The Bold Strategy That Drives One of 2023’s Best Novels
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Suji: I knew that people didn’t think of people like me narrating books, but they also didn’t think of people like me as the audience. So I think what this structure enabled me to do was to set up a mode of interrogating both of those things, like I’m the narrator, and you’re presuming a lot about me, and I’m going to occasionally yell at you about this.
Big Mood, June Thomas: Welcome back to Working. I’m your host, June Thomas.
Isaac Butler, Isaac: And I am your other host, Isaac Butler.
Big Mood, June Thomas: Isaac. It’s so nice to see you again on Zoom.
Isaac Butler, Isaac: Thank you. It’s been a while since we’ve co-hosted.
Big Mood, June Thomas: Our schedule is, let us just say, elusive. It evades all understanding except to our great producer, Cameron Drews. And that’s how it should be. Tell me, whose voice did we hear at the top of the show?
Isaac Butler, Isaac: Yes, That was the voice of the novelist, essayist and teacher of V.V. Ganeshananthan.
Big Mood, June Thomas: And why did you want to speak with her?
Isaac Butler, Isaac: Well, Suki and I should say that’s the name she uses in everyday conversation. She wasn’t like, Please call me. Vivi has a novel that just came out called Brotherless Night. It’s a novel about a Tamil family navigating the Sri Lankan civil war. It recently got this kind of life changing wild rave review in the New York Times Book Review. It was actually the front cover of the insert and everything, and it’s a it’s a good book. And I wanted to talk to her about it.
Big Mood, June Thomas: That sounds amazing. I am very excited to hear this interview. But I believe that you have an extra segment that is exclusively for Slate Plus members. What will they hear?
Isaac Butler, Isaac: Yes, indeed. So Brotherless night had a very, very long gestation process. That’s actually another reason why I wanted to talk to Suki. It took her over a decade to write the book. And so we talked about it a little bit in the episode, but I really wanted to dig deep into what that was like. And how do you keep the faith during that process? How do you navigate it as an artist and a human being? You know, decades, a long time in a person’s life? You’re kind of a different person at the end of it. I just wanted to see, you know, what’s that like?
Big Mood, June Thomas: Oh, amazing. Well, if you’re a member of Slate Plus, you’ll hear that at the end of the episode. Okay, Let’s hear Isaac’s conversation with Evie Ganesh on.
Isaac Butler, Isaac: Suji, thank you so much for joining us on working this week to talk about your process.
Suji: Thank you so much for having me.
Isaac Butler, Isaac: So let’s just start with a really basic question. What is your writing process like, you know, these days? Is there such a thing as a typical day of creative work for you?
Suji: Sure. I guess to answer this question, I’ll maybe rewind a little bit, because right now I’m in the floundering stages of figuring out what I do next. And I haven’t done that and haven’t done that in so long that I have no regular process for that. I’m just a regular floundering. But when I was working on the book that I recently finished, I guess I don’t keep regular hours particularly, and I tend to be kind of a a binder and to take days off. So I would often spend some time composing in Google documents using its voice recognition function. I have a motor disability that limits my typing, so I have students who I use Google documents, voice recognition, and then I have students who work with me on editing. I dictate to them my edits and they put them in, since that’s really slow to do with voice recognition. And it’s usually, yeah, some combination of those two things. And then in the early floundering stages, more research. So I suppose a pretty irregular schedule actually.
Isaac Butler, Isaac: Are you teaching yet as the semester started yet?
Suji: The semester has started. I am on sabbatical.
Isaac Butler, Isaac: Nice. When you teach, though, you do teach both fiction and nonfiction. You have a podcast called Fiction Nonfiction. Do you see those? Is kind of different creative practices or their hats? You have to switch. Is it all just writing to you? How do you conceptualize it?
Suji: I guess I’m not great at writing nonfiction. That’s longer than, say, 1500 words. And so what my process looks like past that word limit, I don’t know. But sort of within that, I feel very comfortable figuring out what question I’m asking myself and fumbling my way towards an answer, which is not how I think about fiction. I don’t think about fiction in terms of questions and answers. And I think that I’ve always thought of myself as a fiction writer first, but I was published as a journalist first, and I do think that I, in both genres benefit from a deadline, but even more so in nonfiction. I’m very happy to be asked for work and then to have to turn it in on a particular day.
Isaac Butler, Isaac: Did you study journalism or was that a thing that you just kind of started doing?
Suji: I started doing it as probably like a high school student, maybe even a middle school student, if that counts. But and then I went to Columbia’s J-school has an MFA program. The program it’s famous for is the mess, but they started in the early 2000s, the MFA, which was kind of for people who had worked in journalism to switch tracks. So if you had been a business reporter but you suddenly wanted to be an arts editor, how would you do that? And so I had been I had covered mostly higher education and I had gone and got an MFA, and then I had gotten one fellowship and I didn’t get any others. And I was like, What a good idea. I’ll just go to journalism school and instead of and try to keep my writing life going that way. So I kind of went there reluctantly and then ended up finding it to be really, really useful and studied with Alisa Solomon, who had been the Village Voice Theater critic for a really long time and who was an amazing teacher. So that’s.
Isaac Butler, Isaac: Great.
Suji: Yeah. So I mean, I figured you would know. So I studied journalism, but kind of after most of my full time journalistic career was over.
