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"We Shouldn't Criminalize the Victim": An Interview with Susan Neville

Susan Neville won the Flannery O'Connor Award for Short Fiction and the Richard Sullivan Prize for her collections of short fiction. She is the author of four books of creative nonfiction, including Fabrication and Sailing the Inland Sea,‚Äč and she teaches at Butler University in Indianapolis and the Warren Wilson MFA for Writers.

Her story, "Game Night," appeared in Issue of The Collagist.

Here, Susan Neville talks with interviewer William Hoffacker about parenting, switching between genres, and needle exchange programs.

What can you tell us about the origins of your story “Game Night”? What sparked the initial idea and caused you to start writing the first draft?

Several years ago I was reading the Indianapolis Star and came across an article about the HIV epidemic in Scotts County, Indiana, an epidemic triggered by the problem of opioids and cheap heroin. At the time the story seemed so impossible, almost uncanny. Meth? Oxycontin? Sure. You’ve watched Justified, right? There are similarities. But heroin in the rural Midwest was a new story, and the sheer number of addictions and the sudden rapid spread of the virus seemed from another time. It defamiliarized this place for me, a place I’ve lived in all my life. It felt like the first time I read Angels in America, like the 80s felt somehow. Anyway, while the CDC was tracking the epidemic and sounding an alarm and in most of the world alarms have been sounding for decades, Indiana’s conservative legislature and governor were opposed to needle exchange programs. That was the initial spark.

The article also quoted a long-time resident of Scottsburg who was astounded by the sight of women prostituting themselves for drugs, walking up and down the streets of a town where it’s unusual to see very many people at all. I immediately pictured the women as dolls and started writing a series of stories about the place and the epidemic through that initial uncanny vision. “Game Night” is one of the stories.

Your story’s form has a few unusual qualities that stand out right away: a title for each section, use of the second person, and the conceit that the whole text is a set of instructions for playing a game. What made you decide that this story had to be presented in this unconventional way?

Probably the story that influenced my writing more than any other is William Gass’s “In the Heart of the Heart of the Country,” so a pastiche with titles seems more like a story to me than a straight narrative. I go back to that story over and over.

I began thinking about images of needles and the game metaphor came later in the process. I think it grew out of a sentence in fact, though I’m not sure which one. I pictured the town and a mother terrified for her child, wanting the child to simply stay alive. Perhaps, she thinks, if she approaches it ironically and makes it like a normal family thing, a game night, she won’t push the child away. I remember when my kids were young joking with other mothers about teaching  kids to drive while drunk. If you imagine the worst thing that can happen maybe you can helicopter your way in as a parent and teach them how to safely do the thing you’re terrified they’re going to do no matter what you say. Please don’t do it! you’re saying to them, but if you do do it, don’t share needles and please use this condom, and do it so it doesn’t hurt you or anyone else, etc. etc. It’s perhaps not the best parenting method in the world, but this mother has seen her friend’s children die and feels out of options and angry and a bit sarcastic.

I found the section “How to Play” particularly difficult to read, as it seems like you did not pull any punches in your descriptions of needles, veins, blood, etc. Was it difficult for you to write about the gruesome details, and did you consider holding anything back? Were you ever afraid that the subject matter and your treatment of it might turn away some readers (or, conversely, that your story might give readers some pointers that they could actually put to use)? For that matter, who is your intended audience for this story?

Hmm, good question. Weirdly enough, it wasn’t hard to write this. I did some research, but in that section I was just trying really hard to imagine what it would feel like to inject heroin and all I could think of was getting blood drawn and how some phlebotomists are so much better at it than others.

The only intended audience I thought of consciously was the daughter this mother is speaking to. I was trying to channel her. I don’t know if my recipe for injecting could be followed, though. I’ve never baked that particular cake. I assume that anyone who has the drugs wouldn’t need the directions and that directions wouldn’t make you look for the drugs. I don’t know. It’s what the mother thinks, anyway, and she just wants her daughter to know where she can find needles, for instance, instead of sharing them. She wants to teach her to make the stick correctly so she won’t try doing it a second time and overdose.

If I think about it, though, the audience is people who are against needle exchanges or vote for politicians who are. I wanted to make the argument that we shouldn’t criminalize the victim. So maybe Mike Pence is my intended audience?

You are an author of both fiction and nonfiction. What lessons have you learned from one genre that you’ve been able to apply to the other?

I write a lot of short stories that work like essays written by a fictional character and a lot of essays that read like short stories. I’ve learned that the form and techniques are almost interchangeable. It’s the intent that’s usually different. The biggest thing I’ve learned from doing both, though, is that when you get stuck in one genre you can move to the other and get unstuck. I think you surprise your controlling inner editor when you do that.  The nonfiction that interests me are pieces by Susan Orlean and Tom Wolfe and David Foster Wallace and John McPhee and Indiana writers like Michael Martone and Scott Sanders, writers who combine journalism and poetry into a nonfiction stew. Nonfiction has been the thing that gets me out of my office and classroom and house, out into places I wouldn’t normally go. It lets me try out ideas. It’s a press pass to interesting things. Fiction lets me try out being other people. One feeds the other.

What writing projects are you working on now?

I’m still working on the collection of stories that “Game Night” is part of. I’ve never written a collection this intentionally. I like thinking "oh I need more dolls" so I’ve got to shift the lens in the next story or in the case of this story, "I need the actual experience of the needles." It’s like knowing a painting needs a little more red or that you’ve not paid enough attention to one angle of a sculpture.

What have you read recently that you’d like to recommend?

So much. I read Laila Lalami’s The Moor’s Account a year ago and am still thinking about it. The same with Karen Russell’s Vampires in the Lemon Grove. As is true of so many, I was obsessed with Elena Ferrante’s books last spring and Hanya Nagitahara’s People in the Trees. And I’m always re-reading Willa Cather and Iris Murdoch, endless sources of wisdom and joy.

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