Martha McPhee is the author of Bright Angel Time and recently the 2002 National Book Award finalist Gorgeous Lies. Her work has appeared in Zoetrope, The New Yorker, Vogue, Redbook and Open City. She has also co-authored Girls: Ordinary Girls and Their Extraordinary Pursuits with her sisters, Jenny and Laura McPhee. Martha McPhee teaches at Hofstra University and lives in New York City with her husband and daughter.
Jenny McPhee attended Williams College and has worked in publishing. Her writing has appeared in Glimmer Train, Zoetrope and Brooklyn Review, The New York Times Magazine and The New York Times Book Review. Her novel, The Center of Things, was a New York Times Notable Book. She also works as a film program coordinator and translator (Italian). Jenny McPhee also lives in New York City with her husband and children.
Jenny and Martha McPhee’s father is writer John McPhee.
Robert Birnbaum: Many occupations tend to define people—you’re at a party and someone will ask, “What do you do?” You answer and people tend to assume they then know a lot about you. When you say you are a writer that doesn’t really give a clear picture…
Martha McPhee: I know when people say they are a writer to me, especially if I have never heard of them, I go, “Oh okay.” You have this sense that this person is, somehow, not really a writer. Or they are a want-to-be writer. There are a lot of them out there. For a long time I encountered that too. “Oh, okay, yeah, you’re a writer…” Like, I don’t believe you.
Jenny McPhee: I still do.
Robert: Both of you still encounter that?
Martha: Less, Jenny, because you now have a book. What happens is they want to know your resume. That’s the next question. What have you published? Where? Who published it? So if you say it, it’s a label that you have to be able to back up with something. I find that annoying. It’s not about the substance of the writing. It’s about the accolades or the publisher. Or the agent.
Robert: So that’s, people using your stated occupation as way of identifying your status in the world?
Jenny: Isn’t that true for every profession? Everybody identifies, “Oh you’re a lawyer, you’re a this.” And that’s not who they really are, actually. Maybe they say they are a lawyer but they are a really, really good writer.
Robert: That is my point. When you are asked, what do you say?
Jenny: I do now [say I’m a writer]. It took me years and years—even though I have been writing for years and years—to actually say that. Because our culture has a funny thing, as Martha is describing, about legitimacy and writing. I mean, you are only a writer when you have published? I don’t believe that.
Robert: Isn’t there a way of looking at writing as an avocation? That is, “Geez, can’t everyone write?” There are many doctor-authors and lawyer-authors.
Jenny: There’s that misconception, too. No, not everyone can write, in the sense that I can’t be a doctor if I don’t go to school. I don’t necessarily think you have to go to school but school in sense of you have to do it for a long time. It’s like playing a piano. You have to practice for a long time.
Martha: But the thing about it is in, terms of asking that question, “What do you do?” “Are you a writer?” “Oh, where have you published?” “Who’s your agent?” “What prizes have you won?” or whatever, is that writing is something that almost everybody does want to do and it’s such a lofty thing. It’s creating art. People want to be able to take you for real if you are going to give such a lofty label to describe what you do. They want hard facts to back it up. And I can see that. On the question of defining people by what they do, it’s an entree into a person’s life—and a way to—because we do work at least 40 hours a week, one does—figure out how to talk about it just as it is, “Do you have children?” “Oh, you do.” “You have a son.” “Tell me about your son?” “How old is he, what does he play?” It’s a way to talk to people, and so I think it’s a genuinely positive question. It’s just a way to have a connection.
Robert: Okay, that’s right. After you tell me you are a writer and I don’t start asking for your CV, I still don’t know anything about you. Somehow, when I am told that you are a doctor or a lawyer, that gives me the sense that I know a lot about you just with that information. I think that is true of almost every occupation, that I am much closer to narrowing down to a picture of that person’s life. Tell me you are a writer and it doesn’t give me a clear picture. There are so many variables…
Martha: Basically, a writer sits in a room by themselves all the time. So if you are encountering a serious writer—you can have the image of the lawyer who is out there arguing a case, you know that it’s a litigator—you have the idea of the person alone in the dark room, just working away, pondering, staring out the window…a loner. Someone who loves to be alone.
Jenny: Not all of the time. Some people have to go out and sit in cafes and be around people when they write. You have a point. As a very different way of tapping into whatever it is that is going to then be the writing. So it’s true, every writer is pretty different.
