Come and Go, Molly Snow
by Mary Ann Taylor-Hall
bookclub@ket staff members Bill Goodman and Liz Hobson conducted this interview with Mary Ann Taylor-Hall at her home near Sadieville, Kentucky in July 1999.
Bill: Tell us a little bit about how you came to Kentucky.
Mary Ann: Oh, all right. I taught at the University [of Kentucky] when I was in my 20sin the English Department. I was here for about two and a half years; and I had come to Kentucky then just because thats where I got a job, but it was also true that my father is, was, a Kentuckian, and so ... His parents actually had him ... He was born in Florida, but he came up to Kentucky during the summers. So a lot of the family stories that I have known always were about Woodford County, where his mother had been born and raised. I felt like I was coming to this place that had a real kind of charged atmosphere for me because it had always seemed like the promised land.
I remember ... I was born in Chicago, and when I was a child, we made a trip to Woodford County and to Frankfort, where my great-aunt lived, for two weeks, and it just made this absolutely indelible impression on me. My great-aunt lived right on the Kentucky River, and I was a child who had grown up in, essentially, the slums of Chicago, and the only country I had ever seen was the park that we used to walk to. But the Woodford County people lived in a very beautiful part of the county and had a great big old farmhouse with four-poster beds and things like that, which was just something that was just entirely new to me. They drank buttermilk with ice cubes in it [laughing]I remember that. And so I was just blown away as a child by having come from a place ... To be truthful, we didnt even have a bathtub! So anyway, after that summer we moved from Chicago to Florida, and then I went on through school, and this was my second teaching job. We came in the late 60s, I guessmid to late 60sso I was here for two and a half years, and then I went on into this, you know, travels I cant even remember now. I must have had ten addresses before I came back to Kentucky, I guess about ten years later.
Liz: Were you teaching all that time?
Mary Ann: No, I was teaching some of the time and then I was just traveling. I was married
by then to a very peripatetic man, and we kept going across the Atlantic Ocean and
back and forth and back and forth; and it was nice, but I was really dying for a home.
So I basically came to Kentucky to stay with my friends the Richards,
whose farm this is, for a month to give writing one last try. Thats what I
had always wanted to do, you know, and so I got here and I just never left, essentially.
I had thought, If I cant get something seriously going with my writing, Im going to
get a really grown-up jobinstead of the kinds of things I had been doing all these
yearsand just be something else besides a writer. I had had a little bit of early success as a writer. I had published a couple of stories while I was in my mid-20s and then Id started a novel, which I simply could not marshal my energy and attention for. So I came to Kentucky and the Richards offered me this house to live in and said I could live in it rent-free. So I was living like I sometimes did: a little stint of adjunct teaching at UKwhen one of the regular writing faculty would go away, Id teach a writing class or two. And so I basically [was] living on $2,000 a year with a garden. You know, it was just very basic living for several years.
Bill: And this was what year?
Mary Ann: I came back in 77, I think, and so eventually I got
an NEA, which was just ... When they start talking about canceling NEAs, I think about
my poor self, you know, and how much it saved my life when I most needed it.
I had written, by then, a novella; and on the basis of that they gave me the NEA.
After that things started changing around a little bit, but thats how I started
to live here in Kentucky.
Bill: Did you always think you would come back here?
Mary Ann: No. No, no, no, no. I thought when I left Kentucky I was leaving for good, back in the late 60s. I went from there to Puerto Rico and from there to ... Well, I came back and lived in Kentucky for about five or six months while I was regrouping and lived in a friends tack room of their horse barn and did the night watching on their horse farm. And then I went off again. Then I married and I was going to England, New York, and various ... Pennsylvania and several other placesPuerto Rico for a while. And then I lived in Brooklyn again for a couple of years before coming back to Kentucky. Then I didnt moveI didnt go anywhere [laughs]after I came to Kentucky. Too tired to move.
Bill: Well, lets talk a little bit about
Come and Go, Molly Snow and the story and the characters. What did you draw on in the very beginning to write that?
