Lynne Tillman For her, satire is a way of getting at the truth.
Frances Kiernan It’s still in The Group. Because The Group was conceived in 1952. But you don’t see it turning up in her fiction, really, ever again after she marries Jim West. In fact, she deliberately forgoes satire in Birds of America. It’s meant to be taken straight. The other, Cannibals and Missionaries, is a thriller. For the most part she’s playing it straight again. Satire is where she’s strongest, except for Memories of a Catholic Girlhood, and of course that isn’t really fiction.
LT She’s bold in the way she wrote about sex, in her writing generally, in how she led her life. She held strong positions, used episodes from her life and people she knew who knew they were in her books. She took harsh criticism and didn’t flinch.
FK She stuck by it all. There was something in her that didn’t necessarily want people to like her. I think she wanted people to notice her.
LT You can imagine the reactions to her novels or her essays, compared with her childhood deprivations…
FK She could get through it. Because there is a difference. She was upset. John Gross talks about having written a bad review of The Group; he always felt that she’d read it. It was between them, but it never came up. She did read those things and took them hard. But at the same time it never stopped her. Somehow she could slough it off.
LT How did she take Mailer’s writing that “she was not a good enough woman to be a good novelist?”
FK She hated that review when it came out. She was really upset. Later on, with Birds of America, Helen Vendler attacked her for writing a book about the kitchen and domestic arts. The reviews were not great, and she said she began to long for something of the quality of Mailer’s review. Mailer said later on she forgave him, they had a decent relationship. It was wrong and sexist of him to do it. But at least he treated her as a figure worthy of this kind of demolition. In time, she wasn’t getting that kind of attention, and I think she may have missed it.
LT You were a fiction editor at The New Yorker for many years.
FK I was there for 20 years, always in the fiction department.
LT I wondered about your thoughts on the differences between fiction and biography.
FK No one would have written the kind of biography that I did who hadn’t come out of a fiction background. I’m so interested in Mary McCarthy as a personality. She is first and foremost the center. I’m interested in watching her develop and the contradictions in her character. I don’t believe that there is a truth that is knowable, and that permeates the book.
LT Is that why you chose to use oral history?
FK I was originally going to write a straight oral history. Then, I guess the book had three or four different people who were interested in buying it, but the one I wanted to go with was Gerry Howard at Norton. Gerry said, “We feel you should have writing of your own to control the voices.” For me the idea of doing an oral history was appealing. But it didn’t work. As the book goes on there’s more and more of my writing. What I realized was you needed my writing for the flexibility of it; also it was a way of shortening the book. It made it possible to take out about 300 pages. At some point I found the format constricting and wanted to do it as a straight biography. But Gerry felt it would be a loss. The fact is, some of those voices are terrific.
LT When you suggested doing McCarthy, had you read the other biographies?
FK No, but I did immediately. The Brightman hadn’t come out at that point; we thought Carol Brightman was doing a book about Mary’s politics, not a full-scale biography; I never would have attempted this book if I knew.
LT Was she helpful to you?
FK She’s been wonderful to me. What first happened was I read Doris Grumbach’s and then Carol Gelderman’s. I wanted to make sure that I didn’t start a book about someone I couldn’t like and respect. I saw quickly that she had flaws, but they weren’t flaws that bothered me. I think that’s important. Because people would say, “How could you do a book about this person? She was so awful!” I never found her awful.
LT What was so awful about her?
FK If you had a brush with her and she didn’t like you, she could be a terror. But I had never had a brush with her. I could imagine in my mind she liked me because people I knew and cared about she had liked and been good to. I think that was part of it. Many people have said to me, “Why you, of all people?” But what I liked in her was that she was so different from me. She was all the things that I would have liked to be, the person who did speak out. That’s why I was drawn to her. I would have been a Mary McCarthy groupie if we had met.
LT What about the instability of oral history, about people’s memories of the past and bad personal histories? Saul Bellow is particularly vicious and condescending.
FK I thought it would be obvious to readers when they’re way out of line. Bellow’s sometimes out of control. I sat with him for an hour and laughed the entire time—he’s one of the funniest men in the world. Later I thought, he hasn’t said a nice thing about anybody. I did all my own transcribing, because I felt it was important to hear the voices again. I transcribed Bellow accurately and was astonished at how mean he was. But his voice was so gentle, he was so charming. I thought, the delivery manages to mask the venom. He really hated her. It was mostly about Eichmann in Jerusalem — they were on opposite sides; Mary defended Hannah in an essay, “The Hue and Cry,” and he didn’t like Hannah. The other thing was Mary’s attack on George Orwell. Bellow was a good friend of Sonia Orwell, the widow,but he also felt that Mary was plain wrong about Orwell. She was. But it was Mary; she had her reasons.
LT Going back to her insistence on questioning ethical positions, which she did—
LT When she attacked Hellman for lying, it also damaged her, her reputation. It was one woman, one writer, attacking another.
FK Hellman lost, too. You don’t sue someone for making a personal attack.
LT The argument went back to the 1930s—
FK Hellman was a Stalinist. In 1948 Mary and she were at a party, at Sarah Lawrence—it was the second time they met—and Mary overheard Hellman accusing John Dos Passos of turning against the loyalist cause because he didn’t like the food in Madrid. Mary stepped forward, publicly corrected Hellman, and defended Dos Passos.
LT McCarthy was politically engaged.
FK Emotionally as well as politically engaged. The way most of us are.
LT She came of age in a period when positions were very clearly drawn. That’s compelling to consider now, in our post-Cold War world.
FK By temperament McCarthy tended to side with the underdog always. But in fact the underdog tended to be right. I think her finest hour is during the 1950s, when everybody else is losing their bearings, and she doesn’t. She stays on the right side, and she speaks out.
LT Was she ever brought in front of the House Un-American Activities Committee?
FK No, because she was never a Communist. She was an anti-Stalinist of the Left, but aside from signing a petition on Trotsky’s behalf I don’t think she was officially part of any radical group. Unlike William Phillips or Philip Rahv, she had no ties to the Communists, who had funded an earlier version of the Partisan Review. She’d never joined the Party.
LT Rahv, her former lover—one of the very interesting men in her life.
FK She does define herself through the men she’s with somehow, for all her independence. Mary always wanted to be Mary McCarthy, not on anybody’s coattails. But there’s no question Edmund Wilson helped her by encouraging her to write fiction. He was the best first reader you could hope for. He also had wonderful connections. Her first story was published by Robert Penn Warren, who was a friend of Wilson’s. Wilson had lots of connections at The New Yorker. It made it easier. She wanted to believe that she was the orphan who made it on her own. We all have our own stories about ourselves.