Photograph by Annie Atkins

“To write about the body if you’re an Irishwoman has become quite a radical act.”

Gender and Power Dynamics Are Embedded In
The medical humanities
Most things

I first met Sinéad Gleeson more than 25 years ago in Grogan’s pub of Dublin, that scruffy literary lair, that portal into the pages of Flann O’Brien.

We were introduced by a mutual friend, Conor Creaney, who now teaches writing and literature at New York University, and then taught “a horse walked into a bar” jokes at Grogan’s. Sinéad was the first young woman I’d met with a shaved head, and she wore it more spikily than her namesake, O’Connor. Sinéad Gleeson brimmed over then—as she brims over now—with high-speed conversation about books, records, and everything that matters.

In the years to come, when seated in Grogan’s with old college friends, a rhetorical question would arise to fill the snug with pride: “Did anyone see Sinéad’s latest?” Creamy pints were raised when she first published criticism in the Irish Times, the Republic’s paper of record. Glasses of amber were transported between fingers when she began a distinguished tenure as host of the national broadcaster’s Book Show. Memory-stretching rounds were ordered when she edited The Long Gaze Back, a ground-breaking collection of female Irish writing past and present that was named the official book of Dublin in 2018.

The first essay in Sinéad’s new collection, Constellations: Reflections from Life, “Blue Hills and Chalk Bones” is a heart-stopper, experimental in form, revelatory in content. It’s a reflection on Sinéad’s experience with a rare childhood bone disease; on the multiple treatments—and mistreatments—that she endured in Irish hospitals; and on the pilgrimage she undertook in search of a cure. The essay stunned the Internet when first published in Granta, but it’s all the more stunning when you know what Sinéad survived as an adult. Her experiences since childhood include a blood clot, blood cancer, and two pregnancies.

In Constellations, Sinéad opens up many of these veins, telling a survival story as spectacular and compelling as those of T.E. Lawrence or Jack London, and exploring the interior universe as boldly as they did the wilderness.

Sinéad won the 2019 An Post Irish Book Award for non-fiction, one of Ireland’s highest literary awards, for Constellations. Like the fighter Conor McGregor, she grew up around the no-nonsense Dublin neighborhood of Crumlin. (Unlike McGregor, she has not exchanged the 15A bus for a “yachtsie.”) Sinéad frequently performs arrangements of her work with her husband musician Stephen Shannon.

Join us now, in the closest that the virtual world can offer to the corner couch in Grogan’s.

—Rob Curran

I. The Journey Inward

THE BELIEVER: A lot of male Irish writers of our generation and the previous one felt the shadow of giants like Joyce and Yeats. As you’ve brought to the forefront in your work as an editor female Irish writers were even more overshadowed. Now we’ve got yourself, Sally Rooney, Eimear McBride, Lisa McInerney, and so many others. Is this the moment the female Irish writer comes out of the shadows?

SINÉAD GLEESON: I think so, there’s definitely something going on, with all of the increased interest in Irish writing. Even from what I’ve seen that I know to be coming out in 2020, there’s a rake of novels by young women in their 20s, and 30s coming out this year, which is brilliant.

I don’t think it’s a coincidence that Ireland has changed politically, socially, culturally in the last ten years—more than it had in the several decades before put together. Part of that is same-sex marriage being legalized in 2015, the same year of The Long Gaze Back, and part of it is abortion passing in 2018.

I do remember, say ten years ago, when Paul Murray, Paul Lynch, Kevin Barry, Colin Barrett, a whole rake of new male voices were coming up. I was thinking: “Where are the women going to come from?” All of a sudden, it’s shifted, it’s changed.

It’s also related to there being a big journal culture in Ireland. The Stinging Fly has been going for twenty years, The Dublin Review, of course, has been around for a long time. The first piece of [creative] writing I published was in a brand-new journal, Banshee in 2015, edited by three women.

Now there are places not just for us to be published, places for us to be heard. I’m the broken record, the person, any time I notice a panel or the best twenty books with one woman on it, I call it out. Once you start to do that, others start to, too. In a weird way people start to notice optics when planning events.

Ireland is moving toward secularity, it’s getting more modern, not living in the past so much. Breaking down all that, a lot of voices rose to the surface.

BLVR: You deserve credit for some of those voices coming to the surface. I remember you started an online literary journal when we had just left college, more than twenty years ago.

SG: Sigla. Yeah, and I think there’s two parts to that. The first one is if you don’t find a way into the culture or the canon, you have to create your own way. Sometimes it’s a platform like Sigla, which was about finding new voices, and less about gender balance.

