Ruth Franklin is the author of Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life. She also has written A Thousand Darknesses. A former editor for The New Republic, her work has appeared in a variety of publications, including The New Yorker and Harper's. She lives in Brooklyn.
Q: Why did you decide to write a biography of Shirley Jackson, and did your impression of her and her work change as you worked on this project?
A: I've always loved Jackson's writing, especially The Haunting of Hill House, her classic ghost story, and We Have Always Lived in the Castle, her last and most mysterious novel. And of course no one forgets "The Lottery."
But it was actually Jackson's domestic work--her memoirs about her life as a mother--that made me decide to write her biography.
There's a story she tells in her first memoir, Life Among the Savages, about checking into the hospital to deliver her third child. The clerk asks her to state her occupation, and she says, "Writer." (This was only a few months after "The Lottery" was published to enormous sensation.) And the clerk replies, "I'll just put down housewife."
To me, this story perfectly encapsulates what it must have been like to be a writer like Jackson at a time when there was very little social support for that choice. It made me want to learn more about how she navigated that inherent tension.
I'd say my initial impressions of her and her work deepened rather than changed. Though she's best known for her horror stories, I became more and more aware of what a small proportion of her work they actually constitute.
For the most part, she was writing domestic realism, or a slightly more uncanny variant on it. Her main area of interest was the lives of women.
Q: You write, “Some writers are particularly prone to mythmaking. Shirley Jackson was one of them.” Why was this?
A: Jackson was interested in witchcraft from an early age, and she played up that interest in creating her persona as an author.
She told great stories about using black magic to break the leg of publisher Alfred A. Knopf (at the time he was involved in a contract dispute with her husband, the literary critic Stanley Edgar Hyman) or "hexing" the Yankees so that the Brooklyn Dodgers would win the World Series. In an oft-repeated quip, one interviewer said that she wrote "not with a pen, but a broomstick."
These stories were great for publicity, but in the long run they worked against Jackson's reputation, making her seem less serious than she actually was.
Q: In the book, you discuss Jackson’s more serious and lighter work. Do you see common themes running through them?
A: Whether she's writing fiction or chronicling her children's lives, Jackson has a great eye for detail and ear for perfectly tuned dialogue.
On a deeper level, her fundamental philosophy is that people are pretty much capable of anything—from her son making up an imaginary classmate to disguise his own misdeeds in kindergarten (in the story "Charles") to the villagers who turn against one of their own in "The Lottery."
Q: What do you see as Jackson’s legacy today?
A: An awareness that what we fear—whether we call it man's inhumanity to man, forces of evil, or the devil—is always just beneath the surface of daily life. We don't have to journey to a haunted house to experience horror; it's always with us. Dark, perhaps, but true.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: I'm thinking about a few new subjects, but haven't decided on one yet.
--Interview with Deborah Kalb. For a previous Q&A with Ruth Franklin, please click here. Ruth Franklin will be participating in the Temple Sinai Authors Roundtable in Washington, D.C., on March 25.