Alyssa B. Colton-Heins

December 01, 2001

Writing and Reading Women and War:
An Interview by Alyssa Colton

Kate Walbert is the author of The Gardens of Kyoto (New York: Scribner, 2001) and Where She Went: Stories (Louisville: Sarabande Books, 1998). Her play about the first U.S. Congresswoman, Jeannette Rankin, entitled Year of the Woman, has been produced at Yale School of Drama and in Philadelphia. Born in New York City, Walbert moved frequently with her parents, living in Delaware, Georgia, Texas, Pennsylvania, and Japan. She received a Master's of Arts in English from New York University. Walbert currently teaches creative writing at Yale University and lives in New York City. In October 2001 I met with her while she was in Albany, New York as a visiting writer at the New York State Writer's Institute. Below are excerpts from the interview.


AC: What do you think about the idea that "writing can't be taught"?

KW: Well, I think it can be taught. I don't believe that writing can't be taught. I think we are taught to write in grade school, and we are taught to read, but we're not taught to write and read as writers. There's a great myth about writers that I have to dispel every year at the beginning of the class, that writing somehow comes out whole, like Athena, and that it's not a result of craft, and revision, and workmanship, in the way that pottery is the result of workmanship. And I think most people would agree that to paint a picture worth viewing or to throw a pot worth keeping, that it's going to take an enormous amount of effort and time, and learning certain principles. Now like anything, those principles can be broken as soon as you figure out how to do them in the first place. So I really feel as if it's something that can be taught, at least to the point where you can begin to craft a story. You can't teach dedication or perseverance, or sheer chutzpah, in a way, because I think there's a lot of that that comes into it too, because it's very hard to go out there and want to be a "writer" and then suffer through the mounds of rejection letters you have to suffer through. So nobody can teach you to stick to it, if that's what you want to do. I certainly think that writing a story that can be seen, can be apprehended, can be viewed whole by the reader, can be taught.

AC: Going on that, because that has been said a lot--writing can't be taught--do you think it has had an impact on women particularly?

KW: Do you mean that women would be less likely to go in & how so?

AC: I'm wondering that if over time, as you were saying, that there's this idea of an "inborn talent".

KW: Oh, I see.

AC: For a long time it was primarily men who wrote and published & there were the "scribbling women."

KW: That's interesting. I never thought of it that way. I mean it's interesting to think that maybe the fact that there are many more writing programs and many more writing courses, that they might give women the permission to write. I agree that the myth of the writer as having to step off the whale boat, or come from some great adventure, or be knighted by some higher power, is one that probably has allowed men to enter the profession in great hordes and women to be left behind. I think that women are read differently than men are. In my mind that's the greatest barrier right now, not that there are not women who are writing and writing extremely well and worthy of recognition, but that there are systems that are in place that prevent women from being read the way they should be read.

AC: Is that something you have had personal experience with?

KW: Sure. If I were a critic that's what I would be looking at right now. As a writer it's tough to look at because it sounds like sour grapes. I think more women have been disenfranchised because they've been written off as being sour or somehow having an ax to grind. As a writer, I've seen it with my own work. . . . In a very simple example, in even the most favorable review, if I'm going to be compared to another writer, I'm never compared to a male writer, only a female writer. And you'll find that in reviews across the board. Men are compared to men. Women are compared to women. Why? It's very strange to me. So I think that's more of the block that women are up against as writers. I think it's more the education of the public, and the reading, and finding critics who take women seriously. And female critics who will write about them, or male critics for that matter. That's more of a block than not being given the permission, because I think by now most women should feel they have the permission. But that's coming from a place of privilege, too, I mean a lot of this is about economic issues as well.

AC: Do you think you read women differently?

KW: I'm always looking for women I can name if asked, who do you read. I like to be able to name them, and, why? I guess that means I'm reading them differently too. What I really love about Willa Cather, and [William] Maxwell does the same thing--so that way, those are two good ones to talk about and compare--they both write about very simple things and they both write what might be said in a somewhat pejorative way, domestic novels. And I think one of the reasons perhaps why William Maxwell is not as well known as I think he should be, is because he did that. . . . I'm always looking for novels that take what I think of as simple situations and somehow write sentences that turn that situation into something that's much larger, that expands beyond the simplicity of the situation. You're never going to find me writing about a terrorist plot. I'm not interested in that. I'm much more interested in miniature, writing about what large things can be contained in very small places, because I think that's more the daily experience As opposed to the terrorist act, or some of the contemporary writers writing about ''the World."

