A U T H O R I N T E R V I E W
Of Ghosts, Gods and the Raw Ingredients of Human Experience
m a r y o v e r t o n d i s c u s s e s m a g i c a l r e a l i s m
BY TAMARA KAYE SELLMAN
I REMEMBER reading Mary Overton's story, "After Life," back in 1997, the story of a woman "living" inside the early throes of visceral death. Published in Glimmer Train Stories, it easily stood out among the magazine's typically strong lineup because it employed certain fantastic elements that I didn't typically expect to find in stories published by literary journals. What was this fantasy-horror story doing here? I was only beginning to understand how literary writing often succeeds when it borrows from the diverse tactics of genre writing. As well I was only beginning to recognize what I now know to be magical realism.
As Margin grew into a reality all its own, I grew brave enough to inquire into the reprint rights of a few stories I'd read in favorite journals over the years, stories which seemed to match our goal of "exploring modern magical realism." Months passed, and then I received a jovial note from Ms. Overton expressing her interest in our offer to reprint "After Life." Her enthusiasm, good nature and interesting publishing history inspired me to interview her about her book. Our conversation evolved in the way that virtual correspondences do, and I was blessed with a copy of The Wine of Astonishment. Eager to read more of her work, I discovered a trove of stories from which to pick.
She is the kind of writer that has earned her knocks in the best -- if less fashionable -- way. Overton is, in fact, a realist when it comes to the art of living, used to the vagaries of the less-than-magical world of work and family, a mistress of the day to day. Her work is well-informed by the elements she is able to pull from daily life as a result, the "raw ingredients of the human experience," as she calls them.
It is curious that we chose, finally, not to reprint her story "After Life," though it is a wonderful bit of short-short fiction worth anthologizing again and again. We offer instead this dynamic interview with the author, and as well, three other stories of hers which not only represent the wonderful breadth and scope of magical realism, but which break down any old notions to be had about pigeon-holing.
Mary Overton is a magical realist. Mary Overton is a realist. Mary Overton writes worthwhile literature. Anyone suspicious of a writer who easily switch-hits inside literary territory needs only read her work to appreciate the paradox. -- TKS, Editor
TKS: What would be your personal definition of magical realism? Can you think of any magical realist writers who influence this definition? Influence your writing? And are there authors who are NOT magical realist who still have influence on your own stories of magical realism?
MO: Quick definition: high-brow fantasy
Labor intensive definition: a story set in the shared, physical, everyday environment of cause and effect, where the causes are familiar and predictable but trigger effects from an alternate universe
Magical & non-magical writers who influence this definition: uh-oh. I'm mostly self-taught, so I'm not sure about the labels.
Gabriel García Márquez opens One Hundred Years of Solitude with a basic tenet of MR, that "Things have a life of their own …. It's simply a matter of waking up their souls." He describes his protagonist as one "whose unbridled imagination always went beyond the genius of nature and even beyond miracles and magic."
Cynthia Ozick ends The Puttermesser Papers with descriptions of heaven that make it every magical realist's home town. "In Paradise, where sight and insight, inner and outer, sweet and salt, logic and illogic, are shuffled in the manner of a kaleidoscope, nothing is permanent."
Mark Helprin says in A Soldier of the Great War, "As a way to arrive at the truth, exactitude and methodology are, in the end, far inferior to vision and apotheosis."
A.S. Byatt invents a storyteller for The Djinn in the Nightingale's Eye who says, "I can show you everything …. I know things you will never find out for yourself." His magical story is like glass, "a solid metaphor, …a medium for seeing and a thing seen at once." Within that glass we find "things made with hands and beings not made with hands that live a life different from ours, that live longer than we do, and cross our lives in stories, in dreams…"
Salman Rushdie, in Midnight's Children, describes the magical storyteller as an ancient, filthy ferryman with "two golden teeth and no others," from whom there comes "endless verbiage which made others think him cracked. It was magical talk, words pouring from him like fools' money." He identifies "the place where the outside world meets the world inside you. If they don't get on, you feel it there."
In their critical writings, Marina Warner says that "tales of the uncanny … leave open prickly possibilities, or enter unnegotiated areas of the unknown," and Joyce Carol Oates explains that stories of the surreal elevate "interior (and perhaps repressed) states of the soul to exterior status."
