A void that migrates to the surface: An Interview with Juliet Patterson


A man walks into a dark winter morning.

A mother in Saint Paul calls her daughter in Minneapolis to report the man missing. She calls again moments later—the note has been found. Frantic activity in two houses. The daughter makes it to her mother’s house just before the police arrive. Within days, within hours, the daughter, a writer, starts to make notes, begins to write the story of her father’s death.

“I can see now that, above all else, I was driven by a need to untangle myself from the strong ties suicide had attached to my life,” Juliet Patterson writes in Sinkhole: A Natural History of a Suicide. “I wanted to bring the past closer, to excavate a wound. Eventually, I came to the conclusion that if I did nothing else, at least I needed to uncover the stories long ago sealed in rock.”

The effort that eventually became Sinkhole began ten years ago. Since then, Patterson has traveled, researched, archived, curated, read, drafted, edited and edited again. The result is a taut and smart, intimate and fulfilling memoir.

Patterson, author of two full-length poetry collections, Threnody, which was a finalist for the 2017 Audre Lorde Poetry Award, and The Truant Lover, which won the Nightboat Poetry Prize and was a finalist for the 2006 Lambda Literary Award. Sinkhole is her first prose book.

Sinkhole is part heroine’s quest, part ecological history, and part history of a place and time±southeastern Kansas during the twentieth century. It is also a family history. Patterson’s father and both of her grandfathers died by suicide. The narrative is sustained throughout by Patterson’s considerable gift for language and an eye trained to notice things big and small: cultural shifts, chasms, coyotes, and chat. It is, in a word, beautiful.

On a sunny weekday morning, Patterson and I met at a coffeehouse in Minneapolis. After I asked my first question, she gave me a sly smile as if to say “Well, I guess we’re getting right to it.”


The Rumpus: The book begins with your father’s death by suicide, and also considers the death of both your grandfathers by suicide. In the writing of the book, you imagine the final moments of all three men. I wonder what it was like to imagine those moments.

Patterson: One of the things I did almost immediately was get myself into therapy, and through that process, join a Suicide Survivors group, which essentially saved my life. One of the rituals in that group, whenever a new member joined, was to tell the narrative of the day your person died from your perspective. We also had a ritual of lighting a candle, and saying the person’s name at the beginning of each meeting. I slowly got into the habit of saying three names, because I felt my father’s death opened the door into some portal where I was also grieving my grandfathers. I felt frustrated. The principle behind [telling the narrative of your day] is to organize the trauma for the survivor, which I wholly understand. But what started to happen is I started to imagine my father’s day, privately as a writer. As I began to research my grandfathers, it felt like a natural step to also imagine their deaths. I was buoyed later on by reading many memoirs written about suicide, where almost every writer imagined some portion of the scene.

How could I get inside or try to get inside the minds of these men? That’s an impossible task. With my grandfathers in particular, their deaths had so eclipsed their lives and had worked to completely obliterate any narrative about their living days that I wanted to claim that so that I could release it and also imagine their lives in some small way.

Rumpus: I feel we come to know your father in the way that he proceeded to his death. I would say the same about both of your grandfathers. We gain insight into how you saw your father. Those passages humanized all three men.

Patterson: But you also asked how it was to write those moments—very difficult. Difficult, and also liberating in that I’m the furthest thing from fiction writer, possibly. There were certain points of the book where I had to hew closely to factual information and be a historian, which I also am not. It was so taxing that I remember sitting down to write some of that material, and then feeling like I couldn’t do anything. I’d come out of a writing session and be the most irritable, cantankerous human being you might imagine—frustrated, angry, depressed. I connected to the emotions I was accessing during the writing process. I used to shrug my shoulders at what a memoir is tasked with, and it’s the most psychologically taxing event a writer can engage in.

Rumpus: There are two experiences when nature seemed to demand a role in the book. In one, you’re driving down a rural highway, and you encounter a pack of coyotes. One of them stops, stares at you, then seems to disappear. I felt like the coyote was saying, “I need to be in this book.”

Patterson: In early drafts of the book, I was even trying to reveal what I thought about the coyote. Many writers who write about grieving write about the idea that you’re looking for signs and symbols in everything, so everything becomes heightened. Although it was six months after my father’s death, I had not returned to Kansas until that moment, so everything was very tight. I was on the way to see an archive of my grandfather’s [time in Congress]. It’s not unusual to see coyotes in Kansas, but not in the middle of the day on a highway. And there was a pack. One animal kind of stared me down. Absolutely, I believe he had a message for me. I don’t really know what it was. I felt like it was deeply connected to my grandfather. It was a fleeting encounter that I’ve held with me.

