A Conversation with Novelist Maryanne Stahl

by Elizabeth P. Glixman

Maryanne Stahl, author of Forgive the Moon and The Opposite Shore, describes herself as “a writer, artist, teacher, mother, gardener, duck tender, puppy trainer and cat valet.” Ms. Stahl lives in Thunderbolt, Georgia where she is working on her third novel. Forgive the Moon will be released in mass market paperback in June, 2004. Visit her website at http://www.maryannestahl.com.

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EG: Do you consider yourself a Southern writer?

MS: Yes, I consider myself a Southern writer now. I grew up on Long Island, NY, in a small town, and I am of Italian ancestry. Much about the South reminds me of small town life and close-knit families. So even though I wasn’t born here, I assimilated easily.

Of course, I lived in Atlanta for the first 13 years of my Southerness, and in many ways Atlanta is different from the rest of the South. Lots of transplants and traffic, to name two.

Though my first two novels took place on Long Island, my next novel is set in Savannah. It is about a woman in her thirties who worked as a nanny during college and was responsible for the loss of a four year-old girl. As you can imagine, guilt over this has loomed large in her life. When the story begins, she has just arrived in Savannah to care for her ailing Italian grandmother who is something of a strega (witch). Since it’s Savannah, there are ghosts.

EG: Savannah and ghosts, is there a connection?

MS: Yes. Savannah is the “most haunted city in America”. The best-dressed, most interesting people in town are often ghosts. I like to say I moved here for the ocean and the ghosts!

EG: What made you move to Atlanta?

MS: My then husband worked for Coca Cola. At first, I didn’t want to move. Like many New Yorkers, I couldn’t imagine living anywhere else. But once I got to Atlanta, I quickly loved it. It’s a very pretty place with a lot to offer.

Being part of the Coke culture was interesting. In those days, ten years or so ago, there were lots of perks (trips to Hawaii and so forth). But I’m glad to be done with that part of my life.

EG: What specifically do you like about southern living and culture?

MS: Because of its mild climate, relative lack of congestion, and modern infrastructure, the South offers fairly easy living. Contrary to stereotype, I don’t find it slow at all, but the overall pace isn’t stressful. People are generally polite. The weather is generally good–that’s important to me because I like to spend as much time as I can outdoors. The art world, while admittedly not nearly as sophisticated as New York, is less intimidating. I actually can sell my folk art pieces in galleries and shows here. And there is a rich heritage of traditions–often tying aesthetics to necessity– which people value. Plus, Southerners have a love for language you don’t find in other places.

EG: Have you noticed this love of language in the way people tell stories or is it in everyday vernacular?

MS: Both. People take their time with words, enjoy the sound of them, enjoy describing things in colorful–and specific–ways. For example, a Southerner doesn’t just say, “God willing”; he says, “If the Lord is willing an’ the creek don’t rise.”

EG: Which “southern writers” do you admire?

MS: Pretty much the usual suspects. Faulkner has so much to teach any writer–just read his Nobel acceptance speech. Eudora, Flannery… I love Truman Capote. Among contemporary writers I admire Mary Hood, Kaye Gibbons, Rick Bragg, Connie May Fowler, Helen Norris. And John Dufresne–though he’s actually from Boston–writes about the South about as well as anyone I know. And here’s a writer to look for: John Cottle, a lawyer from Alabama who just won the Texas Review prize for his collection of short stories, is a dear friend but also one of the best new writers anywhere.

EG: In your first book, Forgive the Moon, an important element (that shaped the story) was mental illness and its effect on the family, especially children. The main character forty-year-old Amanda Kincaid’s mother was schizophrenic. The scenes with Amanda as a child interacting with her mother were heartbreaking and revealing. Amanda often as a child had to be the mother. She had both a child’s sensibilities and that of an older person.

MS: Yes, I think that’s not uncommon for oldest children in families where a parent is ill. Also, from a literary perspective, there is the benefit of having an adult narrator of childhood experiences–both perspectives can be seen.

EG: You captured not only her mother’s mental illness in these scenes but the effect it had on Amanda and in a broader sense on any child who has a parent who is unavailable emotionally.

MS: Forgive the Moon grew out of a children’s novel I was writing about Amanda and the Sinclair family. I never published it, but I wanted to write it for the reason you suggest: so that a child with a mentally ill or otherwise emotionally impaired parent might recognize her own experience in Amanda’s and perhaps draw comfort and even strength from that. I’d still like to publish such a book some day. But for now, I’m secure in the knowledge that adults need comfort, too.

EG: Have you had personal experience of this illness?

MS: Yes. If I didn’t I doubt I could have written it as I did.

EG: Forgive the Moon is about the struggle for satisfying relationships. You depicted different types of women in that search. Happily married ones, single mothers, divorced women, emotionally troubled women. Do you see yourself as writer of women’s stories?

MS: Yes and no. I am a woman, so my world view derives in part from the experience of being female. I also am a sister. My two sisters mean the world to me. As do my women friends. The fact is, women understand one another in deep and important ways.

Perhaps for that reason, I very much like to read books written by women–but not exclusively.

EG: Do you consider yourself a feminist?

MS: I don’t like labels and I am not especially political, but yes. More importantly, I hope I write stories about what it is to be human.

EG: Amanda in Forgive the Moon is a strong woman, as are your other women characters. Do you think women need men?

