In ‘Use of Fame,’ Berkeley author looks at love from both sides
by Lou Fancher
If people look at something and agree that it’s green, are they seeing the same color? When two people say their love for each other has died, did they lose the same love — and importantly, how do they survive? Exploring these and other puzzles is the work of fiction writer Cornelia Nixon.
Her new novel, “The Use of Fame” (Counterpoint Press), tells the story of Abby McCormick and Ray Stark, college professors and poets whose passionate 25-year marriage unravels in the face of Stark’s affair with a graduate student and McCormick’s emotional and physical distancing.
Nixon, 70, writes from her home in Berkeley and a second home on an island in Puget Sound, Washington. With an MFA in creative writing at San Francisco State University, a Ph.D. in literary criticism from UC-Berkeley, she is author of short stories, novels and a book of literary criticism. She’s also taught creative writing at Mills College in Oakland.
“I wrote ‘Use of Fame’ as an attempt to understand why things happen in a marriage. It was better than therapy,” she says. “The characters want it to last, but they’ve made bad decisions that put love at risk.”
One of the book’s many pleasures are its references to the East Bay. Abby, dispirited by a lack of recognition as a poet, takes a teaching position at UC Berkeley while Ray hangs onto a part-time position on the country’s opposite coast at Brown University and later, an endowed chair at a university in Florida. In addition to geographical distance, there’s the lure of other lovers, Ray’s heart condition, Abby’s addiction to horse riding and, for a time, to a dangerous cocktail of sleeping pills and alcohol. Financial stress, professional competition and simple human frailty gather like storm clouds over their relationship.
“Eventually,” says Nixon, “love loses.”
But before, or as it does, Nixon reveals undeniable truths in chapters that alternate between the two protagonists. A tale told by two people about one love is two tales that reveal entirely unique perspectives. When Nixon first tried writing ‘Fame’ in first-person from the wife’s point of view, it was a one-sided diatribe. Selecting third person and also writing from the husband’s perspective, Nixon says, allows the reader to get closer to truth.
“All my life, it’s always bothered me that I don’t know another person’s perspective. she explains. “We can’t really see anything true from one point of view.”
Nixon wrote three complete versions with similar events but different characters. “It took a year to get to the poets,” she says of the 8-year process. “They act differently than scientists and sculptors. No one else would act as badly. Poets see boundaries in different ways. They see things not for their own sake but because they might be true. They don’t feel constrained by anyone else’s norms — and they’re rewarded for that. It’s a form of originality. Making them poets was key: I let it rip.”
Although writing the poems included in the novel surprised her — a riff by Ray related to a fantasy about living where cheese steaks have no calories and non one ages pleased her especially — other elements were expected. Characters in her novels often start as compilations of real people. “Eventually, through alchemy, they begin doing things on their own. I’m not a man, but when Ray took off, it was a wonderful thing. When the character pulls in a direction, I know I have a story.”
Fortunately, Nixon likes getting to stories. “I revise obsessively. I start over every time. I throw away 80 pages and junk whole drafts. I’m not afraid of that.”
Teaching has impacted her writing profoundly, she says. “Many times, I’d be in class emphasizing something and I’d walk away thinking, “I’m the one who needs to hear how important the first page is, or taking a stance, endings, premature closure. Having to articulate things I knew instinctively brought me to a new level of consciousness.”
Arguably, nothing has influenced her writing more than decades of reading. “I was an outdoor kid, but if I wasn’t outside, I was reading. I loved books about horses, Nancy Drew, Cherry Ames novels. In high school it was Lawrence Durrell’s Alexandria Quartet and all the American classics — that was on my own, unassigned.”
Dickens, however, was not favored. “I can’t stand it. It’s so heavy-handed,” she says. “He’s always got a huge agenda and clear villains and heroes.” Which leads her to say she’s never had a writing class from which she learned a lick about writing. She recommends — when a limit is superimposed — two books for great writing: “Going to Meet the Man,” James Baldwin’s short story collection, and “To the Lighthouse,” by Virginia Woolf.
Currently on the fourth draft of a memoir about her mother, with whom her favorite activity was analyzing why people do things in books, Nixon says “taking huge chunks of prose and figuring out what to do with them” provides momentum for writing amid Berkeley’s clamor and “backed by a billion trees and quiet” at her Washington home.