Isaac Butler, Isaac: And are there skills within that that are relevant to your fiction practice?
Suji: Over? Sure, because Alissa was such a meticulous critique her. I think I learned a lot about how she gave me feedback on my writing. That was then I think I tried to do with students in any genre, and so that was a really cool experience and she taught us how to review and I hadn’t thought about that. And I think in recent years especially, there’s been so much good writing about art, including yours, right? And, and so right. And so when you read about theater, what I want from a review in part is like, this is the vicarious experience of being there. And so much of the writing that we’ve seen in recent years, it’s about art has managed to do that, like giving you the experience of like just trying to describe to you like, what is it like to sit in the audience and watch this person or to watch them practice or talk to them about how they think about art? And so I do feel like some of that transcends genre. And I had a lot of students interested in writing about art, too, and it’s been helpful to talk to them about that.
Isaac Butler, Isaac: Do you find that teaching influences your writing practice? I mean, people go to teaching for all sorts of different reasons, right? Often it is, among other things, you know, for those of us with an MFA, it’s the job. You have a terminal degree and are qualified to do this as some people end up in a just for that reason. But but do you find that your writing has changed at all as a result of your teaching or that you’re teaching and encountering these, you know, the texts, your assigning over and over and over again, or you’re thinking about what your students are doing that that, that it affects you as an artist as well?
Suji: Definitely, because it’s sort of a way to remain in conversation with a lot of work in progress, which is I don’t know, at least for me, and really heartening to watch people experiment and kind of push their own boundaries to stretch the limits of what I know is possible. And it’s really helpful to kind of see people messing around. And I don’t mean that lightly. And I think also some of my own writing has ended up being about teachers and students and kind of what I think in an environment like today. What is it that a teacher might owe their students? So I think that it has definitely helped.
Suji: Definitely. Sometimes also when you’re a teacher to workshop can kind of get in your head and make you feel like, I don’t know, like you’re not doing it right. Or who is like, What is the imaginary audience you’re writing for? Is it is it the class you’re teaching? Is it the mysterious workshop of your past, the imaginary workshop in your head? I don’t. But I think overall it’s helpful. Which is funny because I kind of fell into it by accident. I didn’t dream of being a professor. I feel lucky to be a professor, but I didn’t sit around fantasizing about having this job.
Isaac Butler, Isaac: Right.
Isaac Butler, Isaac: And we should also probably note here that you actually teach at my alma mater, where I received my MFA in nonfiction, the University of Minnesota, although we did not overlap, although you have also taught many magnificent writers over the course of your your career. I have a feeling that we were going to spend a lot of our conversation today talking about your new novel, Brotherless Night, in part because I wrote all the questions, but also because the book just came out. It’s very present in your life right now, but I actually want to start at the end of the process because you are going through a very rarified life experience right now, which is not only that your novel received a rave review in The New York Times, but it was actually the cover of the book Review, which shines a lot of light, a lot of attention on the work. And I’m just wondering what that’s been like for you so far.
Suji: I think that when that happened, it was a total surprise. It was a surprise at the Times reviewed the book, which happened, I think it was the only review they published on January 1st. So it woke up on New Year’s Day and it was like, I’m sorry, what? And that was very exciting. And then a little bit before the book review came out, they said that it would be in print, but I didn’t know it would be on the cover. And then maybe the Tuesday before, a well-connected friend called me and said, Congratulations, you’re on the cover of the review. And I was like, Really? And can you send me a link? And she was like, No, But I spoke to someone who saw the image and I was like, I think this is very mysterious. Are we meeting in a parking lot?
Suji: Like, Right. And then, of course, this person is never wrong. And she was she was not wrong. And I’m very grateful. But it was it feels wonderful. And also, like the mystery of how that happens is not at all any clearer to me. But I’m very grateful for the support and the like to be reviewed in a way that not just with generosity, but with like a kind of accuracy. Like. Like they got it, I think.
Isaac Butler, Isaac: So for our listeners who have not read the review or the book Brotherless night, what is it about? What is the story it’s telling?
Suji: Sure, it’s the story of a teenage girl growing up in the early years of the Sri Lankan civil war, and it’s told in a retrospective point of view from her older years. She’s in New York in 2009, which is the year that the Sri Lankan civil war ended. And she’s recalling being just about 16 years old in 1981. And she is Thamel And so she’s an ethnic minority in Sri Lanka, and she grows up in a part of the country that is dominated by that ethnic minority.
Suji: She grows up in Jaffna, which is a city in the northern province, and it follows her and her family and specifically her sort of throughout roughly the first decade of the war. And she wants to be a doctor. And she has four brothers and she has and they all have varying ambitions and political stances and militancy kind of takes hold in that town and among her community. And she also kind of endures the impact of. Tens of Sri Lankan security forces and Indian peacekeepers, because that was sort of a period of time, like in 1987, Indian peacekeeping forces came there.
Suji: So this is a I specifically chose to focus on a moment when civil society was facing militarization from kind of multiple angles. Thommo militants who were fighting for or who said they were fighting for a separate state and there were multiple militant groups. But the most famous is probably the Tamil Tigers. And then Sri Lankan security forces, the army, and then these Indian peacekeepers, the IPF. And so a lot of guns and then also a lot of ordinary people.