With the anthology, the reason why The Long Gaze Back and The Glass Shore exist is I was sick of all the anthologies—lots of them on my shelf, lots in university when we did courses on the short story… like the William Trevor Oxford Book of the Irish Short Story, which had thirty-nine stories and seven were by women. The worst part was some of the men were in there twice! Rather than moan and complain—and it’s easy to soapbox—I thought “I’ll do something about it.”

Anne Enright wrote a great piece in The Guardian that talks about men not reading women.

That touches on the second problem with issues of imbalance and being left on the outside: it is often up to women to do the recovery work. If the Irish canon is all about Yeats and Joyce, fixing the imbalance and trying to recover the work of women who write takes you away from your own work, and—crucially—your own writing. But I felt the necessity of it outweighed time commitment.

Gatekeepers don’t read widely, they don’t go digging for overlooked work. These women were always there.

BLVR: Every writer, I think has to find the balance between outward exploration and inward digging. As an accomplished broadcaster you were outward facing. I always got the sense that you had your own projects. Was there a moment that you realized you would go inward for your exploration?

SG: I didn’t write for the reasons I think a lot of people don’t write. You get afraid: “What could I possibly have to say that anybody would want to read?” I’d been reading books critically, closely for years, to interview people [or do reviews.] When you read a lot of really good work, you’re setting yourself against those, you think, “I’ll never be this good.” It’s a great line of work to be in—I got to talk to lot of people about their craft—but it’s also work that can have a kind of paralyzing effect.

BLVR: Was there a moment you started the inward journey?

SG: There was actually. I had always assumed I would write fiction, that it would be a novel. One year I wrote a blog post on the anniversary of my leukemia diagnosis, which was January 5th. I was driving my daughter to the creche [nursery] and thinking about the date and its significance. Feeling the same kind of mortality you feel on a birthday, I was still alive!

In front of me was a hearse, and in the hearse, there were two coffins, not one. Immediately, I thought what happened there? There was a story. Was it a fire? What was it? So I wrote a short blog about January 5, about the feeling of mortality, about my daughter, about being alive.

A big publisher saw it and got in touch so I met with them. They said: “Why don’t you consider writing a book about this?” They gave me a deadline of two months so I wrote five or six chapters. It had a lot to do with health and they loved it—but our exchanges felt a bit “more death, more illness please.” In that moment, I went, ‘no, I don’t want to write this.’ I knew they were looking for a memoir, which is very completist, very much about a whole life, very chronological. All “kitchen sink. But there are lots of parts of my life that aren’t that interesting.

I think that’s why I like the essay. It’s an act of enquiry to answer questions you have.

BLVR: So you get to decide: how much of yourself do you put in the essay, do you put a lot in? Or put a little bit in, and kind of leverage that?

SG: It’s like acceleration in a car… you decide how much pedal you can press. I didn’t want to write a whole book about me. Lots of people wouldn’t know me or be interested.

I also have a lot of interests… I’m interested in politics, interested in art, interested in music. The essay is one way you can combine aspects of your own life with the external stuff.

At the same time, I was reading lots of work, a lot from America, that showed how you can write about your own life in anti-chronological way, a fragmentary way. Roxane Gay, Maggie Nelson, Sheila Heti, Sarah Manguso. Dealing with interior stuff, but not straightforward. I really liked writing that way rather than the very basic A-Z.

The first version of “Blue Hills and Chalk Bones” was in what the publisher had asked for. The piece it is now is very different but it was there. So if I hadn’t [put up] that blog post, and that publisher never approached me maybe I never would have written this book.

BLVR: “Blue Hills and Chalk Bones” was so powerful. It describes such an awful and incredible experience. I’m sorry to say, I never knew you went through that as a child…

SG: I didn’t talk about it that much. Illness is a real oxymoron. It’s really fascinating [to think about] but, as an actual physical thing, it’s quite boring: hospital appointments are boring, a lot of waiting around, sitting around, a lot of being away from your own life. It’s an interruption and disruption to your life. It keeps you away from all the things that you could be doing.

Like I said in the essay, if anyone asked about my limp, I would say: “Oh, I fell.” Most of the time, I wanted people not to notice I had a limp. I’m quite allergic to pity, not really interested in pity. It wasn’t that I was boxing it off, closing it off. It just didn’t seem like a thing we were talking about at that time. Then twenty plus years on from college, I wanted to know how I felt about it.

