susanna kaysen talks:
"there isn't any way a novel has to be"
Susanna Kaysen sat down with Breakwater the morning of Tuesday, October 15. The way she sat–slouched in an armless plush chair–fit her casual persona and the candidness with which she answered our questions.
Breakwater Review: What lead you to write Cambridge?
Susanna Kaysen: For a long time I’d had in mind a book I wanted to write about friendship. About a friendship I had with a woman for many years—for many decades. But I was having trouble writing that book, and then I began to think of it as being the center of a trilogy. As a way of postponing trying to write it—since I couldn’t—I thought, ‘Well, I’ll start earlier.’ So I started earlier. I guess I wanted to write a kind of taxonomy of Cambridge. I don’t know how much of that I did in Cambridge, but the idea is that there would be more books and that the taxonomizing of the academic world and the meritocracy and the competition and the cutthroat lives of academics would be further explored in future volumes, but I got sort of mired in childhood memories, and then they turned out to be interesting—to me, anyhow—so I just went with that.
BR: If Cambridge is part of a trilogy, what other sorts of stories do you plan to tell?
SK: Oh if I knew, I would tell you! It may be a ghost trilogy in that it only has one volume, I don’t know. I don’t know. I’m really at a loss at this point. I would like to write this book about the friendship that I initially mentioned, but so far this is a non-existent book.
BR: A review from the New York Times claims that Cambridge is successful as a memoir but not as a novel. What is your take on genre? What is its purpose? Who does it serve? How does it guide you, if it guides you in any way?
SK: I have to say that this question is so uninteresting to me. I know that it’s a really big topic these days. I just don’t give a shit. It’s a novel, it’s not a novel, it’s a memoir, it’s uhlalalala. I mean, there are kinds of fiction that don’t rely so much on the author’s experience—imaginative works of fiction. I think particularly of science fiction, which can be very interesting, dystopian fiction like The Handmaid’s Tale, and adventure stories, and things like that. But I think once you get into the sort of the old style novel, the novel that is a novel of development, a novel of social relations, it is so obvious that the author must use his or her own life to write the story. Even if the events have nothing to do with the author’s own life, it’s…I mean, there is no way to understand people except through your self and own experience and your limits, unfortunately.
So, I don’t even know what I’m saying. I just don’t care. I think it matters a lot to other people—I do—and I think that if you’re going to write something that you, the author, claim as a memoir, it should try to stick to the facts. I have tried to do that in the books that I have named memoirs. I didn’t name [Cambridge] a memoir because I conflated people and events and I sort of messed around with a little bit to streamline it, or make it possibly less interesting, but I thought I was trying to make it more interesting. But, it just isn’t a distinction that matters that much to me.
I think that that’s something that’s taken more for granted in Europe. I mean, this whole idea of autofiction, which is something the French invented, as a term, they just are less into it. What is it? How can we define it? They don’t seem to be as eager to define it, and I’m not eager to define it either, so I’m not really a good person to talk about this because I just think, ‘Oh. That crap.’
And also, I don’t remember this review, thank God. You know, you cringe for twenty-five years over a negative word, but how can something work as a memoir and not work as a novel? I mean, it’s either engaging and you want to keep reading it as a book, or it isn’t! I don’t quite understand without more criticism—which I don’t want to get—what the problem was.
BR: Your work embodies a wide range of emotions. Do you experience all of these emotions as you write? Or do you feel removed from your work?
SK: Well it has varied from book to book, and I think that emotion recollected in tranquility still holds as a kind of basis for writing. It’s very hard to write about things that are happening now to you, or that just happened. But I have to say that in recalling my childhood when writing Cambridge, I did feel—I guess because I hadn’t thought about it for so long—I felt, oh, I felt like I traveled back into it. I did get very caught up in some of the difficult emotions of childhood: the feeling of powerlessness, and just ‘What’s going on? They don’t tell me anything!’ and ‘I can’t do anything about it, I’m just here!’ and I was very much aware of what that felt like, and that was sometimes quite unpleasant. But also the sort of naiveté of childhood which is so wonderful, the ‘I don’t know what’s happening, What’s happening? What’s going to happen to next?’The delight or surprise about things that seventy years later you don’t find that interesting. So, I did feel rather caught up in things writing Cambridge. Less so in the other books. I think that I took a very steely attitude when I was writing Girl, Interrupted because I did not want to get caught up in self-pity, self-dramatization, as far as I could avoid it, and I wanted to maintain an anthropological distance from it to some extent if possible. So, that’s the answer.
