Marge Piercy

Marge Piercy has published 17 poetry books, including WHAT ARE BIG GIRLS MADE OF, COLORS PASSING THROUGH US, and most recently, THE CROOKED INHERITANCE, all from Knopf who will be bringing out her 2nd volume of new and selected poems THE HUNGER MOON in March. She has written 17 novels including WOMAN ON THE EDGE OF TIME, HE, SHE AND IT, THE LONGINGS OF WOMEN and most recently SEX WARS in Harper Perennial paperback now, as is her memoir SLEEPING WITH CATS. Schocken published PESACH FOR THE REST OF US: How to make the Passover Seder Your Own, and Leapfrog brought out SO YOU WANT TO WRITE, now in its 2nd enlarged edition. A CD, LOUDER WE CAN'T HEAR YOU YET, contains her political and feminist poems.


Tryst Interviews Marge Piercy

Diane: Ms. Piercy, thank you so much for doing this interview. I was so excited when you agreed to be our feature writer. I have read and admired your work since I was in college in the early 1970s and have always been challenged and inspired by your work.

Your politics are very important to you and your novels, and your poetry expresses that as well. At the same time, I’ve never felt that you were lecturing. How do you do that? Is it hard?

Marge: For one thing I don't separate the political from any other aspect of living. It's just one more facet, part of being human and part of a community of people, animals, trees, grasses, insects, bacteria, etc. In the novels, I work very hard on characters. Most of my novels have multiple viewpoints, although not all of them. No one character ever is a mouthpiece for me. The meaning is created in the mind of the reader, and for each reader it may well be a different viewpoint.

Diane: I’ve always felt that you were a role-model for younger women as a writer who is a political activist and is committed to change. Have you had to take flack from people who felt that your characters were TOO nuanced, that you weren’t politically correct enough because, in addition to women who are powerful and take charge of their lives, you portray women who are flawed?

Marge: Mostly that sort of criticism came early in the 2nd wave of the women's movement. More commonly I have been attacked by critics who like writers who assume the status quo and whose politics are similar to the critic's and thus invisible to him or her, usually him.

Diane: For people who are politically motivated, the state of our country is often very depressing. Do you ever feel that way? And if you do, what do you do to not let it get to you?

Marge: It is very depressing. But I take a long view. I learned that from my brief contact with the Vietnamese. I look at what options were open to my grandmother, to my mother, to me and then to young women now. Progress is never in a straight line. It goes in epicycles, three steps forward, two steps back. Change always happens. Whether it is change you want depends on how many people put how much effort into getting the future they want to live in, the future they want their children to live in. You can be sure bank presidents, CEOs of oil companies and chemical companies are on the phone to their representatives and leaking stories they want published to the press. If you don't push back, you get nothing you desire. We are carried along in the currents of our time but it's our choice how to navigate them. If you don't pay attention to history, it has a way of landing on you.

Diane: How do you keep from despair? How do you keep motivated to try and make the world a better place, when we have such massive problems?

Marge: What's the alternative? Suicide? Everybody has the same civic duties in a democracy, to pay attention, to make decisions, to work for what they think should happen. Despair is not very interesting. I wrote about despair in the Tarot poems, Laying Down the Tower. In despair, you immobilize yourself.

I live with my husband and five cats. Cats can always calm you down except when they are being hyper about something. A partner helps keep you sane and on track, keeps you from charging at windmills or seeing windmills when there's nothing but a pinwheel, if they care about you.They're around to say, What are you talking about? Why are you taking this personally? I don't think you're making sense. I don't think you see what's happening. Have you considered such and so?

What gives you the most joy in your life?

Marge: I have a rich private life. I live with a partner who actually loves me and who I love. I live in a place I like and that nurtures me. I have friends who help me survive. I am one of those writers who actually likes to write and it is a miracle I have been able to support myself doing it, that I manage to get paid at least somewhat for what I most want to do.

Diane: I know your cats are very important to you. Some people think cats are actually aliens from other planets sent here to observe us what do you think about that?

Marge: Very silly. We share too much basic mammalian behavior to have evolved on separate planets. Cats are very strong personalities, but each of them reflects us in a different key. That's why we can communciate so well. I have one wise old cat, a rescue as a diseased and emaciated kitten,who understands more English than you'd imagine possible. She is also an expert at communicating via her body language.

Diane: When you’re writing a novel, do you continue to read other novels?

