Susanna Kaysen - author of Girl Interrupted
With the overwhelming success of Girl, Interrupted Susanna Kaysen became a household name. This account of her own struggle with mental instability and the challenges she faced re-entering the world at the tender age of 18, touched countless women and catapulted her into the elite of her field. But who is the woman behind this success? How did she feel about baring her soul for all to see? Who inspires her? You were full of terrific questions for Susanna, and we have her answers in an iVillage exclusive:
iVillager dwb13: Do you feel your time in McLean helped you or hindered you? How did you go about getting your records from them?
Susanna Kaysen: I think it did both. It was helpful not to have to participate in life, I like it, but it also was bad because I didn't participate in life. It was good and bad. I requested my records under the freedom of information act but I didn't get them. They were written before the act and hospital are reluctant to give out those records. They told me that I would have to have a request from my doctor but I got a lawer and her got them in a day. They were upsetting and good and they provoked more memories but mostly boring. It was almost 400 pages long. I included them in the book because I wanted to contrast their view with my stay there with my view and no body had ever done this and I thought it was a good thing to do. I thougt it might be shocking althoug very few people commented on them. I had an argument with the hospital about who owned the records. My family paid for my stay but the hospital thought that they owned it because their people wrote it. It was never really worked out but I thanked them for letting me us their records.
iVillager Cl-Bosbaby: Tell us about the movie. Have you seen it? Did you like it?
Susanna Kaysen: I've seen it three times. The only way I can describe the experience is that it was like being in four time zones at once. I was reminded of being there and also of writing my book. It was very confusing and I can't even say if I liked it or not. The movie is different enough from the book that it is different from my life. It reminds me of my life but it isn't my life.
iVillager 1bow: What person do you think has had the biggest impact on your life?
Susanna Kaysen: My mother. I guess I believe a mother has the most influence for everyone. I probably know this because my mother died 10 years ago. If she were alive I probably wouldn't think she was so important.
iVillager talbot: What sorts of books do you read?
Susanna Kaysen: Now I'm reading books about science. Cancer and diseases. I'm trying to make up for the college education that I never got.
iVillager garbalu46: A lot of writers put a little fiction in these kinda books, was there any in this and which part?
Susanna Kaysen: There was some fiction but that's for me to know. LOL! I did make some composite characters to protect identities and combined histories and characteristics so that people weren't completely recognizable, I did try to stick to the truth of things as well as I could remember them.
iVillager custico: In telling a very personal story, what were your feelings when you finished the book, pre and post publication? So many of us would like to tell "our story", but because others are involved we wonder about the privacy and how they'll feel. How did you handle that?
Susanna Kaysen: I would say that I was happy when I finished the book. After, well the book had roused a lot of attention so I was very nervous because my editor thought it might be a success and wasn't prepared so I was kind of jumpy. I waited 25 years to write the book. Then I did make composite characters out of people and I tried to keep my family out of the book and I don't answer questions about them but the most important thing is that I waited 25 years.
iVillager dwb13: Do you have any words of encouragement for us "budding" Authors?
Susanna Kaysen: Read as much as you can. Read everything. Don't just read one kind of book, read every kind. Be like a painter. They look at everything. Writes should read in that same way.
iVillager dastorm: Do you ever wonder how many great stories slip through the cracks just because they don't get the media attention or have some sort of high profile situation attached?
Susanna Kaysen: Most, I would say. There are hundreds of wonderful books that go unread because they don't capture the media. This is another argument for why book stores are good. You can pick up books and take home books that interest you. Then you aren't relying on the media on what to read, you are choosing for yourself.
Gratified by the success of Girl, Interrupted Susanna Kaysen carries on, writing at her own pace and fervently defending her privacy.
In the early 1990's, Susanna Kaysen was trying to find a publisher for "Girl, Interrupted" her memoir of the two years she spent at McLean Hospital in the late 1960s. Although the book went on to become a huge hit and is now a major motion picture, it was a hard sell.
"I began to think that if I was having trouble getting it published, it must be very good" quipped Kaysen in a recent telephone interview, her signature wit intact. Initial reactions to the manuscript were tepid at best. "There were a lot of people who didn't get it at all and asked what it was about. Others felt I was ungrateful to McLean, and some saw it as very mean."
Her ordeal that would emerge 25 years later in memoir form, began in the spring of 1967, after a single session with a psychiatrist Kaysen had never seen before. He put her in a taxi to McLean, located in a suburb of Boston, where she voluntarily signed herself in. Kaysen was 18 years old.
At the time, she was living in Cambridge, Mass. and working at odd jobs, rudderless and increasingly depressed. She was the daughter of a privileged and accomplished family; her father was director of the Princeton Institute for Advanced Studies. Kaysen's dislike of school and disdain for college were not consistent with expectations and she had the distinction of being the only graduate of her high school not to go on to college.