Isaac Butler, Isaac: And where did the book begin for you? Do you remember the starting point or the kernel of the idea or whatever and how it came to be?
Suji: Sure. I think that a lot of it was like you and I were talking before this, and I think I use the analogy of Jenga, but there were sort of different pieces that I wrote and then kind of realised that they went together. But the very first piece was a hunger strike that happens quite late in the book, and which arose from a bit of research that I had found while working on my first novel and that I knew I couldn’t shoehorn into that narrative. It didn’t belong there. And but I was sort of. I couldn’t get myself away from that. That bit of research I was so interested in.
Suji: So I was trying to get into a particular class in my MFA program, which was a novella class, and so I rashly said that if they let me to the class, I would go first. And I had sort of not really planned to take this class. And then all of a sudden had been like, This is why, why didn’t I sign up for this is I’m missing an opportunity. And so I kind of and this is also a strategy that is helpful for me sometimes just to dare myself to do things that are a little bit outlandish and a fair amount of the time. I don’t succeed. And in this case, I didn’t succeed either. I did not write a novella, but I did write a 30 page short story that was the first part of this novel and the discussion that we had in that class about it kind of enabled me to move forward with the novel as a project.
Isaac Butler, Isaac: And so, you know, you’re you’re generating these pieces. You have this not quite a novella, a very long short story. You have these other pieces that you’re starting to generate, and at some point it clicks to you that this is a novel, right?
Isaac Butler, Isaac: From there. What are you doing? Are you outlining or are you trying to figure out how to connect these different pieces? Or what’s the next step for you with this book?
Suji: I should probably have outlined, but I didn’t. I just. Wrote and. I think, really tried to avoid doing what some of my friends and colleagues would refer to as story mass, the kind of figuring out what year was this character born and what age would they be in this year, and would this be plausible? And, you know, how could this character end up in this place at this time? Is that reasonable? And I sort of I think I didn’t want to do that. I just it was very.
Suji: And then at a certain point, someone said to me it was another writer said, Have you considered writing the book in order? And I thought, that’s that’s a good idea. I should I should try that, because it was really that the time in the book sort of looped around itself before that in such a way that everything was already predetermined a little bit. And so I think I was also kind of losing the element of surprise for myself. And I think that this was born from my huge love for the English Patient, which is a book that is not in order. And also this book is very much like the English Patient. And I think I just had to let that go.
Big Mood, June Thomas: We’ll be back with more of this conversation with Vivi Ganeshananthan.
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Big Mood, June Thomas: Now let’s return to Isaac’s conversation with Vivi Ganeshananthan.
Isaac Butler, Isaac: I’m really interested in the POV strategy that you put into place in the novel. So for people who haven’t read it, it’s in the first person. It’s in the past tense. But it it’s also overtly a story that is being told to the reader by the narrator. I mean, oftentimes you read a first person novel and it’s just a sort of construct that we all accept that someone is narrating this to us, but it’s never made overt. Whereas here the narrator will say, Hey, I have to explain this thing to you, or, you know, you might not understand this, or you are assuming this, but actually this is true. You know, I was wondering when and how did that approach to this story come about?
Suji: I think that was pretty early on, so I don’t think it was in that 30 page novella, but it was very shortly after that that I wrote what is now the first page of the novel that does have that you in it? And when I think about why that is like, I think I of course, I was writing against sort of accepted narratives about the global South and propaganda and I don’t know, kind of exoticized or pity narratives. And so there was a way that I was I think I was a little bit mad at who I thought that you often was. And I knew that people didn’t think of people like me narrating books, but they also didn’t think of people like me as the audience. And so I think what this structure enabled me to do was to set up a mode of interrogating both of those things, like, I’m the narrator, and you’re presuming a lot about me, and I’m going to occasionally yell at you about this.
Isaac Butler, Isaac: Right?
Suji: But I’m going to yell at you in a way that is somewhat presumptuous as well. And I’m also sometimes that’s going to double back on itself and kind of say, Oh, well, maybe I shouldn’t be presuming so much. Maybe, maybe I’m actually wrong about who my listener is. Mm hmm. You know, I think that someone who’s Sri Lankan who’s familiar with this particular period of history in Jaffna will get a lot of things out of it that other people won’t. There’s a lot of code built into the machine of the book. But also, I knew that, of course, other people were going to be reading it.
Suji: And so there were all sorts of ways of that that you I remember there is a line early on about looking at a certain character and and the narrator says, you would have thought he was only one of many dark men with white smiles. And, you know, you would have been wrong. And an early version of that line was and you, you American, you would have been wrong. Mm hmm. We thought about who’s that American, that sort of presuming whiteness, maybe. And also many people, maybe this book, we’re not American.
Suji: Right. And then there’s a later version. So I thought I would like to keep some version of that in there. But then also later, there’s another line that sort of says, I should stop presuming that I know anything about you. Maybe. Maybe something like this is exactly happened to you. Hmm. So all of those two parts are hopefully also in conversation with each other and have their own arc over the course of the book.
Isaac Butler, Isaac: I mean, I think it’s such a smart strategy because, you know, one of the challenges for any work of narrative is exposition and how you do it and how you do it gracefully and how you don’t data dump and how, you know, all of those things do too much worldbuilding or, you know, if it’s sci fi or, you know, whatever it is. And in additional challenge, when you are writing for a reader who may be unfamiliar with the history or culture that the narrative takes place within is like how not to turn into an ambassador. You know, how not to be the spokesperson, you know, And I just think it’s a really smart way of that. The narrator themselves is burdened with that problem. It makes it allows you to be playful with it in a really different way.
