Interviews

Grace Paley, The Art of Fiction No. 131

Interviewed by Jonathan Dee, Barbara Jones, Larissa MacFarquhar

When Grace Paley visits New York, she stays in her old apartment on West Eleventh Street. Her block has for the most part escaped the gentrification that has transformed the West Village since Paley moved there in the forties. The building where Paley lived for most of her adult life and where she raised her two children by her first husband, the filmmaker Jess Paley, is a rent-controlled brownstone walk-up with linoleum hallways. Mercifully spared mid-career renovations, Paley’s apartment retains the disheveled, variegated look of an apartment with children. Paley now lives in Thetford, Vermont with her second husband, poet and playwright Robert Nichols, but we arranged to speak with her in New York. We met her on the street outside her apartment—she was returning home from a Passover celebration with friends elsewhere in the city. We recognized her from half a block away—a tiny woman with fluffy white hair in a brown overcoat.

People often ask Grace Paley why she has written so little—three story collections and three chapbooks of poetry in seventy years. Paley has a number of answers to this question. Mostly she explains that she is lazy and that this is her major flaw as a writer. Occasionally she will admit that, though it is “not nice” of her to say so, she believes that she can accomplish as much in a few stories as her longer-winded colleagues do in a novel. And she points out that she has had many other important things to do with her time, such as raising children and participating in politics. “Art,” she explains, “is too long, and life is too short.” Paley is noticeably unaffected by the pressures of mortality which drive most writers to publish. Donald Barthelme scavenged her apartment for the stories that made up her first book, and her agent says she periodically raids Paley’s drawers and kitchen cabinets for material. Her first collection of stories, The Little Disturbances of Man, did not appear until 1959, when Paley was thirty-seven. Since then she has published just two collections of stories (Enormous Changes at the Last Minute in 1974 and Later the Same Day in 1985) and three collections of poems—Leaning Forward (1985). New and Collected Poems (1992) and Long Walks and Intimate Talks (1991). Though Paley is better known as a short-story writer than as a poet, her stories are so dense and rigorously pruned that they frequently resemble poetry as much as fiction. Her conversation is as cerebral and distilled as her prose. The oft-noted Paley paradox is the contrast between her grandmotherly appearance and her no-schmaltz personality. Paley says only what is necessary. Ask her a yes-or-no question, and she will answer yes or no. Ask her a foolish question, and she will kindly but clearly convey her impatience. Talking with her, one develops the impression that she listens and speaks in two different, sometimes conflicting capacities. As a person she is tolerant and easygoing, as a user of words, merciless. On politics Paley speaks unreservedly and in earnest, on writing, she is drier, more careful.

Grace Goodside was born in the Bronx in December 1922, seventeen years after her parents immigrated to New York and one year after the invention of the sanitary napkin (as she notes in her poem “Song Stanzas of Private Luck”). Her father, Isaac, was a doctor who learned English by reading Dickens and was, like her mother, Mary, a committed socialist. The family spoke Russian and Yiddish at home and English to the world with a Bronx twang that remains one of the more noticeable signs of Paley’s attitude towards the establishment. Writing has only occasionally been Paley’s main occupation. She spent a lot of time in playgrounds when her children were young. She has always been very active in the feminist and peace movements. She has been on the faculty at City College and taught courses at Columbia University, and until recently, Sarah Lawrence College.

 

INTERVIEWER

What were you doing before you became a published writer?

GRACE PALEY

I was working part time. I was hanging out a lot. I was kind of lazy. I had my kids when I was about twenty-six, twenty-seven. I took them to the park in the afternoons. Thank God I was lazy enough to spend all that time in Washington Square Park. I say lazy but of course it was kind of exhausting running after two babies. Still, looking back I see the pleasure of it. That’s when I began to know women very well—as co-workers, really. I had a part-time job as a typist up at Columbia. In fact, when I began to write stories, I typed some up there, and some in the PTA office of P.S. 41 on Eleventh Street. If I hadn’t spent that time in the playground, I wouldn’t have written a lot of those stories. That’s pretty much how I lived. And then we had our normal family life—struggles and hard times. That takes up a lot of time, hard times. Uses up whole days.

INTERVIEWER

Could you tell the story of the publication of your first book?

