LOS ANGELES TIMES INTERVIEW : Harriet Doerr : When All of Life Is Important, the Search for the Right Word is Endless

Steve Proffitt, a contributing editor to Opinion, is project director for the Hajjar-Kaufman New Media Lab. He interviewed Harriet Doerr at the writer's home in Pasadena

When literary critics write about Harriet Doerr’s prose, they use words usually reserved for precious jewels, describing her writing style as luminary, lustrous or resplendent. And like a treasured stone, Doerr’s work is rare. Since she began writing 20 years ago, at age 65, Doerr has chiseled out two novels, “Stones for Ibarra,” and “Consider This, Senora ,” and a recently published collection of essays and short stories, “The Tiger in the Grass.” All told, her work constitutes perhaps 600 pages--but every word seems to shine with the long effort of fine cut stone.

While Doerr may not be entirely comfortable with the critics application of lapidary terms to her work, the metaphor fits. Her husband, Albert, was a mining engineer, born of American parents in Mexico. He spent much of his career working the mines of Mexico’s central plateau, and Harriet Doerr created homes for them and their two children in the tiny mining towns of the region. Her experiences in Mexico, and her fascination and regard for the people she met there, provided the grist for her late-blooming writing career.

Doerr’s husband died in 1972, and three years later she decided to return to school, and earn the degree that had been put aside four decades before in favor of marriage. She returned to Stanford, where she had met her husband, and surprised herself by enrolling in writing classes. In time she produced the stories that make up “Stones for Ibarra,” which she based on her own experiences in a small Mexican town. Published in 1983, it won her great critical praise, and a National Book Award. Ten years later she published “Consider This, Senora ,” also about U.S. expatriates in Mexico. “Tiger in the Grass,” published this year, contains two insightful autobiographical essays, along with early stories and vignettes. Now 85, Doerr’s failing eyesight makes it difficult for her to write.


Doerr says her love of words has been constant throughout her life. Yet she says she never thought about being a writer until her husband had died and her children were grown, “Mostly, I was too busy.” She reveals that she thinks nothing of spending an hour finding just the right word--only to erase it an hour later when a better one comes along. During a conversation at her Pasadena home, where she has lived since the early 1940s, Doerr talked about longevity, dying and her lifelong connection with the people of Mexico. *

Question When did you first visit Mexico?

Answer: The first time I went into the middle of Mexico was in 1935. My son had already been born and I was pregnant with my daughter. We went to spend Christmas week with my husband’s father in Mexico City. I didn’t fall in love with that country then, the way I did later. I thought it was fascinating and interesting, but it was only later, when I began to learn to speak Spanish, that I began to feel something that was more than understanding, more than compassion for the Mexican people. They had something that I didn’t have, something that made me more whole.

Q: Do you know what that is?

A: I think one big part is their attitude toward living and dying. They see life and death as running right along together. Death is very obvious in Mexico. You might be driving along a road, and see a little procession, with a man carrying a tiny coffin on his shoulder. And you knew that was the father of a little baby that had died. They don’t hide death the way we do here. Don’t you think an effort is made to sweep it under the bed? I find that most unfortunate. I think if you regard dying as a part of living it makes your life more complete, and it somehow gives you a wider point of view.

Q: There is a sense among many North Americans of fear and loathing toward Mexico. What do you see as the genesis of all that?

A: I think much of it has to do with ignorance, and I think that it’s encouraged in this country by certain politicians and others. But what is so odd is that the people are afraid of things that are different.

Different is wonderful. It’s why you want to go someplace new, because it is different. It’s like a puzzle. When you find out what all the differences are, then you begin to see the similarities.

Q: Does a similar level of mistrust and misunderstanding exist south of the border toward North Americans?

A: Probably. We lived in a tiny town and were the only North Americans in this little place. No one ever insulted us in any way. But Mexico has had lots of political trouble with the United States. We took a lot of their territory, five or six states, and that must bother them. But they’re getting them back, one by one, aren’t they?

You know, no one is pure. We pretty much killed all the Indians in North America. At least when Cortez and the Spanish conquered Mexico, they took the women to bed with them, and created this new race, which I think worked out quite well. It’s a very interesting combination. Look at the way it’s worked in their art, in their literature and churches.

But I don’t want to sound like a dreamy old woman. I understand the problems of all these babies being born at the county hospital. But with a country as poor as that one, next to a country as rich as this one, what can you expect?

Q: Yet if any one did mistake you for a dreamy old woman, all they’d need do is read your prose. Your work is characterized by a lack of sentiment. You write matter-of-factly about even painful things, like death.

A: I think the more matter-of-fact the style of writing, the more emotional impact it has on the reader. I hope I also present my writing in a way that makes the words resound. I think the short word is the best, if it fits. Some words have to be long, but you shouldn’t steer away from short words because they are simple. Simple sentences are marvelous.

Q: You also write a great deal about memory, and you seem to be fascinated with it. Is memory one of the most important tools a writer can draw on?

A: When you write, you dredge up a great deal of material from your subconscious--things you’d never remember otherwise. I’m sure of this, because other people who write also tell me this. And I believe the older you get, the more your memory and your imagination become one in the same. I see no harm in that. For instance, I’m sure what I remember of my childhood is totally different than what my brothers and sisters would say.

