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Mary Lee Settle: the Lioness In Winter

ISSUE:  Autumn 1996

To read Mary Lee Settle is to be airborne. Airborne in a small plane with a group of people determined to tell you stories, and not merely the stories of their lives, but the stories of their land, their country; they show you their wounds. You are encased in this airplane, and the trip is inescapable. But it is a journey you very much want to be on. Like reading Jane Austen, we, as readers, become privileged eavesdroppers, stationed somewhere barely outside the action of the plot. It could be a marvelously appointed drawing room; it could be the front lines of war. In Choices, the author’s 13th novel, we “listen in” to Melinda’s phone conversation with her mother as if we’re overhearing a good story and can’t stop listening. She’s asking her mother to send her party dresses, that there are plenty of parties, when we readers know that the only party going on is a bloodbath between the coal miners and the coal companies. Publishers Weekly said this novel was the author’s best since The Beulah Quintet and that it was the “keenly observed story of one woman’s passage through the storms of the 20th century.” In Choices, Settle takes Melinda, her brave and compassionate woman of the South, on a harrowing trip through the coal wars, the Republican cause in Spain, and the civil rights struggle of the 1960’s. But as an author, Settle is equally comfortable on foreign soil. Fellow novelist, George Garrett remarks that Settle “seems to be able to present wholly credible characters of every race, creed, color, age, national origin, and sexual preference. She appears to be in no way limited by social class or background. Her Turks, Africans, Chinese, Englishwomen and Scotsmen—all are fully imagined.”

She is best known for The Beulah Quintet, a series of novels that includes Prisons, O Beulah Land, Know Nothing, The Scapegoat and The Killing Ground. Except for the Faulkner’s Snopes trilogy, Garrett says, no other American writer has attempted a work so ambitious.

“In the Quintet, I had a subject so powerful, it wouldn’t let me go,” Settle says.

These books move from the 17th century to the present and are linked together by a network of families and kinships. The novels cover the English Civil Wars, the French and Indian Wars, the American Revolution, the Civil War and the coal strike of 1912. In her most recent novel, at least for this reader, the scenes set in the coal wars of Kentucky were among the most compelling, most acutely felt, in a lifetime of literary reading.

“Remember (what) I saw in my lifetime. I saw what had been a virgin country descimated by industry. And I think I was marked by it. And also, I got sick of the legends of history.” Mary Lee Settle, radio interview for “Go Tell It On the Mountain.”

Other readers will insist that her travel book, Turkish Reflections, is her best work and still others will point to All The Brave Promises: Memories of Aircraft Woman 2nd Class 2146391, as her highest point in a full writing life. But which is the author’s favorite book? To learn that, I have to travel myself.


Off a small country road and up a slight hill stands Mary Lee Settle. She both is and is not the literary lioness I always envision. For one thing, she is barefoot.

Her house, the one she shares with her husband, William L. Tazewell, is alone amid this small wood. She is at her door, waiting for the interviewer on a sunny afternoon at the nadir of autumn.

The interviewer lugs a stack of books written either by her or about her. Among the books are first edition hardbacks, novels of hers that I will be too embarrassed to ask her to sign, one of them Blood Tie for which she won a National Book Award, along with a literary biography—George Garrett’s Understanding Mary Lee Settle—that I should have finished before the interview. After all, her most recent novel, Choices, entranced me during the long rainy summer of 1995, and I should have been more eager to finish a book about how she makes her books. But maybe I don’t want to know too much about the magic.

In a way, I have dogged her tracks for years. I began studying fiction writing at the University of Virginia in 1983, the year after she stopped teaching it. During one of the first social events I attended there, I was seated next to a poet named Richard Jones.

“Have you met Mary Lee Settle?” he asked and when I replied no, intending to discuss The Beulah Quintet, he interrupted and went on, “Well, you should meet her. Your speech patterns are exactly like hers.” That makes sense, I thought. I grew up in Southwestern Virginia and she grew up in West Virginia, on the same street as a cousin of mine who talks about her at every family reunion.

Then when her book Celebration came out in 1986 I attended a reading she gave at Westminister Presbyterian Church in Charlottesville. I was surprised to see a room absolutely full but the person to whom all this attention was directed was seated by herself on a small divan, all alone, and no one, it seemed, had the courage to go up and chat with her. “Is this what happens when you acquire fame?” I thought. “You’re completely alone?” I wanted no part of it. My own claim to fame as one of George Garrett’s writing students had been that I was the only student with courage enough to give Robert Giroux a ride to the airport after the famous publisher’s visit to the University of Virginia. And I couldn’t let her sit there alone. So I joined her on the divan and we chatted and asked each other polite questions.

