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Interview

Born in Saint Paul, Minnesota, Patricia Hampl first won recognition for A Romantic Education (Houghton Mifflin), a memoir about her Czech heritage which received a Houghton Mifflin Literary Fellowship, and then for Virgin Time (Farrar, Straus and Giroux), a book about her Catholic upbringing and an inquiry into contemplative life. Called “the queen of memoir” by the Los Angeles Times, Hampl is also the author of I Could Tell You Stories (Norton), a collection of essays on memory and imagination and a finalist for a National Book Critics Circle Award. Blue Arabesque: A Search for the Sublime (Harcourt) was a New York Times “Notable Book” and was excerpted in Best Spiritual Writing 2005. Her most recent work is another memoir, The Florist’s Daughter (Harcourt), winner of numerous year-end awards and a Times “Notable Book.” She has also written two collections of poetry, Woman before an Aquarium (Pittsburgh) and Resort and Other Poems (Houghton Mifflin), and has received fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts as well as the Guggenheim, Bush, Ingram Merrill, Djerassi, and MacArthur Foundations. She is Regents Professor and McKnight Distinguished Professor at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis. She is also a member of the permanent faculty of the Prague Summer Program. The New York Times said of The Florist’s Daughter, “Like all of her work, this book demonstrates that life is much bigger than it appears. One only has to look long enough.” She was interviewed at her home in Saint Paul, Minnesota, by Robert Clark.

 

Image: The term “Catholic writer” had a real currency from the forties through the sixties, and even a positive connotation. I’m thinking of Graham Greene, Flannery O’Connor, JF Powers, Walker Percy, et cetera. Is it still a meaningful concept to you?

Patricia Hampl: Today I think the word doesn’t mean anything in particular the way it did then. There’s a diffuse, if not atomized, sense of what it means to be Catholic now: What kind of Catholic? What end of the spectrum? And lots of people who are not practicing Catholics would define themselves as coming so strongly from a Catholic background and ethic that they would show up at a forum about Catholic writers. I moderated one at Fordham just last year, and a couple of people on that panel weren’t practicing but absolutely saw themselves as Catholic.

Image: Who were they?

PH: Stuart Dybek was one, and he said some of the most interesting things. Somebody asked if he had been influenced by Catholic writers, and he paused and said that actually the people who had influenced him most were Jewish writers like Saul Bellow and Bernard Malamud—and he extrapolated from their example. He said he realized that he could treat his own Catholic background “with the same intimacy and yet public sense that they had.”

Several years ago I was speaking to a nun who was working on a biography of JF Powers. She knew him well, and I asked her what she thought Powers would be writing about if he were alive today. She said, “His subject has been taken away from him.” The idea of a clergy with the position and identity and presence in the community it once had—that’s all gone now. So is the idea of celibacy as something not marred by the pedophile scandal, as something that could be a comic and yet dead serious enterprise. I thought it was a brilliant comment. She felt that even by the very end of his life his subject had been taken from him, that he was unable to enter the same imaginative territory he had at his height with Morte d’Urban and the short stories that made his name.

Today it’s a different thing. Somebody like Alice McDermott, a fantastic writer, is springing from the Catholic tradition and is in a sense a Catholic writer, and yet that’s not the first thing that comes to mind when I think about her. Today somebody who is a Catholic is part of a very different landscape, both imaginatively and intellectually.

Image: Which would you consider your Catholic work?

PH: Virgin Time, certainly, was a memoir about growing up Catholic and a search for contemplative life, and an inquiry into prayer. I have another book on the back burner called The Virtue of Heresy, which is in a way a sequel to Virgin Time, almost twenty years later.

I am interested in the question of faithfulness: Why one would be faithful to an orthodoxy that has justifiably taken some very hard knocks and is often repellent to anybody’s sense of independence of mind and to the imaginative process? I love being a Catholic. It’s an important part of my life, maybe in part because I have a pugnacious streak. My mother was a fierce Irish Catholic, and I don’t fall very far from her apple tree. But I’ve always thought this business of being a “cafeteria Catholic” is sort of silly and diminishing of the variety of religious experience which exists within Catholicism. Judaism gives us a sense of how contentious one’s relationship with religion can be, as any love affair can be. It’s not just a calm, companionate thing. It’s fierce, and if you aren’t engaged in that way, what’s the point?