PALEY

I’d written three stories, and I liked them. I showed them to my former husband, Jess Paley, and he liked them, and he showed them to a couple of friends, and they liked them, so I was feeling pretty good about them. The kids were still young at the time, and they played a lot with the neighborhood kids, so I got to know the other mothers in the neighborhood. One of them was Tibby McCormick, who had just gotten unmarried from Ken McCormick, an editor at Doubleday. She knew about these stories, and poor Ken was more or less forced into reading them—you know, The kids are over at her house all the time, you might read her stories. So he took them home and read them and he came over to see me and said, Write seven more of them and we’ll publish a book. So that’s what happened. Luck happened. He also told me that no magazine around would touch them, and he was pretty much right about that too, although two of the stories in that collection were finally taken by Accent.

INTERVIEWER

Do you have a particular reader in mind when you write?

PALEY

As far as I know I’m not writing to anybody. Writers often write about what they want to read or haven’t seen written. Sometimes I write for people—I wrote a story called “Debts” about the mother of a friend of mine. I wanted my friend to like it, although I didn’t write it to please her. But that was different from writing to someone. I wrote “The Toy Inventor” about a guy on Sixth Avenue who later told me I understood him better than his wife. But I wasn’t writing it to him so much as speaking for him. Still, there’s always that first storytelling impulse: I want to tell you something . . .

INTERVIEWER

How do stories begin for you?

PALEY

A lot of them begin with a sentence—they all begin with language. It sounds dopey to say that, but it’s true. Very often one sentence is absolutely resonant. A story can begin with someone speaking. “I was popular in certain circles,” for example; an aunt of mine said that, and it hung around in my head for a long time. Eventually I wrote a story, “Goodbye and Good Luck,” that began with that line, though it had nothing to do with my aunt. Another example: “There were two husbands disappointed by eggs,” which is the first sentence of “The Used-Boy Raisers.” I was at the house of a friend of mine, thirty-five years ago, and there were her two husbands complaining about the eggs. It was just right—so I went home and began the story, though I didn’t finish it for months. I’m almost invariably stuck after one page or one paragraph—at which point I have to begin thinking about what the story could possibly be about. I begin by writing paragraphs that don’t have an immediate relation to a plot. The sound of the story comes first.

INTERVIEWER

In “A Conversation With My Father” you make a lot of disparaging remarks about plot.

PALEY

Ever since then, everybody says I have no plot, which gets me really mad. Plot is nothing; plot is simply time, a timeline. All our stories have timelines. One thing happens, then another thing happens. What I was really talking about in that story was having a plot settled in your mind: this is the way the story’s going to go. In the next thirty pages or so, this will happen, this will happen, this will happen. That’s what I meant.

INTERVIEWER

So you would never start a story with the ending in mind?

PALEY

No. When the ending comes to me, that’s when I know I’m going to finish the story. Usually it’s around the middle. And then I write the end. And then I change it.

INTERVIEWER

How many drafts do you go through in writing a story?

PALEY

I don’t like to count. I never understand what people mean when they say they’ve done twenty drafts or something. Does that mean they’ve typed it twenty times, or what? I’m always changing things as I go. It’s always substantially different by the time I’ve finished. I do it till it’s done.

INTERVIEWER

Do you take advice from anyone when you write or edit?

PALEY

I listen to what people tell me, but I don’t always act on it. I read a story to my twelve-year-old granddaughter a couple of months ago. She told me what was wrong: there were sentences that were not clear—and she was absolutely right. My husband is a good reader.

INTERVIEWER

How do you know when a story is done?

PALEY

When I don’t have anything else to say. Sometimes I publish the story in a magazine, and I still have something else to say. One story comes to mind: “Faith in the Afternoon.” When it was published in a magazine, it ended with Faith dreaming she was holding this guy’s balls. All the guys I knew loved it. But when it came time to publish it in a book, I realized that wasn’t what it was about; it would have been a cheap way to end it. I went beyond that. Everyone got mad at me—not really angry, just sad.

INTERVIEWER

How did you change it?

PALEY

I didn’t change it. I simply realized that Faith was still in the park, and it was probably the late-sixties and one of the frequent little theatrical antiwar walks or parades would have to be coming through. Faith was able to have a political imagination as well as an erotic one.

INTERVIEWER

Is the character Faith, who appears in so many of your stories, at all autobiographical?

