An Interview with Marge Piercy
by Charlotte Templin
The Writer’s Chronicle, Volume 36, Number 6, May/Summer 2004
Marge Piercy’s most recent novel is The Third Child (Morrow, HarperCollins), appeared in November of 2003. A new collection of poetry, Colors Passing Through Us (Knopf), was published last year. A CD of her political poetry, Louder, We Can’t Hear You (Yet!), was released in March by Leapfrog Press. With Sleeping with Cats (Morrow, paperback HarperCollins), Piercy added memoir to her list of genres. Piercy was called “breathtakingly ambitious” by the New York Times for her ventures into historical fiction about the French Revolution, City of Darkness, City of Light, and World War II, Gone to Soldiers, and her exploration of the minds and hearts of cyborgs, He, She and It. In novels with contemporary settings, she has examined the lives of homeless people, fugitive revolutionaries, and other unusual characters. She also writes about the lives or ordinary people, investing all her subjects with great dignity. She makes her home on Cape Cod, where she lives with her husband, Ira Wood, and four cats.
Charlotte Templin: Why did you turn to memoir at this point in your life?
Marge Piercy: Because I have turned sixty-five, it seemed a reasonable time for stock-taking, for looking back and seeing what I had done so far and what I could learn from studying my own life.
Templin: In Sleeping with Cats, you mention the tendency we all have to make patterns of experience and rewrite events. Are writers more apt to make patterns of memory?
Piercy: I don’t think writers change the past any more than other people do, except in so far as we may mine our lives and change things for fictional use. We all have to strive to make sense of the events of our lives and to try to find a pattern that proves where we are has a meaning and that we can figure out how we arrived there. Writers may have a slightly stronger compulsion to make send of contradictions and misprisions, but I think we all do this. It’s a human activity, telling ourselves where we come from and where we are and where we are going, we think. No matter how often we are wrong, we need to keep doing this. As I said in the memoir, the past changes constantly because the present changes, and thus we see different events as leading to where we are.
Templin: Can you comment on what you learned from writing the memoir?
Piercy: In writing the memoir, I learned how much I had forgotten about my life. I also learned, as I remarked in Sleeping with Cats, that I had been a worse friend than I had imagines and that I have certainly made a great number of messy errors in my life. I also learned how extremely difficult it is to write about one’s own life. Beforehand, I had imagines that it would be rather easy. After all, who knew more than I about my life? I didn’t have to invent a plot or do research on a places I have never been or fields like psychosurgery (for Women on the Edge of Time) or global warming or Emperor Rudolf (He, She or It) or the code breakers (Gone to Soldiers). What could be more straightforward or simpler than writing about me?
It didn’t turn out that way. I did have to go back and go through a lot of old papers, old photographs, old maps, in order to jog my memory. But the hardest thing was having to relive old traumas, to revisit old pain, and to remember so many events in my life I would far rather forget. It was on the whole a humbling experience.
Templin: William Zinsser said that “Memoir is how we validate our lives.” Does that seem true to you?
Piercy: I think we validate our lives through our actions. In so far as a memoir is one more book I have put into the world, I suppose it is validation, but no more so than any of my novels, and far less than any of my books of poetry. I don’t think there is any ultimate validation for anyone. You live the best, most useful life you can manage and produce the finest artifacts you can. You try to do a little good, but you don’t always succeed.
Templin: Does memory have a special significance for Jewish writers?
Piercy: Probably, as we are commanded at every Pesach during the reading of the Haggadah to experience the Exodus as if we were truly there and truly participating in it. Every Jewish holiday has a religious significance, a historical significance, and a relevance to the time of year in the natural calendar of the seasons and trees and growing things, as well as a personal significance. So you are always looking backward, outward, inward and forward.
We are also now commanded to remember the Shoah and to remember those who died, babies, old women, old men, children, people in the prime of life – who were shot, who were gassed, who were starved to death, who were worked to death, who died in the uprisings, in the Partisan forest, in the camps, and to remember too those who survived. Memory in Greek mythology is the mother of the muses, and it is so for me. Both personal and societal memory move me strongly, and that is one of the sources of my writing.
Templin: Can you comment on some of the memories that have been especially powerful as sources of your writing?
