For the short story reader. Updated every Monday.

Suzanne Rivecca: The Short Form Interview

The funny thing is, the sex I write about and the sex depicted in “Girls” is never meaningless.

Author of short story collection, Death Is Not an Option, and winner of the Pushcart Prize.

The Interview

With your stories it's often easy to forget you're reading about made-up people. Not that “imagination” in fiction necessarily means “far from truth”, but how much do you rely on observation/experience vs. imagination? Do there tend to be some things for which you rely more on one than the other?

I’ve always been morbidly observant & hyper-vigilant, with a ridiculously retentive memory and acute over-identification with the embarrassment and discomfort of others.  So that’s given me a lot to draw from.  If my experience is lacking—for example, I never worked as a schoolteacher or a suicide hotline operator, I never saw a tiger cub face to face, I never had an adult confrontation with a child molester or regurgitated my Communion wafer on the floor—I try to fill in the gaps via an accumulated store of sensory and emotional impressions. Small intangible fluctuations—the tiny nonverbal cues that betray detachment or rejection or threat; the particular tenor of a sudden silence; the thickening in the air predictive of a blowout—are key to portraying interpersonal drama, no matter what the setting or time period. I know—or can empathetically project—what a certain dynamic will look like and feel like, and I can inhabit it, conjure up the accompanying physical sensations, the tightening and tensing, the bleakness of a letdown. It doesn’t always work, of course, and when I find myself unable to inhabit a perspective, I usually have to scrap it and start over, try to find a way into the story through an alternate point of view.

Some of the characters in “Death” felt effortless to inhabit—with the narrator of the title story, for example, I felt like I was just transcribing. The character of Alma in “None of the Above” was harder, because she was the least like me in terms of background, experience, and temperament. A married, idealistic altruist raised by liberal academics. I think I sort of took her from innocence to experience, and with the other protagonists, it was almost the opposite. I had to drag her down to my level.

I’ve doubted a lot of things about myself, but I’ve never doubted the inevitability of this vocation.

It seems like writers who recognized their passion for writing early on are of a different breed, and maybe enviable in some ways. Do you agree?

I don’t know about the enviable part. I’ve known plenty of people who didn’t start writing seriously until they were in college or grad school, or even later, and they’ve produced great books. I may have had a longer apprenticeship period (although the word “apprenticeship” isn’t entirely accurate, since my formative years were spent behind a locked door writing stuff I never showed to anyone, not intensively shadowing a master craftsman like some old-timey glass-blower) but I was never some sort of visionary wunderkind. What separates early writers from later-in-life writers isn’t talent, but choice. From an early age I felt that I had no choice but to do this.  I’ve doubted a lot of things about myself, but I’ve never doubted the inevitability of this vocation. That doesn’t mean I’m a better writer than someone who started writing in her thirties, but it does mean I’m more likely to still be doing it in 20 years, helplessly, even if I never publish another word.

What do you think was the motivation for the 5-year-old you to write, and what kinds of things did you write as a teenager? Have there been beliefs about writing you've changed since thinking about it more seriously?

As a kid I wrote fiction about circumstances that were as far as possible from my daily reality. They were basically rip-offs of the Anne of Green Gables books, and other nineteenth-century fare: I loved nothing more than to describe things, like faces and sunsets and flowers, in the most long-winded and ornamental prose possible. Then at some point as a teenager I remember reading more contemporary stuff—Sophie’s Choice and Bastard Out of Carolina were two examples—and noticing how writers evoked the complexities of a character’s inner life with psychological precision and insight. Describing emotions, not physical attributes. I distinctly remember wanting to be able to do that, and trying to figure out how they did it. How to isolate a moment of realization or dawning, and articulate it in a way that illuminates some sort of intangible truth. It seemed like magic.  There was nobility to it, because it made everything seem large and significant instead of petty and humiliating. If you could do this, you could belong to the human race on terms that didn’t require you to collude with or be tainted by its basest and most reductive tendencies. You could belong, and even wallow, but transcend at the same time. That idea was very important to me: coming through the shit with some incorruptible core intact. The writers I admired were ambassadors from the other side of the shit.