BLVR: I grew up at the same time in Catholic Ireland, yet, even for me, reading that essay, it’s almost like a different world. It’s that strange combination of you being treated by these doctors, these men of science, and at the same time you were going to Lourdes and seeking this miracle cure. I imagine for people who didn’t grow up in Ireland or grow up at that time, it must seem even more fantastical?

SG: Yeah, a lot of people—especially people—who are not from Ireland, ask me: “Was everybody really that holy, then?” And they were. Maybe they ask you as well? It was kind of a blanket thing. It was rare for someone not to be religious, not go to mass every Sunday, not to get their child baptized. It was a mass brainwashing, mass propaganda on a national coast-to-coast level. We look back now and think how were we all so duped? How did we go along with it?

My mother would have been very religious. But her view changed later. I think started happening with the Ryan report, and all the things with the mother-and-child homes. A lot of people just can’t condone that… not just my generation, but the older generation genuinely said “We didn’t know.”

I’ve also been asked by people: “Did your doctors ever say anything to you about going off to Lourdes?” They were men of science. It’s also quite cruel sending people off in hopes of getting a miracle. And some people… maybe it does happen for them. That’s great for them. It didn’t happen for me and it doesn’t happen for a lot of people, and it does give you sense of false hope. You think God’s going to be waiting for you with a miracle. But it doesn’t happen. Things got worse for me when I got back.

It was also very tacky, very commercial. So many things were for sale. You realize religion has always been about money.

II. Treatment of the Female Body in Religion, Literature, and Medicine

BLVR: A lot of Constellations is about the female body. Was that a way of redressing the Catholic tradition of treating the female body as taboo?

SG: There was a lot of taboo in older generations. Didn’t lots of young teenage boys believe that masturbation would make you go blind? It wasn’t just the women, [though] all of us were told our bodies were shameful and not to be enjoyed. It was mortal sin. No wonder we were as collectively messed up as a country, when all of those things that were completely natural are the things you’re told you’re not to do. Then you see that side by side with what priests were physically doing to minors. It’s the doublespeak people are already familiar with.

To write about the body… there’s an epigraph in the book from Héléne Cixous that says: “Write yourself. Your body must be heard.” To write about the body if you’re an Irishwoman has become quite a radical act.

Silencing works on multiple levels. In the past there was a specific expectation of women: you’ll be at home, you’ll be disappeared, with a very gender-specific, defined role in the house. You won’t be out exploring.

BLVR: In the Catholic era in Ireland, the female body was also heavily legislated, right?

SG: Until the 1970s, if you got married as a civil servant you had to give up your job. There’s lot of ways shutting down the avenues of exploration for women, physically, logically, domestically.  One of the ways of combatting that is not just to speak up and break down the roles. You speak up about the body, talk about the bodies that we didn’t talk about for a long time.

Growing up, whenever my mother was talking with her sisters, or having a cup of tea with the neighbors…if they talked about someone having a hysterectomy, she just mouthed the word. It was like the mute button: she wouldn’t actually say the words. I remember my mother doing this loads. You’re laughing, and it’s the laughter of recognition. Your mother probably did the same. It’s the idea of not articulating words about the body or being ashamed of the body.

BLVR: In “Panopticon: Hospital Visions” and elsewhere in the book, you observe the medical profession as a [female] patient and give it quite a harsh review. I was interested to read somewhere that one of the most glowing reviews of your book came from a doctor. Did something in your critique strike a chord with the medical profession?

SG: I went to a conference in September that was very interesting. It was a festival, dotMD, a festival of medical curiosity. Three Irish doctors who all very nice, invited 6-700 medical practitioners from all over the world—psychiatrists, surgeons, nurse practitioners. Some of the actual speakers on stage were doctors doing different things. One year, there was an emergency room doctor who wrote a short story. A heart surgeon who was a concert pianist. It was a mixture of arts and medicine.

I got to read my work in front of audience of medical doctors. In my book, I put the boot in purely based on my experience with orthopedic doctors, but I also talked about my experience with the hematologists, who with my leukemia, saved my life.

The other issue with orthopedics is it’s a very physical type of specialty. It’s been described as the carpentry of medicine, so it was quite male-dominated. I woke up during my hip-replacement surgery to feel people shoving me, using little hammers and chisels, mallets.

Especially when you’re young, you don’t want anyone looking [at you in your hospital gown].

