“A Kind of A Template For Life”: A Conversation With Suzanne Scanlon
photo: Jacob Knabb
Emily Gould: You’re also an actress. What, if anything, do writing fiction and acting have to do with each other?
Suzanne Scanlon: In my twenties I really identified as an actress, and then later I decided to focus on writing. I was really extreme about it – I decided I had to leave New York and I went to grad school in creative writing and I just wanted to identify as a writer. I think all of my acting – and auditioning, especially, because for me acting in New York was mostly about auditioning! – was very frustrating, but it was also something that I had to do in order to realize that writing was just much more satisfying to me.
But now the more I write the more I realize that in there’s a kind of performance in writing as well. In the process of revising this book I had to read pieces out loud. I’m interested in voice — the way a character can be revealed through their voice and the way that voice is telling a story. Now I feel like [writing and acting] are very linked, but for years I didn’t think they were linked at all. I felt like they were even opposite of each other. A play is very collaborative, and there’s something very immediately satisfying about being onstage, having an audience. But there’s something more satisfying about being alone and writing – still thinking about a reader, but it’s a different kind of relationship.
EG: That’s so interesting, about writing as performance.
SS: Right, like … I could have told all the stories that are in this book in the “I” voice, but I chose not to. And at the moment I’m kind of annoyed because I have this nice review, but it says ‘this sounds like a memoir, so this should be a memoir.’ It’s basically a critique of the publisher, I think, like, ‘She should have published it as a memoir.’ But even a memoir … that’s a performance of the “I” voice, performing this subject voice, and I always feel like the “I” is shifting, so in some ways being a character in a play is more satisfying because no one connects it to you directly. And that’s why I can’t really write a memoir. Because I’m always kind of shifting that subject position.
EG: In Promising Young Women there are some lines from The Bell Jar, and whole passages are structured in a way that imitates the structure of passages from The Bell Jar. I think when I first read Promising Young Women I didn’t read the front material that explains that the book “uses lines and images” from that book, and also from The Death of Ivan Illych, and so when I came across the first quoted line, I was like “WHAT?” It does function as a little bit of an inside joke with people who have read The Bell Jar enough to have parts of it memorized.
Was that something that evolved naturally as part of this character’s voice, or was there a conscious decision to incorporate parts of these other texts in the book?
SS: At some point during the writing of a very different, early draft of this book, I happened to be teaching The Bell Jar. I also teach a lot of stuff that takes from other texts, and I was really interested in that. So it started at first more as a writing exercise, like, as I was revising some of the pieces. I was like “okay, this arc here, this could be the graveyard scene.” And that was kind of an exercise to me, but it also made sense for the character, for what was happening for the character. It was also a way of acknowledging that influence and commenting on it, and also just providing this artificial structure to her story because she’s looking for stories for her own life everywhere else, and that one seemed like it fit. I also just adore the book — it’s kind of an homage to a book and a writer I love. I think it’s such an amazing book, and I think people don’t acknowledge it. It took me years, even – I had to be a real grown-up to acknowledge what a good book it was. I don’t think it’s readily considered that, in our culture.
EG: I am also a big fan of The Bell Jar.
SS: I think it’s weird but true that these dark suicide stories – like Heathers, like The Bell Jar – can also give a person a reason to live, can give a person a kind of a template for life. And for me that’s part of this character’s journey, too.
EG: One of the thing I think is so powerful about The Bell Jar, and why it continues to resonate, is that when you first encounter it at a young age it seems revolutionary that the protagonist is so unpleasant, and it feels like being given permission to hate and to be angry. Just to say, “I hated her.” Esther Greenwood was the first female protagonist I ever encountered who was not nice, or “good.” And I think that’s one of the book’s great strengths.
SS: Yes, that acknowledgement of the divided self – that there’s all this stuff that is a part of being human but you’ve been taught it’s somewhat off-limits to you.
EG: So you are also a teacher of writing?
SS: At the moment I teach creative writing. I also teach creative nonfiction and literature.
EG: How did this book come to be published with Dorothy?
SS: Danielle Dutton read Ward Six published somewhere and asked me if I had a manuscript to submit to Dorothy. I didn’t really at the time but it was a great incentive to finish it. And I was super lucky because she was an amazing editor and she really made it a much better book.
EG: So you weren’t thinking at all of submitting it to bigger publishers?
SS: Well, a former teacher of mine had connected me to her agent, and the agent was really interested in it but didn’t feel like she could sell it because of its structure and its length. But I did sign with her, and then the Dorothy thing was kind of happening at the same time, she was really impressed and excited by Dorothy, and so I felt like it was really a good idea to go with Dorothy and not to waste time trying to sell it to a bigger press or whatever.
EG: Yeah, it does seem like being on someone’s list of the two books they’re publishing that year is a good thing! It seems like a cheerful story, then, of how a great book can emerge from someone who’s running a publishing house pretty much singlehandedly!
Speaking of Dorothy, they’re having an event on November 13 in New York at McNally Jackson with Suzanne and other Dorothy authors. You should come. Buy Promising Young Women here.