Susan Perly has worked as a journalist, war correspondent and radio producer for the CBC.
Susan Perly and I met in the beautifully lit Green Beanery, an elegantly hip coffee shop in Toronto. We sat along a bare brick wall lined with cloth sacks of coffee labeled with international locales. It rained and stopped and the hours passed as we sipped lattés and talked about the dazzling world Perly constructed in her new novel, Death Valley (Buckrider Books). Death Valley is a nimbly told tale of five characters, living war and love and art in a desert. There’s story that lets the reader in and there’s story that makes a voyeur of the reader. And then there’s Death Valley, where you’re caught in a whirlwind: you’re accomplice and voyeur, you’re oscillating between world and narrative, you’re at war with yourself, with the world and its untouchable, tactile ruins. Of that place you’d be happy to know, squarely, that its beginning, middle, and end are yours, and yet are not. In Death Valley, you find yourself in the embodied world: penned, pictured, and pulsing.
Canisia Lubrin: Death Valley is a bold, fun book. The magical world you’ve created is very real, a true accomplishment. Let’s start with what inspired you to write Death Valley?
Susan Perly: The desert inspired me to tell its story. To scratch away until the story, like a hidden cave drawing, revealed itself. I knew there was a drought noir tale in the atmosphere, even as I travelled the desert highway and further into the hidden sere reaches. It might have been more like sensing a pentimento, a glimmering, you know, a shadow underneath received notions, lately-headlines, or clichés.
I think you have to be hungry in a way more than inspired. Obsessed. But sure: hungry, to keep scratching to get at the thing, which is the story. Yes, your synapses fire up with inspiration. Mine did when I first went to Death Valley (even the name enthralled me!). Still, inspiration, to me, can have a short shelf-life. A close friend of mine calls me a ferret; I won’t let go of something I’m on the track of. An inspired ferret who wanted to feed herself with the comestible paragraphs that could be me. But back to the idea of the story being there and you have to discover it. Seeing it that way is a fit for me because it takes away from the idea that the writer is the great creator.
I think you have to be hungry in a way more than inspired. Obsessed.
If the story is there, yet hidden—if you orient yourself to it, I think it begins to re-orient your mind and writing body. I think it literally affects your breathing, puts your breath more into your diaphragm, it lowers your shoulders, puts your centre of gravity away from your eyebrows and more along your hipline. Most of the time we don’t know what we want or need. Man, oh, man, we sure don’t when we’re all buzzed up about a book we’re writing. Anything you can do to focus down in a soft laser fashion to what the story needs, do it!
So, for me, inspiration is really hunger. I had a hunger to listen in the desert, to hear what the emptiness was saying. The empty road, the empty page, the empty screen. The nothingness of Death Valley, which might be an everything, inspired me.
CL: Continuing on this idea of hunger, place, and story … I’m intrigued by your thoughts on what the place itself demands and creates in story. What else can you say about Death Valley that drew you write this “desert noir?”
SP: Feeling cuckoo under such a big sky inspired me. Cuckoo because it seemed that the landscape had the giggles, a dry hacking cough laugh, a mordant skeleton doing stand-up about atomic bombs and hidden government secrets. To me, the land is a body and the land is a mind. And we humans have a body geography. The characters in Death Valley were fractals of the very desertscape through which they were travelling: damaged, rolling on despite damage; full of secrets, personal caves, beautiful, and connected. So for me, a city girl, it pretzelized my brain so that soon it felt like everything was hidden. For me the thing was, where are the corners of that place where the sky is so large that you begin to wonder what has happened here and what can happen here? The light is so bent. There are no corners. Notions rush in, when the actual physical space is so enormous. I felt a joy. I felt a darkness. Drought Noir. Buddhist Noir.
Separate and apart, I can say I was inspired by the chance to make a connection with a reader. I don’t write for myself. Lord, no. That would never keep me going. A novel is a certain kind of beast. It’s not a series of short sprints, added together. It is the loneliness of the long-distance runner. It was essential to me to put Death Valley out where people I’ve never met can find it. It was essential to find that mysterious bond between writer and reader.
CL: Interesting that you zoned in on the sound of the place and the connection between this hearing and the impulse to carry that into the mysterious bond between reader and writer, as you say. There’s much to hear in Death Valley and this is one of the things that really hooked me. Speak a little more about this element of active listening in your creative process.
SP: I came up, professionally, in radio. The story, the breaking news, was already out there. The job was to drill down to the hidden story within the story. My medium was sound. I became trained in telling stories with people’s voices. When I took on fiction, I was still a storyteller, but now I was trying to tell stories with words on a page, or a screen. For my main protagonist, Vivienne Pink, whose medium is visual storytelling, the fabulous challenge, I realized, on about my fourth or fifth trek to Death Valley was: how do you tell a story when the world you are moving through seems transparent yet your storytelling gut tells you it is opaque.
As I wrote my way into revealing Vivienne, Johnny, Val, Danny, Andy, into hearing them, and embodying them, I began following what inspired them. What inspired them, drove them, and compelled them? They let me come in on their story. That the characters welcomed me into their lives, already rolling, was a kind of secret generosity, which, I’d say, went beyond inspiration, into some kind of loopy grace. So I jumped!
CL: I want to go back to your comment about story and sound. I think for me, as someone who was born and raised in an oral culture, or at least a culture that also comprises orality, I really enjoy this idea of sound playing a part in how we see others and ourselves. There’s a compulsion that links real persons to something else and how that thing encapsulates what story is and can do, which is full of wonder. This was a very real thing from the first line of the book, so much so that I almost forgot I was supposed to be preparing for an interview. I was enjoying the story so much.
