Interview with Ryan Guth, author of Body and Soul (Lummox Press, 2015)

What led to the creation of this book? What inspired the idea?

 

It really began as a series of conversations with my primary source, an adult survivor of childhood sexual abuse, whom I have agreed to keep anonymous. But the stories I heard in those conversations are themselves the inspiration and the foundation of my book. I have fictionalized where necessary for my own artistic purposes (and to protect my source’s identity), but my ultimate goal has been simply to express the emotional and psychological truth of those experiences.

 

Is there a purpose for the mingling of playacting and poetry in the book?

 

You know, my publisher asked me the same question. It’s probably the most demanding aspect of the book, from a reader’s point of view, so I appreciate the opportunity to explain what I was after. My character Cassandra, as an abuse survivor, suffers in adult life from Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID). This condition manifests as a splitting-off of “alter” personalities whose purpose is to help carry the emotional load, the burden of remembering and responding to physical and emotional trauma. Thus, she has an unusually complicated relationship both to present reality and to her own past. She often has trouble understanding or articulating her own motivations, and sometimes detaches completely, imagining herself from an external point of view as if through a camera.

The piece titled “Part of the Show” illustrates several of these DID symptoms. It’s presented as a parody of cheap, sensational true-crime TV shows — the ones that feature supposed documentary footage or re-enactments, interspersed with “after-the-fact” interviews. The piece focusses on an episode from Cassandra’s days as a home-care nurse many years earlier. One of her patients, “Andrew,” is a would-be painter who’s had no success or recognition for his (admittedly mediocre) work. He’s also dying of AIDS. At the same time, Cassandra is being pursued by a modelling agency, the owner of which sponsors an annual art show featuring local talent. That owner has a sexual interest in her as well, which she uses as a bargaining tool to get her patient some exhibit space in the show. She genuinely wants to give Andrew some validation of his artistic ambitions before he dies, but she’s also presenting him to make a statement of her own, to shock the pretentious high-society crowd attending the exhibit. So poor Andrew ends up being part of two different “shows” – Cassandra’s as well as the owner’s. As she recalls this incident, she wants very much to believe she did the right thing for the right reasons, but worries that she only subjected him to gratuitous humiliation. Her self-doubts are presented in the voice of the modelling agency owner; however – as the “host” of the TV show points out – his character is only “a simulation, based on Cassandra’s own recollections.” In other words, the entire TV program is simply one of Cassandra’s dissociative episodes. She can’t bring herself to question her own actions, so she creates a version of the agency owner in her mind to ask those questions for her, and she further distances herself from the memory by framing it in the TV-show format. Within the premise of that “show,” Cassandra and the owner are never in the same location or the same camera shot, so she’s never put in the position of having to respond to her accuser.

 

Then there’s the long closet-drama, “Truth be Told,” which forms the climax and denouement of the book. “NO REVEALING THE ENDING!,” you said – so I’ll try to avoid spoilers. This piece dramatizes the surfacing of yet another repressed sex-abuse memory, this one tangled up with a drug-murder that her father was involved in when she was a child. After studying police and court records for the murder case, the adult Cassandra becomes convinced that some testimony she remembers giving about the abuse incident may have been deliberately expunged as part of a plea bargain. This possibility is so emotionally debilitating that she creates two additional alters, “manifesting as a pair of police detectives,” to relive the investigation and re-examine it for her.

 

What spurred the idea for the Southwestern myths in Body and Soul? Were they intended to shape the plot, or symbolize an implied thought?

O'Keefe

More the latter, I’d say. Take the short poem “La Loba” – it’s inserted into the narrative sequence at a point where Cassandra has physically returned to the scenes of several scarifying memories, in order to confront and memorialize them (the “FOUR STONES” sequence). In the midst of this emotionally draining effort, she happens to recall the wolf-woman legend. Perhaps she sees herself “knitting new muscle, / new skin and fur,” like the bones in the poem. Perhaps she herself is trying “to Become.” It’s also no accident that the figure of La Loba in my poem looks and acts a lot like Georgia O’Keeffe – another southwestern symbol of life-affirming female strength.  I think of that poem, at that particular point in the book, as a kind of pep-talk Cassandra is giving herself.
“La Llorona” works in much the same way, but reflects a darker patch in Cassandra’s life. She’s deep in addiction, deep in debt to her dealer and sleeping around, so her husband has left the state with their son to get away from her chaos. At this low point, she imagines herself as a new incarnation of “La Llorona” — the weeping woman, outcast and self-punished for killing her children.