Robert: What is fueling this question is that the more writers I talk to the less I feel that I know what is identifiable. And I think you are correct, that culturally we seem to give a lot of weight to the activity of writing…
Jenny: I’d say it depends on who you are talking to. There are a whole lot of people out there who couldn’t give a flying you-know about writers.
Robert: Don’t you feel like there is more celebrity attached to writing? That there are more authors appearing in gossip columns and style magazines.
Jenny: On the book page. Getting off the book page is one of the major things for a writer. We’re not Hollywood, we’re not even socialites.
Robert: But more and more…
Jenny: It depends who you are.
Martha: There are a selected few who get that. The average ordinary literary writer…both of us for example, we are not in the gossip columns. People don’t really care.
Jenny: Believe it or not, even where we are, coming from the family we do, it’s not glitterati.
Robert: In the New York Observer around the time of the Frankfurt Book Fair there was a lengthy piece about young writers. Eminem is [reportedly] dating Zadie Smith and so on.
Martha: Zadie Smith is a best selling international writer. In England she was a sensation.
Robert: I know her credentials. Here’s what I am suggesting. There is a ripple effect. Let’s say, as in books, the cultural attention span is only capable of attending to four or five of a category of things at a time. So currently Jonathan Franzen’s name has high recognition…
Jenny: Oprah. Zadie Smith. Eminem. Get the connection. It’s not Zadie Smith per se.
Robert: But they’re writers.
Jenny: It’s not new. Norman Mailer was in to this. There is always the five…
Martha: I don’t find it very interesting. I don’t aspire to being on the front page of the Observer because I am dating Eminem or whoever. That’s not what interests me about writing, at all.
Robert: And I wouldn’t think that most serious writers would be. Or maybe not, fame has its own currency these days. Okay, so why do so many people enter writing programs, wanting to become writers when if they know anything at all about the life of a writer and the chances for success they should know that they are heading toward a hardscrabble life?
Martha: I went to a writing program and she didn’t. So we probably both have different answers on this. She had a whole different approach to her apprenticeship, as they call it. When you to graduate school—I went to Columbia—there are all sorts of kids there. There are kids that are just out of college, that don’t know what to do next with their life, who did a little bit well in school and they have a lot of money and they are just there to understand what is happening. Then there are people that have been out for a while and they have always loved writing and they want to try to get back in and they are really serious. They are in their forties. And then there are people that are just—I guess you lump into that even a younger set who is very serious—and see it as way to buy some time. And to work with a group of people doing the same thing that they are and giving themselves two years to really sink into a situation. Because it is hard to do if you are working full time. It’s hard to really get into writing. It’s hard to have that time. And that’s what I did. I love the word “apprenticeship.” That’s what it is. You get to sit there and work and feel legitimate doing it and have the time. And yes, as my father likes to say to us, “the average annual income of the writer is $800 a year.” So why bother. But I don’t think writing is something that you sit down and choose to do. It’s something that you have to do. And if you don’t have to do it, you’ll stop. Many people I went to graduate school with are no longer writing. And that’s not surprising.
Robert: That’s not answering the question ‘why’? Given that statistic, clearly many people who don’t have to don’t, but they are inclined to. There is something so attractive about the vocation that they want to put themselves in the position of being a starving artist.
Martha: But I did answer the question when I said they have to do it. A lot of kids that I went to college with—when I was waitressing and going to Columbia and working in publishing to get by and catering—were enormously wealthy and working on Wall Street and our lives just went like this [criss-crossing hand gesture]. Because I couldn’t afford to go off on a safari, get married and have children—I did that much later—I did the starving artist thing.
Robert: Your answer to the question is that, they have to try?
Martha: They have to do it because they have to do it. If they don’t have to do, they don’t do it.
Jenny: Here’s what I think the appeal is. And I got this, in part from the great psychologist/writer, Adam Phillips. Writing for me and for a lot of people is like being a child again with your imagination and you can do anything. You sit there at the desk and you can play. And your playing with everything that you have ever known or learned and what more glorious thing to do with your time all day than that? Now, it’s also incredibly difficult…
Martha: There are big sacrifices.
Jenny: …because you are then going to put it out there. It’s probably total crap half the time, you’re thinking. You are constantly also dealing with your superego—which is beating you up, all the time. So how much of that can you take? Where’s the trade off? You get to play. And then you get beat up. So is the beating up worse and then you quit or do you somehow manage to play enough of the time to then take all the other stuff along with it?