During the interview at her home, she asks me, “Do you have a tape recorder? In case I make a fool of myself, I want to know it.”

I set up the recorder although I can’t imagine her making a fool of herself. I show her the first editions. I get an answer to my question. Prisons is her favorite.

I bring up The New York Times review of her latest book. It is a mean-spirited piece of writing and I suspect it will inspire the lioness to roar. I wait.

“Oh, to hell with it,” she says dismissively and waves her gnarled hand.

What? Is this a new Mary Lee Settle, a mellow Mary Lee Settle? She had actually shrugged. Where is the roar from the literary lioness?

In truth, Choices got a starred, boxed review in Publishers Weekly, a glowing front-page review in The Los Angeles Times, raves in the Chicago and San Francisco papers, and a double-page spread in The Washington Post. The book sold 20,000 copies last summer, when it was just out.

Then I bring up the selling of her first novel.


It was The Love Eaters and it was rejected by every major publisher in the United States and almost every publisher in England. But after British publisher Heinemann brought it out in 1954, five of the same American publishers who rejected it in the first place asked for it back again. She picked Harpers. The reviews in the London papers had been very good. A friend of hers, Max Steele, brought The London Times and the Observer reviews in a jar of watermelon pickle from North Carolina and passed it to her through a train window as she was about to leave Paris. She read the rave reviews on the train to London. “The rest was a Walter Mitty dream,” she writes in her new introduction to The Love Eaters.

By now, her entire backlist has been bought by the University of South Carolina Press and Settle has written new introductions for each book, telling the story behind the story for each one of the books. Only another writer knows the generosity of this. Beginning writers need to know how to trust the process. They can learn that trust through their own apprenticeship but they can also hear about it from an established writer. And established writers don’t always share. After one visiting writer left a stint at a colleague’s university, a friend of mine observed: “The students were so disappointed. This writer would not take them “backstage.” “Settle’s new introductions show what’s behind the curtain. But then writerly generosity should not be a surprise from Settle, who created the PEN Faulkner Award for Fiction, which is judged by fiction writers and now thought of as one of the highest honors a fiction writer can achieve.

During the interview, Settle reveals that a first edition of The Love Eaters recently sold for $400. She says this as if she’s reporting prices at a recent auction, says it as if it has happened to somebody else’s book. What’s happened to her passion, that legendary quality that’s been described to me as “explosive”? There’s a serenity emerging from the same writer who has been quoted as saying that the entire publishing industry, though it’s dependent upon writers for its very existence, “still treats its writers like shit.”

Then we talk about writing and about being mothers. She says she was forced to write only during the school calendar year. Her eyes widen. She seems to feel the constriction anew. The fire must be in there after all.

“How do you feel about those West Virginia jokes? The ones that make everyone from West Virginia out to be dumb hicks?”

“They make me mad as hell. Only I can tell them,” she roars.

There it is. The sound and the fury I’ve heard so much about.


“Something broke, and it wasn’t a bone. It was the massed fury against the ignominy of all the brave promises, all the decisions, ending up flat on my back in the rain with my cap rolled away in the dark, my few treasures lost and a bunch of drunken foreign conscripts yelling at me. Out of me rumbled a fury all the way from Morgan’s raiders and a language I didn’t know I knew.” from All The Brave Promises: Memories of Aircraft Woman 2nd Class 2146391 by Mary Lee Settle.

Mary Lee Settle is against stereotyping people and making fun of them because of where they come from, because of the color of their skin, because of how much or how little money they have. She is a liberal. In her house in the country there is a postcard of Newt Gringrich over the switchplate for her kitchen’s overhead light. The switch is located right where the Republican’s nose used to be before she cut it out. Settle flicks it. “Doesn’t he look like Hitler?” she says. She is a Democrat. It is no secret. It is what inspired the bad review in The Times. That author is a conservative columnist. It is also no accident that Choices moved me so much that I traveled out this road to interview its author. After all, the book was dedicated to me. “To Southern liberals, past and present wherever they may be” reads the inscription on its front page.

But superstitious souls need not worry that the bad luck associated with the number 13 has anything to do with this author’s 13th book. Settle was 76 when Choices was published and now, at 78, she is, in her own words, “frantically” working on the 14th.

