Former Iowa City resident explores our bodies in newest collection

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Susan McCarty’s short story collection “Anatomies” is filled with striking stories told in a variety of forms. Each investigates the ways in which our bodies define and betray us.

McCarty read from her new book Jan. 29 at Prairie Lights in Iowa City.

In an interview conducted via email, the Iowa City native discusses her childhood in Iowa and the creation of her collection.

How did your life in Iowa contribute to your desire to be a writer?

I grew up in Iowa City. I left when I was 18 to go to college in Massachusetts, but I return all the time, maybe too often. I’ve moved a lot in my adult life and because of that I still consider Iowa City my true home.

Growing up in Iowa City, the influence of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop was of course foundational in my growth as a writer. I remember MFA students used to do outreach at Northwest Junior High in our language arts classes. I got to see Kurt Vonnegut speak at the Iowa Memorial Union when I was in high school. There was always something going on around town. The presence of the workshop shows us, as a community, that creative writing is culturally valuable and, in fact, urgently necessary in a time of declining support for the arts in education.

And this influence extends beyond the boundaries of the program itself. There was an amazing poet on custodial staff at West High when I was a student there, and I worked with writers in every job I had in Iowa City, from restaurant work to lifeguarding. This is a rare thing and I think it instilled in me, very early on, the belief that writing could be a part of my life, no matter what I chose to do, career-wise. As an adult, I’ve met a lot of writers who came to think of themselves as writers in spite of their families or their communities, but in Iowa City, writing was always a source of pride and community identity.

Did you know from the beginning that you were writing a collection of thematically connected stories or did the connections only become clear after you had several stories completed?

I wrote the stories over several years and only when I sat down to compile them for my dissertation did I see that I was very much stuck on this body theme. After I realized that, I became more purposeful in my writing and wrote toward that specific theme.

I had been playing around with ordering and titling the collection for a long time, when Carissa Halston at Aforementioned Productions saw some work online and contacted me. She was able to order and title the collection, finally, and give it the finishing structural help and thematic unity that really makes it feel like a complete collection.

What drives the diversity of form? Were you specifically interested in trying out different narrative approaches or did the shape of each story develop organically in the writing?

Like many writers, on a basic level writing is about play for me, and what is play but diverting the self from the abyss of boredom. Writing is the most rewarding for me when it feels like solving a problem or a puzzle. In some ways, my interest in formal experimentation comes from not wanting to be bored with my own writing, from wanting to challenge myself.

Many of the stories in “Anatomies” suggested themselves as forms and narratives at roughly the same time. “Anamnesis,” for instance, suggested itself when I was at a doctor’s office filling out forms and started to think about the medical narrative as narrative, as story. I wondered what it would be like to tell a story through this form, without being able to rely on dialogue or interiority or the other tools that stories traditionally use to effect emotion and empathy in a reader.

At the time, I was a student in the creative writing Ph.D. program at the University of Utah — a wonderful place that encourages the study and practice of experimentation — and living with an experimental writer, Matthew Kirkpatrick, who is now my husband. So I was more or less immersed in experimentation.

What are you working on now?

I’m almost finished with a draft of a novel set during the 2008 flood and housing market crisis in Eastern Iowa. In it, I explore the ways in which the protagonists of the novel, two estranged high school friends haunted by nostalgia, make all kinds of bad decisions in an attempt to find or forge a home for themselves.

After that, I’m turning back to a non-fiction project I’ve been thinking about for a long time, which will combine my interest in living spaces and work. Essay, for me, is more about the journey than the destination, so it’s always a little difficult for me to say what my non-fiction is “about” until it’s drafted.

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