Llorona

 

 

The book blurs the boundaries of fact and fantasy. Other than this lack of distinction giving shape to the protagonist’s personalities, is there a higher symbolism you are trying to achieve? Is Cassandra perhaps reflecting a deeper religious truth?

 

Cassandra’s devotion to a “divine strong female presence” does sometime takes the form of identifying herself with that goddess figure, as in “Aretalogy” or “All Like Poetic and Shit.” For the most part, though, I see that fact/fiction blend more as an expression of her DID… although it could be symbolic as well, now that you mention it. The disintegration of a single personality into separate alters is obviously a self-destructive act, but at the same time it’s an imaginative coping mechanism, a way of trying to manage the emotional load of traumatic memories. Ironically, the disorder could be a symbol of the sufferer’s desire to survive and overcome.

Speaking of symbols, someone at a reading asked me about the name “Cassandra” — was it a nod to the Greek myth about the prophetess whose warnings weren’t believed? “Absolutely,” I replied. Then I went home and looked her up, because actually I’d chosen that name purely for sound and rhythm. I’m embarrassed to admit I’d never heard of the mythical Cassandra, but sometimes the Universe gives you one for free.

 

How did James Joyce figure into the book’s creation and structure?

 

He’s all over Body and Soul. The “play” sections, which we discussed earlier, are directly inspired by Joyce’s use of dramatic form in the “Circe” episode of Ulysses, and for exactly the same purpose – dramatizing psychological states, “exteriorizing the interior,” you might say. The short piece “Recessional,” at the end of Part III, was actually conceived as a continuation of Joyce’s novel, which ends with Molly Bloom thinking about (among many other things) making eggs for her husband’s breakfast the next morning. Ulysses takes place on June 16; my “Recessional” is dated June 17 – which, as it happens, was the actual date of the incident described in the piece. Did I mention that the Universe sometimes gives you one for free?

 

Joyce’s so-called “mythic method” – infusing a naturalistic character with mythological overtones – is also behind my borrowings from southwestern lore, which we’ve already talked about.

james-joyce

Aside from Body and Soul, I would like to ask about your educational background.

 

My M.A. is from West Chester University, where I studied with poet Chris Buckley. At the University of Cincinnati I studied with Andrew Hudgins and Don Bogen, and my creative doctoral dissertation was the basis of my first book, Home Truths (Alsop Review Press, 2006).

 

Do you think an education in Creative Writing is useful for writers? Can it be harmful? Some criticize writing courses as “hammering originality out” or making the student like the teacher. What is your take on this?

 Pinkfloydhammers_preview_featured

I’ve had both harmful and useful experiences, fortunately in that order. As an 18-year-old college freshman, I was told by a bullying professor that “nobody writes about mountains and lovers anymore.” When I disagreed, he advised me to do two things: give up writing, and leave his program. The second piece of advice was pretty good, so I guess he wasn’t a total loss.

 

My graduate instructors, on the other hand, were fine teachers as well as acclaimed poets – gifted with the ability to understand or intuit what their students wanted to accomplish in a given piece, and even to explain those intentions — sometimes better than we ourselves were able to articulate them. And they understood the trap of what Hudgins himself referred to as “the workshop poem” – that is, the stereotypically careful, correct little piece that makes no missteps because it takes no chances. We were actually discussing a draft of mine at the time, and I took it as a compliment that he thought my piece didn’t fit the stereotype.

I understand you conducted intense research to write this book. What did you learn from it? How did the research factor into the creation of Cassandra and her story?

 

In terms of the book itself, research mostly served to give me additional insight into the experiences and responses described by my source. There is one passage in the book, however, which is based solely on research. In the second introductory poem, “Too Pretty,” Cassandra feels a brief (and very uncomfortable) moment of sexual desire when thinking about her grandfather, who has just died. I’d read that abuse survivors sometimes feel such sexual attraction to their abusers, but I found the possibility so hard to credit that I followed up on it with a clinical psychologist who works with abuse victims. He corroborated what my written sources told me, so that passage stayed in the book even though it was not part the material my source provided.

