Monday, September 2, 2019

What's in Dolls: a Conversation with Susan Neville

Nine years ago this week, Allie Leach, one of the then-new students at the MFA program where I had just taken a job, came up to me raving about Susan Neville. Did I know her work? I didn't, I had to admit, but such was the nature of Allie's enthusiasm (I think you'd really like it, she'd said: it's pretty weird)—which is also the nature of Allie Leach in general—that I ordered a copy of Neville's book Fabrications, a collection of essays about the nature of making things in the Midwest. I read it and enjoyed it a great deal, to the point where I scanned a couple essays from it as pdfs for archiving and teaching somewhere down the line. I've never taught these essays to grad students (though I think I will this fall), but I've taught them several times since then to undergraduate nonfiction students. I love how they translate to research assignments (go and physically figure out how something is made, for instance, and write about it), not that "how things get made" accurately gets at what's really good about these essays.

It's an undersung collection and one I've become more enthusiastic about as I've spent the better part of a decade with it, and you should really give it a look. In rereading and preparing to teach her essay, "The Woman Who Sculpts the Dolls is Named Gretel Ehrlich Turner," last fall and trying to figure out how to explain exactly how it works, I found myself with questions about how exactly she got it to do what it does, since what it does is wonderful and seemingly effortless. Writing about it, I thought, well, why not ask her instead, which led to this conversation about the essay. Turns out that Neville's next book is The Town of Whispering Dolls, which won the Catherine Doctorow Prize from FC2 and will be published next spring. It's also a great, weird book, and one I'm really looking forward to. I imagine we'll continue this conversation about how the essaying spills over into the fiction, but for the moment I wanted to introduce you to her work. If you don't know it yet, you should. A good place to start would be Fabrications, particularly "The Woman Who Sculpts the Dolls is Named Gretel Ehrlich Turner."


Ander Monson: One of the things I admire most about this essay is its lightness—particularly for an essay that begins with a funeral and is in many ways about death and historical erasure. I think I mean light in the not-heavy way (though there’s lots of serious matter in it) as well as in a brightness/ lots-of-light kind of way. It treats its subjects delicately and even amusingly (it’s hard for me not to read the stabbing-the-baby head scene without laughing, for instance), and seems pleased to proceed by implication, redirection, and indirect arguments. Maybe this is a question more asking you to talk about how to handle an essay that begins at a funeral without making it funereal, or to deliver an argument (about erasure and women and dolls) without seeming to. Did you know you were going to begin the essay at a funeral, or did you arrive there later? How did you arrive at the tone of the essay?

Susan Neville: Good question. I just went back and re-read the essay because I couldn’t remember ever beginning something with a funeral and couldn’t imagine what funeral it was. And when I remember the experience, I remember the humor and the beauty. I think that the day we visited the doll factory was very joyful and that Grace’s mystic experience in the middle of her treatment for breast cancer was also joyful, and I contribute the essay’s tone to her experience and the way she transmitted it to me. We’ve both spent many hours being angry about erasure, and we could see it all around us that day obviously. It was often a topic of conversation with us. But ultimately all of the erasures were in a world made by men while there was also this other green world that wasn’t about competition at all, one where women made things and noticed each other. I don’t think I put Grace’s weaving in the essay, but she’s also a weaver and had spent a good deal of her recovery at the loom.

The funeral was actually Marguerite Young’s (the author of the novel Miss Macintosh, My Darling.) I thought the image of the life-sized dolls was both humorous (and so not funereal) and uncanny and kind of brave on her part, a real assertion of her quirkiness. Her books are filled with these kinds of strange juxtapositions. Also, and I didn’t mention this either, she’s also being erased. Anais Nin, in her book The Novel of the Future mentions Miss Macintosh as her prime example. When the book came out, Marguerite was on the cover of Look Magazine. Or maybe it was Life. I can’t remember. But she died fairly friendless in a nursing home in Indianapolis and, aside from the dolls, there were only eight people at her funeral. I was one of them.

I’m not sure that I’m really delivering an argument as much as meditating on erasure and the strength of a woman’s spirit. It was about that world outside the world of men. Everything connected with that day seemed to be about that, even things I didn’t mention. Everything just seemed magnetically pulled toward, again, Grace’s joy.

One of the first essays I really studied to see how it works was Orwell’s “A Hanging” and the lesson that he is making an argument against capital punishment without explicitly making the argument made a deep impression on me. Every single detail in that essay contributes to the argument, every word, and every paragraph adds another premise to the argument that ‘and therefore, capital punishment is wrong…’ There are even details that are included or not included (such as the man’s name or his crime) to anticipate objections and refute them. I wanted to learn from that essay.

