I would like to welcome Susan Stinson to my Meet the Writer feature. As many of you know, half of my reading goals in 2017 are to find positive fat fiction written by women. I asked for recommendations from fellow book lovers.
So far, my reading of fat fiction has been a big disappointment. Book after book falls into the chicken dinner category: fat women picking themselves apart into pieces that are then criticized. Ugh. Only Dietland by Sarai Walker and I Do It with the Lights On by Whitney Way Thore have been given my full recommendation.
However, Casey over at The Canadian Lesbrarian introduced me to Stinson’s work. I picked up her novel Fat Girl Dances with Rocks a day or two ago. Though I’m not far in, I love the unique main characters. And we have a fat narrator! She might mention she’s fat, but she’s not chicken dinner-ing (yes, I just made that a verb). Without further ado, I give you Susan Stinson!
Grab the Lapels: What kind of writing do you do? What kind of writing do you wish you did more of?
Susan Stinson: I am a novelist who also writes poetry, lyric essays, and book reviews. My novels have varied quite a bit in style and content. My first novel, Fat Girl Dances with Rocks, was a coming of age novel in which a young woman comes into a new relationship with her fat body at the same time as she begins to explore her lesbian sexuality. It came out in 1994 from Spinsters Ink, a small feminist press. The year before that, two writer friends and I had formed a micropress and published Belly Songs: In Celebration of Fat Women, a chapbook of poetry, short fiction, and lyric essays that examine fat oppression and celebrate the beauty, strength, and sensuality of fat women. In 1995, Spinsters published Martha Moody, which was a mytho-historical western with tall tales and a flying cow. That was a love song to fat women for me, and a pleasure to write. It had Swiss and German editions, and has recently been reissued in German in both paperback and as an ebook as Martha flog auf der Engelskuh, which means Martha Flew on the Angel Cow. I love that.
I published three books in three years because I had finished them all before any one of them were published. My next novel, Venus of Chalk, came out in 2004.
During that time I was travelling a lot giving readings and talks with my earlier books. When I made appearances, two things kept happening. People would come up to me and tell intimate stories about the pain they were in in relationship to their bodies. It became clear to me that fat hatred was a form of social control that was causing many people of all sizes to suffer. The other thing that people who saw me read asked me over and over again was how I came to be comfortable in my fat body. I wrote Venus of Chalk as a way to give my best answer to that. It starts with a fat woman being harassed and then turning against her own body with self-harm, and then goes on a bus trip from New England to the Texas farm where she used to spend time with her aunt as a child. So it’s a road trip, but it’s also her journey of confronting the roots of her internalized fat hatred and getting to a stronger place. Carline is bossy and difficult, but I think she’s very brave. That’s my answer for how to take on fat oppression, internal or external: it’s a slow, difficult process of confronting difficult things that is also so worth undertaking. There’s no way out but through.
My most recent novel, Spider in a Tree (Small Beer Press, 2013) is very different.
It is a deeply researched historical novel about eighteenth century Northampton, MA during the time of preacher, theologian, and slave-owner Jonathan Edwards. I live in Northampton, and, in some ways, writing about Calvinist New England is me continuing the process that Carline goes through in Venus of Chalk. My passionate exploration of fat oppression in fiction and poetry took me to confronting other difficult things, such as the long history of northern slavery and intensity of Calvinism and how it might have been actually lived by people with various relationships to someone like Jonathan Edwards.
Right now, I’m working on Lamentation Hill, which is inspired by Jonathan Edwards’s grandmother. She is an unhappily married English woman with murderous siblings and a daughter who betrays her. There is also a Pequot sailor in love with the daughter’s husband in seventeenth century Hartford. Like lampreys in the river — made by and making the landscapes around them — they burrow, wriggle, rise, and latch on.
I wish I wrote more poetry. I love poetry deeply. I read it almost every day. Poetry with clarity, emotional urgency, and live language is an intense pleasure. It’s a balm for isolation. It’s a joy.
GTL: What was the first piece of writing you did that you remember being happy with?
SS: I thought of myself as a writer from the time I was very young. When I was in first grade, I won a school contest for best letter to my mother for Mother’s Day. I got to read the letter from the stage in the gym to the whole school. I got paid, too! They gave me a gift certificate to a local strip mall, which I used to buy a stuffed caterpillar. I never forgot it.
GTL: In what ways has life in and out of academia shaped your writing?
SS: That’s a big question. I was an English major as an undergraduate at the University of Colorado in the early eighties. I took a lot of writing workshops and learned a lot from them. I never got an MFA, though. I couldn’t see how I would be able to pay back the student loans if I went into debt to for graduate school in creative writing. So I moved from Colorado, where I grew up, to the east coast, where my brother, who is an artist, was living. I ended up with a job at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, giving administrative support to visual art studies and learning more about the lives of artists in that role. It was so great to have access to the museum, too. During that time, I began to participate in fat lesbian culture and began to write and think critically about my received notions of fatness. My life was strongly influencing my art, clearly.
I’ve spent a lot of time over the years in writing groups. In some of them, we critiqued each other’s work or discussed aspects of craft. I was the Writer in Residence at Forbes library, the public library in Northampton, for five years. I still facilitate a writing room there, where we gather to write every week. We don’t critique, we just write together, although we have a reading every year.
I taught Fiction Writing at Amherst College in 2014, and I’m about to do that again in the fall of 2017. That was my first time back in academia since the eighties. The students are wonderful, and teaching writing is a great way to grapple with the heart of what I think matters in fiction.
GTL: How do your friends and family respond to your writing?
SS: My friends and family are enormously generous and supportive to me. Sometimes I ask some of them to read unpublished work. Sometimes I’ve made choices not to write about things that I knew would make someone close to me feel exposed. It’s clear that my work has sometimes made some of my friends and family uncomfortable. It’s also very clear that they want me to be able to do the work that matters most to me. One of the things I love about fiction is that it makes it possible to write very honestly about the most intense emotions while also respecting the privacy of others. I think that there is there is an dance of fine-tuning the ethics of writing fiction that is informed by courage, self-knowledge, empathy, and love.
GTL: Are there aspects of your writing that readers might find challenging to them?
SS: Some people are uncomfortable with lesbian content. Some readers have been unwilling to enter imaginatively into the inner lives of fat characters and stick with them even as they imperfectly, haltingly begin to address some of the pain that fat oppression can cause. Writing pain and fatness together is tricky, because many people assume that is all that fat people are. I’m writing characters with their full humanity, which includes strength and power and fight and eroticism, and also includes all kinds of mess. Some readers find it hard to handle that.
My writing isn’t always as light and fast as that of many stories I love. It calls for some patience and attentiveness. It rewards those things, but it does ask for them.
GTL: What did you want to be when you grew up, and does this choice influence your writing today?
SS: I always knew I wanted to be a writer, but I wanted to be other things, too. I remember having a list in elementary school: I wanted to be a writer, a gardener, a ballet dancer, and a teacher. I am happy with where I ended up on that list.