The Depression forced Daphne Athas and her family to move from her birthplace in Massachusetts to Chapel Hill. After receiving her B.A. from the University of North Carolina, Ms. Athas completed graduate work at the Harvard School of Education. In 1947 she published her first novel, Weather of the Heart. Ms. Athas’ teaching of the blind later prompted her to write The Fourth World, about them. During the same time, while living in England, she completed Sit on the Earth, which won Second Prize in the London Observer Playwriting Contest. Since 1968, Ms. Athas has lectured in creative writing and literature at UNC in Chapel Hill but spent 1973-1974 in Teheran as Fulbright Professor of American Literature. Having traveled extensively in Europe and Asia, she will again live abroad this year on a $10,000 award from the National Endowment of the Arts.
Ms. Athas’ third novel, Entering Ephesus, made Time magazine’s Ten Best Fiction list in 1971. Her most recent novel, Cora, published by Viking Press, earned the Sir Walter Raleigh Award for Fiction in 1979. She has also published a work of non-fiction, Greek by Prejudice.
In the interview, Ms. Athas’ ease and fluency overshadowed a modest self-appraisal. Although soft-spoken, her words penetrated.
— David Belsky
SUN: When you were growing up, did you write at all?
ATHAS: Oh, yes, all the time. I always knew 1 would write, so I never had any conflict about what I wanted to do. But I think everything’s changed. Many students are flocking to creative writing. It’s amazing that they’re going to graduate schools, because I wonder what they think they’ll do to make a living when they get out.
When I graduated from college, I wanted to get out of school, and get into the world. People have changed. This generation doesn’t know anything but affluence, in general. Even the poverty has got a different quality to it, because of welfare. I can remember Betty Smith, who wrote A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. I went to school with her kids. I remember her, before A Tree Grows in Brooklyn was published. She bought groceries at Fowler’s. Someone stole her groceries that week and she was out. It was a real loss.
The affluence affects the way people are, and people write what they are. I notice another interesting thing in my students. They have a nostalgia for times past, which they don’t know about, but write about, like World War II or the Depression And it always comes out wrong.
SUN: Are you very much a part of the women’s movement?
ATHAS: I would say no, because I haven’t been an activist at all. I’m glad for every activist who’s out there getting equal salaries, say, or equal opportunities. But I find that the organizational end of it, and the active end of it, demand too much simplicity of thinking. I’m all for it, and I gain from it, but it’s too simplistic for my real interest.
The great power of the women’s movement came, and comes, from young married women, and children, so that they are in a complaining frame of mind. The emotional thrust is a complaining one; I’m not interested in complaining points of view for myself.
I think the structure of the women’s movement is what’s ordinarily defined as male. It has nothing to do with women. This is purely by definition. And I think the structured organization is the very thing that will not thwart nuclear war, for example. It’s something behind all this structured stuff. When you form organizations, there’s a false, illusory thing to that. There are a bunch of principles, which everybody adheres to by some agreement. The principles themselves have nothing to do with the nature of the people that are in it.
SUN: Mythology has a very important place in your work. Did your ethnic background influence this?
ATHAS: It helped. Myths exist and are created all the time. Our modern myths may be bad ones. We have such sophisticated systems, and such sophisticated technology, and such unsophisticated belief in both. The habits are to depend on those things. The habits are being broken now. I think everybody knows that, but they don’t know what to do about it. Everywhere you move, you’re involved in the technology.
SUN: Do you think artists are respected enough in this country?
ATHAS: I don’t think artists are respected at all here. When it comes down to the power structures, Gauguin, if he had no money, and walked into NCNB, would not be respected. You just have to have a deluxe account there to be respected.
SUN: Popularized art seems to be the only way artists can operate in this country, by having mass appeal.
ATHAS: Inasmuch as people don’t read, fiction has changed. TV cannot do what a novel can do. But commercial publishers need mass sales, so they need accessible books. Then you get the split-off of the people who are university-educated.
SUN: Do you think that’s sapping the vitality of writing?
