|FEATURES Winter 2001|
Author Elizabeth Graver opens the door on her fiction by unlocking dreams and fantasies, and by revealing the mysteries of everyday minutia. Over the last decade, her fertile accountsshort stories, novels, and essayshave achieved much critical acclaim.
Imagine making your bed one morning. Your hands move in well-rehearsed maneuvers. You have done this a thousand times. Your mind wanders. Perhaps you ruminate about your recent attempts to become pregnant, or about the frustrating and surreal maze of reproductive technology that has ensnared a few of your friends who desperately want babies.
Then something pulls you back into the moment. Your hand passes over a bump under the sheet. Perhaps you reach under and remove the sock or wad of tissue and soon forget about it as you go about your day.
If you are Elizabeth Graver, M.F.A.W. '90, you create from this forgettable moment an unforgettable, award-winning short story titled "The Mourning Door." As someone who looks closely at the world, who is attentive, and who thinks hard about things, Graver wrings taut, detail-rich fiction from such inconsequential tidbits.
In "The Mourning Door," Graver transforms this very real moment from her life into a surreal and moving story about a woman, yearning to be pregnant, who finds small body parts around her old house and starts piecing together a boy child.
The story begins, "The first thing she finds is a hand. In the beginning, she thinks it's a tangle of sheet or a wadded sock caught between the mattress, a bump the size of a walnut but softer, more yielding... She feels the bump in the bed the way she might encounter a new mole on her skin, or a scab that had somehow gone unnoticed, her hand traveling vaguely along her body until it stumbles, oh, what's this?"
The title of the story comes from Graver's own house, built in the late 1700s, which has a door with no outside stoop or steps. Supposedly, she says, "it was built for the cart to back up so the coffin could be carried away.
"My house feels like a character to me," Graver says. "But this was the first time I had written about it. 'The Mourning Door,' like a few of my other stories, came to me almost as a dream; in that way, it felt like a gift. I think the story deals with the question of creation and control and lack of control. When you're trying to create a human life, it's a process of having to surrender and not know if it's going to work."
In Graver's case, it worked. A few weeks before "The Mourning Door" was published by the literary journal Ploughshares in the summer of 2000, she and her husband, Jim Pingeon, a civil rights lawyer, welcomed the birth of their daughter, Chloe. The story was subsequently selected as one of the year's best by the triad of anthologies for new fictionBest American Short Stories 2001, Prize Stories: The O. Henry Awards 2001, and The Pushcart Prize XXVI. She also received Ploughshare's Cohen Prize for best fiction published that year.
This story is only the latest of Graver's work to be lauded. Her stories, novels, and creative nonfiction have earned numerous awards and been anthologized and translated into languages from Chinese to Hebrew. This success is the latest expression of Graver's lifelong desire to be a writer. She was born in 1964 to parents who are English professors at Williams College in Williamstown, Massachusetts.
"I grew up in a literary home. There were books everywhere. We didn't have a television until I was 13," she says. "As a child, I had an incredibly strong fantasy life. I spent major portions of my free time in pretend worlds. As I got older, writing was a way to live in those pretend worlds, particularly after I became too old to play pretend games without social embarrassment."
"I grew up in a literary home. There were books everywhere. We didn't have a television until I was 13," says Elizabeth Graver. "As a child, I had an incredibly strong fantasy life."
Graver attended Wesleyan University, where she majored in English and studied with the writer Annie Dillard. After graduation, she spent a year working in Boston as a free-lance writer and temporary secretary and another year teaching in France. In 1988, she was accepted into the M.F.A. program at Washington University and was awarded an Olin Fellowship. She was drawn to the program because of the reputation of its faculty writers, including Stanley Elkin, William Gass, and Howard Nemerov.
"The history of the writers there was important. And the fact that they gave me an Olin Fellowship meant I was nicely funded. After struggling for several years, I was ecstatic to have the luxury to just focus on my writing. It was an unbelievable gift," she says.
During her first semester, Graver remembers that Elkin, known to be a tough but brilliant reader of student work, did not find much to like in her first story.
"He called it 'black hole' fictionI think because he felt it sucked you in and didn't have a center," she says.
But Graver was undaunted. The ending of her next story, "Square Dance," needed some tweaking, but Elkin offhandedly told her it was publishable. Soon after, Graver was walking down the hall when she saw a small, typed notice on a bulletin board in the English department. The defunct magazine Story, which had published writers such as Carson McCullers, Norman Mailer, and Truman Capote in the '40s and '50s, was beginning publication again and soliciting submissions. So she sent her story.
"Square Dance" was accepted for the inaugural issue. From that story, Graver found an agent, Richard Parks, who is still with her.
A year later, at age 25, Graver submitted a completed collection of short stories, titled Have You Seen Me?, to the prestigious Drue Heinz Literature Prize competition. Writer Richard Ford, the judge for that year's competition, chose her collection for publication. At the time, Graver was the youngest recipient of the prize.
In 1991, Graver moved to Ithaca, New York, to enroll in Cornell University's Ph.D. program in literature. She completed the course work, but her dissertation idea, about women and autobiography, kept feeling like it should be a novel. After receiving a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, she left Cornell and returned to Bostonto write a novel.
That novel, which became the critically praised Unravelling in 1997, found its initial seed in Civilizing the Machine: Technology and Republican Values in America, 1776-1900, a book she was assigned to read during her M.F.A. days at Washington University. From a description of girls parading before a textile mill, she found the beginnings of a story.
"I had a dream that I was a mill girl. First I wrote an odd little story about that dream, but it kept expanding and ultimately led to that novel. In some M.F.A. programs all you do is write, but at Washington University, I had some really good literature courses that also led me into my Ph.D. program and got me interested in the 19th century," she says.
Unravelling was followed two years later by Graver's second novel, The Honey Thief; each was named a New York Times Notable Book of the Year (in 1997 and 1999, respectively).
Currently, Graver is at work on her next novel, Night Light. She also teaches literature and writing at Boston College, although she took last year off to write and spend time with her daughter. The experience of early motherhood, like feeling a sock under the sheets, has perhaps already subtly found its way into Graver's work.
"I think that maybe something about the slowness of time and the deep interest that babies show toward everything has been good for me. I've had a sense of lingeringthe way you can sit with a 10-month-old in the backyard and look at blades of grass and pebbles and insects for an hour. In a weird way, that kind of slowing down in a world so filled with tumult and events and media and e-mail has been useful to me, and maybe to my writing as well," she says.