Thanks to the cooperation of the National Book Critics Circle (NBCC) and Creative Writing at The New School, as well as the tireless efforts of our students and faculty, we are able to provide interviews with each of the NBCC Awards Finalists for the publishing year 2016.
Samantha Kirby, on behalf of Creative Writing at The New School and the NBCC, interviewed Ruth Franklin about her book Shirley Jackson; A Rather Haunted Life
(Liveright) which is among the final five selections in the category of Biography for the 2016 NBCC Awards.
Ruth Franklin’s biography of Shirley Jackson illuminates the connection between Jackson’s life and writing in stunning detail. Raised by a critical mother and married to an emotionally abusive husband, Jackson suffered from intense emotional turbulence that haunted her life and work. While her interest in the occult and witchcraft caught sensationalist headlines, her work memorialized her in the literary canons. I sat down to talk with Franklin about her writing process for the book.
Samantha Kirby: What called you to write this biography?
Ruth Franklin: I had it in my head that I wanted to explore, in a deeper way, how work comes to be created, which is something that I wasn’t able to delve into with my job as a critic. When Jackson’s work was anthologized in the Library of America, there was a lot of press about her that got me thinking about her as an author. Around that time, I remembered an essay she wrote called, “The Third Baby’s the Easiest,” where a clerk asked Jackson at the hospital to state her occupation. When she says, “writer,” the clerk replies, “I’ll just put down housewife.” This story encapsulated so much of what it must have been to be Shirley Jackson, who wasn’t supported by her husband, her family, or her society. This made me want to know more about what went into the creation of her work.
SNK: What were the mechanics of putting together a proposal for the project?
RF: I already had an agent from my first book of criticism, A Thousand Darknesses, and the Library of America book was about to come out around the time that I was thinking about undertaking a biography project.
I knew that there was a biography of Jackson that was written in the late 80s (Private Demons by Judy Oppenheimer) and I read that to see if there was room for another book. Oppenheimer told a lot of stories about Jackson’s life and interviews, but it didn’t get into the creative process or inspiration for her writing, so I knew that yes, there was room for another book.
When I looked at the archives in the Library of Congress, I discovered that a large deposit of manuscripts had been deposited after the first biography had been written and these pieces hadn’t been looked at by anyone. At the time, very little of her private papers had been published and this material was just waiting there for someone to discover it! From there, I wrote the proposal for the book.
SNK: Where did all of that new material come from?
RF: Well, because Jackson had died young and unexpectedly her affairs were settled in a complicated way. When Shirley Jackson and her husband Stanley Edgar Hyman wrote their wills, they had already promised to publish their papers with the Library of Congress. When he died, young and unexpectedly as well, it took a while for Hyman’s widow to make a large deposit of papers. Additionally, new papers had been filed by Jackson’s children. On top of all that, many of her papers had been mistakenly filed with her husband’s and it took a while to transfer those materials from his file and into hers. In a nutshell, the majority of these materials were lost for so long because of a cataloging error.
As a side note, so often it’s the case in the writing of women’s biography that a woman’s papers are filed under her husband’s name by mistake or are filed under the generic headline of family papers.
SNK: Aside from those new materials at The Library of Congress, what other sources did you use to create a holistic image of Jackson’s life as a writer?
RF: I interviewed all of the children as well as all the people that knew Jackson and Hyman during their time at Bennington College and Syracuse. Then there were the unpublished drafts, diary entries, and stashes of paper that hadn’t been previously discovered. Jackson preserved so much information: all of her letters, her date books, her diet logs, and her dream diaries. This really was a biographer’s dream scenario.
I was browsing through these folders of information, when I came across two big folders with letters from Jeanne Beatty. That name wasn’t one I had come across anywhere else and instantly it became clear to me that this was a relationship that had mattered to Jackson, because Jeanne’s letters were so intelligent and intimate. In these letters I could tell a little about what Jackson’s writing process must have been like when she was writing We Have Always Lived in the Castle. But Jackson’s responses to Jeanne’s letters were missing!
I tracked down Jeanne’s descendants, which wasn’t too hard since she wrote about them in her letters, and I found out that much of this woman’s belongings had been incinerated after her death. When Jeanne’s daughter told me that her mother’s country house was about to go up for auction and they were clearing out an old barn on the property, I had this lightning bolt moment and I knew those missing letters were in the barn. I went up there the very next day.
Going through that barn turned out to be an incredibly monumental task. There were boxes from floor to ceiling in that place. As I was going through the barn, I began to get really discouraged about doing this work alone so I called a friend who came and helped me the next day. She happened to mention that we should look through some furniture that was in the front of the barn. We just happened to open this filing cabinet that was grouped together with all this furniture and we found all of Shirley Jackson’s letters that had just been sitting there for god knows how many years.
SNK: In terms of sensitivity to Jackson’s family, how did you decide what information to use in the biography?
RF: I thought about this a lot. In regard to her children, I was fortunate that a biography had already come out about Jackson and her family. In my research, there was one sensitive journal entry, where Jackson vaguely references an instance where—she claims—Hyman assaulted her. Since that journal entry was something that the children had not been aware of, one of them said that they found it hard to hear (I had read it to that individual). My perspective as a biographer wasn’t to bring something like that to the surface gratuitously. I used it because it brought light to the ways in which Jackson wrote about instances of assault in her fiction. For me, there wasn’t a way to describe one without the other. This piece of information illuminated some of her reasons for wanting to leave Hyman and it deeply resonated with her work. That was benchmark: if it was important to the work, than it was important to the book.