Image: It seems that the three great influences in your life have been the church, your family and your Czech ancestry, and your hometown, Saint Paul. Do you think that’s accurate?

PH: I’d say that’s about right. And also love—people I’ve loved and continue to love. I’ve never fallen in love anywhere but Saint Paul. I may be the sort of person who, if I’d been born in San Diego, would be devoted to that place, or Minneapolis, which I consider to be in opposition to Saint Paul. (When I’m out of town and people introduce me and say, “She’s from Minneapolis,” I always say “Saint Paul.” But I get a very ‘whatever’ response to this urgent distinction from people in New York or anywhere else really.) I’m a restless person, so I would say that travel is a passion and influence of mine. Most of my books have a basis in travel.

Image: You started your writing career as a poet, right?

PH: My first publishing was as a poet, but I always wanted to do everything. If anything, I’m surprised that I never ended up writing a novel. I’ve written short stories; I’ve written a couple books of poetry; I’ve made most of my way as a nonfiction writer of memoir and personal essays. I’ve done words for music, and a lot of literary journalism, but poetry is at the heart of everything. Still, I would have expected that I would have written a novel, because I always thought of that as the big thing, the great thing.

Image: And instead, you’re identified not just as a memoirist but as one of the people who’s launched the genre of contemporary memoir over the last twenty or thirty years. Did you ever think about writing a memoir when you were studying poetry?

PH: Never. Not even in grad school. The way the Iowa Writers Workshop worked in those days, there was no crossing of boundaries. If you were studying poetry, that’s all you did. In a way I’m practicing without a license, because aside from freshman English I never did take a prose writing class. They didn’t have nonfiction courses then—and “nonfiction” thirty years ago meant a form of journalism. There was the New Journalism, which had a personal voice, but a memoir wasn’t something a young nobody would write. The memoir was not the coming-of-age or coming-to-terms form that it’s become now. When A Romantic Education came out in 1981, it did not have the words “a memoir” on its cover, because that would have sounded ridiculous back then. Why would somebody who had nothing particular to impart and was thirty-something years old write a memoir? The form has established itself over time.

I wanted to write a book about what inside my head I called “the lingering life of immigration.” I was interested in the idea that just because somebody comes over here, it doesn’t mean that the past and that particular world they left behind is over. And of course this was during the Cold War—I made the travels that I used to compose that book in 1975, 1977, and 1978. When I began going to Czechoslovakia (as it was called then), it had been thirty years, almost to the day, since the end of the Second World War. In May of 1975, there were posters all over the streets of Prague about our great Russian brothers who had liberated us. Today we are farther away from 1975 now than 1975 was from the Second World War then. A lot of time has gone by.

Image: When you wrote the next book, were you consciously thinking of it as a memoir? And was it published as a memoir?

PH: Yes. By 1992, the form was established. When I first published A Romantic Education, if you went into a bookstore looking for it, it might be shelved in European history; it could be in art history, or women’s studies; one time I found it in self-help. They didn’t know what to do with it. Eleven years later when I published my next real memoir (I’d published a couple other books in between—a poetry collection and a book about Antonín Dvorák’s summer in Spillville, Iowa), there were categories called “memoir” and “autobiography.” By then it was launched as an enterprise, and people were beginning to study it in universities. Students were beginning to show up who wanted to write it.

Image: It sounds like you might date its emergence to around 1990 or 1988?

PH: Not to say there weren’t fabulous memoirs being written earlier. Alfred Kazin published A Walker in the City in 1951. Frank Conroy published Stop-Time in the sixties. And then the wonderful Brits were writing all these travelogue memoirs like Laurie Lee’s As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning and Patrick Leigh Fermor’s A Time of Gifts, which I’ve been reading lately and love. These books are just gorgeous, wonderful writing, and they’re memoirs one way or another.

