Marisa Silver’s third novel, Mary Coin, inspired by Dorothea Lange’s iconic Depression-era “Migrant Mother” photograph, depicts three contrasting yet connected lives: the photographer, Vera Dare; the photo’s subject, Mary Coin; and a professor in present-day California, Walker Dodge. The book manages to feel intimate and personal, even as it spans decades and takes on big subjects like history, motherhood and art. I loved this book; it’s thoughtful and compassionate, and told with a graceful assurance I don’t see very often in contemporary fiction. Reviewing the novel for The New York Times, Antoine Wilson called it “phenomenal.” I concur.
Ms. Silver was kind enough to answer my questions via email.
The Millions: With a novel like this, with three different characters and story lines, I am always curious how it was put together. Was this a case of what Madison Smartt Bell calls “modular design” where you fit these pieces together, mosaic-like, discovering, as you went along, how they fit, working not off of linear cause-and-effect, but something more thematic and intuitive? Or did you always know what order the stories would be told in, and did you write them in that order? How did the shape of this book emerge over time? What are the benefits and challenges of this kind of storytelling?
Marisa Silver: Structure is both an intuitive and an intellectual preoccupation for me, a tool of narrative propulsion as well as a fundamental aspect of the story itself. If I construct a piece of fiction correctly, the structure should, in a sense, tell the story. The three intersecting stories in Mary Coin, the story of Mary, the subject of the photograph, Vera Dare, the photographer, and Walker Dodge, the modern day historian, had to be interwoven in ways that not only created tension and movement, but that also reflected the overarching theme of the book, which has to do with how the historic moment changes over time, and how it is reinterpreted and repurposed to serve contemporary yearnings for the past. So, as I played around with the structure, I thought first about allowing the reader to settle into a story line so that he or she would feel invested in the character and in the drama. Then I thought about how to step away from that story at a moment when the reader would want to know what might happen next and yet not be disappointed to switch gears and points of view. And then I thought about how what comes before will impact the understanding of what comes next, even if what comes next takes place 50 years later or a 100 years before and focuses on a set of characters that might not be obviously related to those the reader has just read about. So it’s a question of collage — two things contain their independent meanings when viewed separately. Yet when they are juxtaposed, something new is created, new emotions are stirred, and, hopefully, something greater than its component parts is created. Structure in and of itself can be used to create suspense and a sense of urgency on the part of the reader. What is left out is as powerful as what is left in. The tantalizing sense of absence can draw a reader through a novel just as much as a pounding plot might.
Since the book is so much about history, it is also, necessarily, a book about time and the emotional ruptures created when time is broken up, when things are forgotten. A photograph captures a moment of time, but then time itself moves past that moment into the future. When we look at a photograph, we are looking at time stilled, at a moment that has died. And we are also looking at the space between things, between a moment past and the present moment we live in. And so a kind of emotional yearning is part of that experience, the deep desire for something that cannot be fully possessed. In the same way, a structure that moves around in time tells the story of that rupture and creates the experience of yearning that is also the subject of the text. My hope was the structural choices I made would be part of the experience of the novel’s central ideas.
TM: How much of this book is based in the real-life stories of Dorothea Lange and the woman she photographed? I am curious about the research that went into the book, and how that balanced with your imagined versions of these lives. The book wrestles with notions of representation and exploitation in photographs, and Mary Coin and her family never benefit financially from the image Vera takes; it’s both Mary and not-Mary in that image. I wonder, did you struggle with similar questions of representation in creating these fictive depictions of real-life people? What do you owe a real-life person, when creating narrative?
MS: The issues surrounding appropriation and representation are central to the book itself and were, as you suggest, ideas I wrestled with as a writer. I began the process by doing a lot of research into the lives of Dorothea Lange and Florence Owens Thompson, the woman in the photograph. And, of course, I did more general research about the various time periods the book covers, wandering off into the eddies of subject matter that writing always leads me to explore. How was lumber cut and milled in the 1920s? What might a person’s hands look like if she pulled cotton eight hours a day? But I knew from the very beginning that my interest in taking on this subject was not about faithful recreation of the lives of the women who inspired the book. Rather, I was interested in the very idea of appropriation and how my own handling of the material would address that subject. I recognized early on that in fictionalizing this story, in layering onto the facts a kind of lyric inventiveness, I was doing exactly what any viewer of that photograph does: he brings his subjectivity to the viewing, along with the mores of the time he or she lives in, a social ethics and point of view that are formed by the now. In this way, the image viewed has as much to do with the actual documented moment as it does with reinterpretation and reinvention, the space fiction occupies.
What do I owe the real people upon whom I based my characters? I think I owed them the seriousness of my purpose, a deep consideration, and clarity, suggested within the work, about the fact that I was not endeavoring or presuming to write their lives, but that I was using their fascinating examples as inspiration for fiction. And I think I owed them affection, which I felt and continue to feel.
