Interview with Susanna Kaysen

Posted by Goodreads on March 3, 2014
American author Susanna Kaysen is best known for her 1993 memoir, Girl, Interrupted, an account of her time at McLean psychiatric hospital that became an unexpected star vehicle for Angelina Jolie. The reclusive writer began her career with novels, penning two—Asa, As I Knew Him (1987) and Far Afield (1990)—while working as a copy editor and proofreader. Now the 65-year-old returns with a new novel, Cambridge, which draws on her childhood and complex relationship with her late parents. Kaysen's father was economist Carl Kaysen, an MIT professor and adviser to John F. Kennedy, and her mother, Annette, was a gifted pianist, raising Kaysen amid the striving, academic milieu of 1950s Cambridge, Massachusetts. Throughout the novel, the precocious and recalcitrant narrator "Susanna" struggles with being a child in an adults' world, pining for her hometown during sojourns to England, Italy, and Greece, pondering her own insignificance, and falling in love with statues rather than schoolwork. "My long, agonizing apprenticeship in failure had begun," she laments as she enters third grade.

It has been 13 years since the self-described "slow, poky writer" released her last book, The Camera My Mother Gave Me (2001), but fans will be heartened by her return—Cambridge glistens with Kaysen's dark humor and pin-sharp depiction of people and places. The writer, who still lives in Cambridge, talks to interviewer Catherine Elsworth about her new book, her passion for mystery novels, love, death, and whether she is still crazy after all these years.

Goodreads: Cambridge obviously stems from your own childhood—it feels as if this book has been with you for more than 50 years. Why do you think you wrote it now?

Susanna Kaysen: I guess I felt like I'd better get going before I die! I don't know exactly. I am planning to write more of this; it is really the earlier volume to a second volume that I've been thinking about much more actively but of course haven't started yet. But I've always wanted to write some long complicated book about Cambridge and friendship, art versus academia, and this is all I've got done so far.

GR: The second one would continue chronologically?

SK: I think I'll skip a bit, but yes, and I hope to have it less me-centric. My idea is to widen the focus somewhat.

GR: How closely is it based on your own experiences?

SK: Almost completely. The reason I decided it should be called a novel is that I don't trust my memory, and I didn't want to be going crazy because I couldn't remember things accurately. Also, since I have this notion that I'm going to write more of it, I wanted the freedom to fuss around with reality in order to make the story more interesting.

GR: From its opening line—"It was probably because I was so often taken away from Cambridge when I was young that I loved it as much as I did"—I expected the book to be more of a love letter to Cambridge, but the city takes a back seat to Susanna, the narrator. Was that partly to communicate the idea that a sense of place is really about identity?

SK: That is true, and I'm glad if you picked that up. So it's a "love hate" letter. And it is many pages long—this is only page one and two, I'd say. But yes, the longer I have lived here, the more I feel that we're tangled up in each other.

GR: When you look at Susanna in the book, how much of her is still with you?

SK: Oh, too much. I don't feel like I grew up very effectively.

GR: Do you still feel like an outsider?

SK: I do, a little bit. I guess I see more use in it now, or I put it to some use, because I think it's not a bad way to feel if you want to write novels. Because I am a very slow, poky writer, I certainly wouldn't have the time to get anything done if I was a full participant in regular life. I can barely get anything done without being that. If you're nine and you're irregular and weird, you just feel irregular and weird, but if you're 35 and you're irregular and weird and you're writing a book, it makes a little more sense. I think for kids it's very painful to feel different.

GR: In the book Susanna says, "I wasn't much of anything any more. No matter how far down in myself I poked, I found empty, blank nobodyness." When you were writing this book, were you in any way trying to look back at your childhood and look for intimations of what was going to happen to you at 18 (being admitted to McLean in 1967 after a suicide attempt and diagnosed with borderline personality disorder)?

SK: No, I wasn't. I guess it doesn't surprise me that what happened did happen. I certainly didn't have a lot of self-assurance. I didn't have a whole lot of things that are useful in life. And also it was a different time, when popping people in loony bins was a remedy that people were a little more likely to use, especially in this milieu. I think a lot of it in my case had to do with the fact that I came from such an academic family in an academic community and that I didn't go to college and I didn't want to go to college, and that was just so puzzling and difficult [for everyone].

GR: How do you think your parents would have reacted to this book?

SK: Oh, I don't know, I can't even venture a guess. Probably a combination of pleasure and irritation. I think that may also have to do with why I waited such a long time to write a book that obviously contains an awful lot of my experience. It's easier when everybody is dead.

