Elinor Lipman was born and grew up in Lowell, Massachusetts, and attended Simmons College. She has published novels and short story and essay collections. Her novel Then She Found Me was made into a movie of the same name, directed by Helen Hunt. Lipman currently holds the Elizabeth Drew Chair in Creative Writing at Smith. This interview was conducted over e-mail in May 1995.
Mary A. McCay: You capture the accents of the Northeast with a rare ear for language. Do you see yourself as a regional writer?
Elinor Lipman: I do, but I don’t want my readers to, if that label excludes anyone. Setting is far less important to me than character and story. It’s something I have to provide, like good scenery in a play, and I want it to be authentic-a place I’ve lived or at least spent time in-but then I can check off that box and go on to tell the story.
MM: How do you write dialogue that captures accents so perfectly, especially New England accents? How have you, as a writer, developed that ear?
EL: Pete DaSilva, the Truro ex-fisherman, is my only character with a sustained Massachusetts accent. I worried about doing that, about the distraction and possible cuteness factor, but when it came right down to his final syllables, I couldn’t let him say “car” or “party” or “senator.” It would have been my self-consciously following unwritten rules of dialogue that say, “don’t try to replicate accents.” In the end-and I mean on the page proofs-I changed them to “cah” and “pahty” and “senita” because that’s what anyone raised in eastern Massachusetts, including me, would say. I couldn’t make him sound like John Chancellor.
MM: Your protagonists often hide their light under several layers of L.L. Bean flannels. How do you see those women (i.e. April Epner and Harriet Mahoney) emerging as characters?
EL: Neither April nor Harriet are glamourous women, but who is, really, among us? The most ordinary-looking people have partners and presumably the same sexual inner lives as outwardly glamorous people, so why not portray that? I find it far more interesting to peel away the layers of April’s and Harriet’s insecurities and bad choices, and, in effect, reward them for their goodness, their intelligence, their loyalty, and maybe even their lack of glamour. What I wanted to do with Harriet Mahoney was to give her a victory over her haplessness without marching her down the aisle. I wanted her to find happiness in her own skin.
MM: How did you begin the story of Isabel’s Bed? What came first, Isabel’s larger than life character, or Harriet’s diminished existence?
EL: No question-Harriet’s diminished existence. Even though I had the basic premise in place, that Harriet would take a job as a live-in ghostwriter to a tabloid mistress, I didn’t know what I was getting in Isabel. Originally, she was going to be older than Harriet, probably in her mid-fifties, but I realized early in the book that the story was theirs, that the love story was one of friendship. I wanted to avoid the mother-daughter dance in Then She Found Me, and thought making Harriet and Isabel the same age would help me and help the story.
MM: Do you see women in the ’90s trapped in those two positions (you call them femme fatales and oversized Campfire Girls)?
EL: No, I don’t know many femme fatales, and those I’ve seen areunder thirty-five and promoting their latest movie on “The Today Show.” I can’t take femme fatales seriously, which is good for my comedy. The Harriet and Isabel partnership comes less from the ’90s than from my high school cafeteria circa 1968, when I ate lunch with bigger, louder, brasher, sexier girls who viewed me as nice, smart (or “smaht”), and probably harmless.
MM: Your detached view of your characters sometimes seems sympathetic, but at other times it is full of wry irony. Do you see yourself as a social critic?
EL: I’m fairly predictable; I’m sympathetic to those who deserve it. Otherwise, they get their comeuppance to some degree or other. If I may immodestly quote Lisa Alther, who reviewed Isabel’s Bed in The Boston Globe: “Maybe the most admirable thing about Isabel’s Bed is that, unlike most humor, it manages to be amused by everyone but uncharitable toward none.” I don’t see myself as a social critic, just an observer. And thank you for not asking me if I write “comedies of manners,” which I think is a term applied to novels without measurable testosterone levels.
MM: How do you see your novels in terms of chronicling the ’90s? Are you a voice of the ’90s?
EL: I think so, although I let other people say those kinds of things before I would. A few critics said with Isabel’s Bed that future generations could read my books and know exactly what relationships between men and women were like in the 1990’s, and I would say that’s true.
MM: Another juxtaposition in your writing is characterized by “Mahoney’s Bagels,” the linking of Christian and Jewish Culture and tradition. That linking occurs often enough in your work, that I wonder if you see yourself as a Jewish Writer or as more ecumenical?
