An Interview With Poet and Fiction Writer Grace Paley

Ilya Kaminsky and Katherine Towler

P&W: Did you know when you first wrote about the character Faith who appears in so many of your stories that you would keep writing about her? And is there any significance to your choice of the name Faith?

GP: No. I didn’t know that I would keep writing about her. You wouldn’t believe this, but I like to make jokes, so I had this crazy idea that I would have a family in my stories with the names Faith, Hope, and Charlie. That was my dopey idea. It never worked, but she was stuck with the name Faith.

I want people to look at the world and see what's happening to it and take some action.

P&W: What led you to keep writing about her?

GP: Because she was a good worker. She did the job; she told the story. She seemed to have some brains. She had a sense of humor. She worked for me. Faith is not me; her life is entirely different from mine. My children lived with their father until they were twenty years old, and I was not a single mother, ever, not for five minutes. So Faith’s life is not mine, but she could have been one of my friends.

P&W: What advice do you give to younger writers?

GP: Have a low overhead. Don’t live with anybody who doesn’t support your work. Very important. And read a lot. Don’t be afraid to read or of being influenced by what you read. You’re more influenced by the voice of childhood than you are by some poet you’re reading. The last piece of advice is to keep a paper and pencil in your pocket at all times, especially if you’re a poet. But even if you’re a prose writer, you have to write things down when they come to you, or you lose them, and they’re gone forever. Of course, most of them are stupid, so it doesn’t matter. But in case they’re the thing that solves the problem for the story or the poem or whatever, you’d better keep a pencil and a paper in your pocket. I gave this big advice in a talk, and then about three hours later I told a student I really liked his work and asked how I could get in touch with him. He said he would give me his name and address. I looked in my pocket, and I didn’t have any pencil or paper.

P&W: I heard you speak years ago, and you said that you had some stories that had taken thirty years for you to find a way to tell. What was it that allowed you to finally tell the stories and why do some stories take so long?

GP: Well, that’s just me. I’m willing to let it go until it happens. I’m not going to push it too hard. Why should I? I mean, I don’t make a lot of money anyway, so if I finish this story I’ll be lucky if someone will publish it. Whether it’s a magazine that pays or a magazine that doesn’t pay will do me equally good. I don’t feel pushed, as far as that’s concerned. Most of the living I make is from giving readings. I never made a lot of money writing, anyway.

I struggle to be truthful to myself. I think that’s what literature is about; it’s the struggle for truth. It’s the struggle for what you don’t understand. So as long I don’t understand things I will be able to write, but once I understand everything, I won’t be able to write any more. There are things you want to understand. That is what writing is about. What kept me going writing stories is that all of a sudden I found the form I could use to try to understand in dialogue the people I’d been living with, the women I knew, and to try to make some history out of it somehow.

P&W: You have said that when you are a poet, you speak to the world, and when you are a story writer you get the world to speak to you. Could say more about this?

GP: In prose I do get the world to speak to me so I can understand it better, but it’s the same thing in poetry—speaking out to the world but also getting the world to speak to you. In writing both poetry and prose, you come from not understanding to trying to understand. In prose, you get these people to talk and figure things out for you, but in poetry you are on your own. So in poetry you’re really speaking more to yourself, addressing yourself and trying to understand something. But both voices, prose and poetry, are mysterious. You have to be a very good listener to be a writer. I talk a lot, but I’m a good listener with people. I’m interested in people, but I also like them. I’m very lucky in that because there are a lot of embittered people, grouchy people, writing books.

P&W: Does writing allow you to have moments of understanding?

GP: You have those experiences if you’re writing very often. You don’t know that you understand, but sometimes you have characters talking to each other and the purpose of their conversation is for you to understand something about them, which could happen without your knowing it. In a way, you keep writing to understand. You don’t do it, and then say, “Oh now, I understand, the story’s over.” You’re left pretty much still wondering, so there is that wonder and mystery.

Just looking out at the countryside here, I find it so amazing. If you look out that window, it’s so amazing, and the countryside is being murdered. People don’t understand what is being done to their countryside. In some parts of the world, they seem to understand it better than here. Here we don’t seem to get it that the fields are being wrecked by poisons and the air is close to the end of breathable. There is a great effort in America to stay happy and not worry and not understand and not do anything about it.

P&W: How do you see the future for this country?

GP: We have a big election coming up, and that’s on my mind. This administration is very dangerous, not just bad, but they’re really scary. I don’t remember anything like it. I didn’t like Reagan at all, and he did terrible things, but he was not like this administration.

I want people to look at the world and see what’s happening to it and take some action. This planet is so lovable. It is so various and so lovable, including all sorts of parts of the world that I’ve never seen, and I’ve seen more than most people. Just in what your eyes see, and how people live on the earth, it’s amazing, but it’s going to end if we don’t get our leaders to pay attention.

Human beings come from some little amoeba or paramecium. That’s what I learned in biology. Human beings come from several million years of development, which is quite wonderful. I have a lot of regard for what human beings have become. It took us a million years to learn how to speak to each other, and we did it. It took us another million years to work with each other, and we did it. I think the human race is remarkable. If it could only be nice to other animals, it would be even better. Meanwhile, it’s just like any other animal. It’s abusive and consumes the other species. That implies that we should all be vegetarian. Well in a sense, I am saying that. Until we live in a world where we stop abusing each other and the other creatures, we will not have reached our perfection.