"Girl, Interrupted" is a darkly humorous and decidedly barbed portrait of a mental institution, circa 1967. Composed of a series of penetrating vignettes, Kaysen serves as an objective observer of her own madness. When "reality was getting too dense" she writes, she withdrew:
"It is easy to slip into a parallel universe. There are so many of them: worlds of the insane, the criminal, the crippled, the dying, perhaps of the dead as well. These worlds exist alongside this world and resemble it, but are not in it."
She reveals that "although it is invisible from this side, once you are in it you can easily see the world you came from."
Now, "Girl, Interrupted" has been adapted to film and Kaysen has been discovered by a new audience. Gratified, Kaysen observes that "there is nothing better than writing something that endures, although seven years is not really such a long time. It was a snap to write. I didn't have to make it up - just wrote it down. It was fun. Fiction makes certain demands that memoir does not because with fiction I need to call on my imagination."
Kaysen is a meticulous writer who still uses a typewriter, claiming that she breaks computers. An exacting wordsmith, she hates the thesaurus but loves the dictionary, which is random rather than associative and goes to the root of words. She does not spew out volumes of copy each day followed by rewrites.
"I am too narcissistic. I may not produce more than three sentences in a day, but when those three sentences are done, they are finished." Her longtime editor, Robin Desser of Knopf, confirms that Kaysen is "one of those writers who does not need editing."
Kaysen and Desser first came together with "Far Afield" (1990), the second of Kaysen's novels that followed the publication of "Asa, As I Knew Him" (1987). "Far Afield" is set in the remote Faroe Islands off the coast of Iceland where a Harvard graduate student in anthropology goes to do his field work. Hilarious and filled with insight into clashing cultures, it is based on the author's experience.
"I spent a year in the Faroe Islands with my former husband, an anthropologist" says Kaysen, who describes the environment as harsh and unforgiving. She spent much of her time there reading, according to Desser, and had cartons of books shipped via boat to the island. The time spent reading and absorbing Faroese culture produced "Far Afield," a stunning novel that is, appropriately, her favorite work.
While they were working on "Far Afield," Kaysen sent Desser "Girl, Interrupted" which was subsequently published in 1993. Kaysen wrote parts of the book while at Yaddo, the Massachusetts writers' colony. She recalls her stay with typical humor. "It freaked me out because it looks just like McLean. I felt locked up and would do anything to get out so I wrote a ton in two weeks. Then I lay in bed, went to the movies and the mall. I'd go to see any movie just to get out." In retrospect, she describes Yaddo as a low-key place to which she owes a great deal.
One of the ironies of this memoir is that readers come away thinking they know Kaysen, when they actually learn less about her than about her view of the world. "I didn't think it was very revealing about me" she says. "I took pains to make it minimally revealing and to protect my family, which was very important to me."
Kaysen thinks it is disruptive for writers to be celebrities and dislikes being pressed to elaborate on a subtext to her words. "You can't call up Charles Dickens and ask him what he meant" she quips. She receives voluminous amounts of mail and while she answers every letter personally, she sometimes finds it intrusive. "They think we are the same" she says of her readers. "They want to go out for coffee with me."
Kaysen is as demanding of her audience as she is of herself and is of the opinion that many of those who read "Girl, Interrupted" are not readers. At a reading she was approached by a "girl with purple hair and rings in her nose who gushed that this was the best book she had ever read. When I questioned her closely" says Kaysen, "the girl confessed it was the only book she had ever read."
It will come as no surprise that a writer who produces only a few sentences on a good day has a small body of work. The two novels and the memoir are all she has published. She maintains a loyal following and readers constantly clamor for more from this angst-laden talent. When asked about future work, she is predictably funny, introspective and evasive.
"It is very hard to get everyone out of my study." "Everyone" she clarifies, is all those who have read her work, want more and will judge her.
"I am already ambivalent about the reception of things I haven't written" she says, and worries that they won't be perceived to be as good as her previous work. "So, I am happy and disappointed in advance and tell myself that it is better not to test it by writing a book." Readers should not despair. Desser confirms the author is working on something, but will not elaborate.
Dissecting movies based on novels has become something of a sport, particularly for those who feel protective of the original work. Many who have seen the screen adaptation of "Girl, Interrupted" question the changes that have been made from the book.
"I didn't want to be involved" says the author. She read the penultimate screenplay and the only objection she will admit to is the veracity of certain scenes, particularly those involving patients sneaking out of the hospital. "You can't have kids sneaking out and looking at patient records. You are locked up. It is not possible and if you had the keys you would run away - not read your patient files." When she registered her concern at the time, the director's response was "it's a movie"
"So in the end I felt that anyone who knew me would know the movie was not accurate, and about people who did not know me, who cared?"
More Interviews with Susanna Kaysen about her next book
The Camera My Mother Gave Me by Susanna Kaysen is a memoir that has nothing to do with either the author's camera or her mother. It is about her vagina. It is the chronicle of a mysterious and intractable medical problem she had with this little-discussed part of the body, and of the interesting experiences she endured.