"I’m sitting on the toe of Thoreau’s boot." — Bobbie Ann Mason
I love Bobbie Ann Mason’s short stories but her novel In Country is a special favorite of mine (the film version isn’t bad either). With that said, I was delighted to find this fascinating interview with her in The Missouri Review in which she discusses the importance of her connection to nature, the draw of the girl sleuth and her past of feeling out of place as a young Southerner teaching a bunch of Yankees. The part of the interview I found most interesting, though, was when she was asked about the writer’s role in society and subsequently about her role as writer in society.
On the writer’s role:
It is tempting to say that writing does serve the writers first; I often think many of us are misfits who can’t hold a job and who achieve, at best, some kind of mystique by virtue of our quirks. But I look back to Emerson and Thoreau when I think about why literary writing matters. It’s easier to see the writer’s role in the smaller world of Concord, Massachusetts, in the mid-nineteenth century. Thoreau was certainly a quirky misfit, but Walden comes down to us as an instruction manual for the heart and soul, as well as for getting a crop out. Emerson was famous, a very public figure, but both of them were quite visible in their community. In Concord, a town of two thousand, they could simply go to the Lyceum and give lectures. They engaged their neighbors in their discoveries. As writers, Thoreau and Emerson were lively and curious and demanding. They took on the world and tried to figure it out and then to translate what they found to the public, all in terms of the deepest questions about the nature of reality and morality and aesthetics. They led with their genius, turning their observations of nature into poetry and essays. They were standing on the verge of our time and they could almost see what was going to happen to us. They were leading their readers and listeners into the future. Writers belong on the edge, not in the center of the action. Nowadays we don’t have leaders who are worth much when it comes to the heart and soul, but if writers can make us feel and appreciate and explore the world, then I think that’s an extremely valuable function; it goes far beyond entertainment and steers well clear of politics.
And her (charmingly self-effacing) answer on her role as writer:
I don’t make any claims for myself. I’m sitting on the toe of Thoreau’s boot. I’m not a natural storyteller. I see writing as a way of finding words to fashion a design, to discover a vision, not as a way of chronicling or championing or documenting. In other words, it is to applaud the creative imagination as it acts upon whatever materials are at hand. Creative writing is not to me primarily theme, subject, topic, region, class, or any ideas. It has more to do with feeling, imagination, suggestiveness, subtlety, complexity, richness of perception—all of which are found through fooling around with language and observations.