“I am a boring person,” Susan Neville writes in Iconography: A Writer’s Meditation. “I live a block away from the house where I grew up. I teach at the college my parents went to. My daughter took dance lessons from my kindergarten teacher. My son had my middle-school algebra teacher. I’ve been married for 25 years.”
I have a hard time using a word like “boring” to describe Susan Neville, who wrote over seven books, started one of the best visiting writers’ series in the country, and now has retired, after teaching at Butler University for 37 years.
As one of her students, I’ve benefited tremendously from her autodidact-like mind and devotion to turning the lens toward her origins and community. Neville’s short stories and essays expand and reshape what it means to live in Indiana. Neville’s fiction borders on the fantastical, the spiritual, and even the violent, like in her short story, “Night Train,” about the murder of Madge Oberholtzer.
Neville is constantly investigating the worlds beyond her own backyard, attending a tobacco auction house, walking into goth night at the Melody Inn, and several factories in her book, Fabrication: Essays on Making Things and Making Meaning. Susan Neville continues to draw out the strange and fascinating against the stereotype of Indiana as a flat place in the middle of nowhere.
I talked with her over the course of two days on Zoom.
TAYLOR LEWANDOWSKI: In “The Apprenticeship of Flannery O’Connor,” you talk about how a “student in any workshop or an artist in any studio learns: that everything has to be relearned,” what have you had to “relearn” over the years?
SUSAN NEVILLE: God, everything. I’ve written three or four, if you include Indiana Winter story collections. And just last week, I was asking myself, “What is a story? How does it work? Why is this really a story?” There are certain things, like dialogue, but you’re constantly doing something differently and filtering new things, so I’ve had to relearn what a story is, what an essay is. Telling and not showing. You always tell yourself, “Go to the scene,” and you also have to tell yourself, “You don’t always have to go to the scene.” Look at Poe’s stories that are like essays written by crazy characters. It’s about finding the best way for the character to speak their truth. I’m constantly relearning everything that I thought I knew and when I teach, anything I say. There are so many exceptions, so many ways you can do it. You’re always trying to discover something.
LEWANDOWSKI: You quote Marguerite Young in your interview, “Where the Landscape Moved like Waves”, “All my writing is about the recognition that there is no single reality. But the beauty of it is that you nevertheless go on, walking towards utopia, which may not exist, on a bridge which might end before you reach the other side.” Marguerite Young works “in the realm of the surreal; the illogical is logic.” How does Young inform your own writing?
NEVILLE: It’s funny because over the last few weeks I’ve been typing up my notes I have from when I interviewed her. Maybe I said part of this in the essay, but I discovered she even existed when I was living in Champaign-Urbana and was reading Virginia Woolf and Anais Nin. Nin had written a book called The Future of the Novel, which was mostly about Miss MacIntosh, My Darling, and I thought, “What? This person is from Indianapolis? She went to Shortridge High School, not only that, but she also went to Butler?” So weird.
This was before Google, so I tracked her down from an article in the Village Voice then contacted her publisher or the journalist who did the piece. And somehow from detective work, which I can’t remember how that happened, I found out she came home, because her doctor told her if she stayed in New York, she would die. So, she came home to stay with her niece who lived close to Butler, not Butler-Tarkington, but off Cold Springs Rd. She was so excited to have somebody visit her and ask questions, so she’d go on and on.
It was kind of amazing. The only writer from Indianapolis I ever heard of was Booth Tarkington and [James Whitcomb] Riley, then was ecstatic to find out Vonnegut was from here, and there were these incredible women, who no one ever talked about. Marguerite Young, foremost among them, but also Janet Flanner, who wrote in The New Yorker as Genet, and Margaret Anderson, who founded the Little Review, that was the first publisher of James Joyce, and a really good poet named Jean Garrigue, who was actually from the Evansville area and a good friend of Marguerite Young’s. She was amazing and the sad thing, so many sad things. Marguerite Young was such an important writer and one of those important writers no one reads ... At her funeral there were only nine people. The front row were her life-sized dolls. She was so brilliant, as was Jean Garrigue.
LEWANDOWSKI: In “Where’s Iago?” you write, “Over and over in the literature of evil the word illusion appears, not because it is an evil itself, but because it is the Petri dish that allows evil to mutate and grow,” and in “Silo Dreams,” you describe Indianapolis as a postmodern city, “the creation of a perpetual motion machine disconnected from any source of power but its own, an eternity created entirely in culture — a world where Disneyland exists, as critic Baudrillard noted, in order to give everything around it the illusion of the real.” Could you talk more about the necessity and sometimes dangerous appeal of creating illusions?
NEVILLE: Now we have that wonderful word, "gaslight", for it. I think in that essay I quote Oscar Wilde, “The Devil has all these tools in his toolbox, and the handle that fits them all is the lie.” Because it’s the lie that creates irreality and illusion and there may not be any reality, who knows? But forcefully lying means that you are creating an illusion for someone else and that’s the place where all ethical decisions are made based on nothing. I think about it a lot when charismatic leaders create an illusion for their followers by lying.