Piercy: You can’t guess beforehand what will influence the development of a character. Sometimes when a character in a novel is difficult for me to enter, I sue something in myself or in my own life as a doorway into that character’s mind and emotions. Obviously in writing a memoir, I am selecting only certain events, in this case, the central relationships in my life and my relationships with cats. But in creating other characters, it is their mind set, their lives that determine whether I use anything of my own in them or not. What I might use has nothing to do with the emotional power of the memory to me, but rather what it would mean to the character I have given the experience to.
Templin: When writing a memoir, you have to figure out “what to put in and what to leave out,” as Annie Dillard said. Was it hard to figure that out?
Piercy: Certainly it is true that, as I remark in chapter one of the memoir, “A Family of Seven,” a faithful autobiography would require as long in the writing as in the living. It would be full of aimless conversations about the weather, what you had for lunch, what I watched on TV last night. Obviously we select very severely what we are going to focus on. This memoir, Sleeping with Cats, focused on my emotional life rather than my political activities or literary journey. I was also more involved with the central relationships in my life and less with the many friendships I usually did not even mention.
Obviously, I could write other memoirs focusing on other aspects of my life. Ira Wood and I teach many classes in the personal narrative, including memoir. One thing we emphasize is the matter of choosing a theme or narrative line that gives unity to the memoir. For instance, Sleeping with Cats has a spine of cats that have gone through my life. Kingsley Amis and Lillian Hellman both build memoirs around striking characters they have known. Memoirs often focus on one particular era in a person’s life. There are obviously a great many ways to organize some fraction of the material in a life.
Templin: I have heard more than one memoirist say that after writing about a memory, the memory written down replaced the original, that in a way, something was lost. Is that true for you?
Piercy: I think that if you use something from you life in fiction, it metamorphosizes into something strange and different. Afterward it is hard to tell what actually was part of your life and what is part of the story of the fictional character. In a sense that park of my life is lost to me because I have given it away.
I didn’t find this to be the case with memoir since I was dealing as truthfully as I could with events in my life. All I changed were the names of people I did not feel that I should identify by their real names. I don’t find that writing about parts of my life had much effect except in some cases to improve my memory. To get into parts of the past I want to recall very vividly, I use a form of directed meditation.
Templin: Memoir is popular now – I have seen it referred to as the genre du jour. Can you comment why that is so?
Piercy: I am told that was so some years ago. When I said I was writing a memoir, the editor said that the memoir had peaked. She was not enthusiastic. I went ahead anyhow, as I always do. I am stubborn, as I describe in my memoir; if I wasn’t, I would have died years ago and I certainly would never have become a writer and persisted in being a writer. Nowadays when midlist writers are treated like dirt, I would desist were I less stubborn and less committed.
Templin: Could you comment on the device of putting a poem at the end of each section? When did you write the poems?
Piercy: Some poems are older poems and some were very new poems. It was my agent, Lois Wallace’s idea, to put poems in, and I thought it a good one, but that they should follow the chapters and comment upon them.
Templin: You present a vivid picture of growing up in a poor neighborhood. Was it an advantage for the writer to grow up in a world where you became acquainted with things some children are sheltered from – knowing which houses are the brothel, for example?
Piercy: I think it was a great advantage to me, providing I survived and managed to get an education, which was rather dicey at the time. I think having a great range of experiences in my life had helped me as a writer, particularly a writer of fiction. I have known a great many different sorts of people in different situations, and I have a notion how very well of badly people can behave in times of stress or danger or violence.
Templin: There are some hair-raising stories in your book about your exposure to gangs, violent. Is a personal memoir also about a social epoch? Was it important to you to record something about the social movements you were involved in, for example? There are also moments in your memoir that say something about race.
Piercy: Any life is lived in a particular time and place. Every life is impacted by the family’s socio-economic circumstances, and, in later life, by the person’s. Depressions, local and larger strikes, boom times, wars, repressions, all impact a life as do epidemics such as AIDS and pollution that may take years off a person’s life. We all, whether we like it or not and whether we acknowledge it or not, are impacted by the racial attitudes we carry within us, and experience in some form every time we turn on the television, the radio, go to a movie, read a magazine or a newspaper, or walk down the street. We live in a media soup and are constantly being programmed or are fighting that programming. Thus any truthful account of a life, every part of a life, is about society as well as an individual.