Suji: Thanks. And I think that yeah, I think that it ended up giving me a mode of feeling like, I don’t know, like I was a little bit maybe having my cake and eating it too. Like I was doing the explaining. But I would also be like, you. You want me to explain? Fine. Here’s the explanation. And yeah, like, like you said, I think it enabled some play.
Isaac Butler, Isaac: And, you know, as you mentioned before, it’s, you know, you yourself had to do research for the book. You know, it’s not an autobiographical novel. It’s an imagined story within real life circumstances. Can you talk a bit about what you did for research?
Suji: So I grew up in the United States, and I think some of this was a little bit of, again, maybe kind of a dare to my and myself of could I write fiction that was set during my lifetime in Sri Lanka and make it believable. And I’m sure that there will be people who are who know more about this time period than me who may find maybe they’ll find things. But I also had a lot of those same people helping me, which is hugely generous of them.
Suji: So I was in conversation with a lot of people who had lived through that part of the war in Jaffna. I read a lot of books, particularly I read my book is in conversation with the book. I’m about to mention a human rights document called The Broken Palmyra, which was really important to me and I think was a lot of why I ended up focusing my book on the experiences of civilians, because that book was focused on the experiences of civilians under militarization and again, sort of in relation to the Sri Lankan army, Indian peacekeeping forces and thermal militants. So I think thinking about just kind of what ordinary people endured was was the focus of the research.
Suji: And I also spoke to people who were at the University of Jaffna during this time and talked about, you know, she’s in medical school. What was it like to be in medical school? How was your education maybe interrupted by the war? So kind of trying to get an understanding of how time if I was going to write the book in order, I needed to have an understanding of how time moved and how regular things like school, which at least for me, I mean, I think even as someone growing up in the U.S., like when I think about my life before age 18, I map it on to school and write. And a lot of them, I think, couldn’t always rely on the clock working that way.
Isaac Butler, Isaac: Hmm.
Isaac Butler, Isaac: You have talked a bit, even somewhat humorously in your acknowledgements about Brotherless night’s long gestation process. You know, you talk about thinking it’s done and then it not being done and, you know, all sorts of other things. So can you talk a bit about it? It was about a decade that you were working on it, right.
Suji: Longer or it in 2004.
Isaac Butler, Isaac: 2004. All right. And so without having to narrate that entire, you know, time in your life, how did you know it wasn’t finished or wasn’t good enough yet or wasn’t quite doing what you wanted it to do and keep pushing forward because, you know, lots of people abandoned projects or, you know, how do you keep the faith and keep going?
Suji: Sometimes I’m not totally sure how I do that, but I started in 2004 and it was sold well before it was done in 2006. In the fall, my first fall in journalism school, it was sold along with my first novel, so it was under contract. That is certainly one way that I finished it, because I had said that I would and I had sent it in a legal document and that mattered to me. I certainly whiffed my deadline a bunch of times, and I think that some of that was the difficulty, was that I had agreed to write the book before I really knew how to do all of the things that it required.
Isaac Butler, Isaac: What were the things you needed to learn how to do?
Suji: I think a lot of it was that research and then some of it were craft things like how to deal with complexity of time, these intense historical events that a lot of people didn’t know about, and that if I got them wrong, it would be really bad. And some of it was that I wasn’t very good at plot and I knew that I wanted it to be a plot book because it seemed to me like the war has been stuffed with plot.
Isaac Butler, Isaac: What did you do to get good at plot?
Suji: I think doing the research was really helpful because, yeah, like the war was stuffed with plot, so I could not conceive of a novel set in Jaffna during this time period that wouldn’t have a lot of things happening. And so when I would find like a little snippet of something that would speak to me, especially in the early stages, oftentimes I would end up writing a scene that connected to it. And the further I went into that, the more I was inventing things. And sometimes I would. And I think this is common. You know, I would invent something and then find out that it had happened.
Isaac Butler, Isaac: Yeah, of course. Because you’re like, so in tune with that, that somehow, you know, it just happens that way.
Isaac Butler, Isaac: You mentioned at the beginning of the interview the mobility disorder that affects the literal nuts and bolts process by which you write. And you’ve actually written a recent piece that was quite beautiful about it. For our listeners who are unfamiliar with that piece. Can you talk a little bit about, you know, when that began affecting you, what it is and how it changed the process of how you write?
Suji: Yeah. I’ve had hand injuries off and on since. Probably the earliest hand injuries I had were even when I was a kid, I was a tennis player and I, you know, sort of had tennis elbow and stuff like that. And I played an instrument and and in college I had difficulties with my hands. I fell down a flight of stairs and tore a bunch of ligaments in my right hand and didn’t know that I had done that. I kind of kept going, which caused my left hand to kind of give out as well.
Suji: And so that was my first experience with voice recognition software, which at the time was really not good. And I was working on a PC at the time. So I was using Dragon, naturally speaking, and I had to take my exams sometimes with scribes, people who would just be assigned to write for me and I would get time and a half. And sometimes I would try to do my homework on tape and things like that, and it didn’t work very well. I think there were just various points at which people would sort of be like, Maybe you should leave school for a year and then come back. Wow. And probably that’s what I actually should have done.
