In 2010, Ali Liebegott took a road trip by train. Destination: the Emily Dickinson house. Along the way, she interviewed poets—Dorianne Laux, Marie Howe, CAConrad, and many more. We’ll be reposting the series to celebrate the release of Liebegott’s fourth book this March, The Summer of Dead Birds.
Sarah Shun-lien Bynum is technically not a poet—yet I stopped to talk to her anyway because anyone would be a fool to not want to steal an hour of conversation from this wonderful writer. Her novel-in-stories, Ms. Hempel Chronicles, is a petri dish of perfection in which she guides the reader like a dog in training through the emotional landscape of her characters. Her novel, Madeline is Sleeping, part fairy tale, part coming-of-age story. It was a National Book Award finalist. In 2010, she was named one of the New Yorker’s top “20 Under 40” fiction writers. This interview took place in Bynum’s home in Los Angeles with the help of a bag of Yum Yum Donuts.
THE BELIEVER: When did you first think of yourself as a writer?
SARAH BYNUM: I think when I went to graduate school. Even then, it felt kind of tenuous. Do you feel comfortable saying, “I am a writer”?
BLVR: Only to people I love who I’ve known as writers my whole life. Like when I’m at the supermarket ringing up groceries and a customer says, “Oh, I’m a writer,” I never say, “I’m a writer, too.”
SB: Me neither. I say, I teach. I think that I first felt comfortable using write as a verb associated with me – “Oh I write” – once I knew I had a book coming out. It took awhile until it felt okay to embrace that.
BLVR: When did you start writing?
SB: When I was a little kid. I penned a lot of limericks. I did various versions of the little Orphan Annie poem.
BLVR: So you started as a poet?
SB: I did. [Laughs.] I wrote a lot of rhyming poems when I was little and then in school I would write stories. I would always take the creative option rather than doing the regular book report. Then in high school I was really lucky because my high school actually offered creative writing classes, so I took my first creative writing class when I was sixteen and I had a wonderful teacher and there were really great writers in that class. A lot of them are still writing. So I got to start pretty young.
BLVR: When did you turn your back on poetry?
SB: [Laughs.] I turned my back on poetry basically when I turned sixteen.
BLVR: That seems appropriate.
SB: In that creative writing class I did write some poems about heroin addicts.
SB: And the shuttle explosion! I really loved this Australian movie called Dogs in Space, which had the singer from INXS in it. So I wrote a poem bringing together the shuttle disaster with heroin addicts. It was terrible.
BLVR: Did it rhyme?
SB: No, at that point I’d moved onto free verse. I wish it rhymed though.
BLVR: When I used to teach writing in jail there was a lot of “cell” rhyming with “hell”.
SB: That was one of the last poems I ever wrote.
BLVR: A good way to go out, I think. In order to go to graduate school to study writing, there must have been some sort of push, right?
SB: I was teaching in Brooklyn and I was lucky. I’ve had a lot of people giving me the right pushes and nudges, and I had a friend who nudged me to take a fiction workshop with her that was offered at night at Columbia through their school for General Studies. She urged me to do this with her and Michael Cunningham was the person teaching the class.
SB: It’s kind of amazing. This was while he was working on The Hours. This now sounds apocryphal but I remember him coming into class and saying, “I’m working on this strange book, it’s like this triptych about Virginia Woolf and I don’t know if it’s just crazy to be doing this.” So he was a wonderful teacher. A really generous teacher. He was the one who said, “You should really think about applying for graduate school.” It had always been something that had been percolating as an escape hatch, like how do I leave middle school teaching gracefully? And graduate school seemed like the best way to do that. But I don’t think I would’ve done it as soon if Michael hadn’t been really supportive of it.
BLVR: What was your friends’ investment in getting you to take the class? Did she want company? Or was it that she really believed in you as a writer?
SB: She was working as a junior editor at Henry Holt and I had shown her some of the work I had done in college.
BLVR: Did you write during that time?
SB: The only times I wrote were when I had to turn something in to Michael’s class. I had fantasized that I would spend my summers writing, that I would get home at 3:30 and start writing, but I was so wiped out that even during the summers I wasn’t able to gather my wits enough to write anything. The fall that I was in Michael’s class, I was writing because I felt that sense of responsibility and wanting to be a good student. But it was hard to write while I was teaching.
BLVR: Now you live in L.A. When I think of that city, I think of wheeling and dealing and everyone having a script. Do you notice anything different about yourself here? Do you miss anything about Brooklyn?
