Interview: Sarah Rose Etter
In her debut novel, The Book of X (Two Dollar Radio, July 2019), Sarah Rose Etter explores fear and femininity through the character of Cassie, a girl who was born with her stomach twisted in the shape of a knot, a rare condition she inherited from her foremothers. Throughout Cassie’s adolescence, she must navigate the social, emotional, and physical pressures of the teenage years with a remarkably different body than her peers. Alternating between Cassie’s lived experience and visions of the life she wished she had, the novel ultimately paints a portrait of the everyday traumas inflicted on the female body—the inspected body, the judged body, the hurt body, the hated body, the objectified body, the imperfect body, the disembodied body.
With lyrical prose and shockingly visceral imagery, Etter has crafted a multi-modal universe; one in which the fictional is artfully woven with the factual; one where familiar details become nuanced in the midst of surrealist scenery; and one in which danger lurks in the silent white spaces of every page.
Etter and I chatted via email about tragic characters, volcanic landscapes, how to ground readers in surrealism, and more. —Cameron Finch
Cameron Finch: I remember being instantly captivated by the first sentence of your novel. Cassie, the narrator, tells us: “I was born a knot like my mother and her mother before her. Picture three women with their torsos twisted like thick pieces of rope with a single hitch in the center.” What was the first seedling of The Book of X? What inspired you to start writing it?
Sarah Rose Etter: The first line came to me, and it hung out in my head like a buzzing fly. I wasn’t really sure what to do with the line—it could have been a short story, or a piece that never worked out. But it felt different than those beginnings. It felt like a door was opening, and all I had to do was step through it and follow the path beyond. For me, a concept needs to be pretty rich, lush, and layered to keep my attention. The idea of a woman existing in a world like ours with this physically knotted body felt like a space I could spend a very long time in, writing and exploring. It began to take me into areas of the human condition that are important to me: fear, anxiety, the body…
CF: What touched me on a deeply personal level was the way in which this book explores how women are seen by society and seen by themselves, and how perhaps none of those perceptions reflect the true reality. These perceptions are all warped and manipulated by media, impossible beauty standards, cultural expectations, parental and peer pressures, jealousies, low self-esteem, and perfectionist personalities, to name a few. In The Book of X, we see Cassie fall victim to the trap of thinking her body is everything except perfect the way it is. When you started writing, did you know what was going to happen to Cassie, her knot, and the actions she would take to change her body?
SRE: I did some light plotting and outlining of the book, certainly. For surrealist works, especially when they are novel length, you sort of need guideposts to make sure you don’t go off the rails. I did know, from the beginning, that her condition would make her a tragic character.
Throughout literature, I do believe it’s proven time and time again that when an outsider attempts to exist in the world with everyone else, their time is full of friction and short-lived. I don’t believe, really, that our society would welcome a character like this with open arms. I want to believe we would, but I doubt it. I do think that makes this a cynical book, but I promised myself I would follow it all the way through, and I don’t think the way she is portrayed is a mistaken way to show how we treat those who are different from us.
CF: When I think about The Book of X, I keep coming back to the idea of “lineage.” The knot is passed down from grandmother to mother to daughter. The land is passed down from grandfather to father to son. The novel asks the question: “What do we accept from our families as being fundamental to our identity, and what do we reject? What will be part of our story and our legacy? Can we amend that story, and if so, what are the consequences?” I’m wondering what interests you about this “passing down” of identities from generation to generation, and what you were thinking about specifically in terms of lineage and inheritance while writing this novel?
SRE: There are many questions I have about what we inherit—whether we’re discussing physical characteristics or emotional coding, there are certain parts of ourselves that are simply in our DNA. We can go on self-improvement kicks to solve them, but some of these issues are just ours and they have been given to us. With Cassie, it was important to me to create an issue that could be handed down to her and not easily solved; if this was a book about a woman with depression whose mother also had depression, it would be far too easy to brush it off. By creating a new human condition that was given to her, I do think we open a new space to discuss those issues we are born with and whether or not we can realistically ever be free of them.
CF: The structure of this novel is so exciting to me, as it experiments greatly with the vignette format and the use of white space. How did this structure allow you to develop Cassie’s character and story in a way that ordinary chapters may not have been able to achieve?
