LAist Interview: Suzanne Rivecca, author of Death is Not an Option
Suzanne Rivecca © James Gavin
Suzanne Rivecca is in town this week to read from her debut short story collection, Death is Not an Option. Each story in the collection brings us into a character's life at a moment of change. Will they overcome their past, will they break free from other's perceptions of them, will they stand on their own? If so, what does that look like and what does that mean? These are the questions Rivecca explores with startling honesty, humor and straight-up storytelling. Her awkward, self-conscious characters earnestly trying to find their way forward make for a must-read collection. Rivecca will be reading at The Los Angeles Municipal Art Gallery Barnsdall Art Park Sunday night at 7pm as part of The New Short Fiction Series.
Your short story collection explores a very specific emotional territory. Each character has an interesting journey from the lies they've been telling themselves to an arrival at emotional honesty. An arrival at seeing themselves and others for who they really are and what that means for their future. This is something that folks often take years of therapy to fully recognize and own. Yet, in these stories, we are seeing characters at that exact moment of realization, at the precise point in their lives where this shift occurs. What about this shift, this moment of realization, interests you?
I'm intrigued by how, more often than not, those "a-ha" moments are fleeting, just momentary flashes of grace, and people don't really recognize or feel their impact until years later. In most of my stories, that shift is too much for the characters to process and they aren't able to translate it into action. But that moment of standing at the precipice of some huge and potentially disturbing mystery is one of the most ennobling moments I can think of. It's like standing in front of a burning bush. In that light, we are all fleetingly burnished with meaning.
In these serious moments of raw self-honesty, you find a way to infuse dark humor, acerbic wit. Many passages had me laughing out loud right before plunging back into deep emotional territory. It struck me as very honest, very true to the human condition. That even while working through serious life-altering situations, we can find a way to laugh, to roll our eyes at the madness of it all, even if only as a coping mechanism. Is this something you intended for these stories? Or is this your own sense of humor coming through?
I think the humor in the stories functions as a kind of badge of humanity. Trauma doesn't erase your personality and replace it with a blackout curtain. I've read a lot of fiction that portrays victims of abuse or violence as utterly unaware of the mythology and tropes and catchphrases and bywords of victimhood. They never have to contend with the very real issue of how to meet or subvert other people's expectations of what a "victim" is supposed to act like. The characters in my stories may be frightened and maladjusted, but they're keenly aware of how they're perceived, they have a fine-tuned ear for the ridiculous, and they make fun of the labels that are put on them. The humor, I think, is an assertion of individuality and selfhood in the face of a society that prescribes an "appropriate" way for you to be affected by trauma. If I see one more movie in which a sexually abused child grows up to be an extremely attractive junkie prostitute with a heart of gold, for example, I'll lose it.
Mary Gaitskill's work - the emotional frankness that lies within it - has had an impact on your own work. In your Letter to Anne Lamott (an indictment of Imperfect Birds in letter form), it's clear that her earlier work also informed yours. The very things your work explores - the complicated stories we tell ourselves and others as we grope towards an understanding of who we are vs. who we've been pretending we are - are the hallmarks of these two writers. What other writers and works inspire you?
I wrote the story “Death is Not an Option” after reading Jim Shepard’s novel, “Project X,” which is told in the voice of an eighth grade boy. He got the vernacular, the colloquialisms, the tone exactly right, and the book was hilarious, but ultimately devastating. What made it devastating, in part, was the urgency and narrowness of the boy’s vision, his inability to embrace the perspective of “This is just junior high; things will get better!” I deeply admired Shepard’s ability to evoke that mentality teenagers can have, that sense of being trapped in an eternal life-or-death present, a terribly foreshortened reality. I tried to achieve something similar with the teenage narrator of my title story. I’ve also been very inspired by the stories of Alice Munro, although I know everyone always cites Alice Munro. But I love how the tension in her stories hinges entirely on the intricate, exquisite parsing of a character’s psychology. And her story “Friend of My Youth” has my favorite ending line of all time.
Conversely, do you find you need to step away from such intense emotional scrutiny in your reading once in awhile? If so, what writers serve that purpose for you?
For one thing, I am a devoted and loyal reader of all sorts of disposable trash. I love celebrity gossip magazines with unapologetic fervor. In terms of actual books that aren’t sold at a supermarket checkout, I have a reliable stable of “comfort books” in heavy rotation. A lot of these are academic satires: Kingsley Amis’ “Lucky Jim,” James Hynes’ “The Lecturer’s Tale,” Evelyn Waugh’s “Decline and Fall,” Francine Prose’s “Blue Angel.” I have a theory on why academic satires are such a soothing escape for me. The academic world is so rarefied and self-referential and self-contained, so rigidly stratified and obsessed with these tiny, incremental, periodic measuring sticks of worth—evaluations, tenure reviews, dissertation presentations, snubs and slights and promotions based on departmental politics, etc. After working for years in social services —where, if funding gets cut, people die—there’s something reassuring about immersing myself in a fictional world where the stakes are so low (no one’ s going to get killed if a thesis talk goes badly) and yet so crazily, dizzyingly, amusingly high for the privileged few involved. Perhaps it’s another variation on the celebrity weekly, another example of vigilant, hawk-eyed tabs being kept on things that ultimately, in a larger sense, don’t matter. There’s something deliciously indulgent and escapist about that, a sidestepping of real life, a peek into a world whose rituals and norms feel comfortingly antiquated and water-tight and resistant to change. It’s like the Royal Family. You want their ridiculous, costly ritualistic pageantry, all the hunting trips and the polo matches and the parades and the little corgi dogs, to keep on going despite their complete lack of relevance to the current times. The world can’t be completely chaotic if these little pockets of specialized absurdity can be lovingly preserved from extinction.
