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