Sarah Manguso has written two books of poetry, Siste Viator and The Captain Lands in Paradise; one short story collection, Hard to Admit and Harder to Escape; and two memoirs, The Two Kinds of Decay and The Guardians: An Elegy for a Friend. The Guardians, which is a beautiful and unusual chronicle of losing a friend to suicide, was named one of the top ten books of the year by Salon while the Telegraph dubbed it a Best Book of the Year.
Manguso has been awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship in General Nonfiction, a Hodder Fellowship from Princeton University, and the Rome Prize from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. She is a graduate of Harvard and the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and currently teaches writing at Princeton University.
When the Guardian described Manguso’s latest book as “clear and sharp as a shard of glass,” the critic may as well have been speaking of Manguso herself. This interviewer would like to add a few more modifiers to complete the picture: humble, thoughtful, kind.
Were you the kind of child who ran around telling stories?
Never. I can’t tell a story. I can look at a small part of actual reality and try to figure out what’s going on, and maybe write about it, but I cannot make up a story.
I was a very late talker. The family legend is that my mom asked me when I was about three, “Can’t you talk?” I’m told I said, “Yes!” [Laughs. ]
There were sixteen kids in my first-grade class. We had show-and-tell a couple of times a week, and I could never find a reason to share anything with these people. We would go around the circle and everyone would have something to say, like, “My dog did this” or, “I went somewhere with my brother.” I never volunteered, and periodically people would say, “Why isn’t Sarah Jane sharing in show-and-tell?” To her credit, Mrs. Birkholz said, “Sarah Jane will speak when she is ready.” I don’t remember ever sharing anything.
I was an only child, and I grew up on a street with a lot of retirees, so there weren’t many kids in the neighborhood. I spent most of my early childhood by myself. I looked at the toad family that lived in the storm drain, the little stones in the garden.
Was there an inner dialogue going on that was about looking at and examining things?
I remember feeling somewhat alienated from my peers when they talked about TV. I didn’t watch TV. My parents didn’t watch much TV. So I didn’t understand why, with these half-hour programs, everyone would then talk about them for hours at school the next day. It’s not that my parents were intellectuals; they just didn’t keep the TV on.
I grew up in Greater Boston, the patchwork of old little towns just inland from the city. Our street bordered protected wetlands and forest. I wasn’t allowed to walk into the forest, and I never thought, “Wow, I could go into the forest!” I thought, “Oh, okay. I’ll just look at it from here.”
But I remember very tall trees and interesting stones I would pick up. Maybe all the kids were doing this, too, along with watching TV.
You just didn’t have the contemporary culture part.
I was easily overstimulated — not in a way that made me combative or noticeably upset, but I sensed I needed less stimulation than I thought my peers did to feel full, to feel maximally involved in the universe, and I still feel that way.
Did you read a lot when you were little?
Yes. One quirk of my early reading life was that our town had an unusually well organized dump — okay, “waste management facility” — and it included a fantastic book swap. I found all sorts of weird, antique, out-of-print books. Periodically someone would dump a big box of correspondence. Old, old handwritten letters. Old magazines. I went there on Saturdays, with my father, and I was allowed to take home whatever I wanted.
I was brought to the library, too, where I read the obligatory childhood canon—I had the Beatrix Potter books, and all of that stuff—but that book swap retains a mythic quality. It made my early reading experiences atypical. We called it the Dump Library.
One Saturday I found an arithmetic book in Arabic, and even then I was a little self-conscious – I was about ten – and I thought, “Oh my god, this is going to make me so much more interesting.”
[Laughs. ] Just having it.
Just having it. I had big dreams about being able to read it. I couldn’t, of course.
Did you create a library in your room?
I didn’t know that a personal book collection could even be called a library, but yeah, I had stacks of cool books. I still have a lot of them.
When you are younger and you’re reading a book, at first it’s just about the story and the way it’s written, and then at some point you realize that someone wrote it. Did you have that experience? Did you think at some point, “Maybe I could write something like that?”
