Bobbie Ann Mason may still live in Kentucky, but she doesn't like to think of herself as a Southern writer anymore. Her earliest, award-winning works—the collection Shiloh and Other Stories and the novel In Country—were set in Western Kentucky, where Mason grew up, but she says she's moved beyond that now.
Mason's 2005 novel, An Atomic Romance, took place in a kind of Anywhere, U.S.A., and her most recent work, 2011's The Girl in the Blue Beret, is mostly set in France. It's ostensibly a tale of World War II and the French Resistance, but it's really a story about coming to terms with war and its aftermath—physical, mental, and emotional. It's very different from In Country, which examined the lives of Vietnam veterans, but Mason's deft touch and subtlety remains.
She says she keeps returning to war as a topic because "it is such a large, impenetrable subject. ... Why do people put themselves through this? It's just perplexing to me."
Mason will be kicking off this year's Writers in the Library program at the University of Tennessee. The whole series has a strong lineup, but Mason will surely be one of the highlights.
Your last novel was set mainly in France. What made you decide to write a novel that took place in Europe?
You imply there was a decision.
But up until that, your work has pretty much been set in Kentucky. Do you ever get sick of the "Southern writer" label?
God, I haven't thought about that for so long. ... My previous novel was not set in the South—it was not set in any identifiable region. When I published my memoir [Clear Springs, in 1999], I felt that I was wrapping up that part of my life. And then it was a new century, and time to look in a new direction.
So the things you are writing now aren't set in the South?
I'm not in the middle of writing anything. I'm trying out some stories, but don't have any great plan or design.
Back to The Girl in the Blue Beret—I understand it was inspired by your father-in-law's actual experiences during World War II?
More or less. He remembered there was a girl who was a guide who met aviators at the train station, and that she was wearing something blue—maybe a scarf, maybe a beret, he wasn't sure. And he met her many years later when her family looked up the many aviators they had helped. But they just met the once. ... But I wrote fiction. I added something to the story.
You were recently the writer-in-residence at the University of Kentucky. Are you still doing that?
When you deal with young writers, what advice do you tend to give them?
I don't have any career advice. I don't know anything about what you do to make a career these days. ... With writing you have to be devoted. It has to mean something to you. You have to make it a necessity for yourself.
What does writing mean to you?
It is the most enjoyable and gratifying creative thing I could be doing. I love the challenge of creating something that stands on its own apart from me.
So you said you aren't really working on anything now—is there a reason for that?
I didn't want to jump into another ambitious project. And I have been just for the past year in the world of The Girl With the Blue Beret still. Writing a novel is a huge commitment. After I finish I need time to gather myself and catch up on things.