by Dixie L. King, IWWG Executive Director
At my first IWWG Summer Conference in 1999, I took a workshop with longtime IWWG instructor Pat Carr. Small, slim, and soft-spoken, Pat personifies kindness and generosity in her dealings with students. She is utterly uncompromising, however, when it comes to her personal truths about good fiction writing. And her greatest truth is that you can’t write from inside the head of someone you haven’t been.
I sat down with Pat at the 2015 IWWG Summer Conference at Wisdom House, in Litchfield, Connecticut, to learn a little more about this extraordinary writer and teacher.
DK: When did you decide that you wanted to write?
PC: Before I even knew the alphabet. This is something I wanted to do all my life. I would fold up little pages so they would make a little book, and do little squiggle lines and then anybody I could catch, I would...tell them the story.
DK: So you were creating stories long before you could write the stories.
PC: Right, and I have no idea where that came from, because I don’t remember my parents ever reading to us or anything. But we did see a lot of movies; practically every Saturday…We’d drive over the snow covered little dirt roads [where we lived in Wyoming] and go to town and we would see a movie.
DK: But you also lived next door to a Japanese Internment Camp.
PC: Right; Heart Mountain.
DK: And that ended up having an influence on your writing. Can you talk a little bit about that?
PC: I saw the injustice, that whole horror of moving these people from the West Coast to this place. It was dusty and dry in the summer and forty below in the winter. They were in barracks behind barb wire; there were towers with machine gunners in them. It was just awful…They let some of the Japanese work in the sugar beet fields and occasionally they would go to Cody just to wander around; but “White Only” signs showed up.
DK: You wrote a story about those years and you actually created a relationship between the first person narrator in the story and a young man who was in the camp. How much would you say, in general, do you draw on your own lived experience in your short stories and in the books that you’ve written?
PC: Probably at least fifty percent of everything is my experience. I usually start with an incident that either happened to me or to someone that I know very well. But usually fifty percent at least is my experience.
DK: I know that you’re also an artist. What influenced you to decide to go one way or the other? Because obviously you’re very talented in both fields. I’ve seen your art work.
PC: One day I was sitting at the dining room table painting the dog and my father said, “You can’t be great in two distinct fields like that, so you better pick one.” And he said “Which would you prefer?” I was fourteen at the time and I decided that I probably wrote more than I painted, so I decided to major in English and History. Eventually I taught at Texas Southern, and Toni Morrison was my office mate. I passed for black because, “What is a white person doing there, anyway?”
DK: You never portrayed yourself as African American but people assumed that you were because you were teaching in a black university.
PC: Yes. You know, I tan easily and I was darker than a lot of people.
DK: Because people were assuming that you were black, did you experience prejudice, or not really, because you were in an
PC: I was in an all-black environment. But if you went downtown you couldn’t go to the movies, couldn’t eat in restaurants, you couldn’t try on clothes at Foleys. You could buy them, but you couldn’t bring them back. It was white-only. When I went to town people assumed I was black if I was with a colleague; if I wasn’t with a colleague, then I could shop anywhere. So there was a tremendous amount of guilt because I wasn’t being fair. My best friend, Mabel, just assumed I was black. One time she flat out asked, “Where did you go to college?” I never lied, so I had to say “Rice.” She went home and she told her husband, “Pat went to Rice. She’s white.” He said, “Well, she’s still Pat, isn’t she?” She came back the next day and said “You’re white, aren’t you?” I said “Yeah.” But I didn’t want to confess that, because I’d “been black” for a couple of years and our friendship never quite got back on track, because I hadn’t been truthful. I felt really bad about that. She was just a great person.
DK: You knew Toni Morrison before she was Toni Morrison. What was it like sharing an office with Toni Morrison?
PC: She was very, very bright and she had gone to Howard on the East Coast. It was very posh. She took the Saturday Review and knew all the New York Times Book Reviews, so to keep up with her I had to start reading all these darn magazines. I sort of did the East Coast cultural world with Toni.
DK: You are famous—in some circles infamous—for your opinions on point of view. You do not believe that anyone should write from the perspective of someone that they couldn’t be; so you could write from the perspective of a white woman passing as black, but you couldn’t write as a black woman.
DK: And where did that particular belief come from?
PC: It developed over time. My first three published stories were all from the male point of view, because I like men. I think they’re interesting. I thought women had to write about fixing peanut butter sandwiches for their kids, and I’m just not interested in people who are interested in that. I was at my house, working on a story and just really struggling with “What would this black guy think? How would he think it? And how would he word it?” A kid comes to my house and he’s bringing me a late paper and I said, “Okay, Tom, go into the den and I’ll bring us a couple of beers and I can look over your paper.” So I went and got us a couple of beers and as I come back I look in the den and he’s sitting down at my typewriter typing away on my story. He didn’t have to stop and think about it; he was a black guy. He knew what that guy thought and it was totally honest and he didn’t have to mangle it or do anything to it. And so I thought “Wait a minute, I will never be a black male; but by the same token, he’ll never be able to know what’s inside me.” And it was so transformative. and I went in and called a writer friend of mine and said, “Hey, Lynn I got a chance to be great.” I was committed to it from that moment on.
I’m trying to save people time because in trying to write from the perspective of someone I haven’t been, all I can ever get is a stereotyped cliché. It will never be right. I don’t know gut level what a man thinks—not really. I can reproduce what a man does and says, but I could never write from inside his head.
