Richard McCann's Elegy to a 'Mother of Sorrows' Richard McCann's autobiographical novel Mother of Sorrows took 20 years to complete. The author tells Jacki Lyden how the book came to be.
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Richard McCann's Elegy to a 'Mother of Sorrows'

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Richard McCann's Elegy to a 'Mother of Sorrows'

Richard McCann's Elegy to a 'Mother of Sorrows'

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Richard McCann is co-director of the creative writing program at American University. His new book is called "Mother of Sorrows." The language in this book is so precise and yet so delicate, it has the force of a precious old photograph rendered in the faintest of tints. "Mother of Sorrows" is, at once, autobiographical and novelized. It's drawn praise from some of the top writers of our time. And Richard McCann joins us now.

Welcome, Richard.

Mr. RICHARD McCANN (Author, "Mother of Sorrows"; Co-director, Creative Writing Program, American University): Glad to be here.

LYDEN: "Mother of Sorrows" reads as an elegy to your mother and, also, to suburban innocence that, I think, some of us can glimpse today but can't really possibly experience because this book is set in the past. Would you tell us a little bit about the time and place where you grew up?

Mr. McCANN: I grew up right outside of Washington in a small suburb called Carroll Knolls with identical brick houses and picture windows. And it's a place I yearned to escape and did escape when I was 17 and never imagined myself returning to as a subject.

LYDEN: So when you look at this--because I was turning it over thinking, `Is it a memoir? Is it a novel?'--trying to find out if there was a clue (laughs). And I just really wasn't sure.

Mr. McCANN: I think it says `fiction' on the back, but I worked on this book for 17 years. And for 17 years, right up until weeks after I turned it in, the question was: Is it fiction or is it a memoir? But, in fact, there's too much that's invented and too much omitted for it to be called a memoir.

LYDEN: Let's have you set the scene for us by reading from the beginning of the book.

Mr. McCANN: (Reading) `My brother, Davis, went to his room, where he listened to Radio Moscow on his short-wave. As for me, I cleared the table. "Sit with me, Son," my mother said. "Let's pretend we're sitting this dance out." She told me I was her best friend. She said I had the heart to understand her. She sat at the table as if she were waiting to be photographed, holding her cigarette aloft. "Have I told you the story of my teapot?" she asked, lifting the limoge pot from the table. In fact, by then my mother had already told me about almost everything, but I wanted to hear everything again.'

LYDEN: The mother in this book--and I just adore her--she...

Mr. McCANN: She would be pleased.

(Soundbite of laughter)

LYDEN: Well, here's why. She struck me as a diva, you know, in a world of suburban carbon copies, as only the '50s could have made people carbon copies. And it's clear that from the start her son is fascinated by her difficulties and her dramas. Tell us a little bit more about your mom.

Mr. McCANN: That's autobiographical, the fascinated with her difficulties and her dramas. As a child, I spent a long time, many weekend afternoons, going through her old photographs, particularly a set of photographs that were taken of her by a Life photographer in 1945 in her apartment at Greenwich Village, where she's standing before a mirror brushing her dark hair. And I looked at that photo for hours and hours until years and years went by, dreaming myself into her life and dreaming myself into the life that she had mythicized--I realized when I had grown up. But it was a life of New Yorkers, a life to which I felt I had belonged. But this was my mother's genius. She made you believe that, in fact, she had had a glamorous life.

In fact, she was a manager of a Lott's Candy Store(ph) in Midtown after her first marriage ended. The Life photographer was doing an article on single gals in New York during the war, and her photo never did appear in Life magazine. They found out she wasn't single, but she was a divorcee, which was an entirely other category. I think that she invented herself. I think she would have been a great actress. And, unfortunately for her, she had a very small stage, a suburban living room, and a very small audience, a few sons. But she played herself larger. And I have to say when I was older and realized to what degree she had not invented herself, but she had exaggerated herself, I felt a terrible disappointment in her, almost as if she had betrayed me.

LYDEN: Because she wasn't so glamorous.

Mr. McCANN: Yes, because it turned out she was real and because it turned out life was real.

LYDEN: Let's reconstruct her--at least your sort of idealized version of her a little bit. Can you read from the section--it's just small--`Our mother of the white silk gloves'?

Mr. McCANN: (Reading) `This is my mother, our mother of the white silk gloves, our mother of the veiled hat, our mother of ...(unintelligible) and heartaches, our mother of the mixed messages, our mother of sudden attentiveness, our mother of sudden anger, our mother of apology.'

LYDEN: Now there's another strain in this book, which is that path to self-identity as it relates to the character of the narrator, who I do not call you. You're never named--you don't use your name in here, which is interesting. But it is about a young boy who is growing up with a difficult, non-traditional path, and he's trying to figure out his sexual identity. Did you really dress up in your mother's clothes, or is that something invented?

Mr. McCANN: Ohh, I really dressed up in my mother's clothes when I was in fifth and sixth grade, just like in the story.

LYDEN: It's also a double portrait of these two young men finding their way into adulthood and sexuality, and their routes couldn't be more different. What are they?

Mr. McCANN: The two young men of--the two brothers?

LYDEN: Yes, who are both gay in this book.

Mr. McCANN: Right. One is much more rebellious and angry and open and brave, I think, and he's the one who suffers the most in the sense that he dies young. The other, the narrator, is the more afraid and the more timid and perhaps the more wary of his own survival and the one who, in fact, does survive.

LYDEN: And can we bring this back now to your own life?

Mr. McCANN: I had a brother who was a year older than I, and we were dressed as twins when we were young, as is true of the narrator and his brother in this book. And my brother--he died as a drug overdose, as this brother does, when he was in his mid-30s. In many ways, that was the genesis of this book for me--was the very sudden death of my brother and discovering in my mid-30s that I no longer had access to a past that a brother or a sibling would allow. And I felt in many ways that I was making a kind of amend to my brother for perhaps not having been enough on his side. He--as it happens in families, roles got parceled out, and he was the angry one and I was the good one. And after his death, of course, I found out that I was angry, too. You know, those roles had been fiction.

LYDEN: Your mother, I presume, has gone now.

Mr. McCANN: Yes. She died about seven years ago.

LYDEN: Were you eventually able to talk to her about the difficult things, about coming out as a homosexual man, about being a wanderer in a world that had not wandered when you were a young man, wanting the big city, those sorts of things?

Mr. McCANN: I had coped with my own sense of shame largely by moving farther and farther and farther away from my family, until I was living close to the Arctic Circle in Sweden.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. McCANN: So farther north, I would have frozen to death. The--finally, when I did move back to America and, by accident of job, moved back to where I was raised to Washington, DC, I began a new relation with her. And after my brother's death also, there was a different relation with her because we were not doing our--my brother and I were no longer doing our separate parts. Yes, she was somebody, I think, who ultimately came to understand, who ultimately felt that something a parent might have from her child is a sense of a larger life.

LYDEN: Was her name really Maria Dolores?

Mr. McCANN: It was Maria Dolores, and I could not separate myself from something very close to her name, in part, because my mother did used to say her name at Mother of Sorrows but, also, because initially this book was, for me, a way to separate from my mother. The writing of it was about separation. By the time I had finished it and she was dead, it really was also a way, in fact, to re-create her, and I wanted to stay close to her.

LYDEN: Well, thank you very much.

Richard McCann is the author of "Mother of Sorrows."

Thanks again for speaking with us, Richard.

Mr. McCANN: Thanks very much, Jacki.

LYDEN: That's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Jacki Lyden.

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