by Evelyn Somers
I first encountered the fiction of Barbara Klein Moss fourteen years ago, when I edited one of her early stories for publication. Last month I had the pleasure of talking with her about her debut novel, The Language of Paradise, which will be published by WW Norton & Company in April.
Evelyn Somers: You were a Bloomer (post 40) when you published your first book, the story collection Little Edens. When and how did you actually start writing fiction?
Barbara Klein Moss: I began to write stories in the fourth grade. I’m one of those people who discovered their vocation early; I decided I wanted to write as soon as I learned to read. Teachers noticed I had a facility with words that compensated for my complete ineptitude at math. Still, it took many years to actualize my ambition. I worked in publishing and as a ghostwriter and a medical writer. At an artists’ colony in Taos, New Mexico, I began a novel about Adam and Eve, and toted the manuscript around for twenty years, through marriage and child-raising and several moves, never quite giving up on it. Out of it came themes that appear in both the story collection and the novel. We lived for several years at a small boarding school in New Hampshire, and one winter, laid up with a broken leg, I started to write stories again. I shared the stories with a small writers’ group, and with their support got the courage to apply to a low-residency MFA program.
ES: Tell us a little about your experience as an MFA student.
BKM: It was a great gift to be part of a community of dedicated writers, to have my work taken seriously. There were excellent lectures and workshops, but what meant most to me was the exchange with advisers. I learned so much from seeing my work through the prism of four interesting and very different minds. It’s become fashionable to denigrate MFA programs now that they’ve proliferated, but I can truly say that my experience there was life-changing. When I graduated, I felt for the first time that I could claim the identity of a writer. Not that it was easy afterward—three years passed before one of my stories was published.
ES: While you were completing the program at Warren Wilson, did you consider yourself a writer of short fiction, or did you have your sights set on a novel at that point?
BKM: I wrote only stories at Warren Wilson and loved the challenge of creating depth in a small space, but I did have some hazy idea of a novel in the future. My stories tended to be long and quite complex. I remember a reader saying about one that it seemed to be trying to be a novel; and, in fact, the last story in Little Edens is a novella. The Language of Paradise was originally conceived as a story, but it was just too big. It needed a longer form.
ES: One of the stories in your collection was reprinted in The Best American Short Stories 2001, and you’ve received a number of prestigious fellowships. Did these affirmations of your work make a significant difference for you as an emerging writer?
BKM: Having my second published story chosen for Best American made a huge difference. Even the best-known literary magazines have relatively small circulations, so appearing in a widely read anthology was a great boon to a (barely) emerging writer. I felt incredibly lucky and also greatly encouraged to have a story chosen by Barbara Kingsolver. As soon as the selection was announced, I began to get calls from agents and editors, including Carol Houck Smith from Norton, who became my first editor. Each of the fellowships was a kind of public permission to continue, and the financial support that the NEA grant provided was a great practical help as I made my way through the novel. But I’m always aware that there’s an element of chance in these selections, and that many writers are equally deserving.
ES: You were also fortunate to sell the collection to a major publishing house, Norton. How did that come about?
BKM: It turned out that Carol Smith had read my story “Rug Weaver” before Best American, when it was first published in The Georgia Review. She asked to see more stories. I sent them . . . and waited for weeks, writing different scenarios in my mind. When I was sure she’d forgotten all about me, she called and said she was thinking of offering me a two-book contract for a story collection and a novel. She asked me to write a synopsis of my projected novel to present to the panel that would make the final decision. At the time, the “novel” was a clutch of random scribblings in a loose-leaf notebook, but somehow I managed to organize them into a reasonably graceful one-page summary. Apparently the panel approved, because I was offered the contract.
ES: When did you begin working on The Language of Paradise? How long did it take you to write the novel?
BKM: After my collection was launched, I made a couple of attempts to begin the novel. I floundered for a while but began The Language of Paradise in earnest in 2005. It was a different book when I started: a two-strand narrative weaving a modern story with a 19th-century one. When Carol died in 2008, Amy Cherry took the book on and saw it through to the end. It was Amy’s suggestion that I write the 19th-century story first to get a better idea of how to slant the contemporary story line. Eventually, the 1830s characters took over, and their story became the present book. I still have 130 pages of the modern narrative that may become the basis for another novel.
ES: You dealt with the subject of “Edenic spaces” in your story collection—and your novel deals with conflicts created by the characters’ differing views about paradise. Why does this theme resonate so heavily with you?
