Interview by Morgan Baker
Animal Bodies: On Death, Desire, and Other Difficulties, by Suzanne Roberts and published by The University of Nebraska, is a collection of essays that on the surface sound as though they could be depressing and sad. The theme carried throughout the book is about loss, loneliness, and grief. I found it validating, informative, fun in some places and completely relevant to my life even though I haven’t been to some of the places Roberts writes about. I also found it full of love.
Many of these essays were published previously in journals and magazines, and when Roberts saw what she had in hand, she knew she had a book.
What I took away as a reader, writer, and teacher, was how important it is for the author to be vulnerable and honest, to tell their truth. I cringed in some of the reading, especially about animals. I sighed when I read about the end of a friendship. And, anything to do with losing parents and the grief that sets in afterwards always gets me.
Her essays cover her life from preteen to middle-aged woman. The most recent essays in the book take place within the past few years.
Roberts’ language and reflections are also startling in their honesty and perceptions. Some of her sentences stop the reader cold. Roberts’ writing and this book are gifts to the reader. Knowing you’re not alone as you struggle with when to put your dog down, or are grieving the loss of a parent, is reassuring and supportive.
Roberts teaches at the Low-Residency Program at Sierra Nevada University, as well as privately. She has a newsletter with a free prompt every week. Suzanne is a travel writer, memoirist, and poet. Her books include the 2012 National Outdoor Book Award-winning Almost Somewhere: Twenty-Eight Days on the John Muir Trail (Bison Books, 2012), the award-winning memoir in travel essays Bad Tourist: Misadventures in Love and Travel (University of Nebraska Press, 2020), and four collections of poetry.
When Roberts isn’t writing or teaching, she skis—a lot. During the winter season, she is outside in the snow almost every day; she says her writing practice is less regular when the snow is good.
Morgan Baker: Did you start writing these essays knowing you were going to put a book together or did the essays just come from you, and a certain point, you knew you had a book?
Suzanne Roberts: I was writing essays, and I had no idea what I was going do with them. Actually, I never intended to publish a book of essays and now, this is my second. (Her first is Bad Tourist: Misadventures in Love and Travel.)
I like writing essays. I love the form, and I’ve taught for a long time, and when you teach creative nonfiction, you tend to teach the essay. Essays are always this sort of thing I write when I’m procrastinating from something else or a bigger project. I had a bunch of essays, and I realized that a lot of them were about love and loss and grief. I thought, ‘maybe they are a book.’
MB: Who did you write these essays for?
SR:I mostly wrote them because I needed to figure out what I was thinking and to figure out why I did the things the way I did. That’s usually my impetus for writing something.
MB: Initially you called the book, The Grief Scale, one of the essays in the book. What changed?
SR: It was meant to ironic, he and I had it organized by the five stages of grief from Kübler Ross grief scale. A friend read it and said it wasn’t just about grief, and she was right. And around that same time, I was listening to Claire Bidwell Smith’s book, The Rules of Inheritance, and I realized her memoir was organized the same way, in those five stages of grief. What I was doing was not a new thing. That’s why is so important for us to read deeply and widely. I also realized the book was about death, desire and other difficulties, and I organized it in three sections.
MB: I don’t find the book depressing. I find it illuminating and reassuring that you know these are things everyone goes through. The ones I had the hardest time reading was “Animal Bodies” and “The Queen of the Amazon.” I could deal with the death of a parent, but the animals completely freaked me out, particularly when I saw how animals are treated in Vietnam and in the Amazon.
SR: It’s an interesting thing because when I submitted the book for publication, I asked the press not to feature animals on the cover because it’s not a book about animals. When I decided to call it Animal Bodies, I was thinking about us humans in our animal natures and the things that happened to us when we can’t control our bodies—such as crying from a loss.
But you’re right—there are a few essays in the book about non-human animals, and I do think those essays could be hard for animal lovers to read.
MB: You didn’t shy away from tackling some very sensitive topics. Were you emotional when you were working on them, or were you able to remove yourself from that place and be more objective?
SR: When I drafted something like “The Danger Scale” and some of the essays about losing my parents and dear friend, I’m not emotional when I’m writing and creating scene. But when I revise and read the words I wrote, that’s when I really break down.
I approached some of the essays that are the most difficult with the idea that I would never show anyone. That is true with the essay about the losing a friendship. I had to write it, but I wasn’t planning on ever showing anyone. Then I revised it and it became an essay I realized I did want to share.
In some ways, writing this essay was a way of honoring the friendship we did have.
MB: I was also impressed with your honesty and self-reflection. How hard was it to be that honest? I think the reader likes to connect with imperfect people, and that’s how you portray yourself.
SR: I had a lot of distance between the things I did that I was ashamed of and writing about them. That helps. It’s interesting when you said the reader likes to connect with people who are not perfect, but I also think there’s the reader out there who gets mad. When I published Bad Tourist, there was a reviewer who said, ‘Did she really do all these stupid things or did she just make it up to sell books?’
I don’t respond to reviews like that, but I wanted to write her and say I didn’t make anything up! If the stupid things I did don’t strike a chord with you, and you don’t approve of my behavior, that’s a risk I have to take. I know people who are going to judge me for things I did like cheat on my first husband. Not everyone likes me in the world, so not every reader is going to love my books.
MB: How do you recognize that an essay is finished? What are the components that make you think an essay is done?
SR: It tells a story I didn’t realize I wanted to tell.