 

In terms of informing my own life, I suppose the most important thing I learned was to trust a survivor’s story. It’s very hard – nearly impossible in many cases – to get to the full truth of what happened. The abuser lies, the abuser orders the victim to lie, other family members are carefully manipulated into assisting with the cover-up, so memory distortions and gaps get a good firm hold. All of that teaches the survivors not to trust their own remembering. To work through all of that for the sake of whatever truth CAN be established, and then to have that truth dismissed or disbelieved, can feel like a wholesale negation of the survivor’s desire to heal. Terribly, sometimes irreparably, damaging.

What advice can you offer to writers who want to break from the small time?

 piles-of-money

I’m never sure what “small time” means, or if folks who write poetry ever manage to “break” from it these days. If you want attention for your work in your own lifetime, you have to promote it pretty mercilessly – before, during, and after any publication — which can take time and energy away from the work itself. Posterity, on the other hand, only cares about the quality of the materials and the workmanship. You have to decide which is more important to you, and learn to live with the consequences. I’ll let you know if I get there.

 

How did you establish a connection with Lummox Press?

 

Lummox Press was listed in both “Duotrope” and the Poets and Writers database of publishers — both of which I heartily recommend to any writers — so I figured the cross-listing was a good recommendation in itself. I corresponded with the owner, Rd Armstrong, for a couple of years before I submitted a query. I also bought and read several of their titles, and had several poems from the book published in their journal. Over time, I developed a pretty clear idea of the kind of work they publish, and it seemed to be generally in line with what I was trying to do in Body and Soul.

 

How long did it take the book to be released after it was accepted by Lummox Press? Were there any obstacles you faced once the book was in their hands?

 

About two years from acceptance to release, which is pretty typical for small presses. The first year was just waiting for my turn – they try to put out 10-12 books a year, and sometimes there’s a backlog. The second year was taken up with editing, design, and proofreading. Not to mention the chore of securing permissions for the few short quotations that appear in the book. There were originally several dozen of these, mostly from the world of popular music, but the process was so tedious and time-consuming that I cut most of them. Note to self: NEVER use pop-song quotes again!

 

What sparked your interest in writing? What do you feel is the highest reward for writing a book?

 

I was reading by myself at the age of three, and started writing at five. It’s much more than an interest, or an urge to express myself, or to contribute to the Canon of Literature. Writing really is how I make sense of the world, and I don’t know how functional I’d be without it. I think eyesight would be much easier to give up.

Highest reward? Feeling the words and phrases finally click into place, usually after 15-20 drafts of a piece, over a period of years. Which is probably why I think in terms of books and sequences; if one piece isn’t going well, I can turn to another part of the project and still feel like I’m making progress that day. Now that Body and Soul is actually in print, I find that gaining the interest of attentive readers such as yourself is also highly gratifying.

 

Do you imagine Cassandra ever got the answers she sought?

 

Your question tells me that the conclusion is doing what I intended it to – i.e., implying that there won’t ever be any final, objective confirmation of her own memories. She’s fully examined and exhausted the available evidence, and the answer seems to be that there IS no answer. It’s even possible that more incidents and abusers will resurface; remember, she thought that was over with at the end of Part III. But at the end of Part IV we see her just beginning to understand – and even to make peace with — that lack of certainty. Whatever questions remain, she’s sober, she has her “Ted,” and in that final image she’s making a place in her own adult life to care for the frightened, friendless child she remembers being.

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Are there a lot of cases of sexual abuse forgotten by victims, only to be remembered in later years?

 

First, let me say that I’m nobody’s expert on this subject. My sense of it is that the repression of memories isn’t universal, at least not to the total extent of Cassandra’s case. But erased memories are far from uncommon.

 

Will Cassandra make another appearance in a newer work?

 

The arrangement between my source and me ended with the completion of Body and Soul. We are no longer in contact.

 

Do you have plans for another book?

 

Oh yes! Another “mixed-genre novel,” tentatively titled Livings. Time: 1845-1850. Place: an isolated industrial village in the north of England. Characters: the famous Bronte family of writers, four highly gifted, highly-strung adult siblings who for various reasons have failed to establish themselves in the outside world and now find themselves back in their childhood home with their father, an elderly Anglican pastor. One of the siblings is something of a theologian, one is an eloquent and inspiring feminist, one a pagan nature mystic, and one is a drunk-slash-opium addict. Imagine the possibilities!

 

 

Ryan Guth’s book Body and Soul is available here: http://www.lummoxpress.com/lc/body-and-soul/

 

 

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