Q&A: Susan Olding, Part 1

Susan_Olding B&WSusan Olding is the author of Pathologies: A Life in Essays (Freehand, 2008), and winner of the Creative Nonfiction Collective’s Readers’ Choice Award for 2010. Her writing has appeared in literary journals such Event, magazines like Maisonneuve and several anthologies. She’s the recipient of a National Magazine Award and two Edna awards, among other honours.

Ms. Olding’s memoir about finding herself coaching a high-school cheerleading squad appears in Nonvella’s first anthology, Far From Home.  Our publisher Tyee Bridge got a chance to connect with Susan over email to ask her about creativity, self-doubt and the fine balance of writing autobiography. The interview appears in two parts; this is part one.

Tyee Bridge: You bring an uncommon personal honesty to your essays— words like ‘raw’ and ‘searing’ don’t seem out of place— and a kind of sustained tragicomic suspense. Reading your essay collection Pathologies is sometimes like watching a kid run through the living room with a pair of scissors. What draws you to autobiographical work?

Susan Olding: Thank you for the compliment, although it feels a bit strange to acknowledge that the words ‘raw’ and ‘searing’ come as compliments! I sound like some kind of S&M barbeque mistress.

I wish I could tell you what draws me to autobiography. I love to read it, when it’s well done. So there is that. But more, it seems to me that some stories simply demand to be told this way. In a moment of doubt about the value and legitimacy of the genre I once went to see Andreas Schroeder. And he told me that, in his opinion, those who could write memoir (and write it honestly and well) should write it.

The sentence struck me so powerfully that years later, I still retain the image of his office as he spoke – the light slanting through the window, the lamp, the books on his shelf. I realized then that if we hope to shine our own light and to share our gifts at all, we have to work with the tools we’ve been given. Some disparage memoir and the personal essay as self-indulgent forms. But they’re no less an offering than any of the other genres.

Tyee: What’s the greatest challenge for you in writing?

Susan: At the moment, making time for it. And getting started. I still battle quite a lot of self-doubt.

Tyee: How about your favourite part of the writing process?

Susan: The beginning, when an idea crosses the line of vision like a shooting star, or a stray feather – and makes your heart beat faster and your fingers itch for a keyboard or a pen. Then later, the editing, where you’re tightening the language and you discover things you didn’t know were there.

Tyee: Your essay “Such Good Girls” in our recent anthology shows the ubiquity of insecurity, or maybe the continuing revelation of dissatisfaction and injustice, no matter where you fall in the social spectrum. Is this a theme you find yourself returning to?

Susan: I’d never really thought of it that way, but you might be right – see my comment about self-doubt, above. And I have written explicitly on that subject in another essay called “Sneakin’ Sally Through the Alley,” which appeared in Event.

Tyee: You’ve received multiple awards, national and otherwise, for your essays. Do you have any favourites among your works, pieces that you look back on and feel like you accomplished what you set out to do or what you hoped to do?

Susan: My favourite piece is always the one I’m working on now, or hope to work on next. Like most writers, I find my older work quite boring.

But yes, there are times as a writer when you feel some pride or sense of special accomplishment in the work, pieces that seem to launch you forward in your path as an artist. They might not feel any different at all to readers. It’s just – you’ve figured out a technical problem, brought your language to a new level, done something closer to what you dreamed.

For me, a few favourites include the essay “Pathologies,” (a memoir about my relationship with my father that incorporates quotes from a medical text) because it was my first published work, and because I figured out, in the process of writing it, what genre I was working in. “Answering Moneta,” (about Keats and candy-striping), because for me, the braided narrative was a new structure and one I discovered on my own (this was before so many people were writing them).

And also “Mama’s Voices” (about writing and motherhood and guilt) because the subject matter felt strangely risky, and a good friend encouraged me to write it, and it was very hard to write, until I figured out its peculiar structure.

Click here to read on to part two.

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