Templin: You mention three life-long quests: to write, to love and be loved, and to be free. What are the roots of your quest for freedom?
Piercy: I was a working class Jewish girl. In my girlhood, anti-Semitism was a daily fact of life in Detroit. I did not come from people who had many options in their lives or many choices open to them. I was a girl in a family in which women were, as in society at large, very much second-class citizens. I did not see why I should accept these forced limitations without a fight. Being free to make my own choices thus became very important to me at an early age.
Templin: You honor your mother for her gifts to you. Can you say more about how your mother taught you observation.
Piercy: She played word games with me, but also games of observation. As I think I say in the memoir, she would have me play mental [virtual] hide and seek. She would also have me list and describe the houses on a street in our neighborhood while I was taking a bath or helping her in the kitchen.
Templin: You mentioned that your mother was your muse. Was your grandmother also a muse of sorts?
Piercy: My grandmother was very important to me. She gave me my religious education. She gave me a sense of the female side of Judaism, of the rich store of stories and legends of the women of the schtetl. She and my mother were both fine storytellers. I have always said that I received early trained in viewpoint from the fact that whenever my mother and grandmother told the same story, the narratives were quite different. My mother’s stories tended to be dramatic, sensational, sometimes romantic. My grandmother’s stories emphasized the mystical, the spiritual, the folkloric elements. The story of the golem that I used in Malkah’s sections of He, She and It was a story my grandmother first told me.
Templin: Did you always know you would be a writer? You write about rejecting a job at Esquire and sticking to your goal of writing, even though pursuing the goal was difficult.
Piercy: I did not always know I would be a writer. Until I had a room of my own, I did not write much at all – no more than any other child who read a lot of books. I began to write fiction and poetry when I first had a room that was truly my own with a door that shut and some measure, however fragile, of privacy. I wrote to make sense out of all the contradictions I experienced and to deal with the pain and loss I was undergoing.
As for not taking a job, I didn’t want to be a magazine editor or a magazine writer. Why would I have taken such a job, then? I have always felt that when possible, when I had jobs, that they should have little to do with writing. I wasn’t afraid of being poor; I rather took it for granted. I was good at getting by with very little, at that point in my life. I couldn’t imagine sacrificing my writing to anything else.
Templin: Your memoir invest the lives of cats with great dignity and shows that we humans can share our lives with – communicate with – another species. Is this a gift we humans are losing?
Piercy: We may be losing the ability to understand animals who are not pets or horses. We have less contact with them. We don’t (most of us) tend to know even cows and pigs, let alone bears or wolverines or red tailed hawks.
I like communicating with cats. Sometimes I felt I have communicated with other species, for instance, wild birds I have handled when they are injured and who I have managed to calm and be able to examine and deal with. They could sense I meant them well. But I communicate much better with cats, usually. I know them and their body language – as my own cats know mine very well. Cats are adept at reading subtle signals. Malkah always knows when we are going out, long before we do much about it.
Templin: Can you say more about the place of cats in the memoir? I was fascinated by the “natural history of cats”: e.g., their relationships with each other, means of communicating with humans. Was it part of your purpose to explain cats?
Piercy: I never thought of myself as explaining cats in general. I simply viewed the cats I have known as characters in my life, often as quirky and complex as the humans with whom I have spent time. If I observe my cats carefully, it is partly because I observe everyone I deal with as carefully as I can and partly because they amuse and entertain me. They are an important part of the fabric of my daily life.
Templin: Another of the important themes in the relations of humans to nature. You say that becoming close to nature has improved your poetry. How does that work exactly?
Piercy: Every poet has a certain amount of “stuff.” That’s what you draw from for imagery. The more stuff you know well, not simply intellectually but sensually, emotionally, intimately, the wider the pool from which you draw. If you know something about science, say, physics or biology, you have a rich source of imagery. Nature is the same way. If you know birds, if you know plants, if you know something about ecology, if you know about rocks, they you are grounded in a landscape in a rich and usable way. One of the best gifts you can give a poet is to present them with field guides – to rocks, to stars, to birds, to wildflowers, to trees and bushes, to butterflies, to reptiles and amphibians. Because when you look at anything long enough to be able to identify it, you see far more clearly and you make a tiny beginning at understanding the life, the place, the history of that bird or rock or mammal.