Isaac Butler, Isaac: Yeah, but when you’re like a teenager, like leave school for a year and then come back, I mean, it just seems like such a radical, life destroying idea.
Suji: Yeah, I mean, like, that disruption of time. And I was really lucky. There’s a D.C. based journalist named Victoria Howlett, who’s also a friend of mine from high school, and she went to high school and college with me. And somehow we were assigned dorm rooms, like I lived directly above her in my freshman year, which was when this happened. And Vicky just kind of carried me that whole year. So, you know, we were both on the school newspaper and we just co-wrote all of our articles. So she did the typing and through the kindness of people like that, I made it through that year.
Suji: But at the technology now is so much better. So and then I had had some hand problems in 2020 and had started using Google documents. Voice recognition, had a tiny bit of speech training, and my hands got better and I went back to kind of regular work. And then in the spring of 2021, I kind of looked down and saw that my hand was swollen in a way that I had never seen before. It didn’t hurt and I didn’t know what it was. And then it started to hurt. And then I was like, I really if I don’t know what it’s from, I really have to like, be committed to not typing because I can see that when I type. That’s definitely the thing that makes it bad. It’s also bad to pick up my dog or do the dishes or carry a giant laundry basket. And all of those are things that during the pandemic I was doing more of because we were at home.
Suji: You know, there was more. I mean, it’s very I don’t it was well-reported. There’s more housework. This was very hard on women. And I do have a partner who does a ton around the house and I don’t actually feel like it’s an equitable. But there was more housework, period. And apparently, like my arms, we’re not going to be able to sustain that work. So I had to come up with a lot of adaptive stuff, like again, returning to Google Docs, voice recognition, working with these students, I have like a laundry basket, like a backpack so I don’t have to carry the basket. I put it on and kind of go down the stairs and, you know, and I let other people do a lot of stuff. I have a waist leash to walk my dog so that she can’t yank on my arms. But in terms of.
Suji: Yeah, in terms of the writing. It meant speech training and voice recognition like adaptive mice, and most specifically working with these two student scribes. Like right now we’re recording this on a Zoom call and there’s a share screen button at the bottom, and I could click share screen and then I could click Remote Control and then I could let you run my whole desktop. And that’s what I let the students do.
Isaac Butler, Isaac: So you’re doing it remotely with them. They’re not sitting there with you.
Suji: They’re not sitting here with me. And it’s actually easier.
Isaac Butler, Isaac: So, yeah, I mean, I’ll admit I get a little bit of agita thinking about sharing very early drafts, particularly with like students and having them help me do the work of editing them. I just seems like like a level of exposure that that could be difficult to wrap one’s head around.
Suji: Yeah, I mean. I use social media and I’m a public person in the sense that I exist on the Internet. I’m also extremely private about a lot of things that a lot of people wouldn’t care that much about. Like, I’ll never really say where I am unless I’m doing a public event. And I think that I probably have some inherited. I just don’t share information unless it’s absolutely necessary, that kind of information. And so as a fiction writer, I’ve never really been able to write in the presence of other people. And as a nonfiction writer, I can, which is weird. But I also, before all this hand stuff came up, I had, you know, devices to assist me in my paranoia, things like the three angled privacy screen that you can tack on to your laptop so you know, you’re on a plane and you want to write. And can the person next to you see your screen? They can.
Isaac Butler, Isaac: Write. Those are wild.
Suji: But people can’t see what you’re what you’re writing. And then, of course, there’s a school that I like who wants to see what you’re writing. It’s not like you’re reading is so great. And then I do have a friend who I was telling her about this, and she was like, Oh, of course, if I’m at a cafe and I walk by someone’s screen, I absolutely see what’s on it. Yeah.
Isaac Butler, Isaac: Yes, I am that nosy person and I always want to know what people are reading. You know, I always want to know what they’re writing at the cafe. If you see me at a cafe, please know I’m trying to get into your business and learn all about it.
Suji: Absolutely. It’s like you can’t look away from the screen. So what does that mean when you have no choice? Like, I think I had a period of time where, you know, like the the only I think it sort of went in stages first. This is really awkward. I don’t want anyone else to hear me like stage two, but my fiancee is in the room like, okay, I can write in front of him. And then, you know, a strange three. Well, the students I like the students. I don’t really want to read in front of them, but I guess I don’t have a choice. And then I think, you know, it just sort of became a choice of like, well, you’re going to finish or you’re not going to finish. And that really wasn’t that much of a choice.
Suji: So I’m lucky that the students that I work with are really smart and artistically inclined and also discreet and have an instinct of when to ask me a question and when not to interrupt me. And I appreciate that a lot. And. You know, sometimes like, yeah, I read chunks of the book aloud to one of them and they kept track of continuity and stuff in their head. So it was for sure really awkward. But I think to sort of I had no choice.
Suji: And I can think of other like worse, like when I was a teenager and I had this issue and I had scribes for exams, I remember they’re not supposed to give you like a scribe who is in your in in the subject area that you’re taking the test in. And I remember them being short staffed and giving me a teacher who was in that chorus and then that person sort of despairing at how I was doing my exam, you know. You know, they’re like, if you don’t know the answer, maybe you should go back to the beginning and just be like, I don’t need you to tell me that I’m doing badly. I’m fully aware.