GR: By calling this a novel, were you trying to throw the spotlight back on to the writing, the words on the page, rather than yourself?

SK: I hadn't thought of that, but you're right. That was not my conscious motivation at all. My conscious motivation was "Oh, my God, I don't know if I'm remembering this stuff right." I was so scrupulous in Girl, Interrupted; I didn't want to say anything that I couldn't remember quite clearly. It was very important to me that I try to be as true to life in so far as I could be, and the only concession I made was to muddle some characters together and change some characteristics of people to protect their privacy, and that was hard—trying to not exaggerate or futz around with reality to make a better story was a constraint, especially 20-odd years on. And I thought, My God, this is even longer ago. Of course I'm not documenting a peculiar experience like being in a loony bin, so I don't think the same pressure is on it. But on the other hand, I just thought it's too much, it will be good that it's a novel. As I progress, if I can go on and write more volumes of it, the freedom that fiction gives will be useful to me, so that's where I'm going to put it.

GR: So you'd discourage people from trying to see this as the prequel to Girl, Interrupted?

SK: Oh, well, I hadn't thought of that. I suppose they will, won't they? Oh, OK. What can you do? I guess it is. I mean, you can only write what you write, and you can't have any say over how people feel about it or think about it. It's really not up to you, that part.

GR: What is your typical writing day like?

SK: A lot of not writing.

GR: What stops you from writing?

SK: What stops me? I can't think straight, I don't have a good idea, I don't know what to do. Just trying to think of what to say, that can take a while, and then how to say it, that can take even longer. The perfectionism is not helpful. In the end I do get something, but there's a lot of nothing before I get that something.

GR: How do you write? On a computer? Longhand?

SK: On a typewriter.

GR: You don't like computers?

SK: I was never entranced by them. And one of the things that put me off in the beginning was the fact that there wasn't a page, because when I write something, I take it out of the typewriter and I edit it by hand. And then I put it back in the typewriter and type and take it out and edit it again. It's hard enough to write as it is, so I'm not going to change the way I do it. I'm ritualized in my behaviors, and this is part of my rituals.

GR: Goodreads member Hannah asks, "How has the passage of time changed how you view Girl, Interrupted?"

SK: Sometimes I don't even feel that I wrote it. First of all, I wrote it a while ago, and I wrote it about things that happened quite a while ago. And third of all, if you have the good fortune to make something that passes into the public in the way that that book did, it becomes almost foreign to you, it has its own existence. I think all books, once they get published, do have their own existence in a way—you can't fix it, you can't take it back, there's nothing more you can do. I think that feeling is strengthened, because it has its own life that has nothing to do with me as I am now or even as I was when I was writing it. It's just its own thing.

GR: Presumably it's also conflated with the film, which took it that much further away from what you wrote?

SK: Yes, that's true. That added another layer of muddle to the whole thing.

GR: Do you think you could live anywhere other than Cambridge? Some people might think you would want to get away from the place and all its memories.

SK: Even I would like to get away, but I can't!

GR: Why not?

SK: At this point I'm like some kind of a plant with a tap root. I don't think it's possible. I've just been here too long. I don't think there's anything wrong with moving away, but I didn't.

GR: And is that what you're looking at in this writing?

SK: Well, maybe. I guess I would like to anatomize Cambridge. I would like to dissect it. How it is now, I don't really know. When I look at it, I see the past. I think if I were more of a participant in the life here, maybe I would have a better sense. But I think that's always true if you stay in the place and the place changes a lot—it's hard to look at it without seeing the past as a kind of underlay.

GR: Goodreads member Kaleigh Viche writes, "Girl, interrupted is one of my all-time-favorite books. I also was hospitalized as a young adult. How do you feel your hospitalization has affected your adult life, particularly your writing?"

SK: A great deal. It did something very important, which was to give me tolerance for being weird. One lives a weird life trying to be a writer, and to persist in it I had to tolerate the weirdness of having in my case a lot of jobs that I didn't really like. I didn't have much money. There was a lot of not keeping up with my peers, and I think that the hospitalization, that was not keeping up with your peers in bold—they were in college or getting married, and I was in a nut house. Even if it was a rather luxurious, high-class nut house, it was a nut house: There were bars on the windows, and I couldn't go out. And so I think it was a very important formative experience, and I think it made me able to be a writer. Or perhaps I could have become a writer without it, but I think it was helpful. I was able to use it to help myself.

GR: Do you think you've ever returned to that dark place you were in as a teenager?