Mary Ann: You know, I really dont know. It emerged sort of so much through the back door. I think that my first inkling of what I was doing was just in an image that I kept seeing of a young woman in desperate trouble, being cared for by an older woman or by two older women, and I saw the place sort of clearly in my minda kind of feeling of the house that they lived in. But thats all I knew [sighs]. And so, as I wrote, it became clear to me that one of the things that I was doing was sort of honoring this countryside and the people who live around here. It seemed very rich to me, that world, and I just felt that it spoke to me a lot; I appreciated it. So I started writing about that. And the character of Carrie MarieI just couldnt tell you where she came from; I just dont know. She isnt at all autobiographical, except in the fact that she came from Florida and is bound out of Florida.
Her voice just got in my head. I mean, it was a voice that I knew I was familiar with. Everybody who lives in Kentucky sort of gets that rhythm in their ears and knows it. But I still didnt know she was a musician or anything at the beginning. [I] kept going back and forth between the first person and the third person and trying to decide whether the viewpoint could extend into the other characters. Finally I understood that it resided in her and that for some reason, although I dont usually write in first person, this book seemed like it had to be written in the first person. In the process of solving what was wrong with her, I thought that it had to be something really significant in order to support the voice. I thought, Well, what is the worst thing that can happen to a person? And then, having taken on that subject in such a slant-wise way, I suddenly found myself writing about something I had absolutely no experience about, which was the death of a child. Beyond that, how she got to be a bluegrass musician was that ... First of all, I thought she was married, and I had to figure out a reason for her husband not to be there. So I said, Oh well, he is a musician. Then I said, Well, he must be a country-western musician. Then I dont know when it came to me that bluegrass music had the tone in the music of the voice that was coming out much more particularly. And the more I listened to bluegrass music, the more I wanted to write about it. I wasnt by any means an expert on bluegrass music.
Bill: Tell us about that, because you really capture that so well. We would ask if you studied bluegrass music. Were you just a fan; did you attend bluegrass festivals? Did you get to know some of the artists?
Mary Ann: I started just by listening. I didnt even have any bluegrass albums, so I borrowed some from a friend, Jonathan Green, who happened to have a bunch of them. And he lent me several, and then I started ordering them and listening to them; and the more I listened to them, the more I liked them. And I went to a couple of bluegrass festivals, the ones herethe Festival of the Bluegrassbut thats all I knew. You know, when I was very young, I had that first Lester Flatt-Earl Scruggs album back in the, in the 50s and didnt even know that that was bluegrass music at that time. I really loved it. It just was country music, is what we called that.
Its funny, because growing up in Florida, there was a station that played that music and nobody would listen to it. I mean none of us [laughs]we wouldnt have been caught dead listening to that music; then we were all for Nat King Cole [laughs]. So anyway, I started out thinking that the guy was a bluegrass musician, and then I said, Hey, you know, she can be one, too; and that will be fun. So when I started dealing with that, it ... I started reading the two bluegrass magazines. I read them, but there is not a whole lot of written material about bluegrass music, and when I, when I made her a fiddler, I had never held a fiddle in my hand. I play the piano a little bit, but Im not a musician at all. So the only literature I could find was on classical violin.
Bill: Did you talk to fiddlers?
Mary Ann: I talked to a fewfewer than you might think. I read a lot of interviews. I was too shy. I mean, if I had gone up to some bluegrass musician at a festival and said, Im writing a novel about bluegrass music, do you think they would have said, Yeah, right? [Laughs] You know, I couldnt ... I didnt have a leg to stand on, you know, to request that kind of time; but I would get as close to the ... You know, they would come in and there is a lot of mingling going on, and Id just get up as close to it as I could and eavesdrop, basically, is where I picked up what I knew. And I would go to ... As I got into the parts where I really needed to know something about the music, which I kept on saying, I will get to that later; Ill get to that later. But then it was later and I needed to do it. I went to a couple of ... You know, they had fiddling classes at the Woodland Fair and things like that, and I would sit in on them and listen. And I picked up a whole lot of information that way, and ... But it was basicit was very non-aggressive research that I did, you know; it was only kind of a sidling research, is what it was.
Bill: Did you meet Cap at one of these?
Mary Ann: No. I never met Cap.
