An Interview with Sallie Bingham, author of Red Car.
How do you feel your work has grown or changed since the publication of Transgressions in 2002?
I know now that less is more. I used to try to plant, explain, elaborate on my characters, as though the reader wouldn’t otherwise understand. Now it seems to me a single detail, perfectly chosen, stands for paragraphs of description. At the same time, I am becoming less and less interested in plot, which seems often so artificial.
The one story that stands out in time and place in your collection is “Sagesse,” set on the beaches of Normandy shortly after World War II. Did the inspiration for this story come from a childhood memory of your own? Did you do any sort of research for this piece?
I did no research for this story, but it is based on a powerful memory from my childhood. In 1949, my family moved to France for a year. The country was still deeply shadowed by the war—food was rationed; people were thin and poor. I was deeply moved, and frightened, by my first experience of suffering as a national, as well as a personal, trial.
In an interview from Transgressions, you remark that “it’s not so much that beauty passes, which everyone more or less knows, but that its effect, even when in full flower, is ambivalent.” This theme is carried through this new collection, and in “Fresh Salmon,” you write “he thought how pretty she was before he thought how pretty she must have been.” What words might you have for women dealing with aging and the loss of their own beauty?
Above all, aging is liberating. No woman has escaped the imprisonment of her looks, either because she is considered to be beautiful, or because she is not. Finally to lay aside this definition, with all its corollaries, is to become free. And, for a writer, the resultant invisibility is a great mercy, allowing for unhampered observation. Of course all this assumes that one’s ego is not deeply enmeshed in one’s appearance.
Many of the couples depicted in your collection have no plans of marrying. The story “Porn” refers to the “fearsome demands of matrimony,” and the mother in “A Gift for Burning” talks about spending nearly all her “time and energy getting married and unmarried and married again.” Could you talk about these characters’ choice to remain single late in life?
A time may come when marriage and independence are not mutually exclusive for women, but it will not be soon. Marriage is, above all, for the welfare of husbands and children, and their concerns inevitably top the concerns of the woman involved. A great deal of growth occurs because of the sacrifices marriage demands of a woman—in fact I sometimes doubt if women, or men, grow up without it. But for a woman with an interest in her own development, marriage is at best a side-track, at worst a fatal obliteration (given the reinforcements of our culture). However, to think that by escaping the literal fact of marriage, we escape the demands and expectations of that state is a little foolish. Women are expected to be caretakers in all relationships. Marriage only makes that a little more obvious.
Similarly, your stories deal with the trickiness of love affairs. In “That Winter,” Helen wonders how could “a man change so fast, over the course of a few hours or days, from the person she’d found charming, interesting, possibly worthwhile, to something glowering or glum, silent, unreachable.” Could you comment?
Our hope leads us into relationships. One might perhaps call it delusion. Without hope, we would probably remain alone—but who is without hope? And the fact of hope, its particular aspects, makes it difficult to see its object, at least at first. In this story, the man doesn’t change. She begins to see him.
The story “Doing Good” deals with a son who’s gotten in trouble with the law, a son who is “still trying to redeem himself from the misfortune of having been born with money.” How do you think the effects of wealth have driven him to such recklessness? And could you elaborate on the mother’s comment that “much unacceptable behavior is simply a poor substitute for getting in the water?”
It is not money per se that leads this character into trouble but the shame and silence that surrounds money. We have not come to terms with the unfairness of life which is exemplified by the way money is earned or inherited. Since there is no way to discuss this, the children of wealth grow up distorted by unrecognized guilt. They may escape into arrogance, or into despair, but inevitably there will be some kind of acting out. One of the charms of my narrator is that she believes in simple solutions, such as getting in the water. And she isn’t entirely wrong.
On that same subject, an interesting thread running through these stories is motherhood. From the yearning for babies to the distance of grown children, it is a constant struggle for your characters. Could you discuss?
The passion inspired by children results in struggle. Children can’t be contained, or held. They must leave. The women in my stories know this, consciously or unconsciously, and dread realizing that this inevitably thwarted passion will be the great emotion of their lives. “The Orange-Juice King” is an interesting story-within-a-story as a character remembers a legend that her grandmother told her.
Do you think that growing up in Kentucky, in a culture where storytelling is rich, has affected your writing?
Yes, indeed. I grew up in a story-telling family at a time when this aspect of life was already almost gone. My grandmother had a store of strange, frightening ghost stories and dark fairy tales, inherited from her Irish nurse. (She wrote two collections of these.) They were iconic, unexplained, often involving violence. The ancient black woman who had been my father’s nurse had equally iconic stories about my father’s childhood—she was the only teller of those tales. Through her three generations of the family came to life in all their strangeness. The one story told from a male perspective in this story is “The Big No,” a story about a young, homeless kid who mistakenly leaves his diary at a woman’s house who writes the word “NO” on a slip of paper and puts it in between the pages.
What was your inspiration for this story?
I stole this shamelessly from my partner, who spent many years wandering through the west and southwest. Having missed this particular form of growing up, I borrowed his stories (another is the story about the Greek island).
Forty-year veteran of the novel, noted feminist, and author of more than ten books, Bingham returns with Red Car, a collection written in her signature style--discreet, sly prose often circling taboo subjects.