Facing a Lived Reality: A Conversation with Kelly Sundberg


I started reading Kelly Sundberg’s personal essays in 2014, when her essay, “It Will Look Like a Sunset,” was published in Guernica. I was amazed by the way she used precise, evocative language to write about the cycle of domestic violence, and how survivors not only face increasing terror at physical harm, but also a series of emotional betrayals. In her recently published debut memoir, Goodbye, Sweet Girl: A Story of Domestic Violence and Survival, Sundberg presents her full story: a tremendously moving account of leaving a violent marriage, conveyed through powerfully haunting prose. At a time when there are still so many stigmas and misunderstandings about the nature of partner violence, Sundberg’s personal account is an essential text, one that is both candid and nuanced.

I had the pleasure of speaking to Kelly about her experience as a survivor, as well as her goals as a writer and speaker. We also chatted about her love of dark literature, the difference between essay writing and working on longer projects, and the importance of sharing our stories.


The Rumpus: One of the challenges of memoir seems to be parsing through all of the material that comprises our lives. Was the process of selecting what scenes to include or not include challenging? Was it similar or different from crafting an essay? I ask because one thing I really admire about this text is its precision! 

Kelly Sundberg: It was challenging to select what scenes to include because, of course, an entire life has a lot of scenes to include. I think that my history as an essayist helped me a lot there. Most essays that I write are braided in some way, and I found myself using that same structure in the memoir. And this memoir is a rather short memoir. I think that its concision stems from my work as an essayist. I really believe in trusting my readers whenever possible. I worked to not always spell out what I was trying to illustrate, and of course, I probably lost some readers in the process, but stylistically, that was a choice that I made, and I’m glad that I did.

Rumpus: In many ways, Goodbye, Sweet Girl seems to be an extension of your essay, “It Will Look Like a Sunset.” Were you already thinking about writing a book at the time of that essay? Or did you embark on a book afterwards?

Sundberg: I definitely wasn’t thinking of writing a book when I wrote that essay. I wrote the first draft of that essay only four months after I left Caleb, and I don’t know that I had even planned on publishing it. At the time, a woman—one of Caleb’s friends—had asked me what my “triggers” were that led me to stay when the violence got so bad. She wasn’t necessarily defending Caleb, but she was definitely placing the responsibility for how bad the abuse was on me. At the time, I didn’t have the lexicon that I have now. I didn’t know the terms “gaslighting” or “victim-blaming.” But I knew that her question didn’t feel right, so I tried to write about why I stayed. In many ways, I wrote that essay for her. Of course, as happens with victim-blamers, the essay didn’t change anything, and she never changed her mind about Caleb, or me, or what led to our abusive marriage, but the essay changed me in profound and good ways, so it was a worthwhile endeavor.

Rumpus: Your essay generated so many meaningful conversations online. Was it surprising for you to see how many women connected with your story?

Sundberg: Yes, and seeing the response that it prompted is what made me realize that I had a book in me—that this discussion could be longer and more nuanced.

I really wrote the book to explain why I stayed, and I recognize that the question of “Why did she stay?” is inherently problematic because we should be questioning why he abused, but I can’t answer the question of why he abused. I can only tell my own story. I felt that my childhood, familial upbringing, and previous relationships had all groomed me to be someone who would make excuses for someone like Caleb, and I knew that, if I was going to tell the story fully, then I needed to have a more comprehensive memoir than just a memoir of the marriage.

Rumpus: I was really haunted by many of the scenes from childhood, especially the one with the little boy who you felt sorry for as a child. What about the inclusion of this narrative was important for you? Did you make the conscious connection between these childhood experiences and what you experienced as an adult before writing the book? Or was this part of the process of writing?

Sundberg: I think that the inclusion of this narrative illustrated a couple of things. It showed that, as girl growing up in Idaho, violence against women was normalized early on. That narrative also illustrated the ways in which my own parents’ kindness and empathy could be used against me because they tended to empathize with and make excuses for boys. So, later, when I was empathizing with and making excuses for Caleb, I was only following the pattern that I had grown up with. I did make conscious connections between the childhood experiences and my experiences as an adult before writing the book. I had been writing a series of essays about childhood while Caleb was abusing me, and though, at the time, I didn’t know it, I was telling the story of how I came to be abused, even as that story was happening.

So, when the time came for me to sit down and write the book, I was already sitting on a lot of material about childhood that had come to represent more to me than just childhood narratives. 

Rumpus: Did you have readers at various points in the writing process? Or did you write the entire book before getting feedback?

Sundberg: My editor was reading as I wrote, but she was restrained in her feedback. There were a couple of times when she pointed out huge gaps in the material, but she mostly did line edits and just let me know if the narrative was coming together or not. I didn’t bring other readers in to the process until the end when I had Dinty W. Moore read it, as well as my friend, Todd Gleason. They each offered me some suggestions, but not too much. I did both a creative writing MFA and a creative writing PhD, so I’m very familiar with the workshop model. It was weird to write an entire book without workshopping it, but I’m glad that I did. The material was too close to my heart for me to have other voices in my head.

Rumpus: I feel like after a lot of workshopping experience, you also have a clear sense of what you want to accomplish with a particular manuscript.

Sundberg: Yes. I learned a lot from my various workshops, but at this point, I trust my own voice and a few reliable readers, and I don’t find workshop to be very useful anymore.

Rumpus: I’ve spoken with some memoirists who discuss the process of writing as deeply cathartic. Was writing this story cathartic for you?