SP: Oh, thank you. Isn’t that great what you’ve said? Yes, that’s the best. The oral thing is interesting because I really love dialogue. If I’m reading fiction for long and I don’t hear the characters I start to lose something. It’s very important to me to hear the characters. The scene with Vivienne, Andy, the soldier meeting at a hotel/coffee shop, for example, I wrote that so many times until I got it right. They needed to sound right. I wanted the dialogue to carry the important details. That’s when the characters become real to me, when I can hear them.
Canisia Lubrin is an award-winning writer, arts administrator, and educator.
CL: Your protagonist, war photographer Vivienne Pink, offers us a world of utter beauty alongside entropy in Death Valley, one in which the world is rendered through a kind of narrative autopsy, if you will allow me the phrase. Vivienne’s lens is visceral as it takes us up close to the microscopic details of human residence on this planet, but with tenderness, she pulls us away and we see the big stuff, too: war, genocide, religion. She is beautifully written, particularly for they way she lets us question the nuanced and fraught relationship between our bodies and the earth. In essence, she disturbs our sense of home. Was this intentional on your part and could you describe this intention?
SP: Our modern world, I think, has become a world of nomads. Even if we have settled homes, there is some kind of ultra-modern disturbance inside us, in which our heart is a nomad. We yearn for the wild and the wilderness, yet the majority of planet Earth lives in cities. A third of the population of Canada lives in two cities, Toronto and Montreal. It’s modern; it’s ancient. So much of human settlement, including great world cities, has come about because of conflict, ravaging conflict—war, famine, pandemics. The demonic rules, trickling down into terror and mass migration. I’ve had a chance as a journalist to see a small bit of that: mass refugee camps in southern Mexico, filled with Guatemalans fleeing death squads. In Argentina, I saw the wonderful people try and keep a veneer of daily life, especially middle class daily life, as the Dirty War continued, as the verb “to disappear” became an active verb, as relations were “disappeared.” Then humans became “the disappeared.” When we come to tell the story of our family tree, so many of us, including me, know that back a few branches of the tree, our ancestors were running, fighting, losing, winning, and slipping away by land and sea. War changes the complexion of countries, literally. War far away makes the place close at hand a different place. “Home” is a great word. There are a million stories in that one little syllable!
I think if you come to your characters as humans who are already in lives lived, they have to have some kind of abiding energy to pull you in, to pull you forward.
Enter Vivienne Pink. That conflict world is already in motion. Vivienne is in the lineage of the many brave creative women photographers who put their bodies on the line in conflict zones, who depicted bodies in startling ways in fashion and in portraits. Vivienne is one of the art-makers. Vivienne has energy. I think if you come to your characters as humans who are already in lives lived, they have to have some kind of abiding energy to pull you in, to pull you forward.
Vivienne Pink doesn’t just take pictures. Light is Vivienne’s lover. Art is her profession. Art is also her solace. In a way, when she is out in the desert, she turns her body into a mirror: a prism.
CL: War changes the country and the complexion of the land as you say. I wanted to parallel this with something that Sacha Hemon said recently, that war also changes the language of a people, because they have to learn to speak their new experience. And there is also a great magic in the vocabulary that you use in Death Valley to talk about the effects of war on our bodies.
SP: I went to school in the Guatemala highlands to learn Spanish, at Quetzaltenango, popularly known as Xela. There was a guerilla war on. I lived with a Guatemalan family. At the big midday meal, every day we heard firefights, gunfire between guerillas, and the military in the nearby mountains. And papa, the father of the family would say, “cumpleaños.” A birthday party. Yes, everyone would nod, repeat, “Another birthday party celebration.” The parrot sitting on papa’s shoulder would chime in, “cumpleaños, cumpleaños.” So I learned early on this euphemism was for “guerilla war firefight.” That we use language to cover up is, well, a given. Even the parrot was in on it.
The rest of my vocabulary came from reading the daily newspapers, stories on the front pages every day of murder, unknown assailants, burned corpses, activists shot in daylight. There was no way I (or any of my classmates) could separate the language from the war. My first basic working vocabulary in Spanish was essentially the vocabulary of murder police.
At night, in bed, in the cold mountain July, I’d read odes by Neruda, or the reportage of Gabriel García Márquez. I like high-low. Nothing should be a stranger to a writer.
Susan Perly has worked as a journalist, war correspondent and radio producer for the CBC. In the early ’80s her Letters from Latin America for Peter Gzowski’s Morningside reported from locales such as El Salvador, Guatemala, and Chiapas. During the Iran–Iraq war she broadcast Letters from Baghdad, and she produced many documentaries for the weekly program Sunday Morning. Perly is the author of the jazz novel Love Street, and her short stories have appeared in numerous magazines and anthologies. She lives in Toronto with her husband, the poet Dennis Lee.
Canisia Lubrin has been dedicated to various artistic practices over her lifetime. An award-winning writer, arts administrator, and educator, her writing has appeared in such journals as CV2, Forget, Prairie Fire, Room, as well as the chapbook City Series 3: Toronto from Frog Hollow Press. She is currently working on her debut novel and her first collection of poetry will be published in 2017 by Wolsak &Wynn.
This is the first installment of a two-part interview in a month long series on writing the body.