Image: Would Bruce Chatwin fit into that?

PH: I’d say he belongs to the beginning of this whole era when memoir became popular, but he’s much more a travel writer. He isn’t doing the memoir project that a lot of Americans are doing. He’s not coming clean about something.

I think one of the best memoirists to come down the pipe—and a Catholic, a convert—is Mary Karr. She uses the form very well. She uses it more narratively and less essayistically than I do, but it’s just gripping. Her writing is sublime but also very immediate and earthy.

Image: A comment of yours that stuck in my mind was your observation that memoir is “what has happened” as opposed to “what happened.” Can you elaborate on that?

PH: I think memoir is about a desire to understand rather than simply to narrate. In writing programs there’s a commandment that we all have signed up for, with some eagerness: “show, don’t tell.” It comes from fiction writing. Like all good ideas, it can end up being mechanistic. I don’t think memoir has become so popular simply because people are telling “the truth”—the truth can sometimes be told much more fully in fiction. But memoir allows people an almost eighteen-century relationship to narration that the novel had at the beginning. It allows us to stop and yak for a while, to talk, to ponder, to wonder, to reflect. Memoir has got a kind of Tristram Shandy quality. It’s vignette-driven, episodic rather than truly plotted.

Image: You’ve also talked about memoir being quest literature.

PH: It’s become a central quest literature of our time. This has partly to do with its formal elements, because you can’t create a plot, really, for a memoir, but you have to have some sort of shapeliness and sense of urgency and trajectory. You need to give readers a reason to keep turning the pages. So memoirs often attach themselves to the idea of the quest, the pilgrimage, the trip, the adventure. I certainly did that with A Romantic Education; I went behind the Iron Curtain. And even with Virgin Time, I went to Assisi. The quest is about going somewhere, but it’s also about looking for some kind of meaning, about your own life or the larger world.

Image: Some memoir writers alter events to varying degrees, doing things like combining incidents or creating composite characters. Others, notoriously, have gone farther. Is there a line that can be crossed?

PH: There are several lines, and they have to do with whether you invent, ultimately—and there are lots of ways to invent. The imagination is an inevitable part of any narrative, including the newspaper, because even there you need to decide what comes first and what comes second. And this ordering is not just a rational act; it draws on a sense of what’s appealing, what furthers the story, and so forth. The real ethical question at stake is: does the reader know what the nature of the enterprise is? If the reader knows, you have a lot of leeway. In other words, if the reader understands that you aren’t in possession of all the information about your childhood, but, like all of us, you have a very strong sense of what your childhood was. If you don’t remember much of it, that absence itself is a quality to the past. If the reader understands that the writer’s enterprise is to understand his or her own narration, that’s honest. If, on the other hand, the writer in effect says, “This is a chronicle of what has happened, and I’m in possession of that narrative shape, and I’m going to lay it out for you,” and then makes things up or produces experiences—in effect, lies—then we’re in trouble.

Now we get into the question of what is nonfiction. The trouble is, there are lots of different kinds: the morning newspaper, a biography of Churchill, a history of the Second World War in Poland, a memoir about first love, a memoir of bereavement. They range from the intensely interiorized and personal to the documentary and historical. The real question is whether the reader understands which of these genres we’re in. If for some nefarious reason the writer chooses to misuse the trust of the reader, an ethical problem sets in.

Image: What do you think of the “memoir triumphalists”—people who say that creative nonfiction has overtaken the novel and poetry as the genre that says what reality is these days?

PH: I think that’s ridiculous, and I don’t know why anyone would say that. I read fiction passionately. The rise of nonfiction forms interests me, but it doesn’t mean the end of fiction.

Image: What is it, would you say, that fiction does well, versus what memoir does well?

