INTERVIEW: Molly Giles, Author of Life Span: Impressions of a Lifetime Spent Crossing and Recrossing the Golden Gate Bridge

Interview by Dorothy Rice

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life span by Molly Giles, book cover with close up illustration of portion of the golden gate bridgeIt was a rare treat to interview Molly Giles (via Zoom), a prolific, beloved and uniquely gifted, multiple award-winning writer on the eve of the launch of Life Span: Impressions of a Lifetime Spent Crossing and Recrossing the Golden Gate Bridge (Why There Are Words Press; June 2024), a memoir in flash form, and her first book of nonfiction.

Our conversation was everything I’d hoped for, and so much more. Engaging, of course. Chock full of humor, wit and wisdom, and not without some expressions of trepidation—what writer publishing a first memoir, or any deeply personal writing for that matter, doesn’t experience a measure of that?

Above all, I was struck by Molly’s strength and her singular, particular, definable voice maintained over decades, despite the vagaries of the publishing industry, life, relationships, motherhood, and all that. And yes, I could relate to much of what she had to say.

Dorothy Rice: This must be an exciting time for you.

Molly Giles: I would say it’s a little stressful. The book is being published on June 4. With my book launch on the 6 and the first event in Corte Madera, just north of Mill Valley, in Marin County. I went to Tam High and then graduated from Drake (editor’s note, Tamalpais High School, in Mill Valley, where I also attended high school. This was the first of many” synchronicities” we discovered during our initial “getting to know you” chat before the interview gathered steam, so to speak.). So this area is home turf for me and special but still stressful—people here know me!

You’re in Sacramento, right? (Dorothy nods, but says that, like me, she was born in San Francisco, at Kaiser Hospital.) It was called the French Hospital when I was born there. (We laugh, at the discovery of another synchronicity). We didn’t live in the City very long though, only my first three years, during the war (World War II), when Dad was away. We lived in an old flat on Broadway, with Mom, Grandma, all my girl cousins, with other single females above and below us.

Photo by Ralph Brott

DR: It was the same for my Mom, when Dad was in Italy during the war. She stayed with his mother and sister. (Interviewer’s note: this kept happening throughout our conversation—little commonalities, lines crossing.) I loved that first chapter of the book, when you were three and crossing the Golden Gate Bridge with your father, moving from San Francisco to Sausalito. The reader gets such a sense of this unique child (you), her sense of herself and the world:

“I take a long deep breath of his cigarette smoke. It tastes warm and burnt toasty and I like it. I like the way his big hands look on the steering wheel and I like the way he sings to himself underneath the chatter of the radio. I hear the baby’s crib and Mommy’s typewriter and my rocking chair clink and jingle from the back of the van. They are going to the new house in Sausalito where my father will start his new job at the stock exchange and my mother will start a new novel and I will start preschool. I stretch my arms up higher and lean back to look up as one by one the bridge towers overhead hug us and let us go by.”

One of the challenges for memoirists is finding a frame for their story. Yours strikes me as perfect, the notion of crossing back and forth across the Golden Gate Bridge as a vessel or framing device for these vignettes. How did that come about? Did it come to you easily?

MG: Laughter. No (emphatic), nothing was easy. I used the word “impressions” because that’s what these stories are. And of course many of them didn’t actually didn’t actually occur while crossing the bridge. I went back and forth on that and finally decided “impressions” was the right word here. So to answer the question, nothing came easily. I’ve been writing for years and nothing has ever come easily.

DR: You’ve had a long, illustrious career publishing books. Is your first nonfiction title?

MG: Yes, I suppose that’s right. I’ve written many short stories, novels and shorter nonfiction. But never a whole book of nonfiction. This was so much easier than fiction, a piece of cake really, the writing of it. You already know the characters, and the plot.

DR: Reading about your fiction, your novels in particular, it sounds as if your fiction is inspired by aspects of your life.

MG: I’m afraid so. I’ve been lucky to be surrounded by very interesting people. We try not to use that word “use” but I am sure I have “used” my nearest and dearest again and again both in my fiction and of course here, of necessity, in the memoir.

DR: Your own life has certainly been interesting.

MG: That’s very kind of you. I think my own life has been very boring. I just finished Solito (Javier Zamora) about a nine-year-old boy who travels alone from Mexico. Migration stories, stories of people overcoming incredible abuse and illnesses and here I am. A middle class, middle-brow, older than middle-aged woman. Thank you for saying it’s been an interesting life. It has been to me, but I can’t imagine it would be to anyone else.

DR: Well, I stand by what I said. And it’s why readers will want to read your memoir. Because you, your voice, your writing, your life and what you have accomplished will interest them. And, that you accomplished what you have at a time when most women stayed married whether they were happy with their spouses or not, and most women were faithful whether they were attracted to someone else or not, satisfied or not, and most women had their children with one man whether they thought the marriage was a good one or not or their husband was a good father or not.

