In The Field: Conversations With Our Contributors–Susan Power
- Tell us about your short story in Volume 20. How did it come to be?
A few years ago I was working on a play about rape culture—the heinous scourge of sexual violence throughout the world—writing in a variety of voices, exploring fictional characters from vastly different cultures and circumstances. This piece popped up unexpectedly one morning. Unlike the others it was wholly autobiographical—something that happened to me in my childhood. I’d had worse things happen to me back then, but this episode is one I could never shake. I felt so betrayed that my mother, who I knew cared about me very much, would completely ignore what I was contending with in the back seat of our car, trying to fend off the sexual advances of a drunk stranger.I’ve often wondered what kept her from hearing my distress? I can only imagine it was that we were part of an activist group, protesting the treatment of Native Americans lured to cities during the Relocation period––promised a better life only to find themselves in ghetto wastelands. To my mother’s way of thinking, if you were on our side, then you had to be one of “the good guys.”
- What was an early experience that led to you becoming a writer?
My parents met in the publishing world and were both book people for whom reading was a sacred pleasure. I was the same way. Had my first library card by the age of two when librarians saw that I handled books with reverent care. I began writing before I learned to read, filling empty pages with a jumble of letters, pretending I was writing stories. I don’t recall what life was like before I was able to write. For me, writing is as essential as breathing. Perhaps because it was so much a part of my everyday experience I didn’t consider becoming a professional writer until I’d tried my hand at other things. By my final year in law school, when I knew I wasn’t cut out for a legal career (being such an Arts person), I decided to get serious about my writing and develop my talent.
- How has writing shaped your life?
Writing saved me. When I was eleven years old I began to feel stalked by death—my beloved father died in mysterious circumstances, my grandmother died, several friends were murdered. For the next few years I wrote my way out of shock and depression. My imagination helped me escape, helped me create a safer world I could inhabit at least in my mind. Having never had children, my books and stories and essays are essentially my children. I am always happiest when I’ve tapped into a fertile writing thread. The excitement becomes physical. After a productive writing session I’m flushed and sweaty as if I’ve just had a workout at the gym. Wrung out with joy.
What books, writers, art, or artists inspire you and your work?
My mother couldn’t stand being cooped up at home during my pre-school years, so she took me all over the city of Chicago. We walked and bused from one end of the city to the other, visiting libraries and museums. I was quite taken with the Art Institute, came to know its exhibits very well and felt as if the great masters collected there were friends of mine.I was also a great fan of ballet and idolized Maria Tallchief––the remarkable Osage ballerina. My father and I shared a love for musicals and would sing together sometimes in the evenings—corny show tunes we sang as if our hearts were breaking. My father read to me each night and pretty soon I fell in love with poetry, especially epic tragedies. I’d memorize them and recite them to myself with grand dramatic feeling. Music is an important part of my writing process––I’ll find music (preferably instrumental, without voice or lyrics) to associate with a particular piece I’m working on. I’ll listen to it intently, swept away emotionally, jotting down notes on what material comes forward, downloaded from that place of creativity.
Some favorite books? Shell Shaker by LeAnne Howe, every story collection by Alice Munro, The Round House by Louise Erdrich, Whereas by Layli Long Soldier, Cell Traffic by Heid E. Erdrich, Commonwealth by Ann Patchett, The Changeling by Victor LaValle, Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison.
- What projects or pieces are you working on right now?
Close to finishing a new novel, a spooky one, that was inspired by a frightening experience I had back in 2014, living for a month in what had been the girls’ dormitory of a former Indian Boarding School in Sitka, Alaska. I was there working on the aforementioned rape culture project, sharing the space with a fellow artist collaborating with me on the play. We were increasingly disturbed by the things we heard, felt, saw in that building which we supposedly had all to ourselves for the month. Eventually we were so troubled we reached out for help from local friends who told us it was a very haunted place. My new novel takes place in Massachusetts rather than Alaska, but the ghosts followed me into my book.