On Writing: Martha Southgate and Elissa Schappell

Martha Southgate and Elissa Schappell talk marine biologists, mom stereotypes, sluts, and being labeled as “Women Writers.” Martha Southgate is the author of The Taste of Salt, as well as Third Girl from the Left and The Fall of Rome. Elissa Schappell is the author of Blueprints for Building Better Girls and Use Me.

Martha Southgate: Imagine my surprise when I started reading Blueprints for Building Better Girls and found that Heather, the protagonist of “Monsters of the Deep,” longs to be a marine biologist. It must be kismet that we are corresponding about writing and life because the protagonist of The
Taste of Salt is also a marine biologist.

It seems to me that water serves much the same function for my character and yours: it’s a place
to hide, and to literally (attempt to) drown their sorrows. Can you talk about how you arrive at
that as a passion for Heather?

Elissa Schappell: Needless to say, I was likewise surprised to find that Josie, your protagonist,
was also a marine biologist. Quel coincidence.

I didn’t choose Heather’s passion, it came with her. I wanted to write a story about a girl who has
been labeled a slut. (I really hate that word.) A girl who isn’t promiscuous but develops breasts
early, is a little mysterious, someone upon whom her peers project all their sexual frustrations
and anxiety on to, a repository for their desire and loathing. At the time I was obsessed with
the giant squid, or Archeteuthis. What is the slut, I thought, but a creature of myth and legend?
Beings that excite us and frighten us, and make us want to kill them. Up until recently, the
majority of the information we had about them came from the remains scientists found in the
bellies of the whales. This made me think about how much of history, women’s history has been
told through what’s left of them, the agent of their destruction. How we don’t know what the
reality is because we have trusted the thing that destroyed them. What truth was digested and lost
forever. Once I made that connection, it just made sense that she would be obsessed with the sea,
that underwater would be the place she felt safest and most at home.

MS: I’m going to sneak in some other questions here too: Heather, like the other women in your
collection, is hiding or holding down something–anger, fear, a dark secret, their own spirits. The
water image could almost function through the whole collection as a metaphor for how these
women hide out–or feel forced to hide out. Can you tell me more about how you got to this
hiding as an overriding theme? Is that what you see as the primary theme?

ES: I don’t see hiding as the primary theme per se, but it’s a major one. The women in my
stories are tired of hiding, in that they are tired of not being heard, tired of not being seen, tired
of being dismissed, sexualized and demonized, tired of making themselves small so they don’t
make the men in their lives, the family, their friends uncomfortable. That doesn’t mean though
that they’re all going to do something about it, on the contrary.

I would agree that many of my characters are hiding beyond a façade that everything is fine. Like
the main character in “Are You Comfortable,” Charlotte, the young woman who’s been raped
and is trying to pretend everything is fine so as not to cause her loved ones pain. Or, they adopt a
persona, which I think many women do, consciously or subconsciously. The party girl, Bender,
from “Out of the Blue and Into the Black,” has taken on the persona of being a wild child who
is only out for a good time. Although, she wouldn’t see it that way. B, the artist, in “Aren’t You
Dead Yet?” is eager to assume the persona of the artist.

There is definitely a lot of suppression going on, especially of anger. As you know it’s not
acceptable for women to be angry in our culture. It’s not done. If you’re angry it’s best you turn
that on yourself.

Would you agree that there’s some overlap in our work given that Josie, the main character
in your book Salt, also seems to both be trying to suppress her feelings, escape her world, while
at the same time seeking to connect with the family and identity she’s trying to run from?

MS: I definitely think that there is overlap in our work regarding the roles and place of women. For my characters, it is complicated by issues of race as well. Third Girl From The Left, my novel
before The Taste of Salt, is very explicitly about how black women used (and were forced to use)
their bodies in the film industry, focusing on the blaxploitation films of the 1970’s. And in Taste
of Salt, you are right—Josie is on the run from a lot of things that you can’t run from forever.
From choices she’s made to reject her roots, from her isolation within her profession (both as a
woman and an African-American), from her lack of desire to have children. It is very hard for
her to be honest with herself and that spills over into her dealings with others, much as some of
your characters lie and rationalize to themselves. I noticed this particularly in “Out of the Blue
and Into the Black.”