PH: People are always asking me about lying in nonfiction, and I say, predictably, that I think it’s a bad idea. But nobody ever asks me about lying in fiction, and I think that’s even more treacherous, because the kind of lies you can tell in fiction have to do with the human heart, and with your whole conception of life itself. You can lie in fiction and poetry. Sentimentality is a lie. Melodrama is a lie. A particular kind of posing and political rage can be lies because they aren’t really a core of the imagination. They’re working to manipulate others rather than to reveal a truth. I love fiction. I always have, because it’s a great miracle. It has a quality of liftoff that I just adore it for. I read fiction all the time. I just picked up a new novel the other day, City of Tranquil Light by Bo Caldwell. It’s about missionaries in China, a wonderful book. Somebody like Marilynne Robinson takes on issues we tend to think only nonfiction can address, questions of faith and history and so forth. There are lots of different ways to skin that cat.

Image: What other writers are you admiring these days?

PH: I’ve been reading the collected stories of Mary Gordon. She’s remarkable. I love her nonfiction, too—she’s written memoirs and nonfiction and novels. D.J. Waldie is a writer I admire a great deal, for his book Holy Land. I love Charles Baxter’s work. My favorite of his is Believers, which is a fascinating novella, a faux memoir about a guy looking for his father’s history. And I’m currently reading a fascinating book by Thomas Mallon called Yours, Ever. It’s a book about letter writing in which he incorporates letters from all different ages and times. One of my absolute favorite novelists is Lynn Freed, a beautiful South African writer, and my favorite of hers is The Mirror, which is quite stunning. It’s about the world before the end of apartheid and all the changes have taken place. It’s colonial, but written with a postcolonial consciousness. And of course Alice Munro and William Trevor are always on my list, like everybody’s.

Image: I know you have some genuine conflicts and misgivings about the Catholic Church. You’re not a polemicist, but do those concerns work their way into your writing? Do Christian or Catholic writers have an obligation to address these things, the way Mary Gordon has, for example?

PH: I don’t think any writer has any obligation to do anything. You’re just lucky to struggle down on the mat with whatever it is you can do. For some people, the core of their religious belief (or lack of same) is inexpressible, but it’s just something in the kit bag of who they are. I teach at a secular university, and I don’t find myself wanting or needing to talk about religion there. I don’t stop anybody else from doing it, either. But no, I don’t think that’s the way it works. I think it’s a bit more mysterious than that.

Image: You mentioned that you have a book on the back burner called The Virtue of Heresy. The title suggests that you’ll be grappling with faith. Can you tell us anything about it?

PH: Well, I need to write it before I can talk about it, but I guess I can say this. I’m writing the book because I want to know why anyone (not just me, but others as well) would remain faithful to a tradition and a church that has some pretty repellant habits and strictures—no women priests and so on. You know the list. It goes on and on, depending on your politics. I think staying engaged is important. I have not liked the notion that it might be better to have a smaller, purer church. That way lies a scary purity doctrine that goes against Jesus himself, who wanted to enfold us all.

Image: You’ve told me a wonderful story about your encounter with John Paul II. Are you willing to share that?

PH: I had pretty predictable political oppositions to John Paul II, but also a lot of gratitude and just plain pride at what he did to bring about the end of the Cold War. He did a lot behind the scenes with Solidarity, the first non-Communist-controlled trade union in Poland. He was a real player. And his relation to the poor has also been something I’ve admired, as with the current pope. Yet I was often dismayed and furious with his intransigence on social issues. Predictably.

When I was writing Virgin Time, I went with a group of nuns and priests to Assisi, and we started out in Rome for an audience with the pope. These audiences are held in what looks like a cross between an airplane hangar and a bad modern high school gym. The nuns in our little group were crabbing about having to put on the veil, because John Paul II preferred it, and we were led in and put way at the back, on the side, while groups from Africa and South America in their native dress were led to the front. I thought I was being pretty cool about the whole thing, and there was no way I was going to be moved by this. I’d experience it as a writer, in an objective way, just observing.

