An Interview with Rosellen Brown

Alexander Neubauer | February 1994

Rosellen Brown
Rosellen Brown

Rosellen Brown began writing poetry at age nine and stories (her first, a murder mystery) at ten, enjoying "the power of words deployed on the page for my own delight." At Barnard College she took an early and influential writing class, a poetry workshop with Robert Pack, and in 1962 received an MA in English from Brandeis University. She has lived since in Mississippi and New Hampshire, and currently teaches creative writing in Texas at the University of Houston.
Rosellen Brown is acclaimed for both her poetry, such as Cora Fry (1977), and her prose, including the novels Tender Mercies (1978), Civil Wars (1984), and most recently the critically lauded and best-selling Before and After (1992). A Rosellen Brown Reader: Selected Poetry and Prose (1992) reveals her twin affection, and she has been eloquent, here and elsewhere, in the need to traffic freely between forms whenever necessary. She has written, "If you, a fiction writer, are not prepared to make a set of poems out of your stalled novel, have you considered any of the other 'odd lots and broken sizes' of form that are so enticingly available to you?" This year Farrar, Straus and Giroux will reprint the original Cora Fry in an edition that will also include a sequel of new poems.
The following interview is from Conversations on Writing Fiction: Interviews with 13 Distinguished Teachers of Fiction Writing in America by Alexander Neubauer; the book will be published in April by HarperCollins Publishers. © 1994 by Alexander Neubauer. By arrangement with HarperCollins Publishers.

Alexander Neubauer: In your essay "Don't Just Sit There: Reading as Polymorphous Perverse Pleasure," you speak about the simple joy of one's early reading and writing and how to rekindle it in creativity. But I'm sitting with you an hour after you were on television with your novel, Before and After, and I'm curious about the meeting of those two worlds, pure creativity and commercial success.

Rosellen Brown: Well, it's funny. If you could come up with the most seemingly classic, old-fashioned progression of a career it would be mine. I started as a poet, then started writing odd things that were neither poetry nor stories, then stories, and from there a novel and then more novels. It's almost a perfect curve. Except that it's not an inevitable progression or hierarchy, where one is better than the one before. I've just learned to go on longer and put together a larger scheme. There's value going back and forth, and after this book I'm going back to a book of poetry. I don't want to repeat even the possibility of another best-seller. People who write trying to craft their sentences carefully do it just because of the sound of the words. You have to keep that sense of self-delight. In some ways I still think of myself as a poet who writes prose, trying to revise word by word.

Neubauer: You've written of "the astonished pleasure of the feel of the letters," each letter even having its own color. But eventually writers have to narrow themselves.

Brown: And narrow themselves too much.

Neubauer: What do you see as the real gain of staying fluid?

Brown: The gain is that you can make use of more of what you are interested in. I think if you only write stories or only poetry, you let a lot of things go by, kinds of moments that might be usable for a poem but not a piece of prose. If you keep all those options open to yourself, everything becomes usable grist. It seems a shame that so many people narrow themselves. And I remember what it was like. I remember when I was in Mississippi in the sixties and found myself thinking what great stories there are here and what a shame that I only wrote poetry and didn't know how then to write stories.
Where I teach, at the University of Houston, we demand that our graduate students take what we call a crossover semester in another genre; the poets have to take a prose class, the prose writers a playwriting semester, and so on. It's sometimes very difficult, but sometimes they discover something they didn't realize they could do, just love it, and end up choosing to move formally from one genre to another. At the worst you won't write well in another genre, but you'll become more sensitive to what it takes for someone else to do it.
One of the things that's sort of a shame is that there's such a feeling of professionalism that it often isn't very inviting to experiment. Among teachers, too. The university hired a number of people who can easily do both, poetry and prose, but has always made it clear that we better stick to our own. It probably would be better if all of us taught everything.

Neubauer: Richard Dillard at the Hollins program told me that the teachers they hire have to be able to do both, and that hopefully students learn from that

Brown: I once taught a course at Warren Wilson (College, a low-residency program in Swannanoa, North Carolina) that was on the edge between poetry and prose. How do you decide what form an experience demands? Make experiments, cross the line, straddle the line. One of the things that happens is that sometimes the most interesting fiction writers in my class are the poets, because they don't know much about conventional fiction writing. They're the ones who do experimentation; they're much more tuned into words and interesting syntax and much less interested in linear presentation. They're the ones who feel around, leap the boundaries.