So the idea of the doll essay, for me, is just there in what I see. The metaphor is blazingly obvious. At some point the idea becomes sticky and draws everything to it. The idea becomes sticky in the writing but also in the reality. Experiencing the day itself becomes part of the meditation and makes the day itself feel charged, meaningful.

AM: I love how the title seems to offer one answer to one of the big questions of the essay: how is the work of women erased, and how might it be made visible? It’s done without a lot of fanfare, since we don’t get a story about the erasure of Gretel Ehrlich Turner, or even about the erasure of the women who make the dolls. There are notably only two men we actually meet in the essay: the one who “takes an ice pick and stabs the back of the sweet pink babies’ heads to let out air” and the one who tells the story about buying a doll for his mother and getting pulled over because of its realism. I guess we sort of meet T. C. Steele, but he’s barely a presence here except, interestingly, as the one who almost accidentally seems to have collaborated with Selma. And we never even meet Gretel Ehrlich Turner in the essay. In fact you seem to go out of your way to hide her, grammatically, in this litany deep in the essay:
Women in the town make homemade dresses…there’s a woman who puts a copper mask over each doll’s face and paints the lips…there’s another woman who affixes the eyelashes and trims the lower ones, and a woman who dresses the dolls, and a woman who applies the wigs…a woman who stuffs the torsos and who ties the heads…and who puts the final stitch in the back of the torso and who numbers each doll’s neck with ink… Each doll is made from a handmade sculpture…There’s a woman whose job it is to brush each doll’s beautiful hair before placing it in a box and another woman whose job it is to prepare them for shipping, and they all take turns naming the dolls and coming up with their stories.
She’s not even listed as one of the “a woman who” phrases; she’s even erased from that list. We are told “Each doll is made from a handmade sculpture,” and then the title responds to this grammatical erasure. And that response echoes with your plan to unerase (fabricate?) your great-aunt who had her name removed from the bestselling zoology textbook. And by the fact of including that story in this essay, it also partly unerases your great-aunt. I love how the story of Selma Steele kind of responding to being erased from her marriage by creating all of the landscapes that her painter husband ends up painting, raising the question of why exactly we think about art (or authorship or a craft like dollmaking) as a singular process which has conveniently historically played to the benefit of men. Why do you think that is? Is this something you’re trying to counteract in this essay specifically (but also in the book in general)?

SN: Wow, thank you. This is exactly what I was trying to do. I was very conscious of being a woman walking through traditionally male spaces throughout the book. In this essay in particular the title came last. I realized that I had erased Gretel Ehrlich Turner in that earlier litany by not mentioning the name of the factory--Turner Dolls. I do that in many of the essays because of course I wanted to focus on the process of making and the metaphor that arose out of the process. But in this case, the factory itself was made by and named after a woman, who asserts herself in the name. So at the end I wanted to simply assert it as well, but again, not with rage this time. I wanted the reader to realize that the essay was about erasure.

I do love Selma Steele’s spunk. And I did, by the way, fabricate my great-aunt’s obituary. She’s now listed, at least in the Indianapolis Star, as the author of her book. And the rare books archivist at Butler brings out all the drafts when she gives library tours to talk about that particular erasure. My great aunt’s name, by the way, was May Kolmer Schaefer Iske.

AM: “The Woman” appears in your book Fabrication, which is themed around sites of making (canned tomatoes, insulin, caskets, dolls, etc). I realize only now that the other essay I teach most often from this book is “Byzantium,” about the trip to the casket factory, which makes for a compelling if accidental pairing. The idea of making—and the made thing—and even I think the word fabrication shows up many times in this essay. How intentional is that? I’m wondering a bit about this essay’s relationship to the collection, and whether on seeing that all these essays were related thematically, whether you began tightening the essays and reinforcing their echoes in revision, or whether the ideas this essay presents about fabrication (especially regarding the ways in which women play roles in fabricating) came before the book had found its center (or both)?

SN: Interesting question! I actually started the book with three things. One was the word ‘fabrication’ which seemed to be in the air at the time. It had something to do with post-structuralist theory. I loved the word. The other is that I had young children and was very Indiana-bound and so wanted to see things that were in some ways closed to me. They had to be close enough to get to and return home in one day. Hence, factories. I live in a manufacturing state and drove by factories all the time but never went inside. The cool thing about writing creative nonfiction is that you can make experiences for yourself and indulge your curiosity.

Anyway, I bought myself a hard hat and work boots and started making phone calls. It was also very clear then that factories were shutting down in the rust belt, and rapidly, so I wanted to capture a way of life that was on its way out. That was the third thing. I had to work fast, actually. I called the Easy Spirit Shoe Factory two weeks before it shut down. The same thing happened with the Barbie Corvette factory. Anyway, I knew with every essay that it was for a book called Fabrication. The subtitle was added by the publisher because they didn’t know how to explain what the book was.

