Ask The Author: Susan Rukeyser

Susan Rukeyser’s work, “Hiccup”, appears in the London Calling Special Issue. We especially love her answer in regards to the question, “How do you cure hiccups?”

1. What has the sea brought you?
 
The Irish Sea once brought me a view of the Isle of Man that changed everything: I’d flown there many times, but this was my first approach by sea, and alone. Mist parted, and the ancient rock rose up from waves.  Finally I felt its magic. 
 
2. How do you cure hiccups?
 
In this story, hiccups are a symptom of the narrator’s missed opportunities and his alienation.  These feelings have assumed control.  Hiccups represent his fear of free will and his own voice.  They’ve become his most marked characteristic and his bondage.  Personally, I get hiccups from eating raw carrots.  They go away if I hold my breath long enough.  Failing that, my recommended cure is: Be reckless.  Screw up badly.  Hope for better.  Reject convention and avoid, whenever possible, the word “should.”  Travel.  Let me repeat that: Travel.  Outside your own country.  Amongst people who speak and think differently.  Question everything.  Liberate yourself from the fear of doing It wrong.  And by It, I mean anything.  Put yourself where you want to be.  Dare.
 
3. How does regional slang affect the interpretation of a story?
 
Ah, regional slang is dicey.  Done poorly, it can torpedo the reader’s faith in the author and/or elicit jeers.  I attempted it here because of the intensity of the time I spent in Lancashire.  Dissecting language for my graduate writing degree, I listened hard to the voices around me.  I was the only student from outside the UK, and my course mates gave me tremendous shit whenever I tried adopting their syntax or slang.  As a result, I listened harder.  It takes a light touch and some humility, useful skills in almost every situation.  In this story, my narrator must dwell convincingly in his lifelong home, Morecambe.  I found my way inside his character, in part, through his voice.
 
4. What is your most annoying quirk?
 
When I’m overtired, I tend to adopt an atrocious, generic English accent.  This is all the more annoying because I ought to be able to come up with something better, considering the time I spent there, listening hard to various regional accents.  Nevertheless, I hope to add to my repertoire appalling Irish and embarrassing Scottish accents.  Considering I’ve got a mostly featureless American voice, vaguely Mid-Atlantic, and I currently live in the Deep South, accents fascinate me.  Accents can be bonds between neighbors, or calling cards for travelers, but for those of us who’ve moved all over, settling far from where we began, they can be isolating.  Even in this country, some will assume your background based solely on the sound of your voice.  An accent can be a barrier between you and a place you don’t belong. 
 
5. What business would you like to own?
 
I owned what I thought was my dream business, a tiny used bookstore, and eleven years on, I’m still not quite over the ordeal.  Turns out: It’s fantastically easy to lose money!  To be sure, through those doors walked the inspiration for several characters in my as-yet-unpublished novel.  If literary material is your goal, I highly recommend hanging your shingle in a depressed area.  Keep your lights blazing and your doors open long after dark.  Provide comfy chairs for loiterers. 
 
That said, I think I could be very happy owning a Custom Decorated Cakes business (I can’t cook worth a damn but I’m pretty handy with fondant.)  My specialty would be a History of Bad-Ass Women, because I’ve found that cake is a terrific way to get people around a table and listening, at least until they get a slice.  As I write this, I’m already imagining how I’d construct the likes of Margaret Sanger, Betty Friedan, and Sandra Day O’Connor (the robe would make her an absolute cinch.)  Gloria Steinem would be my signature cake, and I’d put in as many hours as it took to get those 70s-era aviators just right.
 
6. Why did you write “Hiccup”?
 
A few years back, severed feet kept washing up on beaches in British Columbia.  Writer’s gold.  I wondered, How might one lonely, disappointed man react, if the sea brought him something like that, something extraordinary?  Would he understand the gift?  Would he see the opportunity?  And while it might not seem as though this character does, there is significance in the offering he makes of it.  There remains in this defeated modern man a shred of the animal. 
 
I wanted to offer a nod to Morecambe, which I came to know during my time at Lancaster.  The place felt rather rudely abandoned.  The theme park was all but dismantled.  Strings of multi-colored lights still hung from the lampposts, although I understand they’re gone now.  It was I who remarked, “she’s like a stubborn old whore, long out of favor, still painting herself up.” While my course mates found this amusing and apt, I knew these words didn’t sound quite right in my voice.  Fiction gave me the opportunity to put them in another person’s mouth, someone “allowed language strong as this.” 
 
This setting also provided an easy opportunity to include the Isle of Man, so relatively nearby.  I’d long wanted to feature the island in a story, but was intimidated by the challenge, met so ably by writers over the years, including my great-great-grandfather, the Manx novelist Sir Hall Caine.  The Isle of Man is the home of my grandparents and countless generations of ancestors, and it’s where my mother grew up.  Despite my American voice, the Isle of Man is very much a place I identify as home.  One of my homes.  I’m an outsider there as anywhere, but I try to take my own advice: I dare.

  • My book. Same theme. Much longer. I will forward this to my wife who reads fiction. I appreciate the style, but question the hyphens. Good luck. (Bev is a friend.)

  • Deborah Jacobs

    This is such a great interview. I love your closing thoughts on the Isle of Mann, being an outsider, etc. You’re amazing!