PALEY

No. Her life is entirely different from mine. I was never as mad at any husband of mine as she was at her first. On the other hand, I feel very warmly toward my present husband, and she does towards hers too. But I was never that mad. And I brought my kids up in different circumstances. Faith represents a number of women I have been close to. It’s not as though she’s any one of them—but she has become one of them. The whole Faith thing also came about partly by accident. In “The Used-Boy Raisers,” I started off by giving Faith those two boys. Then to compensate for it I began giving all the other women daughters, but I was stuck with the major character of my stories having two boys from the beginning. I was also stuck with the name Faith, which I was very sorry for later on. It was too close to my own name, and I didn’t really want it to be—but at the time I never thought I would write another story about her.

INTERVIEWER

The character must have some kind of hold on you, though, to keep turning up like that?

PALEY

She’s become a very good worker for me.

INTERVIEWER

How do you know a story is working?

PALEY

I read it aloud a lot, and that helps me. It’s not so useful for a writer of novels, but for me reading aloud as I work helps me know if it’s right.

INTERVIEWER

What about a story like “Lavinia: An Old Story,” written in a black voice—did you read that out loud as you wrote it?

PALEY

I did read it aloud. I don’t know if I could write that story now. I was closer then to a couple of older black women as well as my own grandmother—whose story was exactly the same, which was one of my reasons for writing it. I was able to read the story to them—check it out in some way. There are other stories that may have been risky. These were recently read by some students in James Monroe High School in the Bronx where nearly all the kids were African-American. Not being in any political group yet—hopefully they will be—they weren’t bothered by my writing “Lavinia: An Old Story” or “The Little Girl” at all. They argued a few particulars, but were harder on the narrator than I was.

INTERVIEWER

What about people who criticize you for writing in a black voice?

PALEY

Some have been critical. I know the politics of it, but I know I act out of real feeling and considerable respect for the person. That’s why I want to do it—not to show off. It’s true that in “The Little Girl” I do have a pretty terrible black character—a rapist, in fact. It’s not as though I only deal with sweet situations.

But what’s a writer for? The whole point is to put yourself into other lives, other heads—writers have always done that. If you screw up, so someone will tell you, that’s all. I think men can write about women and women can write about men. The whole point is to know the facts. Men have so often written about women without knowing the reality of their lives, and worse, without being interested in that daily reality.

INTERVIEWER

Are there any men you think write particularly well about women?

PALEY

I liked Norman Rush’s last book, Mating. The main character is a very smart woman, very intellectual, very interesting, and very unlike many of the women many women write about. I love all the traditional books, but . . . Well, I feel, like many women, that Anna Karenina shouldn’t have killed herself. Still, Kate Chopin in The Awakening also has the woman go drown herself for no reason that I can see!

INTERVIEWER

Were you a poet first, before you started writing fiction?

PALEY

I wrote poems all my life. I didn’t really write stories until I wrote my first book when I was in my thirties.

INTERVIEWER

You’ve spoken very specifically about the way a story comes to you. Is it different writing poetry? Is there more of an awareness or an adherence to craft?

PALEY

There’s an equal amount of adherence to craft in the use of both forms. I would say that I went to school to study poetry, that’s how I learned to write. I got my courage for the way I write stories from first writing poems. My poems of that period were more literary than the stories ever were, or than my poems are now. That was the difference.

INTERVIEWER

What was it like studying with Auden at the New School?

PALEY

He seemed an immortal to me. I had a conversation with him when I was seventeen, and though I only lived twenty blocks away, I never got to talk to him again that year—1939? 1940, probably. I couldn’t understand a word he said. He had just come here, he had this lisp, plus his English—his normal way of speaking. He was giving a class on the history of English literature. At one point he said, Are there any poets who would like to speak to me, or who want me to look at their work? There were two hundred and fifty people in the room, and maybe five people put up their hands. I was one of them. Nowadays two hundred and forty would have raised their hands. That I even put my hand up was amazing to me, since I’d just gone through high school without raising it once. And then he said, Meet me in Stewart’s Cafeteria. So the next week, I went to meet him at Stewart’s Cafeteria and he wasn’t there. I immediately called up this boy I had begun to go around with (and later married) and bawled, He wasn’t there, he was fooling.

It turned out there were two Stewart’s Cafeterias on Twenty-third Street—one east and one west—he was in the other one. So the next week he said, Where were you, Grace Goodside? Then I did meet him. He read my poems—which were exactly like his.

INTERVIEWER

Exactly?