People ask me what makes me write this way, and why I make a certain character the way they are. No one else would have written “Stones for Ibarra,” given the thin plot of it, the way I did. But when you write fiction, you are in your characters, the good ones and the bad ones. Perhaps a mystery writer would take issue with that, if they’re writing about a serial killer or something awful. But the people I imagine have to somehow be inside of me. In “Stones for Ibarra,” there is a character named Chuy Santos, who really has no conscience whatsoever. He’s absolutely one of my favorites, because he is a thing I made. It’s much like making a child. So even though Chuy Santos has no conscience--and I hope I do--he’s very much a part of me.

Q: You also write about moments of almost perfect happiness, and about how one may not know, or understand these moments of happiness until later on, looking back.

A: That’s true, and it’s not just by comparison with trouble either. It isn’t just the contrast with unhappiness. But every now and then, something may remind me of a very happy time. Perhaps it’s a little piece of Spanish on the television, and it’s heart-stopping--you’re right back in that moment.

Happiness is a very positive thing, as opposed to contentment, which is more passive. I recall being at a conference in Park City, Utah, and a woman figured out I had been married for 42 years before my husband died. And she asked me, “Were you happy for those 42 years?” I simply couldn’t believe my ears that someone would say such a thing. I said I’d never heard of anyone being happy for 42 years!

Q: What do you think are the elements of happiness?

A: I don’t think it’s the absence of pain, or anything like that. True happiness is something like being quite young, and falling in love. You feel, transported--but I hate that word. Whatever it is, the feeling can come back, at least briefly, like a gentle knife thrust into your heart. Is that happiness? It can be just hearing a child say something wonderful and unusual, and you smile. Happiness can last just a minute, but those are the most important minutes of life.

Q: Yet why do we cling to the notion that material things will bring us happiness?

A: I think some material things do bring us happiness. I’m terribly glad that I have running hot water. We didn’t for a long while in Mexico, and I guess I was happy there without it, and when we did eventually get it, it seemed ever so glamorous. I think taking a hot bath is marvelous, and I’d hate to give it up. In Mexico, we had this old bath with lion’s feet, and these little animals would get inside the roof and run over the ceiling. They were called cacomixtle, and you would only see them at dusk. They looked like tiny squirrels, and I loved to hear them running and playing as I took my bath.

Cacomixtle--don’t you love that word? I think words are wonderful things.

Q: May I get back to the subject of mortality, and the awareness of death that you talked about earlier?

A: Remember, I’m 85, so I’m a lot more aware of my mortality than you are. I have to think about it, at least partly for practical reasons. I believe that when people die, they’re not transported to a cloud, or anywhere else. And the thought of repeating life again sounds to me awfully exhausting. For instance, coming back as someone in the little Mexican village where I lived, and having to struggle and work so hard, and perhaps watch my children die--that sounds like more than I could bear. And of course, those people have their religion to sustain them. They were all Catholic, except for the two Socialists, and the Marxist. And they knew we had no religion, but I think they thought we were so peculiar, being American anyway, that it didn’t make any difference.

But what I do believe is that, during your life, everything you do, and everyone you meet, rubs off in some way. Some bit of everything that you experience stays with everyone you’ve ever known, and nothing is lost. That’s what’s eternal, these little specks of experience in a great, enormous river that has no end.

Q: When you look back, and see you’ve had this life, and late in it some considerable success as a writer, do you surprise yourself?

A: I am surprised, but there’s a lot of luck at work there. My first book was turned down everywhere. Publishers would write back and say, “We like it, but what is it?” Just by chance a scout for Viking, a woman, read three chapters, and suggested I send them to an editor at Viking. So I did, and after about six weeks he wrote back and said send the rest, and a few months later he said they’d take it. But people don’t like to hear that it’s luck. Of course, you have to have something on the paper--but the rest is luck. There are thousands of wonderful works of prose--long and short--that never see the light of day.

Q: What do you think of the old saw that with age comes wisdom?

A: Not much. I think what you get from living is experience. And I think experience is wonderful, because it helps you find balance. But wisdom is a terribly big, important word. I’m not sure I know very many wise people. Wisdom about people is a very tricky thing because people rarely do what you expect them to do--they are always surprising you. And I never give advice. . . .

Q: Do you ever wonder, “What if I had started doing this at 40, or 30?”

A: I don’t, because I can’t imagine spending the time and going through the inner turmoil--energy’s too mild a word--when I had so much to do with my family. I know young people do it nowadays all the time. They have a husband, children and job--and they still write. I think that is remarkable and wonderful. But if I was in a room with a typewriter, and my husband or child went by, I think I would have stopped. I began writing when I was by myself. I had no husband, and my children were grown up and gone. I still have to be by myself.

Q: Are you surprised that you’ve lived so long, had such an extended life?

A: Terribly surprised. Every day I wake up and think, “Still here?” And, immediately, my next thought is what has to be done that day. Today was a very busy one. But I am way past the law of averages. So it’s a mixture of filling the time with some purpose, and accepting where you are on the scale of things. I accept that I am near the end of my life, and I’m thankful that I’m still here, and I can still talk to you.