An Interview With Poet and Fiction Writer Grace Paley

Ilya Kaminsky and Katherine Towler

P&W: In your book of collected writings, Just As I Thought, you describe your parents as “atheist, socialist Jews.” How much did their views influence yours?

GP: Yes, that is who my parents were, but I used to take my grandmother to shul. She was not an atheist, though she was not very religious. But the way my parents lived just seemed the normal way to live. I grew up in the Bronx. My memories are from the Depression, the late 1930s. The people on my street didn’t work then. The men had no work, but my father was the neighborhood doctor. So I was a rich person relative to all my friends. I had a very happy childhood because the streets of New York are wonderful for children. You’re free on the street as a child. In summertime, you could play on the street till ten o’clock at night. Your mother would look out the window or someone else’s mother and say, “Come on, come back up to the house.” Sometimes a kid would go and sometimes another half hour would pass. There was always somebody there on the street. There were always children to play with.

My family talked politics at the table. I mean it was a normal conversation. My father would read the paper and say, “Goddamn.” They talked Russian to my grandmother who might answer in Yiddish or Russian, but mostly by the time I was growing up they spoke English at home, though they read Russian. My father got a Russian Socialist newspaper of some kind.

P&W: At the end of many of your stories, there is the sense that life just goes on. There’s no particular ending to the story. Your character Zagrowsky says, “I tell you what life is going on, you have an opinion, I have an opinion, life don’t have no opinion.”

GP: That was true for my family. At suppertime there would be, if everybody was there, my father and my mother, who were social democrats and very upset about the Soviet Union. Then there would be my aunt who was a communist, and my other aunt who was a zionist. There were big differences of opinion. They would talk and talk, and life went on no matter what.

I still remember my mother reading the newspaper at the table when I was a kid. Apparently the Nazi party has just gotten itself together, and Hitler is in power. It must be around 1939, maybe a little earlier. My mother says to my father, “Look, Zenia, it’s beginning again.” Those words— “it’s beginning again”—have reverberated in my ears all my life. It’s beginning again. The fear you hear in those words. As a person who has never really suffered any prejudice, I remember those words.

I have letters from 1912, 1914, in Russian, from a woman writing to my aunt Yuba. The woman writes, “I don’t know what to do about the boys. I don’t know what to do with the two of them. They’ve gotten some foolishness in their head. They are going to some farm and taking classes to learn how to be farmers. They want to go to Palestine. I tell them they can’t, they mustn’t do it, and they say, ‘But what have we here? We have nothing here.’” They’re right, she says, they have nothing here. There’s nothing here for them, and so, she says, I have to let them do what they want. But why do they want to be farmers? She’s horrified. What’s wrong with these children? They want to be farmers? In Palestine of all places?

P&W: There is such a strong, almost spoken voice to your stories. It feels like you are sitting there telling me the story. How did you discover this voice?

I read a lot. In poetry, I liked W. H. Auden more than anyone. I loved British writers and the novels I grew up with, Twain, Dickens, and so on. I was not influenced say by Walt Whitman or anyone like that. His freedom was not my freedom, and so it didn’t affect me. But Saul Bellow had begun to write already. He freed the Jewish voice in some ways that I didn’t even recognize, but his work was all about men. Still, for Jews who are crazy about the English language, he was the one.

My father must have told us Bible stories, because I had Biblical stories bred in me from early on, and I don’t know from where. It wasn’t my grandmother so much. I am very interested in the Bible. It’s the King James version that I know, which is also great English literature. I think it had an effect on me because I’ve read the Bible a lot. I love the style of the King James Bible more than anything else. I was always a big reader, and I read good literature. The reason I mention this is because I keep telling students, “You’ve got to read.” We have a great tradition in English literature. We’re very lucky. We have this big English language, which is so receptive of other languages. English takes everything in. The French have laws that you can’t say this, you can’t say that, but in English you can say any god-damned thing you want, you know.

P&W: You began to write prose relatively late. You had been writing poetry before that. What was it that led you to start writing prose?

GP: Well, I’ll tell you, something funny happened to me. I thought I’d like to try to write stories, and it turned out that I had a lot of subject matter, which I didn’t realize at first. At first I just had the first story I wrote. I was amazed when I finished it. I couldn’t believe it. I suddenly had this large subject matter of the lives of women. I found this subject matter because I’d been spending much of my days with women and children in a way that I hadn’t before, in Washington Square Park mostly.

You see, nothing happens without political movement. Now it just so happens that when I started writing prose, the women’s movement was coming together. I didn’t know this. What happens is that you’re part of something without knowing it. The black power movement had a literature that lived with it, that supported it. So the women’s movement began to develop. Tillie Olson and I didn’t know it, but we were part of a movement. I became more and more interested in the lives of women, and I couldn’t write about this in poetry. I didn’t know how to write about this material in poetry. I can now, but I couldn’t do it then. So I had these stories, and I began to write them. I wrote them slowly over fifteen, twenty years. Really not much, but that was the basic voice that I had, and it was a normal voice to be writing in at that time, but I didn’t know this. I mean, I was not doing it on purpose. I tried writing from men’s points of view. I have a few stories from men’s point of view, from people of different color, different races, but basically my material was women’s lives, and I was a part of what was happening at that time, that’s all.

The poetry improved my prose, but the prose was equally good for my poetry. It loosened it up and made me more relevant to myself.

P&W: Were you concerned that because you wrote about women’s lives, your work might not be taken as seriously?

GP: I was very surprised by how well I was received. My experience was that men’s writing was interesting, and I really thought that for most people the lives of women would be very narrow in their appeal. But I couldn’t help the fact that I had not gone to war, and I had not done the male things. I had lived a woman’s life and that’s what I wrote about.

I’ll tell you an interesting thing, at least interesting to me. The poetry before I began to write stories, some of it, was very literary. I was a big reader. I was a big imitator, too. I sounded like I was a little bit British in my poetry. The fact that I came from the Bronx was irrelevant. When I began to write stories, I had the luck of having written poetry so that I had the language in my mouth. On the other hand, it was much looser since it was prose. That had a great effect on me when I continued to write poetry. The poetry improved my prose, but the prose was equally good for my poetry. It loosened it up and made me more relevant to myself.