Cracking the Codes: Jenn Shapland by Jeannie Vanasco

Part memoir, part biography, a book that plays with genre to cast new light on a revered American writer.

My Autobiography5

Jenn Shapland’s writing career began in the fourth grade when an acting company performed her award-winning mystery story, “The Case of the Missing Cat.” Unfortunately, she no longer has it. While I crave a follow-up called “The Case of the Missing Story of the Missing Cat,” a meta exploration of how she became a writer, her critically acclaimed debut book, My Autobiography of Carson McCullers (Tin House) accomplishes that and more (sans feline). 

My Autobiography of Carson McCullers describes Shapland and Carson McCullers’s coming-of-age stories as writers, lesbians, and chronically ill people. Shapland started writing it after finding―in the Ransom Center Archives where she interned during graduate school―love letters between McCullers and another woman. (McCullers’s identity as a lesbian had long been dismissed by many scholars.) Months later, she secured McCullers’s therapy transcripts, which support the fact that McCullers was a lesbian. But shortly before the book went to press, the McCullers estate told Shapland that she could not quote from the transcripts, telegrams, and certain letters. Despite having to re-write swaths of the book, Shapland preserved McCullers’s voice by using the techniques she learned as a translator.

Shapland and I talked over Zoom—she in Santa Fe, and I in Baltimore—towards the end of 2020, shortly before her book’s paperback release.

—Jeannie Vanasco

Jeannie Vanasco I see Benjamin Moser’s Sontag biography on your shelf.

Jenn Shapland You can’t miss it. (laughter) They really got that spine.

JV The designer did a great job. I’m just now reminded of when her obituaries came out—2004, I think it was—The New York Times and the LA Times never once used the word “lesbian” or even acknowledged her sexuality or her partners. She was with Annie Leibovitz at the end. They’d been together for something like fifteen years. Meanwhile, gay and lesbian news organizations announced, “Lesbian writer Susan Sontag has died.” This speaks to the importance of your book. Can you think of other fairly recent examples where something like that has happened to female writers or academics?

JS Most recently, there was a review of the new biography about Louise Fitzhugh, the author of Harriet the Spy. The review does talk about the fact that she was a lesbian, but it’s at the very bottom of the article. The title of the book has the word “renegade” in it, and the review is hinting the whole time that this writer is some renegade figure, and there was actually a good post the other day by Eileen Myles in response to that being like, Renegade equals dyke. (laughter) That’s all they’re trying to say. Why can’t they really just come out and say the word lesbian? Like those obituaries you mention that said, “Lesbian writer, Susan Sontag.” Why does it have to be so hidden in this other language? 

There are a ton of writers that this sort of thing continually happens to. I just read the book Rebecca for the first time. Daphne du Maurier, who wrote it, was almost certainly a lesbian. You barely have to even read the Wikipedia page to be like, Oh, that’s interesting. (laughter) It describes her marriage and then her long term friendship with someone else. I’ve become so attuned to the code—maybe problematically attuned to the code—where I just start being like, Everyone was a lesbian actually. (laughter) This is all a charade. 

JV You point to so many women in your book who likely were lesbians. You have that chapter, “List of Carson’s Possible Girlfriends.” And then the next chapter is called “Other Likely Lesbians.” Katherine Anne Porter appears on both lists. She wrote pretty derisively about lesbians, so much so that you write, “Thou doth protest too much, Kate.” I like that you include her on both lists. Can you talk about your decision to include her in particular? I can guess what your answer might be—but I’m thinking about readers of this interview who haven’t yet read the book.

JS Well, I think in Katherine Anne Porter’s case, it’s partly because this story—the anecdote about Carson lying in her doorway, just waiting for her to come out—is so well known and repeated among the set of writers who were at Yaddo. And I think it also characterizes the way that Carson and her sexuality has been depicted—as though she’s just lusting after these women in this desperate fashion, but nothing would ever be reciprocated. 