MB: I was taken by several lines and some structure choices in here. It’s really interesting that a writer can put two seemingly different things together and show how actually they’re similar. You write about your mother’s death comparing it to wildfire. The essay about the death of a friendship in “The Danger Scale” compares it to the avalanche scale. And the first piece in the book, “The Essay Determines How It Will Begin,” is more like a poem or lyrical essay.
SR: I wanted this book to be a hybrid book–a book that defies classification, because I don’t think our grief can be easily classified. We tend to pathologize grief, so we also tend to think it’s something we can get over like recovering from an illness, but it doesn’t work that way. It’s more like a chronic condition we learn how to live with.
I find that in the essays you mentioned—in some ways the most difficult essays in the book—I needed to start with a form, which was why I used the avalanche scale and the smoke AQI as an organizing strategy. And as a result, some of these essays might read more like poems, and that’s okay with me. Sometimes only a poem will do.
MB: How do you wrap your head around the fact that someone tormented you as a teen, and then he dies like in Friending the Dead? How do you reconcile all these different aspects about the one person? In there you also have another of my favorite lines, “Boys want to hurt others; girls hurt themselves.”
SR: When I saw on Facebook that the boy who tormented me in the 7th grade died, I knew I had to write that story, so I just started writing. I didn’t know where it would go. I didn’t know what it would be about, and it ended up being about how sometimes we are told that we need to forgive…but I don’t think I would be better off if I forgave him, and I want to say that it’s okay not to forgive people who have done terrible things to you.
MB: In “The Grief Scale” you address the notion of whether there are steps to pass through with grief. There are so many great lines in this essay about your father dying but one of my favorites is: “Grief is like water–all water is wet; all grief is difficult.”
I don’t think you ever really get over it, you just learn how to embed it into your person.
SR: Exactly. I had a friend who lost their son and she said in the beginning, it was as if she and her husband were living in a house of grief, but then after time, you get to the point where grief is a room in the house, will always be a room in the house, but you don’t have to go in there all the time.
MB: Another line I loved was “Guilt is a wasted emotion….”
SR: I stole that notion from a brilliant poet named Chris Abani who once said that to me, and it was like something important shifted for me. I think we often use guilt to make us feel like we’re a better person somehow. My mother was big on guilt. When I said I felt guilty she said that was good. It was her way of controlling me, motivating me to do something she wanted me to do. But of course, that’s total bullshit. Sometimes we will say, ‘I felt so guilty,’ so it becomes okay, whatever terrible thing we did. No. You still did something that maybe you shouldn’t have done. Why don’t you examine that instead of feeling guilty?
MB: Here’s a craft question. How much were the essays revised from when they first ran in journals and magazines?
SR: When the essays went out for publication they had to stand alone. Most went out way before I even knew I had a book on my hands. When I put the book together, I had to go through it a number of times and cut a bunch of stuff that was already explained in earlier essays.
Sometimes I’d actually cut whole paragraphs and insert them later in the book so that there’d be more of a thread, more of an arc. One essay in here was seven pages long; it’s now one paragraph because that was the only part the book needed.
MB: Some of the essays were about loss, but there were some about loneliness. How do you define or separate being alone and being lonely?
SR: I love being alone. I lived alone, ski alone, I have no problem traveling alone. There’s a real freedom in aloneness, but I think loneliness comes when I want something I don’t have. My mother’s death has caused a lot of loneliness in me, particularly because I have never laughed with anyone the way I laughed with my mother.
We had a super complicated relationship, but we would laugh so hard together, we would pee our pants. And not having that anymore makes me feel really lonely.
MB: I also appreciated the essay about the bride and starving yourself. Then deciding to eat what you wanted and filling out the dress nicely. There was a lot of self-love in there—a feeling of, ‘I’m going to take care of myself and screw everybody else.’
SR: That’s an old essay. I’ve been married for 11 years, I wrote that probably 10 years ago. But yes, as women, we typically spend way too much of our brain power on worrying about whether or not we should lose 10 pounds.
MB: The other essay I appreciated, because I’ve been there, was about putting your dog Riva down. The idea that you address–if I don’t acknowledge it, then it’s not going to happen. You did a good job with that topic and it’s a difficult but important thing to do.
SR: Thanks. I wrote that essay about when the right time is to put down a beloved dog but also, I needed to write about this strange connection with my ex. This is a case where, I wrote the essay I wanted to read. So many people are now sharing pets with their ex, and I think it’s a bad idea. It creates a situation where we can’t let go of the relationship. I don’t think it’s bad for the dogs or cats, necessarily, but it’s bad for the humans who should be moving on into new lives.
MB: So, what’s next? What are you working on now?
SR: I’m working on a memoir about taking care of my mother when she was dying of cancer. It’s about caregiving and complicated mother-daughter relationships, but it’s also self-reflexive in that it’s about writing a book. I sat across from her at every chemo and wrote, knowing it would be a book, which is a weird meta experience, but it also helped me get through it, and maybe it helped both of us. I often let my mother read what I was working on. Sometimes she would say something, and then say, ‘Oh shit! That’s something that crazy lady would say.’ When I asked her what crazy lady, she would say, ‘the one in your book.’
I am not at a solid draft yet. It’s a painful book to write and I have needed the distance those five years have provided. But I’m plugging away and hoping to have a draft done this year. I don’t know if it’s a book anyone will want to publish, but it’s a book I need to finish writing for myself. After that, I am moving to a novel. I’m tired of talking about myself. At least for now.
Animal Bodies: On Death, Desire, and Other Difficulties releases March 1, 2022, from University of Nebraska Press. Follow Suzanne on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, or her website.