Except afterwards it was so funny ... During one of the ... I started going down to Owensboro, to the bluegrass festival thereFanfest, Fanfare, I think they called itbut there is a lot of, you know, picking in the back lots during that fair. And at this point MGM had interested them, had bought the script, and I had these people [who] had converged: the directorthe proposed directorthe writer, and the producer. All had come to Owensboro, you know, from these vastly more important things that they were doing. But they really got into it. The directthe guy who was going to be the directorwas this British guy, and we sat around ... There was this guitar player who was justI mean, he was Cap; but I didnt see him until afterwards. I mean, heas many bluegrass musicians dohe had an injury to his hand, I think. He had, you know, a couple of fingers missing or something.
Bill: Hmmm ...
Mary Ann: And he was a wonderful, wonderful guitar player. But I just kept thinking, thats the one, you know [laughs]. Hes ... But no, I never saw that man.
Bill: Where is the screenplay and the movie rights and all of that?
Mary Ann: Well, its funny that you ask, because the Hollywood ... it ... MGM did not renew their option on it. They changed presidents just as the option was to be renewed, and he canceled all the projects. But I think he would have canceled this one anyway; it was a terrible script that they turned out. But then Oprah Winfreys company, Harpo, bought it after that. But thats ... Its gone now, as of yesterday. I just found out they are not going to renew the option because they got a terrible script. And evidently thats the end of it. You know, once the script is written, they dont want to go through all of that again. So.
Bill: Do you know if she would ... if Oprah has read the novel?
Mary Ann: I should imagine ... I dont know; I really dont know. I dont know.
But I would guess at some point ...
Bill: You would still permit us to come to your home and interview you if you are chosen
to be on Oprah.
Mary Ann: Oh, I think the time for that is long past [laughs]. We will have to wait for the
next one, Im afraid [laughs]. Or the one after that.
Bill: Back to the novel and Ruth and Ona and where they lived and their daily life and
all of thatdid you draw on neighbors?
Mary Ann: Yes. Yes, I did. I drew on my own experience a lot, and then my motherthe way that she lived. But basically it was ... You know, around here there are just so many of these wonderful old women who are just so utterly self-sufficient, andyou know, I guess country women all over are that waybut it just seems like at the, you know, at the end of every one of these driveways is some woman who is holding the, you know, holding the fort somehow.
Bill: Are they disappearing?
Mary Ann: Oh yeah. Yeah, the country itself is disappearing around here. You know,
the Toyota plant has made just an enormous impact on this neck of the woods; and I think, you know, a lot of places the drama is that some old parent is living out her or his last days on the farm before their children subdivide it. So I think that there are fewer. And of course, a lot of the women that I, that I started out looking at have died, you know, in the last 15 years. So ...
Bill: So, not in this order, you had Carrie ...
Mary Ann: Yeah.
Bill: ... and you imagined Cap, and you had talked and thought ... You had Ruth and Ona. And then ...
Mary Ann: I guess I had them first.
Bill: Somewhere in there you knew that Carrie Marie had to go through this traumatic experience. How did you come to think that it was going to be the greatest lossone of the greatest losses, certainlya parent can go through: the death of a child? How difficult was that for you?
Mary Ann: Well, it was difficult to come up to it and conceive it and imagine it. Certainly, you know ... I mean, it was very ... I mean, its just full of pain in, you know, the prospect of it; and though I have no children of my own, I certainly have dear baby friends, you know. And the idea of the death of a child is just horrifying to me, as it is to a lot ofOK, everybody. But it was funny because, once I had encompassed it imaginatively, then I dont think I felt it so much. It seemed like work I had to doyou know, to make it real; to not betray that experienceand so I think that the pain of the experience was all in the initial aspect of it. And once ... And after that there is just a kind of distance that has to set in so that you can know what you think, so you have to stand outside of yourself and figure out how you go about expressing this; how, you know ... There is another part of your intellect that clicks in. And I dont think that has to happen for the reader so much, and so I feel that the reader is a lot less protected from that than I am. I felt very ... Ive really ... What I really was afraid of doing was sentimentalizing the experience and pulling on peoples strings, you know, to make the grief, you know, I wanted. And for that reason, I ... At first I shied away from writing about the child, and I think a lot of people still think that I should have spent more time, you know, writing about the childs life. But to ... But I dont ... I dont think so. I think that I needed to do about as much as I did, and any more than that would have been excessive.
But you knowwhat do I know?
Bill: Well, you know that these are your characters, and you ...
Mary Ann: Yeah.
