Sarah Van Arsdale’s deft, sympathetic portraits remind us that we are not alone in our struggle to be seen, recognized, and yes, even loved. She is a writer who is deeply engaged with questions of who we are and what we owe each other. Her clarity and precision immerse the reader in a world where characters struggle, yet ultimately find redemption. With language imbued with the curiosity of a naturalist and the grace and virtuosity of a poet, Van Arsdale’s work brings us close to that which is essential to our humanity—identity, attachment, loss, the ties that bind us together and keep us alive.
Sarah Van Arsdale’s novels include Grand Isle (SUNY Press, 2012), Blue, winner of the 2002 Peter Taylor Prize for the Novel, (University of Tennessee Press, 2003), and Toward Amnesia, (Riverhead Books, 1996). Her latest collection of novellas, In Case of Emergency, Break Glass, was published in April 2016 by Queen’s Ferry Press. Nomadic Press will release her next book, The Catamount, in 2017. Both In Case of Emergency, Break Glass and The Catamount are illustrated with Van Arsdale’s watercolors. Her poetry has been published in national literary magazines, most recently The New Guard, Blueline, and Clockhouse. She serves on the board of the Ferro-Grumley Award in LGBTQ Fiction, and teaches in the Antioch University MFA Program and at NYU.
I spoke with Sarah Van Arsdale by phone on August 25, 2016. Over the course of reading her work and talking with her, I was struck by her artistic versatility and her fierce dedication to authenticity. The following are excerpts from our interview.
Melissa Benton Barker: Not only do you write novels, essays, and short fiction, you also work with visual art, in particular, with watercolor painting. Your most recent book, In Case of Emergency, Break Glass, is illustrated with some of your watercolors. Can you talk about the play between narrative and visual forms in your work as an artist? Are there things that you feel are better expressed in one medium versus the other?
Sarah Van Arsdale: My next book is a long narrative poem illustrated with my illustrations. It will be released by Nomadic Press this spring. I didn’t think of myself as a visual artist until about ten years ago. I was raised in a family where everybody did art. We made things, we painted things, so it didn’t seem like a particular skill to me that was separate from life. You did the dishes, you drew a little picture, it’s just part of life. It wasn’t until I was well along that somebody saw one of my little drawings and asked me who had drawn it and if I’d bought it somewhere. That woke me up to the idea that maybe I had something that I could work with. For me, the visual art has always been almost like a relief from the writing. Because the writing I’ve always taken really seriously. I have a master’s in poetry and I’ve worked hard at it, and it’s something that I’m vulnerable about. I’m easily injured if somebody doesn’t like my writing, even though I’ve developed a thick skin over the years. But my visual art is something that I haven’t worked at very hard until recently, so I could be more playful with it. I use it often as a break from writing. When I want to be doing something, but writing isn’t quite what I want to be doing, I feel very fortunate that I have this other creative outlet.
The deepest, most important things get expressed by me—and probably by most people—in poetry. That’s where I go for something that is elusive to me. If I’m not quite sure what’s nagging at me that I need to get down on paper, usually poetry is where I go. With illustration, it tends to be lighter and more whimsical than any of my writing. I often think in illustrations. I was recently interviewed for something and I answered a question by saying my wise counselors had talked me out of a different title for In Case of Emergency, Break Glass, and immediately I got a visual image of my three cats, my wise counselors. That’s often how my visual thinking goes, almost like a running cartoon in the background of my life.
MBB: Your published works are very different from one another in scope. Your first novel, Toward Amnesia, is the story of one woman’s grief, and it’s incredibly internal. It seems to be as much about the central character’s relationship with herself and with the natural world as it is about the loss she experiences in being abandoned by her partner. A later novel, Grand Isle, is a portrait of a large cast of characters, a whole community coping with loss. Can you tell me about what it was like to write a piece that is so intimate and internal versus a piece that casts a wider net?
SVA: When I think of my books in sequential order, it’s apparent that I wrote Toward Amnesia when I still thought of myself as a poet. It started as a long prose poem and then gradually, over about a year, I intentionally made it more into fiction, prose. By the time I wrote Grand Isle, I wanted to see if I could write what I thought of as a real novel, not just a big poem. I thought of Toward Amnesia like a big poem without many line breaks, and by the time I got to Grand Isle I wanted a bigger cast of characters. I wanted to see the characters interact with each other and see if I could do it, if I could just throw the line out and let it keep going, how many characters I could get into my scope, and how complicated I could make their relationships.