None of that, after you dig into her letters and her writing, seems to be totally accurate. It’s a pretty ungenerous way of portraying her sexuality and her relationships. And so, if this is the story that everyone came away with, What really happened? We really don’t know. Something tells me that for it to have been so dramatic, there has to be more of a story there. We seem to be afraid to call any woman a lesbian, and so if there’s ever evidence in her life that she had a relationship with a man then we don’t call her that, right? What if we flip that? What if we just say, Maybe everyone’s a lesbian. And that’s fine. You can be a lesbian while also in a straight marriage. We don’t have to be so afraid of this one term and this one possibility. 

black and white portrait of McCullers, short hair, looking in the distance, possibly mid-sentence

Photo of Carson McCullers by Carl Van Vechten, 1959. From the Van Vechten Collection at the Library of Congress.

JVIt speaks to one of the larger tensions of your book, what I see as the plot: this wrestling with feeling some need to provide proof. At one point you write, “But please, no more demands for certain kinds of proof, no more ‘doesn’t count unless—’ bullshit. Don’t tell me there’s just not enough evidence. Let’s call a lesbian a lesbian.” Can you talk about your frustration with the larger cultural forces that pressure one to provide proof of someone’s sexuality?

JSWell, I have two thoughts on this. One is that I want to go back for a second to when we were talking about Sontag. There’s a funny thing that happens in most interviews I’ve done about this book—and often when talking to people out in the world, when I did events for the book’s launch back in early 2020—where people look at me and say, Doesn’t everyone know that McCullers was queer? I think that’s an interesting and telling response because on the one hand, yes, McCullers has been recognized as a writer in the queer universe for decades. There’s tons of scholarship on her work as it relates to queer theory for sure. And what you said about Sontag—about how it was 2004 when those obituaries came out that didn’t even mention the fact. There’s a disconnect in our culture where we think we’ve solved the problem of addressing people’s sexual identity and queerness in public. We think we’re past that somehow. But then if you actually start looking at what is written and recorded, and you realize we’re still closeting a lot of people, all the time. I found decades of censorship of this fact, even though we all know it. Both those realities coexist in the same world.

But you were asking about the burden of proof and my wrestling with that. One of the conflicts that I’m wrestling with in the book is, Am I an academic or am I a writer? And the academic in me—the person who was getting a PhD and defending a dissertation at the same time I was writing this book—is like, I need evidence, I need quotes, I need reliable sources to prove this, and I need to make an argument about this that no one can refute. That’s the training. That’s what I’m being told I have to do. I have to find my turf, and then I have to really secure it. And then the writer—and the queer person—in me was able to recognize just from those letters—between Carson and Annemarie—these are two queer women. It is really obvious. There’s no doubt about it. (laughter) And the queer person in me can also just look at a picture of McCullers and be like, Come on! She is really trying to perform her gender and sexual identities to the point that they are still legible to this day. It’s very hard to miss. 

I think those two things are definitely some of the things I’m wrestling with in the book: How much license do I have to say what I believe about this person’s life and what I feel I know to be true? And how much of that is the fiction of me believing I know her better than someone else or that I recognize her? So I toggle back and forth between being able to just declare unilaterally that this is what’s true and I know it, and it’s because I’m able to interpret what I see. But then I’m also like, Do I actually know what I know? Do I actually even believe myself or even believe any of these arguments that I’m making?

A house in the blue light of day: Carson McCullers's childhood home in Columbus, Georgia

Carson McCullers’s childhood home in Columbus, Georgia, where she lived and visited from 1926 until 1944. Photo by Jenn Shapland, 2016.

Interior of Carson McCullers's childhood home in Columbus, Georgia, where she lived and visited from 1926 until 1944. Photo by Jenn Shapland, 2016.

Interior view of Carson McCullers’s childhood home. Photo by Jenn Shapland, 2016.

JV Relatively early on you write, “It is customary when writing a biography to talk to as many people who personally knew this subject as possible. But I instinctively avoided this. I didn’t want to meet anyone. I didn’t want to encounter any other person who might try to put the pieces back their own way, who would tell me where the pieces go. I wanted only the pieces in her words and time.” I love that. It beautifully sets the terms for your book. Really, by the second sentence—and that’s when I knew I was going to love it. That sentence, “I picture them on a swing, though I know for a fact that no such swing exists,” immediately puts the reader in the realm of your point of view. Was that always your opening? 

