Bridging Narratives: Talking with Jenn Shapland
While studying for her PhD at the University of Texas at Austin, Jenn Shapland got to live out a fantasy of literary scholars everywhere: she was granted access to the abundant archive of writers’ and artists’ books, letters, papers, and belongings housed at the school’s Harry Ransom Center.
Shapland, author of the debut memoir My Autobiography of Carson McCullers, published last month by Tin House Books, spent hours answering scholars’ queries and poring over the estates of writers like Gertrude Stein, Alice B. Toklas, and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. She found herself most drawn to the letters and personal effects of Carson McCullers, the author who penned Southern gothic tales full of misfits and loners, including the novels The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter, The Member of the Wedding, Reflections in a Golden Eye, and Clock Without Hands, as well as a collection of short stories, a book of poems, and several plays.
Shapland began digging into McCullers’s brilliant but tragic life. She read about McCullers’s struggles with chronic illness, alcoholism, and a loveless marriage in letters and papers donated by McCullers’s estate. She archived McCullers’s photographs, clothing, and objects. Later, Shapland temporarily took up residence in the author’s childhood home in Columbus, Georgia, doing additional research at Columbus University’s archives. In her examinations, Shapland found love letters to multiple women. She was particularly struck by the failure of previous biographers to confront McCullers’s obvious queerness, instead identifying her relationships with women as mere companionships, or as altogether unrequited. Determined to write a biography in which McCullers could finally speak for herself, Shapland’s explorations took on a life of their own. As biography morphed into memoir, Shapland began to find a new sense of certainty in her own identity, both as a queer woman and as a writer.
Jenn Shapland’s essays have been published in Tin House, Essay Daily, The Lifted Brow, Electric Literature, and The Millions. She won a 2017 Pushcart Prize for nonfiction for her essay “Finders Keepers,” based on her time as an archivist. She has a PhD in English from the University of Texas at Austin and has taught creative writing at the Institute of American Indian Arts. Her work has received support from the Georgia O’Keeffe Fellowship, Yaddo, and the Vermont Studio Center, among others. Shapland lives in Santa Fe where she is currently an archivist for a local artist and spends the rest of her time writing.
Shapland and I spoke about her genre-defying first book, the role of physical objects in understanding a person, and the complexities of writing biography.
The Rumpus: My first question when I interview an author is usually, “Where did you get the idea to write this book?” But that question is the essence of your book, isn’t it? So, instead, I’m wondering if you can describe your process with writing the book, including whether your conception of it changed along the way.
Jenn Shapland: As I document somewhat in the book, I started researching Carson McCullers when I was an intern at the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas at Austin, in 2012, and I got the book deal in 2017. So, it’s been a long process. But I really started writing it while I was at Vermont Studio Center in 2014. It was the first time I had been at a writers’ residency surrounded by other writers who were taking their work very seriously.
While I was there, I started writing these short fragments based on my encounters with different archival objects: photographs, letters, things like that. I didn’t really know what it was. I had this idea that maybe it could be a book, but I didn’t know what kind it would be or where it was going at all. Five of these little fragments ended up forming a sort of spine for the book and made it into the final version.
It took me a while to realize that I needed to write from one of those moments to the next, and then collect all these fragments and put them into an order that made sense. So, it changed over the process of writing it because when I started out, I thought I was writing about someone else, and then it turned out I was writing about myself.
Rumpus: How did you choose your title, My Autobiography of Carson McCullers?
Shapland: The title was inspired by Gertrude Stein and The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, which is also where the cover idea came from, the Modern Library edition of that book.
I really like thinking about and playing with the concept of autobiography and who is able to write their own story. One of the things I kept returning to was how difficult it was for Carson McCullers to write her own story. She kept on trying in different ways, but it never quite came together. The autobiography of hers published after her death, Illumination and Night Glare, was really not as she had envisioned it. My book was originally titled The Autobiography of Carson McCullers, and then late in the game it changed to the current title.
Rumpus: Why do you think objects are such good storytellers? What did Carson’s personal objects say about her?