I wish I had a kind of origin myth involving that realization. I remember not being excited or impressed by the idea that people wrote books. I didn’t, as a child, want to be a writer.
What did you want to be?
The first thing I wanted to be was a magician. Then, for a while after that, I remember thinking that I probably wouldn’t want to do the things as an adult that I wanted to do as a child. Nevertheless, I was highly susceptible to the middle-class idea that if you are smart, you will grow up and become a doctor.
I could fill in my mimeographed homework dittos and I was good at spelling, so I felt convinced I was smart, and so I believed I was destined to become a doctor. It may have been my mother who infected me with this reasoning, not that it’s bad.
I was a doctor for Halloween one year, and people kept saying, “Oh, M.A.S.H. !” and I of course didn’t get the reference.
What did your parents do?
My father was an accountant and is now a retired accountant. And my mother was and is a housewife. I believe there’s a tax occupation code for housewife. I remember watching my mom filling out forms of some kind and writing down “housewife” as her official occupation. As a tiny proto-feminist, I thought, “Well, I’m definitely not doing that.”
The idea of being a doctor – I carried it with me through high school and into college, and I began freshman year by dutifully enrolling in the first of my pre-med courses. It wasn’t until after that first year, when I realized I was surrounded by people who were much better at that stuff than I was – multivariable calculus? no, thanks – that I jettisoned the idea permanently.
Oh, and then I was going to be a classicist, a Latinist.
During my last semester of college, I took a poetry course. It was different from the other courses I’d taken in that I didn’t feel obligated to enjoy it; I was genuinely enjoying it. And then I applied to graduate school.
I sent out one application and was accepted. I’ve had some strokes of luck in my so-called career narrative. That one is embarrassing, almost unbelievable.
Luck is important, but luck doesn’t matter if you aren’t ready to take on whatever opportunities it brings you. You have to set the stage for it.
This wasn’t a case of preparation meeting opportunity; I just didn’t know any better. I’d heard of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, and I thought, “I guess that’s where you go,” in the same way I’d thought that good spellers became doctors. I had no idea there were probably fifty other writing programs.
It’s a big leap to go from the idea of doctor to classicist, and certainly to poet. I’m interested in what you were thinking about when you made those switches.
That’s a good observation. [Laughs. ] I’d say the change from doctor to classicist represented a willful transformation.
I grew up ten miles from Harvard, where I went to college, and I was in every imaginable way a townie, but despite my combat boots I was deeply conventional. Not all of the kids from my high school went to college. I wanted to go to a college with a famous name. The ladder was very visible to me.
At Harvard, both of my freshman-year roommates had gone to private high schools and taken courses at local colleges. And they both had a well-known or famous parent, which was a whole new category of experience for me – meeting famous people! Many of my friends’ parents were either famous or were members of what my college boyfriend called “the genteel poor.” His parents were officers in the Canadian Salvation Army who had taken an oath of poverty, but somehow my boyfriend had already traveled all over Europe, gone to high school in Paris, and ran with a group that called itself the International Set. And lo, I realized there was more than one social class above mine.
I coveted the trappings of the upper class, so I joined the arts and letters society, where we were served private white-tablecloth lunches. I’ve been to the Faculty Club, and this place was better than the Faculty Club.
One year the chef offered a cooking class. I should have known it would be a gaggle of girls who had grown up in New York; they were tittering and saying to each other, “Oh, our cook never let me into the kitchen!” Then when we all had to agree on something to learn, I thought, “I’m actually going to learn how to make a soufflé, like at a real restaurant.” All the other girls wanted to learn was how to make chocolate cake. They had never made cake before.
So we watched the chef bake a cake.
You asked me about the transformation from pre-med to Classics. My sophisticated boyfriend was a Classics major, and he was worlds ahead of me in this ideal Oxbridge-style education I’d learned about on Masterpiece Theatre. I was already interested in compression and distillation and economy, and Latin let me indulge that obsession. I liked the idea of having only what I needed. I used to love culling my book collection.