SK: Yeah, I do. I do.

GR: Do people still ask you about your mental health?

SK: Well, they used to a lot. "Are you still crazy?" was how people put it. And I would say, "Yes, but I'm older, so I'm more used to it." It's familiar. You've been there, you've done that, and it's gone away. I think the fact that you can feel like it's the end of the world and you're going to kill yourself and yet there's some part of you that says "this has happened before." And by the time you get to the point where you can say "this has happened 137 times before," it's better than saying "this has happened four times before." So as you get older, there's a little ironist or cynic or somebody inside you who says, "Yeah, uh-huh. Right, OK, I've heard that, I've heard that."

GR: Goodreads member Bufikuk asks, "What's the one book you never get tired of and can read over and over again?"

SK: The book I've reread the most is The Magic Mountain (by Thomas Mann). I love the garbage heap aspect of it, the fact that everything in the world is in that book. Moby-Dick was also extremely thrilling to me. But now I don't read Moby-Dick and Thomas Mann. I read a thousand murder mysteries a day.

GR: Really?

SK: Yes, I'm a total murder-mystery fanatic. I love Nicolas Freeling, the wonderful Dutch writer (Janwillem) Van De Watering, and Ngaio Marsh. I had a Margery Allingham fit this year; I read her entire works. I love them because they are what the Victorian novel has become, multivolume, like Trollope. They are social history, they take place over the course of history, they have a protagonist who ages through the series, they are expansive, they are ruminative.

GR: Have you ever been tempted to write one?

SK: Oh, yes, but I think that's very difficult. You have to know what you're doing and have a good organizational mind, and I don't think I could. I would love to, but even an atmospheric kind of one, you have to sketch it out. It's like a mathematical problem.

GR: Some people would say, It's been 13 years since your last book was published. Did it really take you 13 years to write this book?

SK: No, it didn't. Let's see—what happened? A lot of death happened. I'm at the time of life when many people start dying. So there were two significant deaths—one of them my father, who had a bad year, so that was a year out, and the year afterward was out, too, which also happened when my mother died, although I was much younger when my mother died. I was writing Girl, Interrupted. For a year after she died, I couldn't write a word. Love, love is a great interruption, too. So take out, I'd say, three or four years for death and love, which gives us more like seven years. Many can do it faster, but—and I had one of those troubles, which happen sometimes with a book, in fact I think it happened with my first book, and I got almost to the end and then I didn't know what I was doing, and I just stopped in my tracks and I couldn't figure it out. For quite a while I was just stymied, but that's part of writing.

GR: In Girl, Interrupted you write that you never envisaged a person could make a life out of "boyfriends and literature." Is that how you've lived your life, looking back?

SK: Well, more literature than boyfriends! But now that I've got the right boyfriend, I don't have to worry about that aspect so much. But yeah, I think basically, love and work; what else do you need?

GR: And when can your fans expect the next volume from you?

SK: Oh, God—I would like to say in about five years, but I hesitate to do so. You never know what will happen. We can only hope.

Interview by Catherine Elsworth for Goodreads. Catherine is a freelance writer based in Los Angeles. She previously worked as a reporter and editor for the UK's Daily Telegraph and Sunday Telegraph for 13 years and was the Daily Telegraph's Los Angeles correspondent from 2004 to 2009. She has also contributed to Tatler, Stella, and Cond&eacute Nast Traveller. In 2012, she was a semifinalist for the 21st annual James Kirkwood Literary Prize for fiction.

Learn more about Catherine and follow what she's reading.

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Comments Showing 1-21 of 21 (21 new)

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message 1: by Nina (new)

Nina Vandewater interesting interview . . . I loved her novel Far Afield. I would have liked to know what info that one stemmed from since it's rather esoteric.

message 2: by Elaine (new)

Elaine I look forward to reading this.

message 3: by Deborah (new)

Deborah Blanchard Looks amazing. I will be looking forward to reading this.

message 4: by Ellie (new)

Ellie Ellsworth Honesty and forthrightness seem the coin of her in the interview. I look forward to getting to know her work.
Ellie Ellsworth (are we cousins?)

message 5: by Shirley (new)

Shirley Willis What a lovely gift of honesty. Years ago, a troubled student in one of my special education classes "demanded" that I read Girl Interrupted to her. It was an incredible odyssey for both of us. Thank you, thank you. Now, as an old woman and beginning writer who agonizes over every phoneme, character, scene and potential READER, I found great solace in Ms. Kaysen's interview responses. Take as long as you need to write those books. We'll wait.

