Your first book has received much attention, including being in the final list for several awards – how has this influenced you as a writer?
I was surprised by the attention the book received from awards committees and such. When the book first came out in summer 2010, the reviews were generally respectable but there were a lot of remarks along the lines of “This is self-involved and self-indulgent and repetitive, all these minute examinations of lady-problems” and a lot of presumptive comments about how every character was basically me—this from people who have never met me and know nothing about my biography beyond the snippet on the book jacket—and that this somehow rendered the book illegitimate as art.
Initially, there seemed to be a condescending critical consensus that amounted to this sentiment: “She’s a good writer; I can’t wait to see what she produces once she matures.” There was something really Freudian about it, like my book was the equivalent of a clitoral orgasm and everyone was just holding their breath for me to come up with a mature vaginal one (sorry, Mom and Dad). And that made me angry, I have to admit; I felt like the book was being dismissed or trivialized because it was about girls and women–not selfless, martyred, long-suffering Oprah’s Book Club girls and women, but fierce, neurotic, single-minded, obsessive girls and women–and people couldn’t see the universality in it; they got tripped up by the perceived inaccessibility of the gendered lens. So several months after publication, when the book started getting attention via these awards lists, it was a genuine shock. And the best part was attending these awards ceremonies and talking face-to-face with people who told me how much the book meant to them.
The juxtaposition of initial dismissal with this later, sudden outpouring of support and validation was very emotional and meaningful for me. It reminded me how alone I was when I wrote these stories, the raw purity of intention that informed them, the blood and guts I poured into them, how hard I had to fight to get them on the page and how proud I was of my refusal to compromise in terms of their content and message. And now that I’m working on a new book, I do feel pressure, like I need to recapture that uncorrupted, writing-for-myself mentality that informed the first book. I feel kind of like Emma, the protagonist in my title story, who doesn’t know who she is unless she’s fighting, who finds it hard to live meaningfully without a goading catalyst, a reliable adversary, something to react against.
But the truth is I’m not just writing for myself anymore. I know that there are expectations now, and that makes me feel a little twice-removed from the intuitive, visceral aspect of the writing process. It’s a nice problem to have, but it’s distracting to know that there are actually things at stake now. I do struggle with that on a daily basis—locating that old urgency, the old life-or-death incentive.
Some of your writing influences are evident in your work – such as Jim Shepard – but what short stories/short story writers inspire you the most?
Mary McCarthy is my favorite short-story writer, as well as one of the most underrated practitioners of that genre. She’s primarily known today as a memoirist and a novelist, but in my opinion her short stories— particularly those in her debut book, “The Company She Keeps”—are the finest examples we have of her vision, her scathing intelligence and her unsparing psychological acuity.
When I discovered “The Company She Keeps,” I felt a huge gush of validation and recognition. I guess it would be called a “linked” collection in today’s parlance, since each story features the same protagonist, but one of the things I like about it is that the stories are utterly stand-alone, unapologetically independent of one another, and yet together they create this riveting portrait of a human being. I could relate to McCarthy’s themes—her Catholic, Irish-American Midwestern upbringing, her struggle to invent an artistic and autonomous self without forsaking or denying the influence of her origins, her acknowledgment of the brittleness and emotional detachment that is sometimes a byproduct of political and artistic self-actualization, especially for women—but what I took most from these stories is her utter refusal to let her fictional alter ego, Margaret Sargent, off the hook. There is nothing remotely self-serving about these stories. They are a brutal, relentless, witty, insightful excavation of a soul in transition, and they spare no one: not the reader, not the protagonist, and not the writer.
Consciously or unconsciously, I think I intended “Death is Not an Option” as a contemporary answer to “The Company She Keeps.” I was especially aware of channeling McCarthy in my story “Look Ma, I’m Breathing,” which is about a woman being stalked by a deranged landlord; I was careful not to make it a straightforward narrative of victimization, but a psychological study of a character forced to reckon with own tendency to self-mythologize and court the role of stoic martyr. The final story in “The Company She Keeps,” which is called “Ghostly Father, I Confess,” ends with a devastating moment of jagged self-awareness that definitely inspired my portrayal of Isabel in “Look, Ma,” of Kath in my story “Very Special Victims,” and of the narrator in “Consummation.” McCarthy’s protagonist, Margaret, is sitting in the office of an insipid psychoanalyst, not really taking it seriously, but as she sits there she realizes she’s never developed a language to explain and make sense of her troubled background. She’s struggling to find a balance between acknowledging the damage that was done and trivializing it as a cliche.
Here’s the quote:
“You could not treat your life history as though it were an inferior novel and dismiss it with a snubbing phrase. It had after all been like that. Her peculiar tragedy (if she had one) was that her temperament was unable to assimilate her experience; the raw drama of those early years was a kind of daily affront to her skeptical, prosaic intelligence.”