Rumpus: The pack made me think about family.

Patterson: It gave me faith that I was on the train, so to speak. But the other strange thing is that trickster literally seemed to disappear. Then I felt—Did I just make that up? It felt very mystical, which may sound cliché. But there was a full year where my senses were so sprung open. That’s a positive side of grief. I would say as a human on this planet, we are valuing the sensual world so deeply, for better and worse. And that’s what people talk about when they lose somebody, right? There’s this moment where you feel like life is precious and you’re so present. I felt so present for about a year. I was also very disturbed in my mind, so it’s a confusing thing. But those moments where I’m in nature, which I’ve always felt a deep kinship with, gave me clarity and gave me that feeling of I was going to be okay.

Rumpus: Then of course, there are sinkholes, which give us the title of the book. In the closing chapters you cite a geologist, Jon Henley, who defines a sinkhole as “the creation of a void that migrates to the surface.” You see a sinkhole near your grandmother’s house, and it immediately arrives to you as a metaphor. Suicide is a void that works its way to the surface as well and into the lives of survivors—holes in your family history.

Patterson: I encountered the sinkhole two years after my father died. At this point though, I wasn’t in that open sensory state that I previously described. And, no kidding, it was a coalescence of, Oh, this is a book, like I’m writing a book, and here is the central metaphor.

When I started researching sinkholes, when I started learning about the geology of [southeastern Kansas], I understood that I didn’t know anything about that place. And I needed to know all kinds of things about it. A writer friend told me, “You know you’re on the right path if information that you need starts coming to you.” That’s exactly what happened. So this sinkhole, which was two houses down from where my grandmother used to live, became the scaffold for the book.

Rumpus: At the end of Chapter 15, you describe Kansas as a place that you could possess and one that possessed you. Did writing about your family’s history in southeastern Kansas help give you a sense of direction?

Patterson: Yeah. Both sides of my family have lived and stayed there—three generations. My parents were the only ones who left. Part of unearthing the story of my grandfathers was unearthing the place they lived. It felt as essential to me to know as knowing about their lives. It helped make them understandable. [Kansas] is not a place I want to live, but it is a place I need to hold. In some ways, it feels like a part of my home.

Rumpus: The book also includes a lot of research into your family history. Research about southeastern Kansas, about the land, and research about suicide — ten years of research and writing. I wonder what instincts guided you through that process.

Patterson: There’s a model of grief that kind of became important to me. In it there are two distinct ways to grieve. One is intuitive, and one is instructional. I learned through therapy that I lean towards the instructional side. I learned just by being with other suicide survivors, not everyone operates this way. I was gathering so much information. Initially, it was the way I could grieve. But you’re right. It was a largely intuitive process about what I needed to reveal. I did much more research than is present in the book. Suicide is certainly at the center, but it’s also a story of grief. And it’s also a story of ancestral inheritance. And it’s a story of Kansas in the twentieth century. It’s a story of the twentieth century. I mean, it could be so huge. I wasn’t capable of writing a huge book.

I love research; it was actually one of the pleasures of doing this project. Why would I choose that as a way to grieve? Because it was a process that allowed me to have some joy. It soothed me. It calmed me down. It helped. It helped my need for curiosity and intellectual rigor, but allowed me to still be present with what was going on.

Rumpus: You also write about self-preservation. The book as a project gave me the sense that you were acting on behalf of your family, telling suicide, “It stops here.” You want to talk about it. You want to understand it, to the extent you can. You want to write about it.

Patterson: That was my singular personal motivation for doing any of this work: to prevent the threat that this might happen to me. I naïvely believed that my parents would not die by their own hand because they had suffered as children of parents who had already died that way. I was wrong. And you see, I was really scared. At some point, I probably would have approached all of this, whether or not I was about to be a parent, but the fact that I was going to be a parent — I felt deeply that I could not be any sort of parent if I didn’t honor this story. I needed the capacity to face it. I’m the one practicing writer in the family and it just felt like this was my job.

Rumpus: Toward the end of the book, you consider the role gender played in the deaths of your father and your grandfathers. You offer an elegant framing around how men are socialized toward utility. It can be jarring when they are separated from their perceived purpose. You note that some men are socialized away from reaching out for help, or sharing, from talking about what they’re carrying.

