So How IS a Molar Like a Marriage? An Interview with Mary Kane
Updated: May 9
In the Book I’m Reading is a book of very short stories. I hope millions of people discover it and
enjoy it as much as I have. The book is one-of-a-kind. That’s why I wanted to interview you here
on my blog. Thanks for agreeing!
Lisa: When someone says, “What’s your book about?” how do you answer?
Mary: That’s always a tough question, isn’t it? I suppose I would say it is about the joys of everyday life, even the parts that at first glance don’t seem joyful, or worthy of consideration, like getting up in the night to get a drink of water or being unable to get an accurate count of turkeys in trees at night, or feeling lonely, or being bored, or recognizing the sadness of our finite time with each other. And I think some of that joy comes from reading and writing, bringing language to even the most mundane moments, and recognizing that playing with language infuses life with energy.
Lisa: How did the book come into being?
Mary: Well, I had written a bunch of stories, and then one day I thought, “these stories feel like they belong together.” I had the feeling that they might be fun for other readers, and I felt I was getting ready to move on and I wanted to feel a sense of completion before I did that.
Lisa: What’s the significance of the tooth on the cover? (Or is that a spoiler?)
Mary: Ah, the tooth. Well, my friend Jim and I were playing around with all kinds of cover ideas, and some of them were gorgeous – part of a fire painting by an artist friend, trees and a night sky, but the feeling didn’t seem quite right for the book, which pays such particular attention to small things. And of course, teeth appear in the book in numerous ways. I went looking for drawings of teeth and found one molar I loved the look of, but I couldn’t contact the artist, so I contacted my friend Mark Bilokur and said, can you draw me a molar? And we went back and forth on various molar drawings, and when he sent me this one, I thought Yes! There is also the story “Cusp” in the book which feels pretty central to me, and it features a discussion of a molar. Also, my dad was a dentist so I have seen a lot of teeth in my life, and a tooth always fills me with peculiar feelings, which somehow seems fitting for the book.
Lisa: Some of the stories are only one or two short sentences long. What’s the difference between a poem and a story?
Mary: To tell the truth, I don’t think about what to call what I’m writing when I’m writing. So, some of these pieces feel more poem-like to me and some more story-like and some almost essay-like. At one point, I just wanted to call the book prose, but that felt a little flat. I like to read a lot of writers whose genres seem unclear, I think of their writing as genre nonbinary, which is interesting to me, this idea that as our culture is recognizing the fluidity of gender, we also have a lot of writing that is genre fluid. Anne Carson comes to mind, with her book of poems called Short Talks, and her long poem called “The Glass Essay.” And then there are all kinds of writers like Mary Ruefle or Lydia Davis or Russell Edson or James Tate or, going back in time, prose poem writers from all over the world. And I like poets such as AR Ammons, whose tone is so flat it feels anti-poetic or at least unpoetic, and John Ashbery who wrote a lot of prose poems in a wry tone that feels unpoetic as well. So I call the pieces stories because some are actually stories where an encounter happens, there’s a beginning, middle and end and some description and dialogue. But mainly, I just write, and I have been writing poetry for a long time so there is probably, within me when I’m writing, always a bit of the spirit of poetry involved.
Lisa: On the other hand, one of your longer stories (“In Service”) is comprised of a single long, effortless sentence. At least it seems effortless; was it effortless to write? Did you set out to write the story in one sentence?
Mary: I did set out to write it in one sentence. In fact, I wrote a whole series of one-sentence stories, and the really long piece towards the end of the book, “Spider,” is also a single sentence. One day, my friend Stephanie and I went to the Harvard bookstore, and she bought a book about writing. It had some exercises in it. While I was driving the car home from Boston, she read some of the book to me, and Joyce Carol Oates had an exercise to write a single-sentence story. After that, I wrote single sentence pieces for a few months, mainly every morning before I got out of bed. Afterwards, I revised them, and my already deep love for the sentence expanded. In fact, part of my writing practice involves writing single sentence responses to artists who send me drawings. The sentence is quite a beautiful and complex unit; one could devote a good part of a life to it. Was it effortless? Yes and no. When you practice writing sentences, writing single sentence stories, it gets so that your mind knows how to build it and you don’t have to think so hard. And of course, you always have to revise. I write in a journal first and then revise when I bring the piece to the computer, and then I print it and revise again, and sit with it and fiddle until it seems done.