Sundberg: Yes, definitely.

Rumpus: What did writing teach you about yourself and your experience? And do you feel that this process of reflection continues through interviews and as you are having your book tour and readers are asking you questions?

Sundberg: I’m a crier, and by the end, I had to write late at night because I was crying so hard, and I didn’t want my son to witness it. One night, I wept so much that I went and laid on the floor of my bedroom. I think that what affected me the most, emotionally, while writing the book was that, as I was putting my story on to paper, I realized that what I had suffered was really, really bad. I tend to be a stoic person—a minimizer—and I’m always the kind of person who will reassure others that I’m “okay,” but reading about what had happened to me helped me realize that I had not been okay. Realizing that gave me a new sense of compassion for myself and what I had gone through. Having sudden compassion for myself was oddly heartbreaking because I was confronted with the fact that, for years, I had only had compassion for Caleb.

Rumpus: That must have been a lot to come to terms with. 

Sundberg: Yes, the process of book tour and reader questions has been quite therapeutic, but in an exposure therapy kind of way. I really can’t hide from the questions that folks ask, which means that I can’t hide from my lived reality. I guess that I actually don’t know if it’s therapeutic or re-traumatizing. Sometimes it’s hard to tell the difference in the moment.

Rumpus: Do you ever feel comfortable telling a reader that a question they’ve asked is too personal? Or that there are still private things that you don’t want to discuss? I ask because I know this is something I struggle with as a personal essayist.

Sundberg: I’m trying to think of a time that might have happened, but I don’t think that I’ve ever done that, actually. That’s not to say that I didn’t want to, but I think that I’ve usually struggled through the questions. I’m not a super private person in general, but everyone has their sore spots that they’d like to protect and keep from public consumption. When folks ask me about my son, I really struggle with answering because there is no good, or easy, or satisfying answer that I can offer them. He is undoubtedly traumatized, and yes, he still sees his father, and no, that is not something that I have the legal ability to change. It’s such a painful subject for me, and I loathe questions about my sweet boy.

Rumpus: He must be very proud of his mom.

Sundberg: He is definitely proud of me. I can say that with some surety. And I can say that he loves his mama, and I love him, and we are about as close as a parent and child could be. I just have to trust that is enough for now. I can say to someone, “I’m okay,” but I can’t say to them, “My son is okay.” That’s not something that I can ever really know.

Rumpus: Why do you think there is so much shame/stigma surrounding domestic violence in 2018? Do you think this can change? Do you think it is changing already with books like yours? There is a lot of data out there, but how do you think that personal stories add a new dimension to the cultural discussion?

Sundberg: I think that the stigma still associated with domestic violence is connected to a lack of education about the subject. People still don’t perceive domestic violence as being as bad as other forms of violence. For a very long time in our culture, domestic violence was considered to be completely acceptable, so I think it’s probably normal that there is now a learning curve, and we have to catch up to new ways of thinking and talking about violence.

I hope that things are changing. It seems to me like things are changing. Even in the four years that I’ve been writing about domestic violence, I’ve seen the cultural discussion get more nuanced. I also think that personal stories do add a new dimension to the cultural discussion. One of the things I wanted to show with my book is that domestic violence can happen with anyone.

Here’s the thing: if you met me, you wouldn’t see me as a “victim” or a “survivor.” You’d just see me as a person. I’m friendly, warm, opinionated, and educated. When people who don’t know my story hear that I was in an abusive marriage, they’re often shocked because I do not fit the stereotype. And that is what is wrong with this discussion. Those stereotypes are wrong, and they’re limiting, and we have to move beyond them.

Rumpus: Speaking of your warmth and humor, I follow you on social media and am always charmed by your posts! Do you feel like you are able to tap into these different parts of yourself in your writing life? Will I be able to persuade you to write a humor book next?

Sundberg: I’m working on a novel, and it’s pretty dark (because I have a dark aesthetic), but I also think that it has a lot of humor! It’s fiction, but I’ll be honest and admit that the protagonist is based somewhat on me. There are some funny stories about single parenting and dating after divorce in there. 

Rumpus: Is your process for writing fiction different than nonfiction? 

Sundberg: Yes, it’s very different. I usually start nonfiction knowing exactly where I want a piece to go and how I want it to end. This novel is much more exploratory, and it’s unfolding as I write, which is unnerving and terrifying, but also kind of beautiful. I had my astrological chart read after my fortieth birthday, and the astrologer told me that, in June, my writing was going to shift and become very different, and here I am writing a dark, magical realist, comedic novel.

Rumpus: I’m so excited to read it! Last question: who are your favorite authors and what are you reading right now?

Sundberg: My favorite authors are Roxane Gay and Rebecca Solnit. One book that I read in the past year and absolutely loved for its fierceness was Natalie Diaz’s book of poetry When My Brother Was an Aztec. I’m currently reading Kerri Webster’s book of poetry, The Trailhead. I feel like Kerri is my soul sister in many ways—a feminist who grew up in Idaho and interrogates the mythos of masculinity in the American West. I’m also reading Nick White’s collection of short stories, Sweet and Low, and I had forgotten how much fun short stories are! The world needs more short story collections! Finally, I’m also reading an advance copy of Stephanie Land’s Maid, which is a necessary indictment of our social institutions and the ways in which they uphold poverty.

Arielle Bernstein's writing has appeared in the Atlantic, the Guardian, Salon, The Rumpus, and AV Club. She teaches writing at American University and is working on both a novel and memoir. More from this author →