Monday, September 15, 2014

Writer on Writer: Colleen McKee Interviews Sarah Shotland

For the latest Writer on Writer interview, I paired Colleen McKee and her book Nine Kinds of Wrong (JK Publishing, 2013) with Sarah Shotland and her new novel Junkette (White Gorilla Press, 2014). Today Colleen interviews Sarah about Junkette. Set in hurricane-season New Orleans just before Hurricane Katrina, Sarah's poetic novel Junkette follows the day-to-day of post-college bartender Claire and her addict friends, whose lives seem already underwater. Come back next week when Sarah interviews Colleen about Nine Kinds of Wrong. Colleen's unique book bears witness, haunts dive bars, and remembers long-lost lovers or cities through a combination of fiction, poetry, and memoir.


Colleen McKee: Writing a novel seems like a big and scary thing to do, especially a first novel. What compelled you to write this novel? How did this process start for you?

Sarah Shotland: I started writing Junkette in 2006, about a year after Hurricane Katrina. I was living in China and I didn’t know Mandarin well at all and I didn’t have many people to speak English with. One of the beautiful things about living in a place where I didn’t speak the language was that all the peripheral noise of advertisements, passing conversations, radio, television, billboards was silenced. I had the chance to really quiet the outside world and listen to what was happening in my own mind. And because I spent a lot of time alone, and in silence, I had a great need to communicate. So I wrote. And because I had a lot of time, I was able to write about 400 pages in the span of about nine months.

Colleen: People associate drugs with excitement and glamour. Claire is a sexy girl with a sexy job in a sexy town. Yet Junkette depicts some aspects of her life as being unglamorous: some passages are gross, and she complains at one point that the routines of being a junky are boring, that she’s hooked on rituals that are sometimes comforting but sometimes just dreary. How do you think about the poles of glamour/anti-glamour in this book?

Sarah: I think most of Claire’s life is unglamorous. From the very first page of the book, she’s trying to get out of town. She gets lice, she’s broke, at one point she vomits because she smells so bad. Addiction is an incredibly boring experience. It’s endless repetition. The chaos that surrounds addiction can sometimes be seen as excitement or adventure, but the realities of supporting an addiction are tedious, exhausting and demoralizing. I hope I didn’t glamorize any of that. But, I do think there are times when I romanticize or glamorize New Orleans. I was really missing New Orleans when I was writing the book, and I think that means there are times when I glossed over some of the city’s less glamorous realities.

Colleen: I had problems with drinking and coke in my youth, and like Claire, my circle of friends were bound together by drugs; most of these friends were men. It would be an understatement to say their intentions toward me were not always honorable. The same could be said of some male characters in Junkette, yet Claire doesn’t seem much to relate to the other women in her world. Would you like to say anything about the dynamics of power and gender in this novel?

Sarah: Claire’s surrounded by men. Part of my choice there was a reaction to Junky, by William S. Burroughs (and to a lot of drug literature). In the traditional drug narrative, a man is at the center of the story. Women are martyred wives and mothers whose lives are destroyed by the men who define them, or they’re temptresses and whores who lead men into self-destruction. I wanted to play with that dynamic and flip it a bit. I wanted Claire to be the center of the book’s universe without making the men into the same kind of flat characters women are sometimes turned into. I think Claire’s relationships with men are complicated. She can see that she’s giving away a lot of power, and yet she keeps engaging in these relationships. But she also makes really self-serving decisions. So men’s intentions towards Claire aren’t all honorable, but neither are hers.

Colleen: I like the title. It reminds me of Smurfette, in a sick funny way—just as Smurfette’s the only female in a world of men, Claire is somewhat isolated from other women as the main players in her life are male junkies. Of course the title also reminds me of Burroughs’ Junky. Would you like to say anything about the title?

Sarah: I love Smurfette, and I love thinking of Claire as a tiny blue creature! And yes, I was definitely playing on Burroughs with my title.

Colleen: Do you think addiction fiction or addiction novels are their own kind of genre or tradition? This could be a lens through which people read Junkette. How do you feel about that?

Sarah: Definitely, and I hope people who love reading addiction novels will find Junkette.

Colleen: New Orleans is in itself a powerful character in this novel. Why did you choose to set Junkette there?

Sarah: When I started writing the book, I’d just moved away from New Orleans. I don’t feel like it could be set anywhere else. I was also really frustrated with New Orleans constantly being defined by Katrina, so I wanted to write a book that was set pre-Katrina. I tried to include as many places that no longer exist post-Katrina, and really paint a picture of a particular time in the city.

Colleen: Many novels about young women are coming of age stories, and they follow the traditional narrative arc of the Bildungsroman (literally, “a novel of building character”). The Bildungsroman shows how the female character’s childhood affects her young adulthood, and after going through some crisis or challenge--which is resolved by the end of the book-- the character has passed through the frightening transition from girl to woman and she’s clearly reached the other side. But this novel is very focused on Claire’s present life and her immediate future. How did you make the decision to not include much about Claire’s upbringing, or even her recent past?