AM: The essay sure feels collaborative, how it brings in (and brings back) your friend Grace, especially, and also brings in and brings back Selma Steele and your great-aunt, and all these women (and a few men) whose work has collectively led to these beautiful objects* sitting in the front row of the funeral for your friend where the essay begins. I don’t have a question in this, or maybe I do, in the asterisk: are dolls objects? Are they beings? Are they filled with us, as the two dolls you and Grace buy that somehow are transfigured into your daughters by the essay’s end? Are they us?

SN: I’ve always loved dolls. They were my favorite Christmas presents as a child and I would hurry home from school to take care of them. Rilke’s essay on dolls has always sort of bothered me, because they don’t strike me as uncanny.

I just finished a collection of stories that is really a companion book to Fabrication, and it was hard to come up with images for the cover. How to convey that the dolls in a book called The Town of Whispering Dolls shouldn’t be clown-like or creepy, that you should feel drawn to their innocence and their brokenness? I don’t think that dolls are beings, but I learned to love and care for beings through loving them as a child. It’s odd how we don’t see stuffed animals as creepy or frightening. I suppose you can explain it by their distance (another species!) from the uncanny valley. But a beautiful doll’s face is a feminine face usually, and I just never have seen the creepiness--only the beauty and sometimes the sadness. And so I’m not drawn to the images that emphasize strangeness.

AM: I think I mentioned before that I have a longtime fascination with doll parts, and in part in trying to answer my daughter’s question about why I have all these doll parts but no dolls (she asked me: “are you going to make a doll?”), I’ve been trying to work out what they mean to me. Really I think it’s about their emptiness more than anything else. Like a lot of things in my life that I get interested in, it started as a joke and evolved into something quite a bit more serious as I began to look at it more closely. My interests aren’t quite in the mostly-male horror-movie treatment of dolls, and they’re not in the mostly-female treatment that this essay so beautifully articulates.  You’d mentioned that you were working on a collection of stories about dolls, two of which I think I’ve published in DIAGRAM: [here] and [here].

At the end “The Woman Who Sculpts the Dolls…” arrives at a position about what dolls mean to women (or, well, what dolls mean to you and Grace, since your “own fragile souls” are filling them in the backseat as you drive home). I’m wondering how this theory of dolls (if you want to call it that) resonates—or doesn’t—with the stories. Is it an idea you’re working out in the stories, or is the question of “how dolls work” or “how women relate to dolls” completely beside the point of what you’re interested in with the stories?

SN: The story collection is much less about a theory of dolls I guess, and not all the stories are directly about dolls. They are, I guess, still about what happens to a place when the source of money and meaning is erased, so it’s about the rust belt after the factories have left. So the first doll story I wrote was about the broken young women in a small town who turn to prostitution to support their opioid addictions. I read an article in the paper about the women and (unlike the dolls in the Turner essay) these are women who are being used and discarded, who have lost part of their spirit and humanity. So wow, I guess the spirit is in the potential of those baby dolls in the Turner essay, but it’s been lost in this book. Perhaps because they’ve been erased too long, because no one has looked at them lovingly for a long time.

In the stories, the dolls are usually plastic. They still have some agency (as in the Grotto story) and I did intend for the egg babies but mostly the Fisher Price plastic dolls to be beings that the children need to understand and in one case, care for. Many of the dolls are very subtle though, and there are robots and a woman’s body who is very rag-doll like but isn’t a doll. There’s a story early in the book where a young woman turns into something like a GI Jane, but probably I’m the only one who would guess that. This book is more about the place being invisible and people becoming broken than it is about the dolls. This is the place where the factories once were and the world has changed too quickly, leaving that emptiness you talk about. While not all the stories contain dolls, they speak to one another.

You know, when you asked earlier about whether dolls are filled with us, I wasn’t sure. But I guess they’re reflections of what we see when we look at a human face. If we look at that young face with love or hunger, that’s what we see. If we look at the face and don’t see anything at all, the doll becomes something not-quite-human, and so uncanny. If we look and see the emptiness, perhaps we feel compassion or sorrow. I don’t know. Whatever it is, it’s a reflection of something inside of us. 


Susan Neville is the author of six other works of creative nonfiction in addition to Fabrication. Her story collections received the Flannery O'Connor Award, the Richard Sullivan Prize, and the Catherine Doctorow Prize. She lives in Indianapolis and teaches at Butler University. 
Ander Monson is the founding editor of Essay Daily.

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