After a nine-year break, Kentucky writer Bobbie Ann Mason returns to the literary scene with her new novel, Dear Ann.
In a 2014 interview with Transatlantica, Bobbie Ann Mason was asked what she was currently working on. Her reply was stories taking place in California and involving Kentuckians. A book of “California stories” didn’t materialize, but the characters in Dear Ann did.
Her new novel may have her middle name in the title, but Mason says it’s not about her.
“That’s a kind of tease,” she explains. “It’s awfully hard to write anything autobiographical or even about a real person because it’s never going to turn out right if you’re really trying to do that. I think it’s autobiographical in a superficial way. I’m from Kentucky, went off to grad school and probably my sensibility is in there, but the actual story is not autobiographical.”
In what Kirkus calls “A beautifully written homage to the 1960s by a mature writer at the top of her literary power, Dear Ann is about main character Ann Workman trying to imagine how her life would have turned out if she’d gone to Stanford University instead of school on the East Coast. Mason says she wanted to write a novel set in the 1960s from the point of view of a student.
“I wanted to write about the innocence of that time,” she says. “It wasn’t all the major issues like civil rights and the war and the government. I thought I wanted to write about some young people caught up in that but they were basically trying to find themselves. They were exploring.”
Ann meets her boyfriend Jimmy, tries Indian food, smokes pot and discusses the Vietnam War over dinner. Stanford plays a big part in the novel, but the reader experiences it through Ann—and thus Mason’s—eyes.
Mason wasn’t able to visit the university for research and, therefore, her Stanford setting is imaginary. “I wanted to see the place and get it right and so I thought, I can’t go there, but the character could be like me. She would have to imagine it. Interestingly to me, as it turned out in her act of imagining an alternate setting for her life or her attempt to imagine a different road, she can’t get away from her real life story—the story with Jimmy.”
The novel is peppered with charming letters between Ann and her mother back home in Kentucky. Readers of Mason know that her home state of Kentucky is never far from her mind—or her work. She had plans to make a book out of the real-life letters her mother wrote her while she lived away but ended up using them as inspiration instead. The letters in Dear Ann are invented but just as authentic as their real counterparts.
Read an excerpt from Dear Ann here.
After high school in Mayfield and an English degree from the University of Kentucky, Mason went off to graduate school in New York and Connecticut and stayed there for decades. While she doesn’t want to be categorized as “just” a Southern writer, she calls Kentucky—where she’s lived since 1990 in Lexington—her “home base.”
“I think I felt that I could always go anywhere as long as I had that,” she explains. “It was an anchor. I always knew where home was. Now that I live in Kentucky again and my parents are gone, I think that changed my relationship to the material and to the story.”
Dear Ann is Mason’s fifth novel, but she’s perhaps best known for her short story collections. “Shiloh,” about a woman named Norma Jean who lifts weights in her living room while her husband Leroy is unemployed as the result of an accident, is widely anthologized and taught to college students.
Mason says she was thinking about the story and its gender roles recently.
“Leroy, he’s at a time when the feminist movement was fairly new and my editor at Harper and Rowe had described Leroy to me as somebody who felt that the ground was shifting under him and didn’t understand what was happening to him,” she says. “What was happening was that his wife was in action and pursuing a new life and Leroy was hobbled at home. So, that was a fairly new kind of situation, but now it’s not. What has happened in the meantime is that the gender roles have changed and blended and that people in Leroy’s situation may well have felt a kind of fragility of being threatened by this upheaval.”
It’s no surprise that “Shiloh” still holds up almost 40 years later. Mason’s work may be “Southern Gothic goes to the supermarket” as she once flippantly described it at the beginning of her career, but her stories are timeless.
She does admit she prefers writing novels and is proud of the ones she’s written, but she wants to try and get back to writing short stories. She still has the California stories from that project that led to Dear Ann and has plans to complete the volume.
“There is so much to do, and writing takes a lot of time,” Mason laments. For now, she is at home in Kentucky managing a large fleet of cats and dogs, hiking and reading Elena Ferrante in lieu of traveling.
Dear Ann is one of our Fall/Winter Reads for 2020. View the full reading list here.