Midwestern Gothic staffer Jo Chang talked with author Susan Hahn about her book Losing Beck, the temporality of all things, the peacefulness of writing, and more.
Jo Chang: What’s your connection to the Midwest?
Susan Hahn: I have always lived in the Chicago area. I was born in Chicago at Henrotin Hospital—a place which no longer exists—and spent the first nine years of my life living in my grandparents’ apartment in West Rogers Park with my parents and other family members.
JC: As an Illinois resident, how has the Midwest shaped your development as a writer, if at all? Do you draw inspiration from the place you grew up in?
SH: Absolutely. I think those early years spent in West Rogers Park affects so much of what I write. That crowded apartment, with my grandparents being immigrants from Russia (just about the whole neighborhood at the time was made up of immigrants from Russia or Germany) and World War II having just concluded, with many of the older members in the community having lost relatives, most definitely had an effect on me as a small child. From an early age I had the feeling of temporality about all things—animate and inanimate.
JC: Can you speak about your experience working at the Woodlawn Mental Health Center as a group therapist, and how you managed to incorporate art and writing into your practice?
SH: I had been at the University of Chicago on a PhD program in educational psychology but knew I was in the wrong field and asked the placement office to help me find a position. They did, with a job at the Woodlawn Mental Health Center. There I was a researcher for a psychiatrist affiliated with the University—mostly I went into schools gathering information for a project they were working on. I knew this wasn’t quite right for me either and I enrolled in a year long program at Forest Hospital (another place which no longer exists) in Des Plaines and became certified as a group therapist. It was actually there that I saw how to use creativity to reach deep emotions.
I finally ended up at the Gestalt Institute of Chicago in a program involving the use of art in therapy—another year long program. However, half way through it one of the directors read a poem of mine and said some life changing words to me. She said, “If you just wrote this, go home, shut the door and become more the poet you are.” (I have to add that another person there, of some authority, said my work would never be published.) What to do? I chose to go with what felt intuitively right!
JC: Your work with TriQuarterly literary magazine has spanned more than two decades. How have your roles as both editor and co-editor in chief impacted the development of your craft, if at all?
SH: There was an irony to being Editor of TriQuarterly and Co-editor of TriQuarterly Books because I am a very slow reader. I avoided English classes in college because I knew that books took me a long time to read—I’d examine every sentence I didn’t quite understand, always asking if it worked. So with thousands of manuscripts a year coming in I had to develop ways to get through them. It soon became clear to me that I knew I had to publish something if I almost held my breath reading it, hoping that the author would not mess up the story or the poem by its conclusion. And, I was known for calling writers, asking them what exactly they meant or were intending with a particular phrase or paragraph or stanza. I would, however, only do this if I intended to accept their work and just need further clarification. I know I learned from this and I think the writers did too—at least I hope they did.
JC: Your book Losing Beck explores the intersection of art, passion and history spanning from 1912 Paris, the two World Wars, and the present. What was your inspiration for Losing Beck, and did writing it require much historical research? If so, how did you begin the process?
SH: Again, back to my experiences at TriQuarterly and TriQuarterly Books. There were a few writers (mostly female) who would get close to panic as their work was about to be published and want to withdraw it, fearing that what they wrote, when published would ruin their careers, or a relationship—that someone would identify it to be about “him” or “her” and that there would be repercussions. This reaction affected me and troubled me deeply. As a result, some of the female characters in Losing Beck, most especially Jennie Silver and Christiane Juul, confront this issue and it forms an important part of the book.
In addition, I did do a lot of historical research. I read extensively about Nijnsky’s life and watched videos of his dances. Also, I took a class at the University of Chicago about the poetry that came out of the trenches of World War I. I needed that one poet and that one poem for the narrative and toward the end of the class I found him and it. Much of what shaped Losing Beck came from this singular poem. Also, there was a lot of fact checking when it came to historical events and the ages of my characters – the need that they be in sync with certain events in history. I had several rough timelines. Finally, it was interesting to me that for all my reading and research, how much just singular details I learned about captivated me and helped give form to the book.
JC: The main character Jennie Silver channels her emotions into writing as a way to manage her conflicting desire and repulsion for a certain individual in her life. As someone who understands the ability of art to bring peace to people in times of need, does writing also serve a cathartic purpose for you?
For me writing is the most peaceful, centered place I can be, even when I’m dealing with difficult emotional subjects. So yes, it is cathartic and ever so life giving.
JC: Do you have any advice for up and coming writers?
SH: My advice would be don’t be afraid to put it on the page. You can always cut it back or take it further—embellish it. But don’t be afraid to write it. Just put it down, think about it, and strengthen its power.
However, if what you’ve written doesn’t fit with your larger manuscript or you are truly uncomfortable with it, put it in a drawer or somewhere you can find it for later use. Clearly, what you’ve written has some meaning for you—the time to include it just might not be right in the present time.
JC: What’s next for you?
SH: While waiting this past winter for the copy-edited pages for Losing Beck I became tremendously restless and realized there was another book I wanted/needed to write. It sort of insisted on being given voice. So I wrote it rather quickly—I honored it. Now it is finished and I think I will soon send it into the world for others to weigh in on it. Whatever happens, it exists in solid form and, as its only reader so far, I am excited about it. So for now, before Losing Beck appears in December, I rest….!
Susan Hahn is the author of nine books of poetry, two produced plays and two novels.
Her second novel, Losing Beck, was published in December 2018. Among her awards and honors for writing are a Guggenheim Fellowship, Pushcart Prizes or Special Mentions in fiction and poetry, The Society of Midland Authors Award, a Jeff Recommendation, and selection as the inaugural writer-in residence at The Hemingway Foundation.