Isaac Butler, Isaac: Oh my God. Can you imagine if your scribe today was like that? Who is like, you know, there’s a lot of passive voice in this section. I think passive voice was intentional.
Suji: Exactly. Like. Like you don’t want you need the person to, like, be present, but not to present. And I’m I’m just lucky that they happen to be really good at their jobs.
Isaac Butler, Isaac: Amazing. Well, Suji, thank you so much for joining us this week to talk about your book and your process.
Suji: Thank you so much for having me.
Big Mood, June Thomas: Up next, Isaac and I will talk about taking a mid-career break for education. Daring herself to take on creative challenges and more. Stick around. Isaac. That was so awesome. And I was really interested in what Suki had to say about the benefits of taking a mid-career break to do a graduate degree and maybe more to the point, to learn some stuff that you need for the next part of your working life. It was great to hear how influential Alicia Solomon’s teaching was for Suki, and you’ve mentioned some great teachers you work with in your MFA program. So just a little question here. What was the most important thing you took away from your own mid-career graduate degree?
Isaac Butler, Isaac: Jun This may be one of the hardest questions you’ve you’ve ever asked me because narrowing it down to one, I mean, yeah, the fuck you know, But so I’m going to say two things. Sorry, I’m cheating here. The first is that, you know, part of getting an MFA is actually being exposed to a lot of books and writers and essays, etc. that you weren’t familiar with. There’s an adage, you know, it’s not the book you write, it’s the books you read or whatever. And, you know, I think that’s probably true. If you get an MFA in painting, it’s artists whose work you might not have known or, you know, whatever. I actually wasn’t super familiar with John McPhee or Janet Malcolm, you know, prior to getting my MFA, and they’re two of my favorite writers, you know. But the biggest influence on me was the two years I spent studying with the novelist Charles Baxter. Charlie really taught me how to read in a new, much more rewarding way that was rooted in what he usually called descriptive criticism.
Isaac Butler, Isaac: So what you’re really trying to do is to work out what a given work book, essay, play, film, whatever, what is its artistic project, what is it actually trying to do? What questions is it asking? What is it about? You know, and then divine the tools that it is using to go about doing it and how they function within that broader artistic project.
Isaac Butler, Isaac: Or sometimes don’t write. And that was just super helpful. That’s really influenced how I read as a critic and a human being and a writer and everything since then. And if you want a taste of his brilliance as a teacher, I know I’ve mentioned it here before, but he has this book called WONDERLANDS that is adapted from a bunch of stuff that we talked about in his fiction writing seminar.
Big Mood, June Thomas: Wow. Okay. So Sookie said something else that really resonated with me. She talked about building the confidence to teach. When you’re teaching at whatever level, you have to project confidence. You know, the students have to believe that you know what you’re talking about, but you have to believe it, too. And I think there are similar challenges in being an editor, and it strikes me a director. And those are roles where because you’re offering guidance that isn’t actually really all that optional for the people you’re working with, you have to bring a certain level of assurance and gravitas. You have to convince them that what you’re suggesting is the right thing to do. And as someone who, in addition to your criticism and your writing, is also a teacher, you also have, of course, a lot of experience as a director.
Big Mood, June Thomas: Do you have any tips on that for any listeners who may feel that they’re still in the fake it till you make it mode?
Isaac Butler, Isaac: Well, you know, I actually don’t think there’s anything wrong with the fake part. I mean, directing and teaching are performances. And I actually think if you at least for me, coming from a theater background, conceiving of them both as performances is helpful if that if that causes you to seize up, please, please disregard that information. But just know you actually are performing. You know, you’ve got an audience, you have a specific role, you’re going to wear a specific costume. You know, it really is a performance.
Isaac Butler, Isaac: So when you’re teaching, there’s sort of two different scenarios you get thrown into a lot. The first is. Oh, my God. We need someone to teach this class. We need a warm body who has read some English literature. You. You know, are you familiar with 17th century poetry? And you’re like. I mean, I read it in college, you know, like, great, great teacher digit. The other time is, you know, you have been hired to teach a class because it’s something that you really are knowledgeable about. Like I’m teaching an upper level class in the work of Tony Kushner this semester. Oh, my.
Big Mood, June Thomas: Goodness. Wow. Right.
Isaac Butler, Isaac: Yeah. So in the latter case, it’s easy. No matter what, you will know more than the other students about the subject matter. Try not to talk about things that you don’t actually know about. Right. And if they ask you a question that you don’t know the answer to, you actually have to have the confidence to be like, you know what, I’m not 100% sure. Let me look into that and get back to you. And that’s okay because you’re the expert. You’re the one who actually knows where to find the answer.
Isaac Butler, Isaac: Yeah, right. That’s part of your expertise. When you’re in the first case, which happens a lot more than schools want to admit, with both adjuncts and graduate students, there is no actual substitute for preparation. You have to prepare to the point where you know the subject matter much better than the students, and that’s where the confidence is going to come from. It it is a performance. You know, there are scary parts of it, but you don’t want to be worried about your confidence with the material you are actually teach.
