Short story master tackles the terrain of the novel
"This is the best time of a writer's life," Molly Giles says by telephone from Hawaii. "The book is finished and the reviews haven't come out, so there's a little breathing space."
For the moment, Giles is idling with her sister at a friend's condominium not far from the beach. "We really have nothing else to do but swim and see movies," she laments wryly.
In about a week, however, she will return to her home in west Marin, north of San Francisco, to begin promoting her first novel, Iron Shoes. Then at the end of the summer, she'll pack up her belongings and drive to the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville, where she has been teaching creative writing for the last year, after many years of teaching at San Francisco State University.
Giles is by all accounts a wonderful creative writing teacher. Her classes at San Francisco State were routinely oversubscribed, and she is sometimes credited with boosting the careers of Amy Tan, Gus Lee, and Melba Beals among others, a claim she is far too modest to even acknowledge.
"Teaching is something I like, and I would never want to give it up," Giles says. "But it's always a struggle to teach and to write. A lot of teaching is performance. And writing is something you do in a cave. It's something you do in your sweats, talking to yourself. It's not performance; it's crossing out, it's revision. I have to be frank; teaching actually does drain you. I have heard some writers say that it nourishes them, and I just think, wow, they are different than I am."
So for much of her career, Giles has been able to write only on the occasional weekend and during the summers and school vacations. For a number of years she rented an office over an old saloon in Point Reyes Station, a lovely rural village in west Marin now filled with bookstores, bakeries, boutiques, and bicyclists. There she produced many of the swift, intelligent, sharp-edged short stories that have earned her a well-deserved reputation as one of our best contemporary short story writers. Her first story collection, Rough Trans-lations, was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize. She is also the recipient of the Flannery O'Connor Award for Short Fiction, the California Book Award for Fiction, and the Small Press Best Fiction/Short Story Award. Now, after seven years of work, she is publishing her first novel, Iron Shoes.
"I'm really a short story writer. So it was the most frightening feeling in the world to type '21' on a page," Giles says, laughing. "I swear, most short story writers are probably very anal and they like to stay within their boundaries. So if suddenly the boundaries are taken away and you can go anywhere you want, it's alarming to many writers, at least it was to me. Traversing the novel was like walking across a swamp with only one two-by-four. I'd throw the two-by-four down, walk to the end of it, swivel around, throw it forward, and continue walking over the swamp. It's an alarming freedom."
Giles has used that freedom to extraordinary effect. Iron Shoes focuses on the difficulties of 40-year-old Kay Sorensen, a quick-minded, musically talented, self-aware, and oddly passive woman who sees herself as stuck, unable to take a step forward or backward in her relationships with her parents, her husband, or most of the other people around her. By turns funny and lacerating, the novel has a honed intensity, a verbal energy that makes it difficult to put down.
One of Kay's essential problems is that she lives deep within the shadow of her mother, Ida, a vibrant, glamorous, dominant woman, who is dying loudly and horribly as the novel opens. "I really like the character of the mother," Giles says. "Ida is full of sass and vinegar, which is what my mother used to call it. She's a good contrast to her daughter, who has less sass and vinegar, essentially because Ida's taken it from her in many ways."
In a wonderful, psychologically acute scene that perfectly illustrates Kay's dilemma, Ida attends Kay's performance with a group of local amateur musicians. Ida arrives late, is wheeled down near the front, and falls into a loud coughing fit just as Kay begins her solo. For Kay, this is reminiscent of other disturbances during childhood performances.
"Most people aren't stuck by choice," Giles says. "Kay is really caught between a rock and a hard place. Yes, this is something her mother has done since she was a child, but Kay can't enjoy the pure luxury of anger because her mother genuinely is ill. Kay gets stuck between compassion, which is a natural and a good feeling, and anger, which she's perfectly entitled to. And anger is always going to be balked, always, in her relationship with her mother. She can't ever get purely angry with her mother, because you can't kick a cripple and feel good. Although the anger is justified, there's really nothing Kay can do about it. Except internalize it."
In other hands, an exploration of a buried personality such as Kay's might induce claustrophobia. But Giles writes with such economy and vigor, and most of her character—Kay, her mother, and her emotionally distant father, Francis—speak with such intelligence and wit, that the book flares and sparkles with unexpected insight.
Probably the greatest surprise of the novel is its dark, corrosive, shocking, side-splitting humor, something Giles herself sometimes calls "sick."
"I'm walking a tricky line," Giles says, "and I guess that was the hardest thing in the book—to balance the horror of Ida's physical life with the humor of comparing a woman with no legs to Humpty Dumpty. That's very risky. I tried to hold that tone throughout the novel. I think that sort of humor is natural to my background. My family is Irish and they've always made light of terrible things. It's sick. But it sustained us. And I think that's my essential vision of the world."
Pausing for a moment, Giles considers the reception of the book in the wide world. To my surprise, she worries the book will be too quirky for some readers. Then, with a kind of silent, philosophical shrug she laughs and says, "The one thing a writer doesn't need to have is pride. You have to be very humble and just go in there and make a fool of yourself. If you've got the capacity to make a fool of yourself, you have the capacity to write."
Alden Mudge writes from Oakland, California.