by Martha Anne Toll
Susan Buttenwieser teaches creative writing in New York City public schools and to incarcerated women. She worked as a journalist, and her writing has appeared in a variety of publications. She recently published her first book, We Were Lucky with the Rain, a collection of short stories filled with ambiguity, longing, and understatement. Buttenwieser writes with economy and clarity, withholding the nonessential. Many of her stories are written in the third person; one, “Someone’s Drunk Wife,” is written in the second. In that story, as the narrator contemplates adultery, his deft description of the photographs in the house of his potential paramour becomes a character description, without ever describing his character.
Tasteful black and whites…have been added to the collection. Pictures of your friend with various celebrities cover the walls of his study. The only photos you have are on your refrigerator, your older sister’s Christmas card from last year with your twin nieces sitting underneath a wreath and one from the year before of them sitting on a pony. If you open the door too quickly, they come flying off, and you have to search around on your hands and knees to find the magnets that hold them up.
Susan and I overlapped for a day or so several years ago at a residency at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts. I was fortunate enough to catch up with her by email for this interview.
Martha Anne Toll: Your stories have an uncanny eeriness about them. Can you speak to that?
Susan Buttenwieser: The negative side of human behavior has always fascinated me. From a young age, I began following true crime stories. I vividly remember reading about the Son of Sam murders in the Daily News while visiting my grandparents, sneaking off with the paper, the ink stains left on my hands, and this feeling that I was discovering something ominous. Life can quickly unravel in totally unexpected ways. I am constantly thinking about that. I want to explore the full range of what humans are capable of—both extreme kindness and big-heartedness, and stunning acts of selfishness and thoughtlessness. And I am always routing for the possibility of redemption and reconciliation, even at the very last minute.
MAT: Your characters are struggling with marital issues, money problems, and are often down and out.
SB: I am drawn to characters on the edge, with a desperation to them. Sometimes that is the main character in the story, but I’m also interested in having a witness to that edge, that desperation, especially a child. A child is helpless to do much more than report on what is happening. They have less information, and can’t understand the full situation, adding to their sense of isolation. I am interested in exploring that blunted point of view and that tension.
MAT: Why do you use the short story to express yourself? Do you ever write in other genres?
SB: I do write in other genres: journalism, creative nonfiction, and novels. But short stories are my first and deepest passion. I was initially drawn to this format because I loved the way short stories could convey so much emotion and mood in such a small space. I remember first understanding that there was a technique to achieving this when I studied writing in college, and an obsession was born. I knew then that writing short stories was what I wanted to do with my life.
MAT: You’ve had a long career teaching writing, particularly teaching writing in a women’s prison. What have you learned from that, and how would you say it influences your work?
SB: I am so grateful for the teaching opportunities I have had. Teaching has vastly expanded my understanding about the impact of childhoods dominated by trauma, poverty, parental abandonment. I have repeatedly witnessed the power of sharing these conditions through writing. There is nothing more inspiring than walking into an overcrowded classroom, a homeless shelter, a maximum-security prison surrounded by barbed wire and armed guards, and 45 or 90 minutes later, new poems have been created and are now out in the world.
Teaching reminds me that story-telling is an innate part of human nature—we need to tell stories as much as we need food and water. I have met incredible people through teaching—writers, artists, social workers, classroom teachers, not to mention the thousands of students I have worked with. These experiences have marinated deeply and shaped how I view the world. I am not the same writer I was before I started teaching.
MAT: Can you tell us about your journey into writing and into short stories in particular?
SB: I started writing short stories in college, and became interested in journalism, specifically music journalism, which I pursued for several years after I finished school. Magazine journalism dominated my life for the next ten years and I didn’t devote enough time to fiction writing, even though I held onto a dream of being a published short story writer. After September 11th, my dream felt more urgent and I tried to pursue it more seriously through taking classes, going to writers’ conferences, getting fellowships to attend writers residencies, joining a workspace and workshop with writer friends. I wrote an early version of We Were Lucky with the Rain, and tried and failed to get it published. I then wrote a novel which also went unpublished, and started but didn’t finish several other writing projects.
In the summer of 2017, I attended my fifth funeral in a year, three for people my age, including a childhood friend who had died very suddenly and unexpectedly. When I returned from his funeral, grief-stricken and broken-hearted, I took a hard look at my life. My dream of publishing a short story collection wasn’t happening because it just wasn’t good enough. I went at it again, took more classes and worked with the writer and editor, Will Allison, until I felt that I had nothing more I could give to the stories. I felt I had worked as hard on We Were Lucky with the Rain as I was capable of doing.
MAT: Bloom supports and features writers who published their first work when they were 40 and over. What does it feel like for you?
SB: It feels so hopeful to have a dream realized at this point in my life, in my mid-fifties. I am incredibly grateful that this is happening now with Four Way Books, whose staff are all so kind and talented, and have made this such a positive experience, even in the middle of a global pandemic.
This feels like it is happening at the right time for me and my writing, and that I have truly landed in the right place.
MAT: We’d love to hear more about the book’s publication process.
SB: I don’t have an agent; I submitted it to Four Way Books’ open reading period in June 2018. Although they are probably best known for poetry, they also publish short story collections and occasionally novels. At the end of August of that year, I received one of the best emails I have ever gotten, from Martha Rhodes, the editor/director, to say they wanted to publish it.
MAT: What writers do you admire and what writers have influenced your work?
SB: This question is so hard—there are so many and for many different reasons. Early influences were Raymond Carver, Andre Dubus, Lorrie Moore, Joan Didion (I wanted to be Joan Didion more than anything in the whole world). Dan Chaon, Mary Gaitskill. Lynda Barry, and Patrick Ryan have also been important and I have had the good fortune to study with them in workshops and writers conferences.
The list of current writers that I am obsessed with could go on and on, but a sampling includes the following: Brit Bennett, Roxane Gay, Anne Enright, Alice Munro, Robin Black, Elizabeth Strout, Ocean Vuong, Douglas Stuart (I gave Shuggie Bain to everyone for Christmas), Natasha Trethewey, Ada Limón, Sally Rooney, Anne Gisleson.
Charlotte’s Web shook me to my core when it was first read to me and the many times I have read it since—to myself, to my daughters. I have never been the same since reading these two sentences: “Nobody, of the hundreds of people who had visited the Fair, knew that a grey spider had played the most important part of all. No one was with her when she died.”
MAT: What advice do you have for debut fiction writers?
SB: It is never too late! If it takes longer than you had hoped or imagined, when it does happen, it will be even more enjoyable. Producing work that you feel proud of is more important than getting it out in the world faster. For me, that process took a very long time, but I wouldn’t change anything. I can’t imagine a better experience than what I am having right now with Four Way Books, and I think my writing is stronger because of that time.
MAT: What writing/publishing projects are you working on now?
SB: I am working on a novel in stories.
MAT: Anything else you want to add?
SB: This past year has shown how connected we are. What each of us does or doesn’t do has so much more impact than we might have realized. We rise and fall together. Right now, we are falling, every one of us, in part because we have decided to only listen to some voices, some stories. Moving forward, we need to listen to everyone’s stories and voices, most especially from people who have been historically disenfranchised, ignored, overlooked, including young people in high-poverty neighborhoods and incarcerated women. This is the on-ramp to creating a more equitable and livable country for everyone.
Martha Anne Toll’s debut novel, Three Muses, is forthcoming in 2022 from Regal House Publishing. Her books reviews, essays, and short fiction can be found at NPR Books, Washington Post, The Millions, and elsewhere.