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  • A Conversation With Janet Burroway
  • Jocelyn Cullity (bio)

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Janet Burroway, Lawton Distinguished Professor Emerita at Florida State University and recipient of the Lifetime Achievement Award for writing by the Florida Humanities Council, is the author of eight novels, including Eyes, The Buzzards, Raw Silk, Opening Nights, Cutting Stone, and Bridge of Sand, in addition to collected poetry and essays. Her plays include Medea with Child, Sweepstakes, Parts of Speech, and most recently Headshots. She has published the children's books The Truck on the Track, The Giant Jam Sandwich, and The Perfect Pig, all of which have been scored for orchestra. Her most recent book is the memoir Losing Tim: The Life and Death of an American Contractor in Iraq. Her widely used textbooks are Writing Fiction: A Guide to Narrative Craft and Imaginative Writing: The Elements of Craft. She is married to film and utopian scholar Peter Ruppert. [End Page 118]


You were born in Tucson and raised in Phoenix but never felt quite at home.


Mine was a very '40s/'50s childhood, with much emphasis on being a pretty girl and a good Christian. Really, I was neither, and these failures were a grief to my mother and consequently a grief to me. On the looks side, I had stubbornly straight hair, poor posture, and I was what was then called "stocky." By the time I grew up and slimmed down, and the still later time straight hair came into fashion, the damage had been done. I was socially awkward, fretful, and fearful of failure. I was no better at goodness than prettiness. What I mainly remember about church were the pink wintergreens my grandmother slipped me to keep me from fidgeting during the sermon and how untouchably hot the car was when we got in it to go home—it having sat in the hundred-degree Arizona sun for a few hours. I was both pious and rebellious, a very difficult combination for my parents.

At the same time—and from the same impulses, really—my mother groomed me in public recitation. So I learned an early pattern in which I was ambitious to do well, then terrified, then, when the moment to speak arrived, accepted the inevitable and opened my mouth and was afterward rewarded with extravagant praise. "Saying pieces" at Friday-night Methodist socials or for the Women's Society for Christian Service became a template for teaching and giving readings. The terror later somewhat subsided in a way that let me better see my students and my audiences.


In the 1950s you were in your late teens and early twenties, studying literature at Barnard, Cambridge, Yale. You've written that at that time writers felt they could change the world and that there was real power in the written word. You met many writers who would go on to fame, including the poet Sylvia Plath, who described you as a "lively American girl," someone who often crossed your path in America and England. Could you tell us a bit about that heady time?


It was a time of self-discovery—for me, for the Beats, for a counterculture that still called itself Bohemian, for black intellectuals. It was a whole decade before the '60s erupted in louder and more organized ways, so we were struggling, flailing even, and in many ways I was among the backward, having grown up in a self-satisfied Christian, [End Page 119] Southwestern home. I had a lucky childhood, but the things that were wrong with the '50s were wrong with it: repression, bigotry, a puny morality—and I was unhappily, confusedly aware of these.

I got to New York in 1955 as a "guest editor" on Mademoiselle magazine's contest. I was the youngest of the twenty young women there for the month of June (we called ourselves girls or gals), just after my freshman year at the University of Arizona. Also in that group were Jane Truslow, who later married Sylvia Plath's former boyfriend Peter Davison; novelist and food writer Gael Greene; designer Adri Steckling—and Joan...


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