I wanted to write about the Inuit themselves, or the pre-Inuit, and I wanted to [go back in time] so that it’s a question of human intelligence, a new dawn of human intelligence.
MBB: So you were deliberately challenging yourself here.
SVA: I was making myself write a real novel.
MBB: The natural world plays an important role in your work. In Toward Amnesia, for example, the protagonist’s relationship with the natural world is essential to her healing. Can you talk about the role that the natural world plays in your own life and how this informs your writing?
SVA: Toward Amnesia has more of the natural world than any of the other books, except for the first novella in the new collection, the one that’s set in the Arctic. When I wrote Toward Amnesia I had just been taking some undergrad wildlife biology classes. I took those classes after working at a nature sanctuary in graduate school to support myself. Before that, my older half-brother was very passionate about the natural world as a teenager and a young adult, and he brought that to me. He was into bird watching and he kept snakes in a cage in the backyard. That planted the seed. The year before I wrote Toward Amnesia, I was interested in wildlife biology and thinking about getting another degree in it, and learning a ton by taking these intense science classes. A lot of that went into Toward Amnesia.
The book that I’m working on now is about the mountain lion of the northeast, the catamount. My relationship with the catamount dates way back to those early days of studying wildlife biology. So I do see that as a thread that’s continuing in my life.
MBB: It comes full circle since the catamount played an important role in your first novel.
SVA: It’s like it walked out of Toward Amnesia into this new book.
MBB: The first novella in your recently published collection, In Case of Emergency, Break Glass, is entitled “The Sound in High Cold Places.” This is a story told from the perspective of a prehistoric Inuit woman. Many of the themes addressed here are universal: human attachment and connection, the quest for survival and the choices we make in order to survive. What sparked your interest in writing about this particular time and place?
SVA: I never would have thought that I wanted to write historical fiction, and only after the book came out did it occur to me that I had written historical fiction. I have a lot of students who work in historical fiction and I would think, “I don’t know anything about this” and realize, “No, wait, I did this!” I happened to go on a trip to the Arctic. There is an [archeological site] with what are called the Greenland Mummies. The Greenland Mummies were found in 1975 and date to the 1400s. I became interested in the question of what would kill off an entire group of people, especially if they were living earlier. I wanted it to be earlier than the 1400s because I didn’t want the question of the European settlers to come into it, since that’s been written about so much and that’s a really heartbreaking story from the Inuit point of view. I wanted to write about the Inuit themselves, or the pre-Inuit, and I wanted to [go back in time] so that it’s a question of human intelligence, a new dawn of human intelligence. That’s why the characters of Simut and Imiut are a bit further along in intelligence than the other people, and that’s part of their bond. They can think more abstractly than the other characters can.
I started writing it with s/he for the pronoun and realized, Oh great! This is perfect! And then it just fell into place, the best character. I was writing it before I was really familiar with the term nonbinary, before the term was even used…
MBB: How did you approach writing about a time for which there is no written record? Did you need to work differently in order to inhabit a time that has been kept alive through oral tradition and our collective human imagination?
SVA: I had to do a lot more research than I ever have with any other book. Research is important to me and it’s important to me to teach students that you have to do research because you have to be specific. With Grand Isle, I was looking up what flowers would be blooming at that time of year at that location, that kind of thing, so that I could be specific and accurate. But I had no idea until I was working on the Arctic book just how much research I was going to have to do. It was constant. I started that story probably in about 2002. Periodically it just kept bugging me. I kept wanting to work on it. I’d go back and work on it some more and then abandon it again for something else. Every time I went back to it I found that there were more inaccuracies, things that I wasn’t sure of, both about the time and the place, like what kind of skin would they have used to make a kayak versus what kind of skin would they have used to make a parka. It was a lot of work and it was challenging imaginatively. I had to really imagine being in a place where the sun doesn’t come up for a long time and yet you don’t have the word “month,” so you’re not thinking the sun is going to come up in a couple of months, because you don’t think in months.
