Susanna Kaysen: The chronicler of ‘Cambridge’
You might expect author Susanna Kaysen to sit down in front of a reporter’s recorder and pour out her dark soul.
As the author of the 1993 bestseller “Girl, Interrupted,” she revealed the dramatic story of her 18 months in McLean psychiatric hospital to the world. Her disarmingly honest book, made into the 1999 film that won Angelina Jolie an Oscar, was a prime mover in the still vital memoir craze. She ought to be the queen of confession.
But, over coffee and a scone at Hi-Rise Bread Company in her beloved Cambridge, which is the subject of her new novel, “Cambridge,” Kaysen is demure. She is funny and mildly ironic as she recalls “the looney bin.” She is opinionated and she is not particularly given to the self-mythologizing done by people who are famous for sharing.
More than once as Kaysen talks, she places a hand over the microphone, holding onto the privacy that she lost after “Girl, Interrupted” made her the go-to icon for those longing to talk about mental illness. At readings, in letters — all of which she answered — fans felt they knew her intimately.
“That’s what I found confusing about the success of ‘Girl, Interrupted,’ ” she says, her gray bangs reaching just above her eyebrows in a bowl cut. She was paralyzed as a writer for eight years after the book’s release, even though it brought her enough money to give up copy-editing work.
“Everybody felt that they knew me and that I owed them more intimacy, that I had given them so much that they could demand everything,” she says. “I didn’t feel that I had given them so much. I remember saying over and over, ‘This book is an artifact, I made it, I’m a writer. It’s not a transcription from reality.’ I felt people didn’t see that, and they felt that I’d cut my breastbone open and that they were looking into my heart. But my heart is cold. You have to have a somewhat cold heart to be a writer. So I felt there had been some kind of a misunderstanding.
“It took me a lot of time to reconstitute myself as a private being.”
For Kaysen, privacy means her pleasant, quiet life “in the backwoods of Cambridge” with her boyfriend, whom she calls “my sweetheart.”
“I never go anywhere,” she says with a throaty laugh. “I don’t have a whole bunch of literary connections. I don’t write reviews or attend writer’s conferences. I’m kind of shy and don’t want to go to a party. I just want to stay home and read my murder mysteries and try to write and cook dinner.”
Kaysen’s editor at Knopf, Robin Desser, has worked with Kaysen for over 20 years, including on her second novel, “Far Afield,” in 1990, and on her 2001 memoir, “The Camera My Mother Gave Me,” about her disabling vaginal pain.
“‘Girl, Interrupted’ was a book that was punctuated by silences,” Desser says, “as opposed to the way a lot of memoirs have been written since. Everybody’s vomiting everything onto the page. And so some people were filling in Susanna’s silences with their own stories. That’s tough. The way people react to memoir can be particularly toxic for a sensitive person.”
With “Cambridge,” Kaysen is still writing about a personal theme, her hometown, where she has lived for most of her 65 years, excepting two years in Washington, D.C., as a teen and a year in the Faroe Islands in her 20s, with her anthropologist ex-husband. The novel is a portrait — almost a still life — of the city in the 1950s, revolving around a dreamy girl and her intellectual, worldly parents. Not coincidentally, Kaysen grew up among the academics and artists of Cambridge, too, the eccentric characters who socialized with her mother and her economist father, Carl Kaysen, a highly respected professor first at Harvard, then at MIT.
But even though “Cambridge” is heavily autobiographical (the young heroine’s name is Susanna), it is fiction, a decision Kaysen made to help her in the writing process — a kind of “water torture,” she says, that took her eight years: “I didn’t want to be hampered by the fact that my memory was not reliable, especially the early memories. I felt a great obligation to be scrupulous about my memories with ‘Girl, Interrupted.’ I really didn’t want to fudge that. And although I changed a few things to muddle identification, as far as I can tell I was very much being truthful about what happened. I didn’t want that constraint here.”
Calling “Cambridge” fiction, she says, enabled her to invent an Indian music teacher named Vishwa, for example, and build a romantic story line around him. Vishwa, she writes in the book, wore the “full Cambridge uniform” — khakis and a white shirt — and he lived at the juncture of Concord Avenue and Garden Street.