My mother kept the house extremely tidy. It was impressed upon me that there should be no clutter, so that might have been an early trigger for my liking uncluttered spaces and uncluttered texts. Of course, I then married the person who produces the most clutter of anyone I’ve ever met. [Laughs. ]
[Laughs. ] Oh, great.
We make a good team.
That transition to doing Latin was an emblem of leaving the middle class and doing something impractical. I wanted to catch up to the students who had been studying Latin all along, but there was no way I could have entered a PhD program after my two and a half years of college Latin.
But that was what you thought you might do?
I had a vague plan of attending a post-baccalaureate Classics cram school, but I was still pretty lost.
Then I thought I’d move to New York and work at a magazine. I was interviewing, I think, to be the assistant to the assistant copy editor at Esquire at the same time I was applying to Iowa. And when I got into Iowa, I thought, “Okay, I’ll do that one.”
I lived in New York between college and graduate school, and interned at the New Yorker. Then, at Iowa, there were so many people who’d already decided they’d be writers. I thought I should just go back to New York. I didn’t feel like a writer yet.
We were talking about “the ladder” – going to Harvard and then eventually going to Iowa. So then you were at the New Yorker, which is like The Holy Grail, right?
So you’ve picked up on this middle-class fetishization of the brand name! I didn’t recognize it at the time – I thought, “I’ll affix these super-classy brand names to my personal narrative and thus launch myself upward.” But really what I was doing was so exceptionally middle-class. It was striving.
Getting that internship at the New Yorker was an exercise in indulging my dumb vanity. It felt terribly important that I find a way to work there. The irony is, I didn’t even like the magazine as much as I liked the idea of it.
So, how did you get the job?
Basically, I broke into the mailroom. This was pre-email. I called the editors on the phone. I called them at night. If I ever find myself on the receiving end of this sort of thing, I’d block the number.
After talking with and interviewing with some editors and with the fact-checking department, I got a temp job at what was then called the Word Processing department, which doesn’t exist anymore. I learned the workflow, learned the antiquated computer system. A month later, when they needed a new intern, it was easier to hire me than to train someone else.
How long were you an intern there? How long were you in New York?
When you went to New York, did you know you were going to Iowa?
I did. I was going to Iowa in August, and I had graduated college in March. I think forty-eight hours after I got my diploma, I got on a Greyhound bus and moved in with a bunch of friends. One of their mothers was a real estate agent who had found a big rental apartment in Lower Manhattan.
It was four guys and me. I lived in a corner, in a tiny space separated by a curtain I’d sewed.
Was the internship paid?
Good! That’s unusual in these times. So what was life like these five months?
It was beautiful. I was twenty-three. I lived in a little corner of a room. I worked the second shift, so I would get to work at around four. Since I was working past seven o’clock, the magazine paid for dinner. We ordered food from one of several nearby restaurants. I would eat a well-balanced meal. All of my money was going toward fancy drinks. This will date the story: A chocolate martini was quite the thing.
This was years before anyone said the word “Apple-tini.” I would go to Pravda, a bar in Soho, and order ten-dollar chocolate martinis. And I would go to Pakistani Tea House for giant bowls of curried lentils.
At the magazine, I would eat dinner, and then if you worked past eight o’clock, you would get a car service home. It was about twenty hours a week. It wasn’t a job anybody over the age of twenty-three should have had.
But perfect! If you are poor in New York, and you work the late shift, and you get dinner and a car service, then you are getting all the perks that you need…
I still remember riding down Fifth Avenue at night in a black car, down to Tribeca. I was living in Tribeca! I was living on the corner of West Broadway on Chambers Street. I passed these landmarks I had read about, and I thought, “I can’t believe I get to do this. This is amazing.” And it was. There was nothing bad about it.
When I moved back to New York after graduate school, that’s another story.
At this point, you know you are going to Iowa, you had fought to get into the New Yorker, you must have thought – “Okay, writer.”
Even then, I wasn’t sophisticated enough to perceive the difference between working for a magazine and writing for a magazine.
