When I thought about the task of a “self-interview,” my first response was: But I interview myself all the time—only I don’t imagine that the folks who came up with this idea want to know the answers to, “Wait—why am going through another winter in the Northeast?” or “I know I want that third cup of coffee, but do I need it?” (Can’t imagine that would be of much interest.) Then again, I think that most acts of writing are self-interviews of sorts.

What do you mean?

Well, like many writers, I write to understand, more fully, what I think or feel about something—the writing (hopefully) has some sort of momentum to it, in that I’m writing towards an explanation or understanding. Using the example of my book, Much to Your Chagrin, the writing process was sparked by a very particular question: what the hell happened to me? The book covers the year before I turned thirty, which was an unexpectedly tumultuous time, a time when everything should have been coming together—in life, love, and career—but instead fell unceremoniously apart, because my life then was built on false ideas. As it turns out, the unraveling was a good thing—it brought me to a much more authentic place, in terms of being able to make decisions about how I wanted to be in the world, based on my honest desires, as opposed to what I (erroneously) thought others expected. But when I sat down to write, three months after that year had ended, I didn’t understand any of that. And so the writing process was such a joy—and yes, cathartic—because I was able to relive and examine the events of the prior year, which, thanks to a persistent anxiety and depression, I hadn’t been fully present for the first time around. I feel so grateful to have had that experience.

Did you always plan on publishing your story?

No. When the year ended, I tried to plow through and write the story of what happened, but I was writing it in the first person, and it made me cringe, every time I sat down to say that I did all of the unseemly things. This showed in the writing. After I had one hundred pages, I sent it to my former thesis advisor, whose opinion I trusted. She agreed: something just wasn’t working. At the time, she said, “Why don’t you try it as a novel?” But I hadn’t written fiction since I was a kid and so that thought was too daunting. Instead, I gave up my ambition. I thought, maybe it’s just time for me to exist without having to cling to a project, especially if I’m clinging out of fear.

Around that time, I happened to pick up a Village Voice and flip to Rob Breszny’s amazing horoscopes. Mine (Aquarius) said something to the effect of, “You are pregnant with ideas, so you should treat yourself as if you were nine months pregnant…” I read that and thought, I want to give birth to my ideas. So I started eating healthy, doing yoga and writing every morning, spilling the contents of my head onto the page, without any expectation that they were going to result in a publishable idea. (At the time, I hadn’t kicked my chain smoking habit and was avowedly single, so it’s no wonder that my joke, “I’m pregnant!” didn’t go over well with even the most good-humored of my friends.)

In any case, three months after this, I got the idea to write the same story in the second person; from that point on, the writing flowed in a way I’d never experienced. All along, I told myself that this writing was only for me. I’d been burned by producing things I thought other people wanted or approved of and so it was really important to separate the process from any ideas of publishing. A month after I finished the first draft, I put it away, unsure of what to do. At the time, the whole endeavor felt so personal and was still so raw that I couldn’t conceive of it as business. And since a great deal of the book centers on my heartbreak after a romantic relationship with my literary agent falls apart, I was doubly self-conscious about sending the book out (especially to male agents).

After a lucky meeting, I was contacted by a literary agent who’d heard about my book; we met, and she quelled a lot of my anxieties about publishing. Her interest and understanding about the relevance of the subject matter to a wider audience was, too, heartening.  After a few weeks of deliberation, I decided I did want to share my story. My hope was that if the process was healing for me, then perhaps it could be healing for someone else, too.

And, eight months since publication, how do you feel about that decision?

Great. So much has changed since that time, now two and a half years ago. Both personally and professionally, I’m in a much different place. Now the book is business and not just a personal story. Since a lot of what happened that year was so painful, I used to feel—especially before publication—guilty when a friend would say, “Gosh, since starting your book, I feel like you’ve been keeping me company.” I’d say, “I’m sorry. I was terrible company that year…” And I guess that came from the memories of not even wanting to be around myself, especially when I was really depressed and not able to envision a way out or anything better. But as time has passed, I don’t feel that way anymore. Instead, I’m more loving and accepting of that year–and so when I read or speak about Chagrin, I always try to remind myself that the story is simply an offering. Plus, life, while never perfect, just keeps getting better—and I can thank, in part, those experiences for bringing me to this place.

Was there anyone whom you were particularly nervous about reading the book?

Yes. My boyfriend read it fairly early on in our relationship, before publication. Given that one element of the book covers a series of failed relationships, it’s safe to say: I was terrified of what he’d think. But, another underlying thread of the book is my desire for love and part of that experience is sharing one’s whole self, not just the attractive parts. So as risky as it seemed at the time, it was also necessary—and ultimately, in large part because he’s wonderful, a positive experience for both of us.

What’s been the best part of publication?

It’s given me a stronger sense of ownership over my own life, by being able to say, This is what happened, through my eyes. And if that sounds very basic, it is. But it was still a challenge, at least for me. The publication process has, too, taught me a lot about the importance of taking greater responsibility for all aspects of my life, including my career. And of course, I love love love—can’t emphasize this enough—hearing from readers who say that the book resonated with their experiences, thoughts or feelings, especially when said experiences, thoughts or feelings were things they felt were unique to their lives.