MS: Women need love. They need sex. They need understanding and friendship and challenge and joy. Yes, they need men and they need each other and at times they need solitude.

EG: Amanda wrestled with an unsatisfying marriage. Did you take your own experiences and build on them to create Amanda?

MS: Of course. In one way or another I take my own emotional experiences for every character I write, but the events that occur in the novel never happened to me. Still, I am divorced twice. I suppose I know something about sadness in marriage.

EG: I found Amanda’s relationship with her son, husband, and father tender and troubling. Do you think the relationship between the sexes is always a source of growth?

MS: All life experience is a potential source of growth. Conventional wisdom states that pain leads to growth, and I’d love to think that’s true but I’m not always convinced. Sometimes troubling relationships are simply troubling.

EG: Your demonstrate a descriptive writing style in Forgive the Moon. You write with the eye of a keen observer of both human nature and the natural elements. Descriptions of water, earth, movement and light are everywhere. You describe the ocean in all its moods and link this energy with people’s emotions. You and Amanda seem to have an intimate relationship with the ocean.

MS: Oh, yes. Well, we all do, don’t we? The ocean is a source of life and a harbinger of death, regulated by the heavens, constant but always changing. Powerful and beautiful and familiar and unknowable. In one sense of course, with its sonorous “heartbeat” of waves, the ocean is Mother, its waters an enveloping womb. But I’m not the first person to think of these things!

In Forgive the Moon, the ocean’s inexorable push and pull in some sense parallels Amanda’s life, or what she finally comes to recognize about it. She can’t fight it, she can’t control it, but she can choose how deep she goes and which way she faces and how she rides. Besides, the beach is my favorite place to be.

EG: In Forgive the Moon there are subtle undercurrents of family history that are in the process of being resolved. There are also the yearnings of couples to be connected yet remain true to themselves: these are themes of freedom and loss. Do you think there is any other way to grow as a person, without loss?

MS: Loss is inevitable, as is, even more significant to human behavior, the threat of loss. Joan Didion said writers are born with a “presentiment of loss,” so I suppose writing is in some sense an attempt to hedge ourselves against mortality. It’d be nice if it worked.

I’m a fan of growth. I love to garden; I work at relationships; I strive to improve as a writer and a person. And yet, I don’t fool myself that pain and loss automatically beget growth. Loss is part of the tragic mystery of human existence. But often, growth is a consequence of joy.

EG: “Growth as a consequence of joy” is an uplifting thought. Many writers believe that only chaotic traumatic events where joy is not emphasized is the way to go when writing ” meaningful” literature.

MS: I don’t set about to write “meaningful literature,” and I certainly don’t think there is any one, right way to approach writing a novel. I begin with a particular character in a particular situation in a particular setting, with a general plan for a story that explores ideas and or themes that interest me. But I learn about all of those things as I write them; I write about things I wish to understand. Writing a novel is not unlike going through an odd sort of dual psychotherapy: your own along with your characters’.

Trauma is likely to occur, in life and literature. Amanda certainly has her share! But beauty is just as likely. Moments of happiness are just as likely. And we learn things during those times, about compassion and generosity of spirit. Anyway I like to think so.

EG: Could Amanda’s story have ended another way?

MS: Amanda’s story could have ended any number of ways. My fantasy for her was that she would get to live in that beach house. Some readers wanted to see her back together with Keith. Others wanted her to hook up with Michael. In the end, it seemed imperative for her to have choices, to be open to possibilities. That seemed the least I could do for her. But she might have disregarded me. She had before.

EG: As you write the characters take on a life of their own?

MS: Oh, yes. The writer builds them, winds them up, and sets them in motion, but then they begin to speak and act in sometimes surprising ways. It’s rather like a film playing out in your head, if it’s going well. Most times, though, characters are lazy and you have to drag or trick them out of bed.

EG: If you had to state what it is you wanted readers to take with them after reading Forgive the Moon what would that be?

MS: A satisfying reading experience. I don’t presume to offer readers any sort of message or lesson, except whatever it is they discover in the novel. Nonetheless, I am compelled to express my vision of the world and my manipulations of language in a way that I hope gives others some pleasure.

It seems coy to say Forgive the Moon is about forgiveness, but, largely, it is. Amanda begins to forgive a lot of people in the course of one week. Most important, she begins to forgive herself. The result of that is her rediscovery of her music. Forgiveness of self is essential for an artist.

I think we all have to eventually forgive our parents, some more so than others. In Amanda’s case as in my own, that moment came too late to share with her mother. I did try to convey the discrepancy between Amanda’s adult recognition of parental frailty–including her own– and the childhood anguish, which lay beneath her anger.

EG: What is your definition of forgiveness?

MS: Forgiveness means first, understanding, then, acceptance and finally, release. Not easy.

EG: Amanda did find the path to forgiveness. That is very hopeful.

MS: Thanks. In literature if not always in life, I do like to end on a hopeful note.

Elizabeth P. Glixman interviews creative people. Her recent and archived interviews can be read at Eclectica.org. Her own work has appeared online and in print in publications including In Posse Review, 3 AM, Moondance, and Chocolate For A Woman’ s Soul II published by Simon and Schuster. New poetry wiil appear in future issues of Frigg and Mindfire Renewed.