“When We Argued All Night”–Alice Mattison’s new novel

Full disclosure: Alice Mattison and I have been friends since I moved to New Haven 30-something years ago. In fact, she was the first person I met when I (guiltily) enrolled my little toddler into a cooperative daycare. We became fast friends when she said to me, “There’s nothing better than coming BACK to your child!” (I had just gotten out of the car from a cross-country trip with my 15-month old. And lovely as he was, I was so looking forward to being somewhere else, so that I COULD come back to him.)

Turns out that Alice was wise in many ways, not just about daycare centers being okay places for children. In the years I’ve known her, she has wowed me with her humor, wisdom and writing–publishing poems, then short stories in the New Yorker, and then novels and collections of short stories. She still lives in New Haven, and she teaches fiction in the graduate writing program at Bennington College in Vermont.

Now I’m so thrilled to welcome her to the Books New Haven blog, talking about When We Argued All Night, her sixth novel, just published by Harper Perennial.  Visit her at her website, http://www.alicemattison.com. 

Tell us about your new book.

When We Argued All Night is a novel about two friends from Brooklyn, Artie Saltzman and Harold Abramovitz. It begins in 1936, when they are young men scrambling to hold onto jobs in the Great Depression and hoping to meet women. The book follows them, their children, and their grandchildren through the second World War, the McCarthy era, and on into the twenty-first century, ending in 2004, as Artie’s daughter Brenda (the third main character) watches Barack Obama give the keynote address at the Democratic National Convention on television. The book is about how we manage to live in families and endure the people we love, and how we find a way to live private lives despite what history throws at us.

Where did the germ of the story come from? How did you first know you were going to write this story?

Some years ago I wrote a novel called Hilda and Pearl, in which a New York City schoolteacher loses his job during the McCarthy era because of his past ties to Communism. I wrote the chapters about his job from the viewpoint of his young daughter, who doesn’t fully understand what’s going on, and ever since then I have wanted to take the next step and write about schoolteachers during the McCarthy era from their own viewpoint. As a child I was dimly aware of the rage and terror of teachers who were unjustly accused, and I knew one man who did lose his job.

Since my father’s death, in 2001, I’ve also wanted to write a novel about a father and daughter, not him and me, but some father and some daughter. Eventually I realized they would be in the same novel, but I kept putting it off—it was a big project, spanning much of the twentieth century, and other books seemed easier. But finally there was no other book in my head, so I wrote it.

Did this book come to you easily, or did you have to wrestle it to the ground once or twice? Did you ever give up on it?

It took plenty of research and reading, and, as I’ve said, years of thinking about it, but once I started writing it came fairly easily. I had lived it in my mind for so long. And the characters were vocal, eager to have me tell their story, impatient. Sometimes characters are like that, and at other times it feels as if they don’t even know about the book. Parts of the book needed a good deal of revision—it was hard to see how to write about such long periods of time. But this was one book I felt good about all along—I don’t think this ever happened before, and it’s my sixth novel.

Do you have a writing process you could share with readers, a way you like to proceed when you’re writing a book?

I think about a book for months before I begin, but don’t know everything about it. I write most weekdays, trying to feel my way to and through the next scene, then the one after that. I write on a computer. I expect it to take a long time. When I’m stuck I make lists of what I know about the next thing. All my best work seems to be done in the afternoons, never in the morning no matter how hard I try. I get business out of the way in the morning—emails and so forth—and write in the afternoons.

Are you a “pantser” (writing by the seat of your pants, discovering the story as you go along), or do you have the entire plot outlined before you begin? Or something in between?

Something in between. It’s as if I know I’m traveling from Boston to New York—well, probably New York, maybe someplace out on Long Island. . . . And maybe I know the basic route, but I don’t know where I’ll have lunch, or whether I’ll take a side road part way along and explore, or where I’ll stop and spend some time. That is to say, I usually know approximately how the book will end, and also what the part of the book I’m writing ends with, what event will propel the characters into the section after that, but I often don’t know exactly how the story will take them to that event. I write with one eye on the characters, feeling my way, and one eye on the intermediate outcome I know about—maybe the fact that somewhere in the next fifty pages or so, somebody will decide to get married, or somewhere soon, somebody will lose a job. I usually know when my characters did what they did—dates, that is, real ones—and I often check old newspaper stories to find out what they would be thinking about. Sometimes, what I discover makes the next event happen.

How do you get yourself to write when you don’t feel inspired? Is there anything that can bring that mood, or voice, back to you?

I’m not sure I ever feel inspired. I rarely feel sure I’m doing something great and I rarely write fast, but I do keep writing, quite happily. It’s what I do and I don’t question it. Often what I’m writing seems boring. Sometimes it turns out that it was boring, and I change it, but sometimes it wasn’t. I never doubt that the book or story is there waiting to be written. Sometimes I’m stuck, which is painful. Reading poetry helps, looking at art, sometimes taking a break to work outside in the yard, pulling weeds or mowing, or shoveling snow, if that’s the season.

