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Queens_Magazine_Fall2013

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Taking a Novel Look at Ordinary Lives By Leslie Jay A lawyer loses her purse in a burglary at her mother's apartment. Teachers get fired in anti-Communist witch hunts. In the fiction of Alice Mattison '62, bad things happen to likable characters. But they are more seriously derailed by their own choices or a long-buried secret that detonates with the force of a landmine. "I'm interested in how difficult it is to live ordinary lives and be good people," says Mattison, whose latest novel, When We Argued All Night (Harper Perennial, 2012), was listed in a Sunday New York Times Editors' Choice column. One of its three main characters, Harold Abrams—formerly Abramovitz—becomes a Queens College English professor. "I'm writing about people that QC alums know." Her own life has followed a fairly conventional, mid-century trajectory. A granddaughter of Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe, Mattison grew up in Brooklyn, attending a public high school near the Queens boundary. For college, she crossed over the border. "I took the J to the bus up Kissena," she explains. "It was better than the commute to Brooklyn College." (Years later, when she wrote Nothing Is Quite Forgotten in Brooklyn, the difficulties of intra-borough transit inspired her to invent an elevated rail line and send one of her characters hunting in Flatbush for its remnants.) An aspiring poet and teacher for as long as she could remember, Mattison majored in English, finding plenty of role models on the QC campus. "The English department was so good," she says. "It was filled with women like Helene Brewer and Miriam Kosh Starkman, who had dedicated their lives to books and reading, and weren't as welcome in the top universities." Mattison also took lots of Greek and Latin, and has fond memories of Konrad Gries, chair of the classics department. "He was a courtly, very thin man who walked with a cane, called us by our first names—which no one else did—and made up stories in class about the students," she recalls. After QC, she earned a PhD in literature from Harvard, married Edward Mattison, a recently minted lawyer she'd known since junior high, and moved with him to Modesto, California. He worked as a legal services lawyer; she taught at a community college. The arrival of their first child sent them back East. "We got tired of California and wanted to be near family," she says. "We packed up our dog, two cats, and our baby, and settled in New Haven, Connecticut," a place reminiscent of outer-borough New York, albeit smaller. They have lived there ever since. For readers familiar with either city, the pleasures of Mattison's books include detailed evocations of urban neighborhoods, and how people behave in them. She also has a keen eye for the pleasures and perils of family life. That's no accident. With the birth of two more sons, "I had In a nod to her alma mater, Alice Mattison (inset) found a place on the QC faculty for a character in her most recent novel, which the New York Times praised, saying "Mattison always operates in both close-up and wide angle, and here the effect is often dazzling." small children all over the place," says Mattison. Motherhood expanded her imagination. "Children's minds are so free, and their juxtapositions are so strange," she observes. "You're startled by the things they understand and the things they don't." A published poet who taught creative writing, she found herself switching genres. The New Yorker bought one of her short stories, and then half a dozen more. This success led to a book contract with William Morrow, which eventually was absorbed by HarperCollins, her publisher to this day. "It just kind of happened," she says. "I was very lucky that way." Author of well-reviewed novels, story collections, and a poetry collection, Mattison is on the faculty of Bennington College's low-residency MFA program, which holds semiannual residencies, otherwise interacting with students by correspondence. This fall, despite her reservations about transportation in her native borough, she is teaching in Brooklyn College's MFA program. Far from creating conflicts, the two branches of her career reinforce each other. "Teaching helps writing in a lot of ways," she reports. "Thinking about my students keeps me fresh. And writing helps teaching, because it's how I know what I'm teaching them." QUEENS: The Magazine of Queens College 29

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