BY A.M. HOMES | Grace Paley is the sagacious elf of American letters; her spirit, both in person and in her work, is a magically contagious amalgam of compassion and incredible honesty. In three volumes of short stories, she's chronicled the lives of her now-infamous characters -- mostly women, often leftists, Jewish and living in New York City -- as they struggle with marriages, friendships, political beliefs and motherhood. In 1994, her "Collected Stories" won the National Book Award, and this year Farrar Straus and Giroux published her first collection of nonfiction, "Just as I Thought."
Paley's style is inimitable, combining the political and the personal into fictions stunning for their clarity, precision and brave optimism -- always wry, smart and packed with good advice and a profound understanding of the complexities of the heart. Now 75 and "an old Jewish American writer lady," Paley divides her time between New York and Vermont, where she lives with her husband, landscape architect and writer Robert Nichols. We spoke as Paley was preparing for a trip to Vietnam: "I'm going to bring my life around in a circle in some way and see what's happening now -- it's been 30 years." Paley's activism these days has shifted from marching on Washington and passing out leaflets in Washington Square Park to giving talks: "Because I am older ... part of my political work, really, is to tell how it is and how it was."
What do you think a writer's job is?
I don't think every writer has the same job. It depends where you are in history. If you're Charles Dickens, your job is to really tell people, give 'em the news about parts of their society that they don't know about or see. In general, I think -- it's what a writer does naturally -- you write.
Do writers have a moral obligation?
Oh, I think all human beings do. So if all human beings have it, then writers have some, too. I mean, why should they get off the hook? Whatever your calling is, whether it's as a plumber or an artist, you have to make sure there's a little more justice in the world when you leave it than when you found it. Most writers do that naturally, see that more lives are illuminated, try to understand what is not understood and see what hasn't been seen.
Is it easier to tell the truth in fiction than in nonfiction?
In nonfiction you're striving insanely for accuracy, and in fiction there's no way of knowing if you're accurate or not, since you're making it up. So, in that sense, it's easier. When you write a nonfiction piece -- which I have on occasion -- I really feel the terrible obligation for that accuracy, because of the people involved. I don't feel I have to be that accurate in storytelling. I mean, I have no people to be accurate against.
Does your writing voice change when you're writing fiction or nonfiction?
I think it's pretty much the same. I have this nonfiction book coming out, and some of it is things that are real reports. I went to Vietnam in '69, and I just tried to tell everything I saw. So that's one way of doing it, a journalistic way. And there are some other things, where I've tried to figure out what really happened, or what it's all about -- and those are more essay-like. I hate the word "essay," because I can't imagine writing an essay. It seems like such a deliberate aesthetic act, and I'm not -- I don't seem to be like that.
How do you know when something should be a story, or a poem, or something else?
Sometimes when I start there's a strong language feeling. I don't know for two or three sentences. But by the third line, or third sentence -- it might take me that long to know whether it's gonna be a poem or a story. If the narrative sense predominates by that point -- it's really shoving to get out -- then it's a story.
And what would make it nonfiction?
Well, if we make it a poem, it would be that I was still trying to figure out what was gonna happen next, so that's not a narrative event. But, as far as the thing being an essay, or an article -- I think I always know what I'm doing. I mean, I know that's what I'm writing.
I was hoping you could talk a bit about your writing voice, which is so distinctive.
Voice is very important to me. It may not be so important to others, but until I was able to get that voice -- which I may have had in ordinary speech as a young person, but I didn't get in prose or poetry, even, until my mid-30s, late 30s -- I couldn't really write. I don't even know how people can write if they don't find their voice, their language. It's a mystery to me. But one of the ways I did do it was, I began to write in different voices -- I didn't use my own voice. So a lot of my early stories -- which really were the first stories I wrote -- were really writing from some guy's point of view. I mean, maybe the second story I wrote was from some guy's point of view, and the first one was from an older man's. And then from a young kid's. So I tried, and using those voices I think I was saying: I don't know how it works. But I was able to really speak in my own voice and develop my own voice.
You once said that writing the truth was to remove all lies.
Well, to me, revision is that -- you get closer and closer to what you really mean to say. Because I don't know how you're working now, Amy, but for me, even to this day, every one of my first drafts is still terrible. They haven't improved over the years, somehow. I really have to go through and take stuff out.
I remember you saying you wrote a book every 10 years; are you a very slow writer or were there always so many other things going on?
There really is a lot going on -- raising children, political activities, teaching -- and it's also that I never developed good habits. My husband, Bob, always says, "Grace doesn't have a single habit." I do have habits [laughs]. It's just all my habits are bad.
How did you learn to write?
I didn't -- I just wrote poetry. I wrote poems as a kid, and I read a lot. That's how I learned to write. And I listened a lot, too. I read a lot, and I listened a lot.
Did you keep a journal?
I don't keep a journal, but I do write on pads. And I have a book that I write in, sometimes five days in a row and sometimes once a month. But that's not a journal, really. I don't know if it is or isn't.
Do women write different kinds of stories than men?
There's a lot more domestic conversation, if you want to call it that -- or personal. Women are -- most women are easier about being personal with one another than most men. They tell each other more, and they have a lot of common problems. One of the things is -- I've never really said this -- but one of the things that has interested me is that women have bought books by men since forever, and they began to realize that it was not about them, right? But they continue, with great interest, because it's like reading about another country. Now, men have never returned the courtesy.