SB: I really miss walking to the subway. I miss that twenty minute long walk—having time to move and think and listen to music and physically “be” in a city, as opposed to L.A., where often I feel as if I’m just inside an encapsulated pod that passes through the city. I would read sometimes on the subway but often I’d just fall asleep. It’s funny because if in LA everyone has a script, in New York everyone has a novel. I feel more off the beaten track here than I did in New York. I think that was why when I was in New York, I was always really hesitant to say I wanted to write. Even just living in Fort Greene, it was like, Colson Whitehead lives right over there. That neighborhood itself is such a literary neighborhood. There’s always a little bit of a sense of sheepishness about trying to do something in the company of other people who’ve been very successful in doing it. But here, if you’re not writing for TV or the screen, you’re still kind of a rare breed.
I like being far away from the epicenter, you know what I mean? When I lived in New York, my boss was on the board of the Pen America Center, so I would be invited to these events where Salman Rushdie would be doing a ribbon cutting or my boss at the last minute would need somebody to fill out a table at a fundraiser, and I’d be seated next to Adam Gopnik. I felt very much like the church mouse coming to these events, and all these people who I met briefly in that sort of glittering world were all very gracious, but I did certainly feel as if I was very, very far away from that.
After graduate school, most of my friends moved to towns and cities where you could actually afford to live and be a writer, so I didn’t have any writing friends in Brooklyn left. I think that’s why I felt like, Oh, there’s me trying to do this in my apartment in Fort Greene and then there’s all of these much more successful, acclaimed writers doing it. It felt very much like they were in different universes and there weren’t very many people in my unknown, struggling universe. I think it would’ve been very different if I’d had more writing friends in New York.
BLVR: I wanted to talk to you about your process— I know you teach and are a mom and you commute. How do you do all of it? Do you leave the summers for writing?
SB: I do. Summers are when I get the most work done. And deadlines do help for sure. My second book I wrote under contract. At the time I swore I would never do that again, but now that there are all these other obligations, the deadlines are helpful. They force you to make the writing a priority, just so you don’t go through the shame and humiliation of missing the deadline.
BLVR: Your first novel, Madeline is Sleeping, and your second novel, The Ms. Hempel Chronicles, are so different stylistically. As your career gets longer, is there a voice you’re settling into, or do you have any projects gnawing at you?
SB: Well, I started the second book while I was still finishing the first book, so once the first book was done, there was still a sense of, “Oh, the other house you can move into,” and the thing that was strange after finishing Ms. Hempel was there wasn’t another, longer, bigger project under way. So for the past couple years I’ve felt somewhat unmoored—I guess I just mixed metaphors going from houses to boats. [Laughs.] On the other hand, I’m hoping that the state of being without a project – even though its disorienting – I’m hoping something good will come out of that.
BLVR: Do you want to talk about the hard question of writing about personal things? How do you write about personal things while having those people be alive on Earth and able to read?
SB: [Laughs.] Well, it’s still fiction.There’s always that curtain you can hide behind. “It’s fiction! It’s fiction!” [wild maniacal laughter] The threadbare curtain.
BLVR: Oh, I know it well.
SB: In the case of writing the story about parenthood, my daughter Willa’s not old enough to read it yet. She might not ever forgive me once she is, but it’s funny because in a half-hearted attempt to protect her, I gave the child a fictional name, but I used the name of a girl from her school that she’s friends with – and this is my own imaginative laziness, but it made it easier for me to connect to this character when I was using a name that I had associations with. So I named the child Ondine, and of course I asked her parents’ permission to use her name in the story—but Willa was very upset that I named the girl in the story after Ondine and not her—she felt this was a terrible betrayal, and so I had to do a lot of backpeddling to explain to her why I wouldn’t actually want to use her name—
BLVR: So she saw The New Yorker story? Willa’s five. Does she think of you as a writer and professor?
SB: Yes, she thinks of me as someone who makes books and she makes books too, so the process is not in any way mystical to her, she’s like “you take some paper, you fold it in half—you draw a picture and then you write a story about what’s happening in the picture,” and so I think she thinks making books is something for all.
BLVR: So she just felt hurt because you hadn’t chosen her?
SB: Yes. Exactly. She was like, “Ondine got to be at the front of the line and not me.” She doesn’t see it as using a name, she sees it as writing a story about Ondine and that I made the girl Ondine instead of making the girl her—
BLVR: Does she know what the story is about?
SB: I told her the reason that I named the girl Ondine was because she has an accident at the end of the story and she pees her pants and the reason I didn’t want the character Willa, I said, is because I know you don’t do that anymore, and I said, Ondine doesn’t do that anymore either – but I was trying to point out that this perhaps was not the character she’d want to claim.
BLVR: How did that go over?