It’s really necessary from a patient perspective to remember that. Some of us do forget to think about patients as being more than a puzzle to be figured out. We’re certainly not thinking about the patient as a human being in bed feeling vulnerable, feeling scared. When you’re a teenager and young, there’s a lot of examinations and near nudity, which makes you very self-conscious. It’s a pity there were not more women in the orthopedics field—as a kid I never met a single woman working in this area—but thankfully that has changed in Ireland.

It’s an intimidating world anyway [as evidenced] by a lot of deference to doctors. In Ireland, it’s a class thing. Most people, when I was growing up, who got to be doctors were from South County Dublin, from wealthy families. There was often aloofness there, condescension, and not just to young girls. Then you imagine how it must be for people for who English isn’t their first language.

BLVR: Do you think gender power dynamics are embedded in medical science?

SG: Historically yes. There’s a seminal 1970s book called Witches, Midwives And Nurses by Barbara Ehrenreich and Deirdre English, which looks at the early centuries of medicine when women were the lay practitioners delivering babies and curing the sick with herbs. When men realised there was money in sickness, they began to suppress these women and this was the start of the modern healthcare regime, one—that as we all know—is a business, rather than an altruism industry.

BLVR: Was one of the organizing principles of the book a tour of the body?

SG: Yeah, I think so. But you know yourself when something happens, say you get a headache—it affects whole body. Leukemia is unlike other cancers in that, with breast cancer, it’s just in the breast, or bowel cancer it’s just in the bowel. Leukemia navigates your whole body because it’s in your bone marrow. Blood is a whole-body thing.

Even in the “Hair” essay, I make reference to hair being second fastest growing tissue after bone marrow. I got a hip replacement later on in life and found out there’s a connection between people who have had chemo and people having problems with their hips. The body is very interconnected. In one way, the book is a map of the body. It’s called Constellations because I think of all the stars as being distinct but also part of the same whole. You can read them together as one whole piece, or as separate pieces. But they’re ultimately connected.

BLVR: The essay “Hair” was amazing. It reminded me of a scene in, John McGahern’s memoir, the flipside of the gender norms where his father decides the young boy’s hair is too long. What is it about hair and its symbolic power?

SG: Hair, I think it’s part of your identity. I had a really interesting relationship with that. I wanted to shave it off, maybe that’s about being kind of rebellious. But I just liked the idea of doing it. I didn’t think everyone would think it was crazy. I’d spent a lot of teenage years wrecking my hair by bleaching it, dyeing it different colors. Any time you wanted to press reset, you started with your hair.

One reason I think that essay exists is because of what happened with my hair when I got leukemia. Not every kind of chemotherapy makes your hair fall out, but mine did.

Because I’d shaved it off before, I didn’t bat an eyelid. There were women in the hospital ward who had long manes since they were girls, and to lose it all at once was a shock. I wasn’t lucky to get ill when l was younger, but when I was admitted to hospital with a lung clot and leukemia, I was very, very frightened and I think I’d be even more terrified if I’d never been an sick, or an in-patient, as a child. I knew the drill. It was helpful in a weird way.

BLVR: Your cancer diagnosis started with a blood clot, right?

SG: I initially attended the hospital because I had deep-vein thrombosis and they thought it was from the Pill, so they just sent me to the Warfarin clinic for blood-thinners. The other problem with being an outpatient is you don’t have a dedicated doctor. I was in the public system at that point. St. James’ sent me to the clinic. No one spotted the cancer.

I did see one doctor more than once, I’d seen him in the Warfarin clinic. I was bouncing around there, and given all these strong blood-thinners. There was no follow-up until the night the clot broke off, and went up my leg. That’s when I got the diagnosis I remember he came up to the ward to say, “I’m so sorry I missed this. I’m actually mortified. It was your age… I just didn’t think.” And it is quite a rare strain of leukemia. The one that I got, most people, they bleed more than they clot. Most people they see are bleeders.

BLVR: Everyone thinks of blood as symbolic, but, in the Catholic religion, we were asked to imagine that the contents of the chalice is actual blood, and that the bread actual is human flesh. People even close their eyes to bolster the imagining. Does the Catholic legacy give us a vivid imagination?

SG: Yeah, transubstantiation. I guess it probably does. There’s another piece I have “You’re a Chroma” written for gorse in fifty small sections, and it’s fifty small meditations on the color red, and there’s a lot of religion in it.

Another unfinished essay is about hearts where I talk about St. Catherine of Siena who had a vision where she led her followers into the wound in Christ’s side. In the Bible, blood is a seen as a life-giving thing, the source of life and power and eternal life.