In few sentences, she encapsulates one of the central dilemmas of living a self-aware life, of being a whole person and not a catalogue of symptoms, a poster child, or an impervious caricature.
Short stories are often overlooked as a genre – what do you think is the cause, could this attitude be changed and, if so, how?
In the U.S. at least, pre-radio and pre-TV, stories were a serialized form of entertainment, meant to be enjoyed and savored one at a time. The readers waited, in suspense, for the next installment in the paper. Part of the enjoyment was in the episodic nature of the genre. Nowadays there’s so few mainstream print outlets left that regularly publish short fiction; it’s no longer integrated into populist culture the way it once was.
There are no mass-market short story collections (with notable exceptions like Stephen King’s); stories are seen as this rarefied and somewhat inaccessible medium, too “arty” for the general public, closer to poetry than to novels. They’re a lot more about language and style than novels are; plot isn’t necessarily their driving force. People always complain that nothing happens in them, or that nothing is resolved, and that the endings are too ambiguous and oblique. There’s this perception that no one reads them except other literary writers. Plus, they’re the preferred medium for MFA students to work in, because they’re so much more manageable to workshop than a full-length novel. So that adds another layer of self-referential insulation to the genre.
There are a lot of contradictions inherent in the way stories are regarded, though: on the one hand they’re seen as less accessible and more artsy and experimental; on the other hand, a story collection is seen as training wheels for a novel—stories are what you write when you’re first finding your voice, but when you’re a fully realized artist with a unified vision, you come out with a novel.
Personally I think it takes an entirely different skill set to write a novel than it does to write a story collection. As for changing the cultural tendency to devalue short stories, I’m not sure what that would take. I guess it would help if people developed the patience to accept and value ambivalence and ambiguity, not only in art but in life, and if they stopped regarding art as an oracle that’s supposed to provide answers and morals. There’s still a Puritanism in U.S. culture that dictates that art has to be “useful” in some way, instructive or inspiring in a very moralistic, triumph-of-the-human-spirit way. And stories very rarely give that kind of warm & fuzzy inspiration. The inspiration they provide–for me, anyway–is more rigorous and challenging. A good story discomfits you, forces you to question things, to turn the lens on yourself. It leaves you with an unsettled feeling that’s almost indescribable. And in contemporary culture, there’s a reluctance to sit with that kind of unnameable sensation.
Thanks to internet communication, festivals such as this and the more sociable role of a writer, readers now understand the dedication that goes into writing. Describe your writing process – your routines, your thinking and your aims.
I’ve written since I was a child, and my motivation to do so has always been unexamined and utterly instinctive; I just wrote because I felt inherently compelled to. I think this has informed the way I write today. I’m not one of those methodical, ultra-disciplined writers who treat it like a day job and carve out 8 hours of uninterrupted writing time in their studies, chipping away until they meet their daily word count. I often wish I was one of those writers, but I’m not. I was conditioned from an early age to treat writing as an almost illicit, secret thing, a place I went in my head that was sacred and private, completely divorced from mundane routine and the obligations of the real world. So I have a hard time structuring my writing time in a dutiful, conventional manner. And I always feel so artificial and fraudulent when I allude to it as if it’s a chore–“Gotta go write now, see you later!”
There’s a certain feeling I get when I need to write, and I try to follow that gut feeling. If I don’t write for a few days, it finds me. And I need a very wide breadth when I’m working, which can be hard for non-writers to understand. Writing is not sociable for me, and it’s never going to be a casual topic of conversation; I need a lot of interpersonal space around it in order to feel intimately connected to what I’m working on. I need to feel that there’s no collective ownership of it; what I’m working on must belong entirely and solely to me. I’m not a natural teacher; nor am I a natural entertainer. I’m never going to be like Gary Shteyngart or Billy Collins, a cultural ambassador for a solitary art, delighting crowds with the power of my personality. I’m an introvert, and I’ve discovered that the integrity of my writing depends on my continued cultivation of my introversion. I think that in order to be an artist, I need to feel like a bit of an outsider. The two just go together for me.
What’s next for you?
Right now, I’m working on a historical novel. It’s about Walt Whitman and the three months he spent working as a journalist in New Orleans in 1848, when he was 29. I’m trying to capture the time in his life when he was forced to a crisis point, forced to wrestle with who he was and what he believed, the incubation period before he emerged as a full-fledged artist with a distinctive vision of the world. The novel essentially tries to portray a budding artist’s baptism by fire.
Suzanne Rivecca will be interviewed on Thursday, 15 September at 5pm, in the The Ballroom, Metropole Hotel, Cork, and will follow with a reading at 9pm in the same venue.