From Our Authors | February 23, 2018
An Interview with Susan Neville
Susan Neville’s short story “Hunger” is about a woman beginning to handle her grief and slowly working through it. The story unites elements of the fantastic with a real, and realistic, emotional landscape. “Hunger” appeared in TMR 40.4 (winter 2017). Neville is the author of the story collections Invention of Flight, winner of the Flannery O’Connor Award, and In the House of Blue Lights, winner of the Richard Sullivan Prize. Two of her stories have appeared in Pushcart Prize anthologies. Recent stories and essays have appeared or are forthcoming in the North American Review, the Southwest Review, and Image. We talked with her recently about her fiction and about “Hunger.”
Erica Hampton: “Hunger” appeared in the winter issue of the Missouri Review. In your author’s note that accompanied the story, you talk about how it was inspired by a dream and by the surrealism of talking to your daughter on FaceTime. Have other surreal moments in your life or dreams inspired your writing in the past?
Susan Neville: That’s an interesting question. I’d prefer not to see melting clocks or other surreal images in my real life, and I try not to seek them out, so when I dream something I can’t shake or something I perceive strikes me as dream-like, it’s usually against against my will. If the image or scene feels freighted with meaning, then I follow it, though. It’s the difference between trying to see the world as strange in order to get to some truth and perceiving the strangeness that is there. If you were living in Stalinist Russia, like Bulgakov, then the fabulism of The Master and Margarita doesn’t have to be forced. You live with it every day.
I know there are a lot of fabulist stories being written right now, and I think it’s more than just a style or aesthetic movement. In my case, stories just come to me now in surreal images. As I said, I haven’t sought it out. It’s like similes have disappeared from my imagination. Instead of thinking of someone as being doll-like, I bypass the thing and go right to the metaphor. I see the doll. In this story, instead of the character being so angry and hurt she feels like she could eat her steering wheel, she goes ahead and eats it. Of course that bypassing of simile is the way people start living in delusional systems. So while I’m grateful for the mysterious shimmer of the way ideas are coming to me, since I’m not alone in this, I think a lot about what that says about our culture and our sense of the real.
We’re pretty much living on the slope into the uncanny valley now and flustered by its slipperiness and the speed of our fall. So fabulism seems more real than realism, and dreams contain the reality. I think of a story like George Saunders’ “Semplica Girls,” which is a perfect metaphor for American culture, so completely true, and which began as the literal telling of a dream. The dream itself was telling him something about immigration and consumerism. A lot of Kafka’s stories began that way as well, as dreams. I can’t say that I’ve been lucky enough to have a story given to me by my dreams before, but I’ve always been fascinated by the liminal moments when objects or scenes seem very strange, because in fact they sort of scare me. Twilight can seem strange, and shadows and light and shopping malls. And FaceTime is very strange! I mean, you can walk around with someone’s head in your hands and talk to it. And it will talk back. Who has time to parse this? To deal with all its layers? Dreams are doing a lot of this work.
EH: Were there devices or approaches you were playing with in “Hunger” that you want to explore more in future work?
SN: I wrote “Hunger” in the middle of writing a series of stories about opiate-addicted dolls in small Indiana towns. I think this story came from the same place, probably the same town. As I mentioned that literalizing of metaphor is something I’m doing a lot of in my fiction right now.
EH: What did you enjoy most about writing the story?
SN: I most enjoyed that it surprised me. The first line surprised me, the dream surprised me, the fact that the woman’s husband had recently died surprised me, the fact that she wanted to go to Morocco surprised me. It all made me laugh, despite the sadness and the anger that she’s feeling. I feel sad for her, but she’s the one with the sense of humor in the story, and that saves her. I like how she approaches life–with bite and with love.
EH: You have been writing for many years and have written in a lot of genres. Do you have a favorite?
SN: No favorite. I write as much nonfiction, if not more, than I do fiction. I go back and forth between the two genres constantly, and I can’t imagine not doing that. I’ll get stuck in one and the other genre unsticks me. At first I thought it was because while writing fiction you turn inward and the nonfiction I write involves turning inward but also a kind of journalism—going to places I wouldn’t ordinarily go, interviewing people, etc. I wrote a whole book about factories and spent a year wearing hard hats and walking through steel mills and globe and casket factories. Come to think of it, those spaces were pretty surreal, and while the essays were realistic lyrical essays, I’ve come back to the strangeness of the veneer mills and mint distilleries in recent stories. I just wrote a story, for instance, about a woman who falls in love with the robot who replaced her husband.
But I think moving from nonfiction to fiction and back has more to do with the fact that you can lie to yourself so easily when you write, and the demands of fiction and nonfiction are different enough that you can surprise that “undiscovered self” Jung talks about when you switch gears. James Baldwin, who wrote both essays and stories, talks about that a lot.
EH: At its heart, the story is about a woman handling her grief and never fully understanding it but slowly working through it. How much of what happens in the story do you think she understands?
SN: Good question. I think that at some level she understands all of it, or does by the time she finishes telling the story. She understands it as she tells it, but she has to repress the anger because she loves so deeply. I think that first-person stories are often essays written by fictional characters, and as with all personal essays, you write or tell the story in order to understand it for yourself. And there’s part of herself—of this character—that’s shaping the narrative, that expresses what she knows and what she’s learning through the tone she chooses and the details she leaves in and the sound of the language. If the reader gets it at the end, then this narrator probably does too. Of course I guess there’s a question about whether she’s really eating her car or just telling a story about how she feels like she could eat her car.
Right before I answered this question, I drove to my house through a horrible Midwestern drear of a day—haven’t seen anything but a gray-scale world for weeks–and had to slalom around tire-crushing potholes the whole way, and I was feeling angry about Trump and the NRA, and I’m a very mild-mannered Midwestern woman who honestly never expresses anger, but I felt like I could take a bite out of everything and devour the world.
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