message 6: by Elaine (new)

Elaine I absolutely loved "Girl, Interuptted" and read it many times. I related to Susanna in many ways and she gave me hope that there was a way out of the mire of depression. While I have had my ups and downs over the years, her book has always been one I recommended highly. I look forward to reading her new work.

message 7: by Dawn (last edited Mar 08, 2014 03:23PM) (new)

Dawn Ms. Kaysen's book Girl Interrupted has been a long time favorite book for me. I always have identified with her.I too have always been confused about fitting in and trying very hard to find the right path to walk as always feeling an outcast in different and always changing situations that I endured by placing my head in a book or wandering in a dreamworld . My Daddy was in the Air Force and home was quite difficult to feel. I think Kaysen must have felt that way sometimes. I was often taught to make an appearance and then make my self scarce. Children were to be seen and not heard. So, always in the shadows in my little girl world , loneliness would often lead to mischief as time passed.

She is very open, sincere, clever and amazingly generous with her words explaining her deeply personal feelings. In my opinion , this is the innocence that shocks her readers . It is the honesty and willingness to trust others with her inner thoughts without really giving a damn about the consequences of the thoughts people may think of her. This is vulnerable but very courageous . Every person must admit at one time or another they try very hard just to be liked even by people they do not know or care for themselves. It is a problem that affects our character in every way in society and it causes me so much stress and anxiety I feel I should be placed in a mental home.

I wonder if Ms. Kaysen realizes our health care system no longer has such establishments as she was allowed to stay in during Girl Interrupted. There may be just a few around for the very wealthy to hide. They place the mentally sick in with criminals and the treatment they receive is hideous.

With our new health care system it is worse because of absolutely no revisions in sight. It is so sad. In your story, you really were fortunate in the way that you had each other , as in group therapy , to get by. I have been through the system for simple Bipolar II disorder . They place you in these behavioral centers with patients with serious problems such as drug addiction, schizophrenics that are delusional, sociopaths , and other personality disorders mixed with major diagnoses, just to have your medications supervised for two weeks.

You must participate in all of their lower level cognitive behavior activities and see your counselor about 2X a week. This is not the care you should be receiving in that level of mental illness . They are seriously losing all of their good doctors because they are not practicing as they were taught. What they are doing is not working ,with alternative affordable solutions. Most of these poor patients without family and insurance and places to live, end up on the streets or in jail.

I am not a doctor but I taught literature in secondary education for 15 years . When someone on the school board found out about my illness I was budget cut . Later, while teaching Sunday school to my usual class of 3-4 year olds I was let go after 2 years of teaching and keeping nursery school because the Children's Christian Ministry leader threatened to tell parents I had a mental illness if I did not agree to teach an Autistic child every Sunday because no one but myself had experience to handle this child.

There is a double standard with what people think mental illnesses are and are not. There are those that are treated and can be worked with in regular society if there are no prejudices. Then there are mental illnesses that people can not be treated well enough to be working in a stable society. Some of these with pathological mental problems need homes to separate from regular society at times and yet still contribute.

Susannah was so fortunate to use her talent to write and educate others about the sadness of mental health issues. I will keep waiting for every book she writes no matter how many years in between because her thoughts on paper are worth the wait. I sincerely enjoy reading Susannah and I would love to meet her casually some day to see if just an ounce of her courage would rub off on me. Thank you for sharing your gift Ms. Kaysen ... Dawn Copley

message 8: by Rufaida (new)

Rufaida Amazing! I am going for the book 'Cambridge' .

message 9: by Abdulgadirna (new)

Abdulgadirna Ibrahim I am always interesd in such books about ultimate places

message 10: by Hermon (new)

Hermon Mihranian Interesting, I look forward to read it.

message 11: by Jamalobeidah (new)

Jamalobeidah hello who has her email adress

message 12: by Priscilla (new)

Priscilla Cogan I can really appreciate Susanna Kaysen's honesty about her writing. I was a psychiatric aide that summer of 1967 on South 2. so I knew the people in Girl, Interrupted. We were the same age. It was a very different time in the treatment of personal and family problems. After spending years in graduate studies and then the practice of Clinical Psychology, I took my formative experiences in life and also wrote novels, because sometimes you can get at the truth of things better with fiction than non-fiction. So as hard as the writing process can be, kudos to Susanna for for giving voice and creating out of what could otherwise be overwhelming and defeating.

message 13: by Dawn (new)

Dawn Priscilla wrote: "I can really appreciate Susanna Kaysen's honesty about her writing. I was a psychiatric aide that summer of 1967 on South 2. so I knew the people in Girl, Interrupted. We were the same age. It wa..."