Lisa: Several of your stories made me laugh out loud. Several brought tears to my eyes (no kidding!) How do you create these effects in your work? Do you do so intentionally, or does it just happen?
Mary: I think it happens from reading writers whose thought patterns help to bring me to ways of looking at the world that I might not have without them, or whose ways of looking feel like home, writers like those I mentioned above, and Samuel Beckett and Gertrude Stein, Thomas Bernhard and so many amazing writers whose work feels like it gives me permission to play.
Lisa: Marriage is a frequent subject in the stories. Why is it compelling to write about?
Mary: Because it is strange? I mean, being married feels like such a funny thing. How do we end up sharing our life with a single person, who we know deeply and also, who we can never know entirely. And because it reminds me of how we are animals, just like swans and otters and osprey. And also, during quarantine, if you were married, you spent even more time than usual with that spouse of yours. And my spouse is an odd fellow, which I imagine is true to how many people feel about their spouse. Plus, if you write about marriage, then you bring the energy of language to the marriage, and maybe it helps one find the joy in the everyday nature of living with a person and all their quirks.
Lisa: The story “A Good Length for a Story” seems to be about listening, and our frequent failure to do so. Does reading make us better or worse listeners?
Mary: I can’t speak for everyone. I feel like because reading requires that we slow down, that we get really present with the words on the page, (which is sometimes really difficult to do) it might help us be better listeners. You can’t read deeply while you are doing anything else. And you can’t listen well when you are doing something else. The story is about listening, but it’s also about being fully present, mindful. Because all of us have probably found ourselves at one time or another just operating on automatic, or getting so caught up in some story or grievance we tell over and over so that when it starts, it’s like a tape is playing, and we’re not there. Does that make sense? I meet with students in the writing center where I work. And sometimes I get tired. And when I am overtired, and a student comes in, sometimes I am not completely present. I have to remind myself to stop, take a few breaths, and make myself open and fully present so that I can hear their questions, read their writing, not respond on automatic. And sometimes I fail miserably.
Lisa: What’s the story “That Thing” about? Or do we have to experience “that thing” for
ourselves simply by reading the story?
Mary: Energy? An aliveness factor? Do you sometimes feel more alive than at other times? Does everything feel more alive sometimes? And when we don’t feel that aliveness, why not? Where did it go? How do you get it come back?
Lisa: “The Man Who Was Afraid of Poetry” is one of the best defenses of poetry I’ve ever read. It’s funny and light and not at all scary. Why are many people afraid of poetry?
Mary: I’m not sure. School is definitely part of it. In school we are often required to write an essay about the poems we read, discuss the themes etc., before we even get to hang out with the poem, see what kind of pajamas it wears, what it feels like to spend a day in its company. When you aren’t friends with it, maybe a poem feels like a little wall of words with no door and you don’t know how to get in. It isn’t an ordinary use of language. I think people often feel like they have to deliver the meaning of a poem, and I am of the opinion that we should not approach poems that way, that instead, we can just let ourselves experience the poem, experience whatever feelings it arouses or evokes in us. I want to teach a class for people who are afraid of poetry. I will call it “Hello, Poetry,” and it will be a really gentle, participatory introduction to reading, sharing, experiencing poetry. No pressure, just starting with the words themselves. Saying hi to them.
There’s a great book by Baron Wormser and David Cappella, two poet teachers, called A Surge in the Language: Teaching Poetry Day by Day, that I will consult when I teach it. But anyone who wants help getting to know poems could read the book.
Lisa: If you were asked to read aloud one story from the collection, which would you choose to
Mary: Hmm, that’s tough. Maybe “Lamp.” The last story. Because it is one of those stories that takes place in such an ordinary place, and talks about this simple act, having moved a lamp from one place to another in the house, which is something many people do every day, and it also speaks to our mortality directly.