SRE: The white space and vignettes were intentional because Cassie’s story was so tragic. I just felt like the reader would need some space to navigate her life. The narrative, initially, was much more tragic in the first drafts, and I realized it was quite cruel to the reader. Maggie Nelson’s book, The Art of Cruelty, discusses this idea at length—that there’s only a certain amount of cruelty a viewer of art can handle before they just shut down and the artwork no longer makes an impression. Using the white space and the facts, as well as the very stripped down sentences, was a way to help ensure both the surrealism and the tragedy of her life was readable.
CF: Related to the last question, how did you go about arranging a book of vignettes? What was that sequencing process like for you? Do you use a particular program/software/index cards to help you stay organized?
SRE: I wrote the bulk of the book while on a writing residency in Iceland. I sketched out each of the three sections, then wrote down the scenes they would require on notecards. I would draw a card every morning and write the scene. I used a program called Scrivener to manage that because I knew anything else would make it too hard to step back and arrange the scenes. But even with that program, it was still such a labor of love to edit, smooth, and arrange each one of the scenes.
CF: I’m so glad you mentioned your writing residency in Iceland! Although the novel is not set in Iceland, do you see traces of your time at the Gullkistan residency on the page? How does the physical place in which you write manifest in your writing (if at all)?
SRE: Iceland was very otherworldly—certain scenes are directly inspired by that landscape. In Vik, in Southern Iceland, there is a black beach I returned to a few times because it was like walking through a photo negative. All of these silver fish had washed up on the shore, and it was like walking in an opposite world. Iceland is the youngest earth on our planet, and so there is much that is still growing and evolving—that was very inspiring. The ending of the book, too, was directly inspired by seeing the northern lights alone.
CF: This novel is also a story about contrasts. We read about characters born with knots and characters born without knots. We walk through landscapes of meat quarries and dirty, bustling cities with taxis and high-rise offices. We read the narrative of Cassie’s lived reality and inhabit the brief interludes of her surrealist dream life. We turn a page of the novel to find a list of real-world facts that bridge the gap between the reader’s existence as spectator and Cassie’s existence on the page. There is so much going on here both formally and narratively, and yet I always felt like I was being given the most necessary details right when I needed to know them. Were these contrasting elements always part of the project? How did they evolve and develop and feed each other over time?
SRE: The facts came in toward the final draft—it was another way to add space to the narrative, a way to bring the reader along for the ride. It also helped create another dimension for Cassie—to make her inquisitive, to make her desperate to understand the world around her through these facts. The visions she has throughout her life were always part of the book—years before the residency, I knew I wanted to write a book that had a character who had almost a split life in which they were sort of haunted by visions of a parallel world. In retrospect, it was much like writing two books at once.
CF: In your acknowledgments, you thank the people who supported you while you “fought through this book when it felt impossible.” Do you have any advice for writers whose truest and most necessary projects are also the most difficult to relive and put on paper? How do you continue and carry on when the work feels impossible? How do you begin?
SRE: I believe great art is difficult. It requires us to confront the uncomfortable: birth, sex, love, death. There is so much beauty and tragedy in the world—we see both of those elements every single day. It is the responsibility of the artist to engage with every facet of the world, without thinking about the cash value of what they are making. The making of the art, the writing of the book, occurs in a beautiful bubble that shouldn’t be touched by commerce or sales. The capitalism can and should come after the creation. I recommend finding three or four people you trust to read your early drafts—people you know aren’t going to workshop you so much that you give up, but will offer the guidance that will keep you going. My other recommendation is to just finish a first draft before you ask any hard questions. Tell your internal editor to shut up until you get the first draft out. And try to explore, have fun, be an artist on the page. Don’t limit yourself to writing what you’ve been taught. Write what is in your guts. Go into the mud.
SARAH ROSE ETTER is the author of Tongue Party, and The Book of X, her first novel, which was long-listed for The Believer Book Award. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Guernica, Gulf Coast, The Cut, VICE, and more. She has been awarded residences at Disquiet International program in Portugal and the Gullkistan Writing Residency in Iceland. She lives in Austin, TX.
CAMERON FINCH’s writing has appeared in Entropy, Windmill, Glass, and Queen Mob’s Tea House, and her interviews with authors and small presses can be found in The Rumpus, Michigan Quarterly Review, Electric Literature, and The Adroit Journal. Find out more about her at ccfinch.com or on Twitter at @_ccfinch_.