Templin: Is the fiction writer a kind of voyeur? You mention looking into people’s homes from the El in Chicago, for example. Nosiness helps the fiction writer, it seems.
Piercy: I mention listening to people more than watching them. Listening is terribly important if you want to understand anything about people. You listen to what they say and how they say it, what they share and what they are reticent about, what they tell truthfully and what they lie about, what they hope for and what they fear, what they are proud of, what they are ashamed of. If you don’t pay attention to other people, how can you understand their choices through time and how their stories come out?
Templin: I know you say in the memoir that fiction is related to the desire to understand people and their choices through time.
Piercy: Fiction that is narrative is about time. First this happened, then that happens, and then you want to find out what happens next; or this happens, and then before it, came these events that led to it. You can start with an event and move forward; you can start with an event and move backward. You can go in circles. You can move into a parallel universe or a surrealist or dream world, but you are always dealing with time, both fictional time and the time it takes the reader to stay connected with what you have written. The art of fiction is one of constant seduction. You must persuade the reader on page 1 to start reading – on page 50, or page 150 and yes, on page 850.
Time is what you are dealing with whether you are, as in Joyce’s Ulysses, moving through the events of one day and one night, or whether you are in a multi-generational novel, dealing with 100 years or sometimes, as in science fiction, thousands of years.
Templin: You write about your ability to feel people’s emotions. This must be an advantage to the writer.
Piercy: I was very empathetic when I was younger, but I am certainly harder today. But if you can’t enter your characters through empathy and imagination, how could you ever write about them?
Templin: Your women characters are particularly powerful. Is it women characters who mainly stimulate your imagination?
Piercy: I was pretty stimulated by the male characters in City of Darkness, City of Light. I had a strong interest in Robespierre, in Danton, and in Condorcet. I was sympathetic to all of them and felt I did a good job on them. Robespierre scholars have congratulated me on creating him better than any other novelist. I do think I have great empathy for Phil in Small Changes, for Shawn in Dance the Eagle to Sleep, for Rowley in Going Down Fast, for all the male viewpoint characters in City of Darkness, City of Light for Jackrabbit in Woman on the Edge of Time; for all my male characters including Duvey in Gone to Soldiers, for Willie and Itzak in Summer People, etc.
Templin: Yes, I found Robespierre and other male characters fascinating. I suppose it is because of the experiences and values I bring to the work that I respond so strongly to some female characters such as Mary in The Longings of Women. I hear you saying that as a novelist you are interested in the human condition. Would that be correct?
Piercy: Obviously I find women more interesting than men to write about, although there are exceptions, as I indicated in my answer to the previous question. I don’t know what you mean about “the human condition.” The condition of a widow in Afghanistan with five children to feed and a hovel to live in is very different from the condition of a woman who has tenure at a college and one or two children to feed and provide for and nurture. People who talk about “the human condition” are usually ignoring that we are creatures of time and place, stuck in history and pushing on it as it pulls at us. “The human condition” of slaves in Mississippi was far more different from their owners than it was from the horse the owner might ride. They were treated as cattle. They could think about their condition and plot escape, but their options were limited. The options open to my mother were far fewer than those that were open to me, and my grandmother had far fewer options than my mother. “The human condition” of babies in many countries in Africa is a quick or slow death from mosquitoes, the drinking water, food contamination, or from invading armies.
Templin: How important has your political involvement been to your writing? I’m also wondering, have the writing you did for the movement been collected?
Piercy: There would be little interest in collecting the writing I did for the New left of the Women’s Movement. A number of them were done with a collaborator. They were agitprop or how-to pieces, with little relevance now.
My political involvement was very important psychologically when I could not get published. At least I was having some impact in the world, some sense of purpose fulfilled. I think being an organizer taught me a lot about people. Certainly seeing people under extreme stress and in situations that stretched them utterly helped me see how people can do far more than they imagine they can in their ordinary days and nights. I think that knowing something about the political situation and being able to read power politics – understanding what the power players are after and how they get it – certainly makes any novelist capable of writing novels with more depth and a stronger sense of time and place and environment. Everything you study, everything you learn, makes you a better writer, because you have more understanding of how things work.