PALEY

I mean, I really wrote in his style. I was crazy about him. I loved his poems so much that I was using this British language all the time—I was saying trousers and subaltern and things like that. You understand I was a Bronx kid. We went through a few poems, and he kept asking me, do you really talk like that? And I kept saying, Oh yeah, well, sometimes. That was the great thing I learned from Auden: that you’d better talk your own language. Then I asked him what young writers now ask me—and I always tell them this story—I said to Auden, Well, do you think I should keep writing? He laughed and then became very solemn. If you’re a writer, he said, you’ll keep writing no matter what. That’s not a question a writer should ask. Something like that, not exactly, but close.

INTERVIEWER

Were there other poets that you heard or took a class with?

PALEY

No, but I read poetry all the time. Probably the poets everybody read then. Very catholic taste. I even loved Eliot then whom I later grew not to love. I knew lots of poems by memory and walked around mumbling them. Yeats, Rilke, Keats, Coleridge. I liked Milton a lot, for some reason. And then there were the Oscar Williams anthologies of 1942 and 1943 with those pictures of the beautiful young poets.

INTERVIEWER

How about fiction writers?

PALEY

Again, you think you’re unique in some way but you really never are: you read what people your age are reading. We read a lot of Joyce—Dubliners was always very important to me—and Proust. Joyce’s stories were the only short stories I really liked. We used to read Ulysses aloud when I was eighteen years old. I think that’s where I got my habit of reading aloud. Gertrude Stein’s Three Stories impressed me. The use of the “other voice.” Then there were lots of other novels at home that my parents were reading—like The Forty Days of Musa Dagh—we worried, we felt for the Armenians. Later I read Chekhov, who meant a lot to me. Then Babel and Turgenev—all the Russians—and Flaubert. I don’t think I read more than most good readers, but I read as much.

INTERVIEWER

Did you enjoy the Russian writers because you grew up with Russian at home?

 PALEY

Probably. Although it’s not just Russian: Russian is very dear to me because it’s a family language, but I am Jewish-Russian, which is a little different from Russian-Russian. My family ran away in 1905 from the Russian-Russians. People say I write like Isaac Babel, but it’s not that he has influenced me. I hadn’t read him before I wrote. It’s our common grandparents who have influenced us both . . . in terms of inflection and what one pays attention to. It’s not a literary influence so much as a social influence, a linguistic influence, a musical influence. I’ve just published a new book called New and Collected Poems with a blurb on the back from Jean Valentine, a wonderful poet. She says, At last, a Russian writer in English! The publishers felt it was a little weird, but I thought it was great.

INTERVIEWER

Has your writing been influenced by nonliterary media? Art, or music, or painting . . . TV?

PALEY

My husband, Robert Nichols, begins his day of writing by looking at paintings—for about an hour every morning. All this year he’s been looking at Klee. I’m not like that. I’ve always listened to a lot of music, but I’m not very visual. Noticeably not. You may be aware that I don’t do a lot of description. I’ve been surrounded by music for most of my life. Always classical. But I think the most powerful sounds are those voices, those childhood voices. The tune of those voices. Other languages, Russian and Yiddish, coming up smack against the English. I think you hear that a lot in American literature. TV I don’t watch too much. I don’t feel snobbish about it, it’s just that it can use up too much time. It’s terribly seductive.

INTERVIEWER

People have described your writing as wise.

PALEY

That’s because I’m old. When people get old they seem wise, but it’s only because they’ve got a little more experience, that’s all. I’m not so wise. Two things happen when you get older. You have more experience, so you either seem wiser, or you get totally foolish. There are only those two options. You choose one, probably the wrong one.

INTERVIEWER

In your choice of subject matter, you and Tillie Olsen have opened the door for a lot of writers.

PALEY

I hope so. Of course that’s not up to me or Tillie to say, Yes, there was the door and we opened it—we can’t say that. It’s not nice. I will say I knew I wanted to write about women and children, but I put it off for a couple of years because I thought, People will think this is trivial, nothing. Then I thought, It’s what I have to write. It’s what I want to read. And I don’t see it out there.

Meanwhile, the women’s movement had begun to gather force. It needed to become the second wave. It turned out that we were some of the drops in the wave. Tillie was more like a cupful.

INTERVIEWER

Was there anyone on that wave before you, who enabled you to write like you did?

PALEY

Well, I didn’t know I was on any wave. I knew what I was writing, but I didn’t think then that I was part of any movement. I didn’t even think I was a feminist! If you had asked me if I was a feminist when I began writing The Little Disturbances of Man, I would have said I’m a socialist—or something like that. But by the end of the book I had taught myself a lot and I knew more or less who I was. I opened the door to myself.

