Wednesday, August 29, 2007


"...[W]e had our normal family life—
struggles and hard times. That takes up a lot of time, hard times.
Uses up whole days[...]"

The Paris Review

When Grace Paley visits New York, she stays in her old apartment
on West Eleventh Street. Her block has for the most part escaped
the gentrification that has transformed the West Village since Paley
moved there in the forties. The building where Paley lived for most
of her adult life and where she raised her two children by her first
husband, the filmmaker Jess Paley, is a rent-controlled brownstone
walk-up with linoleum hallways. Mercifully spared mid-career
renovations, Paley’s apartment retains the disheveled, variegated
look of an apartment with children. Paley now lives in Thetford,
Vermont with her second husband, poet and playwright Robert
Nichols, but we arranged to speak with her in New York. We met
her on the street outside her apartment—she was returning home
from a Passover celebration with friends elsewhere in the city. We
recognized her from half a block away—a tiny woman with fluffy
white hair in a brown overcoat.

People often ask Grace Paley why she has written so little—
three story collections and three chapbooks of poetry in seventy
years. Paley has a number of answers to this question. Mostly she
explains that she is lazy and that this is her major flaw as a writer.
Occasionally she will admit that, though it is “not nice” of her to
say so, she believes that she can accomplish as much in a few stories
as her longer-winded colleagues do in a novel. And she points
out that she has had many other important things to do with her
time, such as raising children and participating in politics. “Art,”
she explains, “is too long, and life is too short.” Paley is noticeably
unaffected by the pressures of mortality which drive most writers
to publish. Donald Barthelme scavenged her apartment for the stories
that made up her first book, and her agent says she periodically
raids Paley’s drawers and kitchen cabinets for material. Her
first collection of stories, The Little Disturbances of Man, did not
appear until 1959, when Paley was thirty-seven. Since then she has
published just two collections of stories (Enormous Changes at the
Last Minute in 1974 and Later the Same Day in 1985) and three
collections of poems—Leaning Forward (1985). New and
Collected Poems (1992) and Long Walks and Intimate Talks
(1991). Though Paley is better known as a short-story writer than
as a poet, her stories are so dense and rigorously pruned that they
frequently resemble poetry as much as fiction. Her conversation is
as cerebral and distilled as her prose. The oft-noted Paley paradox
is the contrast between her grandmotherly appearance and her no-schmaltz
personality. Paley says only what is necessary. Ask her a
yes-or-no question, and she will answer yes or no. Ask her a foolish
question, and she will kindly but clearly convey her impatience.
Talking with her, one develops the impression that she listens and
speaks in two different, sometimes conflicting capacities. As a person
she is tolerant and easygoing, as a user of words, merciless. On
politics Paley speaks unreservedly and in earnest, on writing, she is
drier, more careful.

Grace Goodside was born in the Bronx in December 1922,
seventeen years after her parents immigrated to New York and one
year after the invention of the sanitary napkin (as she notes in her
poem “Song Stanzas of Private Luck”). Her father, Isaac, was a
doctor who learned English by reading Dickens and was, like her
mother, Mary, a committed socialist. The family spoke Russian
and Yiddish at home and English to the world with a Bronx twang
that remains one of the more noticeable signs of Paley’s attitude
towards the establishment. Writing has only occasionally been
Paley’s main occupation. She spent a lot of time in playgrounds
when her children were young. She has always been very active in
the feminist and peace movements. She has been on the faculty at
City College and taught courses at Columbia University, and until
recently, Sarah Lawrence College.

—Jonathan Dee, Barbara Jones, Larissa MacFarquhar

What were you doing before you became a published writer?

I was working part time. I was hanging out a lot. I was kind
of lazy. I had my kids when I was about twenty-six, twenty-seven.
I took them to the park in the afternoons. Thank God I was lazy
enough to spend all that time in Washington Square Park. I say
lazy but of course it was kind of exhausting running after two
babies. Still, looking back I see the pleasure of it. That’s when I
began to know women very well—as co-workers, really. I had a
part-time job as a typist up at Columbia. In fact, when I began to
write stories, I typed some up there, and some in the PTA office of
P.S. 41 on Eleventh Street. If I hadn’t spent that time in the playground,
I wouldn’t have written a lot of those stories. That’s pretty
much how I lived. And then we had our normal family life—
struggles and hard times. That takes up a lot of time, hard times.
Uses up whole days[...]


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