BR: What do you care most about when you’re constructing a story? How do you decide what gets your focus? How does this affect the length of what you write?
SK: I don’t know. I really can’t answer that. I mean it’s, I’m working in the dark.
BR: Does it just kind of, like, come to you? Like this is what I’m going to write today?
SK: Or not come to me?
With the books that I’ve written so far, usually I had a kind of shape. I saw a shape, like a geometric shape of some sort. An hourglass or a triangle or a something. And that shape was helpful in structuring them somehow. Like, did it circle back on itself? Did it go just on? Part of why I haven’t started writing this book that I’m not writing is because I don’t see a shape, and so I don’t know what to do. I’m not a very well organized person, so I don’t know what I’m doing. I don’t know what I’m doing, so I can’t answer in any helpful way.
BR: What is your relationship with research and fiction writing? Do you gather everything you need first? Do you research as you go? Do you just not research?
SK: Well, several books I haven’t needed to research. I mean, I didn’t really need to research either my first novel or my second novel. The first because it was life experience, the second was also life experience. I had to do a tiny bit of research for some little parts: I had to read some stuff about astronomy, and I had to brush up on some stuff about the Faroe Islands where I had lived for a year—actually, more than a year—long enough ago so that I had to kind of poke around a little bit about the sea bird population and stuff like that. I actually had to do a lot of research for Cambridge because I didn’t know, for instance, when was the polio vaccine, when was the oral vaccine [for polio], but the oral vaccine was later, and was it [Jonas] Salk, and, and… just historical facts. I didn’t know them when I was experiencing them. I mean, what would I know about the polio vaccine when I was six? Nothing. But I knew that I’d been sent away because there wasn’t a polio vaccine, and that I’d been sent to the beach to stay with my grandmother to get me out of the city because of the polio that there was no treatment for yet. So I had to research that.
Not that it’s hard to research. But there were a number of things of that sort. Was there really a Slinky, for instance? When did the Slinky become a toy? When was that invented? You know, is my memory correct? Or is my memory totally wrong and there wasn’t a Slinky until I was twelve and I remembered a Slinky when I was eight, but there wasn’t any Slinky? That kind of thing. So that was the most was the most research I ever did.
BR: So kind of like fact-checking?
SK: Fact-checking, really fact-checking. And then a little bit of stuff about the war, about my father in London during the war—of course, I wasn’t alive then. I knew that a lot of the British Museum’s precious holdings had been taken away and I didn’t remember where they had been taken. I thought they had been taken to some Tube station that was no longer in use, and I think in fact they were, but I had to find that out.
But so far, I haven’t had to do much research, which is good, because I’m a disorganized and bad researcher. I don’t trust the internet. I don’t want to go to the library. I don’t have any academic affiliation. I can’t get into any kind of convenient library. I would have to go to the Boston Public Library where I wouldn’t even know how to even find anything I needed to know, so I just need to keep writing autobiographical things so that I don’t have to do any research.
BR: You’ve been a writer for many years, with your earliest published novel, Asa, As I Knew Him. How has your process changed or grown over the years?
SK: Worse. It’s gotten worse. It’s better to be young and full of self-regard. It’s better to be unpublished. You’re free. But of course now I’m so finished that I’m as good as unpublished, so I can do anything that I want again.
