Suzanne Scanlon is the author of two novels, Promising Young Women and her most recent, Her 37th Year, An Index. She has won the Iowa Review Fiction Award and appeared in publications such as Hobart, Diagram, Electric Literature, Make, and BOMB. Her nonfiction has appeared in Essay Daily, Bust, The American Scholar, and The Millions, the latter receiving a Critical Hit Award from Electric Literature. She teaches in the English and Creative Writing Departments of Columbia College.
The assistant editors of Punctuate recently sat down with Suzanne to talk about genre bending, blurring, and the interstices within poetry, fiction and nonfiction.
Punctuate: We noted that Her 37th Year, An Index, is labeled as fiction, but certain parts read as nonfiction. Could you talk about that and where you got the idea to write a book in the index format?
Suzanne Scanlon: I wish I could remember the moment I decided to write it as an index. It was a one-day writing exercise to try to give it some shape, and I just liked it as a short piece. Then, I submitted and published that and it got a prize from the Iowa Review, the short piece. So then I thought, “Oh I have an audience that liked it,” and then I expanded it. I had seen, of course, other writers work in forms like the index. It wasn’t something I was inventing. And putting the timeline into a year, helped the story in a way I liked.
Your second question was in regards to fiction/nonfiction—I think everything I write is like that. I think of it all as fiction, but I read as much nonfiction as fiction. I honestly like playing with genre that way, and I like the interplay. I like exploring ways of telling a true story through the self. That’s how I think of genre. I’m not really attached to genre boundaries. I’m much more interested in the interplay. I read poetry as much as fiction and nonfiction, and I see theater and think about performance as well.
Punctuate: When you said you’re interested in how the self perceives the world, does that “self” include this imaginative element where it could be a fictional rendition or a nonfictional rendition?
SS: Right. The self-imagining. We have many identities, and our identity shifts over time. So even the self to me often feels like fiction. Through aging, the self is constantly revised, there’s more to work with, more material to revise or revisit. And that’s a reconstruction of the past. It is part of the way we understand the self-identity over time. That’s often the work of memoir and not fiction, but it’s also a kind of fiction—from the minute you start constructing that self or revisiting it. The self now will tell it one way, my twenty-five-year old self would tell it another way. And that’s really interesting to me.
Punctuate: So when it comes to the construction of the index, you have all of those segments in the book, and then you have the “see also.” Did the index start as a list of terms you were thinking about, or did it just web off as other conversations in the book?
SS: It did not start as a list. It certainly webbed off. I don’t think it’s the most carefully constructed “see also.” I don’t know how much cross-referencing you did when you read it. There have been people, like a friend of mine who told me he kept going to the other entries. And I was like, “Wow.” My editor was doing that a lot, but when I originally wrote the book I wasn’t thinking much about it. The index to me was a very loose form, but I know some people really get into that element of it. I did do some of that naturally, and I definitely took moments and pushed them out, and they made me think “Oh, there’s another story here.”
Punctuate: How did you come up with the actual words? For example, in “F,” how did you choose “forty,” “flu shot,” “fragility,” “firework?”
SS: It was very much a book about turning forty. It was rather organic for me, it was just in the writing process. And it was a sound thing, too. I often have to have a title. So each little discreet piece had whatever sounded good as a title, like “forty,” or “anecdote,” or “belief,” or “boredom.”
Punctuate: So as an index, how is the best way to read this? Cover to cover? Without cross-referencing?
SS: My editor read it the cross-referencing way, but that’s not how I wrote, revised and edited, so it’s interesting to me now that people are reading it that way.
Punctuate: Well especially since some of the see-also’s don’t have a place to go to.
SS: My editor was very much looking for that, and she finally decided it was kind of funny. That there would be a dead end at times was part of the idea. The idea is there’s a lot missing.
Punctuate: There are lots of quotes, did you have to do research for this book?
SS: It wasn’t research in that sense, so much as my entire life as a writer is research. I’m always reading and writing and thinking, and that’s what’s making me a writer. It’s all notebook material, so once I began the book, I had all the material. For years I had been obsessively reading Sontag and others, so it all came into the project.
Punctuate: We were interested in the concept of writing about aging. On page forty-two you have a section entitled “Forty” which says, “And suddenly every book is about turning that age: Chris Kraus: ‘As I turn forty, can I avenge the ghost of my former self?’” There are a lot of mixed emotions about aging throughout the book, do you think there’s an evolution about your opinions on aging, or a sort of compilation of all the emotions which go into aging?
