Sallie Bingham, of the Louisville, Ky., media Binghams, published her first novel in 1961. Since then she's written a memoir, several novels, story collections and plays. Her latest book is Red Car.
You've enjoyed a rich, varied career, from your first novel to this latest short story collection, and your play, A Dangerous Personality, based on the life of the Russian theosophist Madame Blavatsky is opening in New York this year. How did you start out?
I was born and raised in Kentucky. Our family owned the local Courier-Journal, then sold it. I come from a family of writers—the boys were groomed for the newspaper business, but not the girls. When my father read something of mine, he said, “God, is it possible we could have another Emily Dickinson?” My parents were excited but apprehensive; in those days, girls could write, but only a little bit. In college at Radcliffe, I published a story, “Winter Term,” about boys and girls getting together and the miseries of this couple that didn't have any privacy. It created a real storm and scared me to death. It taught me how risky writing is.
How has your writing changed over the course of your career?
Society broke open by the early '70s, and you could talk about sexuality. I became deeply involved in the women's movement. I was interested in describing women fully and completely. I moved away from using male narrators and began writing in the voice of women and about what women were going through, for example, in the workplace. And I am much more succinct: I read and write a lot of poetry, to narrow and hone. My work is denser and shorter now. Henry James is my prime influence—he is so brilliantly suggestive. That's my aim: to strike hard and fast or you have lost your reader.
You write in your story “A Gift for Burning” that artists are made “the tough way, the long way, the solitary way.” Has that been your experience?
Absolutely. I come from a lot of privilege, so I never had to live on money I make from my writing. But being a writer has made me live so much apart, and I've had to sacrifice things I love—such as skiing. I spend an enormous amount of time refining and drafting. And it's lonely, too. I'm writing three novellas now about the women in my family who were writers. My grandmother was a big influence on me: she struggled to raise seven children and she told me about what happens when a woman marries and loses control of her life. In my life, I raised three boys and lost track of the connections you need to publish. The emotional connection with children is so powerful. Now they're launched, and if a woman writer can only make it to this point without going under, she'll find herself.