Neubauer: Isn't that what the title of your essay was really advocating: "Don't Just Sit There"?

Brown: Yes. Steal from yourself, take chances, steal from others, put together collages with any number of things; but we get so locked in so terribly early, and when you look at the sort of standard story today, the quote-unquote New Yorker story-which we know does not really exist but is rather a shorthand for something else, today's Chekhovian story-what you find is that, good though many of them are, there's so little playfulness in them formally. They take a small emotion and may in fact make us feel it, but it's such a tiny little corner of what's possible. It's a shame.

Neubauer: For those who want to experiment, I would think your career would make a good example.

Brown: And there are those who would say I'm not a great example because they don't think as much of my poetry as my prose, for example, and might say, "What's the sense of that, why doesn't she just do one thing and do it better, why do we need somebody who does something only half-well?" There are others who like my poetry. And I have fun with it, if that's a word one can use. I get pleasure from doing both and not ever quite knowing what's going to come up next.

Neubauer: The idea of playing fast and loose with genre, staying open to form, I would think that would have to be learned as a habit almost.

Brown: Well, I think you have to learn to think of yourself as a writer rather than either a poet or fiction writer. In the Poets & Writers directory they've got a "P" next to some names for "poet," but for the fiction writers they've got a "W," for "writer," not an "F" for "fiction." But if you just think of yourself as writer, you'll stay more loose and more open to whatever comes along.

Neubauer: And now you are going back to writing poetry again.

Brown: Now I'm going back to poetry for a while, to a sequel to Cora Fry, which is a book of poetry I wrote after my first novel appeared. In Cora Fry one woman speaks all these poems, but there's also a story that gets told somewhere along the way; she talks about her life in a lot of little pieces, a mosaic, really, and then slowly a kind of story develops. The characterization was derived from my fiction, obviously, but these were poems. I wanted then to get the voices of the novel out of my head, to get all that gray, covered-page feeling out, too. I conceived of it spatially before I had any idea what I wanted to do. I saw these tiny little poems on the page surrounded by white space, which is what I needed. I was trying to be sensitive to what I needed sensually at that point, which was tremendous silence. And I was grateful that I knew something about how to write a poem, and also about how to do a narrative line. The best way to banish the static of a novel from your head is to leap back into poetry.

Neubauer: Realizing that, commercially, you are sacrificing something?

Brown: Being on "Sonya Live" this morning or in People magazine last month is nothing I ever desired for myself—and still don't. It's something I have to get over. I don't consider it has affected my own response to my own work at all—and that's why I'm happy to go back into poetry. If it disappoints anybody, I don't care.
I think it was Toni Morrison who said, "I really don't have a career."And that's the way I feel. My agent can talk about what's best for my career if she wants to, but for me it's the metaphor of pulling words up from the well; if the bucket isn't empty, I feel very happy. It's always touch and go whether it's going to be there each time. There isn't any plan of what's good for a career because there isn't a career. It's just word after word.

Neubauer: It's creating-?

Brown: It's creating. One of the things that bemuses me is when people talk of writing establishments—and they exist—having to do with the politics of publication and of publicity and so on. But the fact of the matter is, and maybe I take too generous a view of writers, but I still tend to see them as much closer to the little girl in the essay you asked about: everybody still doing their best to honor what they need to say. And it's never easy—unless you're a hack writer who's got a formula. Everyone is worried that what they write is something anyone would want to see. And you worry just as much about the ninth book as you do about the first. I'm starting number nine and I don't have any guarantee that there's going to be something there. My last book is in the desk drawer.

Neubauer: But you know whatever you chose to write now, based on the success of Before and After, would get published and receive some attention.