From your narrative, from your memoir—so it’s your “truth,” your lived experience—the reader learns that you defied conventions many women felt constrained by. You share your life with wit, humor, grace and loads of humanity. And, of course there will always be memoirs of all types, that reflect a myriad of experiences and many readers will relate to your story, as I did. I too have been married three times, for example. And had a child with each one. (Laughter.)

MG: And I think your life is interesting. We may never have shot a lion, but we’ve done okay. More laughter.

The Life Span book launch in early June 2024

DR: It’s a matter of what draws different readers and it’s also so much about the writing and yours is a very particular voice that no one will find ordinary. Your mother and father are also fascinating.

MG: They were wonderful. Though I do fear going into that bright tunnel after you die and having your nearest and dearest waiting for you. My father would probably have a golf club he’s ready to brain me with and my mother would just turn her back. I continue to address them in my mind.

DR: There is one of the vignettes, I think it’s about your sister not liking the way a family member is portrayed in one of your early published stories (fiction). Do you anticipate that happening with the memoir? Are you anxious about how your daughters or grandchildren will react to its publication?

MG: My oldest daughter hasn’t spoken to me in two months and she hasn’t even read the book yet, but she’s braced for it. No phone call on Mother’s Day. I have a lot of trepidation. I feel very vulnerable. I have made my children vulnerable. There’s a lot of guilt. I’ve been wrestling with this. I feel worse about my children. As a mother you’re confined to a pretty narrow band of being their mother, and you’re also not their mother, and I didn’t want to be anything but truthful in this book.

I probably should have written some of these things and not published them but I could only write the truth of where I was at that time and it has nothing to do with who other people were at that time. It’s like the old cliché, it’s not them, it’s me. It’s all me. All the way through. But I know that to sensitive family members it is open to interpretation. So I’m waiting for the storm.

DR: Well, as many have said, memoir, any personal writing, represents your truth, and anyone who wants their truth told is free to write it. You better than many writers, write those in your orbit very lovingly. Your loved ones come off well. Your ex’s are lovingly portrayed even when the reader might perceive them as having behaved badly. You’ve clearly stayed friends with ex’s and lovers, which is admirable. Something I’ve tried to do in my own writing. You want the reader to make up their own mind, not to be told this person is the villain of the story, right?

MG: Oh yes. I keep thinking of Joan Didion who named her daughter Quintana Roo. I have never done anything that egregious. I think it will work out. My mother was a writer and she wrote about her mother. My daughters are all gifted writers and they are all free to write their own Mommy Dearest or whatever they want.

The first story I ever published came out in Playgirl Magazine and it was about my mother, though she didn’t recognize herself and that was delightful and I guess I thought I could get away with that with other stories I wrote, but it hasn’t always worked. And even if I had changed names here, it wouldn’t have worked.

DR: No, not in a memoir. You’re a writer. It’s what you do. And if they love you, ultimately, they will come around.

MG: We’ll see, Dorothy. I’m glad you raised the issue. I’ve had interviews with a few men and they don’t go there. Women, we know. You are the second woman to go directly to the guilts and regrets.

DR: Well, it’s women who are asked to balance all these roles. And it comes up again and again in your vignettes. That you were working to support your family, raising children, maintaining a home, balancing relationships, sometimes successfully, sometimes not, maybe married, maybe having an affair (laughter). Right? I mean, you were doing all these things and on top of all that you were struggling to find the inspiration for a second novel, publish stories, teaching, and dealing with your parents. Very often men have one or two of those things on their plates. Often women are blamed for things men just aren’t blamed for.

MG: That’s so true. Laughter. I agree.

DR: And ultimately you’re not always given credit for having juggled all of that and for having published so many books while living a very full life, and you raised your girls no matter how they may react when the memoir comes out.

MG: And they are very successful, strong, beautiful and gifted. I am so proud of them.

DR: Feelings which come through in your writing.

Now, moving on to your path to publication. Your first short story collection won a prestigious award (Rough Translations, Flannery O’Connor Prize for Short Fiction), then you published a novel with Simon and Schuster (Iron Shoes, 2000). I wondered about your impressions having published books with such a wide range of publishers, from Simon and Shuster to several independent presses over the last two decades, and now the memoir with Why There Are Words Press.

MG: This all came about mainly because I have a very wonderful agent who won’t market short stories. Short stories are my big love. When I wrote the novel (Iron Shoes), my agent took it. It went to Simon and Schuster and they also eventually, reluctantly, took my short stories. It always had to be a two-book contract and I just didn’t have another novel in me. I went to a friend who was an excellent publicist and asked if he would represent me, so I’d have better luck, and he said, “Well Molly, you have to write a best seller.”

I can’t. Frankly, I’m a short story writer. With the next story collection, I started looking in the back pages of Poets and Writers Magazine for contests. Every short story collection I’ve written has won a prize. There has been a big gap between my books. That doesn’t mean I wasn’t getting stories published in magazines, I was. I just couldn’t get a book published. Four subsequent collections—Creek WalkBotheredAll the Wrong Places, and Wife With Knife, also won awards, including the Small Press Best Fiction Award, the California Commonwealth Silver Medal for Fiction, the Spokane Short Fiction Award, and the Leapfrog Press Global Fiction Prize. I’d never heard of any of these small presses before they published me. I just went online and found these contests which are nice, very nice. You get a little money, a little distribution and a book. And I’m pretty humble. I wanted a book.

