Interview with Jessamyn West
Jessamyn West lives with her husband outside Napa in a two-story wood house with a stone porch in front and a stone patio in the rear. There are trees everywhere. She greets us wearing a dark sweater, slacks, a beaded Indian necklace, and a broad smile.
It is difficult to believe she is the same woman who describes herself as a loner in the autobiographical HIDE AND SEEK. She seems to have no nervousness, hesitancy, or suspicion to overcome. She sits in a rocking chair in front of the fireplace in the living room, a long bookcase covering the wall behind her, and talks about her work-and anything else that comes to mind-with openness and enthusiasm.
During the course of the afternoon, she also provides "beer and wine of all kinds," a curry lunch, and guided sidetrips around the house and grounds. She shows us the bedroom where she works and the small bed-desk she places astride her legs when writing; the bathroom that seems a part of the garden beneath the trees because the wall behind the tub is not a wall at all, but a window; the attic hideaway filled with books; the horse, corral, and barn; and her home away from home, a Dodge Motor Van parked beside the carport. When we comment on her obvious relish for life and her brisk, almost ingenuous vitality, she says, "I had tuberculosis for fifteen years. I have a lot to make up for."
Are writers different from other people?
West: They are probably more experienced in giving themselves away. This accounts, no doubt, for two of their qualities: their obnoxiousness and the stimulation of their talk.
How did you get started as a writer?
West: I remember I was mad about words and reading and writing, but I was brought up in Yorba Linda, California. No one there had ever seen a living writer, and I supposed if you were a writer, you would look in the mirror and see some sign. I remember writing "J. West" lightly with a pencil in a library book. Somehow, that gave me the satisfaction of feeling that if I were not a writer, at least I wrote in a book.
One day, before I had tuberculosis, I started writing something in my journal - I've kept journals all my life, stacks of them-and it was about no one I knew. I wrote for three or four pages, and these people talked, and I knew I had written.
Yet, your first book wasn't published until after your tuberculosis attack, years later. Is there a reason?
West: I had been afraid to write. I thought it was pretentious, lazy, and also that I probably couldn't write. I just didn't have the guts. Maybe Quakerdom had something to do with it, or maybe my particular Quakers, the Milhouses. The Milhouses weren't people who took big chances. They did what they could do and thought they could succeed in doing. I heard my grandfather say, "Don't stick your neck out, don't give your self away, don't risk making a fool of yourself." Every writer not only takes a chance of making a fool of himself, he may discover that he actually is a fool. A11 of these things added together.
What made you start writing seriously then? Was your tuberculosis a stimulus?
West: No, I don't think, as people sometimes say, that tubercular people are ignited by fever into imaginative creation. I would say that, in a way, it would have been impossible for me to write unless I was unable to do anything else. I backed myself into a corner with that sickness. I didn't know how to justify trying to write without every other thing being cut off. Tuberculosis made it possible.
I was at the University of California at Berkeley working for a Ph.D. in English, and the date had been set for my orals when I had a lung hemorrhage. Within three days I was in a sanitorium with far advanced tuberculosis. After two years they sent me home to die with my loved ones. A woman said to me one day, "Jessamyn, why don't you piece a quilt so you could have something to leave for your mother to remember you by." I thought, "What the hell, if it's come to that." I had reached the point when nobody thought it pretentious to write. They thought it was brave, courageous, for this young woman to scribble away as she lay there dying.
I began to write Iying in bed at home-I still write in bed-and my husband said, "I'll have these stories printed for you." That drove me crazy. I said, "Look, you're a teacher. If I were a millionairess, and you couldn't get a job, and I said to you, 'I can hire children for you to teach,' would you like that?" He said he wouldn't like that, but he kept nagging me to do something about the stories cluttering up the place. Finally, I said, "I will write twelve stories and send each one to twelve different magazines.
They will all be turned down. Then, do I have your solemn promise that you will let me write away?" He said, "Fine."
Somebody took one, and they began to be taken-not always at first-one by one. Then, Harcourt, Brace wrote me saying they would like to publish a collection of my Quaker stories. I thought they were daft. I thought, "Who in God's name wants to read a whole book of Quaker stories? Would I go into a bookstore and say, 'Do you have any good fiction about Seventh Day Adventists?' "
You couldn't have remembered too much about Indiana since you left there when you were six years old. Why did you choose it as a setting for THE FRIENDLY PERSUASION?
West: It is more difficult for me to write about what is right around me than about what I have to imagine. Roth wrote THE BREAST. Would you ask him how he could do this since he had never been a breast?
