Emily Wiser talks with Molly Giles

Appears in Other Voices #40

Molly Giles has published a novel, Iron Shoes, and two short story collections: Creek Walk and Other Stories, which won the Small Press Award for Short Fiction, and Rough Translations, which won the Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction and was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize. Giles has also published book reviews in The New York Times and won The National Book Critics Circle Award for Book Reviewing. She has received a National Endowment for the Arts award and has won two Pushcart Prizes. Her short story “Two Words,” which was first published in The Missouri Review, won the 2003 O. Henry Prize. She served as the 2003 Lurie Professor of Creative Writing at San José State University and currently directs the Programs in Creative Writing at the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville.

EW. You’ve written the novel Iron Shoes in which forty-year-old Kay Sorenson tries to deal with her mother’s death and her father’s abandonment. Rough Translations and Creek Walk are both short story collections also featuring female protagonists. If you had to characterize your narratives, what would you say are the predominant themes?

MG. Good question. Wish I had a good answer! Usually reviewers tell you what your themes are and then you disagree with them. I remember one reviewer saying—oh that awful phrase I hate so much—that my stories were about “lives of quiet desperation.” Now, I’ve never felt particularly quiet or particularly desperate, so I kicked that one out, but I haven’t come up with a replacement. I think I’m just trying to capture small moments of authentic life as it is experienced by women today, and I don’t know that I have a predominant theme. If you find one, let me know. I think if an author sits down to write with a theme in mind she’s going to end up doing an English paper.

Still thinking about your question, though…. I am troubled by and interested in cruelty, people’s cruelty to each other—common, casual, everyday cruelty. I am also interested in kindness and in self-forgiveness and the way we can sometimes rise above the damage that is done to us and the damage that we do to others.

EW. I noticed that you write about tensions between mothers and daughters, not only in Iron Shoes, but in stories like “Cruise Control,” “Creek Walk” and “Self-Defense.”

MG. I’ll say. I had a lot of drama in my relationship with my own mother and then I have been the single mother of three daughters, so I have had plenty of experience with the many variations of the mother-daughter relationship. It was interesting…. This morning I was reading a magazine, and all of a sudden a big, black spider crept out of the pages, and I jumped and the first thing I screamed was, “Mama!” Which really surprised me. My mother has been dead for years, never answered to “Mama,” refused to rescue any of us and would be no help with spiders at all. But she’s the one I still call on for help. And I’ve heard that pilots call to their mothers just before they go down…. I do think that mothers and daughters reach each other and teach each other in deep, dangerous and instructive ways, and that women learn more about themselves from their daughters and mothers than from any other source.

EW. Regarding male-female relationships, you often write about tension between romantic partners in stories such as “Chocolate Footballs” and “A Jar of Emeralds,” but you write less frequently about father-daughter tension. Did you want to talk a little bit about that?

MG. [In] my novel Iron Shoes, I tried to deal with the father/daughter dynamic. The book is split in two, with the daughter having to deal first with her mother and then with her father. So in that novel, I did actually deal with a father-daughter relationship, but I think it’s the only time I have. As for male-female relationships—they’re just money in the bank for a writer—there is so much subtlety and silliness and highs and lows and in-betweens, so many failures of communication. I do think that men and women are unfixably different and that they make incredible mistakes with each other before harmony is reached. I’m interested in the mistakes made along the way more than in the happy endings. I don’t choose harmonious subjects. They don’t interest me.

I want them in my life, but I don’t want to read about them or write about them. I just want them at breakfast.

EW. Why did you choose to expand the short story “Creek Walk” into Iron Shoes?

MG. I was very interested in the mother character. She had an indomitable spirit and I wanted to give her more space. I kept the essential foursome of the short story, which was mother, father, sister, brother, and while I changed the others quite a bit, I didn’t really change the mother. I didn’t want to lose her. But in the middle of the novel I had to kill her off anyway, because the book is, alas, about the less interesting daughter. I was very sad about doing that. I’m not even sure to this day that the book recovered from it; there’s a big gap in the middle when the mother goes, but it’s something I had to do to pull the book together.