To believe in yourself and to think ‘I’m important, and what I think is important, and I don’t care what anybody else says’ is a good position to be in, but it’s not a maintainable position once you’ve achieved any success. Then people think ‘Oh! She’s doing this! Why can’t she do that again? Well this one isn’t as good as that one. How come she doesn’t…?’ You know. It’s very hard to shut all that out and disregard it, and especially if you had some pretty real success as I did, for awhile. It’s tempting to want more of that, even though if you’re sensible, you think ‘Most people don’t even get that! Be happy with it. It’s good.’ It’s better to write without thinking about pleasing anybody except yourself, and that’s a sort of maniacal — egomaniacal — position that’s harder to maintain as you get older.
BR: You claim to be a very slow writer. Are there benefits for you in writing this way? If so, what are they? Do you get to read more?
SK: Yeah, I spend most of my time reading. I don’t spend much time writing at all because, well, right now because I don’t know what to do. Even when I am writing, I don’t spend much time writing. If I can write two paragraphs in a day, I’m happy. Sometimes I’m happy if I can write a sentence. I mean, these days I’d be happy if I could write a sentence. But I don’t set a quota for myself. I set a time quota, but not a production quota.
Like, spend the first two, two and a half hours of the day at the desk. Even if it’s just torment. And basically you’re just going downstairs and doing a puzzle and coming back upstairs and going out and having a cigarette and coming back upstairs. Just put in two hours at least at the desk. But, no, I don’t think there’s any benefit in my methods. I think my methods are terrible.
BR: You said you get to read a lot. What are you reading lately? Do you have a favorite book?
SK: I read mostly junk. Detective junk. A lot of detective stuff. A favorite book? You mean of non-junk?
BR: Of anything. It can be junk.
SK: I guess my favorite book is The Magic Mountain by Thomas Mann. I really love that book. I wrote an essay for Askold [Melnyczuk] for AGNI about it many years ago. The reason I loved it so much—this is probably just a repeat of what I said in the essay—I read it when I was rather young, seventeen or eighteen, I think, maybe even younger. It’s a very long and complicated book. And it’s a mess. It’s a mess! I mean, it’s got everything in the world in it, and I thought, ‘Wow! You can just put anything in a book.’ I felt that way about Moby Dick too. When I read Moby Dick, I thought, ‘Wow! This is like a huge garbage can. It’s just filled with anything he thought of; he stuck it in here.’ And I found that very heartening, I thought, ‘There isn’t any way a novel has to be. There isn’t any way. It can be like this. Which is just all over the place.’ I have this really soft spot in my heart for The Magic Mountain for being such a baggy monster. And I reread it every year for like eleven years. I would read it again. I don’t do that anymore. Now I just read detective books.
BR: Why do you write? Or, what drives you as a writer?
SK: I don’t feel happy if I’m not writing. Consequently I’m unhappy a lot. Because I write so little. But I don’t feel like myself if I’m not writing something. If I can actually write something—the days when I manage to write something, the world is a different place. I just feel so much better. I feel like life doesn’t make sense to me without it, and I don’t know why I think life makes sense when I do it, because life doesn’t really change whether I’m writing or not. It doesn’t matter, but somehow, for me, it makes a big difference. I guess existence is so painful and confusing so much of the time, and ‘What’s the point?’ and all that, and writing gives me this illusion that there is a point; that I’m making sense out of it, that I’m organizing all this confusion, boredom, misery, self-hatred, rage at other people, irritation with errands. That, somehow, writing makes it all coherent. Which isn’t true! Writing doesn’t do that. But something about it makes me feel better. Something about doing it makes me feel better.
Susanna Kaysen was born and raised in Cambridge, Massachusetts, calling it home. “Eventually, you really get stuck, and you just can’t imagine living anywhere else,” she said. She is most widely known for her memoir Girl, Interrupted and author of four other books—Asa, As I Knew Him (1987), Far Afield (1994), The Camera My Mother Gave Me (2001), and most recently, Cambridge (2014).
Andréa Rivard is currently an MFA candidate at UMass Boston and has had her fiction published in Youth Imagination Magazine and in Teach. Write.