It wasn’t even until my last semester at Iowa, when people were saying, “The next thing to do is take your thesis and enter these book contests” — I remember this guy Bradley telling me there were exactly five important poetry book contests — that I thought, “Okay, I’ll do that.” I was a finalist for a couple of things, and I remember thinking, “That went well. I guess I’ll do it again next year.”
I moved back to New York and got a bad job but an excellent education in the difference between industry jobs and non-industry jobs. I was working as the secretary at the Wylie Agency. It was a literary agency, and I’d thought, “Literary? Perfect!” It wasn’t.
I don’t know how it is now, but at that time there was an institutional pride in being insanely overworked. Twelve- and thirteen-hour days were not uncommon. And I was earning so little, I didn’t even have the heart to calculate whether I was making minimum wage. But I am a pathologically dutiful worker, and they smelled it on me. The place was very good at attracting obedient workers and Stockholm-syndroming them into staying. But I wasn’t good at any of the things the agents needed me to do. The best agents will take a bullet for their clients. I have such an agent now, and it’s one of the great blessings of my life, but I was too scared to negotiate things. I remember having to negotiate permission fees for reprint requests, and I didn’t like talking to people, making demands of them.
Wylie is a boutique agency run by a legendary agent nicknamed The Jackal. I was taking care of a lot of other writers, and as dense as I was at that point, still I realized, “This isn’t what I have been called to do.”
How long were you at the Wylie Agency?
Well, I tried to quit three times.
They wouldn’t let you, or you wouldn’t let yourself?
I think they went through a lot of secretaries, and I am a good secretary. They finally let me go when I said I wouldn’t stay even if they increased my pay.
What did you do after that?
After that I became a copy editor, which was a great job for me.
Where were you working as a copy editor?
All over town. I started at the Village Voice, and I did that off and on for years. Very briefly I was at the New York Post, which was a good job. The Post taught me another kind of distillation and compression. I would be given these articles that were seventeen column inches long and be told, “Write two photo captions and a headline and take it from seventeen to three.” That was a great exercise. I worked at the Natural Resources Defense Council’s quarterly magazine. And I worked at Winstar Communications for a while.
Then my poetry collection got taken, and it made absolutely no difference in my actual life. I went on being a copy editor. But there was a moment, after the manuscript was accepted, when I realized I no longer needed to have a day job with a brand name. I remember talking with a peer who had started at the New Yorker or Harper’s Magazine and asked me what I was doing. I said, “I’m a freelance copy editor at Winstar Communications.” And he said, “Oh, at Harper’s they have these internships that you can do. You should apply.” And I said, “No, actually, I like my job.” As soon as I said it, I realized it was true – to steal a line from Wes Anderson.
I did that for a long time and then drifted into adjunct teaching.
When you had these copyediting jobs while working in the city, were you creating space and time for yourself to write? What habits did you have?
I lived in a lot of different neighborhoods. I had no geographic stability, no job stability. I somehow always had enough time that I was able to produce writing. It felt natural. I would eat a few times a day; I would write a little bit; I would do some copyediting.
I belonged to this freelancers union that allowed me to have quite affordable health insurance. All I really needed was a little bit of money. I wrote half of my first book sitting on a couch that I folded out at night to sleep on. I was living in Williamsburg in ’99, and it was a one-bedroom that I shared with my friend Tanya. We each paid four hundred dollars a month, and I had this sofa to sit on, and this laptop on my lap.
Having grown up comfortably enough that I wasn’t clawing my way out of poverty, but not so comfortable that roughing it felt like roughing it, I was ideally prepared to feel quite satisfied with a couch.
Thinking about your parents and your family – did you feel any pressure from them, while you were on this couch, working on a book? Was there any concern from them?
Much to their credit, they never pushed me, because they correctly understood that I pushed myself hard enough that things would be okay. I did well enough in school so that they didn’t have to sit me down and say, “Sarah, you have to go to a really fancy college.” Maybe they so skillfully influenced me that I just had no idea it was happening. I went on the Harvard tour with a couple of friends – I didn’t go with my parents.
