I Want to Show People Their Hearts: An Interview With Susannah Breslin

Susannah Breslin is the author of You’re A Bad Man Aren’t You, a collection of short stories from Future tense Books. Her writing has appeared in Harper’s Bazaar, Salon, and L.A. Weekly, and she holds degrees from the University of California at Berkeley in Literature and the University of Illinois at Chicago. She was, until recently, a resident of New Orleans, Louisiana. Susannah was kind enough to agree to this interview in September of 2005.

Sycamore Review: It’s been a little over two years since the first printing of your story collection, YABMAY? How would you describe the overall reaction to it?

Susannah Breslin: The overall reaction to YABMAY was very positive. The book was seldom in bookstores, but it sold well on the web. It seemed to be able to find its niche audience through blogs and other websites. People seemed to enjoy the oddness of the collection, that it was about sex, but that, at the same time, it had a heart. I think people appreciated the fact that while it traded in sex, a subject some find to be lacking in intellect, the writing was rigorous. The print run was 600 copies, and the book is almost sold out.

How did you decide that the things you were writing, some of which you were publishing online, should be collected into a book?

I had published various stories that were included in the collection on the web, and I had others that hadn’t yet been published, and this was a way for me to feel a little less like things were here and there and everywhere, and more as if they all added up to one lump sum of literary something. It’s not a big book, so it seemed fitting it would go to a small publisher. At a certain point, I started to approach small presses about bringing these stories together into one little book.

You describe Future Tense, who brought out the book, as a “micro-publisher,” and you acknowledge a pretty extensive list of donors.  Were there advantages to working with a small press, and how did you raise the money?

I believe it’s Kevin Sampsell, the creator of Future Tense, who refers to it as a “micro-publisher.” Essentially, Future Tenseis Kevin. It was wonderful to work with a small publisher. I played a role in the creation of the cover of the book. We decided collectively how big the book should be. Kevin and I collaborated on what stories should stay and what stories could go. I didn’t have to battle with an editor over my prose style. It was a delightful thing to have that much input on that many levels.

Ultimately, we realized that to publish the book as a book, and not as a chapbook, we needed more money. So, I held a fundraiser on the weblog I had at the time, The Reverse Cowgirl, and over a dozen people helped raise the necessary $1,200 in around 48 hours. It was pretty amazing. There were tiers for donor levels, and the biggest donor was able to name one of the stories after himself. It was a very cool thing.

You do a lot of writing online, and you’ve contributed stories to a number of online magazines and journals.  When did you start publishing things online and what attracted you to it?

I’ve been a freelance writer since late 1997, so I was already writing for the web when I got into publishing fiction online. My work is edgy and unusual, and I could not get my stories published in the more conservative literary journals to save my life. But, I had success doing so with online publications, so I stuck with that. There was a shared sensibility there–a similar interest in pushing the boundaries of what fiction was and what literary fiction was about.

You’ve been working on a novel that incorporates some of the material from YABMAY?  How would you characterize moving from shorter pieces to working on a novel?

It’s one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. In 2000, I wrote a story that became the title story for YABMAY. The story was about a very bored extreme adult movie director who pushes his subject matter and his subjects to the very limit in order to turn himself back on emotionally, and that story went on to become the seed of the plot of the novel I’ve been working on which is currently titled Porn Happy.

The sheer size of a novel is daunting. Short stories are quickies, affairs of the moment. There is the ability with the novel, though, to create an entire universe that did not previously exist, and that’s what attracted me to it.

This novel is based on many of the scenes I witnessed when I was a writer who sometimes covered the adult movie industry, and writing this book asks me to both recreate and create anew that strange world. It is totally overwhelming and undeniably compelling as a literary challenge.

What struck me initially about your stories was not their subject matter, per se, but that you seemed to be using the trappings of pornography and sexual fetishes to talk about things that most writers, even “unflinching” writers, ignore. So, what do pornographers, midget porn stars, and people with mannequin fetishes have that characters with the more traditional literary demons (alcoholism, drug addiction, and terminal illness) don’t? You know, for you as a writer.

Well, your question would prompt me to ask what things most writers ignore. I think, these days, what most writers ignore is the heart. There’s so much fussing over ironic posturing and literary cartwheeling, and I wonder what it would be like if some of the people I consider to be my literary peers wrote about, say, love.

Of course, love and matters of the heart have, to put it mildly, been written about extensively, so perhaps what I’m trying to do is find love where one least expects it, and if there was any place on earth where the opposite of love was located, that would be Porn Valley. I heard Susan Orlean speak recently, and she was someone who was described as an expert in finding the extraordinary in the ordinary. I would say I’m interested in finding the ordinary in the extraordinary. How does a pornographer love? How is a killer reborn? How can a midget become a star?

I think I am most intrigued by those who are considered to be society’s castoffs. I want to bring them back into the fold. I want to show people their hearts.