To Be Called a “Writer”
A Q and A with Mary-Beth Hughes
Mary-Beth Hughes is the author of the bestselling novel Wavemaker II, a New York Times Notable Book, and the acclaimed collection Double Happiness, which earned a Pushcart Prize. Her latest novel, The Loved Ones, is out now from Grove Atlantic. Her stories have been published in The Paris Review, Ploughshares, Georgia Review, and A Public Space. She lives in Brooklyn and Rhinebeck, New York.
Name a childhood hero.
Name a work you wished you’d written.
The Blue Flower by Penelope Fitzgerald.
If you had to order your work by how successfully you completed what you set out to accomplish, what would that list look like?
Oh, impossible question.
Name a writer in history you would’ve like to have been a contemporary of and why.
Henry James, especially when he was young, before he became the “Master.” It would have been fascinating to meet that rare, strange sensibility early on. And George Eliot, I appreciate her courage and her doggedness.
Name a work of yours whose reception you’ve been surprised about and why.
At first any reception is surprising. Lately I’ve been surprised that early readers of Double Happiness all choose different stories to like best. I thought there would be a consensus around one or two stories, and I thought I knew which ones they were. So far, so wrong!
Correct a misperception about you as a writer in fifty words or less.
That I’m really something else.
Name a trait you deplore in other writers.
There are many traits I adore in other writers, but self-adulation I find sort of depleting when I meet it.
Name your five desert island films.
8 1/2, Now Voyager, My Life As a Dog, Truly Madly Deeply, and the A & E version of Pride and Prejudice with Jennifer Ehle and Colin Firth, which seems to double as anti-anxiety medication.
Name a book not your own that you wish everyone would read.
The Ambassadors, also The Idiot.
Name a book you suspect most people claim to have read, but haven’t.
If you could choose one of your works to rewrite, which would it be and why.
I work so slowly that to add yet another return trip seems ill-advised. Best, for me, to move on.
Share the greatest literary secret/gossip you know.
And I do have a really good one.
Name a book you read over and over for inspiration.
The Blue Flower, really all of Fitzgerald. I love The Bookshop and The Gate of Angels and Offshore, too.
Name the writing habit you rely on to get you through a first draft.
The practice of stumbling on.
Name a regret, literary or otherwise.
Regrets are very sad.
Name your greatest struggle as a writer.
Oddly, I think the whole idea—or identity—of being an author, as opposed to the practice of reading and writing, which feels natural. Recently I had the chance to hear Mary Gaitskill give a sublime lecture on reading fiction. I felt such admiration not only for her ideas, but also for the whole presentation, her way of conducting the business of being an author. Afterwards, someone outside said, “Brilliance just pours off her.” And it does! I’d love to muster that kind of confidence when it comes to being a writer out in the world—an author!
Name a question you get about writing to which there really is no good answer.
How autobiographical is it? Truly no good answer when it comes to talking about fiction. I’ve heard Sheila Kohler say autobiography can be a helpful jumping off point for a story, making the best of a thorny query.
Name a question you wish you had been asked.
Where are we going for dinner?