Interview by Betty Carter
An Interview with Margaret Edson
It's sort of funny that you're being honored here as a southern writer when you're from Washington, D.C.
Well, it was southeast D.C. They were willing to make an exception.
What did you want to be when you grew up?
I changed around a lot, not one thing more than anything else. I was very interested in theater in high school.
Did you act?
Yeah, and was involved in different parts of production.
What about teaching? Where did that come from?
I didn't start teaching till I was 30, and this is my seventh year, I'm 37. I was a volunteer in an ESL classroom in a D.C. elementary school and I just started loving the tutoring I was doing, and so I had to come teach.
What kind of teaching gives you the most joy? For instance, is it more exciting to you to work with challenging kids as opposed to privileged or gifted—?
I loved teaching ESL and had students from 20 different countries. That was really fun. I taught K6 in small groups. Of the different kinds of work, the thing I liked most was teaching reading. So then I taught first grade in a typical classroom for a year and now I'm teaching kindergarten.
It's kind of controversial to teach kindergartners to read, isn't it?
Not to the kindergartners!
What kind of school is Centennial Place Elementary?
It's a brand new school. It's an Atlanta public school, and it's in the middle of a mixed-income housing community.
So do you work with kids from a lot of different economic backgrounds?
Could you have pictured yourself as a kindergarten teacher 10 years ago, 15 years ago, when you were at Smith College? You know how people are. I keep hearing people talk in this amazed way about you being a kindergarten teacher, just like they talked about Alice McDermott being the "soccer mom" who won the National Book Award. To me that seems a little patronizing somehow.
It doesn't bother me at all. To me it's opening people's minds.
OK. So let's talk about John Donne.
Yes [laughing]. Enough of that.
Do you like Donne's poetry? Or did you pick it because you didn't like it?
It's very fun to get yourself educated to a level where you can get it. But it takes a lot of hard work, and the fun of catching it is greater than the benefit of the insight to be gained. So the points that are made about it in the play are that it's complex and difficult, but the complexity doesn't necessarily lead you to a higher level of in sight. The poems are complex for their own sake. They were written not to be published, but to be passed around in manuscript among a group of friends. He was a "coterie" poet at that time, so he was writing for his friends who would "get it." He wasn't trying to make a point that would reach people, be cause although there was printing at the time he was writing, he didn't allow his things to be printed. In fact, he forbade any type of printing of them. He wasn't trying to reveal any truth or even pursue any truth. He was just trying to be witty and clever.
I don't approach John Donne the same way. Maybe that's because I like cerebral poetry. To me Donne's poetry is very passionate. His love poetry, some of it, is nice and earthy, and then when you get to the Holy Sonnets and "Batter My Heart Three-Personed God," where he uses almost a rape metaphor for religion, well, I always thought there was a lot of passion there, a lot of violence under the surface. I guess I sympathize in the play most with Vivian's old professor Dr. Ashford, a person of deep feelings who also takes a great interest in punctuation. So it's not that you're getting on Donne himself, right? There can be intellect and also passion at the same time?
Yeah. I don't see them as distinct.
But Vivian's problem is … ?
When the young doctor is talking about research biology, the nurse says, "Aren't you going somewhere with this, don't you ever get to solve the puzzle?" and he says, "No, we're just trying to quantify the complications of the puzzle, we're trying to describe how complex the puzzle really is." And that's exactly how Vivian treats the poems. Those two are birds of a feather.
That's one of the deadliest sins of academics anyway, I think. A lot of people start out loving the thing and eventually it becomes a passionless exercise. Incidentally, the name of Vivian's dissertation is wonderful: Ejaculations in Seventeenth-Century Manuscript and Printed Editions of the Holy Sonnets: A Comparison. Everybody laughed.
Have you ever known anyone like Vivian Bearing?
Where did she come from?
I made her up. That's my job.
I know, I know; but how do you think she came to be? Did you just create the person to make a point or did she come alive for you?
I was hearing the voice in my head and I just happened to be there to write it down. That's how it felt.
What do you think makes people hard in the way Vivian Bearing is hard? She has that armadillo shell—why do people become that way? They don't start out that way as children.
They do it to be safe. To protect themselves. And if Vivian Bearing had lived for 20 more years and had died suddenly of a heart attack at 70, she would have made it. She would have slipped through her life without ever having to open her heart. And she would have been safe, and she would never have noticed what she was missing. In a certain sense, that's a very efficient way to live. And he was great at it, and she knew it, and that's why it cost her so much to fall. But in her fall is her redemption, as usual.
Let's talk about The Runaway Bunny. One of my favorite books. I think the reason it appeals to me is that it's about the search for a mother. I don't know why that's a theme the appeals to me, but the search for mother love or safety—
But the little bunny's not looking for his mother! He's trying to get away from her. It's not Are You My Mother?, which is the search for the mother.
Yeah, but for instance, my favorite hymn is "Come, Thou Fount." There's a part that goes, "Prone to Wander, Lord, I feel it, …
[UNISON] … prone to leave the God I love; Here's my heart, O take and seal it; seal it for thy courts above."
Yes! And I am, personally, prone to wander. I've always had that conflict between being a rebel and de siring safety or love. So I like that book because it's the idea that "no matter what you do, I'm going to be there. So give it up!"
That's how my Sunday school teacher explained the book to me.
I was going to ask you if you saw that as a religious message. In the play, you drag in all these religious themes, Donne and all this stuff, and then you've got The Runaway Bunny at the end, which, if somebody really really wanted to work hard, they could make that an incarnational thing—but I won't do that to you. But do you see a religious message in the play?
[Long pause] It's a very religious play, and you're the first person who's ever said that to me in an interview. People always want to talk about the medicine, want to talk about the punctuation, and so I compliment you and thank you for that. It's not doctrinal, and that's a very important distinction. And it's about a point that a lot of people who call themselves religious would not necessarily commend, which is the point where you leave off even religion. Vivian has to let go of knowledge, of scholarship, of expertise, of pride, of everything, including religion. By the end of the play—and when it's staged, it's so unlike the rest of the play that it's shocking—as Vivian drops her bracelet and drops her cap and drops her gown and crosses the stage, she lets everything fall away from her.
I don't think I noticed that. I don't think she did that in this production.1
If you're completely united with God, you don't need religion. And this all happens very quickly, it happens in the last ten seconds of her life. Her redemption is delayed through her own efforts. It could have happened a lot sooner, but she keeps putting if off and putting it off and putting it off, and finally there's a breakthrough, and it happens in the last ten seconds of her life, which is plenty of time.
Copyright © 1999 by the author or Christianity Today/Books & Culture Magazine. Click here for reprint information on Books & Culture.
1. Author's note: This has to be the stupidest thing I've ever said. Did I really think I might have overlooked a woman dropping her clothes in Chattanooga, Tennessee?
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