I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee
Index as fiction, mess as virtue.
I first met Suzanne Scanlon just under a decade ago, both of us in a small conference room filling out forms for adjunct teaching gigs at an arts school in Chicago. I remember looking at this composed, smiling woman in that yearning kind of way, as I was longing for female friendship, especially with other writers. We were both, as I was later to learn, there to teach literature and writing, but I don’t think we had a conversation about it then. Being a writer wasn’t something either of us announced. I really met her, I think, through her writing, as she confessed to me several years later that she kept a blog (I had started one, too). I remember reading entries on her blog that became drafts for her book Promising Young Women and being completely struck by this intimate and searching voice, this memory project, and also a library of a mind inhaling and referencing literature voraciously, as if it was a crucial life force. It was through Suzanne’s blog and our correspondence that I began to feel a sense of community as a writer. I felt this same admiration and kinship reading Her 37th Year: An Index(Noemi Press, 2015), her fictional essay of a life and a marriage.
Kate Zambreno I wanted to start off by asking you about the indexical form, which abbreviates so many significant aspects of this narrator’s year, working as a series of anecdotes of a life. I can foresee you are going to inform or remind me that this form has been done before—the index most specifically, and also extending to other sorts of fictional dictionaries or the fragmented mode in general. Reading it, I did situate Her 37th Year with such works as Roland Barthes by Roland Barthes (by Roland Barthes) and Maggie Nelson’s Bluets. But the form of your book works so organically. It made me feel you were doing something quite new, especially in the economy of the whole thing, the control, a way to have more holes than reveals, but also a way to stage these wide-open moments of vulnerability. So, I wanted to ask what your inspirations were for this form, what role this form played in this process, and whether the writing was a gradual accumulation or if it came out all at once.
Suzanne Scanlon I think it was a gradual accumulation, coming out of notebook and blog writing, and then, later, choosing selections that would link toward a larger story. The control offered by the index form was essential to me. It gave me the freedom to offer those moments of vulnerability, as you put it, without cloaking them within any forced narrative. Just: Yes, this is the mess of life! This mess. Look at it! Of course, you don’t want to look too long, and that is why I found myself reaching out to many referenced and quoted writers, because that is how my life is lived, engaging with art and artists and writers.
Bluets was enormously influential for me, as was Claudia Rankine. I read some of Rebecca Lindenberg’s love poems (about Craig Arnold, I think) that were indexed; that was thrilling and inspiring. I know I was teaching David Shields’s Reality Hunger, and that must have been an influence—a collage hybrid text—as were Sontag’s journals, which feel indexed, and the plays of María Irene Fornés, which reference Sontag and contain odd, elliptical, layered voices. A colleague of mine has his creative nonfiction students write an index to their lives, which is an exercise I love and am going to steal.
Rick Moody has this short story/essay that I’ve always liked, “Primary Sources,” where he uses the books on his shelf to tell the story of his life—and each links to an anecdote with a teacher (Angela Carter) or to a moment of crisis in his life. I can’t say it was a direct influence, but I admire that way of telling a story, that link between the fiction we read and the identities we create for ourselves. Plus, a lot of his early stories had this blurring of fiction and nonfiction that I love.
KZ How did you come up with this index? Was it part of the organic process of drafting? Was it a sort of shaping process afterward?
SS I loved the idea of an external shape imposed on the story. I was casting about for form, for shapes, for ways to tell a story. I had the original short story written without the titles, then I rearranged things with short titles (as I did in my story “Constant Observation,” and as Mary Robison does) but that didn’t feel tight enough. So, I decided it was one year, and I made it an index, the book’s various sources to the year. It was definitely a shaping process just before I submitted the original short story. I wrote the first draft quickly, and then submitted it. I then returned to the work once it won an award, and when I read it aloud it felt like something I could have fun expanding. Limiting it to a year in a woman’s life allowed for such range. That was the key moment for me, that decision to delineate it as one year.
