Age doesnt slow passionate activist-writer Grace Paley

It's snowing, Grace Paley says by phone from her Vermont home. The poet and short story writer was delighted by the recent blanketing whiteness: Even at 80, she doesn't let snow, or age for that matter, slow her down.

She'll be especially busy in the coming weeks, as she is scheduled for four Bay Area appearances, including talks and readings, and a one-day writing workshop at Mills College in Oakland.

"I long to see the West Coast; I have a lot of friends there," says the lifelong East Coast resident. Paley divides her time between her New England home, which sits across the river from Dartmouth College, and New York City, where she grew up, and where her 96-year-old brother and her son reside with their families. Her daughter lives nearby in Vermont.

Paley kicks off her tour here Thursday evening at the Osher Marin Jewish Community Center in San Rafael, where she'll discuss "Women Writing in Jewish."

She developed this topic herself. "I gave a course at Dartmouth, in the Jewish studies department, called 'Writing in Jewish.' It's really just a way to begin talking and asking questions and have people respond."

The course stemmed from her interest in Brazilian Jewish writer Clarice Lispector. "Our families came from the same place in Ukraine," Paley explains. "I thought, 'How interesting. We both became writers.' And then you can look around the whole world and see by what accidents we end up in these places…"

And yet we are the same, she says.

"My feeling was we were writing in Jewish — not Yiddish, Jewish. It is the language of my childhood, the language in my ear as a small child."

Jewish is a style of writing, Paley believes. Lispector and many other Jewish writers brought "a different kind of style" into literature. Some of Paley's favorite female Jewish writers are Lynne Sharon Schwartz, Tillie Olsen and poet Muriel Rukeyser. Noteworthy male authors include, of course, "that trio" — Bernard Malamud, Saul Bellow and Philip Roth. "They're a pain in the ass as far as women are concerned," she says, "but they did a lot with language."

Paley brings her own, flavorful "Jewish" style to her stories, which capture the ordinary lives of men and women through the decades she has lived. Paley grew up in the Bronx, the child of immigrant parents who'd been exiled to Siberia as anti-czarist revolutionaries. Her everyday existence was steeped in Jewishness, though not religion.

"My father would spit on the steps of the synagogue, he was so anti-religious," she says. "But he'd read the Bible."

Paley, though secular, is not so strident. But she is fond of the Bible. "I've always been a big Bible reader."

She goes out of her way to connect with other Jews through the Dartmouth community and communal organizations in the Upper Valley, where her Vermont home is located.

In New York, of course, it's easy because "you don't have to go anywhere to be around other Jews."

Like her parents, Paley is passionate about certain causes, and she is well known as a feminist and anti-war activist.

"I'm very much against the war," she says of the Bush administration's plans to disarm Iraq. "I do everything I can" to protest. She attended a mass demonstration in the nation's capital and one in Vermont, where she was recently named the state's poet laureate.

The recipient of many awards and honors, including the 1994 National Book Award for her "Collected Stories," Paley is bemused by the latest tribute. "It's funny to me. I've been known mostly as a story writer, a fiction writer."

In her childhood and developing years as a writer (as a young, divorced mother of two) Paley penned mostly poetry. Her first book of short stories, "The Little Disturbances of Man," was published in 1959.

She continues to compose poems and stories. "I'm working the way I usually do; it is kind of harebrained in a way." She has "a couple of stories that I hope to finish," and some poems still in her typewriter.

Typewriter? Ah, but she now owns a computer. "I just got this damn thing," she says with a laugh. "I'm learning it. I don't know if I'll write on it, but it certainly is nice to get a letter [by e-mail] and answer it right away!"

Paley admits she's a slow worker. Besides being rather unstructured in her ways, "I'm a big reviser," she says. "I'm terrible. I even like to revise — I like the process." Besides, she says, there's nothing more satisfying than knowing that your first draft — "you look at it and know it's terrible" — can become so much better in the end.

So, she still writes, gives workshops, visits New York regularly and gives lectures across the country. Has she slowed down at all?

"Yeah," she replies. "I've cut down on a lot of stuff. Not as much as my husband wants me to." Her partner, Robert Nichols, is a fellow writer and editor.

Asked how she still musters the energy to fight tough battles, as is the case in the current anti-war movement, and Paley explains that if nothing else it is a matter of continuing public discourse. "For so many weeks, people have been arguing and fighting the war-makers; much of the world is opposed to this war."

She, of course, views this positively: "You can turn it around and say it's waging peace."

Citing "the most famous [Jewish] statement of all," she says: "You are not expected to complete the task, but you may not put it down."

Liz Harris

Liz Harris is a J. contributor. She was J.'s culture editor from 2012-2018.