Isaac Butler, Isaac: Yeah. You know, so the more you know about that, the more prepared you are. That’s true. As a director as well, the better position that you are going to be. And the other thing I would say is that, you know, actually it does get better with practice because you discover the kind of teacher you actually are. Maybe you’re like a great Socratic method teacher, you know, that’s where you that actually turns out where your talents lie. And then you want to start bending the classes towards that. Maybe you’re a brilliant actual lecturer and you really want to spend most of the class with you talking. You know, maybe I’m very good on my feet. So in discussion class, I do a lot of, you know, Well, what are your questions? Because I’m always going to be able to segway from that to the thing that I planned on talking about anyway.
Big Mood, June Thomas: Yeah. Yeah. That does not surprise me one bit.
Big Mood, June Thomas: So I really loved the concept of daring yourself to do things which Suki mentioned, you know, And if you want to be a fiction writer at some stage, you have to go out on that swinging rope bridge of showing people your work. Are you someone who has used that strategy? And if so, do you have any tips?
Isaac Butler, Isaac: The time that I experience this the most in my own personal career is sending the pitch because I think the best pitch is the one where part of you wants them to turn it down. You want to do it, but you also hope that they keep you from having to do it because you’re a little scared, because it’s going to cause you to need to learn and grow in some way. That’s often what the fear is actually about. And so the only thing to do is to, you know, get out on that on that bridge. But you want to do it in a way that feels safe.
Isaac Butler, Isaac: And by that, I mean, let’s say I wrote a short story. I’m not a fiction writer and I wrote a short story. I am not going to immediately send it to my agent or The New Yorker. Right. I’m going to send it to a trusted friend who I know will be both honest and kind with me at the same time. Right. I recently just this had this happened with a pitch that got accepted. Right. But that was a pitch that got accepted. You know, I chose very carefully to send that to someone I know and trust so that if it got turned down, I would, you know, have a different experience of being turned down or whatever. So, yeah, just like you want to have your carabiner hooked up to the guide rope or whatever it’s called, you know, you want to be able to take that risk safely.
Big Mood, June Thomas: Yes, that really makes sense. I as you were talking, I was trying to just think, okay, when did I last have that or not? When did I last have that? But when was my last strong memory of just like, facing something that you knew was good for you, but it just wasn’t fun? Yeah, and it was very early in my career where I was interviewing someone, someone who is quite famous in a relatively small world, but someone else was going to be there, not just a PR person but another journalist. And that was really scary to me that because, you know, if a PR person or the subject thinks my questions are dumb, that’s one thing, right? But if another journalist thinks that that’s going to be really awful and that’s it’s really hard, I think, to get to get enough repetitions and and just where you build that confidence to you think, yeah, I don’t care if anybody else is there because they’re going to be so impressed. Yeah. As a you know yeah.
Isaac Butler, Isaac: Doing the world only spins forward was a real trial by fire in that right because Dan and I interviewed 250 people, some of them were very famous. You know, I mean, Dan, Dan, thankfully, was the one who talked to Meryl Streep not. Me. But still, you know, it’s really a scary experience, I think.
Big Mood, June Thomas: Yes, indeed.
Big Mood, June Thomas: So you mentioned earlier that Suki had an amazing review in The New York Times Book Review. It led the paper. I’m always surprised to learn how little notice writers have that a review, even when it’s a big positive one, is coming out. Maybe they don’t get any notice at all. I remember I think I was the person who told Dana Stevens of the Culture Gabfest that The New Yorker had given a rave review to cameraman her book about Buster Keaton. And it’s just because I tweeted about it first thing on a monday morning. It’s that’s just mind boggling. She had a great story about that. How did you experience the review process for The Method?
Isaac Butler, Isaac: Oh, man, it’s crazy. You don’t know anything. They don’t tell you at all. And you know, particularly The Times and The New Yorker are really uncommunicative about that stuff on purpose. I mean, it’s a it’s an ethical matter for them.
Big Mood, June Thomas: Right.
Isaac Butler, Isaac: And so I was totally surprised. Now, the method was not review by The New York Times, so they covered it in a bunch of different ways. There was an episode of Still processing about it. Jesse Green wrote about it in a in a big article that was in the art section, and it made the year end gift guide, but they did not formally review it. And the weird thing is, is that, you know, for a couple months you sort of go, maybe it’ll happen, maybe it’ll happen, maybe it’ll happen, and then it doesn’t. So I’ve been on both sides of that.
Isaac Butler, Isaac: The weirdest one and the most gratifying one. I just found out yesterday that when they announced the nominations that the method is nominated for a National Book Critics Circle Award. And how I found that out was I had my phone off, I was doing something and I emerged onto the street and I turned my phone on and I just had all of these text messages and a voicemail from my editor and I was like, What the hell is going on? And then I saw the that in fact, it was it was nominated, you know, which is just like a really weird thing. I had no idea that.
Isaac Butler, Isaac: Yeah, those weren’t told the authors in advance. I had no idea that Tuesday night was when they were going to be announced. I mean, you’ll see this happen with your book when it comes out. June is that you just like you really never know and because it’s of course not guaranteed that it will get coverage anywhere. It also creates this weird kind of suspense. Often the best thing you can do is to just try to ignore it as much as possible and be grateful for what comes, which is what I’ve been, you know, trying to do myself.