SS: I think it’s an inquiry and conversation about aging and resisting the narratives around aging. I guess in any narrative there’s something that’s going to inspire this moment of transformation, and forty is one of those landmark birthdays with a narrative built into it that marks the end of something, the beginning of something. I think there’s all this baggage around it, especially for women, but for everyone I know it’s not the easiest. It’s just fraught, you know? And I guess I really wanted to engage with different writers whom I admire, rather than talk about all the popular cultural stuff around it, which I’m not immune to. I don’t have my mom; she’s been dead since I was a little girl. I’m always looking for these older women to sort of show me the way, Eileen Myles, Chris Kraus, I’ve long thought of these people as heroes, and to see them, in this sort of non-mainstream way, take on this subject of aging right and how to be an artist, and a woman, and in the face of all that negativity around it. . . . Those are the kind of questions and conversation I wanted to have, so there’s not one answer. I just wanted to engage with that in this book. There’s a line in the song “The Ballad of Lucy Jordan” that says “At the age of thirty-seven she realized she’d never ride through Paris in a sports car.” It’s sung by Marianne Faithful, it’s why I liked thirty-seven. I think the resonance of thirty-seven as a sort of transitional year.
Punctuate: You said you need to critique aging, especially for women, how it can be a bizarre time of questioning, but why is that critiquing so necessary? Just to counter what pop culture and celebrity culture says about aging? Why is it important to work against that?
SS: Because it’s so much of how the stories we’re told, and how we receive opinions about ourselves before we even know it. I grew up aware that it was always a joke that my grandmother lied about her age, but I had to realize that there was a larger story there, that my grandmother, both my grandmothers in fact lied. One it was like an open joke, the other one, we didn’t even know until it was on her death certificate, the year that she was born. My cousin found out, we all thought she was younger than she was, so it was like that’s really interesting to me. Because I’ve lied about my age. This was a long time ago, but those stories become who we are and we tell those stories to ourselves.
Punctuate: What was your biggest challenge in writing this novel?
SS: I enjoyed the process of writing it because the shape and the form seemed to hold it together, but I was really unclear often about how far out I could go. How much I could push, what spaces I could go to. It was always about pushing it out or holding it back. When was it too much narrative or traveling afar, where was the line there? So that was hard, but that was when I really needed outside readers. Once I finally gave it to a couple people who I really trusted, then I felt more confident.
Punctuate: Can you tell us more about your editing process?
SS: Amanda Goldblatt, the editor for this project, she’s at the press, and she’s just super smart. For my first book I had an editor, Danielle Dutton, who was also really great, and I didn’t understand the kind of editor-writer relationship, until obviously these books. The editor had so much to do with shaping of the book itself. You get to a certain point in the writing process where you can’t see your own work anymore because you’re too close to it. With Amanda it was just about six months of editing back and forth; that’s when the work becomes collaboration, and it’s really exciting for me that that happens in publishing. I didn’t know that when I first became a writer. And it’s scary but it also leads to something larger than I could have done on my own.
Punctuate: We are kind of curious about the relationship between the editor and the writer, for your idea and vision for this book, were there moments of just give and take where you had to let go of aspects of your vision?
SS: Definitely, but I don’t think for “Thirty-Seventh Year” that I had to lose too much, but for Promising Young Women I had to. I feel like it was much further away from being a book before my editor shaped it into something that could be one sort of narrative or one book. But for “Thirty-Seventh Year” it wasn’t that extreme because the form already was holding it together.
Punctuate: You talked a little bit about your writing process and editing process; do you have some kind of routine that you stick to when you’re working on a book?
SS: Yes, I try to, it’s not something I can do every day. When I have a day that I can have writing time I try to do three hours on the project that I’m working on. Right now I’m working on a book and I’m just at this point where it’s really easy to want to work on other things, or to start a new project, instead of like pushing through this. So I do ultimately have to force myself to finish and stay with the project to the end before investing in another one, because I do have a couple other side books right now that I’m not really letting myself develop until I finish this one that I’ve been working on for a while. And if I do three hours. I feel like if I can do three hours with the book then that feels like a good work day. Some days I don’t have that much time, I have just an hour, or some days I just have time to read through what I wrote the day before, but I can’t let it go for too many days, or it becomes really hard to get back into it. So I try to give myself little assignments like, right now it’s been, just sort of section assignments each week. Especially with the semester going, I’m just making it manageable.
