Author Q & A with Suzi Banks Baum
September 15, 2022
This week’s Author Q&A is with Suzi Banks Baum. Suzi is a writer living in Great Barrington, MA. Her writing deals with topics such as female sexuality, and the trials and tribulations experienced by women in the modern world. Her nonfiction essay “Connect: Disconnect” is this year’s winner of The Honeybee Prize in Nonfiction which was selected by guest judge Jessica Hendry Nelson. Here’s what Jessica had to say about the essay –
“Connect: Disconnect” strikes me with its unapologetic exploration of the power and pleasure of female sexuality. With fine attention to language and cadence, it combs memory to unpack a complicated legacy of want and wonder. This essay does not flinch, capitulate, or mitigate. In charting her voracities, the narrator reminds the reader of the vital power of her own.”
We asked Suzi to share some unique or standout detail regarding her writing process for this piece.
Her response: Connect/Disconnect was inspired by a brilliant piece of writing by Merritt Tierce in the NY Times last November, titled, “The Abortion I Didn’t Have.” Reading Merritt’s work made me realize that in the years of work on my memoir, I had skirted the topic of my sexual coming of age but hadn’t really given it space in the narrative. My writing partner Sue and I decided to write, to simply write what came forward as we put our minds into that time in our lives. I wrote pages and pages. I spoke to my high school best friend, talked to my friends from camp, pored over my journals. I tried to piece together the throughline of my experience of waking up in my body sexually.
We asked her what she learned about herself or craft through the making of this piece.
Her response: That though my writing life is largely solitary, just me at my desk with a pencil or my laptop, the development of a piece exists in relationships, in reaching out to people I trust, in listening and reflecting on those conversations. My writing partner and I talked weekly. We were setting off into dangerous territory, examining the influences and expectations and restrictions that we felt as young women in our early lives. Our trust in one another helped me write because I knew that she’d read my pages no matter what, and she’d support me taking the risk of exposing a very personal part of my life. I did the same thing for her. I feel emboldened by writing all of this. The person who I first had intercourse with, the guy who I gave my virginity to, to use the term of that time, is dead. I tried to find people who knew him, I spoke to my close friend from that period of my life and got her impressions. I realized how much shame and amnesia I’d chosen to live with until I began writing. The more I dug into the timeline, the facts, the influences of that time, the more I wanted to write.
We asked Suzi what part of the writing process is the most satisfying and why.
Her response: “I love to free-write. I have been addicted to pencils since I was a tiny kid. I love the feel of graphite on paper. I wake up early, make a cup of tea, and hopefully, without any distraction, go right to the page. I write a full page at least, or more. But I usually stop at 3 pages because that signals to me that this topic or scene or memory is something to return to later. Also I love to read and take notes. Give me Orion magazine or the New Yorker or American Short Fiction and I will soak up the writing and take notes, find small phrases to use as prompts for a free write. I like to copy out sections that are deeply affecting. I learn from the writing of others. A book that has been on my lap for the past year to dip into like that is a collection titled, Hearth: A Global Conversation on Identity, Community, and Place edited by Annick Smith and Susan O’Connor. I aspire to write like the writings anthologized there.”
We followed up on that by asking what fuels her desire to write.
Her response: In my free-write journal, I taped an image of an engraving from 1649 of women being hung for witchery in England. I look at the women with their hands tied, necks in nooses, and I think, yeah, my story is worth telling. I believe writing loosens bonds which have kept women silent for generations. Creative expression can disrupt each of us enough to let that which is uncomfortable have room. Also, the natural world, which I am privileged to live amongst. I am taken daily by the woes and delights of foxes, and fireflies, snow drifts and different kinds of ice, the rapture of a rose blossom and the savory tang of a bite of a basil leaf. These things, along with swimming and love and making something like sense, compel me to write.
We asked Suzi if she has any projects coming up that she would like to share.
Her response: I teach book art because coupled with my infatuation with pencils is my devotion to books, the kind we can write in, create in, delve into, that invite us to explore our inner worlds and digest and integrate life experiences. I will teach a book art workshop at the Art School of Columbia County, NY in September, a live and in-person 2-day workshop. Then in late November, my online workshop, Advent Dark Journal, a 6-week exploration of art, writing, and ritual centered around flourishing in the holiday season when so many people feel disconnected from the sacred and overwhelmed by the glare of tinsel. Both of these events are listed on my website, SuziBanksBaum.com.
We asked her to talk about her biggest influences in writing/what she enjoys reading.
Her response: My first influence is Katey Schultz, who has been a colleague and friend for the last 10 years or so. She invited me to the writing residency at the Arrowmont School of Arts and Crafts, a residency which I now administer. We have taken each other’s classes, written elbow to elbow at my backyard picnic table, I’ve slept in the Airstream trailer in her yard, we’ve read each other’s work and listened to our frustrations. Please read her work. I recommend Flashes of War first. I have been part of Katey’s Monthly Mentorship program for the past two years, learning about revision and how to sustain a writing life. That mentorship, with someone whom I trust deeply and love heartily, who I respect as a writer and rely on as a colleague, has been deeply nourishing. Second, because this person has shaped me since I first picked up my pencil and began to write about my life inside motherhood, is the writer Terry Tempest Williams. The passion and determination which shine through her is pure manna. I had the distinct pleasure of meeting Terry after a talk she gave at the Carey Institute in Millbrook, NY and to introduce her to my kids. They knew what a life-moment it was for us all to hear Terry speak about the United States and our difficult relationship with land and our collective history of colonization, and about being present to the changes our planet is undergoing. Terry’s writing feels both intimate and wildly public at the same time, exposed but also pointed and full of space for inquiry. Terry draws conclusions but she leaves space for reflection that makes me feel included. I hope you’ve read some of her work. If you haven’t, start with When Women Were Birds.
We asked her what else she would like to share with potential readers.
Her response: I recognize that writing clearly and frankly about sex, about what is consensual and what may not be, is a daring act of boldness. I could have cloaked this story in fiction, but I decided not to. I am committed to people making space and finding some sense in their lives through the expressive arts. I believe it is how we begin to identify what truly matters to us and what we stand for. That space allows us clarity on which actions we are willing to take, what comfort we will risk in order to live our fullest lives.
And last, but certainly not least, we asked Suzi what she thinks of when she hears the phrase “The Good Life.”
Her response: I think of connection, of there being room enough for the stories of anyone who has a story to tell. The Good Life conjures up to me a wide long table with place settings for everyone who thought that fully expressing themselves was only for a select few. The Good Life feels spacious and inclusive and kind and respectful. I grew up with such a clear prescription of what a good life was and I have lived long enough to recognize that what is good for the collective is something far greater than that early definition and I am so grateful to know that now.
This is so lovely! The “connection” of which you speak and there being space enough for everyone to tell their story is part of the reason we started this journal and website in the first place. We’re grateful that we were able to connect with you and that you trusted us with your story. Congrats again on winning this year’s prize!
~The Good Life Review Team