"Upright and Still, No Matter What"
An Interview with Writer, Teacher, and Sōtō Zen Priest Catherine Gammon
We have long admired Catherine Gammon’s work, which first appeared in the Missouri Review in 1981. Her new novel, The Martyrs The Lovers, is out now, and we were thankful that she shared her thoughtful insights about everything from a short story’s journey to becoming a novel to the intersection of the practice of Zen and the practice of writing with our contest editor, AnnElise Hatjakes. Below the interview, you’ll find links to the two stories Catherine has published in the magazine.
“In Zen practice we sit upright and still—and open to possibility no matter what we’re physically doing. This is what writing can be too, at its best. Upright and still, no matter what.”
AnnElise: Can you describe your writing career from your first published piece to where you are now?
Catherine: My first published story was “Skinflick,” which appeared in The North American Review in 1977. I had recently completed an MFA at the Iowa Writers Workshop and would soon go to the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown as a writing fellow. Between two FAWC fellowships, a combination of odd jobs, a year teaching at SUNY Fredonia, and an NEA grant, I was fortunate to spend four years in Provincetown all together. It was during this time that I wrote “Night Vision,” my first TMR story, and started work on China Blue, the novel that carries that story forward.
Eventually, though, I had to leave the beachtown idyll and find regular better-paid work, especially as my daughter had started high school, so in 1982 we moved to Brooklyn. I worked for a year in a photo agency, followed by nine years in production at The New York Review of Books. While in New York I completed China Blue and my first novel to be published, Isabel Out of the Rain, and began writing the novel Sorrow, as well as writing and publishing individual stories.
With the publication of Isabel, I found the perfect position teaching in the MFA program at the University of Pittsburgh. I stayed at Pitt for ten years and I would happily have continued until retirement if I hadn’t been deeply drawn to the practice and study of Zen. In addition to teaching some fabulous students, both graduates and undergraduates, I completed Sorrow there, wrote The Martyrs, The Lovers, the novel that’s just come out, and began work on a big novel based on the Salem witchcraft trials, while still exploring and experimenting with story forms. Many of the short stories were published during these years, but none of the novels found a publisher.
Then—not suddenly—I left academia and the literary marketplace for full-time residential practice and study of Zen.
I remained at San Francisco Zen Center for ten years, in residence primarily at Green Gulch Farm, and returned several times for extended periods in the years following. The unfinished novel was part of what called me out of training, as did the birth of my granddaughter. After teaching intermittently at Pitt and traveling, mostly in the northeast and sometimes in England, I finally settled again in Pittsburgh, and during these same years since leaving Zen Center residence, I started a new project, revised old ones, finished the Salem novel, and wrote a collection of stories, out next year from Baobab Press. And the novels from the ’80s and ’90s have found publishers and readers at last.
AnnElise: Each book has its own journey into the world. Can you describe the journey for The Martyrs, The Lovers from the idea conception to its publication?
Catherine: The Martyrs, The Lovers grew out of a project that was originally planned as an as-told-to biography of Petra Kelly, the antinuclear activist and co-founder of the West German Green Party, for which I had done a great deal of preparatory research. (I’ve written about this background extensively in a “Research Note” for Necessary Fiction) When that project fell apart, I set all my notes aside, but a year or two later, in 1992, when Petra Kelly and her partner, Gert Bastian, were found dead in shocking circumstances, I felt compelled to write about them in fiction—their lives and deaths, and more fundamentally, an essential unknowability. More research followed, as I worked out the patterns of the novel, which unfolds in three parts, each shaped according to its own narrative logic.
I wrote the first draft during the mid 1990s, so it is quite awhile ago now, and some of the details of the journey of composition must live only in what is present as the novel itself, but I do know that reading Ingeborg Bachmann’s novel Malina illuminated my way as I left the novel’s first, most realist section, to move deeper into imagination and historical speculation.
Part I of Martyrs is something of a bildungsroman—developing Jutta Carroll, my fictional Petra, first as a little girl in postwar West Germany, then an adolescent in the 1960s US, finally a young adult newly returned to Europe—while at the same time exploring the struggles and dangers Jutta faces at the end of her life, any of which may account for her death. Part II makes a radical shift to her own point of view and voice, in the hours before and after her death, while following the next two decades of her activist career. Finally Part III, in a variety of voices and points of view and in ever shorter bursts, offers multiple contradictory accounts of her death.
As for the path to publication, it has been slow—but the slow path to publication is familiar to me by now. The novel was drafted, revised, revised again, and so on, several years before I left Pittsburgh for Zen Center. But it didn’t find an agent or a publisher at that time. It was read, and while the agents and editors who read it admired it, they could not identify a market for it. Or they had unusual concerns. One wished I had written nonfiction. Another was troubled that her younger assistants didn’t know who Petra Kelly was. These concerns seem beside the point to me, but maybe it took the passage of a few decades for this to become visible. Knowing the novel’s origin in the lives of once living people is not important to reading it, and an extensive section of endnotes lays out the differences, both to give credit where it’s due and to allow anyone in search of facts to find them. Those early readings were in the late 1990s, and it was as if that fact-basedness was the critical selling point.