Martha: But in the end, the ones that stay, really have to stay. Otherwise, they wouldn’t. Right?
Jenny: Umm, yeah.
Martha: I would have given up so many times when I was writing this second novel.
Jenny: I think a lot of people do give up and don’t necessarily want to. I don’t have as much the sense—that somehow you are designated.
Martha: I’m not saying that God is saying…. I am just saying it’s something I can’t stop doing. I mean there is a lot of torture involved and there are so many times I would have chosen a way, if I possibly could have, a way out. But I couldn’t. I couldn’t do that.
Jenny: I think that is denying the joy of it, more than you think. I think you get a really big high and that’s why you stay.
Martha: I don’t think those are mutually exclusive. Of course, there are great ups and then great downs and great ups and great downs and great long stretches where nothing happens at all. But that’s not what I am saying at all. Let’s say that for a long time I wanted to be a cook. That didn’t pull me or else I would be a cook. I wouldn’t be doing this.
Jenny: We’re saying the same thing. I’m coming from the positive aspect, which is that I think it’s the high that keeps you there, not the low.
Jenny: Not the, “There’s nothing else I can do.” It’s more, "I really want to get that high." It’s the same thing.
Robert: There is something tautologous about the formulation that says you become what you are or that you have to be what you are. But let me raise the well-worn Dorothy Parker phrase, “I hate to write but love having written.” Clearly a cynical take on the effort. It’s not hard to imagine that it can give one a great buzz but what do you mean when you say it is so hard or that it’s torture?
Martha: I think that’s part of pushing through the block. Not the writer’s block but there is this wall in front of you when you start off writing something. You have no idea where it’s going to go, even if you think you do. And it is hard. It’s like trying to pull something out of thin air and put it on to the page.
Jenny: And you are constantly facing your own mediocrity. Your own failure. Your own horrible sentences.
Martha: An old professor of ours used to describe it as this little bird sitting right here (points to her shoulder) that you call your shit bird. That just says, “You suck. You suck. You suck. You suck. You suck.”
Jenny: And really you just have to listen to that and sometimes it takes. Sometimes you shove it way over in the distance and it’s just a whisper. But it is always there.
Robert: So you shut it up by actually writing?
Jenny: If you can. And if you can’t, you’re—drinking. (all laugh)
Robert: The first trick is to shut it up?
Jenny: Yeah, the first trick is to shut it up.
Robert: You went to writing school (to Martha) and you didn’t (to Jenny), so besides something genetic, what brought you to writing?
Jenny: Here I go back on all of what I was just saying (laughs). I always wanted to be a writer. I just always wanted to be a writer. I did try and do a lot else because our father always said, “Never be a writer.” So, and then at a certain point, I did have to make a choice. I could have gone on very happily doing other things but I really wanted to see if I could do this. And it was a love and I wanted to do it.
Martha: Why do you have a hard time with that concept of “having to do it”? Because it feels exclusive?
Jenny: It does feel exclusive.
Martha: Of people that just sort of want to do it but don’t really do it?
Jenny: Yeah, as if they have some… that they won’t do it because you have to have some calling.
Martha: I’m not saying it like I have some sort of calling from a higher spirit that is pushing me to do it. That’s not my intention. It’s what you are saying now…
Jenny: I really do believe that somebody who comes to writing at age forty who has never really wanted to write before can sit down and really learn how to write. In other words, I think there is a whole range.
Martha: Let’s say you get there at sixty. There is a woman that did start writing in her eighties. I don’t exclude her. She discovered that she had to do it. I don’t want it to sound like it has to be in you from birth.
Jenny: Right, right.
Martha: Once you do choose, even if you are 100, it’s something that you need and have to do, otherwise you would never do it. You wouldn’t sit there for six years or five or two trying to push something out, if you didn’t have to.
Robert: Is there anything inherent in writing that suggests that writers are morally superior individuals?
Martha: Who knows? I think everybody is different, has a different character. That’s certainly not mine.
Jenny: There is definitely—something I have thought a lot about—around writing and writers, and you were talking about this before about books and bookstore owners, there is an aura and it’s among a certain group of people. Because most of the world just doesn’t really care about art. There is this idea that somehow there is a moral superiority because you are pursuing some sort of higher art. I very much shy away from that and have a lot of trouble with it. And yet it does keep coming back and back. Because you are doing something that you hope will heighten other people.
