – I think that’s how one would have to put it. The exact people who had feted me for years, who had sworn fealty, who said A FEW DAYS BEFORE HATCHET MAN CAME DOWN that they were ‘honored to publish me,’ met with my agent, and now that I think about it I don’t really know what was said. He was wise enough not to tell me and if he did I blocked it out, like a shark attack. In fact, I keep thinking I have that left leg and am sorrowfully surprised each time I try to take a step and fall.
In my previous seven years in publishing I always knew the marketing plan, and when reviews were going to appear where. Not this time. So I talked to my sister today and I said, “I’m going to sell it myself.” Of course I couldn’t sell French fries to a starving man, and she knows that, which I’m pretty sure was the cause of her unbecoming snorts. I’ve done two readings (my official tour doesn’t begin until September) and in both cases I simply told the truth: they took the best book I ever wrote, and it may never see the light of day. And at the first reading at least 75% of the standing room only crowd bought the hardcover, but at the second reading, which was in excess of 200 people, it appeared EVERYONE bought a hardcover.
All day I’ve done what I generally do, which is read, but also devise plans and strategies and whatnot. I didn’t come up with any. No, wait! I came up with writing this blog entry. What I need is for two people to tell two people – thaaaat was shampoo. I came up with this blog entry. Okay, you guys think of stuff. No trampolines or rodeos, but otherwise, I’m open to suggestion.
Ed. note: Haven fails to mention here that she was “fired” on a Thursday, and by the following Monday she had an offer from Penguin for non-fiction, and a two-book deal with Algonquin for fiction. Also she still has a left leg.
I leave you with this photograph, which I wanted as the cover for IODINE. It’s from Invention of Hysteria: Charcot and the Photographic Iconography of the Salpetriere, an institution for women where they performed acts of ‘hysteria’ – or actually had seizures – usually after they were hypnotized, shocked, or injured genitally. The photograph is of Augustine, Charcot’s favorite patient, who came to hate him even as she better understood what he wanted: photographs that reflected ecstasy, self-mutilation, and even crucifixion. Charcot was a precursor and mentor to Freud.
Oh, and one last thing: IODINE is the best book I’ve written so far, but it won’t compare to what I’ll write in the future. You were kilted, weren’t you? Then stand up to it.