During my decade away from the marketplace, everything changed—not in the mainstream world, but in the world of independent publishing, and after some minor revision I started submitting Martyrs again. Again it was often admired, but the reasons given for not publishing had more to do with failure to reach consensus at a press than concerns about the genre or the market. So all along it has had it’s admirers. And fortunately, last year I found Joe Ponepinto, editor and publisher of 55 Fathoms, whose faith in the book has been astonishing and sustaining from the first. The editorial and design process was wonderfully collaborative, and now at last we have this beautiful book.
AnnElise: Could you describe the relationship between your writing practice and your practice as a Sōtō Zen priest?
Catherine: Such a tricky question. At first I thought the simplest answer would be to point to a difference sometimes described in Zen between formal practice and formless practice—formal being, for example, what you see when you enter a zendo: there are people in meditation posture, or bowing, or chanting, or offering incense—that is, expressing their meditative awareness in specific bodily positions and actions—or what you experience yourself and can put into words, such as I sat zazen for an hour or for a day or for a week, I’m now sitting on my cushion, I’m now getting up from my cushion, first I sat zazen, then I ate breakfast, and so on—in contrast to formless practice as the spaciousness or openness of the mind itself, the presence and clarity of the mind, no matter what “you” are doing. There is the notion that a writer is always writing—something like that. We have the obvious writing practice—such as what I’m doing right now, hands on a keyboard, on a train, in fact, and anyone looking at me would clearly say, oh, that woman is writing—or what I do when I sit down with a clipboard and a stack of printed pages and some pens and pencils and read and edit and make notes for revision or when I’m at my desk all morning and on leaving my desk I can say I wrote for three hours straight; and then we have the writing mind—always tuned to the possibility of an image or a line or an incident that is part of a story, a chapter, a tale, whatever our imagination is turning—the receptive mind. So that’s the really simplest answer. Reception. Receptivity.
But then I got off the train, got home, had a night’s sleep, and I thought of Shunryu Suzuki Roshi, the San Francisco Zen Center founder, talking about beginner’s mind: “In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s there are few.” In Zen practice we sit upright and still—and open to possibility no matter what we’re physically doing. This is what writing can be too, at its best. Upright and still, no matter what.
AnnElise: If you could give any advice to writers who are just beginning to submit their work, what would you tell them? What writing advice has been the most powerful or formative to you throughout your career?
Catherine: I am completely unable to give advice. Or unwilling. Especially generic advice. I’ve heard all sorts of suggestions and sayings and sometimes they’re useful and at another time not. The best advice seems to me to be idiosyncratic, to the giver and the receiver both, and to the moment, to the circumstances, to the question itself. Maybe the most important general thing is to read and to read widely, and with your ears—which means to listen, and to trust your curiosity, to move beyond the obvious and expand your idea of reading—reading not just in your own field, but anything that calls to you, and not just words on paper reading, but to read your life and the lives of those around you, and narrative and image of all kinds, and to adventure, whether inwardly or outwardly, far or near—to read widely and live in the body. How’s that for pithy? They say Shunryu Suzuki Roshi often started sentences with “the most important thing is…” and whatever followed would always be something new.
AnnElise: Can you describe how your stories, “Night Vision” and “Ursula and Will,” came to be?
Catherine: I started “Night Vision” as a short story playing off the story of Psyche and Eros, the warning Psyche is given not to look at her new husband-lover when he comes to her in the night, the warning that he’s a monster, when in fact he’s beautiful, the warning a curse from his mother Aphrodite. This mythic element was originally just a starting point for the story’s architecture and the story changed rapidly as it developed, building images from life in Provincetown as it took shape, and as I wrote, I found myself entering into new territory without knowing what that territory was. It was only after the story was published in The Missouri Review and read by others that I began to understand something about what it wanted to do, and I saw that I would take it farther, building from it to continue Psyche’s journey, in what would become China Blue, the novel written originally in and about the 1980s, revised in the 1990s, and published in 2021, on winning the Bridge Eight Press Fiction Prize.
My second TMR story, “Ursula and Will,” was originally titled “A Vampire Story?” (but TMR didn’t go for the title) and is part of The Gunman and the Carnival, coming in 2024 from Baobab Press. Among the things that changed in the culture during my decade away from it was the rise of extraordinarily artful, intelligent, and bingeable serial television, and my fascination with some of the characters and performers in these series gave birth to this story, which explores a relationship between two actors. Unlike the relationships in “Night Vision” and China Blue, theirs is a relationship of equals, of mutuality developing over time, in an elusive and possibly endless back and forth of friendship, attraction, and competition.
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