KZ You and I often talk of “mess” as a literary value. I admire how Her 37th Year is both minimalist and excessive. I wanted to ask about your idea of messiness, about what that sweet spot for a text is, where it contains excess—some wildness, some rawness, some vulnerability, a sense of rant or digression—while not being formless. I remember talking with Jenny Offill about her Department of Speculation, which I know you also really admired, and telling her my favorite part is the moment where the wife is on the toilet, pants around her ankles, just totally breaking down. And Jenny said it was a very strategic moment of unraveling in the text—that the entire text couldn’t have that unraveling or it would just be too much, too intense. I thought that was interesting. Of course, then you have a novel like Elena Ferrante’s Days of Abandonment, which you and I reference with each other often, where Olga is just unraveling the entire time, until becoming sane again. So, I’m asking about two forms of mess—aesthetic and emotional—and how they relate. Unraveling as a virtue.
SS Unraveling is absolutely a virtue. Again, to return to the theater, I have long been drawn to characters unraveling on stage. My friend David Adjmi is masterful at this, his characters unraveling with an intensity that is so satisfying, especially on stage. As does María Irene Fornés, or Tennessee Williams, and so many playwrights and filmmakers I admire. I understand the resistance to too much intensity, but I also see the value in it, aesthetically. I mean, we’ve talked about Karen Finley, or Ntozake Shange, or Holly Hughes, or Kathy Acker, or Marina Abramovic. Where would I be as an artist/writer/woman if it weren’t for these women so willing to put messiness out there? That is Elena Ferrante’s power, too, though it perhaps speaks to why she resists publicity. However much we want or need intensity in art, we are so terrified and disturbed by it in life. I get that.
KZ I am especially interested in hearing you speak about the way you played with language and subverted the form. Some of my favorite moments in Her 37th Year are the non-endings and sometimes absurd, often witty, sometimes quite meaningful cul-de-sacs built within the index that punctuates the book—not only the names for the categories that feel so entirely specific, but also the parentheticals afterward that pivot between non-sequitur and we-don’t-know. The connections are not clear to the reader, but somehow the parade of terms feeling quite weird and right. Sometimes we get just the category and parenthetical, like on page 113:
Query (see also: Hysteria)
Or my favorite one, which is:
Cabbages (see also: Happiness; and Woolf, Virginia)
I guess this would be a good time to ask about wit, humor, and play within the text (I am reading Mary Robison’s Why Did I Ever, which reminds me so much of your book, such a feat of voice).
SS I read Mary Robison in grad school and found something liberating about her elision—the fragments, the fractured life rendered through narrative form. It was a funny, thrilling, messy madness. I’d read Lydia Davis and Diane Williams, but, other than those two, I didn’t realize you could do what Robison was doing in fiction; it was quite female and resistant to the trends of big books. There was something of Lorrie Moore in the voice, but also less control than in her work, and that made it more exciting. I mean, that book is a performance, and I love what feels less formally crafted about it. She said she wrote it on notecards. It’s sort of like hanging out with the best mental patients—they are often unbearably smart, the most willing to honestly say what’s what, and to see the hilarious absurdity of it all, too.
Humor and play is such an enormous part of my favorite writing, and this is the first time I’ve had access to it myself. It was partly the form that allowed it. The conversation between the two women at the theater, or the conversations with my son, those were all things I heard or participated in, then wrote down in my notebook. Life is just so profound and hilarious, all the time. I mean, not to get all David Shields here, but who needs the artifice of fiction? Sometimes I grow tired of it.
KZ Okay, since we are both writers that play between genre, I think I’m contractually obligated to ask you about genre. (I’m just thinking of that review of Promising Young Women that said something like, “I loved this book! But it’s an essay!”) There’s that moment in Her 37th Yearwhere the narrator writes on the chalkboard: Identity is a fiction. Do you see yourself as engaging in the tradition of the essay, or the novel, or the memoir, or something else?
SS Well, this feels more like an essay, but it’s called fiction. Honestly, I don’t care if people read PYW and this book as essay—and I don’t care if they read it as fiction. Both are constructions. Both take from life, and both invent. I like fiction and nonfiction. I like Anne Carson’s The Beauty of the Husband, which she called a fictional memoir. That was perfect, and that’s how I thought of this book as I wrote it. A fictional memoir. You might also call PYWa nonfictional novel. There’s this great Pam Houston essay, “Corn Maze” where she addresses this:
When I went on tour with my first book, a collection of short stories, I was asked, more than any other question, how much of this really happened to you? “A lot of it,” was my honest answer, night after night, but the audience grew dissatisfied with that answer and seemed, more than anything, to want something quantifiable, so I began saying, also honestly, about 82%.
