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For Paley, It's Simply Not All That Simple

May 22, 1985|ELIZABETH MEHREN | Times Staff Writer

NEW YORK — Probably the primary characteristics of Grace Paley's stories are their spareness, their taut frankness, their emphasis on personal interaction and their scarcity of physical description.

And so it seems reasonable to expect their creator to dwell in a haven of simplicity. It seems logical that Paley herself might radiate contemplativeness. A poet, she might embody the economy that marks her words. Certainly the focus of her life and her surroundings would likely be inner, not outer. A ceaselessly ringing telephone, for example, would seem a major invader.

"Oh, here," Paley decides, "I'll just take it off the hook so we can talk." Rudely, the phone squawks its objections. "Just ignore it," she counsels. "It'll shut up in a minute."

Short, stocky and with gray hair too tousled to accept the term wispy , Paley is standing in a living room crowded with plants, possessions, a paleolithic piano, a prehistoric television set and hi-fi, brochures for past and future peace conferences and, at one end, the first new couch she ever bought. An opposite wall groans under the weight of floor-to-ceiling books, just in front of a desk that houses not a word processor but a sturdy portable typewriter. It is a setting that might as soon house a Berkeley graduate student as the writer of "Enormous Changes at the Last Minute," short stories now translated to a film that threatens to rise to cult status.

Paley collapses into the kind of reading chair that graduate students usually inherit from an aunt who cleaned out the attic. "The truth is," she confides, "I have trouble writing, no matter where I write--crummy, beautiful, it makes no difference. Even up in Vermont, where I live five months of the year, writing is difficult for me. It makes no difference."

Still, some time ago, a half-lifetime ago, Paley the poet became Paley the writer. It was not the most auspicious of beginnings.

"On the very simplest level," she says, "I always wrote." In her 30s, Paley thought that maybe the short story might fatten the family finances. "I thought, well, I'm really a poet, but maybe I'll support the whole family by writing a story for the Saturday Evening Post. It's what a lot of poets think: 'Well, I'll write a story and that will solve my infinitesimal readership problem.' " Paley laughs. "I didn't even finish. I found I couldn't."

Much later, she was again moved to tackle the short story. This time, "when I began to write, I just went dead ahead." Then, as the first feminist seed of the '50s prepared to flower into the women's revolution of the '60s, "I was really pushed by the subject matter, which was a lot about women. I didn't care so much about the form.

"When I began to write those stories in my first book," she remembers, "well, there is an expression--it really was a breakthrough." To achieve that kind of breakthrough, she believes, "I think you have to have a certain amount of both emotional and cerebral pressure, the need to really understand what is happening. And the story does that for me."

What Paley, now 62, needed to understand, "what it was, for me, was the lives of women": the women who call on the phone--her committee, as it were--the women overlooked by generations of male writers. Denying political or artistic prescience, Paley concedes that "yes, it was early, but we were part of the wave that was coming. We probably were in reaction to a long period of postwar masculine literature in which our lives had no part." At least in part, she suggests, her writing then was "a reaction to a sense that they were not talking about our lives. It was a need to write what we wanted to read."

After "The Little Disturbances of Man," there was "Enormous Changes at the Last Minute," and now, with the same precision dialogue, "Later the Same Day."

Film makers Mirra Bank and Ellen Hovde, working with scriptwriters John Sayles and Susan Rice, sought to preserve that trademark dialogue in their film of "Enormous Changes" (at the Nuart), and for that Paley commends them for "taking the risk." Nonetheless, she adds, "well, naturally, as a writer, there are always things you can complain about." Some aspects of the three stories chosen for that film do capture her vision, she says, adding, with unreserved admiration, "I thought the first one was pretty perfect."

On film or on paper, Paley's people are men and women of principle, of ideals, of opinions. Feminism is not so much a theme as an assumption, a fact that Paley admits makes many men uncomfortable. "Well, I think men are very nervous" in the presence, literary or otherwise, of strong women, "and they are wrong to be nervous, because their lives can only improve by relations with strong women, women with brains and ideas and feelings.

"If they are freed of having to be macho males," Paley contends, "they will be freed of so much falsity and so much pressure."

Angry, sometimes; strong, always, the characters like Faith, Alexandra and Virginia who inhabit "Enormous Changes" are, however, blessed with the earthy gentleness of their creator. Like Paley, their edges are soft, not hard. Says Paley, smiling as if it were all so obvious: "Well, I happen to like human beings."

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