Kat Meads’s These Particular Women carries us on a thrilling journey into the crevices of the lives of twentieth-century women whom history has often carelessly misread or mistreated by egregiously simplifying their biographies. Meads’s collection of essays on Virginia Woolf, Caroline Blackburn, Agatha Christie, Estelle Faulkner, and other dynamites, skillfully restores these women to their complexity and humanity by allowing delicious contradictions in the biographical record to interact together on the page. Researched with a detective’s intuition for neglected details, a bowerbird’s instinct to gather the shiniest shards to her nest, and a seamstress’s eye for shoring up the bits and pieces, I love the jagged, unresolvable quality of these stories, told in a smooth, wicked smart prose. Meads and I emailed back and forth this summer about reading, writing, and estate sales.
Elizabeth Cooperman: Will you tell me about your title, These Particular Women? What was your thought process in naming the book?
Kat Meads: Depending on the Source was my original working title, prompted, in the early going, by the conflicting explanations about Agatha Christie’s mysterious eleven-day disappearance and the divided opinion on Estelle Faulkner. Eventually I settled on These Particular Women, a title that, I hope, conveys that in a sea of stories to tell/re-tell about women’s lives, my focus in this collection has been on these few twentieth-century women, among them Virginia Woolf and Kitty Oppenheimer. Apart from that, I’m very fond of the word “particular.” To me, it’s a word that points to specifics while still, somehow, remaining abstract, you know?
So true, which lends the title a bit of mystery (“particular” how?). Years ago a friend gave me a pin-back button that reads, “I’m particular,” and I wondered what she was implying. I couldn’t decide if I felt exposed or mischaracterized.
According to Merriam-Webster, the fourth definition of “particular” goes like this: 4a. concerned or attentive to details, meticulous; a very particular gardener, 4b. nice in taste, fastidious; she’s very particular about her clothes; 4c. hard to please, exacting; never loses patience even with the most particular customers. Funny how 4a and 4c don’t have subjects, but in 4c we find that cliché of a female fussing about her clothing. All that to say, I wondered if your title gestures at the 4a, 4b, or 4c sense of “particular”? Or in what ways it doesn’t.
Exposed, mischaracterized—or: the “I’m particular” button was actually a reflection of your pal’s high standards of friendship and you passed with flying colors, a recognized part of her very “particular” circle. How about that spin? Those fourth definition subsets do align with aspects of the women I profiled. In her writing, Woolf was certainly very attentive to detail. Convicted murderess Jean Harris was certainly very fastidious about her wardrobe on the witness stand. Both Mary McCarthy and Kitty Oppenheimer qualify as very hard to please individuals. In certain contexts and quarters, those characteristics drew praise.
I love your reading of the pin’s intent—that notion of an implied alliance. Please, if you would, tell me more about how you selected these particular twentieth-century women, some of whom were quite particular. What did the process look like?
Honestly, in the beginning, I had no idea I was writing a book. I thought I was writing a bunch of one-off essays, just following my nose in terms of interest, going wherever my reading took me, intrigued by some of what that reading disclosed. Ah! So Estelle Faulkner also wrote a novel. Ah! So Flannery O’Connor’s editor imagined her mother did not recognize herself in her daughter’s fiction. Ah! So Diana Trilling wrote a book about Jean Harris but had no interest in interviewing Harris. Those sorts of eyebrow lifters. In retrospect, I’m more aware of links among the bunch. Most are women who went against the grain in terms of what was “expected.” Most are women who knew what they wanted and went after it, for better or worse. And most are women the biographical record has treated as far, far less complicated beings than they were.
I want to hear more about your relationship to texts, biographies or otherwise. What are your reading habits, impulses, proclivities?
I love nothing better than reading a reference to another book, hunting down book and author and spinning out from there. As I admit in the essay on Caroline Blackwood, I came to Blackwood’s work because I was researching the Duchess of Windsor, and Blackwood’s The Last Duchess was so odd—in the very best sense—that I set off on a Blackwood journey. And, of course, if you’re going to read Blackwood and about her, you read about Lucian Freud, which leads to reading about Francis Bacon, and then you re-read Robert Lowell and Elizabeth Hardwick, read Blackwood’s daughter’s autobiography, read Blackwood’s other daughter’s novels and so on and so on. Paradise! During the pandemic, in an attempt to self-soothe, I picked up the first Ross Macdonald Lew Archer novel and its opening sentence, “The cab turned off U.S. 101 in the direction of the sea,” rewoke my brain to Macdonald/Pacific Ocean overlays, so I re-read the series on the lookout for ocean imagery, ocean similes, the Pacific’s contributions to murder plots. Had a blast. When I’m reading just to (happily) read, I like to mix it up. Poetry, plays, essays, criticism, as well as fiction and the unclassifiable. I’ve just finished Kitty Burns Florey’s Sister Bernadette’s Barking Dog: The Quirky History and Lost Art of Diagramming Sentences. Fabulous! Anyone who remembers those grammar school diagramming exercises with fondness will adore it.