TKS: Your collection, The Wine of Astonishment, is a vivid combination of both realist and magical realist stories. I'm curious--at what point in your writing life did you begin writing magical realism? Did it come first or later?
MO: As a kid, I wrote both realistic and fantastic stories and savored them both. Then during my teenage years, an unfortunate notion got planted that I liked two categories of fiction – LITERATURE and fun stuff. LITERATURE was excerpted in anthologies, was by nature lofty and realistic, and granted immortality to its authors. I struggled to write LITERATURE. It was a terribly serious endeavor akin to eating fresh, steamed, unseasoned vegetables. My escapes into books on the occult were the moral equivalent of buying Twinkies at 7-Eleven. But a vision grew in my untrained, uncultured head (college drop-out, typist for the government, public library reader, magical thinker regarding the future), that I might revolutionize LITERATURE with the invention of a hybrid, the literary fantasy.
How painful, at age 23, to read Cynthia Ozick. She'd beaten me to it, and with more erudition in a metaphor than I could summon for an entire novel outline. The following year I discovered Gabriel García Márquez and the body of literature called magical realism. I had been inventing stories that fit a pre-existing category. Let me tell you, I was plenty miffed about it.
TKS: What was the title of your first magical realism story? Were you aware you were writing magical realism at that time? Do you think it's possible to intend to write magical realism at the outset, or is it simply "what happens" during the process of drafting a story?
MO: I don't remember. No. Yes. Yes, again. Ursula LeGuin describes the writing process in her workshop book Steering the Craft: "It's like this: in me there's a story that wants to be told. It is my end; I am its means. If I can keep myself, my ego, my opinions, my mental junk, out of the way, and find the focus of the story, and follow the movement of the story, the story tells itself." She believes that the writer is responsible for knowing the craft, for having the skills that allow the story to tell itself.
TKS: To me, this could imply that magical realism is organic in its nature, that one cannot set out to conjure up magical realism for the sake of conjuring. Would you agree? Or would you say that there are conventions to magical realism that need to be understood if one is to write it well?
MO: You're asking me to take sides in the big debate. Does meaning exist independently, and we spend our lives discovering and exploring it? Essentialism, according to William Barrett. The notion that the story's essence is already out there and the writer brings it into existence. Or does the world simply exist, meaninglessly, and we spend our lives constructing stories so we can create the essence we need? Existentialism, and the magical power of "conjuring" a story from scratch.
I'm going to play a cheap trick and say it's a paradox. Both are true at the same time. The story is there, like the sculpture is inside the raw block of marble. But I constructed that essence, I planted it there because I need it to make sense of the world. Until I had the need to find or use it, it wasn't there. Yet once I started looking, I found it already in place.
TKS: I was particularly taken by your fusion of science and fantasy in the story, "Mother Machine," especially the scenes following the breaking of the child's projector "mother." I'm curious about the seeds of this story--where did it come from and what was the first draft of it like?
MO: Imprinting is a learning process where the young animal attaches itself to and copies the behavior of a parent or role model. I don't know if it's true or not, but popular literature is full of cute stories about kittens that imprint onto St. Bernards or baby ducks that imprint onto old shoes and the hilarious misadventures that follow. I find the concept chilling, an example of nature's disregard for the individual. What a cold, random way to have one's destiny set, by the coincidence of who happens to be around when one is ready to imprint. This story began with the question, what would happen to a child who, by an accident of fate, imprinted onto a machine rather than a human?
I pulled the ragged folder from my file cabinet and discovered that the first draft of this technology story was written in the summer of 1985 on my low-tech, non-electric, portable Olympia typewriter. However, the beauty of typewriters is that one usually keeps a first draft. Fiction composed on the computer tends to get saved onto disks that become obsolete. I was surprised to find the story's original opening almost word for word the same as that published in my book. The rest of the first draft is cartoon-y. It's been reworked many times.
Also in the folder is a copy of "My Sister, My Self," an article from the November, 1993 Washington Post Magazine. Joanne Leonard writes about schizophrenia: "My sister's grand, transcending delusion is her machine.… Mary Jane has no control over the machine. It is run out of a lab, she says, which is populated mainly by men…. Mary Jane has a close, even loving relationship with the machine, and feels protective toward it. 'I need it to live,' she says. 'I wouldn't live without it.'"
Once again, I think I have "invented" something, only to discover that it is a raw ingredient in the human experience.