Bill: ... knew them well, and much better than the reader.
Mary Ann: Yeah. Well, I just, I wanted the focus to be on the process of grief and the way that shes stopped from it, essentially, you know, and then has to find another way to express it after thatthat section where she is listening for the sound, so ...
Bill: What about the sound? People are curious about that. We talked about that in our own discussion of this. Is that something literal? Is it something concrete? Is it something that, that you researched, that you know people seek? Where did ...
Mary Ann: You know, I cant ...
Bill: Where did Carrie go to get that?
Mary Ann: Well, I think that where I went to get it was just ... I overheard somebody talking once about a state of meditation where you are listening for the sound of the universe or something like that, you know. And now that you ask me about it, I can remember sitting down in my study against the wall trying to hear ittrying to hear it, and I think I did. I didnt hear it for a sustained time, but I tried really hard for several days to understand what it was that that woman was talking about when she said that. And it seemed to me to be perfectly plausible, you know, that there is such a thing and that you can hear it.
Bill: So in a sense you were grieving, too.
Mary Ann: Yeah. Yeah, yeah. Well, I think that that sound does not necessarily go with grieving; it just goes with that advanced focus. But it did happen at that time I was grieving, too, because my mother had died very recently. I was ... And it wasnt hard at all for me to understand the mind of a grieving person, although you know you have to change it around to think about a child. But ...
Bill: That was a difficult time for you?
Mary Ann: Yeah, it was; it was a difficult time for me. And I think that writing the book was a great relief to me, a great help and comfort. And I feel a little bit apologeticembarrassedto say that I used my grief for my parent to learn what a parent feels in grief for a child. Im sure anyone who has lost a child would say this does not cut it. But in fact, you know, lots of grieving ... Lots of mothers who have lost children have written me to tell, to ask me if I have lost a child and to tell me that the book had ... And that was, you know, to me, that was the best thing that happened about this book.
Well, it was just such a relief tofor one thing, to think that I had been able to speak for those people, but also that I, that I found words for myself.
Bill: If you can, recall for us the process that you went through when Carrie Marie took her fiddle to the, to the cabin.
Mary Ann: Well, you know, before I wrote that section, I had spent about a year going up one wrong avenue after another, trying to find a way out of this book. I just could not find my way through it. I was, you know I took up ... slides in a big way. I considered having her go off with Ruth to the Holy Land. You know, I just hadnt a clue what I was going to do, and it seemed to me that her conflict, her dramatic situation, finally almost had to be solved interiorly, almost had to be solved metaphoricallyalmost, because there is no solution that doesnt take 40 years for a person who is recuperating from that kind of lossand there was a cabin that was down in the hollow, which is now gone; but I used to go there quite frequently, you knowall the time I have lived here. And I had a very strong sense that there were presencesI never saw a ghost; I have always wanted to, but I never didbut anyway, it occurred to me that she should go there; that that would be the place for her to go, especially since it was the place associated with earlier memories. And so when I got there, when I got to that place in the manuscript, it was like I knew just what to do. It was just like I was overtaken by something. And when I finally got to the point where the ghost of the little lady, the woman who had lived there, comes to herwhen the childrens ghosts disappear and that ghost comesI saw that. And I went out for a walk at one timeI had been writing early in the morningand I went out for about a half an hour, you know, after I had worked. And that song that she keeps hearing came to mejust, you know, I just heard it; and thats about as psychic an experience as I have ever had. And you know, you feel sometimes if you, if you do your work, then something fine will be given to you; and that, that was given to me. I mean, I was just a scribe for that.
Bill: Was there ever a thought that it wasthat it might be too unreal to ...
Mary Ann: No, not ... No, it didnt occur to me. You know, I just ... You know, well, people are going to have to believe in ghosts to believe this, or believe, or to suspend their disbelief in that, or to understand. I mean, I think its not clear in the writing, in the rendering of it, whether its just her hallucination or a real ghost, you know. It could be either, you know. I mean, I ... Thats to say, you know, that whatever it is, thats a projection of her own psychic stage at the moment. And in that ... No, I dont think its unreal. You know, it may strike some as unreal, but to me it was utterly real.
Bill: Was it difficult for you to conclude with Carries decision. Was that up in the air for a long time? Did you ...
