I interviewed first-time author Suzanne Guillette Monday afternoon.
Buy her memoir here.
Luke: "Suzanne, when you were a kid, what did you want to be when you grew up?"
Suzanne: "I had always written, but I wouldn’t say that I always wanted to be a writer. I remember liking the waitress at the local restaurant I went to with my family and thinking I wanted to be a waitress, which I did for a while."
Luke: "When did you come to realize you wanted to be a writer?"
Suzanne: "It’s always been something I’ve done. I have memories of keeping a journal from early on, probably as early as seven. My mom made sure I always had a journal around."
Luke: "What have your parents most wanted from you?"
Suzanne, the youngest child: "That’s a good question. That I be happy."
"There are four children and no one is yet married with children. Occasionally I get a hint that they would like grandchildren."
Suzanne, who’s spent about eight years in therapy, got her undergraduate degree in Philosophy from George Washington University. After working for various non-profits in Boston, she then got an MFA in Non-Fiction Writing from Sarah Lawrence. "I wanted more discipline and more time. I felt like being in that sort of community would be great."
"I wrote the memoir in the second-person because I wanted to create a little bit of distance."
Luke: "Was there a therapeutic aspect to writing this book?"
Suzanne: "Absolutely. Are you short on time?"
Luke: "You can go on forever."
Suzanne: "I turned 30 and that’s where the book ends (in Spring 2006 for the Afterword)."
"The question that drove me [in the memoir] was, wow, what a crappy year, what the hell happened to me? I had no goals to publish when I was writing it. A lot of the book is about having repressed certain feelings… It was very healing. It allowed me to reclaim and re-experience what I was unable to experience the first time around. I wrote with the intention of it being therapeutic and cathartic. The decision to publish was completely separate."
Luke: "How difficult was it to craft an ending to the book?"
Suzanne: "It was so hard. I wrote a million crappy endings. At one point, I had this really funny ending. At least, I thought it was funny. In November 2006, I went to see Donna Summer. I ended up singing on stage with her. I tried to write that as the ending and it was really bad. I was volunteering and running a writing group at the end and I read it to the women in the book and they looked at me, ‘Oh, that was fascinating.’
"It was hard figuring out the right notes I wanted to strike. The whole book is all along a certain path. I always wanted to change the perspective in the ending…"
Luke: "Was it hard because it wasn’t clear that that part of your life had a happy ending?"
Suzanne: "Yes. Well, I wouldn’t put it in terms of happy or unhappy ending. It certainly felt like it was still in process. The writing was exceptionally healing. It felt like an open chapter and to randomly pick a place to end was really tough. I wrote the ending in April 2007 and then worked on it a lot after that. It felt disengenuous. Now I can wrap it up and everything’s great. I tried to work with that."
Luke: "From the perspective of art, what did your ending need to accomplish?"
Luke: "From the perspective of story-telling, what did your ending need to accomplish?"
Suzanne: "The main thing I wanted to show was a sense of ownership over the story that’s not in most of the text. I’m referring to the first-person Afterword… I had this instinct that I wanted to say everything. Ultimately, I came to realize that all I needed to do was show that there was a beginning and I didn’t need to do anything past that."
Luke: "How did the writing of this book affect your life?"
Suzanne: "It really affected it in major ways."
"The first attempts at an ending didn’t feel genuine."
"I used to do storytelling performances. Once I put down that draft, I had no wind in my sails. I had no desire to perform. Life became a lot more quiet after that. The ending is about clearing out all the crap and figuring out the starting place. The writing process helped me get there."
Luke: "Did you feel a need to change your life so you’d have an ending to your book?"
Suzanne: "God no."
"One interesting thing was sharing it with people close to me, such as my sister and my mother. That was wonderful. A lot of that year, I was closed off and people close to me were wondering and worried. When I shared it, it created an openness in the relationships that’s really nice."
Luke: "Have you read the book ‘Your LIfe as Story’ by Tristine Rainer?"
Luke: "It’s a book on writing a memoir. For some reason, this sentence [fragment] from it came to mind: ‘Your desire line, which should run with the power of a hungry tiger from the beginning through the middle, right on through to the conclusion of your story…’
"If I was reading your book and saying, ‘Where’s the desire line?’ My impression from the book is that your desire line is your desire to publish this book. Is that right?"
Luke: "What is the desire line, if you’ve ever thought in those terms?"
Suzanne: "I haven’t. It’s really interesting. Could you phrase it in another way?"
Luke: "Desire line. Usually in a story, there’s something the protagonist wants and then all through the story, they are pursuing what they want and they either get it or don’t get it… For you, your desire line in this book is either the successful accomplishment of your first book or pursuing love… The idea of a hungry desire powers every good story. The protagonist wants something and there are obstacles they have to overcome."
Suzanne: "That’s an interesting notion. I definitely wanted to be successful. I felt like the bar was really high and I was never going to get there. On another level, I wanted things to be settled in my life. I did want love. It’s more than that. I felt really cut off from myself and I really wanted connection to the person I felt I was developing into."
"I was in this big growth stage and I wasn’t handling it well. It was sorta, if things worked out with my boyfriend, everything would be great. Or if I only had a career, everything would be great. I think the desire line was actually underneath those things. I didn’t really want to do the work. I just wanted the superficial things that would make me feel my life was going the way it should be going."