TM: All three of these story lines explore the pain, struggle, and rewards of parenting. Mary Coin has seven children to care for as a migrant farm worker and widow. The choices she makes in the book are heartbreaking — and are they even choices? For years, Vera Dare puts her family before her work, and then, when money is tight, she and her painter husband send their two young sons to live with a babysitter so that they can continue to work to support them. Later, she travels to photograph poor farmers and doesn’t see her sons for long stretches. Throughout, the making of photographs, and the life of a photo, are compared to parenting. In the modern-day storyline, Walker is a divorced father who struggles to see his two children for who they are, for who they’re striving to be. This novel succinctly depicts the sweet pain of parenting, which I really connected with. I was also struck by how money and the harsh reality of the economy dictates parental choices in the novel. Can you talk a little bit about these themes?
MS: The Lange photograph, “Migrant Mother,” is powerful for many reasons, not least of which is the fact that it evokes an image so embedded in our collective consciousness: Mary, the maternal ideal, holding infant Jesus while two angels look over her shoulders. I am fascinated by the tenacity of the ideal of the “good mother.” Despite the obvious ways in which a woman’s place in society has changed over the last half century, I think we still have a knee jerk notion that if a mother isn’t all-loving and all-caring, and if her decisions don’t always prioritize the child, then she is worthy of our judgment. When I started to engage with my characters as parents, and particularly Mary and Vera as mothers, I wanted to suspend judgment and simply look at the facts of their lives. Mary has seven kids. One could say that she is irresponsible having so many children when her situation is so dire. But it was less interesting to me to judge that choice than to think about why she makes that choice, and what her relationship is to her kids and to her idea of herself as a mother. In the same way, Vera sends her children to live away from her home so that she can work. The choice is a complicated one for her and I wanted to explore the ramifications for the character and for the story from her very subjective standpoint. All three parents in the story, Mary, Vera, and Walker, deal with the fact that, in various ways, they abandon their children. I think the idea of abandonment is central to the idea of parenting. Even if a parent doesn’t literally leave her child, there are other sorts of abandonments, ending with the final abandonment, which in most cases is the death of a parent. The idea of the missing, in both the sense of what is absent and what is longed for, is an underlying current that runs through the book.
TM: I want to describe the prose in this novel as “clean,” but that seems to barely capture what makes it so pleasing to read. The other word I want to use is “unsentimental.” There is something so spare and well-here-it-is about your depiction of the world, particularly when describing Mary Coin’s life of hardship. The moment when she tells Charles Dodge that she’s pregnant is a great example: “She could tell by his reaction that although he was curious about the particulars of her past, he would not be interested in her future.” The chapter ends there, like a knife in the gut. Can you talk about sentence-making and how it relates to the development of the story and your characters?
MS: Writing a good sentence is having to hit the bull’s-eye each and every time. A sentence has to serve so many purposes. It has to provide forward momentum. It has to tell us what we need to know. It has to suggest character. It has to stand at a correct distance from the characters in order to let the reader know the authorial attitude. It has to have within it a kind of kinetic energy that reflects the book’s or a character’s tone. Its construction has to illuminate the larger preoccupations of the book. It has to be disciplined and cannot be beautiful for the sake of beauty. The rhythmic interplay between sentences determines length and sound, smoothness versus percussiveness, which words end one sentence and which begin the next. I think it is my nature to subtract, to try to boil something down to its essentials so that only what needs to be said is said. I want to provide enough space around important words and ideas so that they have the impact I want them to have. I also think about a character’s behavior, or his actions, as being part and parcel of the sentence, and not simply because the sentence describes that action. In other words, what a character says and what he does have to be in dialogue with one another, hopefully a kind of itchy, incongruent dialogue. Then things get interesting.
Do I write spare, unsentimental prose? I always remind myself that what I am doing is reporting on what is happening in my imagination. The facts, ma’am. Just the facts.
TM: There’s a lot of rich material in the novel about photography and the power, posterity, and myths of an image. You were a screenwriter and a director before you published fiction. How does that background come into play with this book?
MS: When I was 20 years old, I made a film with the great documentary filmmaker, Richard Leacock, for PBS — it was my first real job. We made a film about a family of fundamental Christians who lived in Indiana. The people Ricky and I filmed agreed to take part, and we tried to be as true to them as we could, but I understood that both of these propositions — their agreement and our desire to film the “truth” — were fraught. I think it is very difficult for anyone to understand just how exposing it is to be the subject of a film or a photograph. And the minute a filmmaker or photographer puts a frame around reality, chooses a particular composition, and makes editing choices of what to show and what to leave out, the truth becomes a casualty. That experience made me think about what both my characters, Mary Coin and Vera Dare, might have felt as the subject and maker of the photograph in the novel. Ricky died during the time I was working on the book. I thought so much about the film we made together and about the impact he had on my creative life. We’d be filming a scene and suddenly, I’d look over, and Ricky’s camera would have strayed from the overt “subject” of the moment in order to film something seemingly inconsequential that was happening “over there.” And that thing, whatever it was — a cat dozing in the corner, or a kid stringing a lanyard — would become the shot that exploded the scene and gave it dimension and resonance. He taught me that it was as important to look at what was within the frame as it was to look outside it, that what I think is the point of a scene may not be the point at all. He taught me to look askance.
TM: Since this is The Millions, I must ask: What was the last great book you read?