Robert: Improve the world.
Jenny: Improve the world. I mean there has to be something about that. Martha and I were interviewed the other day and I had this thought—because in my book there is this physics theme—how physicists are constantly running around trying to formulate a theory of everything so that they can explain the world. And I am thinking that each writer, in each book that they do, it’s their little theory of everything. And there is some kind of higher moral purpose in that, whatever that is. Everybody has a different idea of what that theory of everything is.
Martha: These are just the sort of things, that if you are sitting down to write, you can not think about (all laugh) otherwise you will not write.
Robert: Maybe in your leisure time. A lot of the perceptions of what we call the craft, the profession, the calling have to do with the fact that there is commerce involved and so then there is a press that pays attention to that business and there is publicity about people associated with writing that one may or may not find amusing. It’s like inside baseball, you may like the sport and like to watch but the trade rumors and who is the closeted gay player on team and so on…
Martha: It’s so easy to get caught up in that, especially living in New York. And who is hot and who’s not. Who is in and who’s out and of course you want to be part of that buzz. But when you step back and get a little distance on it, which is the wise thing to do for your own sanity, it’s massively unproductive. The only important thing is sitting down there and doing the work. All of that other stuff is just a buzz, static that gets in the way and you can never get as much as you want. You can never be filled up on it…
Robert: …because it’s like sugar…
Jenny: …potato chips
Martha: The more time I spend in this profession the more I want to stay away from all of that. It’s so distracting and so empty and so banal.
Jenny: But there is a fun aspect to it, too. There definitely is. It’s when it does start eating at you that it stops becoming fun. You have to really be careful about that.
Robert: Because NYC is the book publishing capitol of North America, does it spawn a certain kind of New York book?
Martha: Give us a an example of a New York kind of book?
Robert: The Corrections. As opposed to In The River Sweet or Plainsong or The Cadence of Grass…
Martha: Those are equally popular…I’m not sure what you are…
Robert: The brand name Gucci or Manalo Blahnik won’t appear in them. There is something about New York books that…
Jenny: Bret Easton Ellis or Jay McInerney.
Robert: Very urban and sophisticated and the fashionable wines and cuisines are part of the setting. The characters have powerful exciting occupations… When the stories move away from New York the characters actually work at more ordinary things.
Martha: I’m not sure I really understand the question?
Robert: Because New York is the center of publishing activity with major publishing houses and press there the culture there may produce or make likely the success of certain kind of book…
Martha: You think that’s what’s responsible for the Franzen’s success?
Robert: I’m asking you.
Martha: Is that the question though? Is that why Franzen is so successful?
Robert: Okay, the question is really why aren’t other really wonderful books…
Martha: Didn’t Kent Harouf’s book do really well?
Robert: Well, it won an award.
Martha: I could start listing. Richard Ford is always there, he’s incredibly popular. The woman who lives in Wyoming…
Jenny: Annie Proulx.
Martha: I could list so many. And how many popular books about New York City are there?
Robert: I’m not doing well here. It’s not about being about New York, it’s about the kinds of books that editors in New York accept.
Martha: But they always have their hot little darlings.
Jenny: It’s true and you can never figure it out.
Martha: Donna Tartt, she’s receiving a lot of buzz. Allison Pearson’s I Don’t Know How She Does It…every season there is going to be a book that is…or look at The Lovely Bones, that’s such a big popular book.
Jenny: And who knew? That book supposedly went to ten different publishers before it was published.
Martha: It is New York where they really begin. It is the center of the publishing world.
Robert: Well, what’s on my mind is the being told these stories about fifteen rejections or twenty-seven rejections by published authors.
Jenny: You know what, everyone has a different story.
Martha: Franzen had two books before this. And neither one sold particularly well but they were well reviewed. But I think you are right…
Jenny: I’m always saying this to Martha. It depends on your particular stars at that particular moment whether they are aligned or not. And they can not be aligned your whole lifetime and you can die and be discovered afterwards. Or like Faulkner, you can have a good run for a while and then die in a basement somewhere with no one caring about you.
Robert: Or Fitzgerald.
Jenny: Or so many. Who are then rediscovered later or not. How many women have been really successful but we never hear about them because history decides that women don’t count and so …you can’t think too large. As Martha was saying before, you have to think, “Am I going to get a jolly today sitting down, writing?” and that’s it. Everyday. And that’s it. Process is everything.