Yes, when I got to the Caroline Blackwood essay, I thought her name sounded a little familiar. I assumed she was an obscure writer. But then I experienced this cascade of recognition—Blackwood was Lucian Freud’s second wife! I had fun going back to the paintings: oh, yes, the sad woman with blonde hair (though how many of Freud’s female subjects looked “happy”?). Wow, and she was the person Lowell left Hardwick for! I’d read about that love triangle from Hardwick’s perspective, so (unknowingly) tracking the same story through Blackwood’s life really opened the story up and gave it more dimension. In fact, I almost feel bad giving these details away to your future readers because sometimes these essays feel like detective stories full of wonderfully twisting paths. So, I’d say the delight and sense of adventure you take in reading winds up in these essays. One always discusses a writing process, but it seems (certainly in the case of These Particular Women) we should discuss a reading process. So, here we are! One thing I love about your book is all the zingers—these great lines you dig up from other people’s sources. One I marked from the Blackwood piece: “former paramour Joan Wyndam described going to bed with [Lucian] Freud akin to ‘going to bed with a snake'” (126). Often the lines you choose are so wonderfully acidic. Look no further than “The Headmistress, Interpreted,” in which you highlight a “showstopper sentence” from each of two biographies about Jean Harris. If you can, would you describe what qualities you love in a sentence? Perhaps Kitty Burns Florey has got you thinking about that question?
It does feel a bit like detective work in terms of snooping one’s way through a host of sources. For me, happening upon remarks such as Wyndam’s assessment of bed animal Lucian is a huge part of the pleasure in any research dive. Those sentences that I labeled “showstopper” sentences by Trilling and Alexander in their Harris biographies (“a woman who thought she loved a man whom she deeply hated . . . ,” “Every woman in love tolerates pain . . .”) seemed much more revealing of the writer than the subject. Were those self-revelations intentional? Unintentional? An example of long-held beliefs finally bubbling to the surface about how women generally fare in the love game? Interesting possibilities, all. As a younger writer it never occurred to me that I was revealing myself to some degree in everything I wrote, but I’ve (ruefully) come round to accepting that conclusion. And I definitely gravitate toward sentences with attitude. If it’s all revelation anyway, why not give those revelations some punch?
What attracts you to the essay form?
It’s such a flexible form in terms of tone and voice and style and subject matter, accommodating the hard-nosed, the lyrical, the brief, the protracted, the condensed, the diffuse, a launch pad for works as divergent as Turgenev’s reporting on an execution and Joanna Walsh’s hotel meditations and so many variations in between. What’s not to like about a form that offers that kind of opportunity to play around?
You offer that in two biographies of Jean Harris, there’s a “Rebecca-ish take on the story . . . there for the snatching” (Rebecca being the novel by Daphne du Maurier). As a writer of fiction yourself, how does writing about real people feel different and/or similar to writing the lives of fictional characters?
In my fiction, I’m inventing characters and plots. In my biographical essays, I’m selecting from material already out there and shaping a narrative from that information. But in both I’m committed to some sort of beginning/middle/end sort of storytelling. Aurelia Plath had a life with Sylvia before dealing with the loss and absence of her daughter, as did Regina O’Connor. Kitty Oppenheimer had marriages one, two, and three before meeting Robert Oppenheimer and staying the marital course. Estelle Faulkner was the be-all end-all in Oxford, Mississippi, until she grew up and was eclipsed by second husband William in Oxford and beyond. These are dramatic narratives, in and of themselves. Du Maurier, as you know, makes a second appearance in These Particular Women as the author of “The Birds,” the short story Alfred Hitchcock turned into a movie and partially shot in Bodega Bay. And, although most famous as a novelist, she also wrote a fairly provocative biography of Branwell Brontë and other nonfiction.
Often you present many sides of a story according to several sources. To what degree did you feel at liberty to offer your own two cents about some of the debates in the biographical record?