In a lot of your stories, the women go for long walks and talk -- do you still go for long walks?
Not so much. We live on a hill. I walk down, but then I have to walk back up.
Where are your political energies focused now?
In a funny way, they're more generalized. Because I am older, and because I do go around and speak -- more than I did when I was young -- part of my political work, really, is to tell how it is and how it was. I go to a school to talk about literature, and somebody says to me, "I hear you're a political person. What do you think about --?" So I find myself talking about the arms trade, which is a great horror to me. Right now I almost think of that more than a lot of other things. What we're doing is putting guns into the hands of people who will eventually shoot us. And the money made from it, and the outrageousness of it, and selling stuff to people who should be spending the money on other things -- those are things that really concern me a lot.
Are there specific projects that you're working on in that part of your life?
Just doing some writing about it. All my old-lady friends are in New York. Those are people with whom, if something hit us, we would just get together and act on it. There's a limited amount of direct action that I do now. Right now what I'm doing is really giving witness to my life.
I'm curious to hear where you think the women's movement is these days.
The women's movement? It's been pretty successful, in a lot of ways. And I think that a backlash has to happen because a lot of people were made unhappy by the women's movement, mostly men, and it's put them in a bad mood. And also some women. You know, there's a lot of self-made women that really hate the idea that there was a movement that helped them get ahead. In that group of saddened males, if I can put it that way, and proud women -- that whole mixture -- there has to be a reaction, right? Something good has happened, or something has happened, and you have to have a reaction to it. It's a dialectic.
It has to happen that they're gonna get mad at you, just as, naturally, there's gonna be a backlash on abortion. The thing to do is to see it as a backlash on sexual life. Abortion is a very small part of it, although it's very important. But what this really is about is the sexual life of women, and the establishment -- the institutions, like the Church -- they're not gonna take the absence of their power lightly. They want to get back their power over our sexual lives, more than anything else. And once we recognize that, people would feel less defeated, and they would be able to spring forward again. So I think the main thing is for older people to talk to the young ... and I include you now in older people. I guess the point I want to make is that my obligation, and yours -- and Nora's, my daughter, is to show the youth how far they've come. And they have. What, a girl of 18 isn't way ahead of anybody at 18, 20 years ago? There's just no question about it. And what girl of 18 would like to go back? By saying, "I'm not a feminist," if that's what they want to say, then that means they're willing to go back.
I found an old interview where you described yourself as somewhat of a combative pacifist and a cooperative anarchist. How would you describe yourself now?
Well, probably pretty much the same, you know? I still have those strong feelings, but I also have strong feelings for the importance of people working together and the importance of different levels of government. And, at the same time, you know, I am a pacifist, but I am somewhat combative. I shouldn't say "but," because most pacifists are "and combative."
I always thought of you as the perfect feminist -- you enjoy the company of women, and yet you also really enjoy the company of men.
Yeah, sure. But the fact that I was a feminist made some men angry at me, to this day. And the fact that I like men made some women angry at me. You're who you are.
Do you think of yourself as an experimental writer?
I think most writers that are serious are experimental. They all have to figure out new forms every time they write. Bob and I were just talking about this. He was saying, "Goddammit, with this book I forgot how to write." And I said, "Then you forget that we've both said to each other, whenever we start a new piece: 'How come I thought I could write? How am I gonna do this? How am I gonna write this fucking story?'"
What makes a story for you?
What makes a story? Well, you have to have movement, right? Some people call it plot. Plot is movement that is extremely deliberate. So I would say that I'm for movement, but I'm not for terribly deliberate movement. And at some point, you come to the end of what you have to say. There's pleasure, also, and play. Something different makes every story. Sometimes you like tying up the knot. Sometimes you like to leave it wide open, for people to imagine and to do what they want with it.
As women get older, they seem to gain a kind of freedom; do you feel freer?
Well, they do. You do feel freer. I don't know about writing. I think one's freest almost at the beginning, when you really don't give a shit. And you have to watch that freedom and keep it. You must keep it. You can lose it. You have to keep not giving a shit. But, on the other hand, in ordinary life you're freer in talking up, saying what you think. You're freer in who you talk to. The only thing you're not freer in is yelling at your children. You have to stop at a certain point. Like when they're 35.
Any thoughts on aging? What do you think about it?
My general feeling is that, if you're healthy and you have enough money to live decently -- if not flagrantly -- getting older is OK. I mean, I don't mind it at all. What I mind, of course, is that my time is getting short, that I won't see my youngest grandchild grow up -- those things that you're gonna miss. I remember my father feeling like that. I have a poem about it -- he knew he wasn't gonna see the end of the Vietnam War. He said: "Goddammit, I'll never know how they got out." There's a lot you won't know. And there's sadness because your friends are dying. And with the terrible things in the world, with the idea that you're gonna leave the world maybe worse than you found it -- I don't like that feeling at all.
But if your health is good, and you have a habit of looking at each day as a whole day -- unless you drop dead at noon or something -- then every day you live something interesting. It's interesting because you either meet a new tree or if you're in the city, you meet a new person. Or something happens. The sun shifts on the mountain -- very beautiful things happen.
SALON | Oct. 26, 1998