Shapland: I had always been fascinated by the collection of objects at the Ransom Center on the seventh floor. There were shelves and shelves of typewriters and coats and shoes and all these things belonging to all these different writers. It was just their stuff, and it was clear that the Ransom Center didn’t really know what to do with it. It was not a priority to catalog it, which was why they allowed a lowly intern like me to do it. I had to kind of rehouse and document the things. I think also that scholars are a little suspicious of objects. If it’s a text, a letter, a manuscript, it’s fine, but if it’s a pair of socks, what is there to say?
But I felt like these objects had a lot to say, so I spent a lot of time with them. And with the McCullers objects, the clothes in particular, I really got a sense of her own investment in her style and her look, which pieces she wore a lot and which she never wore. Also, it was all curated by her sister, which adds another layer, like how did these things get here and why, and is this what Carson would have chosen? In this way, you can document the kind of physicality of someone’s everyday life.
Mundane objects like her cigarette lighter, her little knickknacks and things like that give you a sharper sense of what her day-to-day life looked like. These belongings can capture the essence of the time period, the design and aesthetics from that time, almost the way a good period film does. I wanted to understand the stories behind these objects and what they were communicating to me.
Rumpus: You write, “The book takes place in the fluid distance between the writer and her subject, in the fashioning of a self, in all its permutations, on the page.” Could you talk about how finding Carson helped you come into your own as a queer woman?
Shapland: One thing I found interesting, reading about her life, was that in the biographies written about her, her queerness was hidden or rewritten or revised. Or it just wasn’t made clear; it was very much under this other narrative. The way she lived her life was actually pretty out. She was comfortable; she talked about the women she was in love with all the time, which is why it’s all the stranger that you don’t see that in any writing about her. Her biographers minimized the way she lived her life.
But I really admired that even in the time period when people were being arrested for being queer, she just was who she was, and she wasn’t going to apologize for it. And that led to really difficult situations like in her hometown in Georgia, which was very conservative. People were not very nice to her, and the same was true even when she was surrounded by writers. At Yaddo, a lot of it seemed to be rooted in homophobia and discomfort with the fact that she was willing to be herself unapologetically. So that was something I really learned from her, and it’s something that helped me understand how I wanted to be. The process of writing this and coming to terms with what I was looking for in her story helped me understand truths about myself and live them more fully.
Rumpus: Do you know of any biographies that explicitly acknowledge she was a lesbian, or is it possible you’re the first biographer to really put an emphasis on that?
Shapland: It’s funny because the one biography that really spends a lot of time thinking about her sexuality is the one that came out in France in 2001, called Carson McCullers: A Life. That one spends the most time considering her sexuality, but it considers those questions as a way of almost eliding them or erasing them. That biographer was able to speak with McCullers’s therapist and possible lover Mary Mercer. She focuses on Mary and Carson’s relationship, but she emphasizes in the book that this was a totally platonic relationship, a companionship. So even when someone gets really close to the truth and the pieces are right there, they’re like, no, nothing to see here, this was not a lesbian relationship.
As for being the first person to really focus on this, I wouldn’t say that’s true. I think there are other writers who have addressed her queerness in different ways, and certainly some people see it and understand it differently than I do. One thing that’s funny is that when I talk about it with a queer audience, they’re like, of course we knew she was gay, like, duh! And when I talk about it with any audience that is not really tuned into that, they’re like, WHAT? I can’t believe it! So there are different versions of her that seem to exist at the same time, and I guess I hope there is a way for my book to bridge some of those different narratives and show that there is this whole other side that another group of readers has been able to see this whole time.
Rumpus: Your book also shows that it’s a universal experience to seek out your own story when you’re studying a person or a piece of history, that a personal approach is valid.
Shapland: Yeah. In this English PhD program that I was in, with literary criticism as a form, it always seemed like I was being asked to take my relationship to what I was writing about out of the writing. Everything had to be this very objective, distanced narrative. And what I have found just from being around other scholars and academics is that all of their research is coming from a personal place. Whatever it was they were interested in and wrote their dissertation on was something really important to their identity, but it’s like we weren’t supposed to talk about it.