MBB: It’s amazing how much this piece allows the reader to inhabit a world that’s so different from the contemporary world. The research that you did really makes that possible. “The Sound in High Cold Places” is the story of a group of humans struggling together to survive in the midst of a brutal yet awe-inspiring environment. At the center of the story is a portrait of a deep attachment, what we in our contemporary culture would call a romantic relationship, between a cisgender woman and a nonbinary person. Can you talk about the process of writing these characters and this relationship within this particular setting and time?
SVA: It’s kind of mysterious to me. That’s one of the things that I love about writing fiction. There’s that mysterious thing that happens where a character will just come into a story, or something will happen in the plot that you had no idea was going to happen. I’d been working on it off-and-on for years, and I had various romantic or marital things happen for Simut, the protagonist. At one point, she was married to a man who was cruel to her, and at another point, her husband died. I tried one thing after another with her. I knew that the plot needed something. There was a big piece missing, but I didn’t know what it was. Then I thought of the old adage about either somebody goes on a trip or a character comes to town. And I thought, what if a stranger comes to town? Then I started writing the scene when Imiut arrives on the shore in the kayak and I realized as I was writing it, I couldn’t decide if this was going to be a male or a female character, and I was hesitant to use either he or she because I couldn’t see clearly one or the other. I thought, well, if it were a female character, that could be really cool, because then Simut could fall in love with a woman, but if it’s a male, there were other advantages. I started writing it with s/he for the pronoun and realized, Oh great! This is perfect! And then it just fell into place, the best character. I was writing it before I was really familiar with the term nonbinary, before the term was even used, since it took a while after finishing it for it to get published. I wrote that part four or five years ago, and I certainly had known transgendered people, but I wasn’t writing that character to make any kind of political point. It just happened, and then it worked. I could see that it filled in that blank spot that was missing and it happens that the timing with our own cultural evolution is right. If it has been published ten years ago as it is, I think a lot of people wouldn’t have gotten it.
Often writing with any political intention falls flat. I’ve seen many people try to make some political point in fiction and it usually doesn’t work. It has to be that the characters take over.
MBB: The second two novellas in the collection center around Americans abroad, traveling in Spain and France, respectively. What do you think taking the central character(s) out of their habitual environment brings to these stories?
SVA: Any time you take a character out of their habitual environment you add some juice to the story. [When traveling] you see yourself differently than you see yourself in your home country. Setting either of those stories in the protagonist’s home would not have worked. I feel strongly about setting and how important setting is. You couldn’t set those stories anywhere else. They have to take place where they’re taking place.
The advantage to reading widely and the advantage to knowing a wide range of people is that you get a greater range of perspectives in your own life.
MBB: The third novella in the collection, “Conversion,” is told from the point of view of a woman who shares many of your biographical details. The protagonist is in the midst of writing a chapter with her partner entitled: “Fiction, Memoir, and the Shifting Border Between.” I’m interested in the title of that fictional chapter. How do you manage the border between fiction and memoir?
SVA: I put that title in there almost like a wink to the reader. [As if to say] in case you don’t know anything about me, this is really autobiographical fiction. If anybody were to know anything about me, that would be clear. Usually my fiction is really fiction, and there’s very little of it drawn from my life the way that story is. More often it’s a combination of stories that I’ve heard from friends, or friends of friends, the stories that float around us. Lyrics to songs, dreams that I’ve had, all that other stuff that funnels into being fiction. In most of my other fiction, there might be some little story from my own life that might fit into a story or a book, more often stories from friends of mine. In Toward Amnesia, the protagonist remembers being given a telescope when she was a child, and she really wanted something else—like a makeup kit or something. When my mother read Toward Amnesia, she said, “Daddy never gave you a telescope,” and I said, “Yeah, you’re right, he didn’t.” But my lover at the time had a story from her childhood where she wanted a soccer ball and she was given a makeup kit as a kid. That’s the kind of transformation where I’m thinking, I need something where the wrong gift is given to a kid, and I go to my own experience in life, which includes stories of friends of mine. “Conversion” is a story where I really deviated from that and wrote a story almost exactly as it happened.
MBB: Did you find that harder or easier to write, or just totally different?