My take is the biographical record shouldn’t be treated as a sacrosanct account that can’t be challenged or engaged with in a questioning way. Biographies are essentially dialogues with “facts.” To read any text is to embark upon a mental dialogue with that text. And although the impulse may be to read biographies in search of a definitive version of a life, in our heart of hearts we know that result is an impossibility for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that writers, retelling the lives of others, come to the task with worldviews that slant the narrative. And why wouldn’t that be the case? Who we are as people affects our reporting. It’s unrealistic to consider any biography as a purely objective document. That said, part of the reason I was attracted to the subjects in my book was that the narratives that existed about their lives seemed misshapen. There were gaps, there were mysteries, there were glaring contradictions.
We established that some in this book are “particular” women, but I’d argue that in the way you’ve rendered them, they’re all particulate women. In each case, you have gathered many impressions—often conflicting impressions—of a woman, laying the bits and pieces out in a way that disrupts any sense of unity or absolute “truth” about her character. What happens to a person’s story when “sources disagree” (p. 49)? Where does that leave us as readers grappling with the “truth” about who a person was? Looking for some pattern? This question brings us back to your original working title, “Depending on the Source.”
“Bits and pieces” is a good way to describe not only the process of information gathering but the composite result. As humans, regardless, we seem destined to look for patterns—which, to me, is another way of saying we’re on the hunt for “explanations.” Life is scary. We need all the help we can get to get through it. Biographical accounts, as often as not, seem to function as cautionary tales. Agatha! You’re more famous than you realize! The press will come hounding if you disappear by chance or by intention! Jean! Herman Tarnower is a prick! Find another lover! Kitty! Maybe make a little effort to get along with that very resentful sister-in-law! Work together, femmes!
Biography seems to rub up against the question of whether we can ever really know someone else (even our parents, siblings, etc.). Thoughts?
Really knowing anyone (including ourselves) seems to me a pipe dream.
How did you think about the order of these essays?
I did a lot of deliberating about where the Woolf essay (the lengthiest in the book) should land. Typically, the longest essay in a book isn’t the first lead-off choice. But ultimately I decided “Things Woolfian” laid out the concerns for what followed. I very intentionally put the most comic piece, “Margaret Mitchell’s Dump,” midway to lighten the load and mood. And because I’m burrowing into one text versus several in “Encounter with a Text/Context,” I decided that essay would be a fitting, telescoping finale. Also, for purely personal reasons, I wanted to end the book with a tribute to my mom.
In the last essay, “Encounter with a Text/Context,” you find an old book, Margaret Morton’s The Arts of Costume and Personal Appearance, at an estate sale in Bodega Bay. I love myself a good estate sale, too. What do you tend to have your eye out for at estate sales?
I have a pal who’s a cookbook connoisseur, so I serve as one of her cookbook scouts. Much of the furniture in my house has been culled from estate sales, dishes too. There was a period when the contents of estate sales resembled my grandmother’s holdings, and then my mother’s, but we’re into another era now. I’m never up on the actual value of what I’m browsing. In anything other than books, I usually go for the look of something. The shape. The color. Its visual appeal. Or its usefulness—in terms of being something my household could use.
And, considering the frenzy that estate sales seems to inspire, have you developed any go-to browsing strategies?
Besides the Morton book, any other favorite estate sale finds over the years?
A few months ago, passing through Princeton-by-the Sea, I saw a notice for an estate sale and followed the signs up a winding road to a house that seemed in danger of sliding down the hillside. Every room was packed with books, all of them for sale. One of the many I carted off was Lydia Davis’s translation of Madame Bovary. That was a great estate sale.
It sounds like in your college days you had a group of very literary girlfriends who, like you, loved books and daydreamed about writers’ lives. Can you tell me more about that group and what significance those women had in your life?
Strange as it might sound at this remove, my freshmen class at UNC-Chapel Hill was the first freshmen class that included women. There were five hundred or so of us in all, selected by some sort of admissions directive that we should come from counties across the state. In the newly designated “women’s dorms,” we banded together and learned from each other how to negotiate the terrain. To give you an idea of the times, courses focused on anything remotely connected to women’s studies had to be proposed and taught by women graduate students because there were so few women professors to teach them. I used up every independent studies option I had studying women writers—and I wasn’t alone in trying to tweak the system in that way. Many of my friends did the same. The advantage we had was youth. When you’re young, you don’t discourage easily.