Marge: Often I read more nonfiction because with every novel, I have research to do, sometimes a great deal. For SEX WARS, GONE TO SOLDIERS and CITY OF DARKNESS, CITY OF LIGHT, the database was several times longer than the novel. I am not avoiding reading fiction while writing it any more than I avoid reading poetry, it's just a matter or time and my eyes. If I have time and can find something I want to read, I read it in what spare time I have.

Diane: Do you think that writers can benefit from having others read their work as they develop it? What is your practice and what do you think about how new writers can hone their craft?

Marge: Workshops with other writers are very helpful, especially those that come together after school rather than those taught in school. On my novels, I always have seven or more beta readers. I may give them specific questions or not. I try to include other writers I trust to give honest feedback, some people who are experts in whatever I have researched for that novel, someone whose command of whatever jargon I had to use (sparingly always) to create verisimilitude.

Diane: You have always addressed uncomfortable issues in your novels. Do you think of a story first, and then bring the issues into it, or do you think about issues and then come up with a story? Or do you generally have a character in your head first, and then start to tell her story? How does that process work for you?

Marge: I start with a theme. Then I have a rough idea for a story, very rough. Then I spend a couple of months at least building dossiers on all the central characters and deciding whose viewpoints I need and who I don't need to enter to tell the story. I have to know the major characters very thoroughly before I can start writing. For me the plot emerges from the interaciton of the characters with each other, once I know them thoroughly, and their socio-economic time and place, their historical viewpoint and forces.

Diane: As diverse as your characters are, from successful artists, professionals and academics to maids, abused women and homeless people, your portrayals and dialogue are very realistic. How do you do that?

Marge: Simple. I am not an academic, although I have taught occasionally. I don't work on a campus or live in a university setting. Nor do I live in the suburbs or in New York, although I did live there twice in my live, once for seven years. I live in a village where I deal with people of many different walks of life, many different ages, many different social classes. I have friends who are fishermen, plumbers, shopkeepers, carpenters, firemen, as well as artists and writers and doctors, and someone who works in a bank. Further, I have had a far more adventurous and sometimes dangerous life. My second marriage was an open one, so I had many close relationships with diverse men and some women. All these things feed my undestanding of a wide variety of people. You just might say I've had more experiences with more people than many writers do now.

Diane: Poetry and novels are very different forms. I think our readers would like to know, do you write both at the same time, or do you work on your novel and then put it down and work on poems for a while?

Marge: Any particular day I would be working on one or the other, not both in the same day. I am almost always writing poetry. But novels take two-three years apiece, so of course I am writing poetry during that time. Only rarely do they cross fertilize. Mostly that happens when I'm doing research. For instance in AVAILABLE LIGHT, there is a section called Slides from Our Recent Eurropean Trip that is comprised of poems that came out of doing research for GONE TO SOLDIERS. Even when the poems are not directly related to the research, they were written out of experiences garnered from the research. Sometimes the research suggests poem ideas. I was looking at late 18th century women's clothing and the germ of 'What are big girls made of?' came into my head.

Diane: How do you feel your writing has changed over the years?

Marge: When I moved to Wellfleet on Cape Cod, after living in the center of cities all my life, except for several months when I was 8 and we lived in a cabin in the woods above the Severn river in Maryland, my awareness changed. I began to feel the seasons. I began to pay attention to the phases of the moon and the rhythm of the tides. Weather became suddenly important. I began gardening and landscaping to keep the hill into which my little house was built from eroding away as the builder had left a great gouge in it. I began to observe birds and rabbits and deer and foxes and chipmunks and red and grey squirrels. The environment became real to me as I engaged it.

Although I certainly had witnessed death in my childhood, and lost a close friend and a less close one when I was in my early 20s, until my mother died, death was not something I thought much about. Now everybody in my family is dead except my niece and me — all the aunts and uncles I was close to, both parents, my brother. And friends have begun to die off. It seems as if I lose someone I care about every few months.So I think far more about my own death and about the deaths of others. My poetry in particular is more concerned with mortality these days and if I ever get back to the novel I had started this spring, it is partly about one of the viewpoint characters approaching her own death.

Diane: Finally, what words of advice do you have for young and old writers alike?

Marge: Keep reading. Read in your own genre and others. Read your own languages and others in the original or in translation. Read, read, read but always read like a writer— observing how the author does what they do. Study the failures as well as the successes. Constantly observe the craft.


(*To be continued. Links to Marge's second feature will be provided here as the issue become available.)

Copyright © 2010 Marge Piercy and