“My parents, though, they’re pretty accurate in the book,” she says, a laugh breaking — “but they’re not here to protest.” Her mother died in 1990, her father in 2010. She says her father was “surprised” by “Girl, Interrupted,” in which she calls her family “crazy,” “but I think he warmed up to it.” He is featured prominently in “Cambridge,” as a busy, moody, and intensely smart man.
Desser says Kaysen and her formidable father — who also worked with President Kennedy on national security from 1961-63 — were extremely close. “I think she always wanted to do good in his eyes,” she says, “but on her own terms.” Desser says both Kaysens shared a fierce quality: “I see commonalities in them, in their intellectual purity. Susanna hates bad grammar. She shouts and gets riled. There’s a kind of straight arrowness and no bull about both of them.”
Kaysen’s version of that observation: “My father was judgmental and kind of mean and I’m like that. And he was very perfectionistic, and I’m like that. And he was very hard on himself, and I’m like that.”
Novelist Claire Messud, one of Kaysen’s close friends, and one of her only literary friends, says Kaysen is a perfect person to write about Cambridge. “In some way, Susanna is like Alice Munro,” she says, “in that she knows this place to bedrock. She knows this place through her own experience, and she has come to know the history of it before she was alive.”
And, indeed, sitting in Hi-Rise, Kaysen notes that it was once the liquor store where her father would buy wine every week when she was a kid. She says she constantly observes how much the city has changed, and how little it is like the “cozy” Cambridge she portrays in “Cambridge.”
“When I look around, I see all this stuff that used to be here, the first landscape overlaid with these new landscapes. In Harvard Square, those new landscapes change every year because nobody seems to understand how to manage Harvard Square anymore. The stores that go there don’t seem to work. A few do, but there’s a lot of turnover.”
Why is she still in Cambridge, where, she jokes, she will die? “It’s home,” she says, again laughing. “ I may hate it, but I love it.”
“Cambridge” is the first of a few planned books about her hometown, she says: “The later volumes will widen the scope to a less child-o-centric and a less me-o-centric universe. But I’ll be writing from the grave — because I’m so slow!”
Which brings us to an important bit of information about Kaysen. She writes her books on a typewriter, which is one of those push-button thingies from the pre-computer era. She got a computer recently at Desser’s request — “She still hates me for that,” Desser says — but she rarely uses it. In fact, Desser has to call her to tell her to read an e-mail she sent.
Desser believes the typewriter plays a role in Kaysen’s concise prose style. “Sometimes people who write on computers, you feel like they are just typing. When you have to type and retype as she does, there’s a kind of precision there.”
Kaysen says she works “word by word,” and that she doesn’t concentrate on plotline. And indeed, “Cambridge” doesn’t have a book-length arc so much as a coming-of-age undercurrent. “The demand for an end, the demand for shape, is not always to be met,” she says. “That is one satisfaction to get from a story or from a book, but it’s not the only satisfaction, and it’s not the only kind of story or book. Not everything has a happy ending, and not everything has an ending. Some things just kind of dribble away or cut off abruptly.”
And then, of course, the laugh: “I tell myself these things!”
Another important tidbit: Kaysen did not go to college. Yes, the author of “Cambridge,” whose father was an academic luminary in a city known for higher education, is self-educated.
“When I lived in the Faroe Islands, I went to college, essentially, because there wasn’t anything to do and it was dark all the time,” she says. “So I read all of Eliot, all of Dickens, all of Austen. I gave myself a great literature course, sitting there in the tundra.”
Messud says she imagines Kaysen’s youth was something like that of Virginia Woolf: “There was erudition around her in the home, and she was a voracious reader from an early age. There was a way in which education was happening regardless. School was an unnecessary inconvenience. When you could ditch it, you ditched it.”
Getting ready to leave the bakery, which was once a liquor store, Kaysen says that in her house growing up, “It was kind of a horror that I didn’t go to college.”
And then, once again, the laugh: “It was great!”