Grief is Where We Live, an interview with Suzanne Scanlon, author of Her 37th Year
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The form of a novel is the artifice used to give shape to life. Suzanne Scanlon’s Her 37th Year, An Index, uses the form of the index to give shape to a messy year of ruminations on marriage, child rearing, desire, teaching, therapy, and the life of the mind and the decay of the body. Full of footnotes and humorous dead ends, this slim volume is not slight, and it encourages you to flip back and forth, to read the authors she references. Scanlon and I corresponded through e-mail over a month and discussed form, memory, female sexuality, confessional writing, and writers: Marguerite Duras, Jill Talbot, Sharon Olds, and David Foster Wallace.
Adalena Kavanagh: As I read it, your book Her 37th Year is a novel in the form of an index. Is this accurate? How did you come to the form for this book? What were the limits and possibilities of writing this book in this form?
Suzanne Scanlon: It is accurate, yes — though it is a very loose index. I like using various forms to shape a story. For my grad school thesis, I wrote a story that was in the form of a long exam. It’s not original, but I’ve done this a lot; it helps me to impose an external structure. That’s what happened here. Once I started, I wanted to keep going — & I might have, if it hadn’t been accepted for publication by Noemi so swiftly. The form was fun, and as with using footnotes — the system takes over, drives the narrative, becomes addictive (from the writing standpoint). I didn’t really notice limitations to it! Though, of course, I began with a very focused idea of what I wanted — one year in one woman’s life. That constraint was liberating.
Kavanagh: In what way was it liberating to have that particular constraint?
Scanlon: I often write in a very digressive, sprawling way, at least thematically. That can make it easy to get overwhelmed, and hard to finish a project. So, the structure contained my ability to do that.
The other constraint I added later, while shaping the book, was to narrow and heighten the story of the affair, this “one man” as a through line, the “man in boots”. My editor, Amanda Goldblatt, helped me with this. I think the singular thread of a romance, or an affair, however subtle, helped to contain the rest of the story.
Kavanagh: Is there one narrator or two narrators? I ask this because as I read the book I felt sure that it was one narrator, but she switches at times from second person to first person. Why?
I rarely find one narrative voice sufficient.
Scanlon: One narrator, but I can’t help but switch voice. I rarely find one narrative voice sufficient. This is a book about the self as a shifting construct, and I think people often see themselves in the first/second/third person. If I wanted to be smart about it, I would say that the book is about the many-layered, contracted and expanded self, and therefore requires more than one voice, or perspective. But it is also about the self in a sacred solitude, which remains necessarily in communion with the Other — the fiction of the Other, but the necessity, too. The individual is a myth, as Tony Kushner says. So, that was my way of pushing that idea, engaging the selves and others who make this woman’s life.
Kavanagh: What does the second person do for you? What do you think it does for the reader? From my point of view, it seems to be a way of distancing yourself from the text, but it can also be a way of making the text more universal. What do you think of that idea?
Scanlon: Yes, I think second person can do both of those things, depending on the reader. I find it more intimate, when it works.
Kavanagh: The footnotes and quotes and acknowledgements act almost like a syllabus of writers and ideas in addition to the narrator’s “story”. Taking this concept further, what is the course title, and what is the overarching thesis?
Scanlon: Ah, I like that idea! I remember hearing Jill Talbot read a story she wrote that was structured as a syllabus. This was after I’d written 37th Year, but I quite liked it, and I think there is an affinity there. As writers and teachers, we are overwhelmingly engaged with books and writers and our sense of self bleeds into this. The course title for Her 37th Year could be: Darling, You Die Alone No Matter What: The Erotics of Grief. Or, to use the Duras line: Grief: The Most Important Thing in my Life
I think our culture has a weird superficial interest in death and suffering as a character trait, but it’s not something (art, in general) that people want to be true. But for some of us, it is true — grief is where we live or have lived, and that means that we write. It’s not so simple, not so reductive, but it’s also not a pose; it’s not cultivated in order to be, you know, hip. I don’t think any one would choose this life of perseveration, obsession, longing. But it is often the stuff of life and art. And as a writer, you can’t deny it.
