For her third novel, Mary Coin, Marisa Silver crafted a story based on Dorothea Lange’s now-iconic Depression-era photo “Migrant Mother,” weaving three lives together over a 90-year span while exploring the interplay of personal relationships and documentary objects.
Why choose to fictionalize this story?
One of the central ideas in Mary Coin is how history is made, how it is preserved, and how it is interpreted. The photograph taken by Dorothea Lange, “Migrant Mother,” was rooted in time and place. Then the photo began its journey, becoming an inadvertent icon and making its way down through the generations in all sorts of forms: as an exhibit in museums, as a document in textbooks, even as a U.S. postage stamp. The life of the original object was interpreted and reinterpreted, and, as a piece of history, it adopted meanings and values that were different from those in play at the moment of its making. I based the characters of Vera Dare and Mary Coin on Dorothea Lange and Florence Owens Thompson. But I was less interested in trying to document the real and verifiable facts of those lives than I was in exploring the nature of interpretation. The characters might have started out as Dorothea Lange and Florence Owens Thompson, but as I wrote them and invented their interiorities and brought my own subjectivity to the fictionalization, they became Vera Dare and Mary Coin.
Missing fathers are integral to all of the characters’ stories; could you expound on the significance of this a bit more?
Strangely, there are missing fathers in a lot of the stories and novels I’ve written. My father has always been very present in my life, so we can’t blame him! But my grandfathers were both men who, in one way or another, went missing at critical moments in my parents’ lives, and I think I have always been interested in the mystery that is created by absence. I think, too, that balance, while pleasing, is not evocative. It’s when things are off kilter that I get curious.
How does the fiction of photography relate to memory? How are photos the “death of a moment”?
We know that the time of the photograph is past, that the life of that instant is over. And yet, we have the ability to look again and again at this dead moment. So viewing a photograph immediately makes us engage with the idea of death. Memory is different, a memory is not time captured and stilled. It is a flowing, changing thing, as alive as the present moment, a kind of life of the past that flows concurrently with the present.
What is the importance of keeping parts of our personal history secret?
Mary Coin remarks that she doesn’t want to tell her children some of her history. I think she recognizes that once you give away your story, it becomes an object and loses the private meaning you assign it. She knows history is something that changes in the hands of others. On the other hand, my character Walker Dodge, an historian himself, feels he has done his children an injustice by not finding out the stories of his past and handing these stories over to them. He feels he has denied them a foundation. It’s a big question for me: how much do parents owe their children of their interior lives? How much will knowing help them form their identities and how much will it hinder them?
Culturally, we seem interested in the period from 1880-WWII. Why are the Gilded Age and Great Depression eras relevant in 2013?
Whenever things are bad, we drown ourselves in nostalgia for a time when things were good. So it does not surprise me that, at this moment of economic instability, we reach back to glorify a time when everything was supposedly “gilded.” But of course this memory is romanticized, it is something that we need it to be rather than something that was true. I imagine that we are interested by The Great Depression right now, in part, because it might have something to teach us about endurance. The human impulse is to survive, no matter how harsh the terms of that survival.