By Edward Schwarzschild
From the archives: Grace Paley
Welcome to a regular Trolley column that will feature highlights from the New York State Writers Institute’s extensive archives.
What are the NYSWI archives? For 35 years the Writers Institute has hosted some of the finest writers and filmmakers in the world, bringing them to Albany for talks, panels, colloquia, and more. That adds up to more than 2,000 events, and all of them, thanks to efforts led by associate director Suzanne Lance, have been recorded and collected in the archives. (Digging Deep to Digitize: Writers Institute works to make immense archive publicly accessible, Albany Times Union, January 20, 2018)
Up until now, the NYSWI archives have been an under-utilized resource, in part because the changes in technology over the years have made it difficult to access the material both in-person and online. Recently, however, the Institute has committed itself to digitizing the archives and making them more readily available. This regular feature is just one part of that commitment.
For this third column, in connection with this issue’s theme of Challenging the Status Quo: How Writers Change America, and Change Readers, I have chosen to feature a wide-ranging interview with one of my favorite writers and literary rebels, Grace Paley (1922-2007).
Paley was, as the New York Times put it, a “celebrated writer and social activist whose short stories explored in precise, pungent and tragicomic style the struggles of ordinary women muddling through everyday lives.” She was also the inaugural New York State Author from 1986-1988.
This interview from 1989 is also an appropriate choice for this issue about changing America and changing readers because it was conducted by Tom Smith, the legendary former director of the NYSWI. Smith, instrumental in the founding and establishment of the Institute, served from 1984 until his untimely death in 1994.
William Kennedy spoke the following words at Smith’s memorial service:
Anybody who knew Tom Smith would be ready to admit that he was larger than life. He was physically a large man, and he probably died trying to do something about that; he was a man of such giant intellect that those who engaged it felt like dwarfs; and he was a man of such abundant generosity of spirit that his sudden loss seems like a punishment to his survivors, his family, and his grand army of friends.
He played a role in the creation and development of the Writers Institute that is difficult to evaluate, for his literary acumen, his brilliance as a scholar, his omnivorous way of reading --he would read two books a night--and in the role he seemed to have been born for -- interviewer of writers -- will not be duplicated by any single individual. Tom could speak the language of the Russian historian, the Greek poet, the radical politician, the avant-garde playwright. We'll need a team of people to replace Tom. And for some of us there will be no replacement.
You can read more about Tom Smith and his Writers Institute legacy here.
Though this interview took place nearly 30 years ago, I think you’ll find it more relevant than ever. One of Paley’s many gifts is to be speaking to us, always, right now.
And of course, once again, as with so much of what you can find in the Institute’s archives, this interview overflows with wisdom, laughter, and a love of literary conversation.
Edward Schwarzschild is the author of the novel "Responsible Men" and the story collection "The Family Diamond." He recently finished writing "In Security," a new novel set in the world of the TSA. He’s an associate professor at the University at Albany, and a fellow at the New York State Writers Institute. Web site.
Grace Paley, interviewed by Tom Smith
Recorded for The Book Show, August 20th, 1989
Tom Smith: My guest today is one of the most admired, beloved, and exemplary writers of the American literary community, Grace Paley.
Grace Paley has published three remarkable, really singular collections of stories over the past three decades, and during all that time, she’s been a tireless activist in the causes of peace, social justice and feminism, among other things.
Her three books, incidentally, are all in bookstores across the country in paperback editions, and their titles are: The Little Disturbances of Man, Enormous Changes at the Last Minute, and Later the Same Day.
Grace, welcome to the Public Radio Book Show.
Grace Paley: Hello.
Smith: It’s always a treat to have you at the Writers Institute. Your ear for the voices and sounds of everyday life, both past and present, I think is truly unforgettable. It also has the ring of artful authenticity—not just authenticity, but artful, recreated authenticity.
Where did that come from? What place did language play in your background? How did that account for your early development as a writer?
Paley: Well, I’ll just put it in two ways. First, the business of the ear. Most people have it, but they don’t know they have it. As far as I’m concerned, when I work with speech or dialogue, whatever it is, I don’t have it at all. A first draft would look as though I had never heard a person speak in my life.
Grace Paley in her home in Thetford, Vt., April 9, 2003. (Toby Talbot / Associated Press)
Smith: So it’s rewriting.
