Mother Lodes: A Conversation

Mary Gordon's mother, Anna Gagliano Gordon.Photo: Courtesy of Mary Gordon

When Mary Gordon’s mother died, she screamed. When A.M. Homes’s birth mother died, she was incredulous. Gordon had spent years clipping her mother’s rotting nails, rescuing her from drunken falls, and enduring wordless visits as her mother sat “with her head in her hands in a stupor” (a marked contrast from the proud woman Gordon had known while growing up in Brooklyn). For Homes, it had been years of avoiding needy, abusive phone calls from the woman who had given her up at birth and then made a sudden reappearance in 1992. Well after these deaths, the two novelists decided to write memoirs about their mothers. Homes, who has just returned from a worldwide tour for her book The Mistress’s Daughter, got together recently with Gordon, whose new book is called Circling My Mother, to talk about the blurry lines between memories and fiction—and about waking up in the middle of the day with paper stuck to one’s face.

A.M.H.: Did you feel that since you’d written a father book [The Shadow Man] you now needed to write a mother book?

M.G.: No, I had written a few pieces over the years and I thought, “I almost have a book.” I didn’t intend to do it.

A.M.H.: While you were writing about them, did you get to know them better or differently in some ways?

M.G.: Well, I did get to know something about my father that I didn’t know—that he had never finished high school, that he’d had two sisters, one of whom died in a mental hospital. And with my mother I uncovered stuff that I hadn’t been thinking about so much. But it wasn’t like I did research—there was no one to talk to about her.

A.M.H.: So the process was more like a novel, where you’re only talking to yourself?

M.G.: Right. I tried to remember that at one point this was a woman who, when I saw her in the door, ready for work in her suit and hats, my heart leaped. And then for so many years, the sight of her just made me cringe into myself. I wanted to get back to those earlier memories.

A.M.H.: Did writing fiction feel different mentally from writing nonfiction?

M.G.: No, it felt different ethically. I really do feel ferociously that with nonfiction, it’s gotta be the truth. You can’t make shit up.

A.M.H.: As a writer, you know when you’re making things up. It’s as though the structure of fact has an alarm system that begins to go off even as you feel the line start to curve away from truth just in the effort to be a good line.

M.G.: On the other hand, denial is a tremendously powerful mechanism. I like to think the alarm system goes off. But of course, there’s a wonderful line from Christa Wolff, who says, “The thing about your blind spot is that you can’t see it.”

A.M.H.: When I was on the book tour for the memoir, I had those moments when I was really not going to open up any further because I am a private person. And I have a right to be. You’re in Heidelberg, or in Amsterdam, and there’s half the expectation that you’ll crack. It’s kind of a trial, almost like the fictional test drive: “We just want to make sure your memoir is really accurate. We’re just going to ask you again and again, to see if the story changes.”

M.G.: It makes you feel insane.

A.M.H.: I found it exhausting. Can we talk about the role of napping? It’s underdescribed and so essential. There’s something about the creative process that requires it.

M.G.: I was talking to Toni Morrison about this once. I said, “I wake up and there’s imprints of keys on my face.” I felt guilty. She said, “You’re working when you’re napping.” But I do more napping than I would admit.

A.M.H.: I feel incredibly guilty. I think, Oh my God, this is awful, I suck, I’ll never do anything again. I also have this thing, which is so not smart: I don’t let myself read during the day. I should be working. But then I Google everything, like a pair of shoes that my character might be wearing. Two hours later, I’ve spent $150 at Land’s End.

M.G.: I came from a working-class family where if you said, “I’ve been writing for three hours and I have to lie down,” they would say, “Do you know what I’ve been doing for the past eleven hours?” And so then I feel like a total wimp. I could say, “Oh, I was just on a construction site. Get me a brew, honey. I just built a house.”

A.M. Homes: “In the hallway outside the Oyster Bar she is wearing a fluffy white fur jacket, a printed silk blouse, and slacks, her hair piled high on her head in a post-beehive bun. She looks like someone from another decade—a woman who believes in glamour, who listens to Burt Bacharach and Dinah Shore to cheer herself up. I suspect this is the way she must have dressed when she used to meet my father—probably also in hotels—but now she’s 55 years old and a lot has been lost to time.”

Mary Gordon: “I try to understand how my mother became what she became. The laughing girl, who made people happy, now sitting with her head in her hands, turning her face a blotched purple because she will not change her posture. How did she become the woman who, when I ask her if she is happy, says, ‘I don’t know’?”

Photographs: From top, courtesy of Marion Ettlinger/Penguin and Emma Dodge Hanson/Pantheon

Circling My Mother
By Mary Gordon; Pantheon; $24

Mother Lodes: A Conversation