The two works are different. “Creek Walk” is a story about grief, essentially. It’s the story of a woman who has to come to terms with her mother’s death, and it takes her a little longer than she expected it to and it leads her down strange paths. Iron Shoes is more about growing up, growing past grief. My character is forty, but in many ways she is still an adolescent, a typical “adult child,” especially when dealing with her parents. When I finished that novel a lot of my friends said forty is too young, make the character, Kay, fifty.

EW. Speaking of Iron Shoes, how did you decide to incorporate the story of Oedipus into Iron Shoes?

MG. I was sort of joking with that. You have to pitch a book. So somebody said, “What’s the book about?” And I said very flippantly, “It’s about a girl who kills her mother and sleeps with her father.” Although I hope it’s not read that Kay does actually sleep with her father—it’s just that she’s got enough guilt to think she has. I even gave Kay a cat named Eddy Puss. And then I started thinking about how crippled Oedipus was—he was blinded and I believe he also had a club foot–his life was tragedy because of his relationships with his parents. So, even though I suggested it jokingly, the more I began to think about it the more I began to think, “Well, those Greeks knew what they were doing.” You could do worse than crib from them.

EW. In Iron Shoes, Kay’s mother had a vision of a blue horse as she was dying. At the end of the novel, Kay has been injured in a car crash in a remote location and she is saved by a vision of a blue horse, which leads her to an older couple that helps her. This ending seems to be more spiritual, or bordering on the realm of the fantastic, than the endings in your short stories. Would you agree?

MG. No, I usually do cop out with fantastic endings if I can get away with them. Often, I’ll end a short story with a dream.

I’m trying to think if there are other elements like that in my short stories. Well, sure. I have an invisible interviewer in “Leaving the Colonel” and some aliens in “The Writers’ Model” and various weirdnesses in other stories. Because I had been using both a myth and a fairy story in Iron Shoes, I felt it was O.K. to bring in a fantasy. The horse is actually a projection of the mother’s drugged imagination—or—maybe not. I’m open to everything.

EW. Why did you decide to stretch the real in the ending of Iron Shoes? Is that because of your use of the myth and the fairy tale?

MG. Yes, and it seemed like she needed something of her mother’s to guide her back, even if it was only the figment of her brain tumor, essentially, because the mother was hallucinating the horse. I think often we, as children of our parents, also pick up their imaginations, and I think that there is such a thing in some way as a guardian angel. And the blue horse—even though it represented the mother’s hallucinatory projection—was what saved Kay. So, maybe there is a transitive imagination that goes between parent and child. The mother’s hallucination is Kay’s guardian angel. Mother and daughter share this vision, in a way, for a while.

EW. The voice in Creek Walk seems to be a little bit more hardened and not as trusting of the world than the voice in Rough Translations. How would you account for the change, then?

MG. Well, Rough Translations was my MA thesis from San Francisco State, and I think the voice in those stories is essentially pretty naïve and self-conscious and smart-ass. I’ve always thought that. One thing I tried to do in Creek Walk was to get rid of those qualities as much as I could, which wasn’t easy because they did comprise my natural voice. Getting older certainly punched some of the stuffing out of that voice. But—if I’m understanding you correctly—I think you were asking me to compare the two collections—the stories in Creek Walk are about the three D’s: death, divorce, and depression. And the stories in Rough Translations, although they also deal with those, are more romantic; the character is younger and more callow, in some ways, and the three D’s don’t do as much denting.

EW. Denting?

MG. Denting. Damage. Add more “D’s” in there. My story characters aren’t as affected.

EW. They aren’t as affected by the world.

MG. Yes, I think it’s a little slower: it’s a little harder for the characters in Creek Walk to get up off the mat again. I remember there is one story I love in Rough Translations, “A Jar of Emeralds,” and the narrator ends by saying, smartly, “Two marriages behind me, thousands to go,” and she’s only twenty years old. It’s that sort of bravado that the characters in Creek Walk are not up to anymore.

EW. How else would you say that your writing has changed?