Paley: It’s speaking aloud, speaking aloud, speaking aloud. What I do know is when I’m wrong. So that’s a blessing, isn’t it? So I just keep doing it. Now I don’t know but that some of the feeling for speech, or some of that longing for, or pleasure in, language, comes from having three languages at home, and those were English, Russian and Yiddish. But mostly Russian and English. It seems to me that the coming together of those languages makes another kind of sound, and I think that’s true in many writers’ works.
Smith: It puts English in some kind of relief, does it not? Someone who is a mono-linguistic English-speaking American just probably doesn’t have that sensitivity.
Paley: I think it sharpens the language for you in some ways, but also it just bumps into the language, and makes for other sounds, and I think English has been like that for a long time. It’s been receptive in that way to lots of other languages.
Smith: Well, you’re a New Yorker, and your sense of language coming from your own background probably got very sensitized to the wonderful variations of New York sounds. I’m not from New York. I’m from deepest Appalachia, but when I came to New York in the early 50s at the age of 19, I simply used to sit in upper Broadway, and I couldn’t believe, I mean, everything was like theatre, and that’s the way I feel when I’m reading your stories.
Paley: Well, of course when you live somewhere you don’t think it’s like theatre, you just think it’s like every day.
Smith: How about your father? Was he very attuned to language?
Paley: Well, he and my mother came to this country when they were about twenty or twenty-one, and they didn’t speak anything but Russian and maybe some Yiddish—not even that much Yiddish, my grandmother spoke that. But they came and my father immediately learned Italian.
Smith: Is that right? First thing to do in the New World.
Paley: That was because his first job was with an Italian photographer, and so he had to learn that language first. But he then learned English. So he must have been quite capable, as far as language, because he continued to speak and read Italian as well, and he spoke very well. He had a wonderful sense of it. He wrote lots of stories later on, after he retired.
Smith: Was he a story teller who liked realistic stories with a plot like the father character in your story, “A Conversation with My Father”?
Paley: Well, that was later, you know. Things that happen later are really of no influence whatsoever. So if they happen late enough, no parent or anybody can argue you into any position. But when I was younger, when I was a kid, he didn’t consciously tell stories, but he was a doctor, and so he would come in full of the grief of the world and talk about this patient and that patient. Those were the stories, really, and the sense of feeling an interest in other people’s lives, which I think is almost more important.
Smith: Yes, crucial. Do you think maybe the ear comes out of that?
Paley: You have to be paying attention. You have to be interested, basically.
Smith: How about your schooling? You’re a poet in addition to a short story writer, and you cared a great deal, as I recall, about modern poets.
Paley: Well, I was interested in poetry first. I mean, I read all the time. We kids of that time and that place read a lot. But I did become interested in poetry very early, and by the time I was thirteen or fourteen I was reading a lot of poetry and I think for my sixteenth birthday I asked for a collection of Robinson Jeffers or something like that. So I read a lot, and I consider that that’s where I went to school. As for school itself, I went to college for a year . . .
Smith: You went to Hunter College.
Paley: Yes, for less than a year. And then I went away. Well, I guess I was sort of kicked out, so to speak, and I was made to go to business school by my family. They insisted that I had to earn a living someday, and it turned out they were right, I had to. So then I went back to school at NYU for about a year and that was that.
Smith: One of the things that comes across, particularly in your first collection, The Little Disturbances of Man, is a sense of memories of the history of the 1930s and 40s, personal experiences on a human level. What imprint did, first of all the Depression and then the second World War have on you?
Paley: I think probably the Depression had a tremendous effect on me, but not on my family. My father was the neighborhood doctor so we were never poor, and although he was very generous and so forth, he was everything a neighborhood doctor should be. The neighborhood was obviously in much worse shape than we were. The street, really, I guess the memories--and other people have told me this too--certain strong memories of people’s furniture on the street, constantly, not just once, but friends, families.
Also, friends of mine who would never answer the bell in case it was the welfare person coming, and almost every single one of my friends at that time was on welfare.
Smith: So many people who grew up in New York City in the 30s have that memory. I think the Depression is a time when people who went through it have certain images that absolutely are ineradicable, of ordinary people of all classes somehow being very vulnerable to the system, the way a lot of people still are.
Smith: Speaking of the city makes me think of that wonderful story of yours from your second collection, The Long-Distance Runner, in which part of your persona, Faith, runs back to her neighborhood in Coney Island, which is devastated, meets, gets involved with a black mother and her children, and the more things change the more things stay the same. How about the city then and now? Whether you want to go back to that story or not, what’s your sense of what’s happening in the neighborhoods of New York City now?