I can’t pass a church without going in. I love all the iconography and statues. I don’t like the raping of children and misogyny.

III. Mutuals

BLVR: Let’s talk about “Our Mutual Friend.” Rob Dredge. I remember him as a brave man – intellectually, behaviorally, sartorially. It took a lot of cojones to cycle around the little town where we grew up with massive sideburns, a corduroy blazer and a Smiths t-shirt. He loved this shit, these kinds of probing conversations. He pushed me to let my own freak flag fly, to resist the call of convention. As you mention in “Our Mutual Friend,” we all suspected that his bravery would be rewarded with some kind of creative breakthrough, in his music or in his writing. But he died, in a freak accident, at the age of 24.  You’ve been such a good friend to the Dredge family all these years, and I know they cherish you as we both cherish them. Was that difficult to write?

SG: Yeah, it’s the essay in the book that took the longest. I’ve been trying to write that for about twelve years on and off, no joke. I meant to write it for Winter Papers, edited by Kevin Barry. As the deadline approached, it just wasn’t right and I didn’t want to do it if it wasn’t. It had to be right.

If I didn’t get it right, it might risk hurting them or reopening wounds. Lots of times I sat down to write it, I found it upsetting to write. It was a very dark, very sad time.

BLVR: I thought you conveyed that hammer blow, finding out that a loved one is dead, as well as any such scene I’ve read.

SG: I think the shock of it was so quick and unexpected, we were all absolutely in shock, like a physical thing. Grief is a very physical thing, You’re dehydrated, you can’t eat, you can’t sleep, there’s a knot in your stomach. Of course it’s mental, but it’s very much physical, too. I think we were all just in a daze around that time.

I recorded the audio book with my husband Steve, who is a producer and was also a good friend of his too. With the essay on Rob, the essay on my godmother… I just had to keep stopping. It was really upsetting. I never read those pieces from the book at readings. When you write a book like this, it’s difficult, but I’m uncomfortable with the idea of having to get up and perform my pain for people. Even though these subjects are publicly in book…my grief around them is private.

As I say to students all the time: you have a right to tell your story even if there are other people involved. You have to make a decision about what you say, what you include, and the price you pay if you do.

BLVR: It wasn’t a hagiography. It struck me that Rob Dredge wouldn’t want anything inauthentic. Authenticity was very important to him.

SG: He could be difficult but his dad, John, read the piece and we had a long phone chat.

BLVR: Sometimes I think of Rob Dredge and your husband Stephen Shannon as being at the vanguard of the counterculture, when it finally reached Ireland. They embraced dance music and the shifts in Irish life very early on.

SG: I say that in the book— his taste in music was unbelievable. This was largely pre-internet, and he was a proper connoisseur. He had a proper way of digging around in the crates. He was going out to Mother Redcaps market to see a guy who sold secondhand records. He’d go to fairs just so he could go through the records. He had a really, really natural curiosity and openness to stuff.

That’s why I do think he would have been a writer. It’s hard not to think about what he might have been. Steve and I do think about him.

BLVR: You did the interviewer part of this for a long time. You were the national authority on what I’m doing. What is it like being on the other side of an interview? You must have imagined it a lot…

SG: I didn’t imagine it too much. I found the first couple of events really terrifying. When you’re the interviewer, you have all the control; when you’re interviewed, you don’t have any. I’m used to articulating myself, trying to say what I think. It’s a question of trying to communicate your book. Even when sitting on stage talking about your book, you are trying to present in way that would make people want to read it.

The book has resonated with so many people. One of the things that’s happened, is that I’ve had a lot of people come up and tell me their own difficult stories around grief, around doctors or surgery, around their love life, or around their life not being the life they want. I’ve had quite a few people with disabilities approach me, and that’s been seriously moving, really humbling.

I’ve had people come up and say “you’ve said something I needed to hear, something you’ve written has had an impact on me.” I can’t think about the reader (when I’m writing]. It’s too terrifying that it will be in someone’s hands, but I’m very surprised by the amount of people who have read and really liked it. Sometimes families, love, death—I don’t know what make them especially female… they happen to all of us and yet two of my favorite reviews of the book were written by men.

UCD Medicine has a Twitter account and Constellations is on their reading list. The other great thing that’s happening is the rise of Medical Humanities. A lot of colleges that teach medicine (are teaching the humanities side of it]. It’s being taught to first-year medical students. I talk to lot of doctors and they’ve all gone off and read Lucy Grealy, who I discuss in the book.

