Mary Gordon is a New York-based American Catholic writer and English professor at Barnard College. She is best known for her novels, memoirs and literary criticism on a wide variety of topics from religion to biography. She holds a B.A. from Barnard College and an M.A. from Syracuse University.
In 2007, Ms. Gordon was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters. She has also received a Lila Acheson Wallace Reader's Digest Writer's Award and a Guggenheim Fellowship
Ms. Gordon’s latest book, “The Liar's Wife: Four Novellas,” is a collection of four stories that will be published in hardback on Aug. 5. On July 17, I interviewed Ms. Gordon by telephone about her writing and her new book.
What inspired this new collection of novellas?
I wanted to write about Europeans in America and Americans in Europe. That was my basic idea. I had also been obsessed with Simone Weil for years and years and year. And finally I thought of a way of approaching her fictionally, in this new collection, through the character of an old student of hers. I’m also very interested in differences between accepted behaviors in different cultures and how one can radically misunderstand them rather innocently. And then I was just interested in the question that if you are an American whose great love objects aesthetically are European, like they are for my art historian in the book, what does that do?
I’m also very interested in the idea of American innocence, particularly in relation to Europeans and particularly centering around World War II. So all of those things came together, but the overarching idea was Americans in Europe and Europeans in America—you know, what Henry James did, but with sort of a different slant. I’m also kind of fascinated by the fact that for my generation, all the dreams of the better life or of the superior life were dreams of Europe. You know, we thought that if we just watched European movies and dressed like Europeans and ate like Europeans and held our forks like Europeans, we would somehow have access to a finer world. That’s over and that interests me very much.
Who are you writing for?
Dead people. I always try to write for the dead writers I really admire; I like to think they’re kind of looking over my shoulder. If you worry about an audience, you just make yourself crazy. You can’t figure it out anyway, it’s a fantasy, it can be wrong, and you just give yourself a lot of needless anxiety.
Is there a deeper level of meaning or a unifying theme to these stories?
I think I’m also interested in how one knows the “self,” how we discover who we really are, what’s important to us, how we learn those things, and moments in which that becomes rather climactic or dramatic.
Some people identify you as a Catholic writer. In what way is that true of you?
You know, I think that really is true, and it’s probably hurt me a lot because nobody likes Catholics—with good reason. I understand why people don’t like Catholics. I felt like every time John Paul II or Benedict XVI said something about sexuality, I lost a hundred readers, because I think that the church has been in such a bad odor since Humanae Vitae. People assume that if you say you’re Catholic, you’re kind of stupid. I always say that if you tell people you’re Catholic, they take 90 IQ points off you. Andrew Greeley says anti-Catholicism is the last acceptable American prejudice and I understand why people would be prejudiced against Catholicism.
I think that my language, my imagery, my habit of mind is very formed by Catholicism. With Catholicism, because it is a faith centered on incarnational truth, there’s always the idea that the physical and the spiritual are inextricably intermixed. And I think that’s what I’m always writing about. The sacramental life of the church insists on a sensual component to a spiritual life. The prayer life of the church, with the repetitions of the liturgy and the sense of timelessness, was very important in my formation. And then the language of prayer and the habit of prayer had an influence.
Has your Catholic faith evolved or changed during the course of your writing career?
Well, interestingly, when I first started writing I was extremely alienated from the church and I was pretty angry at the sexual repression. You know, I’m a person who came of age in the ‘60s and I’m a feminist, and the sexual phobia and misogyny that have plagued Catholicism were deal-breakers for me for a long time. I thought, you know, I cannot really be part of this organization whose morality is immoral to me. And I started going to the Episcopal Church and gradually realized that wasn’t home for me. Luckily I met some wonderful progressive Catholics, sisters and priests who really led me to say that I could keep my ethical standards and be in a position of critical witness while still being part of the church. I had thought that no, if I can’t go along with the Vatican, I can’t be going to Mass. But I gave that idea up because I missed it too much.
Who are the biggest influences on your faith and career?
I don’t think I have a career, I have a vocation. Career sounds like you’re hoping for some sort of success and I think that just gets in the way of doing what it is that you need to do, making real art. So who are the writers who have been particularly important for me? Virginia Woolf, Ford Madox Ford, James Joyce, Henry James and Katherine Anne Porter are the beloved ghosts who I feel hover over my shoulder and look down on me when I’m writing. They’re my communion of saints.
Your non-fiction works include personal memoirs, a book on Jesus, and a biography of St. Joan of Arc. What draws you to St. Joan?
She was fearless. She was a girl, I mean she was 19 when she died, and it’s just the knowledge that she was right. And there were all these powerful men ringed around her and she was going to be true to her vision. It’s just that kind of courage and being willing to give everything for a vision that is so moving to me.
Are you currently working on or planning any new books?
Yes, I’m actually writing a novel that is set during the Spanish Civil War. One of the reasons it’s always fascinated me is because I was brought up in an extremely conservative Catholic environment in the ‘50s. All I ever heard about the Spanish Civil War was “Franco is a saint, he’s preserving Catholicism, the leftists rape nuns and murder priests.” End of story. Then I got to Columbia in the ‘60s and all I heard was “the Lincoln Brigade soldiers were pure heroes, Francoists were murderers supported by Hitler and Mussolini, and the left was absolutely as pure as the driven snow.” And it fascinated me that there could be two such absolutely conflicting narratives of the same events. The reality is it was a total bloodbath on both sides. It was real bloodlust.
Unless you’re Catholic, you don’t really get that the whole damn thing was about the church. There was a rage against the church on the left. I mean, there’s no reason to burn down churches unless you’re really angry at the church. Then on the right, there were priests preaching “kill people” and priests armed with machine guns, priests suggesting that pregnant Communist women should be shot. And there were people killing priests and nuns on the other side. So I think so much of that’s Catholicism and people who acknowledge that on the right are total pro-Francoists, which I’m not. Again, Franco was armed by Hitler and Mussolini, and the left wasn’t. But Simone Weil went to Spain to fight with the anarchists and George Bernanos—who is another writer I love very much—went there as a royalist. She was completely left-wing and he was completely right-wing, but both of them wrote the same thing for the press on both sides: that there is such bloodlust on both sides that it’s impossible to say one side is good and one side is evil. You just can’t. And they both wrote that from different political perspectives on what they’d seen. She wrote to him and said “you’re a royalist and I’m an anarchist, I thought you were my enemy, but you’re my brother.” And it’s that ability to see the sins of your own side that fascinated me.
What do you want people to take away from your work?
Consolation. I think that’s the point of art, that life is really a vale of tears in many ways, and ideally art gives us a hint of meaning and value and beauty, and that’s what we do.
Sean Salai, S.J., is a summer editorial intern at America.