I first met Alice Mattison several years ago when she was part of a panel of writers doing their best to enlighten some neophyte writers (me included) on ways to improve our writing, specifically when we had plot issues. Even when we peppered her with questions she was very approachable and so are her novels. She’s written six so far, of which the latest is When We Argued All Night, described by the New York Times Book Review as ‘a fine novel of a friendship that lasts more than half a century.’When I ran into her again recently, she agreed to be interviewed for this blog. I wanted to find out, among other things, why place and multiple generations of characters are so important in her work.
GC: Your novels have a very strong sense of place. Brooklyn is often almost a character in itself. Is place an important part of your work?
AM: I picture people in context, with a background, whether they are my characters or other people’s, imaginary people or real. I need to know where everybody is and what they see out the window. The places I’ve written about most, Brooklyn and New Haven, are places where I’ve lived, cities about which I feel passionate, but I like thinking about setting in any story, and trying to sense what it would be like for my characters to live in a particular place. I’ve recently written stories set in the mountains in New England and in Provincetown, Massachusetts.
GC: If so, do you have to travel to each place, or can you write about it from research?
AM: I write about places I’ve lived in or visited. I make up houses all the time but I don’t think I’ve ever made up a city—oh, yes, I did: Boynton, Massachusetts in The Book Borrower. I don’t think I’d set anything of length in a place I’ve never been, but a couple of times I’ve used research to write briefly about someplace I don’t know.
GC: Your novels often span several generations. Can you tell us why family histories interest you?
AM: I don’t always write about several generations, but I’ve done it more than once, yes. My grandparents were immigrants to this country. I don’t know much if anything about anybody in the family before them, but they were real and important to me when I was a child—even my mother’s father, who had died before I was born, and for whom I am named. My mother’s mother couldn’t read and write, and that is feels central for me: I will always be the granddaughter of someone who couldn’t read and write. She used to dictate letters that I’d write for her. My parents stories made a time just before my birth come alive for me. When I think about people like my family—even when I am not writing autobiographically, and I’m usually not—I have to include the older generations.
GC: You include politics and historical events in your books, with a particular fondness, it seems to me, for the 30’s until today. Why those years particularly?
AM: My parents were young in the 1930s. It seems like a fascinating era that I missed. I keep trying to get back and know what it was like for them—to see through their eyes. I love photographs from the thirties. I suppose life did not take place in subtle blacks, whites, and grays, but it’s hard not to think it did.
GC: Could you tell us a little about your latest book: When We Argued All Night?
AM: When We Argued All Night is the story of the difficult friendship between two Jewish men from Brooklyn, Harold Abramovitz and Artie Saltzman, beginning in 1936 when they are 26 years old, and ending in 2004, as Artie’s daughter Brenda and her partner watch Barack Obama on TV as he gives the keynote speech at the Democratic National Convention. The book is about the lives of the three main characters during difficult times—the Depression, the buildup to the Second World War, the McCarthy era, the Vietnam War. But even more than that, it’s about love, friendship, and the complexities of family life.
GC: Readers are always interested in the process of writing. I know you write in the afternoons, but where exactly do you write?
AM: I start in the late morning, but I rarely produce anything good until afternoon. I write in a small room on the second floor of my house. Sometimes I carry my laptop into the bedroom and write with it on my lap on top of a pillow, and occasionally I write in the attic. I leave my study when I don’t feel sufficiently alone there, when I’ve been answering too many emails and the room feels crowded with other people. Then the dog and I migrate elsewhere. It’s not logical, because I take my laptop with me and I can check email in any part of my house, but it feels helpful anyway.
GC: Do you have any writing rituals that help you get started or stay on task while you’re writing?
AM: No. I just keep going away from it and back to it until I can write something. I never stay on task. I turn away and back, away and back. It’s sometimes painful, but eventually I can write.
GC: What are you working on now?
AM: I’ve started a new novel and have also written some short stories, which are all about women at work. One was in the PEN/O.Henry Prize Stories collection of 2012; one is coming out in The Threepenny Review. Now and then I write an essay.