Adams wrote WATERSHIP DOWN. Would you ask him how he could do this since he admitted his rabbit knowledge came from a book about rabbits?
Gardner wrote GRENDEL. Would you ask him how he could do this since his acquaintance with fens and mythical monsters was skimpy?
Vonnegut regularly gets planetary beings into his novels. How can he do this having never visited a planet other than our own?
And those hobbits!
The real answer to your question probably is that Indiana is my rabbit, my hobbit, my breast, my planet, my fen-loving monster. I write about it because knowing little about it, I can create it. I am a bigger risk-taker than these others. The Hoosiers can contradict me. No rabbit, hobbit, or breast has been known to speak up in reply to their exploiters.
I admit Indiana isn't very chic. Kids like planets and breasts and rabbits more. But one uses what one has. Indiana was terra incognita, and my imagination about it had been stirred by my mother's memories and the words she used to convey those memories.
At the time they sent me home to die, I couldn't bear to tnmK OI the life I had had as a young married woman and a student. I'd lost that. I had no future, so my mother gave me Indiana and her life there. Maybe I just don't see the reality in front of my eyes very well, so I create an imagined reality in writing.
Do your mother and father and others you've known appear in your work? Are your characters modeled after real people?
West: Being of my generation and of my temperament, it was hard for me to write frankly about my own people. In THE WITCH DIGGERS Lib Conboy had some of my mother's characteristics, yes, and I think Link Conboy had some of my father's. Bass, in LEAFY RIVERS, had some of my grandfather's characteristics. On the other hand, THE FRIENDLY PERSUASTON iS one hundred thousand percent fiction. You two could sit here all day, and I couldn't put you in a story. It may be that I'm just not a good conscious observer of human beings; but I think I do do it unconsciously.
Graham Greene feels much the same as I. He says writers should forget their own lives. The bits and pieces you remember should fall down into your unconscious and become compost. When you need something, it's there in the compost heap. You've forgotten it's what you lived through. So, for me, the thing to do in writing is to ask myself questions, not tell myself answers: to ask, What did this man do? What did he feel? and let the answer boil up to the surface.
When the answers boil to the surface how do you decide which answers to include or not?
West: When you make a story, you make a thing. It's like making an urn or a stone wall. You put in what that artifact needs at that point and maybe you leave out things it needs even more.
Do you plot your books in advance at all, then? Do you know how a book is going to end?
West: Malraux wrote a novel which disappeared during the German occupation of Paris. After Paris was liberated, an interviewer said, "You will, of course, rewrite it." Malraux replied, "Certainly not." Asked why, he said, "Because I know the ending." Non-writers don't understand this. Writing is exciting. I feel the same excitement a reader feels because my characters say and do things I don't know they are going to say and do.
I don't think I could start something unless I had an idea where it was going-I couldn't start a short story without the title, and the title usually has something to do with where the story is going-but I may discover as I know more about the people, as they move and express themselves, as they act and interact, that the ending I thought about is not plausible. They would not have done that. Perhaps, I could be a better writer if I outlined. But basically, thinking, plotting, planning is not the way I write. I have sometimes felt that if I wrote a sentence, then tied to the last word of that sentence another word, I'd presently have a book. For the most part, writing is life making itself known to me through words.
Most, though not all, of your characters are basically good. They have their share of human weakness, but they're not evil. Do you think of your work as a whole as being philosophically positive?
West: I have Quaker relatives who believe if you have any aptitude in the use of words, you should be preaching, and I have read writers who had a purpose in writing, who did not want to write a thing that would not somehow elevate, make better, make happier the people who read it.
I am a storyteller, and I do not have that desire to preach. I haven't any formal philosophy. I write because I want someone to feel and experience what I feel and experience, to see what I have seen.
Evil exists, and a writer should be able to depict it, but I have not encountered much evil in my life. This is a handicap for a writer, an enormous handicap. If for three hundred years all of your people have been Quakers, and if you lie in bed for fifteen years with people taking care of you, you don't have a great deal of experience with evil.
Once, I started to write a story about a guy people would hate. As I wrote the story, I became that man, and all the hate went out of me. I couldn't hate myself, and I couldn't make my reader feel what I didn't feel. Maybe this is an indication of my deficiencies as a writer. I don't know how to slant a story. The craftsman-the hack even-knows how to make the reader feel the emotions appropriate to the fictive situation.