BLVR: You wrote an essay some years ago for a Dublin blog about the ticket stubs you’d saved from gigs in Dublin. They used to be amazing. Do you miss the aesthetics around music?

I don’t have a Kindle. I don’t want to have a Kindle. I don’t want to read books digitally. I like battered spines. I like secondhand bookshops. I like the smell of paper. I like using bookmarks.

I do obviously have an Apple Music account. It’s really handy for the car. But it’s different. Even just the idea of walking across the room to change the record. It’s part of TLDR culture, scroll down and click the next thing. Everything has to be gobbled down, not probably digested. I like the idea of sitting down and reading lyrics, reading the liner notes.

Apart from little picture you get [on iTunes, there’s nothing]. In the way there’s been a slow-food movement, maybe there needs to be a slow reading and slow photography movement. We need to slow down in digesting things. I do think tech has been for great lots of things, and not good for others and one of them music.

BLVR: You’ve gotten to do musical arrangements of your work with your husband, musician Stephen Shannon. How is that?

SG: I think it’s been great for us to do because Steve’s a reader and I love music, and just because we both work in different fields doesn’t mean we don’t intersect. No one has read more of my stuff. Steve’s been my first reader, he knows lot of people in the book, and knows what’s at stake.

We did a piece for [the journal] gorse and because some of the pieces we had chosen to do were quite fragmented, we can play around with that. They were meditations based on the color red and there’s a part where I talk about red lipstick on the models in the video for “Addicted to Love” by Robert Palmer, and Steve plays this tiny echo of Palmer, like a spooky ghost of Robert Palmer.

Now it feels like payback…I recently wrote a piece about how he asked me to come up with titles for songs on the new album by his band Mount Alaska. They told me that it was a score for a TV show that doesn’t exist and asked me to start from there. Immediately, it suggested a place to me so I literally imagined a place where this fake tv show was happening. For this setting, I imagined somewhere very remote. It might be an island somewhere, maybe in Japan. All the titles I came up with have to do with weather and maps, isolation and landscape and the album is called Wave Atlas: Season One.

It was really interesting to do that. I haven’t listened to music [that way] for a long time. To be a good reader you have to be a close reader, and it’s the same with music. It can’t be just in the car and background.  There’s a way of listening to music that’s very focused, very heightened.

BLVR: It seems to me that the most exciting fiction now is the stuff that provokes the reader to wonder if it’s fiction at all, stuff like Knausgaard’s works. At the same time, the most exciting non-fiction has many of the elements of literary fiction. Are the lines between fiction and non-fiction blurring and why is that happening now?

I think barriers between what you can write and how you write have broken down in the way that lots of books could easily fit in various parts of the bookshop. Maggie Nelson, you could put in philosophy, you could put in critical theory, you could put in poetry.

You read [works] like The Argonauts, and it’s somebody messing around with the possibility of writing and the form means you can move around with fluidity. I wouldn’t want to write fiction for life or nonfiction for life. I experimented a little bit with form in “Blue hills and Chalk Bones.” [Another section of Constellations], “Where Does it Hurt?” is based on the Magill Pain index, based on a structured pain index of specific words. There’s a playfulness [you] can do with [something like] that.  A piece of work doesn’t have to be told in one voice, one form. I don’t like that rigidity. I like the fact you can overlap mesh in the two things together. Look at the Booker prize, and Lucy Ellman’s 1,000 page, [one-sentence] novel Ducks, Newburyport , winning the Goldsmith Prize, the Lifted Brow Prize for Experimental Non-Fiction. I think readers have matured, become more diverse, gotten used to things not being straightforward and linear. I think what a piece of writing can be is now more open. Audiences are more likely to take risks now. I like work that isn’t just one thing work that straddles a couple of forms or formats.

Maybe, there’s more acceptance of what we can do with written word. The novel’s been around for hundreds of years, and maybe we’re just getting weary.

BLVR: I feel like, when blogs appeared, creative writers realized that this loose, confessional form was very compelling.

SG: There are still a lot of blogs. platforms for people’s personal testimony to real events. They’re not necessarily creative writing though some of them of course are. People are talking about difficult subjects. It’s the same reason people always bought newspapers, because this kind of testimony is intrinsically interesting.

If all novels were happy, no one would read them. People like work that’s tough, impactful, raw. If you write an essay about tough, difficult to write about things, people respond to it.

I often think, that’s what good writing is: that moment of recognition. I understand that, I know that, I felt that.

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