Eight years later, when I published my first “nonfiction” book and went on tour with it, I would often be introduced in some version of the following manner: “In the past we have gotten 82% Pam, and now we are going to get 100%,” and I would approach the microphone and feel the need to say, “Well, no, still coming in right about 82.”
KZ One of the things I admire most about this book, and your writing in general, is how intimate and searching it is, and hidden and mysterious at the same time. There is deep pain underneath the detachment, or wit, which is really the wit of a narrator who desires light but feels close to darkness, and sees the light and darkness in others. This is such a text of emotions, of “mental weather” (Sontag on Sleepless Nights). Another important text for you, in Her 37th Year, that the narrator reads and imitates, is Claudia Rankine’s Don’t Let Me Be Lonely—an incredible text of individual and national sadness. I would love to hear your thoughts on Sleepless Nights and Rankine’s book—two of the key companion texts of your book.
SS Wow, what a nice way to put it: desires light but feels close to darkness. There can be light in darkness. There is a lightness in certain contemporary theater—Sarah Ruhl, I’m thinking—which feels close to darkness. This is how I find meaning in my life, in my solitude, in my need to put words on the page. We’ve spoken of community, but I think, yes, this is a novel of mental weather. I’m less artful and less defended than Hardwick, but, for a long time, I told myself this book was about turning forty—the shock of that, the slow dull way aging manifests. But as I did edits last fall, with Amanda Goldblatt, who did so much to shape and sharpen the manuscript, I realized the book was also about the end of my marriage. There are many ways to tell the story of a marriage ending, of course, and this might be one way, my attempt to own the narrative (as opposed to, say, Delmore Schwartz’s narrative). “You are like me, solitary,” as my teacher told me. It might be true, or it might just be one way to tell the story of a marriage, which is linked inexorably to aging.
Claudia Rankine taught me, in Don’t Let Me Be Lonely, that there is communicative power in despair, that there is a transcendent lyric that can contain the personal but speak to something beyond it, to the sacred. She is astoundingly artful, revealing, and cloaking. Like you, I read a lot of poetry and am married to a poet whose work (and the books he’d have on his bedside table) gave me permission to try things that wouldn’t necessarily work in fiction or essay. Poets, like playwrights, have certain freedoms—and I wanted those. That’s why I like blogs, too—the freedom of the less serious genre, the outsider.
KZ Yeah, I envy poetry for its freedoms, for the fluidity of the speaker, who can be both fiction and nonfiction. I don’t read poetry as much as I should, actually. You have to tell me what to read. I just reread Ariana Reines’s Coeur de Lion—so good, of course. I think you quote from it in Her 37th Year. I started this year reading some of the famous Eastern European poets—actually, I think, because of rereading Don’t Let Me Be Lonely, since Rankine quotes from Celan and Brodsky.
SS Yes, Ariana is doing something so important to me. Her crafted, shaped, radical vulnerability. I remember reading Coeur de Lion, which was so utterly unlike The Cow, but as important. Eileen Myles. Dawn Lundy Martin. Danielle Pafunda. Raul Zurita. I like bleeding on the page. Right now I’m loving Natalie Eilbert’s work. Anne Boyer.
KZ Her 37th Year operates in that pantheon of texts that are my favorite to read—literature about literature. I’m thinking Enrique Vila-Matas, W. G. Sebald, Kathy Acker, David Markson, and recently, Valeria Luiselli’s new novel, definitely Claudia Rankine, and so many more. Why am I name-dropping? Yes, let’s talk about name-dropping itself! And reading! Ghosts, and echoes, and references in the text. How you plagiarize and collage within this book. How your narrator even mimics other narrators—sitting next to someone on an airplane, responding as the narrator in Don’t Let Me Be Lonely, telling him she writes textbooks on the liver, telling others she came to New York to be a Jewish intellectual (miming Hardwick). How this book is a library of a mind—which reminds me so much of Hardwick’s, where one’s reading life is as important as life events.
