“Outside the Coordinates.” On Crafting Nonfiction That Takes Risks
Laura Tillman Talks to Her Mentor and Former Teacher, Suzannah Lessard
As an MFA student in the first semester of Goucher’s low-residency nonfiction program, I sat down for my first seminar in Suzannah Lessard’s classroom. I’d already read her memoir, The Architect of Desire: Beauty and Danger in the Stanford White Family. I couldn’t believe that I had the chance to study with her. On a sentence level Suzannah’s writing was packed with intellect. It was a specific, empathic, haunted, curious, life-loving voice. And the project of the book was daring, both personally and structurally.
When Suzannah walked into the classroom, she was disarmingly accessible. She had a mop of curly, greying hair, kind, blue eyes. At lunchtime, she’d sit with us, always getting the same tuna sandwich, the same cone of ice cream to eat on the way back to class. In the classroom, Suzannah listened with a different quality of attention than I’d ever experienced, and her guidance was led by twin forces, that appeared at first to be in conflict, but somehow worked in harmony: radical exploration, coupled with structural and journalistic principles. With these principals, the creative enterprise became more sustainable and fruitful.
In the 12 years since we met, Suzannah’s approach to nonfiction writing has continued to guide me. She helped me with revisions of my new book, The Migrant Chef: The Life and Times of Lalo García. And as I’ve started teaching, I’ve often talked with her about how she works, and encourages her students to make work that “reveals the world” one of her frequent terms for nonfiction that goes “outside the coordinates,” (another favorite saying) to show you something you don’t expect that reverberates, reshaping your perceptions.
I’m hardly alone in my experience—Suzannah has guided many students at both Goucher and The New School. She isn’t terribly interested in writing a book on craft—she has other projects she wants to do instead. So, I wanted to sit down with her to map some of her ideas and methods and their origins. Suzannah spent twenty years working at The New Yorker, so I began by asking her about her transformative relationship with its then-editor William Shawn.
Laura Tillman: One thing that I’ve always wanted to talk to you about in more detail is your relationship with William Shawn and the impact that he had on you. Because of course, he’s such an iconic figure at The New Yorker, and I know that you often reference him, that you were at the magazine under his leadership specifically, and the meaning of that.When the reader feels the nuance in a sentence, the reader knows that’s what’s exciting.
Suzannah Lessard: Yeah. Sure. And actually, that has a very direct relationship to craft. So, I’d say that there are two major aspects of the impact that Shawn had on me. The first is that, at the time I came to the magazine, which was 1975, the magazine was extremely stable financially. It had tons of advertising, more than they could take, actually. And they really were, as a result, able to enlarge traditions that had grown up there informally and remained informal. They were never articulated. The way the magazine worked at that point was, it was writer-driven, and it had been, I think, from the beginning.
But it truly was in the sense that, when I got there, when I had my interview with Shawn, he said, “we’re not here to tell you what to write, we’re here to publish what you write.” There were no editorial meetings where they discussed what they would like to see in the magazine and who they would like to see write it. The real historians of The New Yorker might disagree a little with me, I don’t know, but Shawn, I think, really took a sort of writer-driven philosophy a step further.
Like, it seemed to me that he really believed in the writerly hunch, in that attraction to a subject, and sometimes it might not even be that clear what the subject was. It was that curiosity that a writer can get, that can’t necessarily be defended at the start of reporting and writing a piece in a practical way.
That’s a risky thing to do. It is something that fiction writers and poets do all the time. I mean, it’s not even a grand thing to talk about it in those genres, but in nonfiction, which is so topically driven, it was very unusual. And what it did was create some rather unusual nonfiction, because not only were writers going off and finding offbeat subjects that they were just sort of curious about, but they also then were writing them in the way that they felt would best capture what they found.
Now, the other aspect of being at The New Yorker is that these manuscripts that we worked with had gone through a really meticulous copy editing process. I mean, it’s famous that people argued about a comma all night. That’s a kind of an absurd example, perhaps, but there was great care taken. There was Miss Gould, and Miss Gould was kind of a lawyer of grammar, like she would read and see what your metaphor really implied if you took it to its logical conclusion, she would notice that you hadn’t brought something up.
She caught a few of mine in Architect of Desire where what I had left out was really significant, really significant! You had all these people had read your manuscript but you were given the right to absolutely, autocratically refuse any of their feedback.
SL: Yeah, absolutely. And just say, no, it’s not what I want to do, or it’s just making it too persnickety, or whatever you wanted to say. Now, famously, also, the fact-checkers had gone through your piece. And the New Yorker checkers were extremely meticulous. But what I want to point out here is the combination of meticulous fact checking with really meticulous literary editing, like I was in a place where both those things were valued. Nobody said anything about it, it’s just what the culture of the place was, and you didn’t feel they were in conflict. In fact, it was so famous that when somebody actually did make a mistake, it was in the news. That’s how good the checking was.
LT: I’m curious about William Shawn as a presence, in thinking about your presence as a teacher. Did you take anything away from his presence in terms of what writers need, what’s helpful, what’s nurturing or what’s counter-productive?
SL: It was just a really comfortable experience. You’d go into his study, there was a big old sofa that you sank into and he’s sitting at an old wooden desk. And he loved doing this, editing, so he’s just really happy. I knew I was given this authorial right. I knew I’d have to defend my decision if he wanted to change something and I didn’t, but I knew that I could say no.