I’ve always been fascinated with what is real and what is illusion. That’s always a central question I pose. And I think it was Marguerite Young’s central question too. She’d say, it is like we are walking on air and all the sudden you notice you’re walking on air and fall, and at the same time she often would say that you must distinguish between reality, or you will blindly follow any leader. So, I think that question of what is real and what is not and how you distinguish it is particularly important if you’re walking through the world thinking none of it is real. You have to figure it out. Like my son, he’s absolutely sure that we’re living in a simulation. This is something my students have been talking about over the last few years. We have to figure out what’s real and what isn’t and what you’re going to follow and what you’re going to believe in, what is right and what isn’t.
LEWANDOWSKI: What scares me is the self-deception that happens in my own brain, that creates different realities.
NEVILLE: I think Marguerite Young’s generation and my generation were so influenced by World War II. I mean, I wasn’t alive during WWII, but my father fought in WWII, and the question of how Hitler could lead a whole country of educated people into a massive delusional system was the main question of the twentieth century. I think that affected a lot of us. Especially if you had, like I did, a family member who was mentally ill — Marguerite did as well — and you can see how easily people create delusional systems in mental illness and you see the exact same process when whole people fall victim to delusional systems, but they think it’s completely sane: the Germans following Hitler and people listening to Trump. You have to figure out if it’s all narrative or what narratives are true. Is narrative always created out of what’s not real?
LEWANDOWSKI: There’s a lot of religious imagery and theologians in your writing (Paul Tillich, St. Augustine, Martin Buber), which you meditate on in your essay, “Sacred Space in Ordinary Time,” and Iconography: A Writer’s Meditation, how has your relationship with religion changed over the years?
NEVILLE: I never talk about this, but I grew up in a Presbyterian and went through catechism class and questioned everything but still have the catechism questions memorized. Part of my mother’s illness was religious delusions, so that of course brings up a billion questions. Like, what’s the soul? Who is she when she’s in the hospital and how is it different from being at home?
I did a lot of reading [about] why. Just simple questions as a kid; like why is Joan of Arc, who says she’s the bride of Christ, considered a heroine, and my mother is crazy? Those kinds of questions are simple, but they haunted me. When I was in college at DePauw, I took classes in the religion and philosophy department, and [was] afraid that I was going to wake up and find myself in Central State Hospital. That was the big question of my early twenties. When I would go into Christian Theological Seminary, where they had a great bookstore, I would have a panic attack.
It went from questioning to panic attack, but it ultimately led me to New Harmony and Paul Tillich’s idea of the ultimate concern. It isn’t the answers, but the questions. I started reading him because I start reading everything when I begin writing. And little by little, I became fascinated, because I realized there aren’t answers, but there are people who tried to answer these questions in interesting ways that aren’t holistic and crazy or either one. They’re just thoughtful, interesting, and wise. I was constantly reading Tillich, Buber, St. Augustine, because I think in Iconography it was an attempt to put it to rest.
LEWANDOWSKI: In your essay, “River of Spirit,” about floating down the river with Dan Wakefield, you write, “When you stay, there’s always the sense that you’ve deliberately placed yourself outside of history. When you leave, there’s always the sense that you’ve left something essential behind.” How does this conflict resonate in your own life? What do you mourn in Indiana? And why do you think Indiana literature is so preoccupied with nostalgia?
NEVILLE: I don’t talk about nostalgia much. The people who leave are generally the ones who become better known outside the state. I think if—maybe this is terrible, I could be wrong — but maybe if you stay in a place that doesn’t have a lot to offer — it’s flat, the forests have been cut down for lumber, no trees, no mountains — that all we have is the story of the past that we tell each other and it’s a kind of utopian past. I think I mentioned this somewhere, but American literature has always been about the fall from Eden. We perhaps think that Eden was here, and we tell ourselves a story. So, every little town has its local heroes, the person who in the fifties was a basketball star, the monster who lives in the lake. All we have are the stories about people and culture. We’re in the middle. It’s different from the West. There’s a nostalgia, but here it’s like they’re passing through and stopped. Indiana is very interesting to people from Indiana.
LEWANDOWSKI: There’s a case to be made that your work transcends that idea.
NEVILLE: Well, I hope so … I want to take back what I said about Indiana being interesting to people from Indiana, because I think it’s the opposite. You get really excited about all these layers, this sediment, of history and place. Most of those stories are buried in the sediment, so it’s wonderful when somebody says I’m here, this is my place, and dig into it and try and figure it out, because right now I have on my desk Marguerite Young and for different reasons I have Kenneth Rexroth’s autobiographical novel. He was a great poet, born in Indiana. And all the weird, crazy, wonderful stories. When Carlos Fuentes came to Indiana, he was fascinated with the John Dillinger Museum and all this weird great stuff you have here. You look at it suddenly with different eyes and it’s fascinating. We don’t see it, because we tend not to respect ourselves and say, “Aw, shucks, Hoosiers!”
LEWANDOWSKI: That’s what’s so exciting about your work! Saying no this is not just cornfields or “Naptown.” There’s actual life here, people living, things happening that are just as interesting and dramatic than anywhere else. Mining what the majority would say is dead, that is a sort of a noble cause.
NEVILLE: It’s not noble, but it’s what I have to do. I live here. It was exciting when we moved back to Indiana from Florida. At first, I was kicking and screaming, but then I thought, “Raintree County.” What is this Raintree County? Oh, there’s a book. Oh, the book is really great. It mentions places I can go and see. Or, like those silly statues in downtown Carmel. I love writing about those statues. It’s exciting once you dig into it.