An Interview With Jean McGarry

by Rebecca Bernard


Jean McGarry is the author of six books of fiction, among them the novel The Courage of Girls (Rutgers University Press) and the short story collection Dream Date (JHU Press). Her most recent short story collection Ocean State was published in 2010. Her 2006 novel, A Bad and Stupid Girl (University of Michigan Press), received the University of Michigan Fiction Prize. Her short stories have appeared in The New Yorker, The Yale Review, Boulevard, The Southwest Review, and others. She served as chairwoman of The Writing Seminars from 1997-2005.

Interviewer: Given the deep interiority present in so many of the stories in the collection Ocean State would you share a little about your process? At what point does the linear narrative structure enter?

McGarry: That’s a good question. You know Henry James, when he wrote the preface to Roderick Hudson, his first novel, talked about the struggle of writers—between the plan for the novel and the actual as its going on, the struggle between the direction the plan wants to go in and the way the actual writing is going. For me it’s a similar kind of struggle but there is no plan, I don’t start with a plan but I do think you put your finger on it, the interiority, the textured mosaic-like quality of the moment, there’s that and then how do you get to the next moment? How do you move the story to the end? But I don’t struggle with that anymore I just let whatever the moment I’m writing about fill in and then I’ll usually take a break and write the next day and when I read that, I’m free enough of that, of the intricate net to move, to be able to move to the next. So maybe it’s the mechanical passing—you can read faster than you can write so when you read it it’s the launching to the next. But I’ve always also felt that the real action of the story happens on the really microscopic level. It happens in the little tensions in an individual sentence, it creates something in the reader’s mind… it’s supposed to be something in the characters but actually it’s the reader we want to excite, so it’s the reader who sees those little things. I think that drama in the story is the transfer of energy from sentence to sentence with those interesting breaks where suddenly you move ahead in time or maybe there is a change in POV.  The other thing I was thinking of in regard to some of my stories, I think you start off a story with a tone and you know the tone you want to end with, does that sounds right to you?

Interviewer: Meaning that there would be some sort of change in tone?

McGarry: There would be a change, there would be an intensification, there would be a reversal—we just don’t fully know, you don’t know what the end points going to be in terms of event, but, I know, well I started out at 20 and I’m going to 30, I’m going to 45.

Interviewer: So sort of like the ultimate vibe or conclusion… I’m thinking of “Welcome Wherever He Went” it definitely ends you with a completely different…. Tons of time has passed, but also the feeling where he ends, although in his mental consciousness I don’t know how different it is…

McGarry: Well that’s a hard one for me to talk about in this light, I guess an easier story to talk about—it’s an easier story—is “The Night Before,” where a woman is trying to give herself a good nights sleep because her life is going to change tomorrow and I think the first sentence there is “tomorrow is the first day of elegance” and what I hear in that sentence is the idea that there’s a shattering of illusion ahead. The character starts out thinking that she’s going to be disappointed in some way but you have to keep both going. You have to keep the illusion going and whatever is going to come in. I guess once I got the sister in there, and the mother, I thought, this not going to be the story where there’s a big fight at the end or she’s going to decide not to get married. I guess what I figured out when I was working on the story is that the whole life of that family is going to be clarified by the end of that story. The life to come is something else, the day of elegance and everything that follows, but the life that these three characters have already lived is going to be not only exposed, but maybe intensified because this woman is gone, she’s leaving and they’re all going to try and pull her back in.

Interviewer: It’s funny that you would say her being pulled back in in that moment, because when I was reading that story I felt so much sympathy for these other two women.

McGarry: Yeah it’s true. Well that’s another form of energy in a story, how the reader feels about the characters. I think one of the tricky things that fiction writers often do is they’ll make the main character the least sympathetic of all so that the reader is wishing and hoping against that character in some way, wanting him or her to be thwarted.

Interviewer: Going off of some things you mentioned earlier today. In many of the stories in this collection I noticed a good deal of familial lineage present. Many generations of one family are often represented within a single piece. In the same vein, great spans of time are often leapt over, which I think is really interesting, in particular as you called it the antithesis of the epiphany story. I’d be curious to know if this sort of branching is in any way related to your psychoanalytic background, as far as that the causal relationships that exist between family members are more dramatically seen as they are developed throughout time therefore that’s why your stories span longer periods of time rather than simply a single day or span of weeks.

McGarry: Your question is illuminating because it’s making something clear to me that I didn’t realize. I think one of the other reasons the stories are longer or include more time, is because they’re really about more than one character. They’re truly familial. And I think maybe an epiphanic story really has to center on a single character, moving toward that point of astonishment, so maybe the psycho-analytic aspect is that the character is never alone, they’re not only surrounded by the people around them but they’re surrounded by all the people who’ve passed too. I really hadn’t thought of that, but you’re onto something, that’s good.