In his essay “Why I Write,” George Orwell says, “I do not think one can assess a writer’s motives without knowing something of his early development. Before he ever begins to write he will have acquired an emotional attitude from which he will never completely escape. It is his job, no doubt, to discipline his temperament and avoid getting stuck at some immature stage, or in some perverse mood: but if he escapes from his early influences altogether, he will have killed his impulse to write.”

I don’t give a shit about impotent professors, and if I tried to write about one, my lack of investment would show.

Because writing still carries a strong testimonial quality for me, it’s a constant struggle to let myself grow and evolve creatively without feeling like I’m abandoning that early impetus that drove me to write in the first place. There are certain themes that carry deep emotional resonance for me, and I’m drawn to exploring and dramatizing certain dynamics repeatedly. This occasionally raises questions: Am I a closed circuit? Should I write a novel about an adulterous male professor struggling with impotence so that everyone will praise my range? But I don’t give a shit about impotent professors, and if I tried to write about one, my lack of investment would show. So for now I’m trying to unearth new and surprising dimensions of the themes that have always obsessed me.

Some of your frank portrayals of sex involving female characters remind me of one debate provoked by the show Girls: the idea that the show does not portray sex as an enjoyable, beautiful thing to young women (some critics) vs. the idea that sex is always some kind of a battleground (Lena Dunham). What do you think?

I love James Baldwin’s definition of sentimentality: “Sentimentality, the ostentatious parading of excessive and spurious emotion, is the mark of dishonesty, the inability to feel; the wet eyes of the sentimentalist betray his aversion to experience, his fear of life, his arid heart; and it is always, therefore, the signal of secret and violent inhumanity, the mask of cruelty.” To me, the hysteria and hand-wringing provoked by “Girls” is indicative of the rankest sentimentality. “Oh, gracious me, what’s wrong with these young people to whom sex is nothing but a banal, alienating, demystified act? Back in my day, we climaxed simultaneously and savored each other’s pleasure by the glow of scented candlelight!” The pearl-clutching is so hypocritical.  It’s always been like that, imbeciles. It was like that when Mary McCarthy wrote “The Man in the Brooks Brothers Suit” in the 1940s. It was like that when Henry James wrote “The Portrait of a Lady,” for crying out loud. Sex has never not been fraught with emotional baggage and contradictory impulses and shame and power. It’s always been a magnifying glass for the underlying dynamic between the two participants.

People are insanely protective of the sexual “truths” they hold to be self-evident, and ferociously intolerant of ambiguity in sexual scenarios, especially when the topic of victimization or individual culpability comes up.

The topic of sex makes people touchier, and more territorial, than anything else. No other subject elicits such torrents of anecdotal evidence trotted out with such strident insistence. People are insanely protective of the sexual “truths” they hold to be self-evident, and ferociously intolerant of ambiguity in sexual scenarios, especially when the topic of victimization or individual culpability comes up.  Whenever we’re dealing with an impulse that’s so unconsciously driven, something we’re conditioned not to examine in ourselves even as we obsessively gawk at its external depiction, there’s going to be a huge amount of compartmentalization going on.

I’ve had people get similarly squeamish and diagnostic about the way I depict sex and ask me if I hate men or if my characters are mentally ill.  And to them I say: “it’s great that you’ve had the luxury of living such sheltered and pleasantly deluded lives, but don’t pathologize a perspective simply because you can’t understand it, or because it lies outside the scope of your narrow, circumscribed lived experience.”  From a very early age, girls are fed a lie that amounts to a Catch-22: If a man sleeps with you, it means he doesn’t respect you. So your goal in life is to find the man who respects you too much to sleep with you. And then sleep with him, and only him. It’ll work out great, trust us.  Men internalize this lie just as much as women do. It creates the belief that sex is supposed to mean something very specific. The funny thing is, the sex I write about and the sex depicted in “Girls” is never meaningless. It always does mean something. Just not the “something” it’s supposed to mean. That’s what discomfits people.