The next book is a memoir. “It’s not how I became a writer or any of that stuif. It’s about my grandmother,” she says. “She got the first divorce ever granted in her county in West Virginia.”

In an interview with the radio series “Go Tell It on The Mountain,” Settle says, “When I hear somebody say they want to be a writer, I think they’re balmy. I never wanted to. I don’t like doing it. It takes more energy than any other thing I have ever done in my life.”

From this and other essays she has done about writing, you do get the sense that she was called to be a novelist, dragged there almost.

She began on a little stage in West Virginia when she was 12 years old. She was to portray a Chinese nurse.

“But the total recall is of standing there alone, with Sara Spencer’s voice coming out of the darkness, “Again . . .again. . . . No, Mary Lee, you are not a silly little girl in a costume. You are an amah, a nurse. . . . Finally I, an aging, dignified Chinese amah, who was responsible, spoke my lines and it was right, true pitch, and I knew it and she knew it, and I went home on the bus after dark completely happy. That night, with that voice coming out of the darkness, I learned that empathy, in writing or in acting, is what makes a fictional person ring true, and all the facts of life cannot replace it.” From “Shared Voices” by Mary Lee Settle (Missouri Review).

Before ever writing a novel, Settle wrote plays. And as she writes in her introduction to Love Eaters, and The Kiss of Kin, “By 1952, I had written five plays in four years. None of them ever saw a stage.” Then she decided she would produce her last play herself.

“I would be everything the theater had taught me was needed—the director, the actors, the props, the scenery. In short, before I knew what I was doing, I was turning my play . . . into a novel.”

George Garrett observes in Understanding Mary Lee Settle, that each book “in whatever time and whatever setting, is unusual for the number and variety of dimensional characters.” Without using one theatrical metaphor, Garrett seems to have come to the same conclusion that Settle came to with her references to “everything . . . the director, the actors, the props, the scenery.”

After her childhood in West Virginia, she was sent to Sweet Briar and after two years there, she left. She married an Englishman; she bore a son; she divorced her husband; she went to war; she survived cancer. In 1987 she was confirmed as a convert to the Roman Catholic Church. She took everything she had and, working hard, she put it into her art.

“I don’t know what creativity is. I think we’ve all got a part of our brain and soul and mind that makes things up. Whatever you make . . . that is in effect something out of nothing is what I call creative. I don’t care whether it’s an apple pie or a rug or a hook. It requires a certain occupied concentration . . . I think we’ve all got it. Some of us aren’t brave enough to let it develop. It can be pretty scary.” Mary Lee Settle, radio interview.

Reading Garrett’s book about Settle, it is clear that the literary lioness came to several conclusions about writing and about the fame that sometimes comes with writing when her career was very new. For one thing, she resolved to avoid the literary life. Right after her first novel was accepted for publication, she attended a luncheon with several other quite famous writers and was shocked at what she found. They were bitter. They were arrogant. They were trashing other writers. She saw that it was not the fame but the seeking of fame that had ruined them. She made several resolutions: “I vowed to find my energy from within. . . . I resolved to be grateful, .., and to forget publishing as soon as I could and get back to work.”

The year after she won the National Book Award for Blood Tie, she was diagnosed with cancer. In a way, it was just another battle. She won. She says she was in the middle of writing another book and just had to get back to work.

And work is what she’s done. After Blood Tie, Garrett says, “There has been no slowing down.”

Settle has studied the Alexander Technique for more than 50 years. In a non-fiction piece called “Alexander Training,” she writes that, “At 78 my movement is more lithe than it was when I saw myself as a vulnerable, half-blind adolescent.” In one of our many coincidental connections, I have also studied and written about the Alexander Technique with the same teacher she is using now. After our interview, she prints out from her computer the new introductions and the Alexander Training piece. She lends me a copy of The Missouri Review that carries her memoir “Shared Voices.” We talk about the editor there and how a story of mine was considered.

“That editor wants an essay from me. But I don’t have any essays.”

“This,” I say, holding up the Alexander Training piece, “is an essay.”

Temporarily forgetting I am in the room, she goes to the telephone. “Where’s that number?” she says in that unmistakable, gravelly voice. On only one other occasion have I seen her speak so distractedly. At a reading of Choices, as she is talking with George Garrett, she says suddenly, “Did you hear that? A low-flying angel has just crossed the room.” And George, though I know him to be a cynic’s cynic, looks up; he looks up.


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