I began by asking about her current writing projects
MM. I’ve started work on a new autobiography, what my publisher calls an intellectual autobiography, beginning in 1925, when I first seemed to notice that there was such a thing as an intellectual! It starts where Memories of a Catholic Girlhood ended, more or less, but it’s really nothing like Memories, in style or content. I’ve approached the early part from a different angle and used a lot of new material, especially new portraits. The impulse to improvise – re-imagining conversations or re-ordering events for dramatic impact and so on – is nowhere near as strong as it was for Memories. Maybe the greater distance of time has made me more particular in some ways, or at least it’s reduced the urge to follow fictional conventions.
RL. On the topic of writing and recollection, how do you respond to comments made by some reviewers of your early fiction, that it was simply thinly disguised autobiography?
MM. In many of those early short stories, fictionalizing events from my own life was, at least partly, I think, a kind of distancing device for self-observation, making it easier for me to step back and study my own feelings, under the camouflage of fiction. Most writers begin by writing about themselves and, in that sense, I was certainly no exception. Having said that – and going back to your question - I do so hate that sloppy assumption which somehow labels The Company She Keeps as ‘merely’ autobiographical, as though there were just this one-to one connection between writer and character. I think it shows a lack imagination, a lack of attention to the writing itself. Actually, it was only after I’d written my third story that the idea of a heroine for a novel began to take shape - which, in one sense for me, was really a kind of experiment in perspective. But anyway, that sort of criticism is all the more irritating because it overlooks the ideas I was really trying to consider.
RL. Did that include considering Meg Sargent as somehow typical of her gender and era?
MM. It was never my aim to characterise Meg Sargent as a woman of her times, though I think any serious writer will automatically reflect the social values of their age, in one way or another. No, the idea of femininity, as an identity, or as some sort of restraint or restriction, was not my concern; neither was I particularly interested in examining ‘gender’. I was far more interested in describing human affairs, not just male-female, but the wider network of social ties and influences, in relation to personal integrity and honesty, for instance, or power and justice. The idea of surviving a particular kind of domination was obviously a concern in a story like ‘Ghostly Father, I Confess’ which, as you probably know, had quite a direct autobiographical source, growing out of period in my life when my second husband (Edmund Wilson) had convinced me to see a psychiatrist – three in fact, all very conservative, politically and professionally – in return for a divorce and custody of my son, Reuel, who was then 4. In fact, it was really a trick to stop me filing for separation - not a conspiracy as such, but they all wanted me to go back to the marriage. As things turned out, once I’d escaped from Wilson, it became perfectly clear that all my so-called psychological problems were the inventions of the psychiatrists.
RL. In one particular story – ‘The Friend of the Family’ – you make a clear connection between the decline of a marriage and the rise of fascism. In drawing this parallel, were you developing the idea of male-female relationships as political power struggles?
MM. The story was conceived on experimental lines, in terms of making comparisons between politics and human relationships in general, not just male/female. I don’t know how anyone could put a feminist label on that, or on anything else I’ve written for that matter. Feminism is simply not part of my generation’s way of looking at things - though obviously, the politics of human affairs has always interested me. And, in that story for example, it was a natural connection to make, between social behaviour and political tyranny.