April Murphy: I recently read the craft book Tell It Slant, which you wrote with Brenda Miller. The book is a warm welcome for an inexperienced writer – and a handy guide for demystifying particulars of nonfiction for experienced writers. Because it reached these different audiences so well, I was wondering if you had any trouble with Tell It Slant, or with your other work, of deciding who your “ideal audience” is?
Suzanna Paola: First of all, thank you for your warm words about Tell It Slant, which is currently out in its second edition. Brenda and I had a lot of fun, and achieved a lot of insights, putting the book together, first in the initial edition, which we undertook when we barely knew each other, and in the second, when we had become—partly through the writing process—very close friends. In many ways the book has mapped our friendship, so it’s very special to me.
I think the question of audience is a tricky one, one that each particular work evolves to answer in its own way. I should mention here that I write a great deal of my prose under the name Susanne Antonetta—it is a family name, of a forgotten great-grandmother in my family; I love trying to bring this lost woman back to life by using her name. When I wrote Tell It Slant—with Brenda—I was writing, however consciously at the time, for my students. I pulled out the questions they had asked me, the discussions that helped them make some kind of sense of their struggles with the literature of reality, the prompts I had used that brought out their best selves as writers, helped them evade those awful internal censors and write strong, breathing, authentic stories. Many times I would sit down with pages of class notes—I am a fanatical class preparer—and my notes to myself on what I wished I said, and write that book.
My other books are more complicated. I think I partly wrote Body Toxic: An Environmental Memoir, a book that engages very directly with environmental contamination in several counties in New Jersey, for the people in those communities, though I did not think I would reach them, and that audience was kind of a hazy ideal; I also wrote for the lost women like the woman Antonetta whose name I tried to infuse with life; and for, perhaps more than anything, my son. It was a story of place and family, of a toxicity he has not had to live, yet one that has directed the course of his life. To be honest, when I first worked on that book, I thought no one but myself would ever read it. I was a poet. I came across stories that would not fit into poems anymore—stories of chemicals dumped into the ground, of distorted bodies—but the idea of a memoir told through the environment felt so different then that I worked on Body Toxic and threw the writing I printed out into a drawer, thinking it would stay there. So I wrote for particular people but I also wrote for that drawer. I wrote more bravely than I would have otherwise, maybe, in my confidence that no one would ever read the book!
I believe as writers grow and evolve their sense of audience collapses, growing smaller and smaller. This may sound odd but I think it’s true. At first you imagine everyone you know reading your books. Your community, everyone you run across in the elevators at the AWP conference! That changes. When I studied with poet Charles Wright, he said he had one ideal reader—a nun he had met at one of his readings—and he wrote for her, and increasingly, for himself. I think I write to make sense of what I have lived and to know what I think; if I don’t write it, my life will be only reactive, unexamined. In that sense I suppose I write for myself. Increasingly I find myself writing for my son. There is so much about our lives we cannot tell our children; I feel as if I am leaving him a way of understanding his life, a series of answers to questions he may never otherwise know he needs to ask.
AJM: That’s such great advice – that you should let your audience get smaller. I often find myself paralyzed by trying to speak to everybody. Sometimes I think the hardest part about creative nonfiction is being unafraid. You speak about this in Tell It Slant, where you say ” The narrating ‘I,’ the persona you create, is the one who has the wherewithal to rescue experience from chaos and turn it into art” (77). Do you have any other tips for helping the ‘I’ in your writing be more authoritative than your real life self – or overcoming authorial shyness?
SP: Yes, overcoming that shyness can be very hard in nonfiction! I find, having very beginning students at times, along with many writer friends who have been writing a long time and whose drafts I read, that it’s the beginning students who t