SVA: It was really different. When I write fiction, I see it happening in a different part of my brain, even if it starts in the seed of something that really did happen to me. I was living on a lake in Vermont when I started writing Grand Isle, so the seed of that was a real experience, and as I imagined it, it inhabited a whole different part of my brain than real life does. When I think of the house in “Conversion,” I see the actual house that I was in, not a made up fictional house. I started writing it while I was experiencing it, in part because otherwise I would have gone crazy. I just started writing and I started seeing all the things that were happening around me as if they were fiction, thinking, “Wow this will be really great for the story, oh this is perfect!” It’s a bit like watching Donald Trump now. It’s a bit like, “Oh perfect! That is the perfect thing for him to say! I can’t wait for the next terrible thing he’s going to say!” And then he says something that you could not script any better for him to be so evil. It’s kind of like that.
MBB: Maybe writing “Conversion” was a way of coping with a stressful situation, having some distance or clarity.
SVA: It made what was happening more distant.
MBB: In your 2014 essay published in Guernica Magazine, “I Was a Lesbian Writer,” you wrote, “Can we imagine opening the New York Times Book Review and noticing that there are only two or three men reviewed?” How do you imagine we would all be impacted by this ideal publishing world, where the white, cisgender male is no longer the standard unit of measurement?
SVA: I think our heads would explode, in the best possible way. I was just looking at something the other day, some literary magazine that just came out. Flipping through it I realized that almost everybody in it was a man or at least had a man’s name. I’m like—really? Still? The advantage to reading widely and the advantage to knowing a wide range of people is that you get a greater range of perspectives in your own life. Reading internationally, reading across genders and ethnicities, makes all of us bigger. And so we’d get bigger and our heads would explode. It would be great!
When you write the thing that you most need to write, there’s no guarantee it will get published, but if it doesn’t get published at least you’ve written the thing you needed to write and then you’re done with that and you can write something else that you need to write.
MBB: Do you have any particular words of wisdom to share with fledgling and emerging writers out there who identify outside the category of white, cisgender male? Are you at all hopeful that the publishing industry is moving towards greater inclusivity?
SVA: First, I would say to anyone, you have to write the story that you most want to write, that you most need to write. You have to find that burning thing inside of you that demands that you write it regardless of what it is. When you write the thing that you most need to write, there’s no guarantee it will get published, but if it doesn’t get published at least you’ve written the thing you needed to write and then you’re done with that and you can write something else that you need to write. But also, when you write the thing that you want to write the chances are greater that it will get published, no matter how weird it is. I can tell you this story, from “My Famous Friend” [Van Arsdale’s essay, published in Bookslut, January 2016], which is that it took [Alison Bechdel] a long time to write Fun Home. She was writing Dykes to Watch Out For for a long time and she said, “I don’t know, I have this crazy idea to write this book. I want to write the story of my father, but nobody’s going to read this. This is insane, nobody wants to read this cockamamie story!” That’s the greatest example I have because we all know what happened with Fun Home. But also with my little catamount book, I wrote it first and handed it out to friends. I never thought it would get published and I didn’t write it to get published. I was even kind of upset that it was going to get published because I had been so adamant that I wasn’t going to send it out and try to get it published because nobody’s going to publish a narrative poem with illustrations by the author about a catamount. Nobody’s going to publish that, and then voila, it got published. I’m sure that there are countless other stories like that, of people who just wrote what they wanted to write and now it’s something that we all enjoy reading.
I am hopeful about the small press world. My hope about the bigger publishing world, the big presses, comes and goes. Every now and then I see something published by a major house that I think is really fantastic and that gives me hope that somebody in there is able to buck the marketing department and get something really good published. I think that the editors in the publishing houses, by and large, are probably really good readers and really want great writing to be published, but I think that they are under the thumb of the marketing department and the need for the house to make a ton of money. Therefore my hope lies in the small presses and that’s where most of the really good writing is coming from these days.
MBB: Thank you for your advice about writing what needs to be written. That’s really good to hear, because there’s really nothing to lose with that, right?
SVA: Right, exactly, there’s nothing to lose. There’s no point in writing something that you don’t feel that way about. You have to have some level of passion about the piece you are working on. Whatever you’re afraid to write, that’s where you have to go.