A Conversation with Richard McCann
Q. According to the press materials, you worked on Mother of Sorrows for seventeen years. Can you speak about the making of the book and why it took so long to write?
A. As a character in a Grace Paley story says, “There’s a long time in me between knowing and telling.” But of course that’s not the only reason the book took a long time. In the graduate workshops in fiction writing that I teach, I sometimes ask my students, as a way of prompting them to write about things that they find difficult, “What’s the story inside you that feels the hardest to tell?” And that’s what I kept asking myself as I worked on Mother of Sorrows. As a result, I often needed time to work out my material in ways that were not only structural but also deeply personal. The first time I showed my editor what passed for a draft of this book— really a jumble of scenes, with some plot points sticking out here and there—it was far longer than it is now. It took me a long time to admit that this book was at heart a difficult love story between a mother and her son.
Photo Credit: Joanne Jacobson
I should add that while I was working on Mother of Sorrows I was also stopped at several points by what I’ll call Life itself. In May 1996, for instance, I underwent a liver transplant after waiting thirteen months for a donor organ. As one might imagine, this wasn’t time dedicated to writing. For a long time, I was busy dying, and then I was busy with the work of being resurrected.
Q. You describe Mother of Sorrows as being “deeply personal.” What is this book about for you?
A. For me, this is a book about the experience of multiple losses and what it feels like to be at least a provisional survivor. That’s what ties the book together, starting with the father’s death, when the narrator is eleven, and then going forward toward the present, with yet more losses to come.
Q. In some ways, Mother of Sorrows might be seen as being as much about the relationship between two brothers as being ”a difficult love story between a mother and her son.” Which of these stories came first?
A. Without question, what came first was the story of the mother and her son—the younger son, who worshipfully imagines her as “Our Mother of the Late Movies and the Cigarettes,” “Our Mother of the Sighs and Heartaches,” “Our Mother of Sudden Anger,” “Our Mother of Sudden Apology.” This was the story I knew I was going to have to write if I was ever going to come to grips with the relationship I’d had with my own mother. In fact, this book began with the writing of “My Mother’s Clothes: The School of Beauty and Shame,” which was the first story I ever published and which appeared in The Atlantic Monthly. It wasn’t until I was almost finished with the book, during the writing of “My Brother in the Basement,” that I came to see that it was also about two brothers—Cain and Abel, that’s how I thought of it—perhaps because I’d never before been able to write about my own real brother, who died suddenly when he was in his thirties.
Q. To what extent is Mother of Sorrows autobiographical?
Like the narrator of Mother of Sorrows, I grew up in Silver Spring, Maryland, in a post-World War II subdivision of identical brick houses with picture windows, each house tethered to a small lot. My father, like the narrator’s, died when I was eleven. And like the narrator, I grew up with a mother who was enormously mesmerizing, at least to me, and whose complicated inner life seemed far more real to me than my own. But Mother of Sorrows isn’t reality–it’s an homage to reality instead. Although it has its roots in the autobiographical, it is in the end a work of fiction, derived from the complicated interaction of memory and imagination, fact and invention. That is to say: I sometimes drew from life, but I also omitted stuff and made stuff up.
Q. Do you see the Mother of Sorrows as a novel, as some people have described it, or as a collection of interwoven stories?
I don’t always have a definitive answer to that question. I know that many of those who have read Mother of Sorrows regard it as being unquestionably a novel—and they do so for good reason, given that the book has a single narrator and spans nearly three decades in the life of an American family. And I sometimes see it as a novel, too, although I more often regard it as ten interwoven stories that fit together—like a mosaic, I imagine—to form a larger story that has the scope and (I hope) the cumulative power of a novel. In any case, that’s how I wrote it, piece by piece. In the end, however, I think a reader can perceive it in whichever way he or she wishes. What matters to me is not whether people read it as a novel or as a collection of interwoven stories but rather that they find that the individual stories are speaking to each other and gathering force as they go forward, revealing the sorts of things that can be known about characters’ lives only if you see them across time. For me, the livelier question—at least while I was working on it—was whether it would turn out to be a work of fiction or a memoir. It sometimes reads like a memoir, I think, in that the narrator’s retrospective examination of his life often has what strikes me as a kind of confessional urgency.
Q. How would you describe the book’s structure, given that it is not arranged solely in a strict chronology?
This is a book about lives that are not just being lived but also remembered—for this reason, I didn’t want a strict chronology. After all, memory itself is hardly chronological. Rather than simply tell a story straight through, I wanted to look quite closely at some particularly large and defining events in a family’s life—in the few years immediately following the father’s sudden death, to be specific—and then to explore the aftershocks of grief that keep going forward for almost thirty years. Before turning to fiction, I should note, I wrote and published only poetry for some years, and, as a writer who was trained first as a poet, I find myself drawn over and over to the fitting together of fragments to make something larger. For me, writing is largely a slow process of distillation.
Q. How would you feel about your book being shelved in the gay fiction section of a bookstore? Do you see yourself as a “gay writer”?
Of course the bookstore section marked “Gay & Lesbian” helps some readers find the books they’re looking for; but I suspect it also keeps other readers—readers of general literary fiction, for instance—from finding books they too would connect with and love. I’d hate to think of some of the writers I’ve loved best—such as Whitman and Proust, for instance, not to mention Tennessee Williams and Yukio Mishima—as being consigned forever to a nook marked “Gay & Lesbian,” as if their works were only of limited interest. As for me: I’m a writer of literary fiction, and I therefore imagine my work as belonging on a shelf with other writers of literary fiction, whether they are straight, like Tobias Wolff or Alice McDermott or Marilynne Robinson, or whether they are gay, like Michael Cunningham or Alan Hollinghurst. My gay characters, like my straight characters, live in regular worlds that are filled with all sorts of people, just as we all do. Certainly being a gay man has affected my life and work; but so has my deep love of the works of Eugene O’Neill, say, as well as those of Tillie Olsen and Joan Didion. In fact, I sometimes think of Mother of Sorrows as my own version of A Long Day’s Journey Into Night—although in a subdivision, with the brothers wearing Davy Crockett coonskin caps. But to be serious: for the most part, I find the term “gay writer” reductive. I say this not out of shame but rather out of loyalty to our great human complexity and to our vast human interconnectedness. Isn’t that part of the vast project of literature—to imagine our lives and the lives of others as fully and completely as we are able?
Click here to hear and/or read a Blackbird interview with Richard McCann (recorded in February 2005, with memoirist and fiction writer Wesley Gibson, author of You Are Here: A Memoir of Arrival) discussing Mother of Sorrows, Ghost Letters, and The Resurrectionist, the memoir on which he is currently working.