Sarah Manguso Rebuilds Her Life, Scene by Scene


After two collections of poetry and a collection of short stories, Sarah Manguso has published a memoir, The Two Kinds of Decay, about dealing with chronic idiopathic demyelinating polyradiculoneuropathy, an autoimmune disorder that, when it suddenly struck her in college, had antibodies in her blood stream attacking her nervous system as if it were an infection. She has been in remission from the disease for several years, but had only recently begun to write about it. “I don’t really worry about it that actively now,” she says as we chat at Housing Works one recent afternoon, “and I had to get to a place where I didn’t worry about it before I could write about it with any objectivity.”

“It happened almost by surprise,” she continues, recalling the book’s origins. She wrote a small bit of prose about her past, then realized she would have to write another section to contextualize why she’d had a catheter in her heart, something she’d mentioned in the first scene. “Each piece demanded another piece,” she explains, “and soon I had twenty of them.” She kept writing, and when she felt like she had enough, she rearranged them into chronological order to give the work narrative shape.

She didn’t have an agent at the time, but a recommendation from a fellow writer took care of that, and soon they were showing the memoir around. “I tried not to use any euphemisms,” she says, “and that may have made it harder to publish.” Some editors rejected the book for being, as Manguso describes their reaction, “too explicity and too medically uncomfortable,” which is ironic given that it’s the near-poetic specificity of her short chapters that gives the memoir much of its power. (The book finally found a home at FSG with an editor who, Manguso smiles, is “clearly as uninterested in bullshit as I am.”)

“The switch wasn’t really as grand as people like to make it out to be,” Manguso says o transitioning from poetry to prose and then from fiction to memoir. “The difference between my first collection of poems and my second, for example, is wider than the difference between that second collection and my first book of short-stories… Genre is like gender; it’s just a thing. It’s incidental to the work.”

Manguso recently returned to New York City after a year in Rome, where she had just spent a one-year fellowship at the American Academy. While there, she had meant to write a “speculative non-fiction” book on Sicily—she’s 1/4 Sicilian—”but I wrote about a paragraph and realized that was it: I didn’t have it in me,” she recalled. After several distractions, she began writing about a close friend’s violent death and has since found that story transforming into a novel. She’s also gearing up for a new semester as a teacher at the Pratt Institute; when we met, she was immersing herself in the fiction of Thomas Bernhard for her upcoming syllabus.

Sarah Manguso will be reading at Book Court in Brooklyn Heights tomorrow (Tuesday, Sept. 9).

8 September 2008 | interviews |