Tuesday, June 3rd, 2008
Sarah Manguso’s fourth book, The Two Kinds of Decay, recounts a harrowing nine-year bout with a rare and complicated blood disease. Her twenties are framed around hospital stays, surgeries, and blood transfusions, with brief moments of respite—concern with having sex before graduating from college, eating the best hamburger ever made—tempered by the angst of her boding illness.
Manguso’s background as a poet seeps into her writing; the format of the book is as much a series of vignettes and ruminations as it is a direct narrative. It veers through epigrammatic writing, self-effacing philosophy, and haiku-prose. In all cases, Manguso’s writing is truly unique; she can impact with one sentence what most authors can only hope for in a paragraph (excerpt here).
She answered our questions by email from Rome where she is a Joseph Brodsky Rome Prize Fellow in Literature at the American Academy. -Adam Krefman
Did you always think that you’d eventually write a memoir about your disease?
For years I avoided writing about it. The subject seemed garish, obvious, banal, embarrassingly personal. Then, in 2006, I wrote an essay about social class that mentioned the tube I wore in my heart. When it was done, I knew I had to write more about that tube. One chapter led to another, and the book got written.
How did reading your old journal entries and researching the book affect the way you see those years now?
I didn’t read the journal or do any research until very late in the writing process, once I had exhausted my memory. I don’t think looking at my nurses’ notes changed the way I perceived those years, but the notes confirmed the mysterious and beautiful kindness of those strangers.
Was the writing process exhausting? Therapeutic?
I’d tried to make sense of the disease for a long time before the summer I started typing, so I don’t know where to start the clock on the writing process. I can’t say with any authority how long I worked on the book. That I typed the first draft in about six weeks is all but irrelevant.
Would you consider writing another memoir?
When I start writing something new, I just call it a thing. Not even a book. Otherwise I feel too much pressure to perform.
What were you reading while writing this book?
My 2006 journal indicates that, while writing the first draft, I read fiction by John Cheever, James Salter, Amy Hempel, and William Maxwell, and essays by Mark Rothko and Dave Hickey. I watched films by Jem Cohen and listened to songs by Godspeed You! Black Emperor that just about killed me.
I find myself re-reading some of your passages like I would a poem. Does your prose always come out concise and dense, or do you find it necessary to spill it out on paper and then edit yourself down? Do you feel constrained writing a story with such an extreme economy of words, or do the confines inspire you?
I feel neither confinement nor inspiration. By now, short texts seems stolid in my character, inextricable from my personality. It’s just what I do: I write short and edit shorter.
Cause and effect; transformative moments that are really just ordinary moments in a constantly transforming life—these ideas implicitly resist any sort of benchmarks or milestones. Why did you choose to frame the book in this way?
Writing the book wasn’t an intellectual activity for me, so I made no choices about framing or genre or anything else. As Denis Johnson has said about Jesus’ Son, I just wrote it down.
You write: “I tend to forget that my measurement of time is designed to distract me from what’s really happening.” Do you find that removing yourself, time-wise, from a situation also numbs your emotions (or at least enough to write about this time in your life)?
I am interested in deep alertness, and I think it’s possible to be deeply alert to moments that are already over. It takes me a long time to digest anything—my alertness to the events in 1995 was available to me only eleven years after the events were over.
“A lyric speaker must occupy the lyric moment as it’s happening. Or so it seems to me at this moment”—this is an amazing line for the word/time play. Did you write this memoir in “the lyric moment” because your remission always feels temporary, or looming?
What a beautiful reading. I hadn’t thought of that.