TKS: You describe yourself as being a self-taught writer and a college dropout. One wouldn't guess these things by reading your work. You also describe yourself as having written quite early in life. Would you say you were born with a drive to write (or create)? How did you teach yourself the craft? Were there key books? Workshops?
MO: "Self-taught" is misleading. It says I didn't need teachers, and that's not true. What's more accurate is to say I did not take the conventional literary path of attending college, associating with an arts community, and finding a mentor. I paid a dear price for this choice. My development as a writer has been slow and inefficient and often lonely.
Or maybe that's just me. At Iowa or Breadloaf, I might have been slow, inefficient, and lonely in a public forum and died young of the embarrassment.
The most important thing that ever happened to me was being an unpublished writer for 25 years. It cast me out of Eden, out of the one-dimensional world in my head where I prefer to live. Lack of even modest success or recognition bruised my ego, sent it and me on a quest through the frightening territory of "real world." The horror and despair of it – earning a living in the manner of (O Lost!) a normal person, maintaining (minimally) a home, loving a spouse long-term (the narcissism of an artist is brutal), raising a child (she is my one bit of golden luck), acting the part of productive and concerned world-citizen. All I really want to do is read and write in a small room, then take a walk through the trees.
Was I "born with a drive to write (or create)?" I don't know. I do know I am driven by a compulsion to explain the world to myself and to everyone else. It drives people crazy. My friends have to be tolerant people.
Who were and are my teachers? Books, mostly, and far too many of them to name. But books alone can reinforce one's prejudices and obsessions. Key people have shown me new things to see and new ways to read the books I love.
The most influential and enduring teacher is my husband of 23 years. Matthew is my anchor. He's the stationmaster who keeps my trains running on time. He also reads five books to every one I do, reads them with an astonishingly creative mind, and passes on the best to me. But he does NOT critique my work. When a story is finished and polished, I sometimes, reluctantly, let him see it only after he agrees that his response will be, "This is really good, dear. I like it."
My first teacher arrived when I was an ignorant, small town, 13-year-old bundle of confused nerves and hormones. I had the incredible good fortune of taking summer writing lessons from Mary Clearman Blew, an undiscovered graduate student at the University of Missouri. She re-taught me how to read. And she let me peek into the world of language and image. That triggered a mad desire to learn more.
There was a friend in high school, Karen, who blew away many parochial notions about books and story. I'm still in touch with a college professor, Bill McDonald, who re-re-taught me how to read. Over the years I participated in two different critique groups and took classes or workshops at local colleges and arts centers. I had the wonderful luck of working briefly with Susan Richards Shreve and Richard Peabody, each of them influential at turning points in my writing life.
Through it all, there has been one constant: read, read, read, and write, write, write.
TKS: The tone of your story, "The Wine of Astonishment," is completely different than in "Mother, Machine." I found myself laughing, and then quite sad, at times. What was the inspiration for the dream images of the heifer and the children?
MO: I'm glad you laughed. My stories are supposed to be full of humor. It disappoints me when some readers miss the jokes and think my writing grim. Robert Graves is as serious and intense a writer as there ever was, but in The White Goddess he reveals the mystery of artistic survival: "If he keeps his sense of humour, too, a poet can go mad gracefully, swallow his disappointments in love gracefully, reject the Establishment gracefully, die gracefully, and cause no upheaval in society. Nor need he indulge in self-pity, or cause distress to those who love him; and that goes for a woman-poet also." Graves' postscript makes me laugh out loud, gracefully, I hope.
Your question about dream images goes to the heart of the old Q&A standby, Where does the writer get ideas? Stories are rendered out of a crazy, dispersive patchwork of everything that's ever influenced their creator.
Compare this process to the experience of children with Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD) who cannot prioritize incoming stimuli. While sitting in a classroom, the ADD child perceives and gives equal awareness to the uncomfortable roughness of a shirt collar tag, the clicking sound of a heating unit, a recent bruise on the left big toe, the psychic distress of last night's nightmare, the cognitive dissonance of 2+2=4 and 2×2= 4, but 3+3=6 and 3×3=9, the metallic taste left from drinking-fountain water, the smell of a fruit-scented magic marker, the riot of color, shape, and text on the page of an "improved because it looks like a website" math book, and the droning, incomprehensible voice of an often similarly overwhelmed teacher. I'm a 4th grade teacher. I can make teacher jokes. No wonder the poor kid can't focus on a single learning objective.