AC: Can we talk a little bit about your play?

KW: My play is called Year of the Woman, and it's a one-woman show based on the life of Jeannette Rankin. She was the first woman to serve in Congress in 1917, and she was also elected before woman's suffrage. She came from Montana. And I became interested in her when I heard really what was a footnote of a radio show on the anniversary of the bombing of Pearl Harbor. She was the sole person to vote against going into World War II and was attacked on the floor of Congress when she cast her vote. . . . It was just one of those moments when you hear a little fact something, and it just lodges somehow, and it did. And I started doing research on her, and learned she was completely unknown, for the most part. Very few people remember her. People in Montana did because she was from Montana. She's not known. She's not taught. There's no serious biography. There are a couple young adult biographies, and there was an adult biography that I think was published in 1971 or '72. Yet she was the first woman to serve in Congress. She served two terms, both terms she was confronted with a war vote& The first vote of the first woman in Congress was a vote against World War I. Then she came back into office and was the sole vote against World War II. There were many people who voted against going into World War I--about 50, I think. So I did a lot of research, not knowing whether I wanted to write a biography, or wanted to use it somehow for a novel, and finally her voice was so strong to me, that I decided to write it as a one-person play. Because I wanted literally to create this character who could walk around and breathe and talk on stage. I think it's so interesting that there's a congresswoman now, whose name is Barbara Lee, who was the sole person, about two weeks ago, to vote against basically giving Bush unlimited power and unlimited spending to do whatever he wants to do in the name of fighting terrorism. She, like Rankin, has bodyguards outside of her office, and there was, in my mind, very little press about this. Anyway, that's sort of an aside. But I researched Rankin and went out to Montana, and interviewed a lot of people and tried to piece together her life and her intentions as best I could with what little information there is about her, and wrote a play, and it was produced at Yale as part of a small theater, the cabaret theater they have there. It had a couple of productions in Philadelphia, the larger production last year at this time, October&at the Lantern Theatre.

AC: You grew up in many different places. I'm wondering how that shaped you as a writer.

KW: I think that growing up in many different places, I was constantly the new kid. It's a truism, but that sense of being new, having to size up a situation immediately, having to hang back at the same time and read the scene as quickly and efficiently as you can really does a lot to strengthen the powers of observation. One thing that is repeatedly said about my work is how visual it is, and I think that's the result of looking and going from one place to another in radically different landscapes, going from Japan to Atlanta, Georgia. Or from Texas to Pennsylvania. Different landscapes, different accents, different cultures, different types of characters. I think you just develop a skill for immediately trying to comprehend. Much of it is not really the comprehension, right, but the attempt to comprehend. It became interesting to me, in the way that probably for a lot of people if you had always grown up in Texas, I don't know how interesting the landscape is to you until you're plunked down somewhere else.

AC: Do you think writers need to do that, to get away from where they've come from? Maybe this is harder for you to answer, but I think there's sort of a predominant idea that writers need to go away. Like Hemingway could only write about growing up when he lived in Paris--there are a lot of stories like that.

KW: There are. I don't know. I think of Eudora Welty who never left that house, or Flaubert not even being able to cross the stream to get into town, or whatever the story is. I think a lot of it just depends on your character. I have a very restless character. Do I have that because of the way I was raised, or was that just a part of my nature anyway, and I might have lived my life in Orange, Texas, and felt this level of restlessness? I think it's what informs my work. . . . Thinking about it, it's the power of observation. If you read Welty's One Writer's Beginnings, she talks about observation. She talks about it from all the senses--hearing, seeing--and developing that power of observation. I happen to think I developed it because of moving around all the time. Her thesis in that book is that she developed it really because she was so still. It depends on whether you have it anyway, and you're going to develop it and your circumstances just inform it somehow, or whether your circumstances bring it on.

AC: In Where She Went, as well as in Gardens of Kyoto, there seems more of an oral, storyteller kind of mode. Is there something in your life you are drawing from, for this oral voice, and where do you see that fitting into your work, as well as in our culture, since we don't really have a whole lot of oral storytellers?

