Sara Greenslit's novel, As If a Bird Flew By Me, was published by FC2 for winning the Sukenick/ABR Innovative Fiction Award. Her first novel, The Blue of Her Body, won the Starcherone Innovative Fiction Award. She is a small animal veterinarian, from Madison, WI.
Her essay, "Vertigo Suite No. 1," appeared in Issue Eighty-Six of The Collagist.
Here, Sara Greenslit talks with interviewer William Hoffacker about illness narratives, brevity, and dizziness.
What can you tell us about the origins of your essay “Vertigo Suite No. 1”? What sparked the initial idea and caused you to start writing the first draft?
I had come down with sudden vertigo in ‘05 that appeared it wasn’t going anywhere; it got better over time, but it never vanished. I wanted to try to understand it by trying to explain it. The suite is part of a longer piece, all in short sections, about my definitions of vertigo, with snippets of how dizziness changed my veterinary career, with asides into neuroanatomy.
This suite consists of three very brief pieces, the longest of which is still under 300 words. Is it a challenge for you to write with such concision? Does it require a lot of revision and/or restraint to achieve this economy of language?
I have such a hard time writing longer pieces! I find myself getting giddy when I reach a couple thousand words. My MFA was in poetry, and I’m an introvert so maybe one is related to the other?
I do tend to trim and trim back to the bones the best I can. I write in bursts, collect them, then sort and edit. I love a good thesaurus, I love intermittent internal rhyme.
I noticed that much of your essay is in the present tense, even when it breeds odd phrases such as “When it begins eleven years ago,” and I was also aware of some vacillations between first and second person, a switch from “When I’m tired” to “as you succumb to gravity.” Can you speak about how you make artful decisions about matters of time, tense, point of view, etc. when writing quite lyrically about your own experience?
Because the dizziness is long-term, and when I have a more severe relapse, time tends to bend—present tense makes sense: am I always going to be dizzy? am I in the hole again, until I am not?
I have some trepidation of writing first person illness narratives; I get worried it becomes all too narrow. Second person gives me some space.
The decisions now seems made instinctually. I can’t say I made concrete decisions until closer to final edits.
Your novels blend fiction and nonfiction, and you also write poetry. Do you generally know the genre of a piece before you start writing it? How does your work in one genre inform the others?
That’s a tough question. Most of the time, things evolve as the writing goes on. I’ll come to a Q like: I can’t really seem to pull off writing 1st POV in a historical novel sense, so why don’t I jut over here and use the original historical documents transcribed online?, and then while filtering through these, a present day character arises and seems to have a connection to this older time period. A tendril from one, out of the other. That’s why I love research: it sparks things you didn’t know yet that will absorb you.
What writing projects are you working on now?
I’m working on a collection of essays about illness and art and ecology. I wanted to push myself into longer form and into a newer genre for me. It’s hard work and a little scary.
What have you read recently that you’d like to recommend?
The Soul of an Octopus: A Surprising Exploration into the Wonder of Conscious by Sy Montgomery.