In this episode, Susan Olding discusses her journey as an essayist, and her newest essay collection Big Reader. She also discusses the power of writing essays, the challenges of writer's block, the power of re-reading classics as an adult, and the use of experimental forms in storytelling.
About this Episode
In Canada, essayist Susan Olding is well-known as the author of smart, beautifully crafted essays on topics like parenting, illness, our changing relationship to reading & more. In this episode, Susan discusses her journey as an essayist, and her newest essay collection Big Reader. One particular highlight is Susan’s masterful braided essay, “A Different River,” that weaves the history of Toronto's rivers and ravines to Susan's personal story amid the 1980s AIDs epidemic. She also discusses the power of writing essays, the challenges of writer's block, the power of re-reading classics as an adult, and the use of experimental forms in storytelling.
Want a full breakdown of the show?
>>> Click here to get complete show notes, major takeaways, further reading & transcripts.
Buy the Book
Big Reader: Essays is available from Bookshop | Barnes & Noble | Amazon | Indigo (Canada)
This episode was edited and produced by Chérie Newman at Magpie Audio Productions. Theme music is "The Stone Mansion" by BlueDot Productions.
Paul Zakrzewski: Welcome to "The Book I Had to Write." This is the podcast where I talk to authors about their most compelling stories, and why these journeys matter to anyone who wants to publish.
I'm Paul Zakrzewski. I'm a book coach, podcaster, and essayist. I met today's guest, Susan Olding, at a writing conference a few years ago. Afterwards, the friend who introduced us told me, "Go find Susan's essay about Toronto." She called it one of the best-rated essays she had ever read. Eventually, I tracked down a copy of this essay. It's called "A Different River," and it appears in Susan's new book, "Big Reader." In the essay, Susan tells the story of Toronto by tracing the evolution of the city's rivers.
That history involves several pandemics, which also leads to a thread about the 1980s AIDS epidemic, and about a close friendship. The essay is now one of my favorites. But it's only one of several in her book that use experimental forms to tell her story. Susan Olding grew up in southern Ontario, but these days, she lives in Vancouver. Her first book was "Pathologies: A Life in Essays." That was selected by Amazon as one of 100 Canadian books to read in your lifetime.
Susan's also won a National Magazine Award, the Edna Staebler Award for the Personal Essay, and the Judith Kitchen Prize in Creative Nonfiction. If you love essays the way I do, I think this conversation will be a real treat.
Well, welcome, Susan. And congratulations on the book.
Susan Olding: Thank you. Thank you very much for having me, Paul.
Paul Zakrzewski: So, I thought I'd start by asking you about the title, "Big Reader." The phrase actually comes up in one of your essays. And one of the things that you do in that essay is explore your mother's failing eyesight. What is a big reader?
Susan Olding: Well, I'm not even sure if the thing still exists. I began the essay quite a while ago. Essentially, it looked like a massive kind of microfiche reader. And it really was a big reader. And it was so heavy, as I point out in the essay, that it couldn't stand on any kind of lightweight table. It really needed to be placed on a hefty desk. And my mother wasn't in favor of such a placement. She wanted to be able to look out her big picture window and read at the same time, which is what she'd always done. She'd always sat in her wing chair, and looked out her window, and then looked back to her book. And this was sort of the pattern of reading that she had most enjoyed.
Paul Zakrzewski: It's such a great name though.
Susan Olding: Yeah, I know. It was a great name.
Paul Zakrzewski: You have this great story here in one of the essays. It's this funny and resonant story about a time when you're in grade three, and you're viewing something on the board, and you start writing something about an alien. Can you tell that story?
Susan Olding: Yeah, sure. So, as I say in the book, my third grade teacher was kind of a sourpuss. But one day, she actually asked us to do something creative, and that involved writing anything we wanted about these pictures that she put up on the blackboard. And my seat was at the back of the room. And when I looked at the board, I saw a bunch of really weird abstract images, and I wasn't sure what they were or what to do with them. And I think I sat there for quite a while trying to figure out what I was going to write about.
But eventually, I seemed to make out some meaning in one of the images. And to me, it looked like an alien creature. So, I wrote this very long, involved story. In fact, I wasn't finished when class ended, and I asked to take it home. And I worked on it at home for hours and brought it back the next day. And the teacher was duly impressed. And I was pretty proud of myself. I thought I'd done something wonderful.