Mary Ann: Is it ... OK. Anyway, what was hard for me to write, and what I ... You know that when I said that Id spent a year going up all these wrong alleys, the thing that I was debating was that conversation that they have in the, in the backyard when its about to rain. And she is utterly fierce in that scene, and she doesnt let him get away with anything. I did not want to write that scene. I didnt want to think ... And once that was written, the rest of the book was like, you know, like giving birth or somethingyou know, it just slid on out. But that, that scene ... I mean, I had to hold my own feet to the fire in order to write that, and at the end that seemed to me to be the perfect place to leave it. I mean, a lot of people, I think, have been disappointed that they dont have an ... you know, an ending where theyyou know, where they get together finally. But I think its entirely up to that guy if he can come ... If he can prove hes OK, shell have him; but if he cant, if he doesnt ... I mean, its all still ... That part of it is still up in the air; but what isnt up in the air is that shes all right with herself. To me, you know ... I suppose I shouldnt say thatI mean, its whatever it is to anybodybut it satisfied me, Ill say.
Bill: Let me read a question that one of our wonderful contributors to our discussion groupand to our whole effort at KET with the bookclubwrote. He asks: How would you feel if you found out that today, years after she left Onas farm and went back to her day job in Lexington, Carrie is no longer playing music but is instead a suburban soccer mom doing contract work for a computer firm? And we might also add, as we were driving out, that Cap is in the den having a beer watching a football game.
Mary Ann: It will never happen.
Mary Ann: It will never happennot with that woman; it just wont happen. She may be lonely; she may be hard-pressed; she may never find the right man for her; but she is going to be playing music. I am absolutely convinced of that. I dont know about Caphe could be in the den of somebodys, you know, somebodys suburban housebut it wont be Carries. She wont have him unless he goes on playing the music, for one thing, I dont think. But I can just say that. I know that thats true.
Bill: I was going to say she might end up being a member of the Dixie Chicks today.
Mary Ann: Yeah, you know ...
Bill: Or some ...
Mary Ann: [laughs] Well, she might ... You know, I can conceive of her having an all-girl band again or something like that, but ...
Bill: You invented that all-girl band ...
Mary Ann: Yeah. Right.
Bill: ... before there were all-girl bands, more than likely.
Mary Ann: Yeah. Well, there were a couple.
Bill: Thats pretty neat.
Mary Ann: There were a couple. I mean, there were ... The New Coon Creek Girls are there, and the, our own Reel World String Band are two examples that leap to mind immediately. But I was amazed when I started looking at bluegrass music what a handy, handy vehicle it was for talking about women in the arts.
And I loved doing that part of it, you know; it just filled me with glee [laughs], but I ... And people have said that, that its a very accurate take on the sexism of the bluegrass world, which is notoriously that way, you know.
Bill: You know that, that I was going to ...
Mary Ann: It was like a last strongholdand a very easy mark, in a way, if you want to take aim at something.
Bill: So in some ways ... Someone also wanted us to ask: Is this a womans novel or a feminist novel? I didnt think so, quite frankly.
Quite personally, I didnt. I did not until somebody posed that question.
Mary Ann: Ahhhh ... [laughs]
Bill: But also Terry asked ... you asked ... if its a womans novel. And Terry just said: Is there a feminine, feminist take on it? Do you think Molly Snow is a feminist novel? Do you think of yourself as a feminist writer?
Mary Ann: I think that the book is a feminist novel, and I think of myself as a feminist, if, you know, you mean by that that Im interested in the ways that women historically have had to, you know, have their voices heard, and the way that they continue to struggle. I dont think its a womans novel. I mean, I know a lot of men who have read the novel. And I remember being introduced once, you know, and they said, This is a womans novel. And I really didnt ... I didnt, you know ... I didnt want to take issue with that, but I wanted to say, No, no, no, guys; dont go away, you know [laughs].
Bill: No, I dont think so.
Mary Ann: I think that its fair, you know. I dont ... And I dont think that its describing only a womans experience, either. I thinkor if it is, its doing it within a whole context. And so I guess, you know ... I dont ... I hope its not a womans novel, but I hope it is a feminist novel.
Bill: Tell us what you are doing now, what youre writing. What can we look for next?