Big Mood, June Thomas: I’m going to going to start learning to meditate tomorrow. I’m going to do that. I.
Big Mood, June Thomas: We hope you enjoyed the show listeners, and if you did, please remember to subscribe wherever you get your podcasts. That way you will never miss an episode. And just a reminder that by joining Sleepless you will get ad free podcasts, extra segments on shows like ours. Entire extra episodes of shows like Slow Burn, I’m Big Mood, Little Mood and you will never ever hit a paywall. On the Slate site. To learn more, go to slate dot com slash working plus.
Isaac Butler, Isaac: Thank you so much to Suki Ganeshananthan and to our outstanding producer Cameron Drews. Join us next week for June’s conversation with Chase Joynt and Morgan Page, who co-wrote the documentary Framing Agnes, which Chase directed and participates in. Until then, get back to work.
Isaac Butler, Isaac: Hey, Slate Plus listeners, this is Isaac Butler. You probably guessed that already. But anyway, just wanted to say thank you so much for supporting what we do right here on working and everything that we do here at Slate. We got a little bit more from my conversation with Sue Guy. I think you’re really going to like it. It’s one of my favorite parts of the interview, so enjoy. Okay. So I’d love to circle back to our conversation about the book’s long gestation period. Do you remember, like at what point you had a complete draft? How early was that?
Suji: I had a complete draft in like 2013, but it was really bad. Late to the point that I almost like, like it was technically completed. It ended. And actually the ending of that draft is not dissimilar to what is there now. But the middle was just it was like a soggy mattress, that draft.
Isaac Butler, Isaac: And did the actual plot need to change or was it the way that plot was told.
Suji: The plot needed to change and the way it was told needed to change because it wasn’t in order. And there were a lot of characters who didn’t need to be there and characters who didn’t need to be there were missing. So in that novella version that I had written, there were four brothers and they all died. And that’s not what happens in this book. But in the end, I went back to that idea. It was sort of like, This kid has four brothers. And what if I don’t kill all of them? And there’s a there’s no limiting principle. And and that was really helpful. But before there was kind of a lot more stuff in New York. And then it turned out that I love New York. I also didn’t really want to write huge chunks of this book that were set there. And so I kind of had to make peace with that and let those bits go.
Isaac Butler, Isaac: Hmm. You are because you’re a human being and we’re all like this. You know, you’re not the same person you were when you sold that book. You were living in New York City. You were you were lighting money on fire in New York City and getting a journalism degree, you know. Now, you’re a professor in Minneapolis. You you have a you’re just like your position in the universe is totally different. Your your position in time is totally different. So what’s it like to be changing as a person while trying to maintain at least something about the initial impulse of this creative work?
Suji: It’s surprising to me the extent to which some of the initial pieces of the book hold, like the first page is basically almost as it was initially written. And so I kind of held on to those set pieces or those kind of fixed points and build things around them. That hunger strike was another one. There is a bombing in the book. That is another one of the pieces that was written really early and I moved it around. But the piece itself didn’t change that much. Hmm. So the past version of me is always there. And to kind of look at those sections and be like, She wasn’t that bad. She wrote that part. It was nice. And then sometimes it would sort of I think sometimes when you write a story that’s good, it’s hard to move on from it because you’re like, I peeked. That’s it. Yeah, I’m.
Isaac Butler, Isaac: Unsure. Yeah.
Suji: And so I think, like, the process of moving forward with the book was sometimes sort of being like, Well, I wrote this part that’s really good. I guess if I write another part and it’s not as good, that’s just going to have to be the way it is.
Isaac Butler, Isaac: What was the longest break you took from the manuscript?
Suji: That’s a great question. I mean, certainly there were breaks of at least a year because I wrote the other book. Right. Finished the other book during that time. You know, I finished that first book between 0607. And some of the things between the books are related. And I think that that book taught me certain things that I needed to write this one. So in a sense I was working on it, but kind of in a back of the head kind of way.
Isaac Butler, Isaac: Right now, if I remember correctly, and correct me if I’m wrong here, one of your, you know, former students is Nawaz Ahmed, Right? The writer of Radiant Fugitives, which if I remember correctly from an interview I read with him, that’s a book I love very much. And I feel like did not get enough attention because it came out in the midst of the pen of the bad time of the pandemic. But that was also a book that took a very long time to write, if I remember correctly. So were you was that part of the process of being his teacher or a mentor? What was the two of you sort of figuring out how to steer this ship through such long waters?
Suji: We definitely had conversations about that. I also love that book and had seen early pages, you know, and then didn’t see it for a long time and then saw it kind of in its final form. And it’s gorgeous. And it is kind of nice to think about. There are all these people out there, some of whom are former students, some of whom are friends, who are plugging away at these things that, you know, the shape is uncertain. Should you even be doing it? When will you run out of money? Like, where do you live? And yet have a company even in your head of a friend who’s sitting at a desk. In another state is helpful. And we did sometimes have conversations where we just sort of like takes a long time. Takes a long time.
Isaac Butler, Isaac: Right.
Suji: Let’s have dinner. It’s taking a long time.
Isaac Butler, Isaac: Yeah, totally. Totally. All right. That’s it for this week’s episode. That’s really it this time. So thank you so much for your Slate Plus membership. We hope you enjoyed that little bonus tidbit. And we’ll catch you next time right here on working.