Today we welcome Marge Piercy to People Who Make Books Happen. Her most recent collection of poetry is On The Way Out, Turn Off the Light, published September 2020 by Knopf. In addition to 19 previous poetry collections, she is the author of 17 novels including the classics Woman on the Edge of Time and He, She and It. Born in center city Detroit, educated at the University of Michigan and Northwestern, and recipient of four honorary doctorates, she is active in antiwar, feminist and environmental causes.
A popular speaker on college campuses, she’s been a featured writer on Bill Moyers’ PBS Specials, Prairie Home Companion, Fresh Air, the Today Show, and many radio and TV programs nationwide including Air America and Oprah & Friends. From 1993 to 2017, her poems were frequently read on Garrison Keillor’s The Writer’s Almanac.
Praised as one of the few American writers who are accomplished poets as well as novelists, she is the master of many genres. In 1993, her cyberpunk novel He, She, and It won the Arthur C. Clarke Award for Best Science Fiction in the United Kingdom.
INTERVIEW WITH MARGE PIERCY
Question: Which of your 17 novels do you consider your greatest success, not necessarily commercially, but for you personally as a writer”
Marge Piercy: I don’t have a favorite novel. What I can say is that I vastly prefer and am much prouder of the less conventional novels – WOMAN ON THE EDGE OF TIME, HE SHE AND IT, CITY OF DARKNESS, CITY OF LIGHT, BRAIDED LIVES and SEX WARS. I am less proud of the more conventional novels that focus primarily on relationships, although I am invested in them also.
Some of those are historical novels concerned with how we got where we are; some are speculative fiction concerned with ‘if only’ and ‘if this goes on’ (to use Isaac Asimov’s categories of science fiction).
I discovered, among many other revelations, that I’m not as good a person as I had imagined. Examining one’s own life is a critical nightmare if you’re not trying to make it pretty.
Question: Adrienne Rich once said of your novel He, She and It: “Piercy’s vision of a post-greenhouse-effect, nuclear-blasted world interlaced with the Prague ghetto of 1600, and the efforts of certain people to stay human in both, is threaded with the questions: What is it to be human? … What does `life’ mean? What are the limits of creativity? As always, Piercy writes with high intelligence, love for the world, ethical passion and innate feminism.”
How do you view this novel now in 2020?
Marge Piercy: I had read the scientific papers about climate change when I was writing the novel; however, global warming has moved so much faster that my projections were a little optimistic. We have orca off Cape Cod this summer besides increasing numbers of great white sharks. A manatee was swimming in one of the south facing harbors. We have had the worst drought I’ve ever experienced in my 45 years of living here. Trees and shrubs are dying. The grass is all straw. Mice keep coming into the house where there are four cats because they need water. We have moved from zone 6 to zone 7 agriculturally. Massachusetts is experiencing an increasing number of tornadoes. We worry about hurricanes. There are far fewer butterflies and warblers and far more flies.
The ethical issues about artificial intelligence have only grown, as has our intimacy with and reliance upon the internet, social media and our other interactive devices. Corporations have greatly increased their control with Citizens United and super pacs. Elections have become sound bites and info-mation. The huge multicorps are obviously non-national. The gap between the few with huge wealth and those barely getting by has increased exponentially. The middle class is shrinking; people have not only less money but less power. Fewer and fewer workers are unionized. Aging nuclear power plants are endangering a high percentage of the population of this and European countries like France, and of course Japan. All in all, the world of He, She, It is becoming reality much faster than I imagined. But I was prescient enough to be glad I’m 84. Dystopia is coming fast, perhaps on the wings of a political leader.
Question: At the age of 84, you have 17 novels, 20 poetry collections, a memoir, a book of short stories and four nonfiction to your credit as well as a host of other shorter pieces. Knopf has just published your latest book, On the Way Out, Turn Off the Light: Poems. What distinguishes this collection?
Marge Piercy: One whole section is about growing old – honest and difficult and sometimes funny poems. At 84, aging is a real part of my experience, and I’m sharing it. Also of course there’s a lot of political poems as well as sections that contain love poetry, nature, Judaism, family in a broad sense and my own history from childhood on It’s a book I’m very proud of. I even recorded the audio book myself, all 183 pp.
Question: I’m glad to hear you’ve made an audio book of On the Way Out, Turn Off the Light. I’ve had the pleasure of hearing your read your poetry on a number of occasions, and it’s always a treat.
Over the years, you’ve made personal appearances in over 500 places here and abroad. Your many readers think of you as iconic, and you have been an inspiration to generations of younger poets. What advice would you give a young poet just starting out?
Marge Piercy: Don’t take writing teachers too seriously. Learn what you can from each and don’t be surprised when they totally contradict what the last one told you.
Find other beginning writers and share work. That helps to keep you going. You need feedback and that’s a helpful place to get it. Read, read, read, read in the genres that excite you. But read like a writer, which means study what works and why and what doesn’t work and why. Look critically at all the craft elements in whatever you’re reading. See how the writers solved or didn’t the issues of craft in that novel, short story, memoir or poem.
Don’t take rejections to heart. Often you’re sending to someone who only publishes people they’ve heard of, or their friends. Just keep sending out. When you’re published anyplace, it makes it easier to get published – somebody voted for you. Take every opportunity to read and improve your reading style. By giving readings, you get feedback. Writing can be a lonely business so getting your work out to an audience can be a boost to your confidence.
Hold on to your politics and your identity. Don’t take critics seriously. They are always building their aesthetic on what has been done, not what you want to do.
Marge Piercy is the author of twenty poetry collections, a memoir, seventeen novels, five nonfiction books, and a book of short stories. Her work has been translated into twenty-three languages, and she has received many honors, including the Golden Rose, the oldest poetry award in the country. She lives on Cape Cod with her husband, Ira Wood. Her most recent book, On the Way Out, Turn Off the Light: Poems was published on September 29, 2020 by Knopf.