BKM: My parents were Brooklynites, urban Jews who moved to a rural town in New Jersey after they married. They were never terribly happy there and didn’t expect their children to be. We were raised to believe we were in exile, that somewhere a better place awaited us where we would truly be at home. I’ve done a lot of moving around in my life, looking for that place, and eventually I found it in my work. I started to look at the familiar story of Adam and Eve in a new way while ghostwriting a book about Gauguin, who often used Eden themes in his paintings. I’m also intrigued by the quest for perfection: the personalities who aspire to it and the different shapes it assumes. In the novel, Gideon, the visionary, muses obsessively about a pure new world and tries to create a model of one, while his wife Sophy is content with earthly happiness.
ES: I think I can guess part of the answer to this, but how do you feel about the experiment Gideon initiates, of not allowing his and Sophy’s infant son to hear human language so the child will (he believes) begin to naturally speak the original human language of Eden?
BKM: Humanly, I’m appalled by Gideon’s experiment, as any reasonable person would be. Fictionally, I found the experiment fascinating to write about. The challenge was to get deep enough into Gideon to understand how, influenced by his friend Leander, he could persuade himself that his drastic plans for his son were for a greater good. And it was very interesting to imagine a life of imposed silence from Sophy’s saner point of view.
ES: Do you think every writer wants to achieve the “language of paradise”?
BKM: That’s a great question. Obviously I can’t speak for every writer, but I think that for most serious writers, it’s a daily struggle to render the scene that lives so vividly in the mind with equal precision in words. When Gideon, in a fever dream, has the mystical experience of entering into a Hebrew letter, he opens his eyes to “a cutting clarity,” a landscape where “each blade of grass shines separate,” where he sees at once the veins of each leaf on each tree and the vista that all the trees make together. He is obsessed with finding a perfect vessel for meaning. In a sense, that’s a classic writer’s quest, the mandate we wake up to each morning, even if we know that much of the time we’re going to fall short.
ES: Did you conceive of the story and characters before the research, or were they born out of the research?
BKM: The idea came first, and then the characters. I had this crazy notion of writing about a man obsessed with uncovering the world’s first language, and his wife, who tried to capture his vision in her paintings. I’m not sure where it came from—maybe the story of Adam naming the animals, which struck me as mysterious and alluring. It wasn’t until I began to do some research that I discovered that the quest for the primal language goes back to the earliest civilizations. Before the concept of Eden, there was said to be a Golden Age where humans and animals shared a common tongue, where words perfectly expressed the objects they represented. Gideon’s experiment was first performed by an Egyptian pharoah, who isolated two infants in a hut with a silent caretaker. Somehow, knowing this made my eccentric project seem more plausible.
ES: What historical sources guided your research?
BKM: For the atmosphere of New England in the 1830s, I read biographies of Hawthorne, whose writings I’ve always loved, and of Emerson, the Peabody sisters, Margaret Fuller, Emily Dickinson (though she came later). A friend loaned me some etiquette books from that era, and they gave me a chilling sense of the restrictions and repressions that women endured then. For Sophy’s pregnancy and other medical information, one of my favorite sources was The Physical Life of Woman: Advice to the Maiden, Wife and Mother, written by a male doctor, naturally, in 1871. It’s as hilarious as it is unsettling.
Only one character was born out of research, and that was unplanned. At the Farnsworth Museum in Maine, I discovered a painting of a black-hatted figure chasing a serpent out of the village of Blue Hill, painted by Reverend Jonathan Fisher, who pastored the local Congregational Church in the early 19th century. I visited his house and read a biography of him, and was so intrigued by his artwork, his love of Hebrew, his extensive learning tempered by stern Calvinist convictions that I decided to give Sophy a father. The Reverend Samuel Hedge took on his own personality as I began to write him, but he owes a lot to Reverend Fisher, and so do I. We stay in Maine for a couple of weeks each summer, and I always leave a stone on his grave.
ES: What current writing project (s) are you working on?
BKM: I have notes for several stories and have started to work on one. I’ve also been writing some essays, a new form for me. After spending so long on The Language of Paradise, I thought I would write short for a while, but I’m already looking at those 130 pages and thinking about how to work them into a novel. I have some ideas, but all I can say now is that the next book will be contemporary.
Click here to read an excerpt from Barbara Klein Moss’s The Language of Paradise.