Luke: "I wonder if what is going on in your book is a desire to be married and taken care of but to say that you want to be taken care of is perhaps too shameful in this modern egalitarian world?"
Suzanne: "Yeah, I would definitely say there was truth to that."
Luke: "Can I get you to elucidate on that? I do think most women do want to be taken care of and married but it is not something you are supposed to admit to in our egalitarian age."
Suzanne: "I think that’s really, yeah, it is a shameful thing to admit. that you want to be taken care of. I should say there is some shame associated with that. I don’t know if part of it is where I live. Sorry, I need a minute to think about this.
"On the one hand, to be really ambitious and out there in the world in terms of your career is an amazing thing. In my case, one of the challenges was to admit that I want other things beyond that. It wasn’t conscious for me when I wrote the book. That came later."
Luke: "It would be ironic if the memoir of embarrassment won’t explicitly touch what has traditionally been the most innate of female desires, and that is to be taken care of by a man."
Suzanne: "Could you say that again?"
Luke: "It would be ironic if a memoir of embarrassment does not explicitly deal with what has traditionally been the most innate of female desires, to be taken care of and protected by a man."
Suzanne: "Yeah, as I said, that was not consciously present."
Luke: "Is that because you are in a peer group where you are not supposed to admit that?"
Suzanne: "No. I think this term of ‘wanting to be taken care of’ is a little bit complicated. In terms of the book, I wanted everyone else to take care of everything else. In some ways, the ending is about personal responsibility. I wouldn’t say that is the deepest longing I have. It’s not really something I talk about with my friends."
Luke: "How would your peer group have reacted since you were 18 if you had told them — my primary desire is to find a man who will take care of me?"
Suzanne laughs. "I’m sorry. That sounds funny… I don’t know how [they would’ve reacted]."
Luke: "I can’t think of anything more uncool or embarrassing."
Suzanne: "Yeah, gosh, at the end of the day, your friends want you to be happy. So if you’ve come to a place where you’ve determined that that’s going to make you happy, then fantastic. I can’t imagine anyone being judgmental, or at least overtly."
Luke: "Have many or any of your peers since you were 18, I’m talking highly educated, really smart, women you hang out with, have any of them expressed that, that their primary goal is to be taken care of by a man?"
Luke: "I know you say they’d react non-judgmentally, but doesn’t that seem like an uncool longing, totally out of character of today’s ethos among the well-educated?"
Suzanne: "I don’t know. I think that’s changing… How one relates to one’s own feminine and masculine sides is completely personal. I think that’s kinda private. How one wants to be in the world is completely personal and private."
Luke: "It’s so personal, it’s not something you would share with your friends? Is that what you are saying?"
Suzanne: "No. It’s so personal that there’s no room to pass judgment of cool or uncool or go against the ethos. I don’t see it in those terms."
Luke: "I wonder how women in the 1940s and 1950s would’ve related to that question. Remember when going to college [for a woman] was just, ‘You are just going to get your MRS degree’?" Have you ever heard that statement?"
Luke: "I’m really showing my age here. I’m 42. For people older than me, it used to be said when colleges became co-ed in the 1950s or 1960s that she was just going to get her MRS degree."
Suzanne: "Which means? Oh, got it."
Luke: "It seems that for your mother’s generation, that was what women wanted most — to be taken care of by a man."
Suzanne: "I don’t know that that was wanted. Maybe it was the norm. Getting married young was the norm."
Luke: "Your memoir is filled with highly embarrassing personal revelations on your part and on the part of others, but much of what is embarrassing seems to be socially constructed."
Suzanne: "Yes. And what embarrasses one person does not necessarily embarrass another."
Luke: "It seems to me that the most embarrassing thing that someone in our peer group — educated, read books, read the New York Times — can do is to every publicly commit or say an act of racism. What do you think? The theme of accidentally revealing yourself as a racist does not appear in your book and yet it seems to me that’s the biggest social foupe you can make in today’s society."
Suzanne: "Yeah, I think there’s a lot of shame around issues of racism."
Luke: "We live in a world where people would ten times prefer to reveal a story of defecating on themselves than revealing themselves to be racist."
Suzanne: "Yes. That’s a great point. I realized when I was getting these stories from strangers that people were open about these seemingly personal things, I realized that it is not that personal, and something that is truly embarrassing, I’m not going to get just by asking someone on the street. That’s why I thought it made sense for me to write what was most embarrassing to me."
Luke: "Money I think would be one of the top five areas of shame."
When I ask Suzanne if there have been any interesting reactions to her book from the people in it, she disappointed me by saying "everyone has been loving and supportive."
"I’ve changed a lot since then [the writing of the book]. I’m certainly not the narrarator of the book. A lot of my friends say that."
Luke: "Did you want to give this book a happy ending?"
Suzanne: "Ohmigosh, I think it does have a happy ending. You don’t think it has a happy ending?"
Luke: "I’m not making a decision either way. I’m curious if you view the ending as happy and if that was important to you, to write it that way?"
Suzanne: "I don’t see it in terms of happy vs. unhappy. I wanted it to be authentic."