Sarah Manguso on the Coldness and Quietness of New England Girlhood
In Conversation with Maris Kreizman on The Maris Review Podcast
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On finding the book’s focus:
SM: The central problem for me about the writing of Very Cold People is that I initially thought of it as yet another essayistic, autobiographical nonfiction book, of which I’d written several by then and felt very comfortable with. And yet I kept running up against this problem of having some of the ingredients of fully realized, multifaceted, narrative nonfiction but not all of the ingredients.
So I started with memoir, I started with what I remembered, and when I ran out of material for the structure, I made a lateral step into sociology and started reading all of these books about in-between racial identity and racial expression in the 20th century in New England and about the provisional whiteness that so many immigrants and children of immigrants were forced into. I realized that the book I needed to write wasn’t about race except incidentally. What it was about was sexual violence and trauma. When you’re a woman, women’s accumulated sexual trauma and rage is a physical force in the world that you can feel. That is what I wanted to write about.
On the importance of perspective:
SM: There was not just a sense of coldness and weirdness and quietness that overshadowed everything when I was growing up [in Massachusetts], but there was also a sense that there was so much information missing. There were so many gaps and omissions. It wasn’t until I tried to write about it that I realized a) that’s the problem, and that’s why I haven’t been able to write about it, and b) that’s also the reason growing up everyone felt vigilant.
MK: Tell me about that as a writer of fiction. How do you convey to the reader that Ruthie is missing a lot of information?
SM: All I can do is just imagine Ruthie as this whole person, and then I can see just what she can see. That’s why it was important for me to use first person. I wanted Ruthie to see things that the other characters couldn’t see, but more importantly I wanted the reader to see that Ruthie couldn’t.
Sarah Manguso is the author of eight books. She is the recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship, a Hodder Fellowship, and the Rome Prize. Her work is regularly featured across The New York Times Magazine, O, and The New Yorker, among others. She grew up in Massachusetts and now lives in LA. Very Cold People is her first novel.