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March 1, 2009 | Interview

Interview with Erin McGraw

Bryan Furuness

Interview with Erin McGraw photo

Erin McGraw teaches writing at Ohio State, where she works with her husband, the poet Andrew Hudgins. She's the author of The Good LifeLies of the Saint, and The Baby Tree. In her latest book, The Seamstress of Hollywood Boulevard, a young woman flees west in hopes of a second chance at life, only to find it complicated by the family she thought she had left behind (okay, I stole most of that line from Erin's website, but hey, she writes a better synopsis than I do.) The book crackles with wit and intensity and tells a hell of a story — kind of like Erin herself, as you'll see from our conversation conducted this fall.


 

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You've said that stories about your grandmother form the backbone of this book. Can you tell me a little about your grandmother, and how other members of your family are reacting to her portrayal in the book?

As you can see from the novel's dedication, my grandmother was a somewhat elusive woman. There's plenty about her that we don't know, and that wealth of uncertainty has stoked the family's imagination for years.

Like my protagonist Nell, my grandmother Bessie did marry at 15 to avoid a father who knocked her around, and found out too late that her new husband knocked her around, too. It wasn't an uncommon thing at that time and place. By the time she was 17, Bessie had two children. One day she brought them over to her mother's house, said, "Look after the girls for me," then hiked back to town (Lyons, Kansas), got on the train, and left. Nobody knows where she got the money, but everyone who knew her agreed she had the gumption, right from the start.

There followed a number of untraceable years. I think she headed to Portland, Oregon, where she had cousins, but no one can be sure of that. I'm guessing there must have been some relationships with men, and perhaps some pregnancies. This was the beginning of the 20th Century, and while birth control was available, it wasn't reliable. Eventually she surfaced in southern California, where she was supporting herself by working in the alterations departments of tony department stores, including the highly snooty I. Magnin. She met my grandfather, Clarence McGraw, who was working for one of the dozens of small oil companies that were established in LA in the 1910s. Lying about her age, she married Clarence and bore him two children, not bothering to share certain pesky facts of her background, such as her first marriage and brace of children. So when her two grown daughters, my half-aunts Barbara and Inez, showed up at her doorstep and said, "Hello, Mother," Bessie had some fast explaining to do.

Unlike Nell, Bessie never had anything to do with the movies. She was frantic to be a proper matron, and she joined the Altar Society, played the organ at church, and belonged to the Redondo Beach Ladies' Club — all honorable activities that are a little dull if a person wants to make a novel out of them. And also unlike Nell, Bessie suffered terrible manic-depressive episodes all her adult life, so great that she underwent electric-shock therapy in the 1950s. She self-medicated, we know, with alcohol. A lot of people in my family have done that.

As you can see, this isn't the kind of family history that usually makes a family puff up with pride, and I was concerned that family members would be upset with me for airing our pretty darn dirty linen in public. In particular, I worried that my father, Bessie's youngest child, would be uneasy. But he was enormously proud of the book, and hugely excited about it. He died this past July, two days before the book was officially published, but he read it in galleys and told me that he enjoyed it. He didn't even hold against me that I wrote him out of the story. Fictionally speaking, it was more useful for Nell to have a daughter than a son.


 

Nell styles herself as a modiste, a dressmaker. By the second chapter, you had me convinced that you'd spent half your life behind a Singer sewing machine. Tell me about your research process, and how you incorporate your findings into your writing so it seems integral instead of tacked-on or gratuitous.

We are shaped by what we do. If you spend an hour every day lifting weights, then at least some of the metaphors that occur to you about daily living are likely to have to do with lifting heavy weights. Back when I practiced ballet, I thought about the world in terms of line and balance. Cooks create metaphors about chopping and searing, chemists about pipettes. This creation of metaphor is a normal activity of our symbol-forming brains, and makes for interesting conversations.

So it seemed not just possible but likely that Nell's ability to express herself, in this first-person narrative, would be influenced by the activity that most preoccupied her — sewing. It is not an inherently interesting activity, as some reviews have pointed out, but like almost every human endeavor, it opens up a number of useable metaphorical avenues. We stitch together our days. A day might be as tidy or as draggy as a hem. The line of the horizon looks like a seam. It was fun to enter Nell's mind in this way, and it allowed me to share imaginatively in her work.

It needs to be stated strenuously that I do not sew. At all. In my household, it's my husband who takes care of repairs to our clothing, usually while we're watching football. So every detail in the book that is literally about the business of sewing I got through research. It turns out that men and women who sew tend to be close, attentive people, and they leave spectacularly detailed notes. I learned about the number of stitches typically used per inch in 1910s, the number of pleats per yard, how to weight a hem or stiffen a shoulder seam. (Starched muslin, by the way.) I tried to keep my focus on the aspects of sewing that Nell, an experienced needlewoman, would herself be thinking about. Since making a side seam would be as normal to her as breathing, there seemed little point in spending a bunch of narrative time explaining it. Something more complicated, though, such as Mrs. Cooper's suit at the beginning of the book, would have called for all her concentration, and for that reason deserved to be explained more fully.

