An Interview with Sarah Perry

Kelsey Motes-Connors

Two very unalike pieces by writer Sarah Perry–one a lyric essay contemplating a faraway lover, one an open letter to a stranger–are forthcoming in two very different collections this year, and yet both have something essential in common: they seem desperate to measure the distance between two people. In “Satellite,” we’re invited to peer over Perry’s shoulder at an oak library desk, where she’s trying to make sense of the space between herself and her lover–“a complex thing made of motion and mass, dependent on the attraction of bodies”–by drawing many circles in her notebook. In “To the Woman Who Walked Beside Me,” we walk with Perry through a chilling example of what she calls “moments of intimacy with people I will never truly know.” These two pieces strike a particularly timely nerve, coming into the world at a time when many of us have needed to keep a greater distance from people we love and have been more uncomfortable than usual with the strangers in our 6-foot radius, but have been rather at a loss when trying to make sense of it all. Fortunately, Perry’s writing is so lucid and sparing, so powerfully exact, that we can borrow a bit of the sense she has made of the distance between us.

As a nonfiction writer dependent upon the real world for subject matter, how have you & your work been impacted since entering the pandemic vortex?
In the beginning, I struggled (even) more with audience than with content. It seemed important to witness this moment in history, but to whom? Of course, people published plenty of beautiful, unique stories of witness, but when I tried to do this, I kept hearing this inner answering voice saying, Yes, they know. The whole world was going through this event; whom was I going to tell? I kept picturing myself running up a green hill to call out the news, then getting up there and just standing with my arms limp at my sides. Which I guess describes a lot of my process over the past…19 months: climbing that hill, then looking out at the world and thinking: Do they need this? What do they need?

I also moved from Brooklyn, New York–where I’d lived for ten years–to Tulsa, Oklahoma in mid-March of 2020. Which is to say, at the very moment the world changed so suddenly, I removed myself from my usual beloved context, from my home. That dislocation, combined with the difficulty of addressing the present moment, combined with that isolation from the real world, led to an even deeper reliance on memory in my work. I was aided–although I can’t say I’m grateful–in this move by the loss of twenty years of my notebooks and journals, which I had attempted to ship to myself and which never arrived. Or maybe, they have yet to arrive–let’s call them missing, for now. Let’s extend to them the absurd hope that we’ve all had to muster to get through this time. The same absurd hope that allows anyone to put anything on the page.

You’ve alluded, in past conversations, to feeling that your imagination was an unsafe place, contaminated, as it was, by unimaginably horrifying experiences at such a young age. I thought of this often while reading “To the Woman Who Walked Beside Me,” of imagination and danger and strangers. In the piece, one stranger drives slowly alongside you as you walk–alone, on an empty block in Yonkers, at dusk–to the train. You imagine the danger that this stranger presents, and so do we. You ask a second stranger to walk beside you in protective solidarity, and you imagine enough of a connection between the two of you to build, quickly, trust. So, it would seem that you’ve found a way to harness what was once unsafe territory and actually use imagination as a narrative tool, which is perhaps essential in making sense of–and then writing with such clarity about–trauma. What is your process for holding onto your sense of safety while writing about danger?
Much of my process comes down to thinking about time. Traumatic memory is difficult because it’s a visceral form of time travel–you’re sitting at your desk writing, but your mind is back there, reliving those moments of danger. And the dark magic is that your body follows your mind–your heart rate elevates, your palms sweat, you tense the parts where fear lives in you (for me, my neck, and my feet), your breathing becomes shallow. Your mind may be imagining, but your body is reliving.

The tricky thing with writing, as opposed to just thinking about, traumatic or difficult memory is that you have to stay in it, stay connected to those emotions and sensations, so that you can recreate in the reader at least a small portion of the experience. But it’s important to strike a balance between useful re-experiencing and overwhelm. I encourage my students to take regular breaks to check in with their bodies (set a timer!), because all these things can be happening outside of your awareness. Close your eyes and breathe, scan from head to feet, see what’s going on. Then re-center: look away from the screen and around your room. There’s the nice candle your friend sent you, there’s your sweet cat curled up on the bed. Look outside at those trees, so different from the ones in memory. If it’s a childhood memory that’s being rehearsed and written, I encourage standing up from the chair and walking around for a moment: see how tall you are? Go look in the mirror. It’s the adult you, the safe one, the one who lives now. She’s in charge, she’ll keep you safe.

It took me a long time to cultivate these practices of safety, to figure out how much I could do and how often. (Once around 2012, during the writing of After the Eclipse, I wrote “1994” on the date line when paying rent. Not a great sign.) A lot of writers have a masochistic relationship with their work, and I’m no exception, but I’m working on it.