Motherhood in your stories seems always a very fraught state (not that it often isn’t). But
in your stories “The Joy of Cooking” and in “I’m Only going to Tell You This Once,” I was struck
by the degree to which the mothers both resented their children and were deeply enmeshed
with them—willing to subjugate their desires and needs to them. Women in my work as well
either don’t want to be mothers or end up there by accident, not too thrilled about it. You’ve
talked about the image of the “slut.” Can you talk a little bit about how you see mothers in this
collection?

ES: Too often mothers are depicted in only one or two ways in our society. As Mildred Pierce,
happily sacrificing herself on the altar of her child’s needs, or Medea, a monster who will not
hesitate to destroy her children. My stories depict what I believe to be reality. The majority of
mothers are far more complicated and compelling than popular culture would have us believe.
(Don’t get me started on the “soccer mom” stereotype.) My focus was on peeling back the
layers of these “Good Mom” and “Bad Mom” stereotypes to expose the reality: mothers are
complicated. Just as women are as complicated as men, mothers are as complicated as fathers,
and I’d argue more dangerous. They must be. If they weren’t why would the culture shove
mothers into these little boxes? Persist in pulling out their claws and making them wear ratty
sweatpants?

MS: Do you write with an agenda in mind or from character? Particularly given the way your
stories explore very specific themes of women’s power in ways that make the whole collection
interlock, did you start this with that structure in mind ?

ES: I usually start with the character or a situation. Starting off with an agenda never ends well.
The writing suffering from sounding strident and preachy, or flat and over determined. I usually
think about story from the point of view of, “If every character gets just one story, how does this
one define them?” If the plane were going down what story would they tell to the person sitting
next to them? This generally crystallizes the story for me. The original structure was to have each
story be in reaction to a line pulled out of a vintage etiquette book. After that misstep I decided
to put structure aside, any larger meaning, and trust that given the time I was writing the stories,
and where my head was, that my obsession with the material would provide connections.

MS: How did you find your way to expressing the very strong views you want to express about
womanhood without losing sight of the work as fiction?

ES: In terms of balancing my desire to hustle my point of view with my desire to create a real
fictive world, it helped that my cast was already made up of female archetypal characters. And
I enjoyed imagining their worlds, because unlike Use Me, which had some basis in fact (I had
a father who died of cancer), these characters weren’t me, except in the way that they’re all
me. I was endlessly curious about what they were going to do. Yes, my politics were always
swimming just below the surface but I was more interested in inhabiting the characters’ lives.

I imagine you must also struggle with trying to balance your politics (because clearly they
inform your work) with creating a fictive world. (I think in part it gets to that, “Why I write”
question. I’m reminded of Gunther Grass saying, “I write because I hate. A lot. Hard.” )

How hard is it for you? Do you start with character, or a thesis, or an emotion? Or does it differ
book to book?

MS: I don’t find it hard to balance politics and fiction—largely because I never start with the
politics in mind. They emerge. Like you, I always start from character not only this book but
all the others. Josie, in Taste of Salt, was born just as herself. I was interested in her work
and I will admit that one theme that I keep returning to (and that I’ve lived) is the theme of
the African-American in a predominantly white setting. Josie, as a black, female scientist, is
certainly a rarity—something she well knows and wrestles with regularly. But the only thing I
had when I started was her. I didn’t even develop her family or the alcoholism that becomes one
of her family’s biggest problems until the novel was well underway. People are always using this
Doctorow quote but it’s so doggone accurate: “Writing is like driving at night in the fog. You
can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.” That’s how
it is for me. Obviously the themes and the politics, such as they are, are within me and certainly
once I’m past the first or second draft stage, I begin to work with them more consciously. But
they’re not where to start. I completely agree with you about that.