Sarah: Addiction is really complicated, and I think too often it’s presented as being caused by something. A traumatic childhood, a destructive relationship, poverty. I wasn’t that interested in exploring why Claire is an addict. I was just interested in how she experienced it. Because the book is written in first-person, I didn’t think Claire would reflect that much on her own past; she’s caught in a very present-moment experience that means she can only really respond to the immediate problem she’s facing. I felt having her reflect a lot would be inauthentic and move into some dangerous territory of trying to explain away her choices.

Colleen: Junkette’s structure also resists tradition. You use often very short sections, definitively broken with typographical symbols. To me, this results in an intriguing sense of time being fragmented, highlighting this moment, then this moment. Do you see it this way? How did you decide on this form?

Sarah: As I was writing Junkette, I read Mary Robison’s books One D.O.A., One on the Way; Subtraction; and Why Did I Ever. Robison uses really short sections—she says she writes her novels on individual index cards. I really fell in love with her work. As soon as I read her, I knew Junkette had to be written in tiny sections.

Colleen: Claire makes a lot of lists. Some are poetic, some funny, and they are interspersed throughout the book in an intriguing way. Would you like to say anything about the list form and how you use it in Junkette?

Sarah: I think Claire’s really seeking order. Her addiction is a way of ordering her life. Her lists are a way of ordering her life. I secretly want to be a poet, but sadly, I am very bad at writing poetry. Lists are about as close as I come.

Colleen: What moved you to co-found Words without Walls (which, to use your words, “brings creative writing classes to jails and rehab centers in Pittsburgh, PA”)? Would you like to say anything about these students?

Sarah: I’m motivated by a lot of factors in my work with Words Without Walls. We have a huge problem with locking people up in this country. I’m not a lawyer or a politician or a social worker. I would be very bad at all those things. I’m a writer, so I try to do things with writing that address problems in our society. My students in jail and prison are just like all my other writing students: some are incredible writers, some aren’t that great, some don’t care at all about publication, some want an audience. But I think the act of writing is useful for everyone. Writing allows for reflection, reimagining, empathy, self-expression, spiritual engagement, fantasy, escape from and engagement with your self and your circumstances. The feedback I get from my students in Words Without Walls ranges from Writing changed my life and I’ll never be the same, to It was a relief to have a class every week that got me off the housing unit. I consider both and everything in between to be a success. What is somewhat different from my other students is an inability to deal with writerly bullshit. They aren’t at all interested in the professionalization of creative writing and the nonsense that comes with it. That means I have to bring in only the very best writing I can find, the most necessary pieces, and that brings me a lot of joy.

Colleen: You also work with students in the MFA program at Chatham University. This seems like it could be a very different experience than working with students in jails and rehab centers. How would you compare working with these two sets of students? In what ways are they similar, and in what ways are they different?

Sarah: I really enjoy teaching in both environments. I also work with kids, which is another variation on teaching. I’d say working in a university, I really get to geek out on the minutia of writing. People can get a lot of pleasure and meaning out of an hour long discussion on point of view in an MFA class. With kids, I get to do a lot of creative, imaginative exercises and I get to see huge improvement in a really short amount of time. In all my classes, my favorite part of teaching is bringing in a story I love and seeing students discover it for the first time. I will never forget the teacher who introduced me to Margaret Atwood and Joan Didion. When I get to teach those writers, I feel really honored to be part of that ripple effect. With my students at jails and prisons, I get to remember why I started writing in the first place—to make sense of my self. I think the mixture of the environments is why I can stay enthusiastic about teaching. I get to meet lots of different people, and I feel really lucky that my jobs all entail reading and writing and talking about reading and writing. It’s a pretty wonderful thing to do for work.

Colleen: You’ve worked in theatre. Sometimes novelist/playwrights’ novels feel a lot like theatre—heavy on dialogue, light on introversion. Junkette doesn’t feel theatrical, though. Do you feel like writing plays has influenced your fiction writing and vice versa, or do they feel like two very different worlds?

Sarah: I think writing for the theater has helped me with plot. In the theater, everything is scene. If nothing happens, there’s no play. So that’s really helpful to me as I write fiction, because in prose, I naturally tend to write a lot of introspective reflection, which can end up moving very slowly. I love writing for the theater because playwrights really have to give their work away to other artists, and then we get to watch it become itself. In fiction, the writer ultimately has a lot more control of the final product. But I will say that I tend to write a lot of monologue in my plays, so first-person fiction isn’t too far a stretch from that.

Colleen: Who and/or what are your biggest literary influences?

Sarah: Here’s my literary dinner party: Joan Didion, Anne Sexton, Margaret Atwood, Toni Morrison, Maria Irene Fornes, Sarah Kane, Mary Robison, Kate Chopin, Jean Rhys, Lydia Davis, Claudia Rankine, bell hooks. I also love Kenneth Patchen, Etheridge Knight and Walt Whitman (I don’t want to leave out the dudes.) At our dinner party, we’d drink cheap beer and fancy whiskey and I’d make tacos.


Don't miss the next installment, due approximately Monday, September 22: Sarah Shotland interviews Colleen McKee about Nine Kinds of Wrong.

Find Junkette at White Gorilla Press here: 

Find Nine Kinds of Wrong here:

Click the Writer on Writer tag to read past interviews in this series.

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