JS That was not always the opening. But after my partner and some friends read it—they were basically like, You need to put the lesbians in the first chapter. You need that word. You need it right up in everyone’s face. And I was kind of uncomfortable with that. I thought, That’s going to turn a lot of readers off immediately. It’s going to pigeonhole what I’m saying. There’s a beautiful part in Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts where she talks about the word “lesbian” and how the second it’s used—I think she’s actually quoting someone—but the second someone uses that word, a female academic uses that word, all the people in the audience no longer hear what she’s saying or her argument. They just hear, Lesbian, lesbian, lesbian. (laughter) That’s all they can hear. 

So I thought, I don’t want to do that with my book. But then I also felt what I wanted at the beginning was a visual, a scene, a location. The house was really important to me for a long time. I was trying to get Tin House to put the house on the cover. I think the moment where Reeves—who ends up being her husband twice—asks if she’s a lesbian, is an encapsulating moment. And I really like when, in writing, something can be bound up in a really tight exchange like that. There’s a lot of symbolism happening throughout the book, like the part about the swing. It was important that my imagination was there on the first page, too—whether or not it was conscious. 

There’s a way in which you could look at my whole journey of trying to describe McCullers’s life and not wanting to talk to anyone, wanting to have my own engagement, as a kind of fictional enterprise because it’s very interpretive. It’s very much my own interpretation, my own view of. So, if I think there should have been a swing, I’m going to put a swing there. (laughter) I was constantly asking myself, How can I use all of these facts to support what is, in a way, my own sort of fantasy? Which I think is something that we do when we really admire anyone, especially a writer or an artist or a figure from the past. They become this sort of fantasy or this icon or this idea more than a person. And I think deep down that’s what much nonfiction is doing: supporting something imaginary, whether it’s a theory, or a biography, or a history, with facts. At the same time, I really wanted badly to include McCullers’s words as much as possible and to engage with them, to have her words, her narrative, guide the book.

JV I appreciate that you use her words whenever you’re writing about her fiction. For example, in your book there’s this scene when McCullers is running with Gypsy Rose Lee from a house fire, and McCullers tells her that Frankie—in The Member of the Wedding—is actually in love with her brother’s fiancée. 

JS Having been trained in literary criticism, I really didn’t want to start saying things like, In The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter clearly McCullers is one of the two mutes. (laughter) I really don’t like that conflation. I wanted to avoid it. I hope I was successful in doing it because I know it’s something that does make me crazy, which is when you try to use the facts of the person’s life to explain what’s happening in their fiction. It’s almost disrespectful, because we’re trying to think of this person as an artist. It’s much more respectful to read what it is that they have to say about their writing. To interpret that and what they were trying to do and what they were thinking about rather than being like, Well then her dad died. So this is clearly about her dad’s death. I am bothered by that on a number of levels, but one of them is strictly the timing. 

I work for an artist right now as his archivist and often I have to read articles that come out about his work that describe an event that happened in his life. And then they’ll say that his work is clearly about that. But I know that he made this work three years before that even happened. So I’m like, You’re straight up wrong. You’re just so wrong. (laughter) And it’s so easy to get something like that wrong. It’s so easy to misinterpret that. The best way to find out what an artist or writer was thinking about when they wrote the book is to A) read the book and then B) if there’s anything that they had to say about the book, read that.

Photo of Jenn Shapland courtesy of Tin House.

Photo of Jenn Shapland by Christian Michael Filardo.

JVAfter the book was basically done, the McCullers estate said that you couldn’t quote from her therapy transcripts. You also couldn’t quote from some telegrams and letters. Can you discuss how that affected the revision process? What strategies did you use to keep her voice in the book even though you couldn’t precisely quote her?

