Author Q&A with Rachel Sussman
by Christine Nessler
September 6, 2023
Rachel Sussman’s work has appeared in Into the Void, Months to Years, My Chronic Brain, and is forthcoming in The Pinch. You can read her movie and television reviews, which have been called “snarky and piercing,” on chronicallystreaming.com. She is also on Twitter and Instagram @RachelXSussman.
Rachel’s flash nonfiction piece, Selfishly, I Planted Flowers, is featured in Issue #12 and was the winner of the 2023 HoneyBee Prize in Nonfiction.
Tell us about yourself.
Phew. With the exception of “tell us about your hobbies,” nothing instills more immediate panic in me than this gentle, well-intentioned prompt. My mind goes blank, and I instantly forget everything about myself.
I grew up bouncing back and forth between suburban Maryland and rural Vermont. I’ve spent the past decade and half living in centrally-isolated Pennsylvania with my two kids, husband, and two cats—with breaks to spend a handful of years living in South and Central America. In addition, while I’ve lived with Chronic Migraine for most of my life, over the past decade it has become much more severe and disabling, which has wholly reshaped the contours of my and my family’s life.
When did you start writing?
Writing and words have always been an important part of my life, but it’s really been in the past six years that I’ve committed to formalizing the practice and trying to get more pieces published.
How has writing impacted your life?
Especially in the past several years—as my disease has gotten more severe—writing has saved me. Symptoms like pain, brain fog, and confusion often leave me feeling like any kind of communication or human interaction is impossible. Putting words together into sentences and paragraphs and entire essays gives me a sense of freedom, creativity, and connection that I just don’t find elsewhere.
Selfishly, I Planted Flowers is such a beautiful story about grief. How did writing this story help you with your own grief?
The process of writing and re-writing the piece really forced me to unpack my memories of my friend and examine them closely, which was so painful, but has helped me face the reality of her being gone and understand what that means. Like planting the flowers themselves, writing the piece was very cathartic. It gave order to my chaotic thoughts and emotions, and allowed me a space where it felt right that her memory was always so alive. That said, nothing quite prepared me for the moment when the story was published and she was the first person I wanted to share the news with.
How did it pay tribute to your lost friend?
As I was writing it I kept wondering if it really was paying tribute to her, or if it was an entirely selfish act. She was an amazing and self-effacing person, who also brought dignity, respect, and joy into everything she did, and I hope it pays tribute to her by highlighting some of her mundane acts of greatness. Also, I hope that by allowing other people to see themselves and their friendships reflected in the words, it honors her memory and her gift for making people feel welcomed and respected.
The way you write is very poetic, do you primarily write creative non-fiction or do you dabble in other forms of art?
I always seem to come back to creative nonfiction (or the movie and television reviews I write). I really enjoy working within the confines of prose and facts, while playing with the cadence, imagery, and other aspects of language to create a strong emotional connection.
How do you take time to care for your own well-being?
I take walks. Spend time with my family. Watch loads of TV and movies when my body is uncooperative. Listen to audiobooks. Snuggle my cats. Exchange snarky texts with friends.
Do you have a writing routine? If so, what does it involve? If not, why not?
I have a writing routine that allows the space and grace for my chronic illness to regularly upend it. I used to set up these hard and fast goals for writing at this particular time, in this particular place, and for this particular length of time. When my body didn’t allow for that to happen I felt like a failure, and often just gave up on the entire endeavor. Now, I’m careful to acknowledge all the pre-writing parts of the routine as well—the thinking, mulling, and musing that goes on in the background—which I’m often doing even while I may not feel well enough to actually write. I tend to write best in the morning, and then I find pockets of time and energy throughout the rest of the day to plug away at it more—trying to stop before I get frustrated or exhausted. I meet with someone weekly to trade drafts of what we’re working on, which gives me a fixed deadline to work toward, and it’s immensely helpful.
What do you think of when you hear the phrase, “The Good Life?”
First, I think of The Good Life Review. Then, I guess I think of things like watching the sunrise on a day you wake up without pain; laughing with friends until your sides ache; the feeling when a small child slips their hand into yours; the first sip of hot coffee in the morning; the first crisp day of fall; the green shoots of spring; or slipping into clean sheets after you’ve showered.
Rachel’s Flash Nonfiction piece “Selfishly, I Planted Flowers” is available in issue #12 ~ Our Summer Honeybee Prize issue.
Thank you, Rachel, for trusting us with this story and allowing us to share it with our readers. We appreciate you and your willingness to spend extra time with us on this Q&A.