It’s been a busy last few years for Suzanne Roberts, contributor of “The Illuminations” to our Winter 2015 issue. 2012 alone saw the release of two new Roberts books: the poetry collection Plotting Temporality and the award-winning travel memoir Almost Somewhere. She currently teaches at a community college and two low residency MFA programs, reads over a dozen books at a given time, and contributes to prestigious publications such as Creative Nonfiction, Brevity, the Best Women’s Travel Writing collection, and National Geographic Traveler, which has acclaimed her ”The Next Great Travel Writer.”
In this interview, Roberts discusses her latest projects, differences between poetry and CNF, the importance of reading for writers, and go-to karaoke selections.
First things first: What projects are you working on right now?
I am working on three different projects. One is a mother-daughter memoir called “Mother as Wingman,” that keeps shape shifting, so I’m having a hard time getting a handle on it—it started out as a travel memoir about infidelity and sex, and now it’s about my mother, so when I say “shape-shifting,” I’m not kidding. Writing memoir is always full of surprises. That’s the main project. The others are books of essays. One is a collection of funny travel pieces called “Bad Tourist” and the other is a book of essays about grief. I have also started working on short stories, which has come as a great relief—I have grown tired of talking about myself, and they are teaching me that sometimes you really do have to lie to tell the truth.
You’ve talked in interviews before about how your voracious reading has informed your work. Who was the first CNF writer you fell in love with? What are you reading now?
When I was an undergraduate, I went through a Beat phase; I really loved William S. Burroughs and Jack Kerouac. I had no idea then that what they were doing was creative nonfiction because nobody called it that back then. Shortly after that, I went through a French existentialist stage, and I worshipped Camus, Sartre, and especially Simone de Beauvoir. I even took French with the idea that I would one day be able to read them in the French, though my French never got good enough for that to happen. I didn’t really start writing my own nonfiction until I read Virginia Woolf, Mary Austen, and Annie Dillard. I think reading women made me realize that I could write my own mind and my life, too. That I didn’t have to be a junky or a road-tripping rogue or a French philosopher to write about my life and my ideas. It was probably Woolf who initially blew the doors of my own writing open for me.
I am one of these readers who has many books going at once. I have a stack of 13 books by my bed (that’s an exact number, by the way). Here’s what they are: The Hundred-Year House by Rebecca Makkai, The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying by Sogyal Rinpoche, The Republics by Nathalie Handal, The Wet and the Dry by Lawrence Osborne, Hotel Juarez by Daniel Chacon, Volt by Alan Heathcock, Bad Feminist by Roxane Gay, Poetry of Witness by Carolyn Forche and Duncan Wu, If You Knew Then What I Know Now by Ryan Van Meter, How to Live, Or A Life of Montaigne by Sarah Bakewell, The Faraway Nearby by Rebecca Solnit, Tenth of December by George Saunders, and The Art of Memoir by Mary Karr. But I am also currently re-reading Popul Vuh and Cervantes for my Masterpieces of World Literature course.
I am reading these books because something about them interests me. I am not one of those readers who picks up a book and has to finish it. For that reason, I adore the Kindle samples. But if the book made it to my bedside, that means something in it grabbed me, and that’s usually the voice.
I think writers should be reading deeply, but also widely, meaning cross-genre and across the ages. If you want to write CNF, you have to read the forerunners, such as Montaigne, St. Augustine, Shonagon, Basho, Kenko, and Wollstonecraft. These writers show us that no matter what we do or say, someone else has already done or said it. It also allows us to enter the dialogue, and you can’t enter the conversation if you don’t know what has already been said.
In addition to being a writer, you’re a college professor. What are some of the classes you teach? What are some of the books you most frequently assign?
I teach at a community college and for two low-residency MFA programs, as well as community workshops and retreats with the Wordy Girls, so I teach a huge spectrum of classes. When I teach CNF or memoir, my go-to books are usually Nabokov’s Speak Memory, Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, Hong Kingston’s Woman Warrior, Rodriguez’ Always Running, Meloy’s Anthropology of Turquoise, and Slater’s Lying. There are many, many more, of course. I usually try to focus each class around a theme, and with my graduate students, this is easy because the theme is always focused on what they are trying to do in their own writing. So sometimes the theme is the connection to wildness, sometimes it is memory and myth, sometimes it is identity.
Before studying literature and creative writing in grad school, you were an undergraduate Bio major. What made you choose that major? Do you miss it?
I thought that since I already read books and wrote stories, I should study something that I didn’t know much about. I also love being outside, so I picked a major that I thought might give me an opportunity to work outdoors. Studying biology was also an act of teenage rebellion. My father was a writer, and I was determined to do something different. I don’t miss biology because I spent most of my time as a biology major reading nature writers, and I’m still doing that. And I live in a forest and spend a lot of time outside, so I have figured out the balance that sustains me and my reading and writing life.
Do you keep your poetry and prose writing processes relatively separate, or do you find yourself starting in one form and thinking that it might work better in the other?
I let the work decide. Often, I write a poem and realize it wants to be an essay or vice versa. If you pay attention, the work will let you know. You just might have to try it both ways to be sure. I have many essays and poems that are trying to do the exact same thing. Sometimes the essay works better; other times, only a poem will do.
I came across a quote of yours the other day: “In poetry, I often feel like I can write whatever I want, because really, who is going to read it?,” a sad but extremely funny commentary on the scant audience for contemporary poetry. Do you have more of a filter with your nonfiction work (or maybe just a bit more anxiety about revealing personal info)?
I tell my students that even though we get gray hair and wrinkles, the payoff to getting older is that you really stop giving a shit. That has happened to me, so I can write things in essays and memoir that I wouldn’t have been able to write about 10 years ago. The only real filter I have is my mother. I have given her veto power since I am also writing about her, though luckily, she has gotten older, too, so she doesn’t exercise it very often.
You’ve said that you always keep a journal with you, and journaling became the seed for your book Almost Somewhere. What is your journaling process like?
My journals are a mess. Like books, I have many going at once. I sometimes forget to date them and then when I go back to see if there is usable material, I have to read and read in order to figure out where and when I was writing. The only exception to this is that when I’m travelling, I’m meticulous about keeping a record of the date and where I was. I have no idea why this is, but maybe that’s why I am drawn to writing about my travels. I have done a better job of journaling on the road, so accessing those memoirs is much easier.
Is “I Love Rock N Roll” still your go-to karaoke song?
Unfortunately, yes, though I have been known to mix it up with “Me and Bobby McGee.”
Suzanne Roberts is the author of the award-winning memoir Almost Somewhere, as well as four collections of poetry. She teaches at Lake Tahoe Community College and for the low residency MFA programs in Creative Writing at Sierra Nevada College and Chatham.