Lisa: Lots of us feel we don’t have time to read. You’re obviously a prolific reader. How do you
Mary: Sometimes I don’t feel like I have enough time for it either. Mainly, I don’t do other things. I mean, I don’t go many places, except to walk. I don’t often travel or shop or attend concerts or fairs, or water ski or kite surf, and I don’t watch a lot of TV series, though I do watch those too. And I have a friend with whom I read aloud once or twice a week. It is our means of socializing. Almost every time we get together in life, it is to read. So that is a way to socialize and read at the same time. I do that with my husband sometimes too.
Lisa: Do you think reading widely helps us in any way with our relationships?
Mary: It’s hard for me to say since I don’t know what it’s like to live without reading, but I have the feeling, based on my own experience, that reading, especially reading outside of one’s own cultural moment, helps one access ways of seeing that are other than mainstream, and in that process, we might encounter appreciation for complexities of thought and feeling, layers of experiencing, that help us be open in our relationships.
Lisa: When do you write?
Mary: I like to write in the morning, in bed, especially on rainy or snowy days. But one cannot wait around for rain and snow all the time. So I sometimes write in the afternoon, or when I am walking. As often as I can. I go through periods when I write every day, and then, like now, I am writing less. But even now, I am writing a single sentence every day that I send to my friend Mark, and having to write that sentence, and revise it, and feel like I am ready to send it, helps me stay connected to writing.
Lisa: Does a story come looking for you, or do you go looking for a story?
Mary: I think that I make myself available for it. You know, when you practice anything, and writing is a practice, then gifts come. You don’t know when the gifts will come or what the gifts will be, but after years of practicing, you learn to trust that they will come, and because you practice, then you are ready to receive the gifts when they come.
Lisa: Do you feel that your work is political in any way?
Mary: Not in any large way, which I sometimes feel bad about, but if by political we mean that living one’s life in as mindful and open a way as one can, with all of one’s failings, and trying one’s best to channel creativity and love, thinking that each individual’s contribution of energy matters to the world, then yes.
Lisa: Who are some of your favorite writers?
Mary: I like so many writers it’s hard to say, but recently my friend Jill and I are reading Thomas Mann’s Doctor Faustus, and I am blown away by Mann’s brilliance. It’s almost enough to make one stop writing (but not quite). Gertrude Stein, mainly because of The Making of Americans, which is not the book of hers most of us are encouraged to read, Samuel Beckett, Dorothy Richardson, Leo Tolstoy, Marcel Proust, James Baldwin (I love his novels but also think “Sonny’s Blues” might be my favorite short story of all time), Lydia Davis, John Ashbery, Mary Ruefle, Chaim Potok (I could read and reread My Name is Asher Lev and have my heart burst every time), Lisa Rubilar, Virginia Woolf, David Markson, I don’t know, too many and I am sure I am forgetting lots here.
Lisa: Are you able to enjoy the work of a writer whose life is less than praiseworthy; or who doesn’t share your ethical beliefs? Why or why not?
Mary: It’s tough. I’m going to say yes because in many cases, I can’t presume to understand who I would have been in the moments in time when some other writers were writing, or to know fully everything in their hearts, and so I don’t like to sit in judgment. But I do find myself troubled by such questions and at the same time, I don’t want to go back in time and eliminate the value of every writer who has done anything unpraiseworthy. I think it is possible to hold conflict and complexity in my feeling about a writer and let those feelings gradually unfold, and I don’t think I can yet articulate all of that complexity.
Lisa: Do you have any advice for a young writer? Advice for a not-young writer?
Mary: Read, fall in love with books, read aloud, write and write and write and make up writing games and go to the library and try not to think too hard, let yourself experience writers before you analyze how they do what they do, and then try writing about what they do to you, and have fun with a dictionary.
Lisa: What writing project are you working on now?
Mary: I’m writing a sentence a day using 3 words that my friend Mark Bilokur (illustrator of the tooth and co-creator with me of a little book called Luminous: a 44 Day Exchange While Wandering the Tibetan Book of the Dead) texts to me. He is reading a book, one page a day, and selecting 3 words from that book and sending those words to me via text message. I do not know what book he is reading, but I receive the words, compose a sentence that makes use of them, and am trying to make the sentences connect into a story of sorts. It is very challenging.
Mary was also interviewed not long ago on Northern California Public Radio. Click on the link below to listen in.
In the Book I'm Reading
Published by One Bird Books