Q+A with Sarah Rose Etter about The Book of X
In July 2019 we will be publishing the first novel by Sarah Rose Etter, titled The Book of X, about a girl named Cassie whose stomach is twisted into the shape of a knot.
Blake Butler says of the work, "Move over, Angela Carter, there's a new boss in the Meat Quarry, and she is fearless, relentless, ready to feast."
The Book of X follows Cassie through childhood on her parent's meat farm, to a desk job in the city, to finally experiencing love, and a cabin on a hill-side, all while she grapples with her body, men, and society. It is a tremendously powerful and creative new work that is certain to blow your hair back.
What follows is an interview with Etter about her work.
Q: How did you first come up with the idea of a girl born with her stomach twisted in a knot?
Sarah Rose Etter: It really started with the first sentence. I thought of that first sentence one day, and it just pestered me for months: I was born a knot like my mother and her mother before her. It kind of banged around in my head like a song for a long time, humming. It felt so true to me — looking at my own mother and grandmother, the idea of a heritage of anxiety, of body issues, of being handed a terrible trait in your genes. It felt true and honest to me. But in order to do something with a sentence like that, you have to create an entire life and an entire world for that girl to exist and learn and grow and become real. That sentence created many challenges and problems to solve, but also created the whole book.
Q: The Book of X is rooted in reality but with surreal flourishes like caverns of meat that are harvested, and a family of women whose stomachs are knotted. You started writing this book in Iceland — did that foreign environment have any impact on the tone or approach of the story?
SRE: Iceland had a huge impact. Right before I left for the writing residency there - which so many people told me, like, really, you need to go to Iceland? — I found out all the other artists had dropped out. So I was alone in a cabin in a small town in rural Iceland for about thirty days in March, just waking up and drafting, chugging coffee, reading, crying, hiking a mountain in my backyard, watching the weather change rapidly. I did feel incredibly isolated there, but it gave me space not to speak to anyone else for days at a time. It gave me room to just be with the book and tend to it every single day. No matter what anyone tells you about writing on nights and weekends, there was absolutely no more important part of writing this than having time and space to write that first draft continuously every single day for weeks.
Then, environmentally, just the weather and the colors — so much stormy lavender, the land steaming, this really epic landscape. I finally understood Sigur Ros, you know? Days when the clouds would part and it truly did look like heaven. It’s the youngest earth on our planet — it’s still evolving as you stand on it. There were huge moments where I felt I was being given gifts by being there — I’d wake up to see a rainbow over a volcano, or a bunch of birds would fly into the cabin and I’d have to release them by hand. The last scene in the book is really a result of waking up in the middle of the night and going deep into the Icelandic National Park and seeing the sky split open and the Northern Lights come out, alone. Other scenes were certainly impacted by caves, or the sky. There’s a black sand beach in Vik that I kept returning to — bodies of dead silverfish on black sand, sort of this photographic reverse of how reality is supposed to look. It was an incredibly surreal place to be visually.
But it’s also very expensive in Iceland. It’s impossible to talk about Iceland without explaining it is an utterly transformative place, but also one that costs so much it’s outrageous. I packed an entire suitcase of protein bars and coffee and mostly tried to live off of that for as long as I could. I was lucky I was able to afford it. I think it cost about $2,000 to live there for a month, all told. I used my tax return and saved for awhile. I want to always be up front about how I got there to set realistic expectations for any other writers reading this.
Q: Surrealism and satire are both forms that seem to be proving particularly effective at this moment in time (I’m thinking of Carmen Maria Machado’s Her Body and Other Parties, Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah’s Friday Black, and Boots Riley’s Sorry to Bother You). What draws you to it as a writer, do you feel as though it’s especially potent now, or has it just always been effective?
SRE: As the world grows more absurd, surrealism is certainly finding more and more traction. Satire and surrealism have always been something we’ve turned to during hard times in history — the very birth of it in visual art was a reaction to World War I. It almost feels like a form of saying No! — whether it is Donald Barthelme writing surreal stories to defy critics by not having characters or plot, or Boots Riley exploring the structures of race in capitalist America until it reaches a horrifying climax that becomes a terrible mirror held up to society’s face.
I tend to think of surrealism specifically as a form of escalation to point to a core problem. All three of the books you mention here are masterful at pushing real, existing problems of race, gender, and sexuality to their breaking point through surrealism and satire. Friday Black, in particular, really knocked the wind out of me a few times by reframing and escalating racism to the point where you step back and evaluate the entire world with sharper eyes. Beyond being a form of saying No!, it’s also a form of asking society: Is this really the world you want? Is this really who you are?