ATHAS: No, but it fragments the experience. So, we have all these elitists and affluent young people, who read what they’ve come to read at the university, and have a value structure that says D. H. Lawrence and Joyce are the good people. I think they are. But then you have people in Detroit, losing their jobs, who don’t read anything except mass paperbacks. And you have the mass university type, and you may have them reading gothics. So the whole country works in terms of markets. Reading is an experience. It isn’t something to be taught in universities. It is taught, in a sense, like gospel. What you get are people who come out convinced, because the people who teach them are convinced, that so-and-so are excellent, which they are. But the university structure forbids the teaching of the biggies because it can’t fit in one semester’s course. You can’t do Remembrance of Things Past, and The Brothers Karamazov, and two other big novels in one class. It’s not practical. So you get masters’ short stories in anthologies. And people have a good knowledge of two or three stories of about twenty writers, and they can talk literature. That’s not my understanding of fiction. Thank God, some people are reading as they used to read. Some books, you live them. That’s what reading is: you live them.
SUN: Are your characters based on people you know?
ATHAS: They are based on some attributes of people I know. But I would also say they are some archetypal features of myself. My approach is that we’re all made up of certain aspects, which can be personified. Of course they’re either in opposition or tangential. You can be so many characters. That’s what’s fun abut it. You can play them against themselves.
SUN: Do you see your writing, then, as a self-exploration? Is it almost a therapy at times?
ATHAS: No, absolutely not. I do think of it as an exploration. I have a friend who’s a psychiatrist. One time he said don’t ever underestimate the therapeutic. He used poetry and writing in therapy. His view was that therapy took precedence over art.
But I am not interested in that, personally, and I find it rather a stumbling-block. I believe it has to be separated out very carefully when one teaches writing.
SUN: Have you had any rebellious students, who came up with a new sort of writing, or experimented with a form with which you were unfamiliar?
ATHAS: I’m so free myself, in my likes, I allow a lot. I’m open to anything. But I don’t know of any who have gone on to become well-known for any new forms. On the undergraduate level, I don’t see how you can come up with new forms. You have to know of the existing forms to know what’s new.
SUN: Do you ever feel frustration at language, or do you always feel if you struggle hard enough you’ll find the words?
ATHAS: The latter. I like it when I feel on top of it. And sail along.
SUN: Do you often have that feeling?
ATHAS: Yes, but then you have to cut a lot. Up to the present, so much has been to have everything bare, and excessiveness is considered bad. And it is bad, but my whole approach is to be extravagant, and then cut. That’s my nature. Other people are meticulous.
SUN: Do you think writing has turned away from the psychological level, in let’s say, the French writers like Alain Robbe-Grillet?
ATHAS: I think his stuff is real boring. That’s what I consider the intellectual level. That’s what I mean by fracturing. Writing is split off, so people are writing for their own university groups, who already know the things they were told were good, and whose own emotional level has nothing to do with someone who has just been fired from Ford in Detroit. I think that is awful. But maybe the fracturing has reached its zenith, and it’s coming back to a whole. I say that not so much because of books but because of a Bill Moyers television program that I recently saw. He was interviewing people who had lost their jobs in Detroit. They know what’s going on in this country. That has affected art. The people around universities cannot feel, because of the way they live, which is to consume, and they are in very stable positions to do it. It isn’t the same as having a family to support.
SUN: Do you see any conflict between your being here and what’s actually going on?
ATHAS: Somewhat. We have to exercise our will to get out of the habitat, and be more than just suburban. We have to consciously make an effort to get out of this kind of culture, but not necessarily to Detroit, or not necessarily to the slums. But the world is more at this minute like Detroit than it is like Chapel Hill.
SUN: When you write, do you like to work under certain conditions? Do you ever sit outside?
ATHAS: No, I can’t stand to. It’s too nice in the grass.
SUN: Do you write everyday?
ATHAS: I do when I’m working, always, always, always, on schedule. You need a larger slice of time to invest in novels than in poetry, because you’re fitting pieces together.
SUN: Do you have a certain state of mind when you’re writing?
ATHAS: My state of living is also a state of writing.
SUN: Do you feel meditation affects creativity?