Punctuate: You mentioned that “Her Thirty-Seventh Year” began as an experiment, what types of other experimental writing do you practice?
SS: I try to do a lot of automatic writing and often I do a lot of writing coming in response to things I’m reading or in conversation with what I’m reading. That often starts me. Right now, I’m writing letters with a friend of mine. Like actually putting them in the mail, snail mail, back and forth, and that’s been a really cool thing. We used to email a lot, and we just both got sick of email for everything, so that’s been interesting. I do journal writing, and this is all like zero draft kind of stuff. But in terms of more formal experiments, there’s these two books that I really love, Brian Kiteley, The 3 a.m. Epiphany, has a lot of great experiments in there that I often give my students, and then I give them to myself too. And a lot of imitation exercises, those always help me.
Punctuate:Do you ever get sick of working on a project?
SS: Definitely. I’m there now, with the book I’m working on, and that’s why I have to force myself to stick to it, to not do new things. There’s that moment when the writing is so fun, and you’re just starting something, and you’re loving it. And then there’s the moment, the follow-through, and that’s where I am. The book I’m working on now, it was really fun in the beginning, and now it’s not as fun. You hit problems, and so it’s hard. Kelly Link, said [that] for her, writing is like 75% she doesn’t like it, and 25% she loves it. And that to me seemed really harsh, but I think it’s right on, actually. I don’t want to say 75% of writing is misery, but it is hard. I would say you’re lucky if 25% is fun.
Punctuate: Is what you’re working on now in an experimental format?
SS: I went back and forth from thinking of it as nonfiction or a novel. Now I’m thinking of it as a novel from life; that’s sort of the subtitle. Because it’s all about a woman writing under a pseudonym, and creating a whole new identity and life, creating a kind of freedom in that identity. It’s somewhat about internet writing, like blog writing, and it’s interested in that way we have the virtual self. But I think it’ll read as something quite accessible and familiar and not experimental.
Punctuate: Do you ever worry about people not liking your books? Or is there such a sense of relief just in having it published?
SS: It’s so weird when a new book comes out, like “Oh no, what if people read it? What if no one reads it?” And you can make yourself crazy thinking about if people like it. But then, ultimately, the way I dealt with both books coming out is to stop really engaging with them and to focus on the next thing, because you know, people will like it or not like it, and that has nothing to do with me, really, at this point. It’s so much about what the reader brings to it, on so many levels: their expectations, their experience, their engagement with it, and so I have to step back or I would really make myself crazy.
Punctuate: Before, you said that you looked to certain women writers as sort of placeholders for your mother. Who were some of your sources of guidance? What have they given you?
SS: I think I felt kind of a point of crisis in early adulthood, being on my own for the first time. And this to also happen at the same time I discovered feminism in college, I didn’t even know what it was, except for kind of the ugly, popular culture notion of it. So it wasn’t until I was on my own that I realized what feminism was and why it was. And that all linked to reading women. That became kind of my own education into being a writer, in literature, but also into being a self, the understanding what it is to be a self. I mean I remember reading Fear of Flying, by Erica Jong, which had been of my mom’s generation, sort of this iconic feminist book, but no one where I grew up was like Erica Jong, this woman in New York, in a liberal, Jewish family, so that to me was like, ‘Oh, that’s another way of kind of being a self, or understanding a self.’
Punctuate: Can you talk about the benefits and disadvantages of constructing a narrative like this—in an indexed or segmented manner?
SS: For me, it is very natural. I love Maggie Nelson, Claudia Rankine. . . . I love fragmented writing and so for me the index was a kind of shape, I could still have that broken, fragmented writing within it and that’s some of my favorite writing. Often it feels close to experience, the way you can leap from one to another, the way that the gaps and the silences work. A fragment can stand alone and you can go in different directions. I worry that with any fragmented writing the danger is that you don’t develop anything enough, that you don’t push through. So, maybe it’s a kind superficial or shallow form. That’s the danger of it. But it just depends what your goals are.
What I am writing now can’t quite do that. There is some fragmentation in it, but I have to stay with some things. For me it is always that balance—am I stopping because it is too hard to follow through with this or I am stopping here because that is what the art requires? I don’t want to just experiment for the sake of experiment, I want to do it because it feels right for the book that I am writing.
Punctuate: How do you know when your brain is making you stop for personal reasons or when it is just the natural end of a fragment?
