Sigrid Nunez on Susan Sontag
April 4, 2011 | by Thessaly La Force
In the spring of 1976, Sigrid Nunez went to the apartment of Susan Sontag, who was recovering from cancer surgery and needed someone to help answer her mail. Nunez had just gotten her M.F.A. from Columbia and lived nearby to Sontag’s apartment at 340 Riverside Drive. On her third visit, Nunez met Sontag’s son, David Rieff, and shortly thereafter the two began dating. It wasn’t long before Nunez moved in, beginning what would be a complicated relationship with both Sontag and her son. Her memoir, Sempre Susan, chronicles those few years she spent with Sontag and Rieff. We sat down for coffee not too long ago at the City Bakery on 18th Street to talk about the book.
I was really struck by the line in the book where you say, “Exceptionalism: Was it really a good idea for the three of us, Susan, her son, myself to share the same household?” Was it?
Well, as it turned out, it was a very bad idea. But at the time there were various reasons that made it less crazy than it might have seemed. First of all, Susan had just recently been diagnosed with stage IV cancer. She was also in the middle of breaking up with the woman who’d been her partner for several years. She’d always hated living alone, but now she was frankly terrified, and she made it clear that she’d be devastated if David were to move out. Also, David was still in school at the time, and he was financially dependent on Susan.
I could see myself being excited about the idea of living with Susan Sontag, and being eager to experience the intimacy of a peculiar situation. Was part of you unconcerned about whether this was a good idea?
I was never not concerned about it, but the truth is I thought it was going to be temporary. In fact, in the book, I originally said this in so many words, but I ended up cutting that part because it sounded silly, like I was trying to make excuses. But the truth is, I figured once David finished school we’d move into a place of our own. As time passed, though, it became increasingly clear that Susan would do anything to keep David from moving out. And it wasn’t just a question of the three of us living under the same roof. Susan wanted the three of us to do everything together. As I say in the book, I can hardly remember times when David and I went out alone.
Was she forthcoming about the fact that she really just wanted to be with her son?
As she said often, defensively, “Why do we have to live like everyone else?” As far as she was concerned, there was nothing so damn great about the traditional nuclear family. In fact, she loathed the very idea of the nuclear family. And she pointed out that, in other cultures, an arrangement like ours would’ve been perfectly normal. Also, she always insisted that she and David were different from ordinary mothers and sons. She liked to think of herself as David’s “goofy older sister.” It wasn’t neediness that made her want to keep David with her, she’d tell people, but her enormous love for him.
You talk about how your writing changed after you had this experience with Susan. I was really taken by those passages where you describe her giving you changes and advice on your fiction and you don’t accept it.
I hadn’t published anything yet. I was trying to write, but nothing was really working out. And the whole time I was living with Susan and David, I wasn’t able to write. But because she kept pushing me, I did finally show her a story I’d written. She was generous in her comments and she encouraged me to think I was someone who could become a writer. But for the most part, whenever she tried to criticize my work, I didn’t take it well.
Unfortunately, I was like a lot of my own students, who don’t really want criticism, just encouragement. It’s both embarrassing and hilarious to remember it now. You don’t sit there at twenty-five, unpublished, inexperienced, and respond to Susan Sontag’s editorial suggestions like a little snot, rejecting every one of them. But it had a lot to do with the fact that I didn’t admire Susan’s own fiction. I’d read her first two novels and some of her stories, and I didn’t admire them the way I admired the essays. So when she tried to talk to me about language and style, I didn’t really trust what she said. Anyway, she was offended, of course, and she didn’t forget either. Years later, she’d ask me to send her my work and when I did she refused to say anything about it.
Can you explain the cult of Susan Sontag?
I think it had everything to do with the way she first appeared on the scene, this brilliant, beautiful, intellectually passionate young woman writing these sharp, confident pieces about art and culture, in a style all her own. She was brainy but also sexy, totally bookish but also a party girl—a rare and pretty irresistible combination. She captured the media’s attention right away, and then, because she was so active and productive and had such a broad range of interests, and also because she was always so vocal and fearless about her opinions—no few of which were controversial—attention kept getting paid. It would have been hard for Susan Sontag not to have a high profile. Whatever she said, people quoted her. And people always wanted to interview her and photograph her. Being a lifelong world traveller was part of it, too. And of course it had everything to do with gender. It was such an unusual life for a woman. I mean, if you think about it, she was pretty much the only woman of her kind.
Why did you decide to write this memoir now?
I’d never thought about writing about Susan, ever. But about three years ago, the writer Elizabeth Benedict asked me if I’d write something for an anthology called Mentors, Muses & Monsters: 30 Writers on the People Who Influenced Them. I wanted to write about Elizabeth Hardwick, who’d been my teacher at Barnard. But it turned out both Elizabeth Benedict and Mary Gordon were already writing about her. Then it occurred to me I could write about Susan, because even though she wasn’t a professor of mine, she was certainly a major influence.
I’d already published a short memorial piece a year after her death, and then for the anthology I wrote this twenty-page essay, which was also published in Tin House. James Atlas read it and asked me if I’d be willing to write a book about Susan, and I thought I could do that so long as it was a short book. I would never have been interested in writing a biography or a critical study, but I saw the possibility of a short memoir, taking off from the two essays I’d already written and limited to that particular time when I got to know her well, and what it meant to be a young writer under her influence. But otherwise I’m sure I’d never have written a book about her.
Were you concerned about Susan’s privacy?
Yes, but for a number of reasons less so than I might have been about some other public figure. For one thing, though you hear it said about Susan that she was a very private person, she was in fact the least private person I’ve ever known. She told everyone everything: the most intimate details about her life, all about her personal history, the people she knew, famous or unfamous, what she thought of everyone and everything—she had no use for secrecy or even for discretion. And it was never as if I was her special confidante. Whatever she shared with me she shared with many others as well.
Also, so much about her private life has now been published. I’m thinking of David’s book, Swimming in a Sea of Death, about her last struggle with cancer, which also draws a portrait of the kind of person Susan was at home. And now the first volume of her journals is out, an extremely self-revealing book, in which you can see clearly the same person—though much younger—that I was writing about. Her ferocious ambition, her neediness and vulnerability, her lack of maternal feeling, her anxiety about her sexuality, and her sense of herself as a failure at love—it’s all there.
Was this easier to write than fiction?
In many ways, yes, and not just because it’s short. Unlike most of my novels, it didn’t require any research. And I didn’t have to invent anything. I had my heroine, and I had my story. I just had to do the work of memory and shape what I remembered into a narrative that would be engaging for the reader.
Do you trust your memory?
No one’s memory is infallible, of course—quite the opposite. But I do have a good memory, and in this book I only put down what I remembered very well. The time I was writing about was extremely important and vivid to me; it changed my whole life. And it’s not like it all happened way back when and afterwards I didn’t think about it for the next thirty years. These are experiences that are part of me, that have stayed alive in me, and that have informed my work as well as my relationships with other people. And you know how it is with memory. You might not remember what you had for dinner last night, but you remember everything about one particular summer of your youth. It’s like that.