What question are you never, or rarely, asked in interviews, that you really wish people would ask? How would you answer it?
“How has doing this book changed your idea of America?”
I’d start by talking about how skewed our idea of ourselves as a people has been by official history, then talk about the parallels between the conquests of America and our current global crisis. I’d want to emphasize the hope the interviews aroused in me. We rarely hear about these people; we rarely see their faces; we know so little about their history on the land.
Conversely, what question are you often asked, that you really don’t like to answer? What don’t you like about that question (no, you don’t have to answer it)?
“What was my favorite garden/interview?”
I have no favorite. I grew closer to some of the gardeners than to others, but I feel an abiding respect and affection for all of them, and for the three times as many others whose stories I couldn’t include. The hardest part of creating this book was what I had to leave out.
Who in your life was/is the greatest influence – good or bad – on your writing?
Virginia Woolf. A good influence, tremendous, really, as she was for my generation of American women, but one I had to grow through to find my own voice, to return to American stories.
The fist thing of hers I read was To the Lighthouse in what was called a House Course at Hampshire College up in Amherst, MA. This was in 1971, the beginning of the second wave of feminism, and women writers were just being rediscovered and a whole new language for interpreting literature in the light of history was being invented. It was possible to find first edition hardcover copies of all of Woolf’s novels for a dollar apiece in the socialist bookstore in Northampton. Many were out of print, so that was the only way I could get them. I devoured them all very quickly, once I’d been spellbound by her voice. Finding her was a revelation to me. Her biography, letters, and diaries had not yet been published. Imagine. I lived through the rediscovery of this hugely important writer who’d been neglected, like so many others, because of the male dominance of the academy. Before I graduated, the biography was out and the volumes of her private writings were coming out one, sometimes two volumes a year.
Our teachers, especially our women teachers, were learning along with us; it was very democratic, this life change, this emotional awakening to a sense of injury—how distorted our education had been, how partial the kinds of questions framed in literary studies—and exuberant awe: this legacy was there for us all to reclaim together. It was a tremendously exciting time, filled with a sense of invention, a revolution in thought. Of course we are living through a period of extreme reaction now. But at the time, we all shared a sense of discovering, as she herself says in A Room of One’s Own, that as women, we do, in fact, have a history, one that had yet to be written.
So she’s the huge influence, the reason I learned the art of close reading; I learned to think of literature in relation to politics, to everyday life. From reading her, I learned to hold the architecture of an entire novel in my head, so that I could actually move around inside of it. My gradual detachment from her, my move back toward American voices—Eudora Welty and Raymond Carver, Emily Dickinson, three enormous influences—came after my brother’s death, when I was writing a whole book about The Waves, which Woolf privately dedicated to her older brother, who had died tragically at a young age after a trip to Greece. In my own grief, I saw clearly that my metaphysic was different from hers; I did not respond to death as she had. It freed me. I never published that work; someday I will return to it and finish it.