With what do you write? A computer? A pencil? A ballpoint/biro? Rollerball? Quill and the blood of virgins (male or female is fine, we’re all about equal opportunity at Regal)? A fountain pen (people who use a fountain pen get extra credit points)?
Ah, the fountain pen! All students at my British-modeled school were required to use blue fountain pens. Bloody hell, I loathed them. The cartridge running out when you need it most. The new cartridge vomiting all over your magnum opus. The horrible pink blotting paper. Ink all over your uniform, which would earn you a telling-off. Other children chewing the ends of their pens and winding up with disgusting blue teeth. How I longed for a biro! I faked my homework with my mum’s rollerball whenever possible. Now that I’m a professional writer with a professional writer’s income I scribble with whatever I can mooch for free, black biros given out at conferences preferred. But. How many plastic biros and biro refills must there be in the Great Atlantic and Pacific Garbage Patches? Have you ever wondered? According to Google, the most eco-friendly writing tool isn’t the biro or the computer but the hated fountain pen! It has to be a model that uses not disposable cartridges but an internal bladder which should not require replacing. However, it does require you to dip your pen in an ink bottle every once in a while, carefully squeezing ink into the bladder while not spilling it on your draft and hoping against hope that in the meantime your idea won’t sail clean out of your head never to return, and if your pen is on the asthmatic side, ink inhalation can take time. I have yet to solve the problem of eco-friendly writing in a way that satisfies my conscience. I have a terrible feeling I may never satisfy it.
We’ve all heard the advice that authors should “write what they know.” But fiction emerges from imagination and creation of new worlds. Do you feel a tension between what you’ve experienced and what lives only in your mind?
I’ve never found that advice particularly helpful. For one thing, none of us really knows much about anything. It’s questioning and wondering that make for good writing, not pretending to know it all. Even if I’d been groomed from birth to be a professional paper shredder, I wouldn’t know everything there is to know about being a professional paper shredder because I don’t know everything there is to know about being human. That very fallibility is essential to being human. We really don’t know much about ourselves. We know even less about other people. When characters run around shooting other characters or fling about sweeping generalizations, so sure of themselves that they never think to question their motivations—and much of the time it’s because their authors think they “know” that what they’re doing is justified by popular prejudices—well, as I reader I’m turned off, sometimes irreparably. Prejudices are not knowledge.
The idea that writers “write what they know” is misleading to readers too. My characters are not me. My characters’ families are not my family. I don’t write romans à clef. It is infuriatingly difficult to convince people of this. I’ve had to resort to asking aloud whether people really think that J.K. Rowling ever believed herself to be an eleven-year-old boy with magical powers—which I hate to do because people then assume I’m comparing my level of success to Rowling’s, and that is absolutely not the case—but it’s the only thing that seems to get the point across. Mind you, few people who offer to pray for me have actually read Drafts of a Suicide Note beyond the title. Someone offered to be my therapist (they’re not a therapist) on the assumption that, instead of raising difficult questions about the experience of depression, I already “know” it all and they “know” even better. When anxious, I just Add To Cart, books preferred. What could be healthier?
Who has supported you along the way? [or “The Hands of Aetna Simmons”]
Drafts of a Suicide Note has received some very special support in ways that are highly unusual for a novel of its kind. As far as I know, you can only die once; but Aetna Simmons has left behind ten suicide notes, all different: different voices, different looks, different inks and penmanships. Michelle Rosquillo, my truly magnificent editor at Regal House, suggested to the wonderful Editor-in-Chief, Jaynie Royal, that my wild dream of seeing Aetna’s documents rendered as illustrations—something I’d diffidently asked for but never dared to hope for—mightn’t be too wild after all.
The cost of illustrations, however, was prohibitive. Jaynie suggested that I ask the photographer who’d taken my headshot if she might be able to help. Well, my photographer is my longtime bestie and soul-sister, Heather Kettenis. Heather has done papercraft, digital collage, and photography all her life. She’s also a hardworking physician. But she made the time to help to make my dream come true. We explained our idea and Aetna’s bizarre story to other artists who happen to have interesting handwriting, and they agreed to help as well. Rich Andrew, screenwriter and editor; Mark “Metal” Wong, breakdancer and performance artist; Kathryn Eddy, painter, collage artist, and sound artist: they became the “hands” of Aetna Simmons, some of her proliferous tentacles. I’d made up her words, they were already in my novel; the artists wrote them down in their distinctive ways; Heather photographed what they had written and made the images ready for print. She created more of Aetna’s documents on her own, using a combination of papercraft and digital techniques.
After that, Heather still had more to do. What image could possibly lend itself to the cover of a book called Drafts of a Suicide Note? Long story short: Rich, who’d read the manuscript, came up with an idea that Jaynie and Michelle and I refined in our minds. But how to execute it? Only one person we knew had the necessary skill and believed in the book enough to want to make it come to life.
I’ll never forget the afternoon Heather and I spent smashing pieces of my manuscript and photographing the balled-up scraps inside my piano bench. My job was to hold up black skirts and white tissue paper, absorbing and reflecting the Bermuda light as the sun moved slowly westward and Heather, bent over the camera on the tripod, said, “A little to the left . . .”
On my next birthday, my mom presented me with the actual smashed-up piece of paper that made it onto the cover, mounted in a black-box frame.
And the book? Well, it exceeds my wildest dreams.
Why are there so many Russian matryoshkas in Drafts of a Suicide Note? Those things are totally clichéd, and they’re probably symbols of reproductive fecundity, which couldn’t interest you less. What is up with the matryoshkas?
No matryoshkas appear in Drafts of a Suicide Note. But you’re right, I’ve been sort of mesmerized by Russian nesting dolls since I was a child. The best ones are unquestionably works of art, often painted by underappreciated women artists. But that’s not the main thing. I’ve spent some time staring at one of my favorite matryoshkas—a simple one with flowers—and wondering why I like these things, let alone find them mesmerizing. When you open the outer doll, which you do with a sort of splitting, not a twisting motion, there’s another doll inside with the same face. You open the inside doll, and there’s another one inside it with that same face. And so on. Yet you’re absolutely right that I’ve no interest in self-replication. I think the main thing is this. You break me open, but I’m still here. Break me again, but I’m still here, break me again and again until you reach the hard kernel at the very base of me that cannot be broken, that may have no resemblance to anything, and that is nonetheless still me. I think that’s what matryoshkas say to me.
What’s next for you?
I’ve got two novels in the works at the moment. One is still in its early stages, a novel about Ayuka Watanabe, the subsistence free-diver who stars in my fiction chapbook Awabi. The other I’m hoping to finish by the end of the year. Right now I’m calling it The Box. It’s a novel in six second-hand stories, each presented by a different narrator with a different voice and style, about a puzzle box that only some people can open as it’s lost and found and lost and found, changing hands again and again in a city that’s undergoing some strange effects of climate collapse. In no case is any narrator simply telling their own story; they’re telling stories they’ve heard from others. There’s no particular protagonist. It’s very experimental for me, really a lot of fun. The pay might leave something to be desired, but I do love my job.
Mandy-Suzanne Wong was the winner of the Digging Press Chapbook Series Award (Awabi, Digging Press, 2019) and the Eyelands International Flash Fiction Competition. Her work has also been shortlisted for the UK’s Aeon Award. Her stories and essays appear in The Spectacle, The Hypocrite Reader, Conclave, Sonic Field, Quail Bell, The Island Review, and several other venues. She is a native of Bermuda, where she’s writing a new novel and her first nonfiction book.