My parents grew up in Newton, went to Newton North High School. They are college graduates, but they were both commuters. So it was a big deal for me to have the ability to actually live at college. I was the first person in my family to do that.
I remember talking with somebody who had grown up lower-middle-class and was the first person in her family to go to college, and she said to me, sort of proudly but also regretfully, “Within a week I knew more about college than my parents did.” I also felt that way.
I shared with my parents what was going on although they’d heartbreakingly decided to artificially introduce distance between us and pretend that they weren’t ten miles away. They said, “First semester, we’re not going to call you; call us if you want to talk to us. We’ll see you on Thanksgiving.”
I remember trying to explain what Iowa was to them, and they very respectfully listened, and they didn’t get it at the outset. I was definitely the first person in my family to go to the state of Iowa. Crossing the Mississippi felt symbolic.
This is also a privilege of not growing up in the upper class – my parents never said, “Oh, you’re going to have to take over the financial services company that your great-grandfather started.” My parents made no such demands of me.
I’d love to hear what your experience was at Iowa. You applied to this one program, and you got there, and you hadn’t done that much writing, and you’re in this intense workshop situation where people are semi-professional, or treat themselves that way. What was that like?
There were two qualities of my experience of Iowa that were important. The first is that I had gone there from Harvard, so I didn’t experience it as cutthroat or particularly competitive; it seemed normal to me. Lest that sound superior, I want to add that when I got to college, I was just devastatingly underprepared, and it took me forever to get used to the degree of competition that infected everything. And while I was in college I was surrounded by people who had gone to boarding schools and prep schools who very freely said, “Oh, this is so much easier than high school.” I just thought, “Holy shit.” But then in graduate school, I didn’t feel threatened anymore by that competition and nastiness. I didn’t even experience it as nastiness. So that’s the first thing.
The second thing is that I went there not knowing much about writing or literature. I had barely even read the English poetry canon. There was just no way I could even fake having read all of Shakespeare twice, as one of the poets in my class had. And he had grown up in rural Tennessee. He really was self-made – I was fascinated by him. He seemed shocked to find these fancy college kids at Iowa. He had grown up with a pet deer.
I was willfully blind to the fighting among the instructors and all of the gossip and the adultery and the attendant adventures that are happening in a program like Iowa, in a town like Iowa City. I was blind both to the gallivanting of the adults and to the competition among my peers, and so for me it was a lovely experience and a very instructive one.
As a writer, did you feel you were branching out in new ways?
Developing a critical vocabulary for talking about writing was the first thing I had to learn. A lot of people came there having already had a lot of experience writing and talking about writing, but I was starting at square zero, and it was great. I wanted to learn how to use this tool, the wonderful, capacious English language, which I love more and more each year.
I was lucky enough to have enough funding that I didn’t have to take on much extra work. I had a few odd jobs. I graded papers at the business school, and I wrote the copy for their website.
Generally, I had a ton of free time; I wrote as much as I could, and I read as much as I could. I swam at the Y and delivered flowers at Mercy Hospital.
It was a good couple of years for me.
You were surrounded by all of these writers, in this very literary place. And that was new for you. Did you feel you had found your tribe with these people?
I’ve never been tribal, but I was excited to be included among them. I loved reading and being around these people who were just – they were so good, they were so far ahead of their time. Some of them just now are starting to publish. The people who were immediately successful were not by any measure the best writers in the program. This guy from Tennessee doesn’t have a book, as far as I know, but he wrote this double sestina about Elvis that is still one of the best things I’ve ever read. [Laughs. ]
[Laughs. ] There’s this idea that you are only a writer when you are published, but what gets published is not necessarily dictated by quality.
There’s something else about the program, when I was there, that seemed important. There was a longstanding softball rivalry between the poets and the fiction writers, and the poets always won. There’s the stereotypical consumptive poet, skinny, wasting away in the garret, versus the athletic Hemingwayesque fiction writer getting up early and shooting elephants. But – maybe it was a temporary condition in the late Nineties – many of the poets, the men and the women, were big, gruff people. I loved that.