MG. I’ll come back to try and deal with that first question you asked me about themes, and mention the very first story I ever wrote, which was a fairy tale about a wicked queen and a poor good little princess. It was extremely derivative of every fairy tale I’d ever read or heard. I don’t think that it was that different in subject matter than Iron Shoes—oppressed daughter, powerful mother. I was six, and I illustrated it and I gave it to my mother as a gift. She was thrilled—until she showed it to a friend of hers who was in Jungian analysis. And the friend said—my mother’s name was Doris—the friend said, “Oh, Doris, but clearly this story is about you. You’re the wicked queen.” And so my mother was hurt and spent many hours locked in the bathroom crying—and I would apologize behind the locked door because, although I had not had Jungian analysis, I knew I had copied a story, several stories, and was guilty as charged. A friend of mine said once that every one in the world is one of three types. You’re either a knight, a princess, or a dragon. In this occasion, my mother believed that she was the dragon. So, of course, did I.

EW. Iron Shoes is written from a woman’s point of view, as are all the stories in Creek Walk and Rough Translations except “The Planter Box.”

MG. Although some sections of Iron Shoes and one of the stories in Rough Translations is written in a man's point of view, most are in a woman's point of view. I don’t know what a man’s point of view is. I’m no mind reader. And I’m attracted to men who don’t talk. My dad never talked. The sentence I remember most from him was, “Go ask your mother.” I remember when I first started reading Saul Bellow and John Updike how thrilled I was with these strong male voices going on and telling me what they were thinking and feeling. I was so astonished by novels like Henderson the Rain King. Men were wordy? Chatty? Astonishing.


I grew up with women. My grandmother was one of thirteen girls. By the time she was born they had run out of names and just called her “Baby.” I was born during the war, World War II, and the men were overseas and there were eight women living in the house. All my cousins were girls, my sisters, my mother, my grandmother, my aunt, and two maiden ladies who lived upstairs, actually, one of whom taught me to read. So, I didn’t know much about men. If I saw a man on the street, I followed him. Someone had to go after me and grab me back. The smell of cigar smoke was an aphrodisiac. I still swoon over Bay Rum. So, I didn’t know much [about] men or boys as a child. Even though I married at nineteen and I married again in my thirties, I married quiet men. So, in writing, I had to either make stuff up for them to say or make them sound like more laconic women or just forget them and stick with women characters.

EW. Yes, “The Planter Box” is the only story in Rough Translations told from a man’s point of view.

MG. Some of the stories in Rough Translations were based on my in-laws. I liked and pitied my father-in-law a great deal and based the male character on him; I also used him in the story “What Do You Say?” I wasn’t aware at the time that “The Planter Box” was the only story from a male’s point of view and, of course, his point of view is focused on a woman, his wife. The story [called “Two Words”] that I have in the 2003 O. Henry prize stories is from a man’s point of view, but he’s an ill man and that makes him open. I really feel sorry for men, actually. I don’t think they’re free to be as forthcoming as women, at least in my generation. So the man in the O. Henry collection is one who has a brain tumor, and, in a way, it has freed him, has brought out his child-like self. He’s become more playful, more openly loving. He paints his toenails blue. He may be, in some ways, more feminine, but he’s been freed.

EW. Have you encountered any resistance, or have you sensed resistance, from editors, readers, or colleagues because your work is focused on women?

MG. There is always a lot of resistance against passive women. Passivity is more annoying to readers and editors than gender. And yet most of us are pretty passive. Because Kay in Iron Shoes takes a really long time to get it together, a lot of readers were upset with her. It’s hard for a writer to always understand other people’s responses to their work. One of my stories, “The Writer’s Model,” has been made into a short film and I’ve been told that when it plays at film festivals that men often stand up and shout back at the movie, whereas women just giggle. I wasn’t there. But I’ve been told they’re offended.

EW. Really?

MG. Yes. Well, the men in that film—writers sitting around interviewing a naked woman—are not portrayed very kindly. Generally speaking, men don’t like the men in my work much. The average male reader is not charmed by the depiction of the average male in my stories…. When I did sell “Two Words” to the Missouri Review, I got a letter from their editor, this generous smart and kind man, who wrote saying that my story made him glad to be an editor, and that he was just so honored to be able to publish it. And then the next day I got another letter from him. And it said that his wife kept asking him why he liked this story so much. (She laughs) And he said it was because it was about a man who had seizures who was married to a much younger woman, and he’s had seizures and is married to a much younger woman… I could have done without that second letter!

EW. Would you consider your work to be feminist?