You & I both studied with Amy Benson, master of genre-bending nonfiction that she is. She would of course argue for the deserved role of imagination in nonfiction writing; what about you?
I have such a fraught relationship with this question; I’m glad you asked it. When I started writing in earnest, I wanted to be one of the cool kids–a John D’Agata or Lynne Tillman or, yes, brilliant Amy. I had all these ideas about performative language and the vexed relationship between signifier and signified, etc., etc. I couldn’t understand why, if we had all this interesting theory about language, we kept replicating all the old, conventional forms. But then, as they often do, the book had other ideas. It quickly became clear to me that After the Eclipse had to be capital-T True, factual in a journalistic sense, to the degree that I could manage. My fancy artistic ideas took a back seat to the responsibility to make a plain-language account of who my mother had really been; this felt like the last chance she might have at representation, and I wanted to “get it right.” It was also important to make everything factual so there would be no doubt about the various forms of violence in the story, particularly sexual violence, and of course our tendency to disbelieve survivors was a factor there. So although I didn’t want this to be primarily a story about a case and a trial, I made use of judicial paradigms in the telling. I made sure I had “evidence” for everything I said.

This sounds a bit like I felt trapped; I didn’t. I found, over and over, that “the truth” (as inadequate a term as it may be) was a productive, sometimes magical, creative constraint. If I wrote a scene provisionally and then had to tear it up and rewrite upon further research, the new version was always, always better. I came to feel more affinity with poets, whom I think of as working with the things-of-the-world, than with fiction writers, who create their own. (These are reductive statements, I know.)

My current project, though, will necessarily rely more on memory, imagination, and maybe even invention. The notebooks I lost last year contained, primarily, real-time notes about relationships that I’m exploring in The Book of Regrets, and there’s no way I can replicate all that factual detail. Since my main goal is to investigate romantic love, and so much of romantic love is projection and imagination, within our own minds and in partnership, I think there’s more room in this project for imagination (you can see the influence of Benson’s The Sparkling-Eyed Boy here, a book that’s long been precious to me). Maybe I can be one of the cool kids, after all.

It seems to me that both of your forthcoming essays can also be read as reflections on nonfiction writing itself, on the relationships in memoir and personal essay between writer, subject & reader. As in: are we writing nonfiction to make ourselves known to strangers? To make strangers known to readers? To become less strange to ourselves? In an interview in a Maine newspaper after the publication of your book, After the Eclipse, you say, “I wanted to be the person who knew the most about my life.” I can’t imagine a more pointed description of the impetus to write personal nonfiction. Which is all to say: what do you feel are the things that nonfiction, singularly and especially among all the genres, can do?
Here I must borrow a D.W. Winnicott quotation that came to me by way of Melissa Febos, “It is a joy to be hidden, and a disaster not to be found.” To me, this reconciles the apparent contradiction between the solitude of writing and the exposure of publication. In writing, we make ourselves, and in being read, we make ourselves known. As a memoirist, the most common question I get is, “How does it feel, to have all those strangers know all those private things about your life?” To me, it feels perfectly natural; I am so grateful for the company and witness of my readers. I believe in the power of revelation and deep sharing (we can thank Audre Lorde, among others, for helping us recognize this power), and am apparently missing the gene that would give me the discomfort anticipated by that question. At the same time, I can–when I need to–take comfort in knowing that the narrator, the I-subject, isn’t exactly me, or at least, it’s only one me. Memoir and personal essay provide an illusion of complete knowing, but that knowing is no less meaningful or transformative for its incompleteness.

The second most common question I get–“How does your family feel about your book?”–is more complicated. In nonfiction, we’re presenting what might become a definitive account of a person–whether intimate or stranger–and that’s more power than anyone should have. There’s a lot we can do to make sure that we’re wielding that power as responsibly as we can. A lot of the techniques I teach my students could be called love. Love is about close attention and avoiding easy conclusions, and about using our imaginations in an empathetic manner, even when writing strangers, even–maybe especially–when we’re writing people who’ve harmed us. Writing (and editing) with love allows us to tell stories with nuance, to honor complications and to ensure that those we write are whole, three-dimensional people. I think nonfiction can bring people into loving communion across time; you never know when you’re being read, or when you’re being written.