INTERVIEWER

Do you still feel supported by the women’s movement?

PALEY

I do feel very supported. There’s hardly a woman writer who doesn’t receive some kind of support from the women’s movement. We’re very lucky to be living and writing now. I feel supported by lots of men too, but I feel very specifically the attention of women, even in opposition. And they’re the ones I get arguments from; they’re the ones who say, Why don’t you write about this kind of life, or that kind of life? We like the children but why are they all boys? But on the other hand, I was at a conference in California last week, where a young woman kept saying she didn’t want to be a woman writer because it trivialized her. The point is that the outside world will trivialize you for almost anything if it wants to. You may as well be who you are.

INTERVIEWER

Why do you suppose she said that?

PALEY

I think she said it because she feels it’s true. And there is truth to it. A lot of European women feel it very strongly. They are afraid of being anything but totally universal. But we used to have a saying, “I take it from whence it comes,” which is a Bronx version of sticks and stones will break my bones, but names will never hurt me. So you take it from whence it comes, that is, if a certain society decides to trivialize you, it will marginalize you.

INTERVIEWER

Do you think American women writers feel that way?

PALEY

I think they fear being marginalized and rightly so. There’s an idea that there’s this great mainstream, which may be wide but is kind of shallow and slow-moving. It’s the tributaries that seem to have the energy.

INTERVIEWER

You’ve said that when you’re writing you are “doing women’s politics.” Could you say more about that?

PALEY

Did I say that? If I did I probably meant that if the personal is political—as we all say—then writing about women is a political act. Just like black people writing about the lives of blacks. It’s very important to people that they have these stories. And the personal is especially political when it spreads fingers out into the world—because sometimes you find that what is most personal is also what connects you most strongly with others.

INTERVIEWER

Has there been a change of climate from when you first started writing to now, in the nineties?

PALEY

In 1959 it was absolutely insane for Ken McCormick to say, yes, he was going to publish a book of short stories. Now everybody in the writing world is reading and writing short stories—that’s one thing. Another thing is that a lot more women are writing. A lot of people who wouldn’t have written are writing. When a couple of black women speak, the throats of many are opened. Somehow or other they give courage and sound to their sisters.

INTERVIEWER

So you didn’t feel that sense of there being a community of women writers in the fifties?

PALEY

I didn’t think about it. I just wrote. I didn’t say, Oh, there are no women writers, as much as I thought to myself, This subject matter is so trivial. Who in the world would be interested in this stuff?

INTERVIEWER

Did it surprise you when you found that there was a response, the sort of response that Ken McCormick had?

PALEY

I was surprised they published the book, I was surprised they liked the stories. It wasn’t even really surprise—I just considered myself lucky.

INTERVIEWER

Do you feel that your subject matter has changed or broadened over the years?

PALEY

As my life has changed, it has, I suppose. I’m still politically very interested in women’s lives, so I think about that a lot. But it really isn’t up to me to say. Some of these observations other people have to make. I don’t see a particular line, I just see that I’ve written a lot of stories. Yet I know they get different, somewhat, not a lot. I traveled, went to different places. I took an airplane out of the park.

INTERVIEWER

Do you think editors have a responsibility to publish as many women as they do men?

PALEY

Yes. Editors should think about those things. What sometimes starts out seeming artificial, well, it’s as though you have to be artificial at first. That’s what affirmative action is about—it’s hard for some people to evolve through artificiality into something natural and decent, a truth you and the world have refused to see. It’s like changing your language.

INTERVIEWER

Can you tell when you pick up a manuscript whether it’s by a woman writer?

PALEY

You can’t always tell. Think of the number of women who sent their manuscripts in with initials so they didn’t give themselves away as women. I did that myself when I was young, I mean, with my poems. I’d write G. G. Paley.

INTERVIEWER

You put the initials on the poems because you thought they had a better chance of being accepted?

PALEY

It doesn’t happen so much anymore, but that’s what used to happen: women hid in order to be seen.

INTERVIEWER

Some writers say writing gets harder.

PALEY

Well, some of it’s harder and some of it’s easier. The easy part is, you know you’re going to finish something. That’s the best part. When you first begin to write, you—well, I, at least, used to think, Will I ever get past four paragraphs? But once I finished that first book, I knew I would finish whatever I wanted to. That’s the great thing. It’s harder because you have already set yourself certain standards, and you’re probably trying to do something more demanding—not to change your voice, but trying to understand something different, so far unknown to you.