So in comes John Paul II. He’s wearing the white outfit with the pontifical hoop-dee-doo on his head and walking around with his crosier, and people are reaching out and he’s blessing everyone. People are shouting “Papa, Papa, Papa.” And all of a sudden, all I know is that I’ve flown to the end of my pew and I’m reaching my hands out to touch him, and my hand accidentally—truly accidentally, I was being pushed from behind by other people—stroked his cheek. And it was so soft. I sort of fell back then and melted. I can’t say he looked at me, but there was no sense that I’d done anything wrong in this totally inappropriate gesture. What knocked me out was not only that he accepted that, but that I, Miss Cool, who was just going to observe, had just flung myself at him. I guess it was pretty deep, whatever it was.

Image: F. Scott Fitzgerald exerts a constant fascination for you. Is he a model, or a hero, or simply a hometown forebear? Was he, too, a Catholic writer? Does his relationship to Saint Paul seem similar to yours? What is it about Fitzgerald?

PH: He mattered immensely to me because when I was young I felt that Saint Paul was nowheresville. I don’t know why I thought that. What sort of snob was I? Nowadays the Twin Cities have very good street cred as a cultural place, but in my youth, Saint Paul felt very cut off, and you felt like had to get out of here if you wanted to make something of yourself. What was thrilling about Fitzgerald was that he came from here and wrote glorious prose, so apparently that was possible. And not only that, but he’d written part of that glorious prose about this place. That wasn’t just a big deal; it was everything to me. He was the only writer I knew who was from here.

I went to a Catholic girls’ school his mother had attended, Visitation Convent, where he himself was baptized, I think, and would go with his mother to visit the cloistered nuns. So he was a presence in our girlhood. I once met a nun who had danced with him at a cotillion. She touched the hem of his cloak. He died at forty-four, in 1940. When I started at Visitation, he could so easily have still been alive. If he’d had a normal life span, in 1960 he would only have been sixty-four.

Image: Do you think that Fitzgerald had a Catholic sensibility? Can you detect it in the work?

PH: Oh, yes. The Crack-Up is a very Catholic series of essays. It’s a confessio, and I see it as the beginning of personal interiorized writing in America.

Image: Tell us about what you’re doing at the Fitzgerald Theater in downtown Saint Paul.

PH: Every year or so I do what we call a “staged reading,” a one-woman show with music, at the Fitzgerald. It’s the place from which Prairie Home Companion is broadcast, and I think of it as Garrison Keillor’s theater. It’s one hundred years old this year. It was originally one of these Shubert theaters, a vaudeville theater, and then it became a movie theater called the World. Then Garrison re-christened it after it had been renovated into this little bijou theater. I’ve done pieces there on the Mississippi River and on visitors to Saint Paul, and I’ve been asked to do something for the hundredth anniversary. This one will be on Fitzgerald himself. We’ll have a lot of jazz, and I’m going to work mostly with his letters, because I feel that would be a little fresher.

Image: Gerard Manley Hopkins has also been one of your great influences. He’s a very different writer from Fitzgerald, and from the other Catholic writers we talked about earlier. What’s the attraction?

PH: He was somebody I loved as a girl. They taught him at Visitation, and right away, he was somebody different. This was a Catholic voice which wasn’t Tennyson. Hopkins has a radical style; you can recognize a Hopkins poem anywhere. He’s like Emily Dickinson that way. The mind and the voice are fused and they’re absolutely articulate, and at the same time completely mischievous. I once read a double description of genius: when you encounter regular genius, you say, “Why didn’t I think of that?” but when you encounter exceptional genius, you don’t know where it came from or how it got there, but it’s absolutely indelible. That’s the way Hopkins is. He’s his own person. The radical nature of his voice coupled with his extreme devotion were fascinating to me. When I first read him, I was going through a period of questioning, the way that Catholic kids do.

Image: Did Hopkins feel like a little bit of a rebel to you then?

PH: What mattered to me was that he was wholly independent in his mind about the way he saw the world. And he was passionate about religion. He was orthodox, but he wasn’t pietistic. Many years later I read a biography of his, and I thought his was the most depressing life I had ever come across. So I read a different biography, and again I thought, “This man had such a sad life.” But he remained a very important figure to me, and in some ways a Romantic figure, which might sound a little odd, but he was. He made religion seem clearly a passion, not just a rule book, but something very personal.


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