JSThat really changed the revision process and editing process because I had thought that the book was done. And because of the way I write—by whittling down to as few sentences as possible—there was a way in which having to suddenly paraphrase a lot of the quotations required me to bring in a lot more words to say what she said in very few. On a craft level, that’s frustrating to me because I like a nice tight sentence. I then had to go through each moment when there was a quotation that had to be removed and then revisit where that quotation came from. This meant going back to the therapy transcript. Or the letter, the telegram—the piece of writing that it came from. I’d reread that in context, and then basically spend a lot of time trying to think about what she’s saying, what the cadence is, what the undertones are. And then ask myself, what are some other words I can use to convey that? How can I do that as tightly as possible to keep the rhythm of the paragraph that I’ve already written. Or do I have to rewrite more of the paragraph? It was an exercise in really close listening. I even found myself digging around the internet to find audio clips of her speaking, just to understand her voice even better in the cases when I felt like I had to describe her voice. It all had to happen really quickly, as I recall.

There is something funny, as I’m sure you’re aware, that happens after you write a book. The editing process goes on for a while. You’re revisiting stuff that you’ve written a long time ago. It kind of gets further and further away from you. At that point I was really like, The book is closed and it’s over. (laughter) I want to say we’d even done copy edits at that point. I really thought it was over. But suddenly we had to reopen everything and try to recreate these lively moments of dialogue by paraphrasing, which is just clunkier. 

It ultimately brought me closer to Carson’s voice. I think that helped me understand her even better because I suddenly was acting as a translator for her. I did some translation when I was an undergrad. I studied Italian and I translated some fiction. So it felt like a very familiar process in that way. I read a lot of translation theory at one point. I was familiar with that process of extremely careful listening and then really thinking about all of the valences of a word. I mean, it’s similar to writing, but it’s almost like you’re writing with someone else’s voice, someone else’s head, someone else’s heart. I learned a lot from that process, even though it was sort of heartbreaking.

JVDo you have a favorite book by McCullers?

JSI really like The Member of the Wedding. That’s the one that I wish I’d read as an adolescent. I think it would have been so comforting to read about this person who I feel such a kinship with. It’s a beautiful novel about growing up in a small place and feeling isolated from the world and trying to figure out, How am I going to get out of here and be a part of this larger world? 

I’m not as big of a fan of The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter. There are definitely things about it that I love. I get more excited about the other ones. Even Reflections in a Golden Eye. That book is crazy, but I love it. (laughter)

JVWorking on one’s first book, there’s something exciting and freeing about it—especially when no one is expecting it. Now that you’ve had such great success with your book, do you find it influencing or affecting your writing process at all? 

JSI’m feeling a bit lost right now. I’ve been working on this essay collection. Some of the essays that I think are part of the collection I started even while I was writing the McCullers stuff. So they’ve been progressing for a while. And over the last year, I was able to write one big new essay somehow. I also did a whole proposal for the collection for an application. But one of the reasons I wrote the proposal was because I’m finding it hard to get my brain out of the publishing world.

There’s one essay I’m trying to revise right now, and I was able to get some feedback from an editor who rejected it. I asked them to tell me why, and they actually did, which was really cool. Part of this, too, is I don’t have a writing group. I don’t have anyone to really bounce my work off of except for my poor belabored partner who’s an editor for a living and is probably like, Can you please stop? I have so much to read. (laughter) So there’s a feeling of writing into a vacuum even though at the same time the book I already wrote is circulating in the world and having its own life. The writing I’m doing now is in this void. My brain is very much in the world of: Who would buy this? Should it be an essay collection or a different kind of nonfiction book? Maybe I should do it like this, or like that

This is the broken record inside my brain. And then it’s also all of the anxiety and insecurity of thinking that someone else is probably writing about this and they’re probably doing it a lot better than I am. I feel very self conscious in this way that I don’t think I was when I was writing the McCullers book—because I didn’t know what I was doing. I didn’t have an agent. Now I feel almost like I know too much about the process that comes after, and it’s hard to be back in the messy unknown world of writing.

My Autobiography of Carson McCullers: A Memoir is available for purchase here.

Jeannie Vanasco is the author of the memoirs Things We Didn’t Talk About When I Was a Girl and The Glass Eye.

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