Mary Jessamyn West was born July 18, 1902, near North Vernon, Indiana, to Eldo Roy and Grace Anna Milhous West. When she was six years old, her family moved to Los Angeles County, settled for a time on an orange ranch. Two years later they moved to nearby Yorba Linda. After her graduation from Union High School, she graduated with a Bachelor of Arts from Whittier College. In 1923, she married Harry Maxwell McPherson, and moved with him to Hemet, California, where she worked for one year as a school secretary. “The principal was glad, after that one year, to give me a job as a teacher,” she says. For the next four years she taught in a one-room school.
In 1929, after West had resigned her teaching position, she studied at Oxford University during the summer session, visited Paris, and then returned to her studies at the University of California at Berkeley. She was in the midst of preparing to take her orals for her doctorate degree when she had the tuberculosis hemorrhage that was the beginning of years in bed. In August, 1932, she entered La Vina Sanatorium. At one point, the doctors said she wouldn’t recover, that she should be taken home to die. West has written of this time in the first section of The Woman Said Yes. She did recover, though it was not until 1934 that she was able to join her husband in Mt. Shasta, where he was principal of the high school. In 1940, the McPhersons moved to Napa, where her husband became the superintendent of schools.
West began her writing career by publishing in small literary magazines, a practice she notes “spared her some disappointment.” Her stories have since been widely published in more popular magazines, and included in many of the Best Short Story collections. Her first collection was published in 1945: The Friendly Persuasion. West’s published novels include: The Witch Diggers (1951), Cress Delahanty (1953), Little Men (1954), South of Angels (1960), A Matter of Time (1966), Leafy Rivers (1967), Except For Me and Thee (1969), and The Massacre at Fall Creek (1975). Volumes of short stories include: Love, Death and the Ladies Drill Team (1955), Crimson Ramblers of the World, Farewell (1970), and The Woman Said Yes (1976). Nonfiction works include: The Reading Public (1952), and Love Is Not What You Think (1959). She was written a book of poetry, The Secret Look (1974), and an opera libretto based on the life of Audubon, A Mirror for the Sky (1948).
West met me at the gate of the Napa Valley house where she lives with her husband, Harry McPherson. She took me to the small room where she writes. It contains a wooden desk, a chaise lounge where she sat while we talked, a chair, and at one end, a bed built into a windowed alcove that looks out into the front yard. She writes sitting up in this bed, a habit carried over from the years she spent recovering from tuberculosis.
During the course of the interview, McCall’s telephoned to ask her to do an article on Ruth Stapleton, President Jimmy Carter’s faith-healing sister. She was invited to sit on a panel with Alex Haley. Interruptions continued. She herself would stop to point out a hummingbird by the front window, the quail in the driveway, or the white rooster. A gray cat with crossed eyes lives in a cupboard in the house, two Pekinese wander about, and Speck, the hunting dog, watches from the outside.
“On February ninth, I am going back to Indiana to receive the Indiana Nobel Prize.” She laughed. “They’re very smart about whom they give it to . . . Kurt Vonnegut got it two years ago.” She seemed pleased and amused. But at the first question, West pounded her knee in what seemed complete disgust.
When did you first feel you were a writer?
I’m not pounding my knee because of that question. I am pounding my knee because of the discrepancy between the desire when I was very young and of which I have proof, and that I was so late in getting at it. I have just come upon a large scrapbook given to me by my father and mother when I was fourteen years old. I think they expected me to paste pictures in it, or keep programs. I have it here. In it, you can see, I have written thirty plots. Across about half of them, I have written, “NUTS.” That is actually very compassionate editing. Here is plot nine . . . labeled “decent.”