Robert: It seems that you spoil some things when you talk about them. Maybe how to tell a joke or talking about sex…
Martha: Jenny, for example, I don’t know if this is where you are going but she won’t talk about her next book very much. I keep asking her and she won’t give me very much about it. Whereas, I am so happy to talk about what I am working on. The only thing is when you end up reading the book six years later, it will be completely different than the thing I told you. My second novel was—my intention was that it would be about a girl that goes to India and disappears into the Hollywood film world. Because her father is dying, I never got to that and I don’t have a problem talking about it.
Robert: Jenny can you talk about why you can’t talk about your book?
Jenny: Sure. It’s because when I am there at the computer I want to be able to have anything happen, at all. And be able to throw something out or put it back in and not have any fixed idea about at all. The minute I articulate what it is that I am doing, it somehow in my head becomes fixed, in a way. And I feel like I have less ability to really play with it.
Martha: Which is true, I kept beating myself up—probably one of the reasons this book was so hard to write was because I kept saying, “She’s not getting to India, she’s not in India. She needs to be in India. Everybody thinks she is going to India.” I’d go to party and people would say, “How’s that India novel going?” “Oh, it’s going really well.” And when I published the book, “Oh, that’s the book about India. Right?” So the idea was fixed. It’d probably be much better if I kept my mouth shut.
Jenny: Maybe you are doing the same thing, subconsciously? That’s the answer but everything else is happening…
Robert: Let me see if I have this right. There are four sisters that write and then there are collateral relatives and so when you come together for Thanksgiving…
Jenny: We fight. (all laugh) About nothing to do with books.
Robert: And this year Martha is a National Book Award finalist. Is there rivalry about awards?
Jenny: There is such rivalry and great competition that we have lived with for a very long time.
Martha: We deal with it.
Jenny: We try and make it work for us.
Martha: My husband is giving a reading the same night I have to give my National Book Award reading. So Jenny is my date and she is coming to the book award with me. So maybe five or ten years ago we wouldn’t have been able to do that. So I’m nominated this year and she’ll win next year. We realize the ups and downs of these things. She got a great full page review in the NY Times last summer. I got a two-column hatchet job this year (all laugh).
Robert: This is silly but indulge me. Hatchet job in the Times or blurb by Tim O’Brien? Which has value…
Martha: Tim O’Brien. I love him.
Robert: You don’t know him?
Martha: I don’t know him but I wrote to Tim
O’Brien right after I read The Things They Carried. It was
a three-page love letter, just telling him that I thought he was
the greatest thing and he wrote me back the sweetest … and
we started this little correspondence and then he gave me a blurb
for Bright Angel Time. I wasn’t going to bother him with
this [Gorgeous Lies] but a good friend of mine did at the
last minute and he came through. I was too shy to bother him again.
Jenny: Gertrude Stein says no writer needs criticism. Writers only need encouragement. Any artist who thinks they need criticism is no artist.
Martha: I didn’t read the review in the NY Times. I heard enough about it to have a sense of what it was. I was devastated by that. You can’t not be.
Jenny: It just feeds that little bird.
Martha: Yeah, that bird is well fed.
Robert: Is it sufficient for your writer’s lives to have close relations with your writing family so that conferences and panels are redundant?
Martha: Generally, the protocol is that writer is invited.
Robert: Do you care about such things?
Martha: If I’m invited sure. I went Yaddo and MacDowell when I was younger. Those are things you apply for. I always found it incredibly difficult to get work done there. There is so much pressure. Here you have all day and all of life’s tasks are taken away. You can’t wash the dishes. You can’t even make a snack.
Robert: No water cooler?
Jenny: I like those things. You are not going to get that much work done. There are big distractions, they are interesting distractions and of course books are something we are completely fascinated with, so it’s something that feeds us. But you are not working. It’s a trade off.
Martha: I met my husband at MacDowell. So that was successful.
Robert: Those art colony settings are supposed to be what people dream of.
Martha: It does weird things to people. Some people are really good at handling it. I get caught up in the lives of all the people there and they get caught up in mine.
Jenny: I think it really depends on how good your procrastination habits are. And what you need. You could just use it as one big procrastination fest. I think I would do that.
Robert: Is the case that more often than not that people who are writers are people who started reading very young and with great devotion?
