Copyright Jeep Wheat

Susan Stinson is the Writer in Residence at Forbes Library in Northampton, Massachusetts, and the author of Belly Songs, Fat Girl Dances with Rocks, Venus of Chalk, and Martha Moody. Her upcoming book, Spider in a Tree (Small Beer Press, Oct 2013), is historical fiction chronicling the life of Jonathan Edwards, one of the great eighteenth-century Revivalist ministers.

This interview was conducted as part of a series featuring individuals who have dedicated their lives and livelihoods to the pursuit of their passions. Susan was identified as a good candidate for an interview by Maria Williams-Russell, GCC faculty advisor on the project, due both to the obvious dedication with which Susan has pursued writing — publishing four books on the challenging topic of, in Susan’s words, “the lives of fat lesbians” — and the sacrifices she has made in her pursuit of her craft.

I met Susan in the Campus Center at Smith College in Northampton for what was supposed to have been a twenty-to-thirty-minute interview, but grew into a sprawling, two-hour conversation. (It was a ball.) We discussed everything from Spider in a Tree, Jonathan Edwards, Calvinism, and the history of Northampton to the technological future of the human species and the precarious existence of the written word. Due to space limitations, however, only those portions of the interview which relate closely to the intended topic have been transcribed here. The rest has been set aside for future publication. The interview has also been edited for length and readability.

ER
Could you say something about what struggles you’ve had to overcome to get to get to your current lifestyle? Maria [Williams-Russell] mentioned that you live this almost Thoreau-like life, it sounded like, where you had so completely chosen to pursue this thing that you’re totally passionate about that you’ve eschewed almost all other pursuits.

SS
It’s so interesting to hear that reflected back. At this moment, that’s pretty much true. One of the issues around that is livelihood — having enough money to live. That’s always a question for me. So one of the ongoing decisions I’ve made is like, follow the work, follow what I need to do, and make everything else work around it. [But] you have to be pragmatic while you do it. So for instance, for a lot of years I was the director of development for this place called Center for Popular Economics. It’s a great group — they do training in economics for grassroots activists. They’re based out of UMass. I loved the work, so it was a good job for me. But one of the reasons I did that kind of work was that I knew that learning how to help find money for projects that otherwise might not happen would be a skill I would probably need to have if I wanted to write about fat lesbians. There’s not a built-in market that the larger commercial forces would recognize.

But in practice… Yeah it’s true at this moment.

ER
The struggle is worth it, I assume?

SS
Oh, the struggle is deeply worth it! I just heard last night a couple of writers speak at Amherst College. They were talking about doing commercial work — writing for magazines, freelancers. And they had lots of stories about struggle, too. I guess it’s just a thing to know if you want to be a writer. Especially a writer who is leading with the heart, and really following your own passions and exploring your own experience. Of course I dream of having more and more people read the work, and also of being solid, knowing that I have a house — I have an apartment [right now] — and I’ll be able to stay there and I’ll be able to get food on the table, and things will be okay when I’m old. But it’s sort of the fact of mortality. Sooner or later aging is hard for almost everybody. So it’s a risk, but yeah — for me it’s worth the risk.

ER
What is it that makes it worth the risk? In writing, what is it that you find that makes you willing to pursue that above a more comfortable lifestyle?

SS
It’s like breathing in the open air instead of in the closed and hot car with the windows up in the ninety-degree weather. When I’m doing it, it’s like it’s what my lungs need, you know? It’s just so naturally who I am. It feels like doing what I’m meant to do.

ER
It feels like “you” when you’re doing it?

SS
It feels like me, that’s right. And it also changed my life! I mean, having written my earlier books brought me into all sorts of circumstances and conversations — around fat, for instance, and also around sexuality — that literally made more space for me in the world. And not just me. I feel like this is my best thing to offer the world. And separate from comfortable money there’s also all these moments that people have offered things back that are so exquisite! Like this gigantic Fat Girl Flea [Market] in New York City every year — I posted on my blog that I was looking for a sundress, and when I got there they had saved some out for me that were perfect! And if you’ve had the experience that I have about it being so hard to find clothes in my size that I wanted, that to have them sort of lovingly, magically appear — it’s one of the gifts that my writing gave me. And there’s a lot of things that are less tangible but just as lovely.