I learned a lot from it, and one of the things I learned was to trust the writerly hunch, to outside the standard coordinates, what’s expected. And that’s what the fact-checking thing showed me: when I inadvertently got something slightly wrong, I had moved it toward a cliché. When the reader feels the nuance in a sentence, the reader knows that’s what’s exciting. You can’t get reality perfectly, but that effort to try, that sort of enthusiasm for it, as opposed to seeing it as a sort of creative block, can turn it into an imaginative thing. Shawn also had this completely unremarked upon openness to unconventional angles, form, risk-taking things.
LT: Part of why I asked about his presence was, I felt like when I started the Goucher program, there was this very open-minded way you talked about our projects, open to possibility. You weren’t bringing a particular point of view to what we should be doing or what this piece should be saying, which feels kind of rare.
SL: I’m happy that you experienced that from me, because that’s what I like, that’s what I think is valuable, that I have to give. You know, you get on some jury for some prize or something and you get a lot of stuff and you get some very articulate, wonderful things, and then you get something that’s barely nascent, but there’s just something there, it buzzes, you know?
And I would give that the prize, and then they’d say, “why did you give this the prize?” And I would say, “well, because it’s going into this dangerous, risky territory,” whereas there’s this other, very smooth, capable piece of writing that’s much less interesting, but good. I mean, I wouldn’t condemn all people who can do that kind of work, but it’s just not so much what interests me, which is, I think, the kind of nonfiction that can expand our understanding of our world in unexpected ways.
LT: I wanted to ask about this word you use a lot with writing which is “risky.” You’re interested in things that are risky. Can you talk a little about that, what you mean by risk in writing?
SL: I like risky because that’s what something new and illuminating is going to come out of. But it also really is risky in that you might founder, it might not play out. That’s true, I think in fiction, in any kind of art. That’s what a risk is: it might not work out. I think that right now nonfiction has such exciting potential for the moment, but it requires these elaborate book proposals which really play out exactly what’s going to be found and it’s really a system that removes risk, because a writer has to take months to do these proposals, and if they propose something risky it’s likely to be turned down and they’ve lost three months or six months of effort.
LT: Let’s talk about what you do in the workshop. At Goucher, the idea of the program is that you’re supposed to write a book-length work. And so, you’re workshopping these ideas that are not just for an essay or a short piece, but the question is, how are you going to develop a whole book out of this thing? And how are you going to structure it? And I remember specifically one of the students was working on a book about a photographer, and the concept that you laid out was that it could be structured around the hallway where his photos were hung up.
Like you move down the hallway going from photo to photo, and at each stop, that’s a chapter. It wasn’t like, “ok, now she has to structure her book this way.” It was more of a concept to get her moving, to maybe visualize what the structure could look like. How did you develop that approach? You’re helping people who are embarking on a really big project and it’s very daunting. I think one of the biggest problems a writer can have is just the sheer terror of taking on something like that. It can stop you from the attempt. What are you trying to do for people at that phase?What you came up with, of course, wasn’t necessarily the total solution.
SL: It’s in a way a sort of paradoxical thing just about the low-residency program. It’s a structure that invites doing a long work, which the on-site MFA classes, which meet weekly, do not. That kind of workshop, actually almost by definition, is shorter pieces. It’s illogical for the first thing you do to be a book. It’s much more logical for the first thing to be a shorter piece. We fell into this at Goucher really because of the way the structure invites it, being a low-residency program.
My own background, I think played a part, in that I was not structurally inclined at all in my own work. I had to learn about structure myself and that’s what I brought to these little groups.
One of the things I discovered was this amazing capacity of the group to discuss the structure of one person’s work. I developed a couple of sort of basic things like the timeline on the blackboard. The chronological timeline. You start with that, not because you’re going to end up with that, but that’s where you have to start.
The group talking about this over the course of four hours and there was this pattern to it: by the first break, you felt we’re never going to get there. You felt complete, total frustration, despair, and discomfort. I’d say to them just go through this. And you’d come out at the end with a structure that had risen up out of the material. The person had talked enough about the material. And as you say, what you came up with, of course, wasn’t necessarily the total solution.
LT: That kind of mirrors the book writing process, at least in my experience where it’s like, you have all this juice about an idea so you’re excited and you get started. But then at some point toward the middle, you feel really desperate like, how is this really ever going to work? And then you have that rough material, and you start shaping it, you start to get hopeful again that there is some good thing in there that can be shaped and polished until it works. It’s kind of funny.
The other thing I really liked about the Goucher program was the sense that people are giving you advice and feedback, but you don’t have to take any of it if it doesn’t feel useful to you. The professors explicitly say that. And you can’t possibly take it all because a lot of it is contradictory.
SL: I think it actually is part of the training because you have to decide. You have to distinguish what’s helpful and what’s not.
This conversation was edited and condensed.
The Migrant Chef: The Life and Times of Lalo García by Laura Tillman is available from W.W. Norton & Company.
Laura Tillman is the author of The Migrant Chef: The Life and Times of Lalo García, and The Long Shadow of Small Ghosts: Murder and Memory in an American City.
Suzannah Lessard is the author of The Architect of Desire: Beauty and Danger in the Stanford White Family and The Absent Hand: Reimagining the American Landscape.