Brown: But it could be horrible. It might not at all be a book that should get published. You still sit down in a quiet room with a blank piece of paper in front of you and wonder if anything is going to be there. One of the things about writing programs that disturbs me a little bit—among a lot of things—is that they make so very public your desire to write, often at an early age, and you get fed all the bureaucratic necessities. I think it can do odd things to the feeling that this should not be about making a career, this is about writing what you want to write at a given moment. There are times when my students are having trouble producing what has to be produced for a given class. I want to give them license to ignore it, but I'm often not able to do that; they still have to come through; they better do their three stories, or whatever it is. And it's odd to me to have to place anyone in the harness that says, "You are now going to produce what they ask you to." You really shouldn't answer to anybody but yourself.

Neubauer: Do many of your students bring an uncertainty or fear, not only to create something good but also to sell it?

Brown: I think they do, sure. But I discourage people from thinking about it. We have, as does every writing program, a few students who are very concerned with and good at making connections, and I'm thus very disappointing to some people. But I don't ultimately feel that's the thing for them to do with their time or ambitions. It's very hard for me to remember when I was just starting out. Of course I must have wanted to publish the stuff—I sent it off—but I don't think I had more than the most modest ambitions for it; it didn't occur to me that there was a pot at the end of the rainbow. I never had a sense of deserving.
I mean, what was I? I was a kid in Brooklyn who wanted to be a writer and so I wrote. I didn't have to sign up for courses, fulfill a requirement, or hang out with famous writers, which maybe was a shame because as writer you want a role model. I didn't really have one. I mean, I had one teacher in college who was important to me, who made me learn to revise, and one other teacher for a shorter time who taught me some larger things about the compassion with which you need to write, but it wasn't technical at all.

Neubauer: Where was this?

Brown: This was at Barnard, and Bob Pack, who taught poetry, taught me how to sit still until I changed things fifteen times. I took the same poetry class with him three times, and that was it. I can't remember if I got into Iowa or didn't apply at the end, but one way or another I didn't go there, I went to Brandeis and was a PhD dropçut. There were a lot of people who wanted to write and dropped out of there one by one.
But undergraduate courses at that time were nothing like they are today, with undergraduate programs full of teaching stars. And if you go on to graduate school today you are sort of declaring yourself for a career. You want the handwriting to be on the wall and have your name on it. It was very different then. I knew nothing about marketing and so little about publishing, and there was nobody to guide me because I didn't know any writers.

Neubauer: It wasn't an active decision you made, then, not to go into a writing program?

Brown: There wasn't much of a writing-program life at the time I was coming up. And then I lived in New Hampshire for many years, and I did teach in the writing program at B.U. (Boston University) while I was there. But there, too, I was only peripherally involved. I really didn't think about it. It was just: if you could, you wrote. And I'm still resistant; there are people at my program who laugh at me and think of me as the bad girl in a way, because I will tell students just as readily not to apply to graduate school. I'm not convinced it's a good thing for everybody. Some can use it and some don't need it.

Neubauer: And then there's the question of finding the right teacher.

Brown: I think there are basically two kinds of teachers, and you've probably run into both kinds. I think there are the natural teachers, who teach out of their personalities and don't give a whole lot of thought to pedagogical method, they just are. Donald Barthelme, who taught at Houston, was like that. He would just stride into the classroom and bring himself along and not much self-consciousness about what he was doing; his opinions were very complex and useful and simply came out as they were. Someone like Gordon Lish is not to be confused with someone like Donald. Donald wasn't trying to impose a single method on his students. He wouldn't claim to know in the first sentence whether your story was worth writing or not. It was just that the force of his personality was so strong and the firepower of his opinions so uninhibited that (it) made him brilliant for some students and utterly useless for others. That is one way to teach, and it's for certain natural characters. You can't fake it.
And then there are teachers who take a more modest view, I suppose. I try most of the time to figure out what somebody's trying to do and help the person do that. And that means often that I may withhold my judgment of whether it's worth doing. In this I'm not that different from what my husband, who teaches high school English, sees as an ideal, which is not to impose too much from the outside but rather to lead people to understand what they're trying for and help them realize the means to achieve that end. That can sometimes be quite useful; it can also for some people be much less engaging and instructive than to have a master walk into the classroom.
In Donald's class, if he didn't consider students talented enough, they didn't get any of his attention. I've seen students come out of other classes just about avowing never to show anything again, and I don't think that's particularly productive. I tend to give everybody a good deal of attention, to get everybody to do the best that they can, and I don't think I'm probably as effective with the ones who are incredibly smart and accomplished. But the fairly ordinary students will get more out of me because I have the patience. I think of myself as a teacher in those situations.

