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Tennis Lessons: Questions With Susannah Dickey

Dublin Book Festival sat down with Susannah Dickey to ask all your burning questions as part of our #AskanAuthor series. Read on below to hear her answers.

Make sure to tune into The New Novelists: A Podcast with Róisín Ingle on December 4th to hear more from Susannah as part of #DBF2020!

Kate O’Grady: How did you find the process of writing a novel in the second person, and have you any advice for writing from this perspective?

I’m really interested in narrative and mimesis – if mimesis is something we should even be striving for in writing, or whether it’s so glaringly unobtainable as to be like asking mayonnaise to be sun cream.

In that sense, I wonder how slightly more experimental (if there even is such a thing – I’m probably using ‘experimental’ as a synonym for ‘less familiar’) modes can be a self-conscious affront to mimetic aspirations (of course, for them to be an affront requires the assumption that any piece of literature is striving for mimesis, which again, is something I’m not sure of). When writing a novel that looks at trauma and self-alienation and uncertainty, you’re constantly thinking about how to capture the inherent complexities of that, without making it seem like you think it’s simple, or uncomplicated, (and look, I just slipped into the second person because of my own uncertainties) and a very conspicuous narrative style seemed appropriate.

As a style less common, less immediately familiar, in the novel form, the second person demands to be acknowledged, and in this way the novel seems to want to tell you of its novelness. The second person in any permutation can achieve a simultaneous distance and propinquity – in its deixis the reader has to decide where the character is in relation to this ‘you’, and where they themselves are. The ‘you’ is not them, but could it be them? If it’s not them, they have to constantly assert and then reassert this, rather than be subsumed by the ‘you you you’.

In writing it, I did get a little subsumed, and it was a discomfiting experience, but also probably the experience that was required to be able to write it at all. If I were to have any advice, and I’m so reticent to ever give advice, because it seems a bit like asking Paul the World Cup octopus to give advice, then I’d say if the second person is purely a stylistic choice, if there aren’t any stakes in it for you, if you’re not risking anything by writing in this mode, then why are you doing it?

Lauren Harris: Do you have a preference for writing poetry or prose?

I’m so suspicious of writing poetry. I’m certainly not feeling any more than anyone else in the world, but I’ve chosen to afford myself the privilege of expressing what people not writing poetry almost certainly also feel, but don’t commit to paper. Is there not a certain hubris in that? But also, I can’t pretend to really know what I’m doing. Writing poetry always feels like a bit of a fool’s errand. My approaches to poetry and prose probably aren’t especially different, but prose has a comforting topography – it has visual legitimacy. A reader is maybe more forgiving of that topogaphy, more willing to suspend suspicion. (I can certainly be suspicious of the poetry I’m reading.)

Maybe the act of writing is just illuminating what’s already there. Maybe what’s there is always there, but in poetry and prose we’re revealing less or more of it. Maybe that’s not true at all, but anyway.

In Tennis Lessons the vignette structure was a very conscious decision because I’m always thinking about what’s happening in the places where there are no words (in prose we might assume that what’s happening in the no-word places is the characters are going to the toilet or the post office or the key cutter’s, but we don’t assume that of the no-word places in poetry – why is that?)

Possibly all poetry is some kind of ratio of lyric to narrative. That’s true of my prose too, and the ratio probably doesn’t change that much. It seems so disrespectful to ‘poetry’ (which I’m picturing as a kind of Amazon river dolphin – all flesh-coloured and corpulent and tactile and looming and horrible) to say that my approach to it is prose without line breaks (and I wouldn’t even be convincing myself if I did say that) but also to suggest that writing poetry is some kind of sacred, ineffable pursuit seems ludicrous and grandiose.

Ultimately, maybe I prefer poetry for the same reason that I decidedly don’t prefer poetry, and the reason is that it strikes me as an absolutely mad thing to be at.