INTERVIEWER

Your stories are so oriented around dialogue and how people sound. Have you ever written plays?

PALEY

For a start, plays always seemed to me much more than dialogue. A play that’s all dialogue is really pretty uninteresting, unless it’s Shaw or Oscar Wilde. So that was one thing. Second of all, I don’t like the theater as much as I did when I was really young. And third, when I was writing the early stories, the theater I liked was really the radical theater, street theater. I loved those audiences, and I really didn’t like twenty-five-dollar-a-seat audiences, especially when they couldn’t afford twelve dollars for a book! So I had a kind of a prejudice against it.

INTERVIEWER

You wrote your father into Enormous Changes at the Last Minute and you dedicated it to him. What about your mother?

PALEY

My mother died when I was young—in my early twenties. I was much closer to my father. My mother was very much like the person in a couple of the stories, in several poems: very serious, always telling my father not to think he’s so funny. She was a terrific person, a very kind woman . . . but it’s as though I haven’t really wanted to write about her. I have some kind of loyalty to a true portrayal—can I do it? I think about her very factually. With my father I invent and reinvent him. He had many aspects. He could be the working guy in “The Loudest Voice,” very charming, obviously not as principled as his wife; or he could be a man who writes poems or paints—he did most of the paintings in this kitchen. In actual fact he was a doctor, a neighborhood doctor who was much loved. He lived with my mother, my aunt, and my grandmother. The joke was, if he said pass the salt, three women leaped to their feet—so he was a pain in that respect. My father had different aspects I could use, but my mother was very much one person, the same to everybody. She was wise, she didn’t talk a lot. It was easier for me to leap onto the bandwagon of my father’s conversation. In other words, I did the easy thing. I’ve been reprimanded for it by people who knew my mother—they ask me, Where’s mama?

INTERVIEWER

Virginia Woolf felt that a writer can’t write if she’s angry. What do you think about that?

PALEY

You can’t write without a lot of pressure. Sometimes the pressure comes from anger, which then changes into a pressure to write. It’s not so much a matter of getting distance as simply a translation. I felt a lot of pressure writing some of those stories about women. Writers are lucky because when they’re angry, the anger—by habit almost—I wouldn’t say transcends but becomes an acute pressure to write, to tell. Some guy, he’s angry, he wants to take a poke at someone—or he kicks a can, or sets fire to the house, or hits his wife, or the wife smacks the kid. Then again, it’s not always violent. Some people go out and run for three hours. Some people go shopping. The pressure from anger is an energy that can be violent or useful or useless. Also the pressure doesn’t have to be anger. It could be love. One could be overcome with feelings of lifetime love or justice. Why not?

INTERVIEWER

Other writers, such as Toni Morrison and Flannery O’Connor, use a lot of physical violence in their stories. In yours it’s there, but offstage, in the background, in the past. Was this a conscious decision?

PALEY

I don’t use violence. Most of the time it’s used opportunistically. Still it is a terribly violent country. When I wrote “The Little Girl”—that story about the murder—it took all my strength . . . really used me from my toes to my head. It was so hard; it almost took my breath to write that story. I’m not as close to violence as African American mothers who are writers, such as Toni Morrison or June Jordan. Having black sons who are vulnerable to police, to directed race hatred, they must be anxious all the time. Some of my stories are knock-wood stories—like “Samuel,” in which four boys are fooling around on the subway between cars and one falls and is killed. It’s a taboo story. I tell it to prevent it from happening, not because it did . . . The idea that if you write it into literature it won’t happen in life.

But I hate the American expectation of violence. I’m not going to play into any of that. When I must write about violence, I will, but I’ll do it straight, not add and add because the level is higher every year. I was just reading Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried, and I felt the American war in Vietnam in my bones. Flannery O’Connor’s a terrific writer, but somehow her conception of religion as specializing in death—and also her illness—forced her and her brilliant language in that direction.

INTERVIEWER

You say also that the pressure to write is a pressure of language—how do these two relate?

PALEY

It depends. I wasn’t angry when I wrote “Goodbye and Good Luck”—I just felt a certain pressure to use the resonance of the phrase “I was popular in certain circles”—a looking-backness, a storytelling justice for one of my aunts, a reinvention of her life for that purpose—all of which wouldn’t leave me alone. The sound of it required me to go on. This is what I mean when I say that art comes from constant mental harassment. You’re bugged.