Templin: How did the novel Vida come about? Vida is a political activist who had to stay underground to keep out of the clutches of the law. It’s a fascinating story of a person making great sacrifices for what she believes in. How did you knowledge of the movement and your work as an organizer contribute to the novel?
Piercy: I’m probably the only novelist who has ever written about political fugitives who actually knew a lot about them, had contact with them, and had a realistic notion of how they survived. My experience as an organizer contributed to the non-underground parts of the novel. I have had a lot of real political experience in everything from working as a precinct captain in an election to power-structure research, community organizing, organizing consciousness-raising groups, working phone backs, giving speeches at rallies, organizing and taking part in demonstrations and writing agitprop and how-to pamphlets.
Templin: On the subject of Vida, one of the thinks I admire very much in the novel is the way you handle suspense. I also recall responding to the suspense in the story of Mary in The Longings of Women. In that novel you were able to make the life of the homeless woman into a spell-binding adventure story. How important is suspense?
Piercy: As I said before, the art of fiction is one of constant seduction. Suspense is one of the ways you persuade a reader to become engaged and stay engaged with your work. Another device is identification. I often write in multiple viewpoints. Of course, when you switch viewpoint characters, you risk losing that identification. For me it depends on the novel I’m writing whether I need a single viewpoint as in Fly Away Home and Braided Lives and Woman on the Edge of Time, two viewpoints as in He, She and It, three, as Longings of Women and Three Women, or many viewpoints, as in Gone to Soldiers.
In Fly Away Home, it is important to stay in the viewpoint of Daria because the novel is her education in who her husband really is and what a number of things she has not understood actually mean. In He, She and It, Shira is the viewpoint character in the present of the novel (our future – very much our future as global warming proceeds unabated) and Malkah has the task of telling the golem legend placed in 1600 Prague, which is the story of Yod in another key. In Gone to Soldiers, I needed nine viewpoints to encompass the various aspects of World War II I was writing about.
Templin: You saw early that you would be better off turning your energies to the women’s movement, abandoning to some extent New Left politics.
Piercy: It wasn’t that early, actually. I had been involved in the New Left from 1965 on, civil rights before that, but far more peripherally. I did not leave Students for a Democratic Society until it was coming apart at the seams in 1969 and there was tremendous infighting. I was already working on women’s issues and had done so since 1966 or so but during early 1970, I decided that my energies would be more productive if I worked with women only. I was bored with defending feminism to men who were threatened by it, and wanted to explore my own potential and that of the women I was working with – to find new ways of doing politics as well as working toward goals that we saw as important.
Templin: Some reviewers of your memoir have commented on the memories of your sexual life. What are you saying about sexuality in your memoir?
Piercy: I am saying that’s how it was. I don’t apologize for being sexually adventurous. Why not? It was often fun. When it wasn’t – I didn’t continue what wasn’t pleasant.
Templin: It is obvious that you did extensive historical research for several of your novels, but to what extent is research a component of every novel?
Piercy: Yes, research is a component of every novel. For some it is a huge undertaking – for instance, Gone to Soldiers; He, She and It; and City of Darkness, City of Light. For others, such as Three Women, the research is very specific and not nearly as extensive.
Templin: I greatly admire your treatment of elderly women in your recent novels. Did you need to do a lot of medical research on strokes for the character Beverly in Three Women?
Piercy: My brother and my mother died of strokes, but I nonetheless had a great deal of research to do on stroke and speech rehabilitation.
Templin: Can you comment on why you like to write in the third person?
Piercy: I have written in the first person in Braided Lives. I use the first person in my memoir Sleeping with Cats. In general, I find the third person encourages brevity and makes for better pacing and easier characterization. It’s somewhat awkward to write sex scenes in the first person, for instance.
Templin: There is a pattern in your novels of dividing the novel into sections relating to each character. How do you manage to keep the voices straight as you write?
Piercy: I don’t always do this – for instance, I didn’t in Braided Lives or in Fly Away Home. The novel I am writing now does not switch viewpoints.
When I am working in various voices, around the third draft I write the novel through in each voice and thus make it consisted with that character’s world view, diction, vocabulary, knowledge. Then I put it all back together again.
