Thank you, Meg Pokrass for this interview
Jackie Davis-Martin’s stories and essays have appeared in Trillium, Midway, Flashquake, Fastforward, JAAM, 34th Parallel, Sleet.com, Bluestem Magazine and Fractured West, Curly Red Shoe Stories (featured writer). A novella, Extracurricular, was a finalist in the Press 53 Awards. Jackie teaches at City College of San Francisco. Surviving Susan is her first memoir.
Jackie, can you give us a brief synopsis of "Surviving Susan"?
Surviving Susan is explained by its rather long subtitle: A Mother Deals with the Death of Her Daughter and Reflects on Their Relationship. I guess “deal” is the operative word; in the beginning of the book I write about the suddenness of Susan’s death and my literal “dealing” –our traveling to Wilmington, Delaware, from San Francisco, and all the physical things that needed to be attended to there. Then of course the further definition of “deal” has to do with coping with the loss. I tried to intersperse my bouts of finding Things that Helped with scenes and vignettes of our past. I wanted the readers to know something of Susan, too.
Ultimately, what I hope that the book does for readers is to provide comfort for those who suffer, to tell them they are not alone, as well as offer insights into one particular mother-daughter relationship which might resound in others. I’ve heard from both mothers and daughters who say, Now I understand something I didn’t before. That’s a focus that I am pleased with. The other outcome that has pleased me is to have strangers say, “I feel I know your daughter.”
How long did it take you to write this book?
I did a great deal of writing for six months. Then I spent a year shaping that writing into particular chapters and vignettes and another few months having parts reviewed, and editing it. The book spans a year, although it took closer to two to put it together.
If you can, please discuss the most challenging aspects of writing something so intensely personal.
What was challenging was doing something different with grief. What can be different? Particularly daunting is the fact that famous writers have dealt with the subject. Joan Didion, Isabel Allende, Roger Rosenblatt all talked of a daughter’s loss, but they are well known. Who was I, an ordinary person, to talk about Susan, another ordinary person? I wanted to shape the grief into a personal immediacy that others (also not famous) could identify with.
Another challenge was to decide what to include and what I had to let go. My own pain had to keep shifting a bit, or reacting to new events, or to old events in new ways. Susan, too, I wanted to represent over time, so it was a challenge to decide what to tell about her, or how to re-create her. I wanted so much to boast: do you know how many trips we took together? There’s much I left out, but the challenge was in the choices.
When people experience tragedy, is the tendency to hide or to talk about things.. What you have done here is so very brave. Has it helped to get it outside of yourself?
This is an interesting question. Writing about Susan, about us, did help me get outside the experience. And yet, bizarrely, it brought home the realization: I don’t have her anymore; now I have this [the book]. I have to fight against that “realization” because of course it’s too real. However, mostly writing about my personal experience, and the bad and good things about the way we got along, did help. I felt I made concrete what was surely slipping away entirely.
What is next for you? What are you working on now?
I’m returning to fiction. My fiction is usually based on events in my own life, but there is much more leeway in fiction; one can bend the event the way one likes it, or invent the truth of an experience that had no truth. For a while I was really interested in short shorts—they’re like writing poems—a trick of observation or circumstance neatly turned. But I want to focus on longer fiction—stories beyond 3,000 words. I’m planning to review some old stories and rewrite them, as well as linking and combining stories. I’m thinking of naming my main character Olive Kitteridge. Just kidding.