All of my tears on a page or my mounting blood pressure mean nothing to the reader. I may feel that I am Tess, hanged, or Hester with her A, but what counts in writing is the ability to make the reader identify himself with the character. Perhaps the combination of the two-tears in the heart and craft in the hand-makes the master. Dickens had both. It is my ambition someday to write about a truly evil man. It probably won't come off.
Earlier, you mentioned you still wrote in bed. Is there any particular reason? Could you discuss some of your other working habits?
West: It just seems like the place to write. It would seem businesslike to write at a desk. And, if you're a housewife, there are two good reasons for staying in bed. One, you have on your nightgown or pajamas and can't go running to the door at the knock of strangers. Also, once you're up and dressed, you see ten thousand things that need doing. So, I wake up and get some coffee or orange juice and go back to bed. I write everything in longhand. I could type at one time, and I suppose I still could, but it's not very easy to have a typewriter on your stomach in bed.
How do you revise?
West: I revise day by day and page by page until it seems I can't make it any better. Then, I let that stand and go on. After it's finished, I send it to my typist. It looks quite different when it comes home, and I usually change that, and it's typed a second time.
You leave it alone then?
West: Yes. Sometimes I have thought that I should put everything away for a year, but I can't stand to reread it unless it is still molten. Even if I were to reread a published book of mine now and see something I didn't like, I wouldn't want to be mixed up with it again. I've already given birth to that baby.
You've written short stories, novels, an autobiography, a play, and edited an anthology. Is there one form you prefer?
West: I certainly did, at first, prefer short stories. I expect I'm a novelist now. It may be that is somewhat a matter of age. When you're younger, a short story is a form that more quickly conveys emotion. It takes less staying power and more feeling.
Are you working on anything now?
West: I have a new book coming out called THE MASSACRE AT FALL CREEK which has been taken by The Literary Guild and The Reader's Digest book clubs. The publication had to be postponed because the book clubs had just published Michener's CENTENNIAL which has a massacre in it. They didn't think the public was ready to have one massacre after another rammed down its throat. I had the manuscript finished last fall. I've just finished another book called THE WOMAN SAID YES.
Would you mind talking about them?
West: THE MASSACRE AT FALL CREEK iS about the first time white men in the United States were ever tried and then hanged for the killing of Indians. This happened in Indiana. THE WOMAN SAID YES iS non-fiction. It's about my mother and myself and my sister, something on the order of HIDE AND SEEK, but more about them than me.
Is THE MASSACRE AT FALL CREEK a history?
West: No. I don't want to write history. That's reporting. I'm not a reporter. Almost nothing is known about the incident. Ten or twelve pages written twenty-five years later by one of the prosecuting attorneys and two pages written by the man who was the Indian agent are all that remain. The courthouse with all the records burned down. Everything in the book except the historical incident is fiction.
Why did you choose this particular incident for a book?
West: I've read a lot about Indiana. I had read about this incident and thought a lot about those murdered Indians. Also, I have Indian blood: my grandmother was half Indian. I don't know whether that had anything to do with it or not. Anyway, the subject was vivid-and significant.
Are there any writers you particularly admire?
West: One day I was downcast when one of Harcourt, Brace's editors was here. I said to Margaret, "Why can't I write like Eudora Welty?" She said, "Look, you don't have Eudora Welty's pen. You have Jessamyn West's pen. It's a different pen. Use it as best you can. That's all you can do. There are some people who like you better than Eudora Welty."
Sure, I would have liked to have been a Eudora Welty or a Carson McCullers or a Flannery O'Connor-I don't know whether I would want to be a Joyce Carol Oates or not-but I think what this gal told me is the truth. More or less you do what you can with what you've got.
I do have a great reverence for Hemingway. He changed our use of the English language. In his economy, his choice of detail, his use of simple strong words and sentences, he was able to make a short story convey the reality of fiction with the emotion of poetry.
I read everybody, almost. I remember being in Paris in 1928 for a month or so, just at the time I believe Hemingway and Stein and the Fitzgeralds were in and out of that city. I never saw them, but I did at once discover Shakespeare & Co. and bought one of the blue paper-backed copies of ULYSSES they were publishing. It was against the law to bring a copy into the United States. I was traveling with a trunk, of course. It was half-filled on my return with stone jars of English marmalade. The sight of a jam-crazy tourist so repelled the inspector of imports that he never got beneath the jam to the Joyce. The jam is gone, but Joyce remains.
This interview with Jessamyn West appeared in Fiction! : interviews with Northern California novelists (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich 1976) by Dan Tooker and Roger Hofheins. The photo is by Dan Tooker.