Interviewer: Like leap-frogging from generation to generation.

McGarry: I think I’ve always felt that I was a little bit unfair to my characters because I learned a lot from Joyce and Joyce really wanted to expose, he was always so angry and I think I came to a point where I thought, where I wanted to you know, not handle them with a greater gentleness but I just wanted to give them a little more scope. And I think it had to do with psychoanalysis, but I also think it had to do with that I wanted to write more than about an individual person’s pathway through life. I thought more about the group and their relationships. Not—a love relationship, is it going to be a success or not? But all the texture and knotting that happens between two people over time or between more than two people over time, so it wasn’t an individual’s triumph or failure or anything, and I guess this goes back to your thoughts on interiority, if you’re going to do that you’re not going to have as clear a plot line because you’re going to take away the fictional element for this person where everything changed this night, because actually when you’re talking about a group of people it’s going to be very different things for each one of them. I remember a student in class talking about the story “Transference” and how it didn’t have that traditional arc because it wasn’t about a singular patient. It’s about Dr. Broad in the course of one day.

Interviewer: I feel like I had a similar experience reading that story. I was caught off guard—

McGarry: You thought it was going to be about Isabel?

Interviewer: Right and it wasn’t. And when she left I was watching her leave for a couple of pages before I was like wait? Oh…but then I ended up getting caught up with him. Once I realized what was actually happening it became more interesting. I feel like if it had stayed with Isabel it would have become sensational in a way, like how are you going to fix this? I want to relate it to reality TV in my mind. How will you fix this incredibly damaged thing that I’m watching? Which is troubling.

McGarry: Well obviously between the two of them there’s a lot of combat because she’s this girl with a lot of rage in her and he has a lot of sadistic ideas about what happens in treatment. It really was going to be like reality TV, it was going to be rough. That would be sensational, one day she came in and just started breaking the glass things he had on the wall. Those kinds of things do happen.

Interviewer: That sounds terrifying. … Speaking of point of view. I noticed you generally use a close third. I noticed while reading the stories in “Ocean State” that “Dream Date” is the only story told in first person. Was it a conscious choice to have this particular story stand out in that way? How do you decide the point of view to follow? I know some writers will try out different points of view…

McGarry: I had no choice. I don’t have that wonderful moment of deliberation, I’m already in. You know I think it must happen as I imagine the characters and the character’s world and once there I don’t really have any wiggle room to think, well maybe I’ll try it here. I very much start with the first sentence. If the “I” is there as it was in “Dream Date” then I could stay with it, but I never could introduce it after the fact. One of the strange things that I do, and I don’t want to keep on doing this because it’ll get to be a mannerism, is I usually title a book, a whole book with a title that I’m going to use for a story after the fact. So I titled my last book Home at Last and in my next book there’s a story called “Home at Last.” So that’s a strange use of title. The title in some ways suits the book, but in some ways galvanizes me to think of, well what’s the real story that goes here? It’s been really fun to do that for some reason or other, it’s almost as if there’s a little life left in that title, or that now I understand what it means.

Interviewer: When putting together a short story collection, what process do you typically follow? Do you ever feel a need to create additional stories to fill in gaps thematically?

McGarry: Yep, I do that but it’s really a lot of fun to put together. Even though I know that readers are going to do their own thing, they’re going to start reading this and then go back here, that’s fine too, but I love the idea of passage from one story to the next. So I think of my story collections as being organized, not just as oh here’s what I happened to write this past five years. Like having “Family Happiness” first and “Ocean State” last.

Interviewer: Why did you order them that way?

McGarry: Well some of it is kind of instinctive but I didn’t have a title for the last story. The two most recent stories in Ocean State were “Ocean State” and maybe “Family Happiness.” And a writer’s dream is always the concept of getting better, I mean it’s not always the case but you do think… And these stories, well “Family Happiness” is so layered, so many layers of time and “Ocean State” is such a strange story that I guess… and they were the most recent so I thought this is a frame that could be very powerful. And then there are some stories, I’ve always had an interest in experimental fiction so some of the stories are much stranger, there are elements of fantasy or I don’t know what you would call it but they’re not real stories. So I always have to figure out well where am I going to put these that are so different.

Interviewer: None of your stories feel entirely traditional and I couldn’t quite put my finger on it when I was reading and I would think, this seems like a traditional story and yet there’s something about it. The closest I was able to explain it in my mind was that it was a reverse Raymond Carver where you have this clean language where it feels clean and simple, but rather than describing someone say, sitting at this table and you’re getting an exterior scene, you’re getting a completely interior scene.