Paley: The actual neighborhood was the Bronx, and why I turned it into Brooklyn was just an act of generosity on my part. I had gone back and back to that neighborhood, and watched it first burn up, no, first simply become vacant, then burn up, and then finally turn back to grass, which is a great real estate bonanza, you know, all that grass. And now having gone back there I see there are a number of small houses that have been built that look rather strange on my street.
My house is really still there, which is one of two houses on the whole block that remained, and when I was there just about half a year ago there was this little black boy on my stoop, which was very touching. I wanted to just leap out there and say, “I knew you were here,” or something like that. But the city for me is still terribly interesting, and it’s still a place you want to go back to. I’m living a lot now in Vermont, which is wonderful, but to go back to that city is to really see again and again the immense amount of life there and the variety of life and the colors of life which don’t exist in lots of parts of New England.
Smith: Do you think the neighborhoods still have their own kind of vitality and sense of purpose?
Paley: Well, they change. I mean, I was living in the Village a while, so it became very rich, you know? And it’s very different now. It’s very, very different. Of course it’s extremely pleasant, because all the trees have gotten old, so they’re very shady, so it’s nice. And then the Lower East Side, of course, is in constant struggle, but a neighborhood like Chelsea has taken hold. It’s a very strong neighborhood. Parts of Brooklyn and Queens are neighborhoods, some of them are sealed ethnic neighborhoods, very tight, and that’s good and bad, because I remember how sometimes hard and narrow the Italian neighborhood below the Village was at the same time that it was picturesque, lovable and safe.
So those are the things that happen. But what you see when you go back is that Manhattan itself is piling up twenty-five story building on twenty-five story building, and the whole West Side, the sky has disappeared for good, I think, in certain areas. It just no longer exists.
Smith: Well, that great polyglot will disappear from Manhattan Island, if it has not already, because just a decade ago we used to say, Well, Manhattan is just for the very rich and the very poor. Now it’s just for the very rich, and that tremendous sense of theater in the neighborhoods, which comes out in your stories so wonderfully, I’m afraid that will disappear.
Paley: You don’t know where these people are going, though. It’s just awful, really. And I have to say they really haven’t quite disappeared. In my son’s class, half his class are homeless children.
Smith: Yes. I was thinking of your story “The Long-Distance Runner.” When I recently saw Spike Lee’s new movie, "Do the Right Thing," which of course is Bedford Stuy, Bedford Stuy wasn’t on Coney Island. But really, I think part of the pathos of that movie—it had more pathos than I was prepared for—was that in some way he does idealize what the neighborhood, that block, was or could have been, and you just felt there was a tremendous nostalgia. The people all on that block, including Sal, the pizza man, are really people of good will who somehow, like most people most of the time, want to live and let live and want to treat everybody right, but there are just too many dynamics.
So I was thinking of some of the enlightenment that your persona gets when she goes back to Coney Island in the very poor black neighborhood. We were talking about the block. You refer to the block, your block, with such loving gratitude. That’s your inspiration. Is that sense of community your source of identity as a writer? Is that your myth, I mean, as Yeats had the myth of the Celtic revival? Is that your myth, the block?
Paley: Well, it’s a lot less classy than a whole revival. You’ve said it, and I haven’t thought of it that way, because I don’t think that way, but I guess to some extent, because certainly my block in the Bronx was extraordinary in the vast number of children that lived and played on it. At a reading that I did not so long ago, a man my age came up to me and reminded me who he was, how he lived next door to me on the block. I asked him about others, and it turned out that he still saw all the boys of that bunch and that they were still there. It really was a very tight place, in a way that certain ghettos are, in the way they are, really, loving places as well as repressed places sometimes.
Smith: I must say in your stories, your block seems to extend to cover the world. Certainly, the ensuing decades, but also in some way the whole concept of the human community.
Paley: I wanted to begin, that was the first block really, and my sense of it, and it proceeded to the places where I’ve lived for the last thirty-five, forty years.
Smith: That’s what I was really asking. Your sense of identity or source of inspiration comes from the notion, the ethos, of a block, and I think that’s why the characters, all of them, seem to be created with such loving understanding—not sentimentality. There’s no nastiness in your writing. There’s some social anchor. And I think it’s because you do have a sense of community that you’re able to give all of your characters—some kind of human image that’s unforgettable.
