The Rumpus Book Club chats with Jenn Shapland about her debut book, My Autobiography of Carson McCullers (Tin House Books, February 2020), letting absences in a historical record speak for themselves, re-imagining the art of crafting a biography, and more.
This is an edited transcript of the book club discussion. Every month The Rumpus Book Club hosts a discussion online with the book club members and the author, and we post an edited version online as an interview. To become a member of the Rumpus Book Club, click here. Upcoming writers include Paul Lisicky, Chelsea Bieker, Tracy O’Neill, Alysia Sawchyn, Lauren J. Sharkey, Matthew Salesses, Alison Stine, and more!
This Rumpus Book Club interview was edited by Marisa Siegel.
Marisa: Hi, and welcome to The Rumpus Book Club chat with Jenn Shapland about her debut book, My Autobiography of Carson McCullers!
Jenn Shapland: Hi there!
Marisa: Thanks so much for joining us tonight, Jenn!
Jenn Shapland: Of course; happy to be here.
Marisa: I know My Autobiography had a long road to becoming—can you talk first a bit about the writing process? How does the vision you had for the project at the start match up with the book we’re holding in our hands today?
Jenn Shapland: It definitely did. I started writing this in small fragments responding to my work at the Harry Ransom Center, not knowing what they were and really not envisioning a book. Those started to take shape at Vermont Studio Center, at my first writing residency. I ended up with a set of short fragments that would ultimately form a spine for the book, though at the time, I didn’t know if it was a series of essays, the start of an essay, or what.
After I figured out how to write from one of these fragments to the next (they all ended up in the final book, including the last chapter), I encountered another hurdle with permissions from the McCullers estate. I ended up cutting nearly all of the quotations from McCullers’s unpublished works, including her letters and therapy transcripts, and rewriting them in my own words for legal reasons. This slowed the publication process down by about nine months.
So, the final version that you have now really changed over time. I’m happy with the final version, but it was a difficult process!
Marisa: It seems like residencies, and dedicated time away to write like the time you spent at Carson’s home, were/are very important to your writing process, and to this book. Does putting yourself in a new space—and one created for art-making—offer a freedom that writing at home doesn’t?
Jenn Shapland: Absolutely. When I wrote this book, I was in graduate school and finishing a PhD in English, writing a dissertation on a separate topic. So I was already supposed to be spending all my free time on academic writing. There was no space to work on anything else. Vermont Studio Center and the McCullers house gave me these spaces and times that were intended explicitly for writing. At Vermont Studio Center, I was surrounded by writers and artists, and I learned so much from them and from their processes, and from their investment in their work. There was also something super valuable about having a space for my writing, which I didn’t at home (though I had converted a closet in my Austin duplex into an office for dissertation writing). The space gave the project room to grow and change and develop, and the other writers and artists I met helped me remember that it was valuable work.
Marisa: Wow, writing a book and a dissertation at the same time is a lot! What was the dissertation on?
Jenn Shapland: It was called Narrative Salvage, and it was on contemporary literature and the environment. Specifically practices of reuse in literature. I looked at works by Bonnie Jo Campbell, Claire Vaye Watkins, Justin Torres, Natasha Trethewey, Melinda Moustakis, and many others. Not exactly the same subject matter as the book!
Marisa: Indeed! Not a lot of crossover there, although that sounds fascinating, too. Perhaps for your next book?
Jenn Shapland: It’s funny, I’ve been working on a series of long essays without quite realizing that they draw from ideas in the dissertation. Ideas about forms of resistance to capitalism, creative practice, and queer world-making. So it’s still in there somewhere!
Marisa: I’m just now reworking the poems from my grad school thesis (finished in 2008, a lifetime ago) for a chapbook that will come out in 2021. It’s so interesting to revisit older work and see what our current perspective brings to it/finds within it.
Jenn Shapland: Yes, it would be a good idea to actually look at the dissertation again, though I haven’t gotten it yet, haha. Congrats on the chapbook!
Marisa: Thanks! It’s very exciting and somewhat terrifying. I haven’t written much poetry in the last few years of parenting and Rumpus-ing.
Jenn Shapland: Yes, that doesn’t leave a lot of room for writing I imagine.
Marisa: I’m not sure how much you can discuss what you describe in the book as the “turbid legal waters” that you found yourself, but I’m curious about the legal process around putting together a biography, generally, and also how the difficulties you encountered shifted your process here.
Jenn Shapland: It’s a great question, and a complicated one. I don’t know why the McCullers estate refused permissions to use her quotations, and I may never know, though of course I have my theories. And I probably shouldn’t say too much about it in print. But I learned something about McCullers and the book by revisiting the quotations and rewriting them in my own words. I wanted so badly to share McCullers’s story as she told it, in her own words, and then I found myself having to translate her words into my own. I wrote a whole essay about that harrowing process, but probably shouldn’t publish it for a while!
Marisa: It seems like you ended up exploring a lot more of your own life than perhaps initially planned… This isn’t exactly a memoir, but it’s also not not a memoir.
Jenn Shapland: Well, I’d have to undermine the premise of that question because there wasn’t much of this that I planned. But yes, as I wrote, and especially as I wrote toward the absences I found in the historical record and in the archives, it became more and more necessary (in my mind) to bring in my own story. I was in such a state of transition at the time of writing that it took years for me to start to see that writing the book was a way of telling (and living and shaping) my own story.