It also doesn’t escape me that no one got up in arms about the depiction of casual sex on, say, Entourage or any other bro-centric cable show. Nor have the characters on any male-dominated show been denounced as solipsistic, self-indulgent, navel-gazing—and, the most damning, infantilizing, and insufferable allegation of all, one that’s almost exclusively applied to females—“spoiled.”   Dudes are expected to have a healthy sense of entitlement. Women, no—not unless it’s depicted in an utterly campy, exploitative, titillating way, like the strippers ripping each other’s wigs off in Showgirls. And that’s why we’re seeing all this moralistic, disingenuous outrage over “Girls.”  People are used to seeing females portrayed as one of two mutually exclusive stereotypes.   They want a sweet, down-to-earth protagonist pitted against a conveniently evil, bitchy foil. That way they know which one they’re supposed to “identify with.”

I’ve come to believe that whenever people praise an artistic work as “uplifting and life-affirming,” what they mean is that it affirms their own uncontested and treacly beliefs about life.

I’ve come to believe that whenever people praise an artistic work as “uplifting and life-affirming,” what they mean is that it affirms their own uncontested and treacly beliefs about life. It lets them off the hook—and requiring that from a work of art is a mark of the most vile and cynical cowardice.   People have said about my book, “I like the prose, but I don’t like the characters because they’re too self-involved and twisted, and I can’t read about people I don’t like.”   It seems pretty self-involved to me to expect fiction to reflect an emotional landscape that’s utterly inoffensive and unchallenging to your own.

Maggie Gyllenhaal once said in an interview that she would never sleep with a conservative. Would you allow your title story's
Eddie-Vedder-admiring high school protagonist to sleep with a possibly Limbaugh-following Josh Bowers? What kind of satisfaction is there in allowing your characters to make mistakes you might or might not have made?

I wouldn’t allow Emma to sleep with Josh Bowers because she’s an uncompromising ideological purist who’s terrified of sexual congress. And she’s too excruciatingly hypervigilant to let her guard down in that context, at that point in her life; if she did, it would constitute a psychotic break. That girl’s not sleeping with anyone until she’s safely in college amongst the Zionists. And then she’ll discover that sleeping with the Zionists probably isn’t much different than sleeping with Josh Bowers would’ve been.  But I could definitely see some of my other characters, the ones who are less self-aware and superego-driven, making hideous sexual mistakes. The implication at the end of “Yours Will Do Nicely,” for example, that Katrina’s about to sleep with her creepy porn-loving friend, because she’s desperately flailing about for some expression of power and agency. There is a certain satisfaction to writing such scenarios. A writer friend said to me recently, “You write it so you don’t do it.”  It can be a way of exorcising a demon, or purging a self-destructive impulse you wouldn’t indulge in real life.

When I was a kid I used to write fake gossip stories about celebrities I made up.

You've said that you like reading gossip magazines and don't think very lowly of them. There does seem to be a connection between (1) an attraction towards gossip (2) lying/fabricating for no tangible benefit and (3) fiction, even the serious ones. There is an escape, and the impulse for stories, in all of them. What's your take on that?

I’ve come to realize that my main attraction to celebrity gossip comes from a fascination with slipping facades. I don’t care what celebrities eat for breakfast or what they buy at Whole Foods, but I like it when they lose their shit: the Britney Spears breakdown, Lindsay Lohan’s downward spiral, Paris Hilton going to jail, etc. I’m sure part of it is just base, ugly schadenfreude on my part, but there’s something else too. Their public images are so carefully micromanaged and manipulated and wrapped in Teflon, and there’s something exhilarating about seeing the mask slip once they stop giving a shit. 

When I was a kid I used to write fake gossip stories about celebrities I made up. I remember one of them was an actress named “Temple Austin.”  It was a juvenile foray into the realm of Warholian pastiche. I started off aping the chirpy, bland tone and debased sycophancy of the celebrity profiles I read in magazines, but gradually I realized that if you read between the lines, Temple Austin was kind of a damaged psycho.  I made up a sordid backstory for her; turns out she grew up in a slum called “The Fang” and her real name was something like Bertha Lumpson. I was drawn to the idea of this beautiful, refined woman who’d reinvented herself by her own wits, but couldn’t quite reconcile her origins with her redemptive meteoric rise. Celebrity culture is rife with people who destroy themselves from within. I guess that’s the attraction for me: the secret inner life is always threatening to overtake the public reconstruction. 