And in fact, I think, you know, she asked a bunch of us to read our stories out loud, and we were having more fun than we had ever had in that class before. But then, towards the end, I can't remember now whether it was a few days later, but we went up to the board. Either we were taking down the images or I had to go up to the front for some other reason. I think in the essay, I talk about sharpening my pencil, and it may well have been that. Anyway, I saw that in fact, the images that I had believed to be abstract were in fact perfectly ordinary pictures of things like pirates and flowers in a field, and, you know? I don't recall all the other ones, but, you know, they were not abstract images at all. And that's when I realized that my eyesight was pretty bad. So, yeah.
Paul Zakrzewski: It's a great metaphor for writing, I feel like, which was part of the fun of the essay, but it also led to writer's block, right?
Susan Olding: Yeah. I think I was really taken aback that I had not really understood what I was looking at, and it just, it threw me. Yeah, yeah. For sure.
Paul Zakrzewski: I was really intrigued by the essay, and where you kind of arrive on this whole idea of writer's block and the question of struggling with doubt. I wonder if you could talk about that a bit.
Susan Olding: Yeah. Well, I mean, in the essay, I kind of blame it all on a classmate, who is a real person. She really was, you know? Actually, there were more than just her who were kind of glad to see me taken down a peg, as it were. You know, I think self-doubt, at least for me, has been the reason for writer's block, the main reason for writer's block, sort of combination of self-doubt and, you know, people call it perfectionism. I'm not so sure it's perfectionism. I think maybe when...
I mean, I think perfectionism is terribly dangerous, but I'm not sure that it was perfectionism in my case, so much as a type of writing process that is in fact slower and more iterative perhaps than some people's. And so, put those two things together, and you have a recipe for long periods of not writing or not beginning. I mean, I think another thing in my own life was I had absolutely no models of people who were creative in my life, and it just did not occur to me that I did not know how you could make a life in the arts. It just didn't seem like a realistic dream. And who knows where it even came from? I have no idea. The books I read probably.
But I've continued to struggle with self-doubt for many years, and didn't really start writing seriously until I was in my 30s. I mean, I did keep notebooks, and I scribbled, and I tried stories and poems all the time. But then I kind of would just trash them or throw them away or hide them and didn't talk about it with anyone. Nobody, even my closest friends didn't know that I had aspirations to write. And I would kind of try to push them down all the time and say, "Oh, I'll do this instead. I'll do this instead. I'll do this instead." So, I wound up going in all these circuitous roots instead of doing the one thing that I really wanted to do. So, it took a long time.
Paul Zakrzewski: It may be the essayist lot, I think. I can completely empathize.
Susan Olding: Yeah. There may be something to that, because I think essayists, maybe more often than writers in other genres, also perhaps take longer to find their niche because it's not as widely sort of recognized within the culture. And so, you know, you know it when you read it, as I did when I started reading them. "Oh, I love this. I love this. What is this?" But, you know, we don't see them around us in the way that, you know, we see novels, and even to some extent, poetry.
Paul Zakrzewski: For sure. One of the things I was really intrigued by in your book is, you know, speaking of "Big Reader," you know, you talk about this, or at least you allude to this tradition of great essayists who are also great critics. And along the way, you mentioned people like Vivian Gornick and Walter Benjamin, and of course kind of the grand doyen of them all, Virginia Woolf. I'm wondering to what extent you see yourself kind of working in that tradition of essayists who are also critics?
Susan Olding: I would say not so much at this point, but perhaps there may be a movement increasingly in that direction because... I'm also working on a Ph.D., and so I'm researching in the archives. So, I think it's possible that my work will veer more and more towards that. I loved all of those essayists when I first found them because this was a time when I was struggling to make sense of the genre of the academic essay. I was an undergrad. And there again, I had few models.
My father had gone to university, he was a physician. He's not a word guy. And my mother was a reader, a big reader, in fact. But she read, you know, popular, like crime novels and that kind of thing. So, I didn't have an example of someone who was a kind of literary intellectual in my life either. And I enjoyed those writers because I thought, "Oh, this is an interesting way to write." But of course, it wasn't the way that they want you to write your undergraduate essays at all, at all, at all. So, I ran into a bit of trouble with that from time to time.
Paul Zakrzewski: In the book, the first essay is this kind of wonderful close reading of Tolstoy's Anna Karenina, kind of against the backdrop of your own history. And I'm wondering if you could talk a bit about how that essay came together, and maybe how your view of that book has shifted over the years.
Susan Olding: Yeah. I'm trying to remember the process of composing that. I think I began simply with memories of that class, which were very strong for me, and they kept coming up again and again over the years, you know? And I would write a little, you know, a couple of paragraphs about it, and then put it down, and come back to it, and put it down. And I finally got together a proposal to Banff Literary Journalism Program, which is an amazing, amazing program in Canada for writers of literary non-fiction to give them an opportunity to stay in mountains for a month and work on an extended project.
So, I was admitted to that program with this proposal. And I worked there with a wonderful writer named Katherine Ashenburg, who also, it turns out, had been interested in this project because she had written about rereading as well. And in her case, she wrote about rereading a series of old nursing books. I think they might have been called Sue Barton or something. I don't remember for sure, though that series is before my time, so I didn't ever read it. But Katherine had this fantastic essay about rereading these books. So, she was happy to work on a project that involved rereading.
So, I did, of course, reread the book a couple of times in order to write the essay. And it was really... I mean, I think everyone who has engaged in the act of rereading at different times in their lives will tell you that, you know, you really, you're reading a different book the next time you come around to it. And that's part of the wonder and the joy, and also the self-revelation that happens in doing that. So, yeah, it was interesting to work that through.
Paul Zakrzewski: I loved it. I mean, I loved the balance between the personal and the rereading. It was really nicely handled.
Susan Olding: Well, thank you. You too.
"'You do read,' my husband Mark insists. He's lying in bed with his iPad propped against his knees. The iPad is his new appendage. He has taken to the tablet with disgusting ease, managing his music, his recipes, his newspapers and magazines, his crossword puzzles, and most of all, an expanding library of books from its sleek deck. Mark's right, of course, I read. In fact, in a typical day, I do little else. It's just that, like him, like most of us these days, I read far more often from a glowing screen than from a printed page. And I read news articles, columns, student papers, other work-related material or academic papers, rarely books."
"It doesn't feel the same. Is my creeping disengagement with books a sign of sloth, stupidity, or something worse? 'No,' I tell myself, 'It's not my fault. It's just an unfortunate side effect of middle age.' Severely myopic since childhood, these days, I struggle equally with print at close range. My glasses are heavy, they hurt my head and my progressive contacts serve only to soften my vision at every distance. I have to buy a pair of drugstore readers to compensate, except they don't. 'It's the lighting,' I complain, 'It isn't bright enough in here.' And I bring my laptop to bed. On my birthday, Mark presents me with the latest Kindle, 'Backlit,' he crows, 'Adjustable. You'll be able to see the print.' But I fail to show the proper gratitude. 'Another device,' I think bitterly, 'Another tool. And what has utility to do with joy?'"
Paul Zakrzewski: I'm wondering if you could talk about how using kind of more experimental forms in the essay allows you to get to truth in some different ways.
Susan Olding: Yeah. Well, I think, Brenda Miller has been one of my mentors, and I think she has talked a lot about the hermit crab form and the way that that can kind of lead a writer sideways into material that she might not otherwise feel comfortable exploring. So, that's certainly one way that the experimental form works. But I think for me, essay writing is always, whether I'm writing a more traditional essay or something that, you know, is trying to be a bit more playful with form, it's always about making connections or seeing connections, finding connections. It's almost like, you know, that process of looking at that abstract image that I couldn't see.
I mean, I feel like all writing is, as, you know, noted, it is a metaphor for writing. You're looking at something and it's blurry and you are trying to make sense of it and see how the different parts of it are connected. And I think the essay, especially, is the form that allows you to highlight those connections, play with them, dance around with them even, and see where they lead you. What can you learn from that? I mean, sometimes it's just silly, but sometimes you learn more about the subject than you might have anticipated by playing with etymologies or just stringing things out a little bit further.
Paul Zakrzewski: Yeah. There's that great Joan Didion line, "You don't tell it, it tells you." And I love that. I feel like that's what you're talking about, like, as long as you're following the thread, you're gonna learn something new. You used that word, vulnerability, a few moments ago, I wondered if somehow these forms actually open that up for you, because some of the essays here are very honest and authentic and vulnerable. And I'm wondering if you were able to kind of access some of that material through these different forms.
Susan Olding: Absolutely. Yeah, absolutely. And I think it's not just access the material, I think what it is for a writer is it allows you to access the material in a new way, which actually, it not only brings perhaps unexpected discoveries about yourself to yourself, but it also makes it fresh for the reader. Because many of these stories are stories that, I mean, I've thought about or known about or lived in my own body, you know, all the time, but how to get that across in a way that makes it feel vulnerable and fresh to the reader. And I think going sideways, backwards, inside out is sometimes the way to do that.