Now, one of the compelling aspects of your stories is the explorations of women’s lives. However, your women’s lives are really not the sound of victims. They’re feisty, they have sexual desires, they have inner lives, they have all kinds, a great variety. From The Little Disturbances of Man, through Later the Same Day, your voices, these voices, women’s voices, reflect the changes of three decades. How have things changed, the way you see it, either in your stories or just as an observer, between men and women? Maybe we’re talking about families too, but particularly between men and women, because there seem to be such wonderful variety of relationship struggles between men and women.
And yet the men are all recognizable. You don’t demonize your male characters. A lot of them are absent, a lot of them are negligent, but they’re all recognizable, from my point of view, and I just wonder how you see the changes between the genders in the last three decades.
Paley: Well, when you’re sixty-six, as I am now, you’re very careful about talking about changes that really are important to younger people. It’s important to me too, but those life changes, those ways of living together, I’ve resolved a lot of it and what I haven’t resolved I can handle, and what I’m angry about I’m still angry about. But one does have children, after all, to learn from, a little bit at least. My sense is that almost anywhere two things have happened. Just like we’re all much more rich and much more poor right now, in that same sense, men are much more better and much more worse.
Smith: That’s wonderful. Could you explain?
Paley: I see among my son, who’s in his thirties, among his friends and younger men that they have really used the women’s movement. The women’s movement has done, sometimes I think, more good for men in a lot of ways. It’s improved them a good deal, and in their relation to their families, to their children and the women they know. A great many of them are better. A number of them are not better but they’re confused, which is also an honorable position, because we all live in history and we can’t run from that fact. But at the same time, as our country has become more and more militaristic, the people it would effect the most would be the men.
So you have, really, whole layers of male life, and different places where it’s more noticeable than others, where men are more angry at women and feel freer because of the last ten years, which is different than the ten years before, because if things had continued from the 70s the way we wanted them to, things would be really, really, really different.
But because of this 10-year reaction, the aggressive feelings of and righteous feelings of men against women have been encouraged by the last ten years and by the militarism of the country, which means the enhancement of violence and so forth. So in that area, things are really worse.
Smith: Feminism is a word, of course, that means a lot of things to a lot of people, but is there any difference between your role as a feminist writer and a feminist activist? Is there any great discrepancy? I mean, is there something when you’re being an advocate for women’s causes that you can’t allow to enter into your writer’s voice when you’re empathizing with, say, both the male and the female characters in your story? And how does that work?
Paley: Yeah, well, since I’m very opinionated on a whole lot of subjects, I don’t see why feminism would be the only one. When I wrote my first book, I didn’t know that I was a feminist or not. I just became one. I sort of taught myself, in a sense. I learned from myself. But I was very interested in the lives of women and I continue like that. I think you have obligations as a writer to be truthful to yourself. I mean, there’s no great general truths out there, you know. But you have knowledge. You don’t just work from feelings. You work really from information, and then you have the attention that you pay to the world. I imagine everything I am influences what I write.
Smith: “A Conversation with My Father” is a great story about writing, not really about the genders. But the narrator doesn’t want to be tied to plot the way her father wants her to, and I wonder if your interest in women’s lives, which are fragmentary and are in the middle of things rather than having beginning middle and ending the way men sometimes conceive every life or every plot, I wonder if that feeds into the kind of thing we’re talking about.
Paley: Well, it could, but you know I would never really have done it on purpose. I would never have said, Well, women’s lives are like this and that’s the way I’m going to show it, you know, so I’m listening to you rather than saying, Well, maybe you’re right. But also there are literary movements that happen along with social ideas, and the appreciation of Henry James’ round circular story was good for his time, but it began to disappear, and I like that openness that happens and I found myself doing it.
Smith: That’s what you say, or your character says, to the father.
Paley: It’s also an historical thing. It was a literary discussion, but it was also an historical one. He comes from a time and a generation where things really were closed down.
Smith: Do you have any practical hope for the future that you could articulate in a sentence or two?
Paley: Well, I think that things are so bad that they’ve got to either be worse or better. But I think that people really are organizing in communities all over this country, and it doesn’t get into the papers. It gets into the local papers. So if people would go out and buy the town newspapers of many towns in this whole country, they would see that some other kind of consensus is building, which is one that will make for change, I think, in a more hopeful direction.
Previously published from the NYS Writers Institute archives:
Norman Mailer Interviewed by William Kennedy and Russell Banks, 2007
Note: Grace Paley was a Visiting Writer at the NYS Writers Institute in 2002, when she gave a joint reading with Robert Nichols