When did you first know you were a writer?

I was thirteen. My English teacher said I had style. I think I’d assumed until then that everyone liked to write, but she made me know it was particularly true of me—as if you always knew you liked to sing and were good at it, but didn’t decide to become a professional singer until you realized that other people didn’t need it or love it the way you did.

If you weren’t a writer, what job would you like to do?

I always wanted to be both a writer and teacher, and I am. I taught English in community colleges and four-year colleges. Now I teach fiction writing in the MFA program in writing at Bennington College, and at writer’s conferences. If I hadn’t had this life, I’m pretty sure I’d have been a high school English teacher. Sometimes I think a piece of me lived that other life somewhere, as if maybe there are two of me. I don’t know what I’d have done if I didn’t write or teach—I’ve never thought about it. I can’t really imagine it.

What’s your favorite, and least favorite, part of the writing process? One writer describes the “sticky phase,” when everything you see and hear seems destined to slip into your novel somehow. Does that happen to you? Do you love the first draft, or prefer the last revision?

I love what I do, all of it. The first draft is more exciting because there was nothing and then there is something, but revision is easier, just because there’s something to work with. I do like the secrecy of making up a story, the months when I’m walking around trying to sense the basic facts, the vague outline of what happens, what the people are like—and nobody else knows a thing about it.

What’s your process of revision? Do you have readers who give you advice? At what point do you enlist their aid?

I have a group of five or six friends I think of as my “board of directors,” and it changes slightly as people are more or less willing to read a manuscript—it’s a lot to ask, handing someone a 400 page typescript. I don’t show them anything until about the third draft. I’m compulsively secretive about what I’m writing until then. Nobody knows anything about it, not the subject, sometimes not even that I’m doing it. After I show the book to my friends, I rewrite extensively, using their suggestions. Until then, I keep reading and reworking it on my own.

Readers tend to think that everything authors write is autobiographical. How do you handle those sorts of questions—people assuming that everything in your book really happened to you?

I hate that, and yes, it does happen. It’s especially difficult when a book (like this one) uses bits of my life. Brenda in this book, one of the three main characters, takes a job I once had—teaching English in a community college in the Central Valley in California. But nothing else about her is true of me. It’s impossible to make this claim and be believed, I think because so many books and movies that are notoriously based on something true have disclaimers saying that nothing in them is true. So readers smile knowingly when you say something is not autobiographical, especially if it’s about sex. Maybe they don’t believe it’s possible to make things up, but it is, it is. And sex is the easiest thing to make up. What’s hard to make up is procedure. If a novel includes a detailed account of removing wallpaper or bathing a dog, you can suspect autobiography, but if it includes an affair, that doesn’t mean much.

Have you ever gotten up in the middle of the night to write a scene that simply will not let you rest?

Not a whole scene, but I often have thoughts that I have to write down, and sometimes in the night, yes.

What about being a writer has made you truly happy?

I have had many happy experiences but here’s the best. A novel I wrote, Hilda and Pearl, takes place largely in the nineteen thirties. When the galleys arrived and I had to check them over one last time, I asked my mother to read them, to see if I’d made any errors about the era in which she had been young. Sure enough, she found a couple of things, and also a mistake both the copy-editor and I had missed, one of those details that drives every novelist crazy—people putting on coats they had already put on two pages earlier, something like that. But she didn’t say she liked the book, so I thought maybe she didn’t.

When Hilda and Pearl finally came out, I gave my parents a copy, and a few days later, my mother told me she’d taken the book with her when she went down to her basement to do laundry. It was hard for her to run up and down, so she’d do all the washing and drying at once, reading until it was finished. She said she hadn’t really read the book before: she was working so hard to find mistakes that she didn’t take in the story. This time, she was so engrossed that she didn’t notice that the washing machine had overflowed until the water was up to her ankles. I love thinking of that.

What do you tell people who want to be writers, too?

I tell them it’s hard. Sometimes they think that because it’s hard for them, that means they are no good, but it’s hard for everyone. I tell them the difference between amateur writers and professionals is that amateurs think their first drafts should be perfect but professionals expect to revise. I tell them to read all they can, including poetry and literary magazines and the writing of the past, not just the books they wish they had written but the ones that challenge them. And I tell them that success depends on who you know—which does not mean famous, important people but the people you actually know in your real life. Find other writers, others trying to learn—in a class, a writers’ conference, or among people you already know. Sharing writing and books will be good for both of you. Support your writing friends with praise if you possibly can, and buy their books when they publish—and they will support you. It’s easier to write as part of a community of people who hope for one another’s success than as a loner in competition with other writers.


2 thoughts on ““When We Argued All Night”–Alice Mattison’s new novel

  1. I was lucky enough to do a one day writing workshop with Alice and other writers, and found her to be very down to earth, approachable and practical. Just what I needed when the theory of writing wasn’t working for me…

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