Thursday, August 14, 2014

Melanie Bishop: a Q&A with Kelly Sundberg

Following Melanie Bishop's post yesterday, Essay Daily presents her Q&A with Kelly Sundberg.


On the day I was finalizing my review of Kelly Sundberg's essay, "It Will Look Like a Sunset," I searched for her on LinkedIn and Facebook, found her both places, and sent her private messages. I identified myself as a fan, told her I was reviewing her essay, and asked if she'd be willing to answer a few questions. She was wonderfully gracious, taking time to answer my questions that same day, from Idaho, at her summer job in  the Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness. Our email conversation follows. 

Q: You say on your blog that the publication of "It Will Look Like a Sunset" led to over 20,000 views of your blog. My guess is by now that number is much higher. The essay is worthy of readers due to its literary value, but also as an essay that pioneers the outing of abusers, encouraging other women who may be stuck in similar relationships to see them for what they are. Your honesty with yourself, as portrayed in the essay, helps other women take off their blinders and SEE. So the essay has societal and cultural application and relevance, not to mention relevance to psychology, women's studies, men's studies and gender studies. How would you describe this phase of your career, from when the essay first appeared in Guernica to the immediate reception of it, to the traffic that led to your blog, to the weeks and months following, up to right now. You wrote a potent and groundbreaking and brave essay, one that couldn't have been easy to write. It was very well-received. You became, almost overnight, someone any abused woman could go to for understanding and support. How has this been, on your end? Is the hype still happening? Was it brief? Where has it led you? Update me on you and your writing since this essay launched a kind of seismic shift for you as a writer.

A: The attention this essay has received has changed the way I see myself as a writer. In the past, I wrote quiet, literary essays that were published in literary journals and read by an extremely select audience. I had never written anything that had such a large readership, although I had written pieces that were very personal. In response to this essay, I've received hundreds of letters and emails from survivors of domestic violence. Those letters are mostly from women who have survived to see the other side, so it has been extremely validating and rewarding, rather than discouraging. I see all of these beautiful, strong, and successful women who I never would have suspected had survived abuse, and it tells me that I'm not alone in my experience. Abuse is so isolating. As a victim of abuse, I needed to know that I wasn't alone. I looked for stories like mine, and I wasn't finding them, so I decided to write mine. I made myself completely naked on the pages of that essay. In order to do that, I had to remove an idea of audience from my mind while I was writing the essay, so now, knowing that the essay has had such a large audience has created a kind of disconnect. I've become more aware of my writer persona. I am, of course, the woman who wrote that essay, but I'm also a silly person who likes to laugh a lot and dance-walk while I'm on my evening walks. No essay could fully encapsulate the whole experience of who I am, so sometimes, when I'm talking to someone new, someone who hasn't read my writing (and who doesn't know my story) I'm relieved just to be able to relax and be what, I'm ashamed to admit, I think of as "normal." Maybe that's what it comes down to. It's still hard for me to think of myself as normal, and I know that many people don't think of abuse survivors as normal, so with my essay, I'm hoping to show that we are normal.

I had never sent an essay to Guernica, I didn't think my work was political enough, but on an impulse, I decided to send this one to them. The essay was personal, but also political. I knew I had a story to tell that could make a difference if I could get the readers. The initial response was overwhelming, and then, months later, it became even more so because Cheryl Strayed and NPR mentioned the essay, so the popularity and the hype have continued now for a number of months. I'm fortunate that, in the summer, I work a non-writing related job. The folks I encounter know nothing about me or my writing, and it's good for keeping me grounded, for not letting me escape into a world where I'm so trapped in the life of my writing mind that I'm not enjoying my day-to-day life. I'm not sure if I'm articulating that well, but it's very easy to get swept up into the hype of an essay that gets a lot of attention. It can become kind of euphoric and crushing in a way, and it's important to me to remain grounded because, in my day-to-day life, I am still working very hard to recover from the effects of abuse. I have to remind myself sometimes that the abuse is still very fresh, that I am not fully on the other side, and I need to be mindful and active about how I live my life. I don't want to live on any more roller-coasters, and that includes writing-related roller-coasters.

