Alice Mattison in New Haven, Connecticut

Sentence Life

New Haven, Alice Mattison says, is like a novel. As a novelist, she should know.

The city is small enough that people’s lives inevitably intersect in multiple ways, creating interesting stories, she says. And New Haven has clear boundaries. “It has the water and it has East Rock and West Rock, which also makes it like a novel,” she says. “It makes it to think about. It doesn’t just stretch on in all directions…”

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Mattison’s work spans poetry, short fiction, novels and nonfiction, and the written word often figures directly into the action. Her 1999 novel The Book Borrower is structured around—what else?—a borrowed book and its role in the friendship between two women. Her latest book, Conscience (2018), is a novel about a novel and the effect it has on the lives of the “real” people behind its characters.

Before she became a novelist, Mattison earned a PhD in Renaissance poetry from Harvard and published a collection of poems. Poetry “made me aware of the word more than the paragraph or the page,” she says, “and I’m still a writer who focuses on words and sentences, and I revise again and again and again.” Being a poet also made it hard, Mattison says, to learn how to write a plot. She recalls telling an editor how, as a teacher in the Bennington College MFA program, she “was always talking about plot,” to which the editor replied, “You—hah!”

While Mattison’s work does have all the juicy situations a plot might require—family secrets, sex, war, betrayal—it’s the psychology of her characters that drives the action, with a poet’s attention to detail evident on nearly every page. It can be seen in her imagery—a character from The Book Borrower, for example, was “made by committee from glossy scraps of magazine ads” to reflect her unmoored nature. It can be seen in the rhythm of her sentences—some galloping, some clipped—and in the simple, focused observations of her fictional worlds, so that a hot dog in Conscience can be both sensuously itself, warm and covered with mustard and eaten “delicately,” as well as the catalyst for a much larger conversation.

A native of Brooklyn, Mattison and her husband, Edward, spent a brief stint together in New Haven while he was in law school, left, then returned for good in 1972 with their first child in tow. Here, in her adopted city, she found a small poetry scene that helped her hone her work and publish her first book. But the going wasn’t easy, as she also taught, did volunteer work and raised three sons. “Women have been discouraged from writing for so long, and there’s that sense that writing is… self-indulgent, and if you really care, then you put it down and you look after your child,” she says. “Sometimes you’d be a pretty horrible person if you didn’t stop writing and look after the child, but at other times it’s hard to overcome the guilt. It’s hard to overcome other people’s expectation that you will give up your work and come and do stuff for the PTA.”

Mattison’s acute awareness of the struggle of women writers in particular may also have something to do with a personal fact she shares in The Kite and the String: How to Write With Spontaneity and Control—and Live to Tell the Tale (2016). She recalls writing letters for her maternal grandmother, who grew up in Eastern Europe and wasn’t taught to read or write because she was a girl. “The memory of my grandmother’s illiteracy breaks my heart,” she writes, “and perhaps because of her, writing—especially by women—seems blessed, lucky. It exists despite obstacles and efforts to prevent it.”

The Kite and the String is, at its heart, an argument for balance. Your imagination needs to take its flights of fancy, but if you’re going to succeed as a writer, both on the page and off, you also need a string in order to rein it in and exert some control. “It’s a matter of: sense what you need, indulge it, but not to the point where the children die of starvation,” Mattison says, laughing at the extreme suggestion. You can be an imaginative and creative soul, “but in order to do that and remain decent human beings, we’re going to have to over and over again sort of choose a middle ground.”

That writerly middle ground includes perseverance and consistency, traits that seem to spill over into Mattison’s personal life. She’s taught in Bennington’s MFA program for 24 years and counting. She’s working on two more books to add to the 13 she’s published. And, for 43 years, she’s lived in the same cozy stucco East Rock house with Edward, now shared with their dog, Harold, a rescue hastily named for a character in Mattison’s novel When We Argued All Night. The Mattisons’ house has an inviting porch, a shady back yard, lots of bookcases and a kitchen decorated with the artwork of their grandchildren.

New Haven has left an indelible mark not only on Mattison’s life but also on her work, where it frequently appears as the setting for her stories. Sometimes the city and its landmarks and institutions are named. Sometimes, as in The Book Borrower, it merely provides the inspiration. At least one reviewer assumed the fictional city in that novel was based on New York, Mattison says, which is fine. She figures that’s why the book sold well.

“I often wonder… if we’d ended up in New York, which is where we started, would I have been able to become a writer,” she muses, given the size of that city and its writers’ egos. “I’m not sure.” From Mattison’s perspective, New Haven doesn’t just resemble a novel; it’s also the right home for a novelist with perspective.

Alice Mattison

Written by Kathy Leonard Czepiel. Photographed by Dan Mims.

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