There’s the thesis then, for my imaginary class: Writing must be about standing over the void.
Kavanagh: Is the void the inevitability of death? If so, why must writing address this?
Scanlon: Not exactly, no. I’m thinking of Marguerite Duras’ narrator in The Lover:
Sometimes, I realize that if writing isn’t all things, all contraries confounded, a quest for vanity and void, it’s nothing. That if it’s not, each time, all things confounded into one through some inexpressible essence, then writing is nothing but advertisement.
As I understand Duras, she was a writer who obsessively rewrote her life, her self, in her work, which was about memory and the self. That didn’t mean it was autobiography, but it was truth. It was a search for truth, which is never finished. What I mean by the void is facing the self honestly. Writing is often a process of peeling back layers, trying to get to truth, to uncover defenses and lies. That space is the void. It might be death, or emptiness, or it might be life itself.
Kavanagh: It’s true that we have a superficial interest in death, especially in the deaths of our beloved writers, particularly when they commit suicide. In this book you talk about David Foster Wallace. I don’t want to jump to conclusions so I will ask: is he the “teacher” referenced in this book?
Scanlon: The teacher in this book is a composite, inspired by many teachers I’ve known. But yes, he was my teacher, and an important one.
Kavanagh: What is your relationship to David Foster Wallace as a reader and writer? More specifically, how does he inform your writing, particularly this book?
Scanlon: I was/am a reader of his work, and then he became my teacher. And I continued to read him. His death informed this book, in that he died just after I had a baby. Of course, his death reverberated culturally, but it was personal and particular for me. As death can be. His death brought him back to life, in a way. I thought about him a lot more than I had in the years before, and so had to revisit how I knew him and what he’d taught me and what I understood of what it meant to be a writer and a depressed person. I really admired him, though he’d hurt me, and so his suicide was complicated, to say the least.
Kavanagh: You said: “I really admired him, though he’d hurt me, and so his suicide was complicated, to say the least.” Suicides are always complicated for survivors — something that might be hard to understand if they are outsiders who want to extend their empathy to the one who commits suicide. How did the public’s reaction to Wallace’s suicide and the canonization of his work affect how you present him in this book?
Scanlon: I wouldn’t call myself a survivor. No. His wife, his family, has to cope in a way I can’t imagine. By the time of his death, he existed for me more in the realm of memory. He was somebody I used to know. Our last letter exchange was in 2006, I think, a kind of detente. I didn’t reread his work much. But then, after his suicide in 2008, my sense of him and my relationship to him shifted; I reconsidered all I knew and thought I understood about him. Having been through intense treatment for depression, I’ve known other suicides, but this was different, of course.
The renewed interest in his work was strange, if understandable. But creepy, too, in the way that a dead writer is always more palatable. I understand that. I just didn’t want to see it with someone I knew. Suddenly all my students knew who he was, and many were reading him; which hadn’t been the case before.
The week after his death I was teaching Creative Nonfiction, the class he’d taught when I was a student; I’d assigned the Best American Essays edition that he edited. And the next month, I happened to be back in Normal, Illinois, where I’d known him. It was uncanny.
In a way, his death made him more present in my life. I reconnected with others who knew him when I did. I remember a friend there saying, “A good death brings people together,” when I saw him, and it offended me. But it is true. His death has done that, in an amplified way — and not just those of us who knew him, but for the many others now connected around his work, and his life. It’s one of those paradoxes, that in a way, his death was also a gift. “Suicide as a Sort of Present,” as he titled one of his stories.
Kavanagh: As I was reading the book I admired how you wrote about female sexuality in a raw, nonintellectual way (though your book is very intellectual and full of references to authors and theory). Women are always sexualized, but there’s this idea in popular culture that after a certain age — late 30s — or life change — childbirth — women become less sexual. Your narrator clearly is not feeling that, but also struggles with reconciling her sensual feelings with the culture’s perception of women as they age. Why do you think these ideas about women (diminished sexuality, diminished desirability) persist in our culture despite evidence to the contrary?