EL: I definitely see myself as a Jewish writer, but one who writes ecumenical stories. The novel I’m working on now-all seven pages of it-will be different; universal, I hope but with a Jewish episode at its core.
MM: You often manage to pull happy endings out of situations that could just as easily have gone awry. How and why do you manage that?
EL: The “why” of the question is that I come to love the characters and, as the god of the world they live in, I want to be a benevolent one. I’m not going to leave them stranded and I’m not going to let their children drown. I feel that there’s a natural arc to a story, as in myths and fairy tales; that it’s quite simple: there’s something in us that craves a resolution of one kind or another. I want my stories to have endings and to be satisfying. I don’t want them to just stop. I feel there’s something slightly artificial and selfconscious in leaving the ending up to the reader. As for the “happy” part…I can’t help it. My former editor (Stacy Schiff, to whom the book is dedicated) said, “It’s the way we wish life really were.”
MM: I love your fishermen characters, Pete DaSilva in Isabel’s Bed and Dennis Vaughan in The Way Men Act. What is your attraction for these types of male characters?
EL: Somewhere along the way, I’ve chosen fishing expertise as a moral barometer. Part of it is New England, and part must be the kind of quiet intensity and devotion that fishing requires. With Dennis Vaughan, it happened for more pragmatic reasons: I was driving down Main Street in Northampton with my husband, and as we passed a small corner store that had closed and was for rent; my husband mused aloud, “I wonder how a fly-fishing shop would do in this town?” The Way Men Act was about three shopowners in a fictional Northampton, so his musing dropped neatly into a narrative hole.
MM: As with Arsenic and Old Lace, Isabel’s Bed manages to deal with murder without overshadowing the truly comic elements in the situation. How do you manage to use the fact of the murder of Guy VanVleet and still keep the story a romantic comedy?
EL: Although I was fond of Guy and wanted to do him justice, he was a device: I played his murder for laughs. I feel an occasional twitch of guilt over it, but I’m not in the business of being socially correct and respectful.
MM: I know that you taught writing at several schools in New England, Bennington, Hampshire, and others. What advice do you give to young writers wanting to publish fiction?
EL: It was very helpful for me to join a writing group, to get encouragement and to have a deadline of sorts. I advise new writers to find a group with a good and kind teacher, one who doesn’t play favorites, one who doesn’t allow snide comments or inner circles, one who takes the reins and doesn’t let the loudmouths prevail. (Visit the class for a session or two and see if you feel as if you’d be welcome and that your work would fit it.) I also tell students that sometimes the best form of revision is to start something new; in other words, don’t obsessively rewrite a story for years. I also say to have the next manila envelope addressed and ready for submission when the SASE comes back. Don’t be discouraged by rejection; a story can be turned down by thirty magazines, finally get published, then win an O’Henry award in the bargain. John Knowles’ A Separate Peace was turned down by every American publisher and had to be published first in England. Beckett’s Murphy was rejected forty-two times. On the other hand, if there’s an unmistakable consensus by editors on what’s wrong with the story, fix it. And always start something new.
MM: What is the most enjoyable element in fiction writing for you? What is the most difficult?
EL: The most enjoyable element is figuring out the pieces of the puzzle and making the story work once I’m past the set-up, which for me can be the first two-thirds of the novel. I am thrilled when the story or the characters veer off in an unexpected direction, and, upon following it, I find that it’s exactly where I needed to go. Dialogue is by far the easiest part for me; starting a novel is the hardest part, and that can be a phase as long as the writing of the one that is eventually finished. I threw out 125 pages of novel about a Harriet Mahoney, also a hapless writer, but in an entirely different situation and setting. The truth is, there was a cantor in it, so my aborted attempt became Harriet’s bad novel, “A Room in the Cantor’s House,” in Isabel’s Bed.
MM: Many writers depend on their own autobiographies to ground their books; you seem to be able to avoid that. How do you manage, or, indeed, do you manage?
EL: I avoid it because I don’t want to write about me. I think it can be the mark of a nonstoryteller-recycling the details of one’s own life. There’s always the next one to write, and you’d better be equipped to make everything up out of thin air.
Mary A. McCay is Professor Emerita of English at Loyola University New Orleans.