SS All I do is name-drop, I realize, in life, too. It might be a nice quality in a teacher, but I think it makes me a bad date. But I don’t care! Because it speaks to my total geek-out, nerd passion, and yours—your name-dropping has fed my education, my reading. Our ongoing conversations have been essential to my writing and to this book. As you know, you are in this book, in many ways. And I think the library of mind, the name-dropping (as in Heroines and Green Girl) is essential to being an artist in this culture that so commercializes and resists our very selves—because that passion is how we found each other. These shared obsessions. If we hadn’t been writing these shared obsessions, we wouldn’t have known how close we are. Recently you told me to read May Sarton’s Journal of a Solitude, and I bought it and stayed up last night reading it, which was a balm for the pain of my life right now. And you knew. So many times, you knew exactly which book I needed when I needed it.
KZ I love that book. What I admire about Journal of a Solitude is how May Sarton situates her depression and darkness, and even rage, as a crucial part of dealing with this new solitude, a part of getting close to grace. I mean, that’s the question, I think, going back to your idea of writing the messiness of life, of how to write the day. How to write loneliness. And going back to what you say about Don’t Let Me Be Lonely, how to write, the radiance, in a way, of despair.
SS I tend to link my religious searching to my artistic searching, and I’ve been so frustrated and exhausted by the limitations of the medical model that I’ve found myself, in middle life, returning to what I most fully understand as spiritual seeking. That’s the beauty of what I’ve read so far. Sarton’s depression or anger is not understood through a trendy diagnosis; it is a symptom of her larger engagement with what it means to be human, to be alive, which is not an individual problem, but a universal one, most accessed and understood through literature. I remember what Mary Gordon said in a class I had with her in college, reading Woolf’s The Waves, she noted that being an English major was not the most cost-effective major, but it was one place where you could come to understand what it means to be alive. And that was it for me. That was why I needed Woolf, and so many other writers. That never ends, that search, which is sacred.
KZ I am especially struck in the Sarton with how she champions writing the naked—that a work of literature should somehow reveal the entire self. This is echoed in your epigraph from Cioran in Her 37th Year—the idea that one shouldn’t write unless you can reveal something to the reader that you can’t to anybody else. There is such an intimacy in the works we have mentioned, and that I see in your work as well—a nakedness. But there is also a controlled, elliptical quality (and even in Journal of a Solitude, May Sarton alludes to a love affair or disintegrating relationship, but in veiled ways). What do you make of that contradiction? Writing that is naked, and then also veiled (as I am wrestling lately with Susan Sontag writing of the “elliptical” in her essay on Sebald/Sleepless Nights, which is a quality I admire about these works as well, but also Chris Kraus theorizing that valuing privacy is a form of patriarchal thought in I Love Dick, a quote you utilize in Her 37th Year).
SS I think about it a lot. I teach a lot of essay writing, which is ostensibly more confessional, but am constantly considering ways my favorite writers both reveal and conceal. The contractions and expansions of self, as Lopate describes it. That’s also the power of an essay, or a blog, something can be true in one moment, but it isn’t assuming a rigid truth. Rather, the space of the genre allows for contradiction. Hardwick veils a lot, as does Sontag. Roxane Gay had an essay on her Tumblr not long ago—a recipe that was also an essay—it was striking in that balance of revelation and concealment. You do this in Heroines, offering scenes from your marriage and then returning to your sharp, smart literary criticism. Clearly, I learn the most from other women writers about ways to negotiate this—the power of telling the truth and the elegance of stepping back, allowing space and silence and outwardness to speak, too.
Suzanne Scanlon is the author of Promising Young Women (Dorothy, 2012), and Her 37th Year, an Index (Noemi Press, 2015). She lives in Chicago.
Kate Zambreno is author of Green Girl (Harper Perennial) and Heroines (Semiotext(e)’s Active Agents). She is now at work on a novel, Switzerland, and a collection, Drifts. She teaches in writing programs at Columbia University and Sarah Lawrence College.
Originally published in
I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee