In her new memoir The Guardians: An Elegy, author Sarah Manguso confronts the suicide of her friend Harris, who killed himself by jumping in front of a Metro-North train. GalleyCat caught up with Manguso to discuss the writing process, publishing memoirs and eBooks.
GC: What made you decide to write about the suicide of a close friend?
SM: I’ve kept a daily diary for the past twenty years. All of my writing begins there. That I’d write about Harris’s death was a given.
GC: How did you approach such an intimate topic and what challenges did it present?
SM: It presented the usual challenges, the usual anxieties about accuracy and honesty, where to put the adverbs, and so on. For me, writing is writing. I revise the sentences in my diary from day to day and year to year. It’s more a workbook than a conventional diary.
GC: You say in the book that you waited three years to write about Harris’ death? If you keep a journal every day, then why did you wait three years?
SM: I wrote about it, but I didn’t write a book about it until three years later. [Here is an excerpt]:
David writes to say that Harris escaped from lockdown on Tuesday at noon and is now missing. He left behind his wallet, keys, and cell phone.
A cockroach emerges from behind the stove.
Worried sick, can’t sleep. Terrible dreams. Adam is in bed, hungover from tequila.
Fear Harris is dead.
Harris is dead. His family has positively identified a John Doe found in Riverdale.
His sister writes: sarah harris is dead. i am so sorry to tell you over email but i do not have your phone number.
Change is to was on his Wikipedia page, as he would have for me.
GC: In the book, you talk about how you no longer relate to some of the poetry that you have written in the past. Can you explain how you have evolved as a writer?
SM: The short version is that I started taking a new psychiatric medication in 2004 and never broke another line. A slightly longer version is that in 2004, perhaps because of a new prescription, perhaps not, I underwent a crisis that ended when I admitted I had no authority to break a line before the right-hand margin and had never truly possessed that authority. A longer version involves the recognition of time as a gradual burnishment of the mind, and the realization that I’ve been doing the same thing all along, just examining and trying to articulate and eventually understand and maybe solve my existential problems in writing, and that over the past couple of decades I’ve become gradually better at sustaining my attention. Twenty years ago I could think about a problem for about 50 words, and I broke some lines so the writing would look longer. Now I’m up to about 25,000, which is still laughably short for a book.
GC: The book is relatively short in page count. Was it hard to sell a 100 page memoir to a publisher?
SM: Both this book and my previous book, also a short memoir, went to FSG, one of the last of the old-fashioned publishing houses. They invest in authors rather than individual books, so even though the editor who acquired my previous book is now at another house, I’ve never felt any discontinuity in FSG’s expert stewardship.
GC: Both of your memoirs are available as eBooks. Do you read eBooks? Why/why not? If so, which device do you use?
SM: I don’t read eBooks, but it isn’t them. It’s me. I was the last person I knew to use email (1997), buy a cell phone (2004), upgrade to a smart phone (2010), or open a social media account for my personal use (never).