The artist tries as much as is sanely possible (and we all have times of insanity when we tip over the edge, some of us falling off that edge forever) to live with the non-judgmental perceptiveness of an ADD child. The artist searches through that chaos which is outside the helpful filters and templates of society and culture. The creative process is one of linking known elements into unknown patterns, of using them to build unexpected, surprising, but logical sequences.
So much "verbiage" to justify and defend my red heifer, inspired by a Bible pounding preacher on AM radio. Read the book of Numbers, chapter 19, to learn how the ancient Hebrews regularly sacrificed a spotless, young, red cow, burned her to ash, and made a cleansing potion called the "water of separation." And my grandfather really did raise cattle after he retired.
My story's unborn children were foretold during a palm-reading incident in junior high. Today I have one lovely daughter, but in a parallel universe there reside the souls of her siblings, those three children who decided not to be born. No, they weren't aborted. The operation was strictly metaphysical.
TKS: Literary magical realism seems to be enjoying a trend these days among both readers and writers. Why do you think this is so?
MO: Spiritual hunger. Magical realism is an alternative for those of us who think ourselves too educated to see ghosts and too sophisticated to see a bearded old white guy on a cloud acting as God. We are wrong, of course. Ghosts and patriarchal gods are as real as anything that results from the scientific method.
TKS: The Wine of Astonishmen has a number of strong, very realistic stories to companion an equally strong collection of magical realist tales. The story, "Ruth," is stunning in its realism, beautiful and sad, frightening. "After the Kill" still stays with me--the characterizations of the narrator, her brother and the ladies living adjacent to the brother are authentic and compelling. And while "Mr. & Mrs. Tattoo at the Amusement Park" was just hilarious, it was also so honest that it should be required reading for classes and workshops teaching tolerance. In fact, all of these stories touched my own realities in surprising ways.
When you went to pull this collection together, was there ever a concern that a blend of magical realism and straight realism might not effectively share the same jacket?
MO: It's past time to sing the praises of my publisher and editor, Kate Abbe. La Questa Press produces beautiful, high quality books of literary fiction and poetry. Kate is the editor of one's dreams. She lavishes her authors with the proper balance of affection, attention, and uncompromising honesty. The Wine of Astonishment was put together during a five month period in 1997. Within that five months, I grew more as a writer than I have in any five year period previously.
Kate likes it that my fiction doesn't fit a particular category. Unfortunately, most readers do want more of the same, so Kate spent a lot of time on the order in which the stories are presented. I think her concern was to hook and keep readers of realistic, literary short fiction. They tend to be finicky, to define narrowly what they consider artistic.
Kate starts The Wine of Astonishment with "Butterfly Girl," an experiment in how the memories of two people can diverge. The piece hints at multiple worlds, but within the safe framework of psychology. The second tale is "After the Kill," realistic and gritty, in the fine tradition of middle-class workshop writers slumming among the lowly and eccentric. Kate follows that with "Mother Machine," full of similarly sad/funny characters, but where magic sneaks in, camouflaged at first as the confused perceptions of a child. Stealth fantasy. After such a wallop, for the genre-phobic readers still with us, Kate delivers two mainstream stories and a long, realistically delivered ghost yarn, "Ladies in the Trees." From there on we don't tip-toe. Craziness blooms in what Kate diplomatically calls my "more difficult stories." I have no idea if her strategy works, but it makes sense to me.
TKS: What are you working on right now?
MO: I'm having marvelous fun with a novel that begins in the pioneer days of Missouri and continues through the Civil War. It's part fairy tale, part magical realism, part historical romance. My novels always turn out bigger than my ability to handle them within the time available. Because of family and job constraints, I'm more successful at completing shorter works. Several stories for young readers are in the pipeline. The awesome Jane Yolen (name-dropping alert) expressed interest in a children's fantasy novel, but her imprint with Harcourt Brace discontinued before I could send her the entire manuscript. Time management and the timing of luck are 90% of life.
The greatest fantasy in my life is to maintain my modest, comfortable lifestyle (I'm too old for the starving artist routine), but write full time and work part time instead of the other way around. Someday, in an alternate universe … !
Read "The Wine of Astonishment"
Read "Mother, Machine"
Read "Butterfly Girl"
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