Alice Mattison’s new book (2018), Conscience, hooked me right away. It’s about a middle-aged couple who grapple with something that happened in their shared past, during protests against the Vietnam War. When those events resurface, their relationship is upended all over again. The book examines marriage, friendships between women, and the way people react to political life. It was textured and rich—I wanted to read it with a highlighter because there were so many lines worth remembering.
I also think it’d be an excellent book club choice. If you are interested, please subscribe or return to Book Club Babble for book club questions for Conscience. For now, author Alice Mattison kindly answered our interview questions. Her responses share insight into the story and her process of creating. Enjoy!
Mary Sullivan (BCB): What motivated or inspired you to write this book?
Alice Mattison: One afternoon about eight years ago I was pulling weeds in my front yard when I had a wisp of an idea about my next novel. It would be a book about a book: a woman would write about her youth. If she were in late middle age in the present day, she’d be young in the 1960s. As it worked out, though one of my narrators, Olive, does tell the story of her youth, the author of the book that figures in Conscience is someone else. But there was always going to be a book, and a big question was always going to be “May we write about people we know? And if so, do we have to tell the truth?” In Conscience, Olive’s friend, Helen, becomes a violent revolutionary. A different friend writes, inaccurately—but in a novel—about Helen. The first of the seven titles I gave this book at one time or another was Imagination. I wanted (in part) to write about writing. Meanwhile, my agent suggested that I write a whole book about writing, so I stopped to do that—it’s The Kite and the String.
But even more, I wanted to write about two other topics: friendship between women, and women doing responsible work. Olive is named after a character Virginia Woolf mentions in her essay A Room of One’s Own. Woolf describes looking over some imaginary new novels. She reads a sentence in one: “Chloe liked Olivia.” Chloe and Olivia, in this nonexistent novel, are scientists. Woolf addresses problems we haven’t yet solved: literary fiction about women is still mostly about their relationships with men, and women characters rarely do responsible work. Several of my novels are about friendship between women, and I wanted to write about that again. This time I wanted at least one of the women to make decisions at work that could lead to good or harm. Jean is the director of a drop-in center for homeless people. She narrates much of the novel and becomes friendly with Olive. She also has a connection to Olive’s husband, Griff, who becomes the chair of Jean’s board.
Once I’d made the choice to have Olive write about her past, and once that past turned out to involve the Vietnam War, it turned out to matter, which I think is often how writing develops. The subject we think is an accidental detail may actually matter most. I lived through those years, and protested the war, though not as vigorously as my characters. As I say in my author’s note, I’d long wondered how an idealistic woman I had met then became violent a few years later. But those weren’t the thoughts that led me to write this novel.
MS: Many pundits and historians analogize our turbulent political times to the 1960s, though public reaction seems muted by comparison. What parallels—if any—were you drawing between the Vietnam War era and today?
AM: Because it took a long time to write, much about this novel changed as I changed, and as life around me changed. At first I thought it was valuable to write about the Vietnam era because readers younger than I would learn about something new to them: a time in which national politics and government policy were so disturbing that it came to seem immoral just to live one’s private life instead of devoting oneself to protest. Olive wishes she could stay home and read nineteenth-century novels instead of protesting; Helen gives up all semblance of a normal life. This seemed interesting because it was unfamiliar, until 2016, when it suddenly became familiar again. I think today, as well, our consciences won’t let us turn away from public life and national life and just concentrate on our private concerns. I’m not sure I agree that protest is muted; people protest differently now. Electing a great many women to Congress, for example, including many women of color, is a marvelous kind of protest and one undreamed of in the sixties.
MS: Olive and Griff’s 30-year marriage frays when sins and circumstances from their past resurface. Decisions they made in their early 20s never went away. Decades later they are still dealing with the fallout. What were you looking to explore about past and present, memory and daily life?
AM: Do novelists ever set out to explore past and present, or memory? I suppose they do. They’d need to be more interested in abstractions than I am, however. I became interested in Olive and Griff and their past and present, but not so much in the nature of the past and the present, or in the nature of memory. Memory in novels follows certain conventions, anyway—it’s not like memory in life. Nobody remembers whole conversations years later, yet in a novel the narrator tells us just what happened in enormous detail, and we accept that, because it’s how novels work. I wasn’t trying to explore any of that, but I’m always interested in exploring daily life. Some novelists find themselves fascinated by questions like “What would happen to a woman with this particular personality, and history, if—pick one—she survived nuclear holocaust; she was arrested for murder; she got rich and famous?” I’m curious about what would happen to her if nothing in particular happened to her—if she had a baby; if she quarreled with her lover; if she had the chance to do wrong or right. I’m curious about the challenges that happen all the time and don’t get written up in the paper. So even though this book does include several newsworthy events, mostly—like my earlier novels—it’s about eating, sleeping, making love, trying to get along with the people one knows, trying to do something useful. Daily life isn’t boring and my life’s task seems to be trying to prove that.
MS: Near the end of the novel, one character says, “Nobody I know is blameless.” Indeed, every character makes missteps, intentional and not, yet everyone has their reasons too. However, this book isn’t called Guilt or Responsibility—it’s Conscience. For me, it’s about the stories people tell themselves and others about their actions. Why did you write about conscience instead of blame?
AM: I didn’t set out to write about conscience, but I kept noticing that Helen and Griff in particular—and some other characters as well—had unusually active consciences, consciences that were a mixed blessing. Both Griff and Helen perform acts of violence when driven by conscience, and Griff regrets what he’s done for decades. Though I set out to write about women, in many respects Griff became the character who fascinated me most. I loved his scrupulousness and seriousness. I could see that at times he just made things harder for himself. But he’s the moral center of the book: Griff’s notions create everyone’s standards, whether they agree or disagree with him about how to behave. I admire and am fascinated by people like that, people for whom doing the right thing is a passion and a life’s work. I’m not interested in blaming. I am interested in watching characters scrutinize their own actions. I kept giving the book titles that I then came to dislike. Then Trump was elected and suddenly all we thought about was right and wrong. One day I said to my husband, “I really should call the book Conscience”—thinking of the characters’ conscientiousness, but assuming that couldn’t be the title. It was too heavy—too something. He said something like “Why not?” and I realized that actually I could call it that.
Alice Mattison is a widely acclaimed author and longtime writing teacher. Conscience is her seventh novel. The Kite and the String: How to Write with Spontaneity and Control—and Live to Tell the Tale appeared in 2016. Her earlier novels include The Book Borrower, Nothing Is Quite Forgotten in Brooklyn, and When We Argued All Night, and she is also the author of four books of stories and a collection of poems. Twelve of her stories have appeared in The New Yorker, and other work has been published in The New York Times, Ploughshares, and Ecotone and has been anthologized in The Pushcart Prize, PEN/O. Henry Prize Stories, and Best American Short Stories. She has held residencies at Yaddo and the MacDowell Colony, and has taught at Brooklyn College, Yale University, and, for more than twenty years, in the Bennington Writing Seminars, the MFA program at Bennington College.