For me, personally, surrealism wasn’t really a choice. My ideas come to me in a sort of code — strange words, strange worlds, odd sensations. Surrealism is a way for me to explore subjects that terrify me from a safe distance — the female body, trauma, my spine surgery, relationships, love, death. It’s almost as if I can’t get too close to these things or I’ll break. Surrealism gives me a way to get close to those nerves without touching them.
For readers and viewers, I think, the scrambling and code of surrealism translates into a fresh way to look at existing issues that have been there all along. It removes some of the pressure of real life by creating new rules, but it adds new pressure and escalation to prove the central point and ask the big questions: Reality is too close to this, our world shouldn’t be this way, why is it like this?
Q: You write with a remarkable prose voice. I can tell you appreciate a well-turned phrase, or striking description. But you also manage to do so with great economy of language. How important is this poetic voice, or style, to you in your writing?
SRE: That’s really kind. Voice fluctuates for me — depending on the project or as I get older, the more I read, the more I’m drawn to sparseness. I never really liked older works of fiction that go on and on about how a field of grass looks — these sort of long descriptions that agonize over one thing. I was never walking around cheering about Steinbeck, you know?
Part of it is also what I’ve been reading — Anne Carson, Samanta Schweblin, Sebastian Castillo, Caren Beilin, Brian Evenson, Aase Berg, Vi Khi Nao — each of these writers is operating economically with their words and sentences. They’re creating new forms for fiction, or else their sentences are so fresh that I revise mine like a maniac. Every sentence could be written an infinite number of ways, so revision is a huge part of it. So many early drafts of The Book of X sucked so badly — it’s not until the last draft or so that I really began to feel like I was cooking with gas. A huge part of that was ripping apart every single scene and line and examining it for value and how it pushed the story forward.
Part of it is also the surrealism — you can’t get too descriptive with worlds you’ve invented because they can break so easily. Economic sentences that don’t belabor the point allow this sort of melodramatic concept — the knotted woman — to exist without becoming so over the top that the reader stops believing in them. That’s a delicate balance — the best writers at it are so good, you don’t even notice they’ve pulled it off. So that part is hugely important — using voice as almost a trick of the hand. That’s what you hope you can do with it, anyway.
Q: Having co-run the Tirefire reading series in Philadelphia, and having seen many wonderful writers pass through, as well as doing a number of readings on your own, what do you particularly enjoy about author readings?
SRE: God! Where to start? With TireFire, I think at our busiest season, we had eight readings in one year, and between four or five writers a night. So we saw so many people come through — and there was a lot to value about each night, honestly. We saw everything from readers who were just starting out and finding their footing with live events to really seasoned, expert writers who just commanded a room and took the air out of it.
Looking back on it, there are some nights that I’m just so fucking proud of — line-ups where every single person completely crushed it and the crowd went nuts. Scott McClanahan reading at Tattooed Mom on my birthday and slow dancing with the audience before pulling a bunch of fake engagement rings out of his pocket to propose to people in the room one by one is just etched in my memory forever. Roxane Gay, we had to send people home because the bar was at capacity for her reading. Tommy Pico, always a crusher. Come on! Then just the Philadelphia legends — CA Conrad, Ryan Eckes, Frank Sherlock, Gina Meyers, Raquel Salas Rivera, Jenn McCreary, Cynthia Dewi Oka, Berry Grass. I’m bleeding into poetry there, but those are people who just shake a room — and they’re all in the same city! Some nights, you’d just think “Did that reading really happen?”
The best readings make the work come so alive that you can’t help but be changed by seeing the writer face their own work. That sounds corny, but that’s all I ever hoped would happen at every TireFire — that someone would explode on a microphone and we’d all be woken up from the haze of our boring days at work. I just wanted everyone to stop being bored.
Q: After living in Philadelphia for several years, you just moved to San Francisco. How are you finding life on the west coast?
SRE: It’s complicated in San Francisco. I keep working on a piece called Notes on San Francisco, but it’s a lot to unpack. It’s paradise if you’re squinting and you can ignore the poverty, homelessness, and absolute cultural void the tech industry has created here. Beyond that, though, beneath that, it is still a city of artists and freaks and openness. That is still here, you just have to dig for it a bit more, or find someone who will let you into it. I’m lucky because I have some great writer and artist friends here, but it does feel some days like being in the absolute mouth of capitalism. I worry sometimes that I’m living in the future here, and that if that is true, the future for all of us will be very complicated. For the positives: I do think I had begun to rot in Philadelphia, so I did need a change. There’s less cynicism here, so I do feel softer. I’ve been letting myself explore new, crazy ways of living that I never would have on the east coast. And the sun is good for my depression, at least.