We’re often encouraged to write the thing we want to read, but it seems to me that this advice can get complicated when writing memoir–and particularly a memoir around personal trauma. In a way, you wrote about this feeling for The Guardian in the context of the O.J. Simpson trial, of feeling continually injured by too much exposure to stories similar to your own. So, do you feel like the things you love to read & the things you’re compelled to write are the same? Where do you look for guidance and direction–on style, on structure–when writing? And where do you go for pleasure in reading?
In the “write the thing we want to read” advice–which I take seriously, and pass on regularly–I tend to interpret “the thing” as a formal designation. As in “I want to read a book that flouts linear narrative” or “I want to read a historical novel written only in present tense.” Of course, there are subjects that are under-explored–in the The Book of Regrets, I’m aiming at unapologetic representations of women’s and queer pleasure and longing, which we definitely need more of. But I think the opening for a writer, in the vast field of stories, often exists at the intersection between the story and its form. As you mention, I do take issue with the proliferation of true crime stories–we only worsen our thirst for that which poisons us. But my objection mostly has to do with the form of most of these stories, in which victims are dehumanized, police valorized, and systemic issues that lead to the depicted violence–poverty, racism, misogyny, xenophobia, transphobia, and on and on–are ignored in favor of neatly resolved stories that provide a false sense of catharsis. So even though I wrestled with the ethics of putting another true crime story out there–as the designation cannot be avoided–I felt that I could do new, important work in the telling if I could find the right form.

Topic-wise, I did have to read, listen to, and watch some crime narratives while writing After the Eclipse, to better situate myself in the aesthetic conversation. I did not love doing this work, but I shored up my self-care resources as best I could, for the good of the project. For Regrets, the related reading is a lot more fun–Three Women by Lisa Taddeo, Love and Trouble by Claire Dederer, In Memory of Memory by Maria Stepanova. I am steeped in sex and love and memory all the time, and happy to be writing, topic-wise, what I truly enjoy reading.

In the world of personal nonfiction, there’s often a sense that one’s first book is the ONE. BIG. LIFE. STORY.–the primary obsession, the main compulsion. Having already done that hard archeological work with your first book, how do you approach the material of your own life again? What is it like (to continue the metaphor) to dig back into that same site and extract new, different artifacts?
For my second book, my first impulse had been to move away from myself, into reported narrative nonfiction. Even after I knew my own story had clearly been of value to people, I felt this desire to move away from the “I” and become a Serious Writer. But none of those ideas were things that I was really interested in doing, and I found that readers of my first book still had some questions, mostly having to do with how I navigated romantic love and queerness, how I bridged those huge gaps between myself and others, after the alienating effects of violence. They were really sensing something there, in that much of the cut material had to do with those subjects. So this second book is an opportunity to dig into some things that I didn’t have space for in the first, and to validate my own interests in how we create intimacy with other people, and particularly how we can do so when caught up in the unequal power dynamics of patriarchy, which can infect any relationshipqueer, straight, short-term, long-term. So the second book explores further implications of themes in the first, and can be seen as a sequel where readers can learn more about how the narrator of After the Eclipse fared in the rest of her life.

When I feel self-conscious about further exploring my own life, I think about that narrator as a separate entity, as a created self that I care about and that many readers came to care about. I want to tell her story, because I know it can have value for others. Since this material isn’t so very close-to-the-bone painful, it’s a bit easier to employ a useful emotional distance in the writing; on the other hand, I have to find ways to conjure all those old loves, to feel them again so the reader can feel along with me.

In the description of your Catapult course, you tell students you’ll share techniques for accessing memories, which you call “forms of spell-casting.” Can you share a spell with us?
Happy to. First, think of an important year (maybe even month) in your story. For neurological reasons, this works best for preteen-to-young adult years, but it’ll work for others, too. Then, google the Billboard Top Ten for that year (or the equivalent for your location at the time). Make a playlist of the songs and set time aside to just listen, perhaps with a notebook at your side (this works best with music you haven’t listened to since the time in question, so it’s often the case that the “worse” the music is, the better). Do this at night; turn the lights down and lie on your bed and stare at the ceiling. In the morning, return to your work from that year, and see if you can better access not only information about that time, but your perspective, separate from what you’ve learned since.

Other similar spells include going to your hometown library and perusing old newspapers (even in microfiche!), or physically taking yourself to an important story location and just breathing in its smells, hearing its sounds. Memory is contextual; autobiographical incidents are stored alongside the sensory experiences we were having at the time, and so we can purposefully re-experience those triggers to remember more. You want to be able to write soon after the spell, because each instance of recall (and each sensory trigger) will become, in turn, associated with your present context. You’re aiming at that clear feeling of memory, a strategic deployment of nostalgia.