INTERVIEWER

The pressure to write and the pressure to publish are not the same?

PALEY

Not for me. It’s not that I don’t like being published. I love to see my stuff in print. I really do. But I think I have a peculiar sense of time. I feel like I can always do something. There’s time. I never feel like I have to do something fast or it will never appear, or I’ll drop dead first. I may—I’m almost seventy. I figure, Well, in a week I’ll figure out where to send this to, and then I think, Well, I’m too busy to decide.

INTERVIEWER

Have you ever had a hard time publishing?

PALEY

I’ve had a lot of trouble publishing my stories in magazines. People say that I’m a New Yorker writer: the New Yorker published one of my stories in 1978 and two in 1979 and has never published anything since. I often have stories sent back, though now I have more requests for more stories than I have stories to give, so it balances out. I know I can publish, but I still get things sent back.

 INTERVIEWER

Have you ever relied on your writing for income?

PALEY

No. I’ve always had to teach, or read, or lecture.

INTERVIEWER

What is the relationship between writing and money?

PALEY

It’s helpful to have money. I don’t think writers have to suffer to starve to death. One of the first things I tell my classes is, If you want to write, keep a low overhead. If you want to live expansively, you’re going to be in trouble because then you have to start thinking very hard about whom you’re writing to, who your audience is, who the editor thinks your audience is, who he wants your audience to be.

INTERVIEWER

Did you always want to be a writer?

PALEY

I always wanted to write. Two different things. I never thought I was going to be a writer, but I was never interested in anything else. I failed at whatever else I undertook—even as an office worker, I was not outstanding.

INTERVIEWER

You’ve said there are two kinds of people: those with children and those without. Could you say more about that?

PALEY

It’s a different life. Another creature is really dependent on you. I think it’s good for a writer, though. I know some people say women writers should not have children. Of course, it was worse for them back then. Years ago just to do the kids’ wash could take the whole day, so if you were poor it was impossible to write. If you were rich, you could hire a maid; it was possible if you were George Sand. But even now we need help. My kids were in day care from the time they were three years old.

INTERVIEWER

How did you find time to write while raising children, being involved in political activity, teaching?

PALEY

I wrote at different paces. I wrote my first stories when I was sick and had a few weeks at home. I made a start in a big chunk of time, about three weeks. And after that I just kept going.

Sometimes one or the other part of my life would pull me away from writing—the children of course and then the civil-rights movement and the Vietnam war. Having grown up the way I did, it just seemed natural to become involved. That was what the whole country was about. I was often busy with that from morning until night. I couldn’t stand that we were in this war, and I just wrote less. Actually, that isn’t quite true. I wrote leaflets, political reports, articles. And poems. As a matter of fact, my reports following my journey through North Vietnam in 1969 were mostly poems.

A lot of other writers were involved too. There were lots of readings. On the East Coast, Denise Levertov and Mitch Goodman had a lot to do with those events. Angry Arts Week—organized by Artists against the War—and the Greenwich Village Peace Center are good examples of that energy. Poets rode around the city reading from trucks. Almost any concert that week would begin with a dedication to the war’s end. One particular event—“Vietnamese Life”—focused on ordinary Vietnamese life and culture. No egotism allowed, no, Oh how bad I feel about all of this . . . I remember Hortense Calisher reading Vietnamese stories and Susan Sontag reading Lao Tse. Irene Fornes presented a Vietnamese wedding. Wally Zuckerman, who used to build harpsichords, created the wind instruments used in the windy forest of Indochina.

INTERVIEWER

Who were the poets on the trucks?

PALEY

People who were comfortable on trucks. I wasn’t. I worked in the office mostly. I was too shy anyway. Who were they? Well, Sam Abrams, Tuli Kupferberg, Clayton Eshleman, Bob Nichols, Ed Sanders, many more. I’ve probably got a file somewhere.

INTERVIEWER

How important do you think it is for the writer to rise up at moments like that?

PALEY

It’s interesting for the writer. It’s normal. Of course, it’s hard if you’re in the middle of a book. It’s a question only Americans ask. Is it good? It certainly isn’t antithetical to a passionate interior life—all that noise coming in. You have to make music of it somehow.

INTERVIEWER

Do you think political statements belong in literature? Would you write a novel that was a political tract?

PALEY

One man’s political tract is another person’s presidential statement—in Czechoslovakia, for example. The word tract is such a bad word by itself obviously one would have to say, No, nobody should write a tract, nobody should do that. But I think that a love of language, truthfulness, and a sense of form is justification enough.