ES: I really like what you do with the structure in Salt—the idea of having a main character at
the center of the narrative functioning as the over-arching consciousness, while also allowing
the reader entrée into the consciousness of each family member, her father, mother, and
troubled brother Tick. Why did you choose to use this narrative device? Especially when it feels
like it’s mostly Josie’s story? Did you always intend to do that, or did the structure come about
organically?

MS: It sounds like it was a long road to the right narrative structure for Blueprints for you
and so it was for me with Salt. I definitely did not have the structure in mind when I started.
And I’m happy to admit that I investigate the structure of novels I admire in the quest to develop
the structure of mine. At first, I had her, just her first person voice. Then I had occasion to re-
read Charles Baxter’s gorgeous book The Feast of Love. I was impressed anew by the way in
which he creates this vast array of voices that you never get lost in or confused by. For a while,
I attempted to create a similar mélange of voices. But that didn’t work. It just didn’t—you know
how that is. The process of arriving at the technique I used was truly a casting around process
and also a difficult one. Once I had fully committed to it, I was greatly inspired by two novels
that use a similar technique: Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides and The Brief, Wondrous Life of
Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz. Now that I’ve tried this structure, my hat is off to both of them—it’s
hard to do! But I’m glad I did it.

ES: People might say (though not to our faces perhaps) that our female characters aren’t
necessarily all that likable. I’m thinking in particular about how the mother’s refusal to collect
Tick from rehab, and Josie’s desire not to have a baby. What are your thoughts on that? Does it
bother you that if you were a man no one would expect you to write a likable female character?

MS: I’ve actually had people say it to my face plenty of times. It doesn’t bother me much—
readers don’t have to like them. I just want the reader to be interested in them, even if they are
annoyed. I may not have sympathy with all my characters but I always empathize with them
and can understand their choices. I do agree with you that people are often very narrow in what
they consider “proper” behavior and very hard on fictional characters who don’t toe the line,
particularly female characters.

Regarding the “if I were a man” question, I have never thought about that. It is offensive that
that happens insofar as it does, but I don’t think about what might happen to my work if I were
a different race or a different gender. I’m never going to be, so I can’t worry about people’s
thoughts on that front.

ES: Years ago I interviewed Toni Morrison and she said that she didn’t like the label “African
American writer” but would rather be known simply as an “American writer.” Despite the fact
I’m a proud feminist, I don’t like being labeled a “Woman Writer.” That said it has occurred to
me that I ought to just embrace and celebrate the title because perhaps that would remove some
of what I see as the stigma surrounding it. Do you feel as an African American and a woman you
are pigeonholed?

MS: First off, let me say that it is totally cool that you interviewed Toni Morrison. To sit and
have a conversation with her…wow. Regarding that question, I feel that African-American
writers are very often pigeonholed. For many of us…well, we are often asked the question, “Is
your work universal?” as if the experiences of African-American characters are somehow outside
the ken of people who aren’t African-American.

Like Morrison, I feel that our stories are American stories, period. So like her, I’d rather be
known that way too. I think that the labels–woman or African-American, or Hispanic or
whatever—imply that no one but members of those groups needs to read this work.

You raise an interesting point about choosing to celebrate the title rather than resist it. I have
to think about it—that might be a good way to go. But I’d rather see a world where there
aren’t any labels (not no differences or acknowledgment of those differences, just no labels)
on literature. Alternatively, white male writers could be referred to as “Man Writers” or
their work called “Caucasian-American literature.” As long as their fiction is the only fiction
considered “universal,” it’s a problem. I’m not talking about any one man or the work of any one
man. God, love ‘em, there is tons of work by white male writers that I adore. It’s just the primacy
in the culture that gets me.

ES: Here, here sister. That’s a whole other conversation….

One Comment On This Post:

January 30, 2012
5:28 pm
Connie schappell says...

This is a fabulous discussion, absolutely fascinating.
Mim

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