ER
Was this a discovery you made at some point, or have you written since you were a child and it was the thing you naturally evolved into?

SS
I’ve written since I was a child. When I was in first grade I won a contest for the best letter about my mother on Mother’s Day. We got to go to this little local strip mall, and I had a gift certificate, I bought a stuffed caterpillar. So I’ve written since I was really young and I was also encouraged to write that way.

ER
So there didn’t come a moment in your life — or maybe there did — where, on that day, at that hour you knew that that was what you were going to pursue no matter what?

SS
One interesting moment that wasn’t quite like that [was after going] to the University of Colorado at Boulder. I applied to some MFA programs and I didn’t get in. I had always been a straight-A student, this was very shocking to me — not to be able to do what I wanted academically. My brother was an artist, he was living in Boston. He thought that was a good place for me to go. So I moved East without a job, I wasn’t going to an academic program. And I started trying to figure out how to be a writer in these circumstances. I got a job at a drugstore. And I didn’t know anyone. I had never been to the East Coast. I was from Colorado by way of Texas. So I walked around reading Moby Dick. I was trying to get to know New England, you know? What do you do? You read Moby Dick.

ER
[Laughing]
The local history.

SS
[Laughing]
Yeah. And Gertrude Stein. I had never understood Gertrude Stein, and then I was sitting on the Cambridge Common, trying really hard to read Gertrude Stein. I probably hadn’t talked to anybody for days, because I didn’t know anybody. And the manners were so different. In the West, people were more openly friendly on the first glance. I totally didn’t understand why no one was smiling at me when I went and bought a soda, because you were supposed to, you know? So I was reading “Lifting Belly” and she does all this repetition that I never got, and then all of a sudden it just sort of kicked in. And it was like a revelation! It was like light coming over me, and I was just so excited! I was shaking! I was really giddy. I went home and I recorded myself reading it to really understand it. That made me so happy. I would cry at readings all the time. I was just so drawn to this. Then I knew. I wasn’t getting any external reinforcement at that point. I needed to be looking for a job, not sitting around reading. Which was true enough. Again — having a job and making money — you have to figure out a way to do it. But giving up the poetry books wasn’t going to happen, either.

ER
So you did go to Boston still carrying writing with you. I mean, you didn’t go looking for what you were going to do — it sounds like you went looking for a way to write.

SS
That’s right. And at a moment of big rejection, right? Because I could’ve gone, “Well, I’m not a writer. They’re saying ‘no’ to me at the MFA.” But I was like, “Wait, okay — so now what do I do to be a writer?” It was already there.

ER
So your choice to be a writer wasn’t any kind of response to that or retaliation. It was just, “Well, that didn’t work. Let’s try the next thing.”

SS
That is a really good point. One of the things that I notice about writers who keep writing [is] a certain kind of resilience and a certain kind of toughness. It’s not necessarily about innate talent. [It's about] trusting your instincts, and if your instincts are to write then you figure out a way to do it. And if one thing doesn’t work you try something else.

ER
Resilience is great, but what do you do when you break?

SS
Well, you know, I’ll tell you what. Spider in a Tree — this book has taken me ten years [to publish]. Because it’s so different than my previous books, and also because the world has changed. My earliest books were being published by small, feminist presses that were then changing hands, going out of business. It was a beautiful network of bookstores and newspapers that were interested in that work. But this book I knew — because it’s about Jonathan Edwards, even though there are strong female voices in it — there’s no explicit queer content in this book. So I wrote myself out of the publishers who had published me in the past. And I’ve spent ten years on this book! I had an agent for a little while, sent it out to mainstream publishers. And that didn’t work. So then once that was over, after working so hard and taking all these risks and meeting with just blanket rejection, I did break. I mean it was like, “Okay, this is really depressing, really hard.” I cried and was depressed and curled up in a little ball. I did all those things. But I had to deal, and make some money for a while and all that. But I was also asking these dancers and martial artists I know about how to fall. Like literally, what do you do if someone knocks you down or you’re in a moment where you need to be falling. And I also started taking movement classes and doing some dance so that I was exploring another genre that didn’t have the same kind of pressures around it. And literally exploring how to physically fall. And how to get up and how to do all the rest of it.