Anyway characters in fiction can say anything they want. They’re often quite willful, you know.

INTERVIEWER

Has anti-Semitism affected your career?

PALEY

I don’t know. It’s affected my work. I take being Jewish very seriously. I like it. My first two stories were specifically Jewish. When I took a class at the New School this teacher said to me, You’ve got to get off that Jewish dime, Grace, they’re wonderful stories, but . . . The idiocy of that remark was that he was telling me this just as Saul Bellow, Philip Roth, and others were getting more generally famous everyday. He was Jewish himself, but he wanted me to “broaden” myself.

I don’t think anti-Semitism has affected my career much. I’m sure in certain colleges they’re not interested in my stories, but you’d be surprised how people don’t take it into account. Kids especially, they just want to know how the plot turned out. I always say that racism is like pneumonia and anti-Semitism is like the common cold—everybody has it. I often meet it in this lovely Vermont countryside, sneezing away.

INTERVIEWER

You used to embrace the position of literary outsider, whereas now you are a central figure . . .

PALEY

I wasn’t trying to be an outsider. At first I was afraid of hanging out with writers. Otherwise I would surely have seen and tried to talk to Auden again. But I really wasn’t interested. When the poets went out on the trucks, I helped organize, but I never read myself. Nor was I in any of those Vietnam anthologies . . . until about six months ago when a group of nurses put an anthology together of women who had gone to Vietnam during the war. Basically I didn’t want to get into that life . . . I was scared of it.

INTERVIEWER

What were you scared of?

PALEY

I was scared in the way that some people are scared to leave their neighborhoods: you have your people, you have your roots, and you don’t want to pull away from them. You’re writing about these people and their lives and you don’t want suddenly to get into a literary scene. It seemed so logical to me. Besides, I wasn’t interested. I was interested in my Park friends. I was interested in the meetings I helped organize during those years or in going to the Soviet Union to do certain political tasks, to Sweden to talk to deserters, to Vietnam in 1969.

Though I devoted a good deal of time trying to be completely unliterary, I ended up working with writers on the PEN board and liking them, and it. Also having many beloved literary friends like Kay Boyle and Tillie Olsen, Esther Broner. Don Barthelme lived across the street—he was a beloved family friend. And my second husband is a writer. I was always afraid that if I started to become too literary it would end my street and kitchen life. But it turned out writers were OK. I was surprised. And then my closest friends like Sybil Claiborne, Eva Kollisch, and Vera Williams had always been writing—so there was no escape.

INTERVIEWER

Have you ever found yourself in conflict with the literary establishment?

PALEY

There are so many different groups of writers. Some liked the first book and didn’t like what came after that, but I think it’s really me they didn’t like so much. As I became more feminist some people took a dim view of that. On the other hand other people liked me, not for the stories but for the stuff I did outside. I haven’t really seen a lot of criticism of my work; I know it exists and I know it’s good and bad, but I don’t go out and look for it. The longest review I’ve ever had was an attack in Commentary magazine. Kind of virulent. My publisher doesn’t send me terrible things that people have said. I’m not the kind of a writer who gets into literary fights. I prefer political ones. As for my attitude towards other writers, I’m kind of short on disdain or contempt. That is, I don’t belong to the school of “I can only live if you die.” I tend to be interested in writers whose work is different from mine. Of course I’m saddened and angered equally by work made of contempt, hatred, misogyny, and too many adjectives.

INTERVIEWER

At a recent PEN Congress in which you played a prominent role there was much argument over the proper relationship between the writer and the state. Is it necessarily an adversarial one?

PALEY

It’s not that you set out to oppose authority. In the act of writing you simply do. Your job, your reason for writing, is to uncover what the state and the conventions of your town normally hide. That’s why you want to write—to tell what hasn’t been told. Our PEN Congress was about the conscience of the state and the conscience of the writer. One of its troubles and truths was that George Schultz, intent on making war on Central American people, was the keynote speaker. Another was the fact that out of eleven poets reading, ten were men. This situation has been eased somewhat by the creation of a Women’s Committee in the U.S. as well as one in International PEN.

INTERVIEWER

And a final word?

PALEY

The best training is to read and write, no matter what. Don’t live with a lover or roommate who doesn’t respect your work. Don’t lie, buy time, borrow to buy time. Write what will stop your breath if you don’t write.