SNK: Can you speak to the pieces of Jackson’s writing advice and writing process that you draw from throughout the book?
RF: Jackson gave these wonderful lectures where she had these great pithy and funny tidbits. Like, “If your heroine’s hair is golden call it yellow.” In terms of her own writing process, I tried to deduce about her craft by looking at her drafts. Really, her short stories tended to come out of her head fully formed. She might have tinkered with words here and there. There are also a few exceptions where she would rewrite a story from different perspectives.
Her novels on the other hand were very different. Jackson’s novels have a smooth and polished tone that makes it seem like they came out perfect, but the process to get there was full of plotlines that didn’t go anywhere, false starts, and characters that were rewritten. She really struggled to get it right.
SNK: The two antagonists of the book are Jackson’s husband, Stanley Hyman, and Jackson’s mother, Geraldine Jackson. How did you decide to use these two people as characters that played a part in Jackson’s life?
RF: For both of them the answer is different. Going into the project, I saw Stanley as her major antagonist because of all the letters that he had wrote to her telling her (in painful detail) about all the girls he pursued. Later, I came to have a lot more sympathy for Stanley and that came from reading a lot of his works and appreciating what a brilliant mind he had. I felt I had to understand what is was that connected them and what Shirley saw in him.
In terms of Geraldine, I have no sympathy for her. Reading her letters was a painful experience. I could see Shirley as an adult wanting to conform to her mother’s expectations, while also trying to stick it to her. Geraldine was a simpleminded person who did not appreciate her daughter’s exceptionality and wanted her to be like everyone else. I think she really wished that Shirley had married the account (Michael Palmer) and had become a happy housewife. At the end of the day, I didn’t want to have a heavy hand in pushing one direction or the other.
SNK: You make a very clear choice about Shirley Jackson’s relationship with magic when you say, “Witchcraft, in this context, is again best understood as a metaphor for female power and men’s fear of it. It is a last resort for women who feel that they are powerless, the only way in which they can they can assert control over their surroundings. Even imaginary control is preferable to no control at all.” What made you decide to take this stance?
RF: It seemed like the only stance that was right to me because it wasn’t clear to me that she took witchcraft literally at all. There were so many sensationalist stories of Jackson and witchcraft that were originated by her and Stanley. Even her children didn’t say with certainty that she practiced witchcraft. Combined with her skepticism about religion in general and her rebellion against her Christian Science upbringing, I didn’t see that she had an interest in it that was anything other than intellectual. If she didn’t take it literally, then how did she see it? Reading about the Salem witch trials, which she wrote about, I found a connection between witchcraft and female power that put it in context with historical forces.
I also felt that the idea of Shirley Jackson as a witch had been used to delegitimize her. The first biography written about her suggested that she was psychic or had occult powers. Quite frankly, that is not an idea that is taken seriously in our day and age. Broadcasting that message signals that this is a person on the fringe. Whether or not she was a practicing witch isn’t relevant. What is relevant is the way in which she understood witchcraft and how it’s relevant in her work.
SNK: I’m so curious about the way you chose to write about the end of Jackson’s life. In the book you say, “And in the very last days of her life, she sent Carol Brandt a strange, vaguely worded letter. She was about to leave for a wonderful journey, she said, where she would meet many new people. Though she offered no details, Brandt had the sense that she was not talking about an ordinary trip. And it was clear she was going alone. Brandt, too, wondered later whether Shirley had foreseen her death. But there is a simpler explanation. The journey she was about to make was the journey she had been planning for so many years. Like the wife in ‘A Day in the Jungle,’ or Eleanor in Hill House, or Angela Motorman, she would step through a crack and disappear.” How did you make that decision to shift from a premonition of her death to an intention to leave her husband?
RF: The main thrust of the book is to reclaim Jackson as a major writer of her time. And I believe all the witchcraft stuff was an excuse not to take her seriously. In the end it damaged her reputation. The headlines memorialized her as a horror writer and that’s really wrong. There are five other novels that are much more difficult to categorize. “The Lottery” is many, many things, but horror it is not. This misconception of her was created by her and Stanley when they were writing the jacket copy of her first novel and was later picked up by her publishers. This was again perpetuated by male critics. Her memoirs are writings about her memories as a decidedly un-witchy housewife. Her work was not about the lives of women as witches, but was about women and the isolation of women living in the suburbs, and about single women living in the city, and the disintegration of the mind. I think it’s important to see her as a writer about the lives of women, which only sometimes connects to the lives of the horror genre. This wasn’t an agenda that I dreamed up for the book, but was something that arose very organically and was an understanding of her as a product of the culture in which she lived.
In writing the book, I immersed myself in her life and her times. I drank the drinks she talked about in her letters. I watched the movies she watched. I listened to her music. I tried making her recipes. I really tried to live and breathe that life.
Ruth Franklin is a book critic and frequent contributor to The New Yorker, Harper’s, and many other publications. A recipient of a New York Public Library Cullman Fellowship and a Guggenheim Fellowship, she lives in Brooklyn, New York.
Samantha Kirby (S.N. Kirby) is a second-year MFA Fiction candidate at The New School. When she's not writing, you can find her teaching yoga, translating Latin texts, or playing in Central Park with her dog Batiste. Her work focuses on the supernatural and the comedy of life.