In these essays, we often get to peek into your subjects’ private homes: the Woolfs’ Rodmell house is “damp” and “untidy”; the Faulkner home (like the Faulkner marriage) in “disrepair”; the “squalor” and reputation of squalor that followed Caroline Blackwood. I get the sense that you’re interested in your subjects’ homes/regional landscapes as witnesses to (or manifestations of?) their lives. Place has a way of accounting or recounting those lives in the book—sometimes almost in a ghostly way. How do you think about these home/self relationships in your subjects’ stories? And more generally, what sort of interest (if any) do you take in décor and women’s lives?
I have files and files of notes on houses, interior spaces. The interplay of home and dweller fascinates me. My Kitty Oppenheimer research was sparked by a trip to Los Alamos and gazing at the stone cottage where she and Robert lived. (I’m constantly checking the Los Alamos Historical Society site for updates on restoration progress and when house tours will begin.) Despite the obvious—that thousands before me had toured Monk’s House in Rodmell and Andalusia in Milledgeville and the contents of those homes had been curated and tidied—roaming those spaces was a thrill. My sense of things has always been predominantly spatial. My memory, as well. I remember furniture placements much more clearly than I remember conversations, for instance. And I take serious note of the arrangements of anyone’s lair. Packed, sparse, color rich or drained, the sofa aligned with a wall or at an angle—that sort of thing sticks in my brain for some reason. If I’m having trouble with my writing, stumped as to how to get where I want to go in a piece, one of my solutions is to move furniture around. A rearranged room helps clear my head.
Tell me about your home library. How is it organized (or not)? New or used books? Which books in your collection do you treasure most, and why?
Nonfiction in the living room, fiction in my workroom, poetry and plays in the bedroom. New books and used books. Pristine copies and tattered volumes held together by ribbon. Hardbacks and paperbacks. Chapbooks and doorstoppers. My old illustrated editions of Wuthering Heights are books I’d grab if fleeing a California wildfire. Also Nadezhda Krupskaya’s Memories of Lenin, which served as a primary source for my novel For You, Madam Lenin. The six books of Robert Gregory’s poetry, a fine writer and friend gone too soon. But I treasure all my books. Can’t imagine life without them.
Do you write/scribble in books or keep books clean, specimen-like?
I still have many of my college texts, which are scribbled all over, notes from a distant past often hilarious to read in the here and now. No surprise, my copy of Sylvia Plath’s Ariel is crisscrossed with underlinings and starred stanzas. I have an unblemished copy as well but keep my original as a reminder of how mind altering that first Ariel read was for me. Of the same era is my yellow highlighted and heavily commented upon copy of B.F. Skinner’s Beyond Freedom and Dignity. (Back in the day, I was a psychology major.) Now I confine my commentary to notebooks and spare the book margins. It’s fun to read other writers’ marginalia, though. Nabokov’s “Idiot!” penned alongside a translation he disagrees with in his teaching copy of one of the classics. Pretty priceless.
The description of Estelle Oldham Faulkner’s handwriting as “spidery, spikey, jagged” was vivid for me. What’s your relationship to penmanship?
The relationship to my own penmanship has become quite tortured. To be legible, notes, drafts, everything I write needs to be typed. If some line or idea occurs to me in the middle of the night and I’m forced to jot it down on a notepad, come morning it’s hit or miss whether I can decipher the scrawl. When I can’t, I begin that day peevish. But I do think handwriting is an interesting and curious component of personality and was glad to see a specimen of Estelle’s in the Brodsky Collection. In the letters collected there, her words of nervous apology look nervous on the page.
One of Agatha Christie’s romance novels written under penname Mary Westmacott was Unfinished Portrait. I like to think of these essays as deliberately unfinished portraits. Do you have any favorite portraits (painted, cinematic, literary, or otherwise)?
One of my all-time favorite movies is John Cassavetes’s A Woman Under the Influence. The character Mabel, as portrayed by the magnificent Gena Rowlands, is profoundly moving, totally unforgettable. I’ve watched the film many, many times, never without feeling totally gutted by the character’s struggles and mesmerized by Rowlands’s choices as an actress and the art of her performance. Simply stunning, start to finish.
Elizabeth Cooperman co-edited (with David Shields) the anthology Life Is Short—Art is Shorter and co-authored with Thomas Walton The Last Mosaic, a tessellated guidebook to Rome. Most recently, she published Woman Pissing with University of Nebraska Press. This book-length literary collage explores writer’s block, creativity, and Lee Krasner.
This post may contain affiliate links.