INTERVIEW: Penny Guisinger, Author of Shift: A Memoir of Identity and Other Illusions

Interview by Amy Fish

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Book Cover: ShiftPenny Guisinger was not always attracted to women. In Shift: A Memoir of Identity and Other Illusions she recounts formative relationships with women and men, including the marriage that produced her two children and ultimately ended in part due to her affair with her now-wife.

Beginning her story as straight and ending as queer, she struggles to make sense of how her identity changed so profoundly while leaving her feeling like the same person she’s always been. While covering pivotal periods of her life, including previous relationships and raising her children across the chasm of divorce, Guisinger reaches for quantum physics, music theory, planetary harmonics, palmistry, and more to interrogate her experiences. This personal story plays out against the backdrop of the national debate on same-sex marriage, in rural, easternmost Maine, where Guisinger watched her neighbors vote against the validity of her family.

Shift examines sexual and romantic fluidity while wrestling with the ways past and present mingle rather than staying in linear narratives. Under scrutiny, Guisinger’s sense of her own identity becomes like a Mobius strip or Penrose triangle — an optical illusion that challenges the dimensions and possibilities of the world.


Amy Fish:  As you know, the readers of Hippocampus Magazine are mostly writers. We are always interested in your path to publication. How did “Shift” get from an idea in your head to a book you could hold in your hand?

Penny Guisinger: I started writing Shift as an MFA student. It was supposed to be my first book, but Postcards from Here was also underway and made it to the finish line first. I spent almost ten years writing, revising, and wrangling Shift  into shape. “How do you know when it’s done?” is a really common question for writers working on a project of any size, and my answer is not satisfying because my answer is, “You don’t.” It’s never done, really, because we can revise forever.

Pieces of the manuscript were shared in various workshops and writing groups I have been a part of, but when I felt it was ready enough, I shared it with two trusted writer friends. I asked them to read with only one question in mind: “Is this ready?” I didn’t want sentence-level feedback or even suggestions for revision. They both said yes.

Here’s how I found an agent. I read a book by an author who is far more important than I’ll ever be that reminded me of my own manuscript in terms of the quirky, nontraditional way it was structured. I happened to have a relationship with that author, and I knew who her agent was. So I brazenly asked for an introduction. She said yes. She sent the manuscript to her agency. The agent and I hit it off, and we agreed that this was likely not a manuscript to pitch to the big houses. Our matching visions and ambitions for this book helped us work together.

My agent did a lot — and I mean a lot — of work with me on the manuscript. She is the only agent I’ve ever had, so I don’t have a lot of data, but my sense is that this is not typical. She was truly a partner to me in finishing up the manuscript. I wish we had a more hyperbolic adjective than “grateful” to describe how I feel about that: eternally indebted? It’s a far stronger book than it would have been without her guidance.

Here are the lessons I have to share about this experience: (1) When you think you have revised enough, put the project aside for a while and then revise it again. (2) Have a couple of trusted writer friends who will have eyes on throughout the process and be clear with them about what level of feedback you need at any given moment. (3) Ask people who are further along in their careers for help if you can, even if you don’t know them. Most writers are really, truly happy to give someone a hand up when they can.

AF: The book opens with a particular place and time. How did you decide where to start the story?

PG: The book is structured as a series of short segments, and they are not offered completely in chronological order. As a note, I tried to write it in a traditionally structured, linear way, by which I mean chronological order. More or less. But I found that really challenging. The segments of the story were not arriving on the page in a linear way, and what I eventually realized was that I was trying to force it into a format that didn’t represent the way I remembered it.

When I was finalizing the order of the segments, I experimented with different openers. There were a lot of options! That anecdote about backing up the trailer and the stick shift revealed itself as being the right set of metaphors to start the story. It captured something essential about my relationship with my wife, which is of course, the central story of the book. Lastly, that section captures something essential about the voice of our relationship during that time. It was a struggle, but there was a lot of humor too.

AF:  You talk honestly and openly about your relationships in the book. How much did you tell the characters before the book was released? How did the conversations go?

PG: I gave Kara veto power over anything in the manuscript, and there were a couple of things she asked me to remove, which I did. My kids, who are young adults now, were offered the chance to read it before it was published, and if they had objected to anything I would have removed it. Interestingly, neither of them chose to read it. So we might have to come back to this question in a few years.

Regarding everyone else in the book, I wrote very carefully and deliberately to avoid anything that sounded like a call-out or an accusation. This is my story, and it’s my job to be the most culpable person on the page.