SS: It is really hard. I think it is just drafting and deciding, does this stand alone or is this sort of moving towards something else that you have to just stay with? I think the form can dictate that; in this case, the index. But also, offering a sort of time constraint can help that, too. But, for yourself, you know when you are avoiding something and when you avoid something too much, the reader will know.
Punctuate: So, would you say, that your advice for younger writers is to keep experimenting?
S: I don’t think it is ever one form that works best for you, I think it is maybe just the project you are working on, for each thing you write. The whole idea that form follows function, that link of form and content; you have to think, which form is going to do the most for this content?
Punctuate: Can you talk a little more about the relationship between being a teacher and a writer?
SS: At its best, you are teaching and engaging with all the material that’s inspiring you or feeding into your own work as writer. As much as I like the solitude and need that space as a writer, I also need to be with people, I need that collaboration and that stimulation of working with people, which is what it is to be with students and to read and to talk about ideas. I learn a lot from students all the time and I am challenged by students. And I think that becomes an even bigger deal the older you get because things really change and its good, but it’s hard and it’s part of being human and being a writer. Realizing that, there is this new generation and they are going to do things differently and that might be really uncomfortable. I have just been thinking about that lately. I have a son, too, so it is similar, he’s eight. It’s the whole thing where you realize the world is going to be different and now we are less important.
Punctuate: Do you have any advice for young writers?
SS: I guess it depends on the writer. But always, it’s, read and read and read, as much as you can and follow your obsessions and don’t be afraid to write about your obsessions because that is the stuff the reader will be interested in.
These days it seems you can get your writing out there so easily. You can write about the books you’re reading or the movies, music you love. I feel like that’s a really great thing for a young writer now—to start to have a sense of audience. I was just telling one of my grad students to set a project, set a goal, and give yourself a deadline for when it’s going to be done. Say, “This book will be done by this point and then I will either submit it or give it to someone I trust to read.”
Punctuate: There’s a particular quote in your book, under “Lessons.” “As when you teach one art, you will tell your students that writing is like losing. That writing is losing.” And we were wondering if you could say more about that.
SS: It’s funny because I was just reading this interview in Bomb Magazine with Danielle Dutton, who is my editor, and she’s a writer. Dutton has a new book; she was quoting another writer saying how interviews are like when someone calls you and asks about your ex-lover. I think it’s the new way of thinking about writing because you no longer have control of it—something you were so intimately engaged with, and then once you put it on paper and it’s out in the world it’s no longer yours anymore. Maybe that’s why I invest so much in the next project.
Punctuate: That’s true. While you’re writing it has endless possibilities, but once it’s written it and it’s out there . . .
SS: It becomes something else. I think that’s one level of writing—losing. I’ve always written in a way that’s about loss, or a place I’ve always turned to for a kind of “in the face of grief or loss, consolation.” It’s more of an instinctual sense of truth for me. If there’s another quote in there, it’s a Kathy Acker quote about how writing is like suicide, but you can stay alive. Someone after a reading asked me what that meant, and I was kind of like well if I had to explain it it’s not going to work. There’s a level on which I feel like, I don’t know, it’s like breathing. You’re kind of giving something up, yet it’s also keeping you alive. It’s very spiritual and metaphysical.
Punctuate: You mentioned you’re writing in a persona, or you see yourself as a creator, so therefore fiction makes more sense than nonfiction. Do you think we should just eliminate the genres all together?
SS: Yeah, I do. I think it would be much more interesting, especially for the fiction writers. You know Vivian Gornick has that whole thing about the nonfiction truth, speaker of the voice. And for her, it doesn’t matter. Or Duras. . . . And they’re both published as fiction, but she reads it as nonfiction. It’s more about the narrative voice that drives it, the truth-speaking persona. And it becomes more interesting when you take away those ideas of non-fiction and fiction. I guess the thing for fiction writers would be there’s some protection there, supposedly, in calling things fiction. I would be really interested in that.
Punctuate: So does it matter to you in nonfiction if the reader becomes invested in the narrator and the narrator is slapped this close to the author? It’s an identity that is not delineated. And the James Frey problem where the audience became invested in the act. You become invested in the character when you read fiction, but you become invested in the author when you read non-fiction. Are you asking the audience not to become invested in the author?
SS: Yeah, I want the audience to be more invested in the persona, the narrator. I also know that’s not going to happen. There is the author versus narrator. The James Frey thing, he first tried to publish that as fiction and he couldn’t because it’s a harder sell.