In your Letter to Anne Lamott, you take her to task for being irresponsible in her easy summations about homeless youth and how best to “cure” their drug addictions and mental illness. It was an inspired letter that was informed by your own work with homeless youth in San Francisco. What responsibility do writers have to tell the truth, even in fiction, and what responsibility do they have to stay away from easy solutions when they are exploring social issues like homelessness?
In reference to Lamott, she raised a teenage son in Marin, so I think her take on “problem kids” in Imperfect Birds was inevitably colored by her own subjective experience. I don’t think a fictional book is creatively successful if it devolves into self-justification, or if there’s a palpable attempt to manipulate the reader into sympathizing with a certain course of action or a certain character’s decision. The author has to be aware of his or her own biases, and to try not to let them hijack the book and sacrifice its complexity. If Imperfect Birds demonized the teen character’s parents and portrayed the boot-camp workers as vicious thugs, the book would be just as guilty of simplification as it is in its present state. In recent months, I’ve been trying to write stories that feature homeless kids and their experiences. And it’s very hard to resist the urge to give your story a villain. It’s very tempting, based on what I’ve witnessed firsthand—the shocking callousness and blindness of police and residents in the Haight, the self-serving agenda of the mayor and his staff, the mind-boggling, self-satisfied incompetence of certain journalists—to turn some characters into evil caricatures. But that would turn my fiction into propaganda. When you’re writing about social issues, or about situations in which people do bad things to each other, I think it’s important to keep an eye on the bigger picture. It’s not individual people who are evil and deserve to be pilloried in print. The real evil comes from a collective lack of empathetic imagination. The real problem is that the neighbors can’t put themselves in the homeless kids’ place, or vice versa. And what is good fiction if not an act of empathetic imagination? Ultimately, the magic of fiction makes the reader put herself in someone else’s shoes—effortlessly, unthinkingly, with compassion that’s borne of emotional identification, not of analysis or bias.
A twitter friend noted they were in the University of Minnesota MFA program with you and that they all competed for second place because your talent was so evident. How did your MFA program shape your writing? In the grand old debate of to MFA or not, what advice do you have for writers considering this step and the costs associated with it?
A preliminary note: Kevin Fenton, who said that, is an extremely talented writer whose novel, Merit Badges, was chosen by Jim Shepard (one of my writing idols) for the AWP Award Series. What I liked about being in a writing group with Kevin and other colleagues—our meetings took place in one another’s apartments, outside of the auspices of the MFA program—was the group’s casualness, and the lack of jockeying for position or favor. We were a small group of people exchanging work with a relative lack of ego and anxiety, and that was very motivating. As for the MFA program itself, the best thing it gave me was three straight years of fully funded time to devote to writing. MFA programs can be hotbeds of careerist insanity—a lot of hungry writers competing for measly nuggets of validation—but I think it’s important to extract the good stuff from your program and ignore the bad. I’d advise people to get an MFA only if it’s fully funded. I can’t see the point of going into debt for it; and from what I’ve heard, programs in which the funding isn’t equally dispersed can create a very toxic environment in and out of the classroom. But I’ve never bought into the argument that MFA programs are a bad thing, or that they’ve created a generation of homogenized writers. At their best, what they do is give people enough money to scrape by for a year or two while they take advantage of an unprecedented luxury: the opportunity to be full-time artists.
What’s your favorite thing happening in fiction right now?
With the big publishing houses consolidating or struggling, it seems like a lot of independent presses are having their moment right now. Their increasing visibility is creating greater recognition for works that might not be on people’s radar otherwise. It was heartening that this year’s Pulitzer in fiction went to Paul Harding’s “Tinkers,” which was published by a tiny press with a limited advertising budget.
A recently read book you secretly wish you’d written?
I recently read Ellen Gilchrist’s “In the Land of Dreamy Dreams,” a collection of stories set in 1970s New Orleans. They were spare and brutal stories, stylistically very different from my own. I’ve always envied writers who are on the minimalist side; that style of prose is as mysterious and powerful to me as poetry.
Favorite thing to do when visiting Los Angeles?
My significant other, who was raised in Orange County, introduced me to the Museum of Jurassic Technology in Culver City. It’s a playful, meta wonderland, wittily conceptual, but not in an obnoxious way. The first time I went, there was a giant samovar of tea in the upstairs gallery, tended by a gray Afghan hound and a lady who looked like a dissipated Russian countess. The whole place is suffused with a very smart and surreal magic. The sheer inventiveness and ingenuity of it was inspiring; I left the museum wanting to write.
Quintessential LA reading - writers or books that capture LA for you?
Again, I had to rely on my boyfriend for this one, since LA was never on my radar until he came along. He introduced me to the Ross MacDonald mysteries, featuring a chronically crusty and sleep-deprived private eye, Lew Archer. These detective novels take place in the 1950s, and liberally make use of the words “dame” and “swell.” Lew Archer is so overworked and under-thanked, so constantly exhausted and underfed, that his brief moments of respite, in which he collapses into bed or fries himself up a plate of steak and eggs, are viscerally satisfying to read.
Quintessential LA playlist - what songs remind you of Los Angeles?
My exposure to LA is minimal, and mostly secondhand, so I feel a little fraudulent answering this. But Beck’s early albums—before he returned to Scientology—seem to me somehow representative of certain aspects of LA. There’s a sunbaked, squinty lassitude to his music that could only be arrived at by someone who was raised without winter, who had to mine the very sunlight to find his quota of bleakness and darkness and depth.
Suzanne Rivecca’s fiction has appeared in Best New American Voices 2009, among other publications. A winner of the Pushcart Prize and a former Wallace Stegner Fellow at Stanford University, she lives in San Francisco. She recently contributed a soundtrack for Death is Not an Option to Largehearted boy.