Q: You mention in your interview on Brevity, that your next book is about surviving abuse. Is this, like Demolition, a collection of essays, or is it a memoir? Where are you with this project? Do you have an agent? A potential publisher? Time off to actually write the thing?

A: The book I'm working on is another book of linked essays. In addition to "It Will Look Like a Sunset," I've also published an essay, "The Sharp Point in the Middle" at Pank that looks at the abuse from a different angle, and I have an essay coming out shortly about dealing with the grief of divorce. I also have other pieces I'm working on that look at different elements of my life and experience. The essays I've written recently have been evolving naturally into a collection, and I think they will make a very strong book. I don't have an agent yet, but I have been contacted by an editor at a major publisher who is interested in the book, and we're gearing up to have an agent discussion. I'm hopeful that the book will be published.

Logistically, it is hard for me to find writing time. I'm getting my PhD, I have to work during the summers, and I raise my child by myself, so I don't have the luxury of writing time. I've been looking at some grants that offer funding to writers who have children, and I'm trying to figure out some different ways that I can take some time off during the summer to finish the book. I'd love to get a grant that allowed me to take next summer off from working and dedicate myself fully to my writing for a few months, but if that doesn't happen, I'll keep fitting my writing in when I can. That's the reality of being a single parent and a writer, but I look at all of these challenges and tell myself that I can do it. I feel incredibly empowered right now. A few years ago, I was in a relationship where my partner had me convinced that I could do nothing on my own. He even drove me to work in the morning and picked me up in the evenings. Now, when I look at what I've accomplished, I feel so capable. I know that I can raise my child, get my PhD, and write a book, and do all of those things well.

Q: In your July 14th post on your blog, Apology Not Accepted, you say that one reason you've not been blogging so much is you are happy. You say that when you started the blog, you were "so angry." Clearly that anger was not only warranted and healthy, it was productive for you as a writer, urging you to write about your abuse, your dissolved marriage, single parenthood, and that letter of apology you received, court-mandated and ridiculously inadequate, in which your ex acted like his arrest was the hardest thing on everyone involved. (Hello narcissism.) Given all that, and given that you've made such admirable progress, not just as person, woman, survivor, but as a writer and articulator of the human experience, how do you move from being the person/writer who wrote this career-changing essay to being the person/writer you are becoming? How does the label "abuse survivor" help or hinder you as you take the next steps? When you move on to focus on other topics, will you still be willing to be an ear for women and men who are more in the trenches of exiting abusive relationships? And will Apology Not Accepted always exist as a place for those people to find community and strength in numbers?

A: This is such an interesting question because, in response to that post, a friend wrote me and told me she was concerned that I was letting my past define me. She knew I had so many other stories to tell. Her message upset me a bit, even though I knew it came from a place of love, because I think she was buying into an all-too familiar narrative of healing, which is that, once we're healed, we no longer feel the need to talk about what happened. I am working towards a place of healing. I have no doubt about that, and because of that, I'm able to write about it. Sometimes I want to tell people, "Don't worry about me because I'm telling my story. Worry about all of the women who aren't telling their story." I do, however, worry about the label abuse survivor because, of course, there is so much more to me than that. My friend was right on that point. I do have many other stories, and I want to tell those stories too. I don't want my only story to be that I was abused, and I worry that will become the way people perceive me, the narrative that defines me. As I continue forward in my writing though, and as I move on to other topics, I'm not going to lose sight of the past that helped shape me, so I can't imagine the abuse will ever truly be absent from my writing, and I don't think it needs to be. I think that writing about my suffering has made me a better person, a more understanding person, and a more empathetic listener. Abuse isn't the only type of suffering. We have other losses as well, and I've found that the blog doesn't only appeal to people who have been abused. Many people who have been hurt in other ways have read the blog and found something meaningful within it. I started that blog out of anger, and it has been the most rewarding writing project I have ever undertaken, so I want to keep it as a resource for others, and that might mean finding more guest bloggers or writing about different topics. The blog is completely organic to me. I don't approach it like I approach my other writing. There is no planning involved. I just sit down and write what needs to be written, and I think that writing has ended up being some of my strongest.

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