I’ve also been a student of a writing program, and you want to party with the poets, because they are beyond the abyss somehow. And the fiction writers are between, and you go to the nonfiction writers for a reality check, to be with people who have their feet on the ground.
Yeah, the poets were always getting their licenses revoked. DUI’s. All of that.
Do you remember what it was like the first time you had something published?
I had been publishing book reviews during and after college in a now defunct publication called the Boston Book Review. It is in their archives that you will find a record of my learning how to string three sentences together.
My first poetry publication was in the American Poetry Review. There were no simultaneous submissions allowed in those days, and everything was done on paper. I remember discovering that four pieces of paper and a business envelope and an envelope inside that could bear one stamp, but if you went over four pieces of paper, you had to put a second stamp on. It was so unimaginably slow compared to now, when you can just send an email to three hundred places at the same time.
And get immediate responses sometimes.
Exactly. It was slower, but it wasn’t overwhelming to send work out – you put stuff in the mail, and you forgot about it. Then you didn’t have to make any submissions for six months, because all of your work would be out.
But then all of a sudden you got a yes.
I was just starting out – in fact I was pre-just starting out. And the editor, Arthur Vogelsang, wrote to me with great respect, as if I were already a writer. It meant the world to me and still does.
Was it a different sense when you had your first book published and you had this physical object in your hand?
Yes. My thesis advisor from Iowa, the famous Jorie Graham, was so good at presenting memorable advice. Almost everything she ever told us sounded legendary.
One of the things that she told the poets was “Always remember the feeling of publishing your first book and holding it in your hands, because you will never have that feeling again.” I lived in a fourth floor walk-up in Bed-Stuy when the publisher sent me a box of books. I was with my boyfriend, and there was this brown box in front of my door and I tore it open. I was still such a student. I opened the box and thought about what Jorie had said, and I held the book, and I handed it to my boyfriend, and we looked at it together. Then, once I felt that I had sufficiently moved through that experience, I went on to the next thing.
In recent years you’ve done a good deal of teaching. How do you teach?
One of the things I like to do is to invite students to ask me absolutely anything. I find it’s the undergraduates that are the most fearless about asking questions. They don’t yet have to pretend that they know all the answers. I want to answer questions about etymology and how to write a cover letter and what to do when you have nothing to write. My ideal teaching milieu would be a bunch of students raising their hands for three hours and just asking questions. It’s slightly sinister, but I try to make all of my courses by the end of the semester consist of just that.
If you could look back at yourself, when you were in your mid-twenties, and you could tell yourself something that you think you would have benefited to know, what might you say?
Let’s see. [Pauses. ] At twenty-five, I was having a slow nervous breakdown that culminated in a psychiatric hospitalization.
Was that in the middle of Iowa or after?
It was after. I had a lot of health problems in my twenties. Pretty much from twenty-one to twenty-five I was in and out of the hospital. It was an autoimmune disease. One of the treatments involved a lot of cleansing of the blood.
[Pauses. ] If I could look back at myself I would tell myself to calm down. But I know I wouldn’t have; it wouldn’t have helped.
I had a lot of anxiety. I hadn’t really finished being anxious about things that had happened four years before. To my twenty-five-year-old self, I’d say, “There, there. You don’t have to be so anxious.”
Or I’d say, “Get better drugs.” [Laughs. ] I did, ultimately. In my thirties, I got better drugs. I got a better psychopharmacologist, and now my neurotransmitters’ relative concentrations are such that they promote continued life. In my twenties I did not enjoy that condition.
The condition of the twenties is somehow by default a state of frenzy.
Because all things are possible – you don’t know what to rule out yet. One of the great solaces of getting older is understanding what to rule out.
It’s a wonderful solace not to have every goal anymore, every possible goal.
Interview by Astri von Arbin Ahlander Agency
Edited by Marni Berger
Photo by Andy Ryan