Q&A with author Sarah Manguso about her book The Two Kinds of Decay
Interviewer: How did you approach your transition from poetry to prose? What drove you to tell your story as a memoir instead of through poetry?
Sarah Manguso: My shift from verse to prose was gradual and unintentional. My first publications were essays, but not enough people read them that I was ever called an essayist. A review of my first book, a poetry collection, noted it had “too many prose poems.” Indeed. After my first book, I decided the division between poetry and the rest of writing was too arbitrary to continue to observe. I will call myself a writer but not a poet or a memoirist. It used to be permissible to say “belles-lettres” outside special designated areas, but not anymore.
Q: How hard was it for you to write this book?
SM: Since I’ve never participated in journalism except as a copy editor, writing is easy for me. I have no deadlines. If I don’t want to write, I don’t. That said, I usually want to.
Q: How long did it take you to reach the point where you could deal with everything that you'd been through?
SM: I wrote The Two Kinds of Decay after the latest remission of my disease had lasted seven years, but I don’t believe in the possibility of a point where I’ll be able to deal with everything I’ve been through. I don’t believe I can erase the consequences of time. I believe in learning, in time, how to live with the damage inflicted by it.
Q: You write near the end of the book about measuring time and filling your days. Was this an effect of being ill? If so, so many years later, do you still feel compelled to measure your days as such?
SM: I do record the progress of each day—what I write, what I read, how far I walk or run, whom I talk with—maybe as a kind of proof to myself that I’m here.
Q: What are you up to these days?
SM: Singing Britten’s War Requiem with the New York Philharmonic. Corresponding with the screenwriter who’s adapting my memoir for film. Working on a couple of new things that will likely emerge as story collections.
Q: How does CIDP still affect your life?
SM: In the way some people can glance at a plate of food and calculate its calorie content in an instant, I can precalculate the amount of rest I will need after a physical or emotional expenditure.
Q: What is your writing process?
SM: For the past five years, it went like this: submit grades, go to art colony, write all summer, come home, teach, repeat. This summer, for various personal and professional reasons, I’ll be at home in Brooklyn, eating frozen meals and ignoring correspondence.
Q: Did your family encourage writing or have artistic ambitions?
SM: My father is a retired accountant and my mother is a housewife. They had no interest in steering my adult life toward or away from art. Though we live in different worlds -- except for one year of their lives, my parents have never lived more than five miles from their high school -- we don’t try to inflict our worlds on each other. Or maybe we’ve gotten better at resisting each other’s efforts.
Q: Was it difficult to make a living when you first started out, being a poet?
SM: For me, being a poet had nothing to do with making a living. My goals haven’t changed since I was very young: I want to follow as few arbitrary orders as possible and have as much control over my time as possible. I never thought to try to make a living as a poet. To begin with the idea that one’s art will earn money is to open the door to terrible compromise.
Q: Do you put ideas down immediately or do you walk around with them for a while, letting them incubate? Is it an all-consuming occupation when you feel you must write?
SM: I have a lousy memory for narrative, but I believe that my real questions, the material I must make sense of or die, will stay with me. And I never save drafts of my work. I have faith that if editing harms a piece of writing, additional editing will heal it.
Q: Do you show your work to other writers?
SM: Only after I cannot improve it further.
Q: Do you have any superstitions about writing?
SM: It isn’t quite a superstition, but I don’t seem able to write out of obligation. The second someone offers me some money to write something, the angry young man in me tends to go on strike.
Q: What are you reading right now, and what five books are next in line?
SM: Right now I’m reading Peter Trachtenberg’s Book of Calamities. Next up are Handke’s A Sorrow Beyond Dreams, Davis’s translation of Swann’s Way, Adler’s Speedboat, Stein’s Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, and Nabokov’s Speak, Memory. You might as well have asked me what books I am most ashamed not to have read yet.
Q: Who are your literary role models?
SM: Amy Hempel, for her almost incredible patience. Mothers. The self-made. Problem-solvers. Literate public school alumni.
Q: What is the question most commonly asked by your readers (and what is the answer)?
SM: Often I am asked what “illness memoirs” inspired me to write my memoir, or what women poets inspired my books of “women’s poetry.” The answer, of course, is that my poetry wasn’t informed by poems any more than my memoir was informed by memoirs or my femaleness is informed by females.
Q: What recent works of art have brought you to tears?
SM: The Swedish film Let the Right One In and every speech I have ever heard President Obama deliver.
Q: Which of your books was the hardest to write?
SM: Siste Viator, because it was the only one for which I began with an end goal (i.e., a book) in mind. My other books were just byproducts of my attempts to state things clearly.
Q: What's a book that you like to tell people about, that you're an advocate for?
SM: My Friends, by Emmanuel Bove.
Q: What lie do you most often tell yourself?
SM: That art has any effect on eternity.