With Life Span, I showed both the memoir manuscript and the finally finished second novel (The Home for Unwed Husbands) to my agent. She liked the novel and valiantly tried to place it, couldn’t, and refused to represent the memoir, so I tried Leap Frog with the novel and WTAW Press with the memoir. I love the way the memoir came out. WTAW worked with me closely. The print, the paper, the cover. I’m really happy about this. You just throw your line out. I have a lot of very talented friends who don’t submit. I don’t like rejections either. I don’t imagine anyone does. After one rejection for Creek Walk, I stayed in bed for two days. But then I picked myself up and started looking for places to submit. Creek Walk took a long time to find a home; ultimately it was the secretaries in the publishing office who loved it and talked about it to the higher ups. Those are my loyal readers, the secretaries.

And now I am delighted to have a review of Life Span in the San Francisco Chronicle! That’s so exciting. I’m so used to being below the radar.

DR: You lived in Arkansas for a while.

MG: If you live in the Bay Area, you live in a bubble. There’s no way around it. I would go into culture shock every time I came back. OMG, another Prius. Where’s the gun rack? Then returning to Arkansas was a shock. The idioms. It’s beautiful there. The Ozarks. My friends. Fayetteville. A little blue dot in a red state. And the abortion clinic, always with a line of protesters outside. The food, the music. So fabulous. People were generous. And I feel as if living there really opened me to different points of view. I lived in Sacramento for a while too, and I think it’s part of the bubble, though it’s more diverse. Marin County is hardly diverse.

DR: You were in Arkansas to teach?

MG: Yes, creative writing.  I didn’t see many people from different cultures in my classes. I did have very gifted students which I’m very grateful for.

DR: Did you always enjoy teaching?

MG: I loved it, for the first thirty years (editor’s note: Molly taught fiction writing at San Francisco State University, University of Hawaii in Manoa, San Jose State University, the National University of Ireland at Galway, and the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville). I never lost my enthusiasm for my students or the books they were reading but I certainly lost enthusiasm for their papers. I thought I can’t. I’d have a big stack of theses to read and I’d think, I just can’t. And I think you really can’t teach creative writing. You can expose people to good writing. You can encourage and support. Many of us need encouragement. I’ve met so many good writers who lack encouragement.

DR: The list of writers who have blurbed and written beautiful things about your book is truly impressive.

MG: I’ve been very lucky. Working with Amy Tan was a joy. Many of my students from Arkansas are doing so well. These days I think I would recommend young writers look at film and television rather than short story writing. I hope my novel (The Home for Unwed Mothers, Leapfrog Press, 2023) is picked up for film adaptation. I’ve got a screenwriter interested in it but she hasn’t been able to place it. It’s a comedy with lots of potential.

DR: Maybe a streaming series, like on Netflix. Do you write much flash?

MG: A lot. I don’t know whether my attention span is just short. I love Brevity. So this memoir was natural for me. I’ve very fond of Smokelong Quarterly. It’s a challenge to get something down to a minimal number of words.

DR: What are you most proud of?

MG: Just sticking it out. To be a writer you have to be imaginative, observant and quick. You also have to be stoic and stupid, and stubborn as a donkey because you can create, but to continue to create you have to go back and revise again and again and that takes a certain animal endurance. Writers are odd combinations I think, of the quick and the stubborn, and I do think stubbornness and tenacity are traits I inherited from my mother.

I do give up, of course, but then I pop back up. Weebles wobble but they don’t fall down. I can’t remember what that’s from. I suppose I’m a Weeble. I guess that’s what I’m most proud of. That I don’t give up.

Meet the Contributor

Dorothy RiceDorothy Rice is a writer, freelance editor, and the managing editor of the nonfiction and arts journal Under the Gum Tree. Before joining the Gum Tree team, she was a Hippocampus essays reader for several years. In previous lives, Dorothy cleaned up toxic waste sites and abandoned tire piles with the California EPA, earned an MFA in Creative Writing at 60, and raised five children. She has published two memoirs with small presses (GRAY IS THE NEW BLACK and THE RELUCTANT ARTIST). Her essays and flash (fiction and nonfiction) have been featured in many places, including Hippocampus Magazine, The Rumpus, the Brevity Blog, Literary Mama, and Five South.





  2 comments for “INTERVIEW: Molly Giles, Author of Life Span: Impressions of a Lifetime Spent Crossing and Recrossing the Golden Gate Bridge

  1. I really enjoyed this interview, Dorothy. Well done. Your full interview disproved the author’s dispiriting comments on her life being “boring,” and concluding “It has been [interesting] to me, but I can’t imagine it would be to anyone else.” The author has clearly been immensely successful in a wide variety of genres.

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