It’s a way to silence and distract women, to convince us that we are less valuable after a certain age.
Scanlon: It’s a way to silence and distract women, to convince us that we are less valuable after a certain age. And of course we can spend all of our time and energy trying not to look our age, trying to have unlined skin etc. There’s a huge industry there, right? Which, for years I didn’t see through a critical lens; it was simply the air I breathed. The water we swim in. And if you don’t apply a critical lens to it — and even when you do — you are totally hosed, to quote Mr. Wallace again.
But I do think there are a lot of women willing to speak out about it — as Frances McDormand recently did, wonderfully — or simply to ignore the absurd cultural pressures, to focus on artistic practice. That’s what Sontag did, and so many of my heroes.
Kavanagh: Why is this about her 37th year? Is there significance to that particular age?
Scanlon: It is a reference to the Marianne Faithful song, The Ballad of Lucy Jordan, with the line “at the age of 37, she realized she’d never ride, through Paris in a sports car with the warm wind in her hair.” It’s one of my favorite songs, and it was used in that stunning road trip scene in Thelma and Louise. So, the double resonance moved me: a woman realizing she is at the end of a certain moment of possibility, and two women subverting dominant structures, finding transcendence.
Also, I was probably around (closer to) 37 when I wrote this book. It could have been 38 or 39; but the number 37 felt right. It had to do with the anticipation of turning 40 — which was, of course, much worse than actually turning 40.
Kavanagh: This book is a novel written as an index. The term “confessional” writing is almost always applied in a gendered way to women’s writing. Having written a book that some might call “confessional” — if not in act (it is not a memoir or autobiography), then in narrative tone, how would you answer potential critics who would diminish the work as being merely “confessional”? What do we as readers gain from work that is personal and concerned with the body and mind?
Art that has most moved me is linked to body and mind.
Scanlon: I don’t think there is anything “mere” about confession. I think we are currently celebrating Ben Lerner and Knaussgaard, yes? both of whom use something of the confessional in their fiction. That’s part of the power. As is, say, Louis CK’s TV show, or Amy Schumer’s comedy; it comes from life, from the experience of living in a certain body, in a certain time and place. I don’t know if there are critics diminishing work that way, but if they are, I don’t care. Art that has most moved me is linked to body and mind. I wanted to represent that: a life of the mind that is necessarily embodied.
Kate Zambreno recently asked me if my confessional writing was linked at all to having been raised Catholic, going to confession regularly, well into my twenties; and, it’s interesting, but I don’t think of it that way. I don’t even think of myself as a confessional writer. I think Sharon Olds once noted that her writing was not “confessional” but personal. There’s a difference.
Kavanagh: Going back to the teacher in this book, you must know that readers will intentionally or unintentionally conflate the teacher with David Foster Wallace. There is a scene in the book where the narrator has a sexual encounter with the teacher. With examples like that one you seem to be playing with boundaries here — even when you say the teacher is a composite (and I believe you, I am not saying I do not) — those boundaries of “taste” regarding female sexuality, and discussing what we are told should be kept quiet, as well as the boundaries relating to the ownership of memories of public people. Why play with those boundaries? What are you saying about those invisible boundaries?
Scanlon: I can’t control how people read the book. I think the book is about dissolving boundaries: between people, between the past and the present, between the living and the dead. I think teachers and students have complicated relationships, and always have. I always learned the most when I had a crush on my teacher. I’m not saying that’s “appropriate” but it’s true: I used to call them “academic crushes”. It was linked to my passion as a student and as a writer, finding these teachers. I’m not saying I admire Allen Ginsberg or others who slept with their students, as a matter of course — I’m not saying this prescriptively — but in the book I’m describing a truth of a relationship.