November 2013

Sarah Van Arsdale


An Interview with Susan Stinson

Susan Stinson has once again leapt beyond expectations with her new novel, Spider in a Tree, a historical novel about eighteenth-century preacher, theologian, and slave-owner Jonathan Edwards. Her previous work, which includes three novels and a collection of poetry and lyric essays, primarily addressed themes of lesbian identity and awareness of fat liberation and body image. Throughout her writing career, she’s fearlessly pursued the abstract in her work, and has made the abstract concrete with her careful descriptions of character.

Susan and I first met in a writing group in the mid-1980s in Northampton, Massachusetts; the group met for seven years, every Tuesday. We were both poets who also wrote fiction; since then, we’ve both turned to writing and publishing fiction more than poetry. Susan has continued to sharpen her critical eye, and to pursue her deep love of language, both of which she has brought to Spider in a Tree.

Her work has appeared in anthologies from Ballantine Books, NYU Press, and Scholastic Books, and in many periodicals, including The Common, Early American Studies, and Kenyon Review. She has received the Outstanding Mid-Career Novelist Prize from the Lambda Literary Foundation. Currently Writer in Residence at Forbes Library in Northampton, MA, she is also a freelance editor, writing coach, and gives cemetery tours.

In this interview, we talk a bit about the role of setting in her new book, and about the response to this departure from her previous themes in her work.

The fictionalized story of an eighteenth-century theologian is not the first thing a writer in the early twenty-first century would think of telling. How on earth did you get the idea? You couldn't have just been at the grocery store in Northampton and thought, Hey, how about a novel about Jonathan Edwards? Or just wandering around in the graveyard of a summer's afternoon and coming upon his grave?

He's buried at Princeton, where he died from getting smallpox after an inoculation just after he arrived (during an epidemic) to be president at the college there. So, it wasn't quite his grave. But there are two markers that honor Edwards, there in the cemetery in Northampton, and some of his family members are buried there, too.

I got the idea for the book in 2003, when I really was writing and walking a lot in Bridge Street cemetery, which is just across Route Nine from my apartment. It's so calm and leafy there. I later learned that the Puritans deliberately situated it right next to the main thoroughfare from the Connecticut River, so people would see it while they are going about their daily business and get reminded of their mortality and -- the hope was -- the need to turn to God. So, I was reading the gravestones, and a lot of them address the person standing there, directly, saying, "You'll be dust soon, too," more or less. Some of them are wonderfully carved. I loved the names, and I got interested in the stories. Jonathan Edwards was born October 5, 1703, so it was the 300th anniversary of his birth ten years ago this year. There was a conference at First Churches in his honor. There, I was able to gather a lot of information.

People probably don't know this, but he preached in Northampton for twenty-three years, and helped spark a huge colonial revival often referred to as the First Great Awakening there.

So he's very much a part of Northampton's history. I wonder if the Puritans' plan worked on you, as you were spending so much time in the cemetery. Did you get reminded of your mortality and turn to God? Or was it that you turned toward writing another novel?

Those stones are so fantastic. "As you stand, you sink." And the inscription from Rebekah Hawley's grave (who is one of the characters in the novel) has a line -- "Dust to dust" -- that has only just vanished down into the dust as the stone sinks into the ground. We know what it says thanks to nineteenth-century folks writing it down.

It's interesting, the whole being-reminded-of-my-mortality thing. One of my experiences as a fat woman -- I explored this in my previous novel, Venus of Chalk -- is that I am frequently accused (with concern, with disgust, with compassion, with alarm, directly, as part of a group, yelled out of car windows) of choosing to hasten my own death. Sometimes I feel as if fat people are being asked to shoulder fears and anxiety about mortality for a large percentage of contemporary U.S. culture, and beyond. So the gravestones didn't remind me of my own mortality more than I'm reminded by, say, watching an ordinary news broadcast, but they offered these excellent invitations to a way back to reflecting on mortality through the concerns of another time. I accepted the invitation, and found it to be profoundly rewarding.

The thought of Rebekah Hawley's gravestone sinking into dust makes me think of how writing this book has influenced the way you inhabit present-day Northampton. Do you expect to see a ferryboat crossing the Connecticut River, or do you think of Sheriff Pomeroy when you ride your trike down Pomeroy Lane?

I love that so much. It's almost as if another layer of life has unfolded for me underneath the ways I've lived here all along. I kind of yell at the founders in my head sometimes when I'm riding my trike up the hill to the library, for their whole "city on a hill" ideal. But I also so love that the town was laid out before cars, so it's great for walkers and people getting around under their own steam, so to speak. It has a beautiful, human scale. I think much more about the river, too. I almost feel as if those ferries and horses are there. The history is there in the place names, that's for sure.

Plus, you know, I didn't grow up here. I was born in Texas and raised in Kansas and Colorado. There were cultural differences that threw me when I moved east in my early twenties, and it's kind of lovely to feel as if I know a little more about the roots of some strands of New England culture.

It makes me think of Eloise Klein Healy's poems about the "city beneath the city," as she writes about the pre-Columbian Los Angeles beneath her own present-day Los Angeles. I wonder if this is something many writers are acutely aware of, the generations we're standing on.

I know I am. And I'm also so aware of how much I've missed, how much I don't know.

