Susan Olding’s debut collection, Pathologies: A Life in Essays, was selected by 49th Shelf and Amazon.ca as one of 100 Canadian books to read in a lifetime. Her essays, fiction, and poetry appear widely in literary journals and anthologies, and her work has won a National Magazine Award, the Edna Staebler Prize for the Personal Essay, and other honours. She lives in the traditional territories of the Lekwungen and W̱SÁNEĆ peoples, in Victoria, British Columbia. Big Reader is her latest book.
Big Reader: essays is a brilliant, achingly beautiful collection about the slipperiness of memory and identity, the enduring legacy of loss, and the nuanced disappointments and joys of a reading life. Through every experience, Olding crafts exquisite, searingly honest essays about what it means to be human, to be a woman–and to be a reader.
Interviewed by Nancy Pearson
Nancy Pearson (NP): Big Readers’ essay topics range widely from your youthful and mid-life readings of Anna Karenina,to the history of the Don River in Toronto and the AIDS epidemic, to your father’s death. With its collection of 12 personal essays sorted into three sections, plus eight interstitial prose pieces, a prologue, an epilogue and addenda, Big Reader: essays has a unique structure. As you write in the addenda, you sought to address your “urgent questions about the relationship of life to literature.” Could you talk a bit about how the structure of the book also works towards answering those urgent questions?
Susan Olding (SO): I struggled quite a lot with the structure. Initially, I wasn’t sure how I wanted to put this book together. I wanted readers to be able to approach it in a number of different ways—maybe by reading each of the longer essays individually, over time, and possibly out of chronological order—but also by reading from cover to cover, all at one go. And I wanted it to feel cohesive and interconnected. That was one reason I chose to include the interstitial pieces. They’re written in the second person voice because I was really concerned to create an intimate feeling, a connection with the reader that is like the connection that we all get from those books that really matter to us. There are a lot of books about the neurobiology of reading, and the ways that reading can affect our brains and our ability to empathize and our social interactions. But in addition to conveying some of the current research about all those topics through personal narrative, I really wanted to convey the emotion that attaches to reading and re-reading—the intimacy. It’s a bit like radio, that intimate voice in the second person.
In terms of the overall structure, I think I was just having fun with the book form. This is what an old-fashioned book, a print book, looks like and feels like. Especially the old classics that I refer to, like Anna Karenina, Dickens, and Middlemarch. Big sections, chapters, sub-headings, forewords, epilogues, etc. etc. etc. I was re-reading those nineteenth-century books and wanted to play with their shape, maybe to remind readers of my book what books were like in the long-ago.
NP: You’ve pre-empted my second question [laughter]. The interstitial compositions provide short interludes between the essays, and they present a very different voice. These lyrical pieces offer a breathing space, so to speak, a time for pause, for reflection and for finding broader connections with the themes throughout the book.
SO: Yes, exactly. That’s a really nice way of putting it. I think that’s right—I was hoping for that effect and if I achieved it, I’m really pleased. Those sections are a bit like prose poetry. I hoped they would invite the reader in. Some began with memory fragments that did not seem to fit into the longer essays in any way, but still seemed worth inclusion. Others present material that comes up in the longer essays in a slightly different way.
Most of the longer essays are quite personal and written in a first-person voice. Of course, I hope readers will identify with some of what I’ve written in those longer essays and will connect it to their own lives, but I fully expect that some of those first-person essays will resonate more for certain readers than for others. At the same time, most readers who love books will have experienced some of the feelings I evoke in the interstitial pieces. Together, they form a separate essay of their own—and could be read that way.
NP: When it came to compiling Big Reader, a great deal of thought must have gone into establishing the order for the essays. You said in an interview with David Leach and Deborah Campbell at UVic that you really wanted this to be a book, not just a collection. Can you expand on that goal and why it was important to you.
SO: First of all, I should preface this by saying I actually love essay collections that are “just collections.”
But in this case, it felt important to create some sort of cohesive experience for a reader. Some of that pressure comes from outside, perhaps. It’s hard to market unrelated collections of essays—just as it is hard to market unrelated collections of short stories. But it also reflects my aesthetic goals. I like making connections between ideas, stories, images, experiences. That’s part of the reason I write essays in the first place. The essay as a form is uniquely suited to exploring connections.
Many of the longer essays in this book adopt a braided structure, in which there are several parallel narratives running throughout. Some of the novelists I reference used this structure in their own books, or adapted and subverted it in interesting ways. I wanted to do something similar. It’s a woven effect. Or pieced or stitched, like the stitching that binds old books. Or maybe like a river, with tributaries moving in and out. Different images like those ones kept recurring as I worked.
NP: What I find so impressive with your essays, Susan, is how your extensive, very extensive research melds in so seamlessly with the memoir narratives to make the information very accessible. I was swept along as you sought answers to your questions or looked at issues and experiences from multiple perspectives. I’m wondering how you go about the scientific and sociological research, like that included “Blood Typing.” Do you, for example, interview experts when a factual nugget catches your attention? Or do you ever have your drafts proofed for accuracy?
SO: Research is important to me, and increasingly so over time. With the rise of the Internet, I’ve found that I’m more and more interested in work that draws on multiple sources.
Research can come at the very start. Often, (as Big Reader proves!) I get the idea to write something from something else I’ve read. Or research can arise from the writing. Something I write will raise questions that I can’t answer, and off I’ll go in search of clues.