 

Recommended by Suzanne Rivecca

Ghostly Father, I Confess
Excerpt

The eyes gleamed benevolently behind the glasses. If she turned her head on the cushion, she could see them, and she kept doing this from time to time, hoping to surprise them in an expression of disapproval, of astonishment or regret–anything but that kindly neutrality. But they did not change, and finally she gave it up, dropped her head back on the cushion, and tried to relax. It was really against the rules (she supposed) to be flopping around there like a fish. He had never scolded her for it; now and then he would say gently, “Don't worry about what I think. Just let your own thoughts come.”

“I dreamed I was seventeen,” she said, “and I was matriculating at a place called Eggshell College.” She could not resist a teasing smile and another glance up at him. “I must have dreamed that just to please you. It's custom-made. The womb fantasy.”

We read it in The Company She Keeps.

The Apology
Excerpt

This was not the first Dave and Wyatt had demanded an apology. Dave had demanded an apology from his bank for sandbagging him with hidden withdrawal fees. Wyatt had demanded an apology from his children's teachers for making assumptions about how much time Wyatt did or did not spend with his sons going over their homework after school. Dave and Wyatt had both demanded apologies from Lance Paper Company for transferring them from jobs in Utica, New York, and Worcester, Massachusetts, respectively, to Clemson, South Carolina without giving them a real say in the matter, and then they demanded an apology from their new bosses in South Carolina for laying them off not even six months after they'd uprooted themselves and their families. When Dave and Wyatt were done demanding their apologies, they had apologized to their wives for not getting the apologies they felt they deserved, or for getting the apologies and then being disappointed that those apologies didn't make the sun any brighter or the grass any greener or their lives any happier.

We read it in Carrying the Torch.

Originally published in New England Review Vol. 24 No. 3.

Previous Condition
Excerpt

The juke box was playing something else now, something brassy and commercial which I didn’t like. I kept on drinking, listening to the voices of my people, watching the faces of my people. (God pity us, the terrified republic). Now I was sorry to have angered the woman who still sat next to me, now deep in conversation with another, younger woman. I longed for some opening, some sign, something to make me part of the life around me. But there was nothing except my color. A white outsider coming in would have seen a young Negro drinking in a Negro bar, perfectly in his element, in his place, as the saying goes. But the people here knew differently, as I did. I didn’t seem to have a place.

So I kept on drinking by myself, saying to myself after each drink, Now I’ll go. But I was afraid; I didn’t want to sleep on Jules’s floor; I didn’t want to go to sleep. I kept on drinking and listening to the juke box. They were playing Ella Fitzgerald, “Cow-Cow Boogie.”

“Let me buy you a drink,” I said to the woman.

She looked at me, startled, suspcious, ready to blow her top.

“On the leve,” I said. I tried to smile. “Both of you.”

“I’ll take a beer,” the young one said.

I was shaking like a baby. I finished my drink.

“Fine,” I said. I turned to the bar.

“Baby,” said the old one, “What’s your story?”

The man put three beers on the counter.

“I got no story, Ma,” I said.

We read it in Going to Meet The Man.

Glut Your Soul On My Accursed Ugliness
Excerpt

On the way to the first detention, after school, he went to the nurse about his tailbone. She was sympathetic.

She gave him a pillow for his chair. The pillow turned out to be a bad move, in terms of the other kids in the detention.

The next day Mrs. Ackley lost her patience. “Anson,” she said when she got to his worksheet.

His butt was killing him. The hair on the side of his head over his ears looked like somebody’s armpit. His nose felt like the bill of a cap. “Feast your eyes,” he said, to whoever was looking. “Glut your soul on my accursed ugliness.”

Lizzie's Tiger
Excerpt

When the circus came to town and Lizzie saw the tiger, they were living on Ferry Street, in a very poor way. It was the time of the greatest parsimony in their father’s house; everyone knows the first hundred thousand is the most difficult and the dollar bills were breeding slowly, slowly, even if he practised a little touch of usury on the side to prick his cash in the direction of greater productivity. In another ten years’ time, the War between the States would provide rich pickings for the coffin-makers, but, back then, back in the Fifites, well — if he had been a praying man, he would have gone down on his knees for a little outbreak of summer cholera or a touch, just a touch, of typhoid. To his chagrin, there had been nobody to bill when he had buried his wife.