Paul Zakrzewski: That's so great. You're giving me ideas. Speaking of braided essays, there's this amazing essay in here called "A Different River." One of the things I loved about it is it's about so many different things. You know, it's kind of a love letter to the City of Toronto. It's a history of Toronto as told through its history of its rivers, it's about your own kind of college years during the early '80s, about a pair of gay men that you were close to. And it's also the story about the AIDS crisis in that city. I'm wondering if you could talk a bit about that essay and how writing about the Toronto's rivers kind of opened up the story for you.
Susan Olding: So, that essay had its genesis in a comment by a writer named Frances Backhouse on a Canadian Facebook group for creative nonfiction writers. And she said something like... She was teaching at the time and she said something like, "Where are the Canadian, the essays about Canadian cities, like you know, Richard Rodriguez's, 'Late Victorians' or Joan Didion's, 'Goodbye to all that?'" And it just planted a seed. I mean, I thought, "Yeah, where indeed? Where are those essays? They don't exist." And so, I thought about this for a while and thought about it and thought about it and the essay just kind of began.
And, you know, I mean, I had lived in Toronto a long time, I knew it as a city of ravines. And I reread Rodriguez and thought about San Francisco and its landscape and contrasted that to Toronto, and just started writing. Started writing first with the memories of the city at the time. And I couldn't write about my personal memories without bringing the history of the place or the culture of the city and, you know, the acute situation of the AIDS crisis into that essay because that was what it was to live there then.
And so, yeah, it all sort of came together and I worried, "Well, is it going to work? You know, you never know." But I figured that for this, the structure of the braid, really, I wasn't thinking of it as a braid, but more as a set of tributaries all flowing together would work best for this type of piece. And I hope it did. I hope it came together. I really, really, would've loved to and would still love to create a version of the piece that is like digitally mapped onto the rivers. There is a project called "Lost Rivers in Toronto," a digital project, but it's sort of a very basic level one, but you can go to the website and look at where the rivers were on just a sort of simple map. Well, I would like to do a version of that and sort of put the stories where they belong with the rivers. So, someday maybe.
Paul Zakrzewski: I could totally see that, and I could see that essay working really well for it. I loved the essay. It was fantastic. I wondered, I think this is informed a bit by something I was reading recently in which the writer was talking about the pressure that she was feeling to turn her essay collection into a memoir of essays, so kind of full length. And I'm wondering if, especially with an essay like this that could easily have been a book, if you ever feel that pressure to turn essays into books or if it's clear to you that you are an essay writer, that's your genre?
Susan Olding: Well, actually I write in other genres too. So, I write and publish poetry and I write and publish fiction as well. So, I don't consider myself only an essayist. I consider the essay, I guess, it's home. It's the place I go maybe when I can't write something else, that's sort of where I always return and always will return. So, I also think that the publishing culture is a little different in Canada and the U.S. So, when I published my first book, which is a book of essays in 2008, there was a little bit of pressure not to make it a memoir, there was no pressure to make it a memoir because the editor loved it as essays and that's how she wanted it. She happened to love the essay form, so lucky me. But for marketing purposes, they wanted to kind of memoir-ize it a little. And that made sense too in that the pieces were really, especially the earlier work, it was more memoir based, you know, they were memoir essays. That's what all of them were. And so, the subtitle was "A Life in Essays," which kind of, you know, I dunno.
Paul Zakrzewski: Your cake and eat it too.
Susan Olding: Yeah, exactly. Yeah. So, when I sent this one off to, it's the same publisher but a different editor because they've changed staff since, but I thought, "Oh, maybe I have to call it a memoir." And in some ways, it also felt like a memoir, I mean, because I do rely a lot on personal stories, and it's not chronological exactly, but there's enough of a chronology. But this time they just said, "No, it's essays, call it essays." So, fine.
Paul Zakrzewski: Thank you, Susan, so much. This has been really wonderful.
Susan Olding: Thank you so much for having me. It's such a pleasure to talk with you.
Paul Zakrzewski: You've been listening to my interview with essayist Susan Olding. I'm Paul Zakrzewski. If you enjoyed the show, then I hope you'll subscribe to it. I'm always grateful for reviews and for sharing the show with friends. To read a full transcript of this and every episode, sign up at thebookihadtowrite.com/subscribe. And if you're working on your own book you have to write or you wanna get started, maybe I can help. I love supporting experienced authors with expert advice and focused coaching. I help writers craft book drafts, agent pitches, book proposals, and more. Find out more about me and my coaching at thebookihadtowrite.com/coaching. That's thebookihadtowrite.com/coaching. And thanks again for listening.