ER
It sounds like when your intellectual realm didn’t hold up, you turned to a kind of somatic exploration. You turned to your body, basically–

SS
That’s right. That’s right.

ER
–for a fuller explanation of how to move forward.

SS
Yes. Yeah, and my body has always been central to how I wrote and what I wrote about. So this was letting it lead instead of letting the writing lead for a little while. And one thing that I did — it took a while, maybe it took a year before I did this — I had the notes about what the publishers were saying about what didn’t work for them. And throughout I’d been getting different feedback, and I sort of thought about my own standards and what I wanted the book to do, and what I could do to make the book more available to people who hadn’t been immersed in eighteenth-century theology and writing. So after I kind of got my breath and was functional again, I went back to it, tried to make it better.

ER
So you did a rewrite?

SS
Oh, I’ve done so many rewrites. I’ve done more than one since then, but I did a big rewrite. I thought I was done, and then I was like, “Okay, well what about [this]. What would this do?”

ER
Did it feel true when you were doing that?

SS
It did. It did. It has to, right? And it wasn’t like… There wasn’t anyone waiting for it. It wasn’t like it [was done] under commercial pressures, because it wasn’t. It was already totally off the screen. So it was only for me. So I guess this is quite a bit to do with what you do when you break. I mean, I was running up against barriers that had to do with commercial interests that I didn’t like and weren’t useful and that there was nothing I was going to be able to do about and still maintain my integrity with my work, which is always central. But there were also [these] threads: “Okay, what is it that might be useful,” you know? And really thinking about people’s lives and our changing relationships with language and with words, and how busy people are. Flannery O’Connor said something like, “You can say anything you want to your readers, but ignore their nature at your peril.” So not pretending that the people I want to read this book don’t have a million other things that they should be doing instead, and sort of like, “Okay, how can I invite people in more strongly?” And I’m happy to do that — I want to do that.

ER
To make it more accessible without compromising it.

SS
That’s right. And not only accessible, but inviting.

ER
So I’m in school right now, I’m trying to find my path and what to move toward, and I’m surrounded by people who are in the same boat. What can you tell us? How do we hear…?

SS
I got it, but say it out loud so I can help.

ER
How do we hear what’s pulling us in our “inner space” — somatically, in our bodies — as much as the voices that are talking to us all around us? And certainly as much as the fears and anxieties that are yelling up here [in our heads] all the time.

SS
I think it’s really important, if you can, to cultivate a strong group of peers. And they don’t have to only be your age or in the same situation, but it’s fine if they are. And talk to each other seriously about those issues. And if you come up with ideas, to support yourself and each other in doing that. And not waiting for somebody else’s wisdom, some other expert, somebody else who looks like they might know more to help you do it, but just sort of muddle through and find ways to do it. I think that’s huge. It’s certainly been huge for me in my writing process. And sometimes when you do that it can seem like you’re getting distracted by group dynamics and stupid petty stuff — nobody likes that. But it’s still worth a try, and what you get from it in the long run might be really surprising. And it’s not like you “solve” it. I’m fifty-two, this is my fifth book. It comes back again, it comes back again, in different circumstances. So cultivating habits to go toward the work that you know is valuable, that you find that you need to do. And be really seriously committed about that. I mean, you don’t have to always have pressure about it, and if you fall away from it the guilt spirals aren’t useful. If you’ve got ten minutes that day or whatever, [do] it again. And I think it’s also really good to develop a skill that you can use when you need it. It can feed your work, but it can also pay the bills. Have a strategy about that. Because just ignoring it altogether doesn’t work.