Patterson: I’m always thinking about gender. Early on I was thinking deeply about the role of a father and of masculinity in particular. There’s been so much beautiful writing about masculinity. It wasn’t a subject I wanted to overshadow any of the other things I was trying to address. Of the three men, I knew my father most intimately. I could see the ways in which, in a more modern sense, I might describe him as being a little gender fluid, but he came of age in the 50s, and was very boxed in. I think both my parents are trapped by gender conformity. The bigger question with gender and this story is one of social implications, cultural implications. This is not a theme that I went deeply into, but I think about it a lot.

Donald Antrim’s memoir, One Friday in April, is really an account of his attempt to commit suicide. It’s beautifully written and also a very difficult work. It’s his opinion that suicide is a social disease. And that’s what I’m trying to get at when I look at the lens of history, when I look at the trajectory of the twentieth century, when I think about how those patterns repeat. Yes, there’re individual problems, right? There’s mental health and there’s often other things contributing, but a big contributing factor is just the social reality of America, which is another book. But gender, as we’re now opening up that conversation more adequately within our social sphere, is a part of that. As is race and class.

I’m a queer-identified adult woman. I remember being a little kid and just trying to figure out, What is this boy/girl business? Why can’t I wear, you know, round-toe tennis shoes or be without a shirt in the street? I didn’t understand any of it. That’s sort of a primal question I’ve had for a long time. And my dad had very fixed notions of femininity, which were hard for me and painful.

Rumpus: As part of your consideration of gender, you also write about your mother and grandmothers — the women who survived the men who died by suicide. You note that from your maternal grandmother you gained thoughtful observation, from your paternal grandmother you gained an equitable disposition, and you gained your creative spirit from your mother. It occurs to me that the book is a quest, and forgive me, but that makes you the hero. It seems you’ve gained your superpowers from the women in your family.

Patterson: My editor [Joey McGarvey] was the one who asked, “What have you inherited from these women?” So I had to think about it. I was guarded. I was sort of angry at the way they had all handled [the family’s history and stories]. But I can see I’m a part of them. And they are all, my mother’s side of the family in particular, very strong, independent, thinking women, but my father’s mother was also incredibly resilient.

Rumpus: I’m thinking about voice. You’re also a poet. You had an influential visit with your friend, the poet Joseph Bednarik. During that visit, Joseph said, “Maybe you need language to guide you.” He was talking about something else; he was talking about parenting. How did your identity as a poet guide you, how did language guide you in this work?

Patterson: In every way. Language is at the core, right? So I am not a narrative poet. I typically don’t tell overtly recognizable stories in my poetry. I am driven by the fragment or a sentence that is syntactically unusual, not driven by prose like language.

I think that’s a quotient of two things. One, I remember first hearing poetry read out loud and just feeling the rush of the music of the language. And though I never was a formalist, I think that I’m ultimately interested in the musicality of language. So that’s why I developed into more of a lyric poet. The language is at the heart of it; it’s the attention to language. Also, just the attention to life itself, to the sensory world. I think poets understand that better than most humans. And most of the books I read are either written by people who were poets or are poets and or read poetry deeply as practice. All my favorite writers are one of those two things. So yeah, to me it’s everything.

But I will tell you this: I’ve written one poem in 10 years. And when I hear myself say that, I don’t even know what to think. It’s partly because I’ve always been a single-minded writer. I’m not able to have multiple projects going at once. It took me a long time to find the voice of this book—at least where my voice is as a prose writer. And so I didn’t want to leave it. I didn’t want to stray. But I don’t know what’s next. And if I think about that, I get kind of anxious.

Rumpus: So are you a storyteller now, too?

Patterson: I feel like I learned how to be a storyteller. And I feel like maybe I’ve always been. I feel especially now, in this moment in our collective history in America, storytellers are the people who are going to usher us to a new place. And I think my story was important to tell. I will also say I don’t know that I have more to do as a storyteller. I feel like I need to listen to the storytellers who will speak more directly to some of our everyday social obstacles and violence.

I think that’s a question a lot of us practicing writers are asking: Is this a voice we need to broadcast? When do we get out of the way? Especially those of us who are white and privileged. I don’t know, but poetry is always at the heart of it for me.



Author photo by Ayanna Muata

Michael Kleber-Diggs is a poet, essayist, literary critic, and arts educator. His debut poetry collection, Worldly Things (Milkweed Editions 2021), won the Max Ritvo Poetry Prize, the 2022 Hefner Heitz Kansas Book Award in Poetry, the 2022 Balcones Poetry Prize, and was a finalist for the 2022 Minnesota Book Award. His poems and essays appear in numerous journals and anthologies. Michael was born and raised in Kansas but now makes his home in Saint Paul, Minnesota. More from this author →