Novelist Gordon pursues the secrets of her father's life

March 30, 1994|By Tim Warren | Tim Warren,Sun Book Editor

Mary Gordon has written about the family from the time of her critically acclaimed first novel, "Final Payments," in 1978.

That book was about the tortured relationship between a young woman and her ill father. In a steady stream of novels, novellas and short stories produced since, she has written about several other family relationships, from a variety of perspectives.

And now she's writing "Reading My Father," a nonfiction work about her father, who died when Ms. Gordon was 7. Delving into her own family, she is finding, is more difficult than she had imagined.

"It makes me long for returning to fiction," Ms. Gordon, 45, says jokingly over the phone from New York. "There are two things at play -- I have to reconstruct a part of family history, in terms of getting dates and chronological progression and so forth, and also I'm delving into that time of loss. I have to give up a childish and relatively innocent perception of my father and see him through the eyes of a mature woman."

Ms. Gordon will read from this work-in-progress tonight at Goucher College as part of the 13th annual "Women Writing About Women" competition. Before her reading, winners of the Goucher and high school competitions will read from their works.

"One of the greatest treasures a novelist can have is a secret world, which he or she can open up to his or her reader," Ms. Gordon wrote in an essay a few years ago. Her father had a secret world, she says: "He was also a writer but lied about his past and also covered up his past. That's what I'm trying to explore in the work -- the difference between memory and invention."

In Ms. Gordon's fiction, families are sometimes good forces, often bad ones -- but always powerful. In "Final Payments," the narrator cares for her father for 11 years after his stroke. She seethes with resentment much of that time, lamenting her lost years. In "Separation," which was selected for the anthology "Best American Short Stories of 1991," the mother of a 4-year-old boy is repelled by her son's clinginess.

"The family has always been the place of the novel, and Mary looks at it from a contemporary point of view," says Barbara Roswell, an assistant professor of women's studies at Goucher. "She's taken issues that have been gobbledygook in social science language and made them compelling in fiction. And she's always operating in the moral domain. Her characters are usually facing weighty moral dilemmas, but she doesn't preach or pontificate."

Raised in an Irish Catholic family in the New York area, Ms. Gordon has also written about being Catholic in contemporary America. As with the family, she sees the Catholic Church as an entity that can do as much damage as it can benefit, particularly for women. Not surprisingly, she's been criticized for her writing about Catholicism.

"I get a lot of really ferocious criticism from right-wing Catholic writers," Ms. Gordon says. "When I have a public appearance, I see 'plants' there -- people there who want to argue with me. Usually it's about abortion. They ask: How can you call yourself a Catholic and be in favor of abortion?' But it's so useless to get into a shouting match with them."

Sometimes she is surprised, though. In "The Rest of Life," a 1993 collection of three novellas, one of the stories concerned a lonely woman who has an affair with a priest. Ms. Gordon braced for a firestorm.

"I expected a big flap about it, but I didn't get it," she says, then adds after a moment: "Maybe with all that's been going on lately, a story about consensual heterosexual sex among priests is good news."

READING

What: Reading by author Mary Gordon as part of Goucher College's "Women Writing About Women" competition.

When: Tonight at 7:30.

Where: Alumni House, Goucher College.

Information: (410) 337-6125.

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