QUESTIONS FOR SUSIE BRIGHT
Kevin Killian: Susie, I’ve been reading your new book Big Sex Little Death, and marveling about how extraordinary it is. The subject matter is compelling, but really it’s your prose style. You’ve always had your way with words, of course, but here you seem to be in a whole different ballgame.
Susie Bright: Thanks Kevin, truly. Coming from you... one of my early mentors!
Killian: There are so many dramatic moments, some heartbreaking, some sexy, some white-hot with anger. What was your most decisive encounter?
Bright: Hmm, I can’t pick. Writing the Detroit assassin chapter? The “too bad!” mother-daughter drive to death’s door in the Saskatchewan River? Or how about the complete mayhem at the end of On Our Backs (“Art shot Jim? No, Jim shot Art.” and— “Someday your friend will have a bigger problem than you, and then she won't be able to get rid of you fast enough.”)
Truly, the most decisive moment was deciding to write this memoir in the first place.
I’m glad you mentioned the white-hot part; no one else has said that. But sometimes I think that's the only reason I get up in the morning.
Killian: It isn’t always easy to connect the various struggles fought in this book—enduring a difficult, alcoholic mother—
Bright: My mother didn't drink, that wasn’t her bag. I always wondered about that; because drinking killed many of her immediate family. But my mom's mental health issues were not drug-induced.
Killian: Sorry, enduring a difficult, depressed mother—Turning to socialist activism—then on to the fight against sexual repression. I suppose everything pivots on danger, perhaps danger as an antidote to bourgeois living?
Bright: Yeah, if it wasn't for the PTSD, it’d be just a wonderful growing experience. ;-)
Killian: The experience of publishing On Our Backs, the sex-positive lesbian magazine, must have been a thrill, and yet you walked away from it to bring up your daughter Aretha. That must have a been a difficult decision.
Bright: Hmmm... well, I didn’t make some careful decision. By 1990, two of our distributors had gone bankrupt (kinda like Borders now) writing off their debt to us. It was crippling. The magazine was falling apart financially and we were living on fumes. The lie of sustaining it was destroying us. And working on it 70 hours a week, as if IT were my baby, then picking up Aretha from daycare and feeling like stone brick, I was whipped. I was so tired, I had no patience, it was ugly.
One of my publisher-partners at the time was in very strange, destructive denial and I couldn’t get thru to her, it was like... (plot spoiler!) dealing with my mom in one of her death spirals.
My “plan,” if you could call it that, was to begin interviewing for a new EOC and taking a part-time role, making a year-long agenda of scaling back my hours. But when my partner learned unexpectedly of my private musings, she sued me, drove me out, and there was no “plan” at all. I couldn't believe I wasn’t running OOB. I couldn’t look at another issue of the mag for a few years.
If things had been different, I would’ve much preferred to be a reasonable mommy with a reasonable 40 hour workweek. That’s what I ended up doing, anyway, just as a freelancer. But it crushed me to leave OOB. It was my beloved other “baby.”
Killian: Berkeley vs. Santa Cruz: in a naked mud wrestling contest, which of your home towns would emerge victorious?
Bright: Berkeley is prominent in my memoir because my parents met there, at school, and their lives were transformed by the WWII-and-After period there. Beat poetry, civil rights, linguistics, India, gay life.
But I only lived on McGee Street when I was 2, and then many other spots in the Bay Area in my earliest grade school years. My mom moved us nearly every 12 months. We lived in Los Angeles area for many years, where the Red Tide portion of my memoir is set. I feel like a gen-u-ine fourth-generation Californian, North and South. I have stories about every nook and cranny. But as far as contests go, I hope I live in Santa Cruz forever.
Killian: Your introduction echoes the famous saying of poet Muriel Rukeyser, to the effect that if one woman told the truth about her life, the world would split open. Did you find yourself holding back, concealing, shading? What were the hardest parts of your book to write? (And which the easiest?)
Bright: My longtime Bay Area writing sister/friend, Louise Rafkin, gave me that Rukeyser line when she read one of my early drafts... so many writers inspired this memoir, both living and haunted!
I had writers’ mechanical issues to deal with: “How to Move This Fucker To The End,” fake names for non-public-figures, composite characters when there wasn't room to turn this into War and Peace, etc.
I didn't write about things that happened “yesterday,” in the recent past, because I don’t feel like enough time has passed to understand them the way I’d want to in a poetic memoir.
But the “getting real” aspect of what I did write is no shade or cover... getting real is my religion, when it comes to writing. The hardest part is not kidding yourself, and the best part is that all-over body flooding you feel when you know you got it down right.
Killian: Thank you, Susie Bright!