A few words with Marge Piercy, winner of the 1993 Arthur C. Clarke Award

Marge Piercy has written 17 novels including the classics Woman on the Edge of Time and He, She and It. Born in center city Detroit, educated at the University of Michigan and Northwestern, the recipient of four honorary doctorates, she is active in antiwar, feminist and environmental causes.

A popular speaker on college campuses, she’s been a featured writer on Bill Moyers’ PBS Specials, Prairie Home Companion, Fresh Air, the Today Show, and many radio programs nationwide including Air America and Oprah & Friends. Her poems are read frequently on Garrison Keillor’s The Writer’s Almanac.

Praised as one of the few American writers who are accomplished poets as well as novelists, she is also the master of many genres: her cyberpunk novel He, She, and It won the Arthur C. Clarke Award for Best Science Fiction in the United Kingdom in 1993.

MSR: Which of your 17 novels do you consider your personal greatest success…not necessarily commercially, but for you personally as a writer-? Was there one that made you say “Yes- I captured it!”?

Marge Piercy: I don’t have a favorite novel.  What I can say is that I vastly prefer and am much prouder of the less conventional novels – WOMAN ON THE EDGE OF TIME, HE SHE AND IT, CITY OF DARKNESS, CITY OF LIGHT, BRAIDED LIVES and SEX WARS.  I am less proud of the more conventional novels that focus primarily on relationships, although I am invested in them also.

Some of those are historical novels concerned with how we got where we are; some are speculative fiction concerned with ‘if only’ and ‘if this goes on’ (to use Isaac Asimov’s categories of science fiction). 

I discovered, among many other revelations, that I’m not as good a person as I had imagined.  Examining one’s own life is a critical nightmare if you’re not trying to make it pretty.

MSR:  Of He, She and It, which won the Arthur C. Clarke award, Adrienne Rich once said:

Piercy’s vision of a post-greenhouse-effect, nuclear-blasted world interlaced with the Prague ghetto of 1600, and the efforts of certain people to stay human in both, is threaded with the questions: What is it to be human? … What does `life’ mean? What are the limits of creativity? As always, Piercy writes with high intelligence, love for the world, ethical passion and innate feminism.”   

How do you view this novel now, from the armchair of 2020? 

Marge Piercy: I had read the scientific papers about climate change when I was writing the novel; however, global warming has moved so much faster that my projections were a little optimistic.  We have orca off Cape Cod this summer besides increasing numbers of great white sharks.  A manatee was swimming in one of the south facing harbors.  We have had the worst drought I’ve ever experienced in my 45 years of living here.  Trees and shrubs are dying.  The grass is all straw.  Mice keep coming into the house where there are four cats because they need water.  We have moved from zone 6 to zone 7 agriculturally.  Massachusetts is experiencing an increasing number of tornadoes.  We worry about hurricanes.  There are far fewer butterflies and warblers and far more flies. 

The ethical issues about artificial intelligence have only grown, as has our intimacy with and reliance upon the internet, social media and our other interactive devices.  Corporations have greatly increased their control with Citizens United and super pacs.  Elections have become sound bites and info-mation.  The huge multicorps are obviously non-national.  The gap between the few with huge wealth and those barely getting by has increased exponentially. The middle class is shrinking; people have not only less money but less power.  Fewer and fewer workers are unionized.  Aging nuclear power plants are endangering a high percentage of the population of this and European countries like France, and of course Japan. All in all, the world of HE, SHE AND IT is becoming reality much faster than I imagined.  But I was prescient enough to be glad I’m 84.  Dystopia is coming fast, perhaps on the wings of a political leader.

MSR: You’ve turned 84; and you have 17 novels, 20 poetry collections, a memoir, a book of short stories and four nonfiction books under your belt (scores of other writing as well). Your new book, On the Way Out, Turn Off the Light: Poems is forthcoming from Knopf, September 30, 2020. You’ve spoken in over 500 places here and abroad. You are considered by many loving readers as iconic. What advice would you give your younger self, just starting out?

Don’t take writing teachers too seriously.  Learn what you can from each and don’t be surprised when they totally contradict what the last one told you. 

Find other beginning writers and share work.  That helps to keep you going.  You need feedback and that’s a helpful place to get it.  Read, read, read, read in the genres that excite you.  But read like a writer, which means study what works and why and what doesn’t work and why.  Look critically at all the craft elements in whatever you’re reading.  See how the writers solved or didn’t the issues of craft in that novel, short story, memoir or poem.

Don’t take rejections to heart.  Often you’re sending to someone who only publishes people they’ve heard of, or their friends.  Just keep sending out.  When you’re published anyplace, it makes it easier to get published – somebody voted for you.  Take every opportunity to read and improve your reading style.  By giving readings, you get feedback. Writing can be a lonely business so getting your work out to an audience can be a boost to your confidence. 

Hold on to your politics and your identity.  Don’t take critics seriously.  They are always building their aesthetic on what has been done, not what you want to do. 

For more about Marge Piercy, see her full autobiography HERE and visit her official website HERE.


Marge Piercy‘s work has been translated into twenty-three languages, and she has received many honors, including the Golden Rose, the oldest poetry award in the country. She lives on Cape Cod with her husband, Ira Wood.
Her new book, On the Way Out, Turn Off the Light: Poems is forthcoming from Knopf, September 30, 2020.
Her work appears in several issues of Mason Street.

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