Interview with Susanna KaysenPosted by Goodreads on March 3, 2014
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.
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.
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 Condé Nast Traveller. In 2012, she was a semifinalist for the 21st annual James Kirkwood Literary Prize for fiction.
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