Sarah Manguso on Getting on the Freeway, aka Writing a Novel
In Conversation with Mitzi Rapkin on the First Draft Podcast
First Draft: A Dialogue of Writing is a weekly show featuring in-depth interviews with fiction, nonfiction, essay writers, and poets, highlighting the voices of writers as they discuss their work, their craft, and the literary arts. Hosted by Mitzi Rapkin, First Draft celebrates creative writing and the individuals who are dedicated to bringing their carefully chosen words to print as well as the impact writers have on the world we live in.
In this episode, Mitzi talks to Sarah Manguso about her debut novel, Very Cold People.
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From the episode:
Mitzi Rapkin: You said that you didn’t want to write fiction, but when you realize that you had to write fiction, you had a desire to have it not be conventional fiction, and unconventional structure is of interest to you. You also said that people aren’t interested in a novel about a girl. I’m wondering how the unconventional structure that you use in your writing, and this idea of being seen, intermixes.
Sarah Manguso: I realize now that my fear is similar to the fear I used to have when I first moved to California. I was not a freeway driver, so I drove on surface streets, and it took me forever to get anywhere. I also had this irrational fear that if I drove down Sepulveda Boulevard, I would be teleported onto the freeway and I would die. And it’s insane, it’s an irrational fear, like phobias are, and yet I had this irrational fear for years that I would get on the freeway by accident somehow—like if I were driving parallel to it, I would just be teleported onto the 10 or the 405.
And I think it’s very similar to the fear that if I began writing a novel, it would turn out to be the most conventional, paint-by-number, three-act, 350-page, 30-chapter basic novel that anybody could type out, which is similarly insane. Because sure, one could force oneself to make a novel like that. But this is my eighth book. I’ve written various books of various forms, and I have, up to this point, felt quite calm and accepting of the process by which the form comes into being along with the so-called content.
I mean, it’s all artifice, it’s all something being made. I’ve never made a book by filling in an outline or deciding on the form and then filling in the form. It’s just not how I work. But I was so afraid of the idea of writing a novel that I think the phobia welled up to protect me in some way from writing a conventional novel. And then one day I did get on the freeway by accident, and I was fine. And now I’m a comfortable, calm freeway driver. And similarly, I’m working on a new novel very, very happily.
Sarah Manguso is a fiction writer, essayist, and poet, and the author, most recently, of the novel Very Cold People. Her nonfiction books are 300 Arguments, Ongoingness, The Guardians, and The Two Kinds of Decay, and her other books include the poetry collections Siste Viator and The Captain Lands in Paradise and the story collection Hard to Admit and Harder to Escape. Her work has been recognized by an American Academy of Arts and Letters Literature Award, a Guggenheim Fellowship, and the Rome Prize. She grew up in Massachusetts and now lives in Los Angeles, where she teaches creative writing at Antioch University.