Maybe in the end all you can say is that it takes many kinds of teachers. Students will find the ones they're most comfortable with.

Neubauer: Is there an assumption in, say, a Donald Barthelme class that maybe the good students will go on to be truly good writers, and that the other ones...?

Brown: Should probably be discouraged? And you can discourage them by ignoring them. Yes, I think that's the assumption. And I think it's a natural one for those kinds of teachers. They're used to having strong opinions. My tendency is to feel that any student who is there is deserving...and it may be wrong! I'm not pulling for this as the only way of going about it. I'm also careful not to insult students and not to rivet them to the glass and hope they go away. I can't do that.

Neubauer: George Garrett said that writing programs shouldn't hurt anyone.

Brown: Right. Except for encouraging someone who maybe shouldn't be encouraged. But there too you want to say, "What's wrong with that?" "First, do no harm," and I feel as if people's psyches could use nurturance. I've seen some students who I didn't think were promising turn a corner. I can think of two people in particular who I wouldn't have given a plugged nickel for their chances—and this is not to say that they've gone on to have great careers. But two people, after two years of graduate training, as if awakened one morning and said, "Oh, you mean you can make stories out of this? Oh, well, in that case," and they went on to make wonderful stories. I don't know if it's the optimist in me. Maybe it's because my own work is often so horrible, and then it gets good when I sort of figure out what I'm doing; it makes me perpetually hopeful that someone who is really earnestly working very hard might figure out what needs to be done.

We're especially not hurting them in a place like ours, which is not usually expensive compared to a place like Columbia (University). People do have to have a number of jobs to support themselves here, but it's still not costing them ten thousand dollars a year in tuition. It's a state school. I think that's great. I know there are people who have felt very good in their capacity to work and finish a book—which may never get published but which will mean something in their lives. I don't mind having helped them midwife that to a kind of birth. Maybe you could argue that the world doesn't need any more of those mediocre books, but there are all kinds of human purposes to be served by this, and I cannot take the narrow view that I am training geniuses. I've also seen very talented people fall by the wayside and less talented people continue and actually succeed.

Neubauer: So then the question could be asked, why do certain critics and teachers and even some writing programs as a whole expect a kind of accomplishment at the age of twenty-two that other life professions...?

Brown: Wouldn't dare dream of asking for! That's a very good question. And it's because people are not seeing writing within the context of the totality of somebody's life; they are trying to train winners. One of things that just adds to that from the point of view of a faculty member is that university politics are such that you have to keep turning up dazzling success stories. There's one writing program that continually publishes an ad that says, "Our graduates have had twenty-three National Endowment grants, two Guggenheims, four this and thats." And that is disgusting! B.U. then started writing ads that I thought were rather more graceful; they said, "All we can promise you is a room with a view of the Charles," and "Some of the people who have taught with us are..." and "Some of the people who have graduated are...." It's still immodest but less of an affront than just giving you the bare numbers.
But the fact is that every time someone in our program wins or publishes something, we are obliged to put it in a newsletter, send a copy to the Dean, make sure that everybody notices—because we're always in need either of money or more faculty to run the program and you begin to traffic in successes. And I understand politically why you have to do that, but from the point of view of that closeted hopeful artist alone with the words, there's something sickening.

And that's why—yes, you're right—we begin to ask for success at an age that's just preposterous. First of all, I wish we didn't even accept anybody at twenty-two. I wish we said, go out and live a little bit and come back when you're thirty. But for all I know, what people are doing at this point will be useful fifteen years from now. I'm queasy, but it's one of the reasons I try to be as useful as I can to people who are not necessarily showing their stuff yet.

Neubauer: I guess it also depends on what the stated goal of a writing program is, as to whether it answers its advertised purpose.

Brown: And I think if you quizzed us, you'd find differing answers.