Marisa: Did you come away from the finished book feeling like you’d gained new insight into your own history and life alongside Carson’s?
Jenn Shapland: Yes. I think parts of the book are experiments with narrating my own life, documenting my process: my process of writing the book, of researching, of becoming a writer, and my process of coming out, becoming a lesbian, developing an understanding of what it means to be queer.
Marisa: Those absences in the historical record, in the archives, in Carson’s story—can you speak to them more? One important idea that resonated for me after finishing the book is how we hide queer histories. I’m not sure if you’ve read In the Dream House by Carmen Maria Machado yet, but I kept thinking of that book while I read yours.
Jenn Shapland: I have Machado’s book on my table at home, waiting for me when I get back from book tour. Can’t wait to read it, and just heard her on the Between the Covers podcast, which I listened to while driving from Nashville, TN, to Oxford, MS.
Marisa: Oh, it’s so wonderful. Really a life-changing kind of book, or for me it was. I read it in just a couple of sittings; it was hard to put down—gutting, but in a necessary way.
Jenn Shapland: The thing I learned about how queer histories are written, or more precisely, unwritten, is how obvious the basic facts are in so many versions of the story. For example, in the main biography, The Lonely Hunter by Virginia Spencer Carr, the facts about Annemarie and Carson’s relationship are there, but the biographer refuses to come out and say it. Carr herself was a lesbian, I learned in my process of research. (A fun thing about this kind of interview is that I can just give you a link to Carr on her floral sofa.)
Also on absences: in the materials I did find, the therapy transcripts, letters, cards, and notes from Mary Mercer, there are so many gaps, so many blanks. It was important to me that instead of trying to fill those gaps with my own interpretations, I let them stand.
Marisa: The gaps speak volumes, it seems.
Jenn Shapland: Having worked in archives, it’s natural to me that absences or missing information is also important to preserve. That sometimes, when we try to answer the question for ourselves, we actually erase something really important.
Marisa: You mention in the book Jean Stein’s marvelous biography of Edie Sedgwick. Were there other biographers, and books, you looked to as you got deeper into this project?
Jenn Shapland: I love Jean Stein’s work. She uses narrative oral history to weave together life stories that show how tons of different people try to define a person’s legacy, and how much is at stake in telling the story. And one thing her books show is that there is no one truth, no final story. Which I believe wholeheartedly after spending so much time trying to understand Carson’s life. Life writing is something I’ve loved for a long time, but that I often find frustrating. The need to tell a story from beginning to end, the chronological, linear narrative that feels nothing like life. These things make me crazy!
While writing this book I read so much, and the life writing I came away loving was Audre Lorde’s Zami, which is a kind of collective memoir, Amelia Gray’s Isadora, a fictional life story, and Nathalie Leger’s Suite for Barbara Loden. And I came away more skeptical of traditional biography than ever! That said, I couldn’t have written this book without the extant biographies of McCullers, and without her partial autobiography, Illumination and Night Glare.
Marisa: Many great recommendations there! And yes, it’s so much truer to life to tell a story in whatever shape it needs to take rather than compressing it into a neat timeline. You do that so well in My Autobiography, both with Carson’s story and your own.
Jenn Shapland: I was thinking about this earlier today, how memoirs are much more likely to focus on a single period of time or event in a person’s life, whereas biographies think they can tell the whole story. Just a funny distinction we make.
Marisa: I love that the genre of memoir has become much messier in the last few years; it feels like (finally!) publishers are taking books that push at our ideas of how to tell the story of a life. And yes, biography is somehow meant to be straightforward and complete in a way that is likely impossible—the way you move between the two genres in My Autobiography allows for so much more story!
Liz: This was a riveting read! Had you previously explored the clothing aspect of people and the image it creates? I was fascinated by your descriptions of the nightgowns, the revelation of her illness represented in her wardrobe.
Jenn Shapland: Yes, I’ve written a bit about this before (here’s a recent essay, and I have one coming out this week on Autostraddle about icons). Cataloging the personal effects at the Ransom Center definitely gave me a new idea of how to understand a historical figure’s life, and how much is missing from the written record. The clothes had their own stories to tell. And they are really ignored by scholars, which still amazes me!
Liz: Oh, i’ll enjoy reading that—thank you!
Jenn Shapland: Yes! And I did another short piece about cataloging the personal effects on Electric Literature a few years ago.
Marisa: Jenn, who are your literary influences, outside of biography? (And of course, in addition to Carson.) And, what’s in your to-read pile right now along with In the Dream House?
In my TBR pile right now: Ninety-nine Glimpses of Princess Margaret, Dunce by Mary Ruefle, The Word Pretty by Elisa Gabbert. I’m currently reading Ordinary Girls by Jaquira Díaz, and Long Live the Tribe of Fatherless Girls by T Kira Madden. And, I’m always reading a few self-help books: Attached by Amir Levine and Rachel S. F. Heller (life! changing!) and Bodhisattva Mind by Pema Chödrön (who is frankly hilarious).
Marisa: Jenn, thank you so much for your time tonight—and for putting this wondering, and important, book out into the world. Very excited for what you write next!
Liz: Thank you, and have a great night!
Jenn Shapland: Thanks for this! Night!
Photograph of Jenn Shapland by Christian Michael Filardo.