So working at the Ransom Center and seeing different scholars’ queries and what they were interested in, I started to learn that everyone is after something personal, even when they are doing this more academic-seeming research, and I wanted to expose that for what it is.
Rumpus: In the book, you quote the journalist Janet Malcolm, who offers the analogy that being a biographer is sort of like breaking into a subject’s house and rifling through their drawers. Did writing this book change the way you think about the work of biographers and biography as a genre?
Shapland: I like biographies that reckon with the complexity of writing about someone else, how fraught it feels to try put words to someone’s else’s story, and then how complicated it can get after the fact, like with particular authors’ estates.
Janet Malcolm is obviously very familiar with those issues in her writing about Sylvia Plath. Certain authors’ estates try to control the narrative and what’s going to be said about the writer, which was also true in Carson’s case. The kinds of biographies I like are the ones that address the complexity of interests in narrating someone else’s story, and that include the biographer’s own biases, but they could also include the biases of that person’s estate, or their family, or if there is a particular slant or area of focus. In my case, it would be the queer biography—that’s the angle I’m approaching her story form.
I get frustrated with a lot of the more conventional biographies that are strictly chronological and begin with the writer’s birth or with their parents or grandparents and proceed in a linear fashion to their death. It doesn’t feel true to me; it doesn’t feel real to the way we experience time or the way we reflect on our lives. I’m really interested in seeing more biographies that mess with chronology and experiment more with the form and acknowledge the strangeness of trying to write about someone else.
A good example of this is the writings of Jean Stein, which are narrative oral histories. She basically recorded a bunch of interviews with people who knew the person (Truman Capote, Edie Sedgwick), and then edited them and combined them until she created a biography in anecdotes told by other people. I also love Zelda by Nancy Milford, which I talk about in the book. And Amelia Gray’s novel Isadora is fantastic; it’s a novelization of Isadora Duncan’s life. Nathalie Leger’s Suite for Barbara Loden is the closest thing I can think of to the kind of writing I was trying to do, to uncover both the other person’s story and the process of uncovering it.
Rumpus: The first time you ever read anything by Carson McCullers was as an intern at the Ransom Center. What is your favorite book of hers?
Shapland: I’m pretty sure my favorite book of hers is The Member of the Wedding because I think if I had had it as an adolescent, it would have changed my whole life. I love the characters, and I love the strangeness of the story and the strangeness of the main character, Frankie.
I see that character revisited and reprised in all kinds of other books throughout the decades. There are a million characters that were born from Frankie. Just this summer I read Donna Tartt’s The Little Friend, which is fantastic, and the main character Harriet is such a Frankie. So that’s something I really like to see. The truth of that character will always be with me.
Rumpus: Do you keep up with the McCullers estate? Are you aware of any ongoing legal fights related to certain materials?
Shapland: To my understanding, her papers at the Ransom Center are free for the public to read, as are the papers in the Columbus University archives. However, her estate is very restrictive about where a person can quote from her material or use her work. I know it was a journey of many years to get permission to publish her collected letters. With my book, it took six months to get permission and ultimately, they refused to allow me to quote from any of the archival materials. So, if you read closely you will notice that there are no quotes. For the most part, I paraphrased the materials I had, her transcripts and her letters, or I just referenced what she was talking about in them. But this happened kind of late in the game, and it pushed back the publication date. They didn’t even give me a reason, although I have my own suspicions why.
Rumpus: That must have been really upsetting.
Shapland: It was devastating. I had to do the one thing I didn’t want to do, which was to take what she had to say in her own words and replace that with my words. I had really wanted to let her speak for herself, and then it was impossible, ultimately, to do that. But it was also so surreal because with that, these issues and questions I had been writing about were suddenly part of my life. It was like the book suddenly came alive.
Photograph of Jenn Shapland by Christian Michael Filardo.