Jenny: In our cases it was different. I had a fanatic devotion to reading. I read for escape. My mother used to scream at me, “Stop reading!”
Martha: She used to scream at me to read. I hardly ever read. I was so distracted. I didn’t start reading until high school when I started reading Gone with the Wind. Then I read that several times and never stopped. People come to things in so many different ways. You have to be a reader in order to be a writer. There is no question about it. I don’t think it matters when you start. I have students who say they are too busy to read. There is a famous quote that says something about if you are too busy to read forget about writing.
Robert: In his memoir, Jim Harrison mentions experiencing a deflating feeling when people tell him they are too busy to read. I started to read early because my mother took me to the public library. I also have this clear picture of a playground with screaming children playing and one child off to the side reading. Or reading books under the covers with a flash light.
Jenny: I’m the only one in the family who has bad eyes. I was that type of kid. But it doesn’t mean anything.
Robert: Well what do you make of people like that?
Martha: What do you make of what?
Robert: The fact that people will adopt something that within the last generation, maybe two, doesn’t seem culturally necessary?
Martha: Reading, you mean? Repeat the question.
Robert: How does it happen that anyone at all reads?
Martha: We are surrounded by literary people. People that love to read. There are a lot of writers in this family and we have a lot of friends who are in the publishing world and I teach so I am surrounded by academics. We have academics in the family. Little kids love story books all across the board no matter what kind of family they come from. So I feel like I don’t know anything other than that, really. I can’t imagine not wanting to curl up with a great book. I go on the subway and I see so many people reading. I find that so heartening.
Jenny: Yeah, but it’s a huge problem. Not enough people read. That’s the problem in our country.
Martha: It’s great, too, that people like Oprah have done their book clubs. And that these morning shows are doing it as well. Even though there is big controversy over New York City Reads and the choice of the book and what it should be. All those things are phenomenal.
Jenny: I even have to hand it to Laura Bush. You just have so many more lives if you read. It’s so wonderful for anybody be able to get out of wherever you are, through a book. And it’s so easy.
Robert: What’s the big gap? Where is the disconnect?
Martha: Television. Sometimes when I come home, I am too fried for a book. I’m sure people have a lot of that.
Jenny: Also, you are not born knowing how to read. Unfortunately, it is a skill and it is something to do a lot and if you don’t do it from the time when you are young you are not going to do it when you are older. It becomes a task.
Martha: When you are young you need someone to do it with you. So if you have an overtired mother and a very busy father, a chaotic household, it becomes easier to put the child in front of a television than to sit down and read with them.
Jenny: It becomes intimidating.
Robert: What are you reading and how do you come to read what you read?
Martha: It’s never on the basis of a review…it’s because somebody has told me something is great. So many people for so long told me I had to read A Suitable Boy. And I am and it is one of the most phenomenal books I have ever read. So when that sort of thing happens to me, it’s my favorite book, ever. But that happens to me a lot. Lonesome Dove, I just loved that book. Tim O’Brien, The Things They Carried. After that I had to read everything he had ever written. So, it’s word of mouth.
Robert: A Suitable Boy is the only one of three thousand-page books that I set my self to read that I have not yet read [I have read Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace and Harlot’s Ghost by Norman Mailer].
Martha: It, to me, is Tolstoyan. It’s a huge, sweeping love story that cuts across every single class and ethnicity and culture in India bringing them vividly to light—this guy [Vikrim Seth] he loves his characters. He loves every one of them. And draws them with humor and sympathy, even in all their tragedies and foibles. It’s post raj India, 1951 and you such a big vivid sense of that country and it [the story] only spans a year or so. We don’t write like that anymore. To me I would put this up there with War and Peace and Anna Karenina. It’s really phenomenal.
Jenny: I’ve been running around months now telling everyone to read Life of Pi. And boy was I laughing the other day when I read about [the plagiarism controversy]…it vindicated me in a big way in the sense that, you know, he’s [Yann Martel] a real writer. He steals. Writers steal. And maybe he didn’t steal too elegantly there. He could have been more elegant.
Martha: But as Jenny said to me, “No one would have cared, had he not won the Booker [Prize].” At all.
Robert: Right [to Jenny]. Wasn’t your book blurbed by Amitrav Ghosh?
Robert: The Glass Palace was wonderful.