As is usually the case in fiction, once you've established a mental habit for a character, you don't need to re-establish it over and over. Once we know that Nell is an unusually capable seamstress, we can build on that knowledge, but we don't have to re-learn it. Good thing, or this book would have an extra 100 pages of sheer sewing in it.


 

I'd still read it. Let me open up the scope a bit here to talk about your body of work, much of which revolves around issues of faith and belief. These issues are not as prominent inSeamstress. Does this book feel like a detour from your earlier work, a departure, or something else entirely?

I would call Seamstress an outgrowth of the earlier work. A few issues have preoccupied my writing from the get &mdash broad issues of ethics and morality, the ways we determine what constitutes a "good" action or an upright human being, and more specific concerns about the weight of faith on individual lives. The way I see it, faith in any kind of religious or speculative system can be ennobling, or crippling, or have any number of other dramatic effects. The same faith system that elevated Mother Teresa has caused hundreds of people, despairing of divine forgiveness, to despair. That fact is interesting to me; we humans like to take a code of behavior and belief and then mangle the living daylights out of it.

That aspect of faith systems &mdash that is, their mangleability &mdash is all over Seamstress. It's present in Randall Mirliton's Seven Steps to Success, but also in Nell's fervent faith in California, the end of earth, as a promised land. It's present in Nell and George's elevation of their daughter Mary as the proof of the rightness of their lives. And then Lisette and Aimée come along, with their faith in Hollywood and celebrity, the most enduring faith system presented in the book. If you would say that faith like theirs no longer exists, I would suggest that you watch an evening's worth of American Idol and tell me what you see.

My friend the poet Mark Jarman, who knows me very well, said after reading Seamstress, "It's about redemption." He's right, although he's the only reader so far to see that.


 

Let's get wonky for a second. One trend of modern fiction seems to be shorter chapters broken up by white space into sections (which makes me think of TV episodes with commercial breaks). Seamstress features some longer chapters, unbroken by white space. It's not quite like getting buttonholed by Donald Antrim, but still, kind of unusual for a contemporary novel. Does this choice reflect the time period in which the book is set, or was this just the imperative of the material?

You have sharp eyes, or else you're oriented to the same things I am. I agree that contemporary fiction tends to move in rather short scenes with white space used as a transition, a choice that gives a certain amount of theatricality to whatever is presented on the page. That is, the literary, word-driven, potentially contemplative aspect of the work is depreciated, and the dramatic, even climactic aspect is heightened, whether it needs heightening or not.

I object to the tendency on principal. To arrange material in this manner foreshortens drama and cuts short the work's capacity for reflection, as if every scene ends with a rim shot. I'm not saying that we need to return to the manner of George Eliot, but I would like some of George Eliot's options to be available to us, as readers and writers. One of the glories of literature is its ability to allow us to see the operations of a brain different from our own, and to use narrative summary to surprise the reader. Such pleasures are only available if we stay on the point for a while. Sometimes, in reading books with a particular largesse of white space, I want to cry out, "Can we please stick around for a second?"

What you're seeing and accurately identifying in Seamstress is a reflection of my sense of scene, and also what happens in a book that has a great deal of narrative summary. Throughout the second quarter of the book, Nell tells us what happened across ten years. There are scenes in those pages, but summary is the dominant mode, and it doesn't often give strong reason to stop.


 

Sticktoittiveness seems to apply to your working habits as well. In another interview, you said, "I'm at the computer Monday through Saturday, every morning. If I'm not teaching, I work on fiction until about 2 in the afternoon, with time out to walk the dog and eat lunch. After that, I answer email and attend to everything else that needs attending to, including working on articles and reviews." What is that, like five hours of fiction-writing and nine hours of total butt-in-chair time? How do you sustain brainpower that long?

I don't think I'm the only one who knows that butt-in-chair time does not necessarily imply brainpower. My attention floats in and out, and some days are more productive than others. But, to paraphrase Flannery O'Connor, if something good does come along, I'll be there to receive it.

I'm probably too good at sitting down for my cardiovascular health, but it's certainly true that I've become good at it over the years. One of the things that means is that when I notice my attention floating away from the dreary scene I've been pecking at for the last half-hour, I just pull my attention back again and don't bother giving myself the lecture about concentration or professionalism or anything else. And when I find myself doing seriously bad work, then I look for some other writing I can do on that day. If I'm writing a novel, there are always plenty of other bad scenes to repair, and if that doesn't work, I'm usually supposed to be writing a lecture or a story. So I allow one kind of work to bleed into another, which seems honorable enough. The main issue is to make sure I attend my date with my writing every day.

One more thing, and it's important. After I finish a book, I need to take some time off. Really off. No-writing-at-all off. It's easy to underestimate just how much the last, important draft of a book digs deeply into our memories and psyches and imaginations. To change the metaphor, a book drains out the water from our imaginative wells. Those wells need time to fill back up again, and I find that it's not only counterproductive, but actually harmful to try to make myself write before I'm ready. It just means it's that much longer before I can start writing something that's halfway interesting again.

At a mechanical level, I drink a lot of coffee and diet Coke and water, which ensure frequent breaks.


 

Thank you for your time, Erin. I hope that Hobart readers enjoy this conversation half as much as I have.

image: The Seamstress of Hollywood Boulevard cover design


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