Templin: It is hard for me to think of another contemporary writer who has explored the theme of class as you have. I believe you have spoken of uncovering buried lives in connection with your poetry. Are you doing something similar in fiction?
Piercy: I think few of the readers of Woman on the Edge of Time, for instance, would give the time of day to Connie, an overweight, prematurely aged Chicana employed as a maid or cleaning lady. You want to seduce the reader into entering the mind and experiences of someone they would not normally credit with the same fascinating inner life as they judge their own to be.
Templin: One thing that strikes me about your treatment of class is the lack of romanticism about the working class – no suggestion that community bond makes up for oppression, for example. In The High Coast of Living you seem to suggest that the person who wants to climb to a higher class can’t win – that a price must be paid, compromises (moral compromises) must be made. There seems no way to win. Is that your point?
Piercy: My point is that there are no free gifts in capitalism. It is far easier to inherit a fortune and you can feel that your hands personally are clean, than it is to make a fortune or even to make it into the middle class. Yes, there is a cost for social and economic climbing. Why is it a surprise that I should think so? I have a long poem about that in both Mars and Her Children and in The Art of Blessing the Day, called “Up and Out.” I think I said what I have to say about this in that poem, which is in four parts.
Templin: You have used a variety of settings in your fiction. How important is your own place in helping you render place or in inspiring you?
Piercy: I have set novels in Paris, in New York City frequently, in London. The novel I am writing now is set in Washington, Philadelphia, and Connecticut. I have written about Cape Cod in Summer People and in the novel in Ira Wood and I wrote together, Storm Tide. I’ve used the Cape far more in my poetry than in my fiction, but I’ve used it occasionally in my fiction.
Templin: You say in your memoir that you need to spend some time in a setting before you can write about it. How does that work?
Piercy: It’s really important to visit a site you are writing about. Even if you know it well, even if you have lived there, it’s important to take a fresh look in terms of your characters and your story. In writing the early Beverly sections in Three Women, I needed to spend some time on the Upper West side, and not only to see if the neighborhood had changed and how. I needed to look at it from the point of view of an elderly woman without much money.
In the first draft of Gone to Soldiers, I had Jeff dropped into an area of France that, as a former landscape painter, he found intensely attractive. Guidebooks rarely tell you the truth. When I actually went there, I found it about as attractive as the industrial parts of New Jersey. Therefore I had to move his activities – his fascination.
I had read so much about the activities of the clandestine Jewish army as part of the Marquis, that, when we drove into the Montagne Noir and began to navigate a maze of logging roads, I was able to go directly to the spot where the battle occurred in which several of my characters are killed – a clearing in the dark forest where a marker and some gravestones indicate the site.
It doesn’t take a long time to get what you need from a place: sometimes a week suffices, sometimes a few days, sometimes a few hours. However, no amount of research can replace the feel of a place, the sounds, the scents, the tactile sensation of bricks or stone or stucco. Only direct observation can give you the right trees on the streets of Prague, the size of the slugs in the Montagne Noir, the correct wildflowers by the side of the road in Provence. As well as guides to the trees, wildflowers, butterflies and moths, amphibians and reptiles, mammals, rocks, scat and tracks, bushes and shrubs of North America, I also possess and use some guides for Europe, sometimes in English and sometimes not. All of these guides help me to observe more carefully when I am setting a novel somewhere.
Templin: Do you have any comments on the idea that writers can write too much – be too prolific?
Piercy: Understand I made a decision years ago not to pursue the PhD; I needed only one class, Anglo-Saxon, and my thesis, which had been chosen already, to get a doctorate. I chose a less secure life but one in which I was free to write just about full time, at least six days a week year round. What you call prolific I call slow. It takes me two or three years to write a novel. I have as many ideas that get away from me as I do ideas that I manage to pursue. I am a driven writer. I feel guilty if I don’t write, not self-indulgent if I do. I have an uncertain income and of course there are financial pressures on me to put out books. But there are just as many pressures to go on the road and do workshops, readings and lectures. If I have a nice secure income like a MacArthur, I would get much more done. One thing that speeds up the process is that I do research on one novel while writing another one. I am always writing poetry, of course, and was writing The Third Child while researching the next novel.