KW: I'm really interested in the women of the fifties--my mother's generation. I think the reason why that voice is so compelling to me in various forms-- and by that voice I mean the narrator as a woman who came of age in the fifties, maybe even the late forties--is because of hearing, not from my mother necessarily, but from the women who she knew. And again I was constantly not just exposed to kids my age but the women who my mother would suddenly befriend when we were newcomers. And these women had amazing, wild, far-out stories. These women were radical in what they were doing in their very small way, but on the surface, they were all the same woman. They were a woman who was married at a very early age. They were women who did not have a career, who lived to help their husband advance his career, who were solidly middle-class, many of them escaping lower-income backgrounds, and wanted to be as solidly middle class as they were, escaping a very real Depression childhood. And aspiring, as everybody was, [to the middle class], the men as well as the women, but I think the women are much more interesting, because I think the men have told their story. I should note none of this is conscious when I'm writing; it's only looking back. I'd never be so presumptuous to say that I'm going to put this into my work and here it is. But looking back once I've done it, I can see certain threads, and one of the things that conveys a sense of it being a oral history is the immediacy of the voice, saying for instance, "have I told you" or "here's the truth," or "quite truthfully." And those little phrases that would introduce things always have a ring of kind of a falsehood in my mind, that there was a great attempt that was never adequate to be heard. So "have I told you?" Yes, of course you have, a thousand times, but somehow it's not sufficient, is it? Or, "quite truthfully"--why quite truthfully? Because they're trying to create the truth of it. And I think that those little idioms and expressions and mannerisms come out of not having an audience. And it's one of the reasons why Rankin kind of connects back to that. Because she's forgotten. One of her great lines always was, "I don't care what they say about me now, I care about what they say about me fifty years from now." And wouldn't she be surprised to know that it's nothing?

AC: Gardens of Kyoto is a woman's story from the war. I was thinking about how the past few years--with Saving Private Ryan, Tom Brokaw, that whole thing--

KW: Yeah. The Greatest Generation, right?

AC: Right. I was wondering where you saw the book fitting in, and what you think a woman's story has to offer?

KW: Again, this is all in hindsight. It certainly wasn't anything I was thinking about when I was writing the book. But you can't get away from your own personality, and what you've read, and your influences. So I was greatly influenced by my research on Rankin. She was a great pacifist. One of her oft-quoted lines was, "If women cared as much for their sons as their social position, there would be no war." And she was a firm believer in women being able to end war, and that it was only women who could do it. That men would never do it. That women had to gain power in order to end war. And she truly believed that there could be an end to war. So I did a lot of research and know a lot about Rankin's stance, and the pacifist movement between the wars, and what women did do, and how close they came to actually outlawing war as a constitutional amendment, if you can imagine. Anyway, that said, there's the great heroic glorification of war that you see in something like Saving Private Ryan. I personally did not find that movie to be any kind of new take on that war, in fact I thought it to be a great throwback to the propaganda film for the Second World War. And though not consciously trying to write against that, I wanted to try to write something about the silences, what's absent from the war genre, which is basically what it did to women. I once heard a woman who was the daughter of someone who served in the Third Reich talk about the amount of domestic abuse in Germany after the Second World War. And I never really thought about that. That's a grave example, to look to Germany, but certainly from having been trained to go and kill, then to be sent back and don their salesman's outfits, it must have been horrible to reenter civilization, and how were women affected by that? Well, extreme cases in Germany were victims of domestic abuse, because of course that violence has to go somewhere. What's the situation here? I feel as if everything was glossed over very quickly and neatly, in the fifties, for legitimate reasons in a way, but it seemed to me that there's an underbelly that's not discussed, and that certainly women never had a place to talk about it. Again, I didn't consciously set out to write a story about war, but in my mind after finishing the book, that was the most interesting and important aspect of it. Scenes where the narrator came in direct contact with a veteran, and also just the great futility of the frustration she felt at the mass exodus of young boys to be killed, and the fury she felt about that. And I thought about the Rankin line, if women cared as much for their sons as their social positions. That's a pretty extreme thing to say. But then you think of the mothers of the disappeared in Argentina and various movements. There's a big rally this weekend in Union Square. A mother rally. It's not a novel idea.

More on Kate Walbert


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