SB: That satisfied her somewhat, but I think there was still this nagging sense of “my friend got a story before I did,” so I told her we’d write a new version in which there’s an older sister named Willa who does not have an accident and who gets to buy a lot of dresses. But it was interesting that even though she’s too young to read the story, it already became a source of some heartache, because Ondine knew about it and was like, “I was in a story.”
BLVR: Do you read your reviews?
SB: Oh, I can’t look at those. I can’t look at Amazon ratings or Goodreads. That could send me into a spiral from which I may never return. I got my first piece of hate mail just a few months ago.
BLVR: You’re kidding. What was the nature?
SB: It began by saying, “We hope you’re seeing a psychiatrist for your pathologically violent tendencies.” I couldn’t figure out what this was about, and then I realized it was about Ms. Hempel. The word sadist appeared frequently in this piece of mail, and when I got to the bottom of the letter, I realized it had to do with the fact in the very first story there’s a reference – there’s not even a full sentence! – devoted to the fact that Ms. Hempel, the teacher, has a boa constrictor, and that one of her students at the end of the year brings her a rat to feed her boa constrictor. Ms. Hempel is using this as an example of a thoughtful gift from a student, but there’s no scene of the snake eating the rat! It’s interesting because you just never know whose hands your book is going to fall into and what kind of response it’s going to provoke.
BLVR: We could wax philosophic forever about the mental health of people doing that. I got hate mail for my book, The IHOP Papers – a physical letter. It was from six IHOP employees and they were really upset that I had portrayed IHOP in a bad light because their franchise owner did nothing but take care of them, and buy shoes for IHOP workers when they didn’t have money to buy them. They read the book and somehow didn’t get that I was on the side of the worker—it was so crazy! My favorite part was that they kept referring to my book in quotation marks – my “book.” And I was like, I did actually spend time to write it. It was pretty funny.
SB: Your “book”.
BLVR: My “book” that took seven years to write! So… you were a New Yorker 20 Under 40 person. Congratulations on being under 40!
SB: I just barely made it!
BLVR: I imagine—well, is that the pinnacle of one’s career? Or can you talk about other exciting things that have happened in your career?
SB: It was very exciting and really humbling, especially seeing how much younger everyone else was, and how many more books they’d published. But it’s also funny because in our small universe it’s the New Yorker 20 Under 40, and it seems to loom very large. Then you talk to anybody else outside of this and they’re like, “Wasn’t there something in that New York magazine…?” or like, “I hear that you are one of the 40 Under 20,” or “I hear you’re one of the Forty Under Forty.” It doesn’t really matter much to anybody else.
I think what’s been most exciting is getting to meet or become friends with writers whose work I was already a big fan of. That has probably been one of the neatest things, and there’s still that sort of disbelief, like, “I can’t believe I’m getting to read with Anne Carson, whose work has been so important to me for over ten years.” So that has been really thrilling and moving. Also, I feel really lucky that I just get to make things—do you know what I mean? Sometimes I’ll be driving in the car and I’ll be listening, and I’ll feel that kind of rush and exhilaration, and I’ll think, even though I don’t get to make music I get to make art—wow, how unbelievably lucky! I get to be one of these people who gets to make things! What an incredible gift that is that I get to make things that might end up touching or affecting someone else—and… just to be a maker.
BLVR: Would you be happy just being a writer? If you could financially swing that?
SB: Of course it’s the dream, isn’t it?
BLVR: Some people are afraid of an open-ended day. But I always have such deep envy for people who don’t have a real job and just make their art, but I also talk to these people a lot and their teeth are falling out because they don’t have health insurance, or they’re worried about money in other ways. That worry enters their psyche. I’ve been working at the grocery store, that’s my environment, so those images enter what I’m writing. Sometimes I think about if my environment were simply my tiny apartment with my crazy head—I don’t know what would happen in that situation.
SB: Wouldn’t you kind of like to try? The idea of not having to have a day job, I have to say sounds really magical.
BLVR: So, I don’t know if it’s because we’re women—but you won’t even tell people you’re a writer when you’ve been nominated for a National Book Award! And for me, if you’re a queer person and your lifestyle is considered “alternative,” then even if you’re just writing about your life, that’s a niche market, because the world hasn’t caught up to your life. Not that there aren’t many successful women, but I do feel that women are not taken as seriously in publishing as men.
SB: Well, I think the publishing world reflects a lot of the biases and inequalities that exist in the larger world, and I think there’s a greater sense of disappointment because we hold this world to a higher standard than the world at large. I think it’s good that there’s been these conversations lately that have been drawing attention to these inequalities because there continues to be a real discrepancy in the degree and representation and opportunity. Don’t you think?
