Lynne Tillman Her marriage to Wilson is talked about so much. Whatever other reasons she had, she also left him because he might in some way dominate her intellectually.
Frances Kiernan She had to leave, she’d gone as far as she could go with him. He tried not to dominate her. I love what she tells an interviewer about “The Weeds,” which was a story about their marriage. Wilson read it, helped her with it, and didn’t object to her sending it out. But he got so angry, later, when it was published. She said to him, “But you read it.” And he said, “But you made it better.” It’s about a wife who leaves, then the husband goes after her and brings her back. There’s so much anger and hatred in the story. And they’re so recognizable.
LT There’s much talk in your biography about the time she was in a mental hospital. What did you think happened?
FK Did Wilson beat her? I suspect he did. He was drunk, out of control. I think he didn’t remember beating her. Did he beat her as much as she thought? Probably not. It was awful for her, nonetheless. What she later admitted to Wilson’s biographer, Lewis Dabney, was that perhaps she was aware at the time of being put into a mental institution. Always she believed she was telling the truth. She was a great truth teller. But she misremembered things, the way we all do. Certainly, she did this less than most of us. But with time, stories altered. It happens. I start the biography with meeting Mary in the ladies’ room at The New Yorker. I remember her graying hair, it was shoulder length, and I think she was smoking by the window. But am I positive about the smoking by the window? Why was she on the 20th floor and not the 19th floor where [William] Shawn was? You’ve told this story so many times to yourself and to other people you aren’t sure anymore.
LT Being thrown into a mental hospital after that fight with Wilson would’ve been traumatic.
FK It would distort everything. Her letters to him strike me as the letters of a battered wife. Though they could be used to make a case on Wilson’s behalf—she’s trying to say I’m not going to be hysterical anymore. I find it so touching that she wants to keep her baby, Rueul. Which she does indeed do. I find her totally admirable to this day. I never got tired of her, ever. It took eight years to do the book, and that’s a long time to spend with anyone. Her life began to take over mine. I had a real crisis during the marriage to Wilson. After a while, I got so depressed; and there was a real sense of elation when she finally broke out. Then more elation when she discovers Europe, goes to Venice, finds something else. I really cried when writing her death. For me, it was terrible.
LT Her death makes me think of A Charmed Life. Death, and also sex. The sex scene on the couch…
FK Horrifying, brilliant, and hysterically funny—all at the same time.
LT It’s a great novel.
FK It’s my favorite. It was also James Merrill’s favorite. He said she could barely stand to think about death. Here she dispatches her heroine so quickly.
LT Being forced to consider whether it was right to have her main character die is one of the reasons why the ending works.
FK You don’t expect it at all. But it is prepared for. Her first book, The Company She Keeps, a collection of stories, is her best book probably. “The Man in the Brooks Brothers Shirt” is in it. It’s so modern. Everyone has learned so much from her, without knowing it. She changed the way women write.
LT Was Dorothy Parker important to McCarthy?
FK No, the person who was was Rebecca West.
LT But there’s a frankness to Parker’s short stories—
FK Which Mary has. A writer named Tess Slesinger was actually the first to deal with the world of New York intellectuals. But as a writer she’s more self-effacing. Not as sharp or strident, not as good. In the best of those stories Mary has a strong main character, always the same Mary character. She is her own heroine and always best when she’s writing about herself. Look at Memories of a Catholic Girlhood. Look at A Charmed Life. What’s interesting to me is that people say she’s not a good fiction writer. She is, at her best, and she’s a terrific essayist. The disparagement of her fiction is so wrongheaded.
LT Maybe it’s because of The Group. The Group had so much attention as the next generation came along. It’s not her best novel.
FK If somebody else wrote it, it would be fine. But for her it was a falling off.
LT Through your work and Carol Brightman’s, do you think that there’s a chance her reputation will be restored?
FK I would love that. I think it’s Alison Lurie who says in my book that McCarthy had such an influence on writers that what was once profound or shocking no longer seems quite so fresh. William Maxwell then talks about posterity, and how when one looks to posterity one assumes they are going to be brighter than we are, but they’re going to be pretty much like us. And he says, “Anywhere that people have hearts they’re going to read Memories of a Catholic Girlhoodand those early stories in The Company She Keeps.” I’d like to believe that’s true: in the end quality will out. I think that what stays with me is the intelligence and the feeling both, there’s so much feeling in her writing.
LT Without being sentimental. She’s a tough thinker.
FK And she was willing to pay the price.