MG. Oh, sure. I would definitely. My definition of a feminist is the old-fashioned one: equal pay for equal work, and [being] treated equally, and being a partner in the world, and not being considered a secondary citizen. I have seen a lot of changes in women’s lives. When I was first married, back in the ‘60’s, I was not allowed to write a check. My mother-in-law didn’t drive. A lot of women of that generation didn’t drive. But I’m not sure women are out of the woods yet. Although we have come a long way baby, as the commercial goes, we haven’t really progressed that far emotionally. Perhaps we still think of ourselves as secondary citizens. I see the young women suffering as much today from bulimia, anorexia, low self-esteem, etc. as the women of my generation did. Yes, it is easier for them to be doctors, lawyers, and politicians. But there is still that physical unease and insecurity. My generation wanted to be cute and little and blonde, like Sandra Dee. Now, everybody wants to be six-foot two and weigh twenty pounds. There’s still that feeling that women have and have always had that they’re not good enough.

EW. When you teach do you see any polarization of students among gender lines?

MG. Every workshop has its own dynamic. I just came back from a semester teaching at San José State University in California, where there was a mellow camaraderie, but here in the MFA program in Arkansas, which is really, in my humble opinion, the best in the country—one of our students just won the Playboy College Fiction Award and another has two stories coming out in The Atlantic Monthly—there has been a noticeable gender division. The workshop seating is like a seventh grade dance, boys at one end of the table and girls at the other, and the boys are writing about baseball and the girls are writing about abortions. These MFA students come from all over the country, so [one] can’t blame Arkansas. In San Francisco State, I remember one class with nothing but melancholy lesbian relationship stories. It changes from semester to semester, and I’m going to be very interested to see if I’m still going to run into the same gender division when I go back to Arkansas in the fall or if that was just particular to that particular class. But, it was funny. Truly, you had to mix them up: go boy, girl, boy, girl, boy, girl.

EW. What do you think accounted for that?

MG. I have no idea. You start to think, “Is it something in the water?” You’ve been in a lot of different workshops, so you know how some connect and some split. It’s not that you don’t get good feedback out of both. In fact, sometimes I think a bad workshop, or what you think at the time is a bad workshop, may be the most helpful to your writing. Because when you write you don’t want to preach to the converted. You really want to get people who normally wouldn’t pay attention to your work to listen up in the hopes they can respond in ways that will help you later when you rewrite. You just take your chances. It’s always a craps shoot. I’m always astonished when I walk into a class and I look at those bland, blank faces and by the end of the semester I know everybody so well, and they are so unique. It’s always interesting to me what comes out of the workshop and what doesn’t, and how workshops that seem so helpful and sweet and loving can turn out in many ways to be the least valuable to your own growth as a writer.

So, I like a big mixture. I think every group should have somebody who is a Pollyanna and clasps their hands and says, “Oh God, I love what you’re doing here.” And I think it should also have somebody who just sits there scowling and yawning with their arms crossed and doesn’t like anything. And it should have somebody who is really good with grammar and punctuation, and somebody else who really knows their car models or their guns, so they can help you with that stuff.

EW. Do you consider yourself to be primarily a short story writer or a novelist?

MG. Well, I’ve only written the one novel and I honestly don’t have the requisite passion for writing another at this time. It’s a big commitment. Two years at the least. And I don’t have that kind of time. So, I consider myself a short story writer.

I like to read novels, but I like to write short stories, and that I can’t explain. When I read short stories, other people’s short stories, I’m often dissatisfied taking them one at a time. So, I prefer a collection I can go through like a box of chocolates, choosing one and then another. I don’t think all of the stories in a collection should be consistently to my taste. I like the variety.

EW. What, besides time, are the major differences between writing a short story and a novel for you?

MG. Pacing. A novel lopes and canters. A short story trots. When you’re writing a novel you’re sort of lost and have to project yourself forward one scene at a time. There’s a sense of luxury and of leisure…. Actually, now that I’m talking about it I’m wanting to write a novel again.

There’s more generosity in the novel. There’s also, of course, more room for error. You have to give yourself permission to write badly for a long time, and that’s hard for a lot of writers to do. You must assure yourself that you will go back and clean it up, that you will not die before it’s finished. My heart goes out to Hemingway, to all those wonderful writers whose early rough drafts got published after they died. That’s just not fair to them, although it does make the rest of us feel pretty good.