A hobo walking along a road in Autumn. The air is crisp. Hobos don’t usually look happy. This one does. He is walking alone dreaming. He is going back to his only daughter. He has been away for a long time. He wonders if she is grown up now. It is almost evening when he reaches the town. A town of little homes. Their lights come on. He goes to the city directory and he casually asks about a girl named, blank, blank, blank. (I hadn’t thought of a name yet.) He asks if they will tell him where she can be found. The hobo is in a hurry to find her now. It is now beginning to get even a little chill. The lights of the girl’s house are all lit up. The hobo decides he had better look in the window. He does. He sees people and he realizes that his daughter is about to be married. This is a home of wealthy people. Then he looks at himself. He realizes that he is ill-kempt, dirty, ill to look upon. The hobo stays to see his daughter come down the stairs. He thinks she would be ashamed to have a hobo enter and claim to be her father. So for her own good, before someone might recognize him (he has anticipated seeing her for years), with a muttered prayer for her he stumbles out into the gathering mist.
It sounds a little like Enoch Arden. He was a man who came back. But there I was at fourteen doing that. Wanting to write. But I never told a soul. I wasn’t the kind of child who spent time telling stories. As an adult, I tell anecdotes, but I am wholly a writer with a pen in my hand. And I am even a reader with a pen in my hand. I almost feel as if I am not complete as a human being unless I have that pen in my hand. I really don’t feel happy reading unless I have the pen so that I can write out great hunks of quotations from books I like. I cannot resist doing it. It is as if the writing comes down and what I read flows back up the veins and becomes part of me. Lots of people don’t like it, but I even like the feel of writing. I like marking the signs that stand for words on a page. I like the look of it. I’m not a person who wants to crochet or peel a carrot. There’s other work I do, but I prefer it to be big muscle work. I want to sweep and scrub. But writing . . . just the muscular physical activity of writing, I love.
And how did it begin? First, I was mad about reading. Sometimes I think a writer should make up his mind whether he’s going to be a writer or a reader. There isn’t time for both. I’ve never quite made up my mind. Gertrude Schweitzer, a very good writer, made the statement that she only permitted herself to read thirty minutes a day. But as for me, I go to sleep reading and I wake up reading. Somehow I have the feeling that in some book is the great treasure I’ve been looking for all my life.
Did you tell anyone you wanted to be a writer?
For me the beginning of wanting to write was never telling anyone, never taking any writing classes. I’d never seen a living writer. I’d never met anyone who had seen a living writer. I thought that it was so God-given, so enormously strange and peculiar a thing that was visited upon a writer, that I surely couldn’t be one of those persons. I didn’t know that a writer was just a human being who writes. Cellini said that in foggy weather he could see a halo around his head. I had the idea that the writer must be given some sign by which he would know that he was a writer.
But I did begin with the plot book. Real plots for short stories. Ways to avoid saying, “He said, she said.” “He stammered, he enumerated.” All that now has gone out of style since Hemingway. I also kept historical tidbits that I thought I could somehow insert into a story. “Bola Pasha” (whoever he was) “before he was to be executed got himself a new pair of white gloves to wear for the execution.” I thought I would surely be able to use that.
Did your family know about your plot book at the time you were working on it?
I don’t know. My mother did know some things I wrote. I know because I hurt her feelings terribly. Hurt my father’s feelings too. In a notebook somewhere I wrote, “My mother is a slattern.”
Well, she was. I have exactly the same tendency. When she went out, she was snappy. Too snappy. Split skirts with taffeta pleated in the split, that kind of thing. I wanted her to look more like a grandmother. Gray hair, big fat bosom.
So she read someplace, “My mother is a slattern.”
My father sat me down and cried. He said, here I was, the eldest daughter and I was supposed to be a stay and a comfort to my mother and why did I write things like that?
Well, I went into the bathroom. While I was there, I thought up something to say to him that was just about as bad. It was stupid of me. I came out and said, “Papa, I would like you to know that whereas in the past I’ve been a very rough, uncouth kind of an animal, a dog, I’m now going to be a sweet, gentle, domesticated dog,” and on and on. I was a would-be writer working on something. I don’t know what my father thought.
Didn’t your father write some poetry?
Not poetry. Rhymes. He would send them back East from California when we moved there. Things like, “Oh, you poor benighted Hoosiers.” Some were published in the newspaper. He had not at all the gusto my mother had.