ATHAS: To the good. Writing is a form of attachment. It is a re-creation of all the attachments in a different dimension. You need detachment.
SUN: Is that the importance of criticism?
ATHAS: I consider that reaction. I would make a big distinction between criticism and reaction. Criticism necessitates a scale of values. With a reaction, you’re dealing directly with another psyche. There is an understood value system, but not a conscious and, therefore, a more honest one. And one that involves content rather than form. I have a complex about this, because I think there’s so much marvelous writing about nothing. I would prefer bad writing that keys into something important.
SUN: Don’t you think that writing is becoming outmoded, especially with the new left-hemisphere, right-hemisphere idea, the left hemisphere being linear? People don’t want to see through words; they want to see. They want the patterns right there in front of their eyes.
ATHAS: They do. And they have them when it comes to movies. The implication, there, is that the linear is less of a whole experience. In one sense, it is less, but at least the linear can delineate a time scheme. That’s an impossibility unless you have a large enough direct experience. Most people can’t stand more than ninety minutes of a direct experience that involves characters. I could go to the Russian movie, War and Peace, and stay there for eight hours straight, as long as I brought peanut butter sandwiches. That accumulates experience. That’s the way old-fashioned novels are. It isn’t at all boring once you’re entrenched in one.
SUN: What separates the popular Thornbirds, a huge saga, from something considered a higher form of writing?
ATHAS: It’s absolutely predictable. The characters are too obvious. People feel safe with that. And they can live in that. The gothics are just a retelling of Jane Eyre over and over, which affirms the old values.
SUN: What trends do you see? Who are the pioneers now?
ATHAS: Young writers are trying to assimilate the South American experience.
SUN: How do you feel about that?
ATHAS: I love it. I think One Hundred Years of Solitude is wonderful. It makes you feel on an emotional level, at the same time that it is truly a work of fantasy. The fact that it can involve you on a mystical and on a personality level, at the same time, is a pure triumph. So far, no North Americans, as far as I’m concerned, have done it. And it may be false to what we are in the United States.
SUN: What in their culture produces these works?
ATHAS: I think the Catholic tradition, the Mediterranean tradition does. They wallow in personality: They dramatize the human emotions. And you can only do that when you understand that there’s a level beyond them. With Wasp mentality, which is what makes up this country, you have a belief in the human emotions as the ultimate — beyond God. So if you’re really loyal, you never say a word of endearment. You know, the old cowboy tradition. Inhibition is a plus value, as well as a non-expression. So you never get a dramatization. People love the dramatization, but they think less of a person for it, in this country. That puts the personality on a pedestal, and throws God down the drain. The transcendence of personality becomes unbelievable.
SUN: Are you religious?
ATHAS: In the conventional sense, no. I like a mystical approach as long as it has quality. I make this qualification because you get so much mindless baloney. In its best sense, it is the only way to comprehend the modern experience. When you have the pedestalization of the personality, with its manifestation in inhibition, and a refusal to express, you just are proclaiming the deadness of everything else. Everything is so dead that you have no avenue for seeing the reality behind the fake stuff that surrounds us. I want to make a meeting ground of characters with ideas. I think it’s obvious in Cora.
SUN: Could non-fiction almost replace fiction now, because people look at it as actual, rather than imaginary, so that it affects them much more?
ATHAS: Yes, it has sort of replaced it. You have artistic non-fiction. Ultimately, it leaves out the realm of personality, people.
SUN: Maybe fiction has been non-fiction.
ATHAS: I used to think of it always as imagination. It involves making less distance between the realities. I think that contemporary life has cut the distance between different realities. And you’re operating on different realities. You take the Brontes, who never went out of Howarth, and they created these cosmic worlds. And people say, how did they know all that? I say a five-year-old child almost knows more than adults do, because adults have bought a view of reality which is a little bit more circumscribed that that of a five-year-old. You have to have it circumscribed, so you don’t go out in front of a car and get killed. From the minute you’re born you somehow know. But the blinders that are put up by society, and by legislated rules, are what people think of as truths. They’re not truths at all. They’re lies. They are confinements compared to the cosmic knowledge that exist.