Jenny: Yeah, it was really fabulous. I loved Atonement. Technically, I think it’s brilliant.
Robert: Do you read a lot?
Jenny: As much as possible. We both have young children so that cuts into it. Of course and we both reading constantly for our own work. There is a fair amount of research you have to do even to write fiction and also—I think it was Edith Wharton who said, “Don’t ever read anyone contemporary.”—I think she is totally wrong. But she is right that you constantly need to be reading back. The classics, so to speak. But now I am really into Kurt Vonnegut. And he’s just amazing. I am constantly rediscovering things that I read when I was little and being inspired again.
Martha: I love Thomas Hardy. He is one of my all time favorites. I love how he draws landscape, especially. And also his female characters are always so wonderful and strong. The landscape becomes its own character.
Jenny: Direct influences on my work? Graham Greene and Raymond Chandler. I am always going back to them…
Robert: Not the same kind of writer. What about them?
Jenny: Both of them have love of plot as does Shakespeare. I like how they make plot a character in their work. And how Chandler makes it, in the end, not really matter. Even though it is all very plot-driven, you never know what the plot is. I love the way Greene does the high-low thing. And how he is very philosophical and still very much about story. Both are very atmospheric and I like that. Also, you read who you love and that makes you want to write.
Martha: Edna O’Brien was a huge influence when I started writing because I read The Country Girl’s Trilogy and that’s what made me realize I had to be a writer. I wanted to do the American version of that. I have only written two and that’s where I stop, it’s a duet, not a trilogy.
Robert: You never know.
Jenny: You never know. Maybe much later.
Martha: Maybe much, much, much later. Not now.
Robert: It maybe it’s better that you don’t intend it. Julian Barnes wrote Talking It Over as a single book about ten years ago and then wrote Love, Etc. because he wanted to know what happened.
Jenny: I shouldn’t leave out Muriel Spark. She’s a huge influence, She is probably why I wanted to start writing. I read her a lot as a teenager.
Martha: You know what it is? Jenny was just
touching on it. Whenever I read somebody I really, really love,
like the Vikrim Seth book, I want to try my hand at a big sprawling
novel that covers a lot of culture and religion and a woman’s life
over the course of the 20th Century. Whenever I have picked that
book up it makes me want to write. So I am slowly savoring it because
it will take me a long time before I can even begin to think about
writing that sort of book. I have been listening to a tape of Sherwood
Ohio and it makes me want to drive right home and start
writing. I don’t know it well enough to say that it’s a favorite
book because I just started listening to it. But it gives me the
Robert: You do both, read and listen to fiction?
Martha: I’m starting this. I prefer to read because I like to see it but am commuting to Hofstra. But I think it is a big practice for your ear. That’s a wonderful skill to develop and to really flex. But there’s so much to read.
Robert: I think the tape of a book is a whole other thing, like a movie is another thing.
Jenny: It is another thing. It has to be a really good book to work on tape. And really well read. Really bad readers can ruin a book.
Robert: I’ve heard authors ruin their stuff at readings.
Jenny: Absolutely. Authors often are the worst readers. I really does take practice.
Robert: Both of you have children. Any interest in writing a children’s book?
Jenny: My son asks me all the time, “When can we write a book?” I did write a children’s book and tried to publish it and nobody took it.
Robert: [to Martha] You adamantly said, “No.”
Martha: I would not know how to speak to young adults, at all.
Robert: Is it your intention to keep this touring “band” together?
Jenny: We were just trying to plan out books so that they would come out at the same time. It just nicer to do it with someone else. Writing is such a lonely thing, you have to do it by yourself, so anytime you have a chance…
Martha: When I went on book tour to San Francisco the first time I would just stay in my hotel room. That is just pathetic, sad and lonely. With Jenny, the moment we got there we were out the door, all over the city looking at—mostly shopping. When we weren’t shopping, we were eating great food. We just had so much fun.
Jenny: We really saw that city, too.
Robert: And your presentation at a bookstore?
Jenny: We read a little bit. Short.
Martha: Ten minutes each and then we take questions.
Jenny: And that’s our favorite part.
Martha: People ultimately want to ask questions, and if they ask a good question and the person gives a good answer, they are probably more likely to buy the book.
Jenny: It’s the engagement with the audience, really for us, is the fun interesting part.
Copyright 2002 by Robert Birnbaum
All photos by Red Diaz / Duende Publishing