Neubauer: There was a PEN conference I went to entitled, "Are Writing Programs Good for American Writing?" And you can in fact question the question. Is their purpose to aid and abet American letters, or is it to help students somehow?

Brown: Exactly. Is it part of the life of the students to have a few years to write his or her best, hoping perhaps they'll like it and make it part of their future, or part of their present? Of course, you could say that graduate programs are all vocational in a sense. But writing is a tricky business. It's the engagement of a soul, and you can't rush your psychological development, your experience.

Everybody can get something out of learning to write better, think better, read better. I'm very honest and pretty critical. I'm not ingratiating, and I may say, "put that story away." I mean, I don't want to be confused with someone who's going to let a lot of futile work go by. But there are ways of doing it. You can say to someone, "Look, I just don't think your story is going anywhere" or, "I think you're becoming preoccupied with something that's more trivial than you thought." That's different than refusing to finish reading the story, or saying, "This is an example of tripe."
The other thing is, I let the students in my class talk more than I do. I very often feel they have a better sense of what's there than I do. Often, I'll hang back and it's the students who say the most cogent things about the writing. What I say at the end of most discussions is, "OK, Jim, Mary, you've heard all of this, take it home and figure out which of these comments tell you what you think you need to hear and ignore the rest of them. It's for you to decide." If everybody jumps on the writer and says, "I don't like that ending," you still want to turn to that writer and say, "If this is the ending you think you want, you've got a problem, because twelve people here aren't convinced by it. But if that's the ending you think you want, you keep it; it's your story. You figure out what you want, and we'll try to help serve those needs by telling you what works and doesn't work."

Marie Ponsot is a brilliant teacher, by the way. She goes around the room and everybody contributes one sentence of observation: "It's a poem about the death of the heart" or "It's in trimeter." By the end, the writer is led to see what has emerged on the page. That's an extreme example of returning the choice of what's important to the author, the class only deciding whether or not the work succeeds in showing it.

Neubauer: I'd just like to touch on a question I also asked Stanley Elkin, namely, what it means to be called a "moral" writer. Philip Lopate, in his introduction to your reading at the 92nd Street Y last night, called you "our own Nadine Gordimer." What does that mean to you?

Brown: I'm not sure what it means to me, though I'm pleased if that's the way it comes out. I have a lot of trouble with a good bit of the fiction that's being written today, and it's not a question of taking a moral stand in what somebody is writing. In fact, if you look at a book like Before and After, you aren't really going to find my moral standards, just a presentation of the possibilities. But one of the things I find absent from a lot of writing is a willingness to exercise analysis. A lot of what you read today—call it minimalist or whatever you want—to me reads like a film script. And I'm not original in saying this. Some of it can be interesting, but the thing I find lacking in so much of it is the thing a novelist can give us, which is complexity, drawing us into an understanding of what someone is thinking—not just showing it. It's one of the things that my graduate students have a hard time understanding, being young contemporary readers. I remember giving them Elizabeth Bowen to read and they objected to it by saying, "She keeps telling us what to think. How nineteenth century! She would say things like "Portia is a girl who...." But I miss commentary. I miss intelligent, crafted, complex responses to characters and situations. I don't think it has to do with preaching what to think. It means that the person you meet on the page is not someone you're simply seeing frontally.

I suppose in my own fiction this is not something that I particularly set out to do, but the stories that interest me the most are the ones that try to take me behind the facades. I read somewhere that I was a meditative writer. News to me, but I like that. What I'm interested in and perhaps what I'm good at is watching the minds of my characters work. And that's what makes me the writer who seems, what, "moral." Not just watching what people do, but hearing people think, characters questioning themselves. That's very hard to do in a strictly minimalist story.

Neubauer: One which Madison Bell described as composed of action, dialogue, action, dialogue, with never any exposition.

Brown: No exposition, no analysis, and no synthesis. And I miss it. I don't mind being called a nineteenth-century novelist. You can read Civil Wars slowly. Everything doesn't have to be read as quickly as a film script.

Neubauer: Do you often bring your preference into the classroom?