With respect to “Blood Typing,” I can’t remember how I learned about the social importance of blood type in Japan. Initially, I think I was just trying to understand the science behind ABO blood-typing. I’d been taught the theory in school, but that was many years ago. I wanted to be able to explain it to myself and to the reader in a succinct way, so (of course!) I did an Internet search. And then all these other things about blood-typing started popping up and I thought: In Japan, some people think blood type defines personality? What the heck is that about?
Often the connections that arise are as fortuitous as that. You know how, in the old days, when you used the library, you walked through a stack of books, and something caught your eye on a spine, and you picked it out and thought: This is interesting. Following the trail of Internet searches can be a similar process for me.
But that’s not the only type of research I conduct. I also read scholarly articles and books, interview people, participate in activities to learn about them, and so on. More recently, I’ve been engaged in archival research, examining a correspondence between two important Canadian poets.
As far as proofing is concerned —many of the essays in this book were previously published in magazines. In some cases, they went through extensive fact-checking. Later, the entire book went through a thorough editorial process with Naomi Lewis (my wonderful editor) and Kelsey Attard (my equally wonderful copy editor). Luckily, I had kept careful notes when I was working on these pieces. And both my editors saved me from some bloopers. Any that remain are my own responsibility.
NP: In Big Reader you say an essay is “forever fracturing and forever finding its unity in and through the breaks and not by glossing them over.” In your first book, Pathologies: A Life in Essays, you don’t gloss over the story about your father and his alcoholism. That essay caused a deep, painful rift between you and your father. How we include other people in our writings is a huge topic, but could you share your thoughts on this important element of memoir and personal essays.
SO: [laughs] You’re right, it is a huge topic. The ethical dilemmas we face as writers and the answers we reach will be as individual as each situation. But I do think there are some guidelines we can keep in mind as we write about others. Particularly if we are exposing secrets.
First, it helps to think about our reasons for telling a particular story. Are we writing out of “I need to understand” or out of revenge? But even here, the ethical choice can be far from obvious. For instance, we often say, as a matter of craft, that writing motivated by anger doesn’t work that well, but there are exceptions. When we’re talking about situations of extreme social injustice, for example, maybe some anger in the writing is a good thing and it’s certainly justified. I’ve recently been reading a few books that focus on family patterns of extreme abuse. Some might say that if the authors cannot write from a place of forgiveness, they should not write these stories, but I disagree. The more truth that we have in the world about what’s gone on, the more likely we are to be able to resolve these deep-seated problems in a meaningful way. Attempting to deny or bury the past is not the way to move forward.
Anyway, as writers, I think our first responsibility is to the material, to the story. If we’re compelled to write something, we ought to write it.
Publishing is a different matter. We don’t have to think about publication when we start writing. All we need to do is get it down.
Sometimes that’s enough. And we’ll recognize that right away. Other times, we’ll feel the need to work it into a piece that will reach other readers, that goes beyond the personally therapeutic and becomes something more, a work of art that transcends the personal and touches other people’s lives. And if we feel that need, then we ought to ask ourselves: Okay, am I willing, am I able to live with whatever happens as a result? What are the possible consequences? Who am I likely to hurt? What are the power relations in this situation? Who has the power and who had the power at the time of the story I’m telling? Who might this story help?
At that point, some writers will decide not to publish. The risks to relationships will be too great. Other writers will decide to publish and face whatever fallout that might involve. Still others will find a way to disguise the situation, perhaps by changing names and details or rewriting their story as fiction or drama.
Of course, we also have to think about the legal ramifications of what we’re writing. Are we speaking truthfully? If not (and we’re writing nonfiction) we could find ourselves in serious trouble.
NP: I read “Blood Typing” as a story of forgiveness, on both parts—yours and your father’s. It’s also a lesson in how writing can force us to dig into our vulnerabilities, to take risks, in order to find the universal connections that give memoir meaning. How should a writer go about building that particular “writing muscle”?
SO: One method—something I already alluded to, above— Try not think about publication or audience in the initial stages because, if you’re thinking about your reader too early, you’ll probably be constrained from writing your truths. There will be time after you have a draft in hand to check your experience against facts, other people’s experience, and your own sense of what is fair. Let’s say you’re writing about family, because this is usually where it becomes most difficult for people. With draft in hand, you can decide: Is this is a place where I really want to or feel able to go? But if you censor yourself ahead of time, your writing will lack authenticity.
Another way of building muscle is to form or join a writing community. If you are writing in the company of others. or if you have strong writing friends, or simply friends who love to read and are the kind of readers that you’re hoping one day to reach, then those people can be wonderful supports and checks on what you’re doing. They become your first readers. You can ask them: How does this land for you? How is this coming across?
Another way to build muscle: Get therapy. People often say that writing memoir is itself therapeutic. And it is – or can be — but not in the way that people often think. Writing a draft can feel cathartic. But the real therapy comes from shaping that draft and making it into an artistic whole. It’s not therapy, per se, but the results are similar. There’s enduring joy and strength to be found in artistic practice. It’s grounding.
To go back to “Blood Typing: it’s a paradox because, while my father had a lot of trouble with what I wrote about him in my first book, I also knew on some level that he was a truth seeker himself. He was deep in denial about his alcoholism because that’s what alcoholism does. It’s an illness and people struggling with it become less than themselves. So he lied to himself about his addiction. But in other areas of his life, he was one of the most curious people I’ve ever known and he always sought truth. And in trying to write truthfully about him and our relationship, I felt in some way that I was fulfilling his legacy, even though he may not have understood things the same way.