"This wasn't what I meant to write at all," Bobbie Ann Mason says of her new memoir, Clear Springs. She laughs. "But that's often true of a work. Usually I don't know where I'm going at all. I'm just following something."
What Mason followed this time was an urge to recreate her own upbringing and the history of her family, especially her relationship with her mother over several decades. In five sections ranging back and forth from the 1940s into the 1990s, Clear Springs beautifully paints a loving and perceptive portrait of a family's personalities and fortunes. "I think the questions I was asking are universal questions," Mason says. "The book starts out with the chapter at the pond, and reflecting on a moment of self-awareness, looking at where I've been and what I've connected to. It's a way of asking who you are."
About five years ago Mason wrote what is now chapter one as a separate essay. "I didn't realize I had a book for another year or so. In this case I did have a few years' worth of interest in family history that got me going. There were all those early chapters about childhood and school and church. I kind of put them in different piles and tried to see what kind of sense I could make out of them. I had to find a way of sorting them all out so that they would cohere so that there would be patterns of them."
Clear Springs is Mason's first book of autobiographical nonfiction, but it seems an inevitable step. Most of her fiction deals with the area she knows best, rural and suburban Kentucky, where she now lives again after decades in the North. Mason found the experience of writing a memoir fascinating. "I think it's a natural impulse to want to find some kind of coherence and meaning in your life, to find that it has a narrative, and that there are patterns. There are themes in your life, and themes that connect back to previous generations. You can see where you fit into the puzzle." The image of fitting together puzzle pieces occurs repeatedly in Clear Springs. "Your life starts to make sense, in terms of what you've done before and what you're doing now."
The prose in the new book is slower, more leisurely and meditative, than that of Mason's fiction. "The characters I write about usually are in the middle of the whirlpool," Mason admits. "They're racing down the highway. The confusion that the characters in the stories are in -- it's a culture shock. It's rural people meeting the modern age and getting thrown out."
One parallel between the fiction and the nonfiction is that Mason thinks of all the real people in Clear Springs as characters. "I think right at the heart of the book, for all the characters," she speculates, "is culture shock. It all happens at World War Two and thereafter. Before that, everything was pretty much the same. For all three generations that I'm writing about, the culture shock is happening almost simultaneously."
Mason has been chronicling this kind of shock for some time. Since her 1982 debut story collection, Shiloh and Other Stories, she has gone on to three novels -- In Country, Spence + Lila, and Feather Crowns -- and the excellent recent collection Midnight Madness. She is also writing the volume on Elvis Presley for the new Penguin Lives series of short biographies. One of the many pleasures in Clear Springs is Mason's inclusion of snippets of the first stories she wrote, youthful imitations of the girls' detective stories she so loved, which later resulted in her charming (and recently reissued) book The Girl Sleuths.
Considering her scholarly interests, evident in her book on Nabokov's nature imagery, Mason's style is surprisingly straightforward, never tricksy, seldom particularly allusive. But like Nabokov in his own autobiography, she approaches facts with the tools of an artist: "It's awfully hard working with facts -- or even what you remember as facts. I had so much trouble writing this book because I had to be faithful to what I knew to be fact, and yet I was trying to write something that in many ways was like fiction. But I couldn't just haul off and make up things."
Like most memoirs, Clear Springs returns again and again to the question of the accuracy and potency of memories. "I realized that your memories over time are really lost, or they're transformed," Mason says. "They become memories of memories, and you lose sight of the original. And finally there are a lot of things you remember that you can't prove really happened, and there are a lot of things you don't remember that did happen."
Out of her memories Mason brings to life the finely graded social distinctions which would be invisible to outsiders, but which anchor and define the members of a group, like the hierarchies in the world of Proust or Tolstoy. For example, Mason's father treated her mother like a country girl, and his family made her feel inferior because she married slightly above her station.
To the question of what's next for Bobbie Ann Mason, she gives some thought and responds slowly. "I think I want to turn a corner and go in a different direction. I don't know what that will be. Well, I want to write short stories. I don't know what they'll be like, but I think they'll be different."
Clear Springs ends in October of 1996, with a masterful chapter in which Mason herself does not appear. With all of her novelist's talents she recreates an event her mother described to her, in which the elderly woman falls into a pond while trying to catch a fish. It's a simple scene, barely an anecdote, that Mason somehow leaves resonating with significance and passion -- and, quietly, implicitly, with her profound love for her mother.
There's a fine moment in Clear Springs when Mason and her young husband begin their first garden. It nicely sums up her tone and symbolism in this book: "When I plunged my hands into the black New England soil, I felt I was touching a rich nourishment that I hadn't had since I was a small child. It had been years since I helped Mama in the garden. Yet the feel of dirt seemed so familiar. This was real. It was true. I wheeled around and faced home."
Michael Sims is the author of Darwin's Orchestra (Henry Holt).