McGarry: That’s a very good description.

Interviewer: So that it’s almost this planned intricate puzzle, so that I’m going to tell you five facts about someone but they aren’t five facts that are going to lead you immediately to a conclusion about them you have to make your own understanding of them.

McGarry: That’s exactly right. And I think what happens is that because they’re on different registers, the facts are on different registers, they aren’t all just what the person looks like and sounds like, they’ll go away from that and have something to do with what they’re thinking about so you wont be able to consolidate it.

Interviewer: You’ve talked about stacking metaphors. Other repeated themes I noticed in this collection were cleansing, industriousness. This idea of creating a family where there was no family. The art models all on one page, the tree of life, the doctor’s patients from “Transference.” I’ve been interested lately in the idea of metaphor taking over the functions of God, in so far as creating a sense of order out of disorder. Do you find that through your writing life there have been repetitions in theme? Are they latent or involved in your conscious thought? General themes that cycle over the course of years or that you’re perpetually interested in?

McGarry: What do you hope is the answer to that question for your own writing?

Interviewer: I’m not sure I know. I thought it was interesting how you talked about how you’re now writing about things you used to write about 25 years ago, but in a new way, in a new light.

McGarry: I’m always glad when things come back. And I’m always surprised too. One of the fun things about putting together a collection of stories is seeing where you’ve been and sometimes it’s daunting because you think I haven’t been that many places but then you see in ecstasy I haven’t been that many places but I’ve been there again and again. I initially thought of this collection as a collection on craft. There was a fascination on sewing, with sculpting, with painting, not craft so much as technique but craft as far as devotion to a process, how people rescue themselves. I think of the “Tree of Life” where this guy has been just a mechanical part of his family’s life and his work life, but has always had this tremendous brain and sensibility. But at the end of his life he decides he’s going to learn how to draw, not drawing to learn how to draw, he’s drawing because it’s giving back to him what these vital times in his life were that he wouldn’t get to see otherwise. I love that. That there would be a possibility for people this way, some kind of discipline, study, absorption that would give them something back that other things never do. So I thought, except in “Family Happiness,” a lot of the characters are really interested in objects, as in “Gold Leaf” or they’re going to draw and even in “Ocean State,” the man, he has an artist’s point of view. It’s bringing all the women characters in his life together in one. Because to me that’s amazingly hopeful to see that and I’ve been trying to encourage it in myself. When people think about life trajectories they think in terms of falling in love, as a rectification or growing up and becoming educated but it seemed to me there could be another possibility that they could have an urge to do something which would be very rewarding to them but it would also reflect back on who they were. It seemed to me, like when you say that metaphor became like God, that seems to me a real possibility, it doesn’t seem sentimental like you’re offering yourself some kind of salve.

Interviewer: I’ve visualized the inside of my mind as different things throughout the years starting in high school and it never struck me anything significant until recently I started thinking, well the world is so infinitely vast and amazing in so many ways and perhaps metaphor is just a way to—not to tie it down—but to make it stacked or clearer or…

McGarry: Well the logic of cause and effect is exhaustive. So this could be some other way, it can’t simply be the psychoanalytic idea that fantasy comes out of childhood, it can’t simply be that. There must be some other rubric we can use to say, look at it this way. But to go back to your question, I think those are the things I’ve written about: family and so on. So I don’t know if I have more to say on this, but I’m very interested in those subjects. I think the subject I’m interested in now is ambition. I have a novel about an art historian who cannot accept the fact that he’s not a great artist and what kind of distortion that creates in his life.

Interviewer: Sounds tragic.

McGarry: It’s also comic.

Interviewer: Do you fluctuate between working on short stories and novels or do you simultaneously work on things?

McGarry: No I am not a simultaneous person, I am a one thing at a time—I’m in the middle of this story about another analyst but he’s much more of a human being. I feel like he’s a human being, Dr. Broad wasn’t entirely a character, I was too nervous. A psychoanalyst is fun for a character because you have them as a character and then their patients are your characters. It’s vertigo. What I think is fascinating about the psychiatric field is that they think or hope that they’re offering some kind of solace but we don’t feel the same way. Maybe we’re trying to make sense of the character’s lives but we’re not offering anything.

Interviewer: You mean offering something to our characters’ lives?

McGarry: Yeah. I think I’ve felt considerable character guilt over time. You can’t seize them up in your hand and say this is who I think you are. They’re made up so you don’t really owe them anything, but you owe the people they’re based on some kind of hope.


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