What are you working on now? And is it related in any way to the themes in Chagrin?

Writing-wise, things are thankfully moving again, after a period of strictly focusing on book promotion. I’m excited about a new project that has been budding for a while now. It’s fiction, and beyond this, I’m not prepared to talk about it, mostly because I’m not even sure what it is myself. It’s related to Chagrin in the broad sense that writing that first book gave me a certain confidence in exploring elements of the human experience that had heretofore seemed too daunting to delve into. Other than this, I am also excited to be working on a screenplay adaptation of Chagrin, as well as a concept for a film based on a summer I spent boxing in Prague, while conflicted about my engagement to my then-boyfriend of several years.

When do you do your best writing?

I guess the best writing comes only after I’ve committed to a routine, which is not easy, even though I know that’s what works. To make a living, I teach and also freelance, so structuring my time is really important. Right now, I’m reading The Gathering by Anne Enright, which is exquisitely written. And of course, being moved by the work of other writers helps me see new possibilities in my own work.

Also, as a volunteer with the fabulous New York Writer’s Coalition, I run a weekly writing group for women over fifty at a Baptist Church in Brooklyn. As with all NYWC groups, this group is grounded in the idea that every human being has something unique to say. We write together, as a group, and then share our work. This has been such a valuable part of my writing process, too, helping me stay focused on writing-for-writing’s sake. Plus, there’s something about the act of writing by hand (versus writing on my laptop, which I’m more likely to do if I’m alone) that puts me more in touch with a visceral perspective.

Speaking of that which is instinctive, I dance regularly with an amazing group of women, as part of a workshop called Zodiac Dance. Having an outlet for movement is so liberating, the value of which is definitely beyond verbal articulation. Witnessing others’ unique expressions is enlivening, as is having the opportunity to move myself. It’s the best! Oh, and every week, the playlist is fantastic, so that’s an additional source of stimulation.

Is there anything else you’d like to add?

Yes:  Thank you, NervousBreakdown, for asking me to do this interview!  And best of luck with your new venture!

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SUZANNE GUILLETTE grew up in southeastern Massachusetts, where she remembers sledding on oceanside sand dunes in the winter and watching thunderstorms on the beach in the summer. Although she now lives in New York City, she still manages to spend a decent amount of time in or near the water.

A writer and occasional storyteller, Suzanne’s work has appeared in Tin House, Self, Publisher’s Weekly, and Time Out New York, in addition to other publications. Suzanne teaches autobiography and memoir-writing; she is very grateful to the New York Writer’s Coalition, for its inspiring work in the NYC-area and its accessible, brilliant methodology, from which she has learned so much.

Her first book, Much to Your Chagrin: A Memoir of Embarrassment, chronicles a year that Suzanne spent collecting embarrassing stories from strangers on the streets of Manhattan, which, not incidentally, happened to be the year before she turned thirty. After a heated fling with her literary agent morphs into unexpected heartbreak, Suzanne’s life, every so slowly begins to unravel, bringing her to the eventual realization that the person she should really be querying about shame is herself.

When she’s not writing or reading, Suzanne pursues dance, which has been a lifelong love. She also enjoys yoga, travel, the company of loved ones and cheese.

To learn more, please visit her at www.suzanneguillette.com.

6 responses to “Suzanne Guillette: The TNB Self-Interview”

  1. Ronlyn Domingue says:

    Wow, 30-ish was pivotal for me, too. I decided to start writing fiction again and went to grad school for an MFA. Bit of a life change.

    Your comment about the New York Writer’s Coalition reminded me of my favorite book about writing, IF YOU WANT TO WRITE: A BOOK ABOUT ART, INDEPENDENCE, AND SPIRIT by BRENDA UELAND. It’s kind, encouraging, and affirming–perhaps more about life than writing. She said, “Everybody is talented, original and has something important to say.” The older I get, the more I know that’s true.

    All best wishes for your next project!

  2. Zoe Brock says:

    Welcome to the Breakdown, Suzanne! I really enjoyed reading this and look forward to more! MORE MORE MORE!!!! z

  3. Megan DiLullo says:

    This is a great self interview. You seem to have a great grasp on the world and an enlightened outlook.

    Welcome aboard!

  4. Lovely, lovely interview, Suzanne!

    I remember reading your interview on SMITH Mag and thinking “I should run right out and buy this!”.. and then of course… never did.

    That’s all gonna change this weekend! Book spree!! Can’t wait!

  5. Erika Rae says:

    This interview resonates so well with me as someone who also sat down to write after a pivotal couple of years right before 30. I like that you treated it like a pregnancy. Really interesting take on the writing process.

    Welcome to TNB, Suzanne!

  6. Hi Suzanne! Welcome aboard!

    There seems to be a lot coming together (and apart) for me and everyone I know as we come up to that end-of-the-twenties mark. Greg would be able to tell you amazing things about your Saturn Return, I’m sure.

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