In conjunction with the 2006 Wisconsin Book Festival, Isthmus is publishing a series of Q&As conducted via email with authors appearing at the festival.
The best-selling author of 17 novels and an identical number of poetry volumes, Detroit native Marge Piercy has also distinguished herself as a prominent advocate for women's civil and economic rights and as an opponent of the wars in Vietnam and Iraq. Her commitment to progressive activism and commentary renders apt Piercy's appearance at this year's Wisconsin Book Festival as a presenter for its cornerstone program track, "A More Perfect Union."
So too does her most recent novel, Sex Wars, a narrative confronting the social and moral issues at play in New York after the Civil War -- issues encompassing sexuality, censorship, privacy and gender inequality, all again at play in contemporary society.
Also acclaimed as a memoirist (Sleeping with Cats), an acute essayist and public speaker, Piercy lives on Cape Cod and is awaiting Knopf's publication next month of The Crooked Inheritance, her 18th collection of poems. Her Wisconsin Book Festival appearance is scheduled for 5:30 pm on Thursday, Oct. 19, at the Orpheum Theatre.
The Daily Page: Where were you and what were you doing when you conceived Sex Wars?
Piercy: I had wanted for years to write about Elizabeth Cady Stanton, but I needed some framework in which to do so. It was realizing how many of the hot button issues of that period were the hot button issues of our time that made me finally decide to tackle that project. Passionately debated then were the rights of women and minorities, censorship, freedom of speech, election fraud, immigration, the economy, abortion, contraception, sexual freedom, alternative health therapies, should Christianity be the established religion and should the Bible be taught in schools.
What methods or criteria did you use to decide which historical figures to recruit to serve the narrative of Sex Wars -- and did you consider but then exclude other figures?
Susan B. Anthony is the face people now think of as the personification of the Woman's Rights movement of that era, but she was not typical of the women involved. For one thing, she was extremely important because she was not married, and just about every other women in the movement was -- so Susan could sign documents, hire and fire, borrow money, and all the other things the married women were legally barred from doing. As time went on, she became more and more focused on suffrage. Elizabeth was interested equally in the education and raising of children, particularly daughters [she has seven children who lived to adulthood -- very usual at that time when half the children born died in infancy or childhood], the economy, prison reform, the role of women in religion, working women, health issues. I found her much easier to understand and identify with.
Your recent poem regarding our misadventures in Iraq, "Buyer Beware," struck me as something Molly Ivins might write if she was more ferocious and wrote verse. As a republic, how will we pay off the litany of moral debts you cite?
I don't know if we ever will. I see the Bush administration plunging us into economic chaos and diminished economic power. Most people have less now and will have ever less as time goes on. We are hated by most nations and their people now. We have burnt off the good will we had. We are stubbornly producing global warming to sap the lives of our children and grandchildren.
The poem you mention is only one of many that deal with such issues in my new collection Knopf is bringing out later this month [this month being October] called The Crooked Inheritance.
In October, you'll be inducted into the Michigan Women's Hall of Fame -- joining the likes of previous inductees Sippie Wallace, Sojourner Truth, Lily Tomlin, Helen Thomas, Gilda Radner, Rosa Parks and Aretha Franklin. In terms of gratification, how does this compare to an Arthur C. Clarke Award, or a May Sarton or Sheaffer-PEN award, or topping the best-seller lists? And what is it about Michigan that accounts for such an astonishing group of women?
I'm glad for any award, although I am fondest of those that give me money, of course, since poets and serious novelists never get rich. It's nice to be recognized by Michigan at the same time that I just sold my papers to the University of Michigan.
I think most of the women you list come from Detroit. In Detroit all the divisions of society are very apparent and out in the open -- race, ethnicity, class, gender. It's all right out there for you to see and understand when you grow up. There's a history of militancy and reaction, also right out there. Just growing up in Detroit -- the city, not the suburbs -- is an education in political consciousness. And you need humor to survive that rugged education. It makes you or breaks you.
Why did you choose Power Point as the platform for your Wisconsin Book Festival presentation?
It's less boring than lecturing and since there are many photos, cartoons, portraits and other artifacts available from that period -- the immediate post Civil War era -- those images can make real what I'm talking about and what the novel focused on. Instead of just describing the abandoned children of the time, I can show you photos of them. I don't have to say that Victoria Woodhull was beautiful -- I just show you images of her. I don't have to say that the Woman's Rights movement was caricatured in the daily papers -- I can show you cartoons.
Assuming your schedule allows, which of the other authors' presentations at this year's Wisconsin Book Festival might you be most intrigued to attend?
My schedule allows nothing. I am doing several other presentations scattered around Wisconsin and one in Minnesota.
How do you manage to research and compose novels, non-fiction volumes, essays and poems while maintaining and sustaining such a rigorous schedule of public speaking, social and political advocacy and broadcast appearances?
I live where there are fewer distractions than in a city, less sense of being competitive with the newest flavor of the month, less interruptions. But the real trick is that I like to write. When you like to do something, you put it first. I do not view the telephone as a pleasure or of much importance. I suspect that anyone who really wants to get in touch with me will use email. I deal with 80 plus email messages a day without giving them more time than they're individually worth. So my phone is usually on the answering machine only and can't interrupt me when I'm working.
I live where nobody finds me accidentally, so unlike the time I lived in New York City when people dropped in all the time, nobody just comes by. I have visitors by invitation only and try not to have them during work time. When I have house guests, I schedule time with them after writing.
Concentration is something you can learn as you can improve your tennis game or your poker. Learning to concentrate on the work rather than on yourself is something every writer has to learn, even when what they are writing about may be personal experience. The work is not you. You have to make that distinction and you have to learn to focus.
I put a lot of time into gardening, which being rather gross and physical, is marvelously different from the nitpicky activity of writing. I also like to cook. Both gardening and cooking give quicker results than writing, so complement it nicely.
When and where do you write and think with the greatest clarity?
When I'm home and not on the road.
What was the last book you read that you would recommend, and why would you recommend it?
he last book I particularly enjoyed was Michelle Tea's memoir, The Chelsea Whistle, published by the Seal Press. It's set in Chelsea, a working class part of Boston -- particularly so when she was growing up -- and is an honest, gritty account of her early life.
Why do you live where you live?
I moved here when I was sick in my lungs from New York City, smoking since I was twelve and being gassed in demonstrations. My lungs cleared, but I grew to love this landscape. Being out of the media circus helps as a writer, I find, and it is a great place to think and write and to reclaim a relationship with nature and my place in it that I never before had or understood.
Do you have any tattoos?
No. My religious background was Orthodox and while I revolted against that at fifteen when my grandmother died and am firmly at home in Reconstructionist Judaism, that old taboo seems to stick.