Jan 11

Blot Lit reviews: An Interview with Susan McCarty

Susan and SwayzeBlot Lit Reviews would like to thank Susan McCarty for graciously giving our readers an abundance of information and plenty of author look-ups to explore. She gives a us a whole lot to think about in terms of how we identify with the writing community and the limitations we may be creating. We hope you enjoy!

Blotterature has a strong connection to our place – industrialized Northwest Indiana – and it is reflective in our writing. Tell us where you are and how your place fits into your art.

Place is inextricable from narrative for me. For me, place may be geographical (in Anatomies, a lot of the stories are about leaving or returning to specific places—Iowa, New York City, that abstract and intangible place, “home”) or physiological. Our bodies are the places we carry with us, the site of narratives we construct (or narratives that are foisted on us) by illness and trauma, through sex and intimacy and the way the world (that larger “place”) makes itself known to us through our experiences with it.

Who/What has impacted your work the most and how does that come through?

Whoa boy. This is a biggie. Like a lot of writers, I have always thought of myself as a reader first. I write as a way to be in conversation with the work that moves me and I try to read widely so as to expand that conversation in as many directions as possible. Specific writers who have impacted my work and/or my thinking about writing include Lorrie Moore, Joanna Ruocco, Charlotte Bronte, Kathy Acker, Roland Barthes, Lidia Yuknavitch, David Foster Wallace, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Mary Gaitskill, Georg Lukacs, Maggie Nelson, Rilke, Kafka, Wayne Koestenbaum, Ralph Ellison, J.M. Coetzee, Amelia Gray, James Joyce, John D’Agata, Denis Johnson, Sylvia Plath, Walter Benjamin, James Baldwin. The list goes on. And that’s not to say I’m ever successful at holding up my end of the conversation—writing, for me, is always wrapped up in abject failure to a certain extent, but I guess that’s why I keep going. I’ll never get the conversation right. I have to keep trying.

I’ve also been privileged enough to study creative writing for a large chunk of my life, which puts me in literal conversation with writers and teachers whose work challenges and influences me greatly. David Jauss, Melanie Rae Thon, Lance Olsen, Scott Black, Bruce Stone, Danielle Deulen, Natanya Pulley, Rachel Hanson, Esther Lee, Caren Beilin, Xhenet Aliu, Matt Kirkpatrick, Nate Liederbach, Robert Glick, and my amazing students at Salisbury University, whose work continuously challenges what I think I know about narrative, story, and lyric. I feel so incredibly lucky to have stepped into a thriving community here in our little sandy spot on the Eastern Shore.

How do you generate new ideas for your work?

Reading! Sometimes when time is tight and I’m not able to spend as much time writing as I’d like, I still feel I’m doing the work by reading. I jot down ideas on my phone when I have them and return to those ideas when I’m not feeling inspired. Sometimes, when I’ve been working on fiction for a long time, setting it down and starting an essay helps to shake things loose. I’m lucky enough to be married to Matt Kirkpatrick, a writer whose work I just love, and reading his work and talking to him about it really helps me. We look at a lot of art together, and that does something to my brain that makes it more receptive.

When have you been most satisfied with your work?

When I gave the Anatomies manuscript to Carissa Halston at Aforementioned Productions, I had done as much work on it as I possibly could. I knew it needed more, but I could not figure out what that “more” was. Because Carissa is an amazing reader and editor (and writer!), she was able to make some really important structural and sentence-level changes that I was unable to make alone. That was incredibly satisfying—the giving over of my work to a trusted reader who saw its potential and made it all it could be.

How do you know when a piece is finished?

Well, I often don’t. Sometimes a piece is finished because I can’t work on it anymore. But sometimes there’s that feeling that writers know but which is hard to describe—like something falling into place. It’s almost mechanical in nature. Endings take me the longest, because I try to hold out for that feeling, and I can never plan for it ahead of time.

What has been your biggest failure and what − if any − lessons were learned?

I’m writing a novel and, man, every day seems like a failure. One thing that short stories have going for them is that a writer can try something, and fail, and the work and time lost is manageable. But a novel is this huge expanse of potential failure. It just keeps going and going. A writer has to have a lot of faith to finish a novel and maybe that’s the failure I’m talking about: a failure of faith. The lesson I’ve learned and continue to learn is that you need to push through, to forget the fear and just keep going. I’m speaking as a middle-aged writer who spent a lot of time in her youth not giving herself permission. In Jenny Offill’s Dept. of Speculation, the narrator talks about wanting (and failing) to be an “art monster.” That idea that you can just forget life, forget all the everyday things and just write—this is not something most of us have the luxury to do. My working students provide a role model for me here. Many of them carry full course loads and multiple jobs. And they do the work. They are tenacious and passionate.

Tell us about your commitment to the writing community. Outside of your work, what else do you have going on? Or what do you see starting up in your future?

In the closest sense, I’m very invested in the writing community in Salisbury, Maryland, where I live and work. With my colleagues, I run a writers’ series here, Writers on the Shore, and I advise the student literary journal, Scarab. On a more distant scale, I’d like to expand my involvement in the small press community. Because of my background as an editor, I’ve done work with Black Ocean in the past, and I’d love to work with them, or another small press, in the future. I’d also like to be a more active reviewer, which is one of the best ways to contribute to the small press community. I’m currently writing a review for Jim McGarrah’s new memoir, Off Track, which I’m really excited about.

What is your biggest pet peeve with the writing community, trends, etc. today?

It seems to me there are all these false dichotomies set up within communities to silo writers into rarified columns. Poetry, non-fiction, fiction; literary vs. popular or genre fiction; experimental vs. realism. These labels are, in some ways, necessary, and I use them. But the more I read and write, the more these boundaries fail. As a former fiction editor, it seems to me that capitalism and market demands are partly to blame. To sell a book, a writer needs a label. Same with getting a job in academia, which is now a fully functioning capitalist appendage, despite the humanities best efforts to keep Marxism part of the conversation. Those labels are invested, literally, with providing a certain kind of experience for readers and students—one that is safe because it is expected. But I also think that when we start thinking of ourselves as this-not-that, then we’re replicating a kind of othering that is incredibly damaging to us as a society—thoughts about genre naturally lead into larger thoughts about the way the world is partitioned: gender & sexual identity, race, ability, national identity, political affiliation, etc. Labels exist to protect us from the unexpected, and it seems to me that this is the opposite of what literature (in any form) should set as its task.

What are you working on right now?

I’m working on that bellyaching novel. I’m really interested in how genres work and circulate in novels and in my own I’m trying to subvert some of the expectations that go along with genres like romance, mystery, and realism. The novel is set largely in 2008, during the widespread Midwestern flooding, in which my own family members lost homes and during which the housing market was gearing up for collapse. So in these ways, the novel is also an exploration of the loss of home, literally and metaphorically. There are characters; they love each other and make horrendous mistakes, like characters in novels do.

What are you reading right now?

There is this explosion of challenging and fascinating work from small presses right now by women whose writing I deeply admire. Joanna Ruocco, Caren Beilin, Rachel Levy, Renee Gladman and basically everything the press Dorothy is publishing. These authors are pushing against heteronormative, phallocentric narrative & language traditions in these deeply rewarding ways that link up, in my mind, to the écriture féminine movement (though no one needs to know that heavily academized stuff to appreciate the work these authors are doing). I’m gobbling all that up as fast as I can. Everybody should!


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  1. Blot Lit Reviews: Anatomies by Susan McCarty » Blotterature

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