Brown: I don't know if I do it as often as I'd like to. But I remember an old teacher quoting Chekhov to us: "Help us walk into someone else's mind....Look how you live, my friend." It's what I try to get my students to see. Don't judge your characters. You may want to set them up for your readers to judge, but don't savage them and don't make them look stupid, because what you're trying to do is understand what it feels like to be in their head. Sometimes students don't want to hear that because it blunts their cleverness. It's easier to stand outside; more fun, too.
One of the failures of art is a failure of compassion, and that happened to me with my character Teddy, in Civil Wars. I don't think he works. Why would the woman, a major protagonist, have stayed married to him all this time? I just couldn't get the reader into his head sufficiently. Unlike Ben (in Before and After). There are people who hate Ben, but I think I gave him a fair chance. You may or may not agree with or approve of him, but I think he gets to say his piece in a way that represents wholly how he wants to be judged; and he would say to you, "I'll take my chances." What I hope with my students is that somehow I can get across to them the moral dimension that says you've got to give everyone a fair shake. You don't have to love them, but they have to have a chance to be represented in their totality.

Neubauer: Stanley Elkin spoke of good characters having an integrity, meaning a wholeness, a believability.

Brown: And some of his characters, goodness knows, are on the edge. They're not paragons, let's say. But he's right, that isn't the point. It doesn't mean you have to write about good people. In fact, I've excelled at writing characters people don't like. (I've often thought of writing a dissertation!) I think some of Stanley Elkin's characters, such as Ed Wolfe in "I Look Out for Ed Wolfe," are not exactly guys you'd want to take home to Mama; but Ed Wolfe is there in his fullness and richness, and you know him. It's an artist's morality, not any other one.

Neubauer: Where do you think your students fit in all this? They're young.

Brown: (Pause.) I don't know. Some of the cleverest of them are the worst offenders, still showing off. But I don't want this to sound as if I'm preaching a pollyanna approach for students or teachers. There's plenty of room among teachers with different points of view. For instance when it comes to feminist questions. What do you do when you have extremely strong views about something, some terrible offense given by society? Isn't there room for that even if neutrality is suspended? I've been talking about being morally neutral and giving everybody a chance to express whatever they feel. And there is room for that. But I guess, again, that diversity should invite teachers of different kinds, and a program needs a little of that as well. It's probably quite useful for students to have examples before them of teachers who are passionate about something, and that may make them unfair about other things. It's not bad to have all these kinds of models, approaches.

Generally, I think the major problem my students have is the triviality of what engages them; many of them are in love with those tiny little stories. Rather than engaging questions of history, they're really looking at young people like themselves, doing odd jobs, people who don't have careers or directions. Like early Anne Beattie stories. It's a kind of solipsistic writing.

I remember when I read this book called Twenty Under Thirty a few years back, the best of the stories there were by people who actually dared to write as other people, distant from themselves. It works so much better than when they try to be themselves in their generation, which is an easier story to write because you don't have to learn about something else.

Also, as far as I'm concerned, the main thing undergraduates have to learn is how to read. Often they're not sophisticated readers. The best thing any undergraduate said to me about my class is that "I can't go to the doctor's office anymore and pick up Ladies' Home Journal and read one of those stories and be satisfied. You taught me there were better things than that." And that's probably one of the most useful things a teacher can do. You want to educate readers to take literature seriously.

As for graduate students, one of the painful things is that so many of them do not go on to write, even the good ones; and you can't legislate that, will them to like it, to rethink their choices of priorities. But what's painful to me is the reason: money. I didn't work much of the time and my husband was a public school teacher, so for a very long time we didn't have very much money (though I always made sure we had baby-sitters or day care for my kids so that I could write, because that was a priority). So I do tend to get a little self-righteous with my students. But a lot of them don't fight for their writing when they think they can't make enough money doing it. And I say, "You don't need so much of what you think (you do)." They don't need clothes that cost what they cost, the most expensive dish on the menu, the car. But they see that as a choice, either/or, and many of them end up dropping out of the program because they think they need to take jobs.

But I think if they looked at their priorities with a really hard eye, they'd stay and be writers.


Alexander Neubauer is a writer of fiction and creative nonfiction. His most recent book is Nature's Thumbprint. He teaches creative writing at the New School for Social Research in New York City.

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