I wrote very carefully and deliberately to avoid anything that sounded like a call-out or an accusation. This is my story, and it’s my job to be the most culpable person on the page.—Penny Guisinger

AF: Reading “Shift” feels like having a conversation with you. Was that a goal in writing it? Why do you think you are so successful in establishing an intimate connection with your readers? Any tips for other writers?

PG: That’s a really nice thing to say! I do work very hard to be transparent and real in my writing. I’m not precious about my story, which brings a level of fearlessness to my work: it’s certainly my hope that it shows. I don’t think there’s anything that has happened to me that hasn’t happened to a lot of other people, which frees me up to tell the story honestly and to be vulnerable on the page.

One of the things I love about creative nonfiction is the way it invites the reader to witness the mind at work on the page — to be with the writer while they figure out what they have come to say. When it’s done well, it creates an automatic intimacy between reader and writer. All of those parts of the book in which I’m messing around with quantum physics or music theory or optical illusions were my honest efforts to understand the story in a new way — the reader is along for that ride with me because I truly was using those tools to find a way to write about my experience of changing my identity.

If I were to offer a tip, it would be to write without inhibition for the first several drafts. Try not to imagine a reader or concern yourself with the thought of publishing when you’re drafting. Draft broad, messy, wandering pages because you never know what gems will tumble out when you’re not overthinking or hiding anything. When I teach, writers often ask me if they are “allowed” to write about this or that private topic or family secret, and the answer is always yes. You are allowed to write about anything you want. Once the idea of publishing enters the arena, it becomes a different set of considerations. Draft like you will never publish it, and revise as if you will.

AF: The book takes place a bit in New York City and mostly in Maine. You did a great job of bringing the reader into each setting. Can you comment on the role of setting when writing memoir and how you are able to evoke a sense of place.

PG: I can’t imagine how to write effectively in any genre without including sensory detail, which by definition requires us to write about the physical setting. Evoking sights and sounds of a place feels mandatory if we want the reader to join us in the experience of the story. The anonymity of New York City and the intimacy of rural Maine were central to my experiences. As such, capturing those places in the writing was central to telling the story. Maine had a particular role as both our beloved home and the place that voted down our right to be married. Seeing some of our neighbors openly campaign against us was frightening, and enduring arguments that the issue was purely political (and not personal) created some distance between us and some of our community. I can’t speak for Kara, but I am not over it.

Author Penny Guisinger

AF: Tell me how you chose the (brilliant) title. There are so many ways to interpret the word “Shift”. Other than the obvious relationship shift, are there other shifts that readers may have missed and you would like to highlight?

PG: Ok, this is kind of a ridiculous story, but I used to have this bracelet made out of typewriter keys, and the largest one was a Shift key. I don’t know if the title of the book came before the bracelet or if it was the other way around, but that bracelet became a sort of good luck charm as I wrote the book. Over time, it fell apart, so I got a Shift key on a chain to wear as a necklace. I wore that everywhere for a long time, including the shower and while swimming. It eventually became illegible from the water damage. Fortunately, by then, the manuscript was out on submission. As the publication date approached, I ordered myself a new bracelet made entirely of Shift typewriter keys. Writers can be as superstitious as professional athletes. I wouldn’t change a thing about that story, as ridiculous as it is.

The book is full of shifts. I believe that the shift experienced by my kids is as significant as the shift in my identity and my marriage. That change looms large in their lives and always will.

AF:  Were there any scenes that you wanted to include in the book but that got cut? Anything you would like to share about this?

PG: As I said, there were a few things that Kara asked me to take out, but I am sworn never to discuss them.

AF: What are you reading now? Please recommend some books for us. [any genre]

PG: I am reading:

Hemingway’s Boat, which is a biography of Ernest Hemingway focusing on the years after he purchased his boat, Pilar. As a writer with a boat, I find his relationship to Pilar fascinating.

I’m reading Karen Babine’s All the Wild Hungers, which is a gorgeous memoir I brought home from AWP.

I’m mid-way through Sue William Silverman’s craft book, Acetylene Torch Songs, which I am defacing with underlines and margin notes.

I just finished listening to the audio books of Circe and The Song of Achilles, and I did not want them to end.

***

Shift is out now with Nebraska Press.


amy fish

Amy Fish

Staff Reviewer & Interviewer

Amy Fish is a writer of true stories, some of which are funny. She is the author of “I Wanted Fries with That: How to Ask for What You Want and Get What You Need” (NWL 2019) and “The ART of Complaining Effectively” (Avmor 2015). Amy is currently doing her MFA at Kings’ College in Halifax, Canada. She is the Ombudsperson at Concordia University in Montreal, where she lives with her husband and kids.

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