One early decision for a novelist starting a new book is whether to set the story in a real or imaginary place. I know you've lived in Northampton for a long time -- since you and I were young writers together -- and while reading Spider in a Tree, I recognized places and names. And yet, you're obviously living in twentieth- and twenty-first-century Northampton, not eighteenth-century Northampton. Did you feel you were writing about a fictional setting? A real setting? Some combination?

I was always so glad that I was writing fiction, which gave me the freedom to imagine what I didn't know and hadn't yet found out, but it felt real. I wrote a lot outside, so I'd be sitting, say, on the lawn of the old courthouse there on the corner of Bridge Street and King, reading these intense treatises and sermons addressed to the people of Northampton very near the spot where Edwards would have preached them and people would have heard them. I'd look at the curve of the lawn, a worn-down hill, and think of where the well might have been, watching people go about their business, and trying to translate in my mind what they were doing to what they might have been doing in the mid-eighteenth century. I took a lot of notes about ordinary sights and sounds around Northampton, and about the weather and what was blooming at a particular time of year, and then I would take it home, research, and try to move to the other century. The visits from insects really helped with that, too, because I figured that they were more or less constants in the eighteenth-century world. I'd write down their behavior if one came along when I was working outside, and it gave me a bunch of sensory material for things that folks in that time might have experienced. I miss doing that. It was simple, but demanding. They could flit away at any moment!

Is that why there are so many insects, spiders in particular, in the book?

There are several reasons, including some I probably can't articulate or have forgotten. Edwards used spiders and insects as metaphors in his work, including in his most famous sermon, "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God." He also wrote about spiders in a scientific treatise when he was young, which he hoped to have published in England, which was, of course, to a young man in the colonies, the big time. Also, his voice is so powerful that it was important to me that readers hear from other beings.

Before this book, you made your name by writing poetry, and by writing novels about lesbians, in particular fat lesbians, such as in Venus of Chalk and Fat Girl Dances with Rocks. You've also been a tireless advocate for the rights of fat people, women in particular, and for gay and lesbian rights. Were people surprised when you told them you were now writing a book about an eighteenth-century religious man, and a slave-owner at that?

Some people were surprised and appalled! One of the two people the book is dedicated to is the novelist Sally Bellerose, and she was not delighted to hear that I had decided to write a novel about Jonathan Edwards. And now she's introduced me at the launch for the book, and is wonderfully supportive of it.

It's strange and lovely. One of the things that brought me to Edwards, besides the cemetery, was tracing the origin of contemporary attitudes about the body -- so relevant to fat people and to LGBT people -- back to some of their Calvinist roots. I didn't find exactly what I expected to find. I had to be brave enough to go unexpected places in the inner lives of my characters and in my own inner life to be true to the story. I found that I really needed the freedom to write what I was compelled to write, and to do it with a live connection to my LGBT literary communities and to be true to my whole self. I was a little afraid to do it, that I wouldn't be allowed to, or that no one would want to read what I had to say about eighteenth-century religious life in New England. I'm not done with thinking and writing about fatness or queerness. I just want to be true to what really compels me, and to bring back what I find in those explorations.

That's so true. We all need to remember and be reminded that the most important thing to write about is the thing with which you're most obsessed at the moment. And hope that moment lasts long enough to sustain writing a novel. What's the response been now that the book is out -- among your loyal readers from the days of Martha Moody and Fat Girl Dances with Rocks, and among your new readers? Are there many readers who are coming to your book purely out of an interest in Jonathan Edwards and The Great Awakening? 

It's just out now, so it's still very early, but some longtime readers have been interested. Since I've been working on the book for ten years, anyone who follows my work has had time to get used to the idea of what was coming. I just got a great email from a scholar of religious history who had done wonderful work on the Edwards family in relationship to slavery. So, yes, some readers who never would have approached my earlier books are coming toward it. I've just read at the Jonathan Edwards Center at Yale, which is very exciting. They were enormously helpful during the course of researching the book.

And, you know, since my publisher is the fantastic Small Beer Press, and there is a great blurb from Alison Bechdel on the front cover, along with the meeting house painting (which I really love). I feel that the book, as an object, brings together these different worlds that have always existed in me.

So what's next?

I'm not sure where it's going, but I've started to work a little with Sylvester Graham, a nineteenth-century health reformer best known as the inspiration for the graham cracker. Folks who know Northampton might remember his old house, which is now a restaurant, Sylvester's. There is a direct link between the religious life of the First Great Awakening and Sylvester Graham, so, if I can get the story going, and get a better feeling for the nineteenth century, I might be able to bring a big cycle of questions to a close for myself, anyway. It's fiction, of course.

The way you put that, that you've "started to work" with him, makes it sound as if he's alive, a contemporary. Is the past becoming more real to you now that you've been immersed in it for Spider in a Tree? Do think it will be easier for you to slip into the nineteenth century now that you've been in the eighteenth?

I'm really not sure. So far, I'm finding the nineteenth century harder to love than the eighteenth century. I feel that I need to keep tracing the thread, but it's hard to follow the compelling, urgent voice of Jonathan Edwards. One of the stories I love is about the hard time that the congregation in Northampton had in replacing him with another preacher after they dismissed him. They tried out various preachers, but none suited. At one point, I've heard, an itinerant preacher was doing such a bad job that Edwards's cousin Joseph Hawley jumped up during the sermon, took over the pulpit, and finished the sermon himself.