DK: So I’ve heard you say in class “If I’m writing it as if I’m watching a movie, where I’m not getting inside his head, but rather I’m looking at his actions to tell me what he’s thinking”—then you can do it that way.
PC: Right. You can do it that way or you can do it with an observer. I can follow this guy around and he can tell me, “Yeah, I don’t feel good about this.” Or, “Yeah, this is great.” I can follow him around and record his reactions, and what he said. But to get inside his head and see what he’s thinking, he’ll just come out cliché.
DK: I’ve heard you say in class “You know I don’t want you to just be good, I want you to be great, and that’s the difference.”
PC: Yes and I want everybody to be great. I want them to get to the gut level truth about what they feel about what they know.
DK: I think a lot of people would say “Well that would limit me to the one perspective of a middle aged white woman.”
PC: But we’ve all been kids and friends and enemies, and toddlers and teenagers, and college kids—a thousand people. That’s a thousand stories; I think that’s probably enough for anyone.
DK: You are a Civil War buff and your collection of stories about the Civil War offers a woman’s perspective, and won a national award. How did you develop your interest in the Civil War and what kind of research did you end up doing for that anthology?
PC: I think my grandmother was probably the cause of my first interest; she used to tell stories about how they wrapped the sterling up in pillowcases and hid it in the well when Sherman was coming and how she and the slaves would party together on the plantation. I think that got my interest up. Turns out my grandmother wasn’t even born until about 1880. She was repeating stories she had heard from other people. But I was hooked by that time and I probably had read maybe five thousand books on the Civil War.
DK: And yet you don’t deal with battles. You’re dealing with an incident, a moment in a woman’s life, whether it’s with a black child dying, or whether it’s with a Civil War officer dying—that moment of contact with another person that becomes transformative in the life of your primary character. How do you select those incidents? Where do you get those ideas?
PC: A lot of them were actual facts. There was this diary from a Union soldier found on the battlefield and I bought a copy of the diary. I thought it would be an interesting story. So I have him come to her porch and she falls in love with him as he’s dying through reading his diary, because he’s clever, ironic and kind…
DK: When you talk about point of view, obviously you’ve been a woman; however, you haven’t been a woman in a Civil War setting. Is that where the research comes in?
PC: That’s where the research comes in, and you don’t want to make a mistake.
DK: Talk a little bit about your experience with the IWWG.
PC: It was one of those transformative events. I saw in the Arkansas Gazette a little tiny blurb that said “The International Women’s Writing Guild is having a meeting up in New York at Skidmore College and focus is going to be mixed.” I called this number for the IWWG and I said “I’d really like to come.” Then I got a little panicky because I was a professor, a full professor; at that time, all my colleagues were men. All of my dealings had been with men. I thought “I still don’t want to talk about peanut butter sandwiches.” So I got up there and it turns out we’re very bright women. I’ve been coming back since 1983. And I’ve loved women ever since.
DK: You chose to continue teaching, long after you could have chosen to retire. What is it about teaching that engages you so much?
PC: I think it’s that I want everybody to be great. And I want everybody to be able to tell their stories. You know. there are seven billion people on this planet and we really need them all. We need all those voices out there and all of those experiences, because I can’t write from the perspective of anyone that I haven’t been. So if they give back what they’ve been, then we can share. This is really important and I can’t keep quiet on this. I can’t back off, and I can’t say “Well, you have your opinion and I have mine.” I want every writer to be great.
Pat has a B.A. (Phi Beta Kappa) and a M.A. from Rice and a Ph.D. from Tulane, and she’s taught literature and writing in colleges all across the South. She’s published eighteen books, including the Iowa Fiction Prize winner, The Women in the Mirror, and the Pen Book Award finalist, If We Must Die. She’s had over a hundred short stories appear in such places as The Southern Review, Yale Review, and Best American Short Stories. Her latest collection of short stories, The House on Prytania ..and other stories from the South, was published in 2014. The Death of a Confederate Colonel, a nominee for the Faulkner Award, won the PEN Southwest Fiction Award, the John Estes Cooke Fiction Award, and was voted one of the top ten books from university presses for 2007 by Foreword Magazine. She’s won numerous other awards, including a Library of Congress Marc IV, an NEH, the Texas Institute of Letters Short Story Award, an Al Smith Literary Fellowship, and a Fondation Ledig-Rowohlt Writing Fellowship in Lausanne, Switzerland.
Pat is the 2013 recipient of The Porter Fund Literary Prize presented annually to an Arkansas writer who has accomplished a substantial and impressive body of work that merits enhanced recognition. A writing text, Writing Fiction with Pat Carr was published in 2010, and her autobiography, One Page at a Time: On a Writing Life was published the same year. Her first graphic novel, Lincoln, Booth, and Me: About the Assassination Viewed by Horatio, the Cat as told by Pat Carr was published in 2013 , and combines her skill as an artist with her skill as a writer.
Pat currently lives and writes on a thirty-six acre farm in Arkansas with her writer husband Duane Carr, a black cat, one black and two orange dogs, and seven black chickens. Visit patcarrbooks.com to learn more about her work.
Dixie L. King, Ph.D. is an anthropologist, business owner, and the executive director of The International Women’s Writing Guild. She has been taking classes from Pat Carr since her first IWWG Summer Conference at Skidmore College in 1999.