Mary Ann: Well, Sarabande Press in Louisvilledo you know that press?is going to bring out a collection of my short stories in ... Its coming out in December or JanuaryIm not sure when. Its called How She Knows What She Knows About Yo-Yos.
Mary Ann: Envision myself saying that over and over and over again for the next two years [laughs].
Bill: How many short stories have you written?
Mary Ann: I guess I have written about a dozen altogether. This is five very long stories; its little tiny novels. And Im working on another novel now, and its the novel that I was working on when I first came to Kentucky, which I finished before I started Come and Go, Molly Snow. And Im ... I have reconceived that book in major ways, so its not even like a revision anymore; its a total rewriting with a couple of ...
Bill: Can you give us a hint?
Mary Ann: Of what it ...
Bill: What its about.
Mary Ann: Its separating into two novels. It was ... It was 800 pages long. It was completely impractical as a, you know, as a first novel. I couldnt get it published. But it represented all of my life as an artist, you know, and all my writing. It was a real blow to me that it, you know, it came close but it just ... It was just too much of a hazard, I guess. And it really needed not to be published, but now ... Its about a Kentucky woman who is a New York artist ...
Mary Ann: ... painter, and whose mother was also a painter living in Kentucky, and who died when the main character was a small, young girlso Come and Go, Molly Snow in reverse. Thats about all I can say about it. And I dont know what the other novel is about. Its about ... It takes place in England, but I dont know what its about exactly.
Liz: I just have this one question: You ... When you talk about writing and you say things like, I dont know what its about or even This came to me, it sounds like when you do some of your writing, you ... Somebody, something, is traveling through you to the page. Is that what you feel?
Mary Ann: Yes. More and more I feel that way. I think that thats, you know, when you have that kind of ... Lets see: I think that, that this strong, strongest, particularly novelists orand also poets, I guessmust have some sort of connection with a voice that close that they become the instrument of. I dont think that ... I dont think Faulkner or Conrad or Tolstoy, for instance, would have been able to write as much as they did without that vision. I dont know what it iswhether it is a voice or visionthat they are, you know ... that, that they see. I feel some ... you know, like youre, you know, a kite with a key at the bottom on it that you are bringing electricity down through you. But I think you have to, you know, you have to really serve a long apprenticeship before you get to that stage. And I think that to say that is also to say ... I mean, I think that thats what a writers block is: your ... that voice that comes down through you sort of hitting a dam or something and of whatever it isfear or lack of confidence. And so you feel always that you are having to hold that otherthat voice that wants to be freein check, you know, always having to bear down a critical opinion of what it is that you are producing. And as ... I mean, I still have thatI think every writer doesbut Im getting ... Im certainly ... This book came to me; I mean, it was ... I did a lot of the groundof the breaking, you know, clearing the channelbut then, you know, then the book came to me. So for better or worse, thats what happened; and I think at some time while I was writing that book, I started thinking of the phrase path of least resistance, and that began to seem to me to be my mantra, you knowthat every time I hit resistance, it was because I wasnt going the right way, you know.
And so I ... You know, it was a meandering path to, you know, to just go where that spirit wanted me to go. I dont ... I dont mind ... I dont want to talk too mystically about that, but I think that there is, there is a real energy for you, for you personally, that you can connect with. [laughs]
Liz: So one of the things we always ask about is, what advice you would give young writers? And Im assuming thats the advice you would give them.
Mary Ann: Yeahto try not to be too critical. I think that my ... In my own life, I probably lost about 20 years of my writing life by being frightened that what I was doing wasnt good enough. And I think its very important early on simply to accept yourself as an artistsay, Hey, this is what I am, and this is what Im supposed to be doing, and Ill do it as well as I can; and if they dont like it, that isnt my problem, you know.
Mary Ann: [laughs] You know, this is what I can do. And I think that there are a lot of young writers who have a much more ... who have a whole lot more of an attitude in their early work and who are very confidentprobably overly confident. But most young writers that I know are almost stalked by terror, and I just think you have to speak to that terror all the time until you tell it that its not your friend. Its not going to get you anywhere; its going to keep you from getting anywhere.
Bill: Well, thank you so much for spending this time with us.
Mary Ann: You are welcome. Now what are you going to do? [laughs] You have to transcribe this whole thing.