Oh! Priscilla , what a fascinating experience to share . I would love to read your work whether they dealt with that time or not. I feel you must have much to share. What a brave , cring and interesting career. You had to have much patience and compassion for the human soul. Thank you very much for responding.

Would you remind replying with the names of your novels? I am a fan already! Sincerely , Dawn Copley

message 14: by Janellyn51 (new)

Janellyn51 Priscilla wrote: "I can really appreciate Susanna Kaysen's honesty about her writing. I was a psychiatric aide that summer of 1967 on South 2. so I knew the people in Girl, Interrupted. We were the same age. It wa..."

I'd be interested to know if you felt that Susanna was nuts when she was there....I worked in Harvard Square in the mid to late 70's and used to wait on her, often enough that I almost fell down when I saw her photo on Girl Interrupted! I would not in a million years have thought she had been through all that...she seemed way normal to me!

message 15: by Mozart (new)

Mozart I loved her book Girl, Interrupted. I was obsessed by the movie.

I am diagnosed as bi-polar and I might have borderline personality disorder. ( They aren't sure ) Susanna Kaysen

I've read and re-read that book, so much that the people in the book have become my friends.

I am actually starting to write down my life, for a friend who is doing a case study on me for Grad school and she is in her words ' Enamored' and ' Enthralled'

I guess people with mental issues are special huh.

@Janellyn51, We ( people who have been in psych hospitals, been labeled with mental illness ) are not freaks. We ARE normal. It's insulting that you even suggest that Ms. Kaysen wouldn't be anything but normal.

message 16: by Melonie (new)

Melonie Kydd I look forward to reading her new book - I loved girl interrupted and her portrayal of mental health issues spectr. It is one of my comfort books and movie as I can relate a lot to the characters having to battle anxiety and panic attacks and depression.

message 17: by Shana (new)

Shana Barefoot Can't wait to read!!

message 18: by Janellyn51 (new)

Janellyn51 Susannah was at the Harvard Bookstore last Thursday, I was so looking forward to it, and then I was struck down by flu, and had to stay home. Wah.

Erin *Proud Book Hoarder* I didn't enjoy Girl, Interrupted much as a book but I must say I enjoyed this interview quite a bit. Loved the writer's answers and the interviewer chose well enough with the questions.

message 20: by Bbbb (new)

Bbbb As romantic as the movie GI was, Mental institutions are evil horriffic places that will disgust you to the core of your stomach and soul. full of dirty perverts and monsters. evil nurses and idiots that will create disgust and horror in you. there is nothing romantic about the reality, we all need sensitivity and attention, you will not get any in these evil places. stay out and try to heal thyself.

message 21: by Melanie (new)

Melanie Bbbb wrote: "As romantic as the movie GI was, Mental institutions are evil horriffic places that will disgust you to the core of your stomach and soul. full of dirty perverts and monsters. evil nurses and idiot..."
I have to say this is not true. Although it is accurate in a historical context where many of the mentally ill were abused, today this is not true anymore. I have been in two mental institutions. One was a residential treatment center in Utah, the other a hospital institution in my state. In particular I would like to talk about the hospital one, the place that when mental institution comes up, this is normally the one pictured. We had the option of having our own room or having a roommate, men were on one side and women on the other with a common area in between. We were able to sit there whenever we wanted, watch TV's, do art, listen to music, write, read, whatever activity we wanted. Once a day they would take us to the giant gym they had there and everyone would be active, play basketball together or just talk. There was a snack time where they served us ice cream or carrot sticks or whatever options they had. The food they served was different everyday and was good things such as tacos on taco Tuesday or pasta. The staff interacted with us and tried to make it the most pleasurable they could. We could make phone calls to approved people whenever we wanted and you could lock the bathroom doors. If they were suspicious about your behavior they wouldn't allow you to, and they could unlock it easily in a few seconds. We got to go outside 3-4 times a week and relax and even had a barbecue one day. Never once while I was there was I treated poorly, and every institution now has certain guidelines they must follow to be allowed to run.
I know the fictional ideas of institutions are pleasurable and fun, and I'm not recommending anyone go to one because it is an incredibly lonely experience but if you don't know the true facts of what it's like and you're basing your experiences off movies or history then please don't try and sell it to be something it's not.
My experiences in these places were not my favorite but I was never mistreated and they saved my life. I would not be who I am today without them.

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