EW. Would you care to talk a little bit about how you structure your short stories?

MG. I usually start with a conflict. I try and get the conflict in pretty early. I’ll start with something that I’ve observed in my life, usually it’s something that has happened to me or close to me. Some of my stories have been written based on stories that my friends have told me in great hushed privacy. “Molly, can you keep a secret?” that’s my favorite question.

Then I’ll just start with a fight, in essence, if I can and work through to the resolution, so it is sort of like a little punching match. Where the novel, of course, isn’t. The novel is more of a bloodbath.

EW. What do you find to be the greatest obstacle to writing?

MG. For me? Time. Well, time and self-doubt. Because I know I could make more time than I do. Yes, I have a busy schedule, but so does everybody. I’m not as busy as I was when I had my daughters at home, by any means. The cats have died. The dog died. My life is really easier than it’s ever been, and I’m writing less. Perhaps fighting to find time is good for a writer. I will be doing a lot of writing during this summer, because that’s when I do write, because I don’t teach during the summer. So, most of my fiction has been written in June and July.

But on self-doubt. You think, “Who cares about this?” and you have to tell yourself, “Well, I do.” It seems to me that we’re, all of us, only given so many story ideas or novel ideas and that we do owe it to ourselves to develop these and follow them through before someone else gloms on to them. For instance, I’ve been wanting to write an essay about writing about bad sex, because it’s so much more fun to write about bad sex than good sex. Good sex is essentially nonverbal. It’s just, “Oh, God. Oh, Honey” period. It’s not interesting dialogue, whereas bad sex has all sorts of variations and opportunities to show character development. But, bless her heart, Francine Prose beat me to it. I picked up a copy of Tin House and there’s her article. I thought, “Well, yeah. Serves me right. She did it better than I did, too.” When you have these ideas I think you should honor them, whether you think anybody is interested in them or not, as long as you are.

EW. Could you talk about your creative process, about how you move from the idea to the finished story?

MG. It’s just hard work. I mean, the main thing is being there. There’s a quote I use by Ron Carlson, who is one of my favorite writing teachers and writers, and he says, “The writer is the person who does not leave the room.” To me, that’s important information because there are so many reasons to leave the room and not get your work finished. The minute I get a good idea I suddenly want to pee or eat or refinish the floors. But if I can stick it out, and go [to] that desk every day, I know I’ll have a book done. It’s just that this recipe for success is so boring. It’s like being told the best way to lose weight is to eat less and exercise more. We all know it, but who wants to do it?

EW. What are you working on right now?

MG. I’m working on another collection of short stories, and it’s about a little over a third together. And I know there’s no market for it. You see, there are things you just can’t let yourself think about. It may be a total exercise in futility, but what isn’t?

EW. Have you titled it, yet?

MG. Yes, tentatively it’s called All the Wrong Places. It’s from that old song “looking for love in all the wrong places.” And I’m trying to make each story set in a different place, so I haven’t come up with one for Indiana, yet, or Chicago, which I’ve never been to, except the airport, which is the best. The last time I was laid over they were piping in Miles Davis on the Muzak.

EW. This is my last question. Is there anything that you wanted to talk about or comment on that I haven’t asked you?

MG. Maybe the value of MFA programs? I don’t know if you’re interested in that at all? I do see students coming back to school who are getting older and older and older. And I see women and men coming who haven’t had children yet or married yet or made a commitment to a relationship yet. And I tell you it worries me a little bit. I really love writing programs; I think they’re a gift that everybody who can afford to and who wants to should give to themselves. It’s wonderful that the classes offer deadlines and that you work with professionals and that you are with peers, because writing is lonely. But I’m worried about sending people out with MFAs into a world that really doesn’t have that much job opportunity. Few of my students become professional writers, most go into some drab job teaching composition. And most MFA students don’t start to publish seriously until five or ten years after they get their degree. So, I just want to express my ambivalence, even though I personally profited from my own years in graduate school, and I would recommend that everybody who can should do it. I just hate to see people putting their own lives on hold unless they are really determined to be writers.

But—no matter. I always remember what Grace Paley said in answer to a young student who asked, “How can I become a writer?” She said, “Just love your life.” That’s the main thing to do no matter what you’re doing, isn’t it? Love your life and write about it, because if you don’t, nobody else will.