BLVR: I’m so sour grapes it’s not even funny. As a queer woman, I feel like I couldn’t be more ghettoized or lacking of literary opportunity.
SB: But that’s not sour grapes. This isn’t systemic change, and I don’t even do this often as a consciously political act, but when I put together my syllabi, I teach the books that I love and a lot of the books that I love are by women or by people of color, and that means there are going to be students buying those books and reading those books, and maybe one day putting them on a syllabus of their own. It’s not radical change—it’s not sort of an overhaul of the system—but I feel there’s room to raise these questions in smaller ways, like in programming a reading series or putting together a syllabus, or judging book prizes. Keeping those considerations very much present are ways to affect some kind of change, I think, and so is writing about stuff that matters to us. This is a slower kind of change—it’s not a revolution.
BLVR: Let me ask you: what would you tell a writer in the middle of their career?
SB: That’s a good twist in a familiar question. I don’t know. I feel like that’s where I am. So if I was talking to myself?
BLVR: What would you want Anne Carson to tell you about your career?
SB: I don’t want Anne Carson to talk to me about career.
BLVR: What do you want Anne Carson to talk to you about? Your dream conversation with Anne Carson?
SB: I think I would just like to hear about what’s interesting her at this precise moment, because I feel like in a sense that’s what her books do. Or I’d love to talk with her about the Brontes.
BLVR: If you were going to be in a band with Anne Carson, what would the name of your band be and what would Anne Carson do in the band?
SB: What would Anne Carson do in the band? That’s beyond my scope of imagination.
BLVR: Come on! You’re a writer!
SB: I think I’ve only ever seen one photograph of her—so it’s hard for me to even summon up a visual image of her. Can it just be the soul of Anne Carson? Rather than Anne Carson incarnate?
BLVR: Wow. I feel like we’re verging into deep stoner talk.
BLVR: We’re high from donuts and now we’re talking about the soul of Anne Carson! Are you going to front the band?
SB: No.I want to be a bass player and get to play harmony.
BLVR: If you could make out with Rilke or Emily Dickinson, who would you choose?
SB: I don’t even have to think twice about it. Emily Dickinson.
BLVR: Really?! How come?
SB: I just think she’d be a better kisser.
BLVR: Really? Would you rather make out with James Baldwin or Virginia Woolf?
SB: Virginia Woolf.
BLVR: Really? How come?
SB: I love her.
BLVR: Okay. Virginia Woolf or Emily Dickinson?
SB: That one’s hard… Emily Dickinson.
BLVR: A striking turn of events!
SB: Yeah. Emily Dickinson.
BLVR: All right. Which of the Bronte sisters?
SB: Oh, Charlotte for sure. I like restraint in my make-out sessions. I like a little mystery—something being held back!
BLVR: I think you might be surprised by Emily Dickinson.
SB: Who would you pick?
BLVR: I would make out with James Baldwin. I mean, I would always pick Emily Dickinson –
SB: – she trumps.
BLVR: But James Baldwin, I have such admiration for. I think he’s such a genius. But I don’t think he’d want to make out with me. I’m not his cup of tea.
SB: But the premise of this question is that these are consensual partners, right?
BLVR: I feel like the James Baldwin make out would be very drunken. I feel like he drank a lot. Did you read Another Country?
SB: No, I haven’t.
BLVR: At least half of the pages in that book are someone making someone else a drink or getting ice out of the freezer to put in a drink. At least half. So if you’re ever wondering how to make your book longer…
SB: I have a question for you. Do you feel like it’s hard being a writer and not drinking? I feel that sometimes.
BLVR: It was hard to go from being a drinker to not, because I always do readings after I had drank, and I had this idea that I was only dynamic if I was drinking. But now it’s been so long—it’s been ten years since I drank—that I feel like I’ve had enough experience with myself as a person who doesn’t do that—but sometimes I’ll see the actual physical drink, and it will just go into my Anne Carson soul—it just hits me in a way—it’s a very physical sensation. But a lot of people I know don’t drink, luckily.
SB: Even a lot of writers you know?
BLVR: Yeah. You know when I want to have a drink? It’s so, so crazy. After I work at the grocery store and I mop the floor at the end of the night and I’m really tired. Mentally it’s merged with waitressing, it’s like a symbol of the night being over—you have your cigarette, you have your thirty beers.
SB: And that’s how you cap the day?
BLVR: Yeah. Do you not drink?
SB: No, I don’t. Sometimes I feel as if I’m a disappointment because I don’t really drink and there that sense of, Oh I would be so much more charming and dynamic if I did drink in these settings—like when I was in graduate school. I do feel that some of the socializing that happens around writing would be easier if I was more of a drunk.