The Weight of an Object

Kathryn Scanlan and Sarah Rose Etter

In Conversation

Fifteen years ago, Kathryn Scanlan found a stranger’s five-year diary at an estate auction in a small town in Illinois. The owner of the diary was eighty-six years old when she began recording the details of her life in the small book. The diary was falling apart—water-stained and illegible in places—but magnetic to Scanlan nonetheless. After reading and rereading the diary, studying and dissecting it, for the next fifteen years she played with the sentences that caught her attention, cutting, editing, arranging, and rearranging them into the composition that became Aug 9—Fog (she chose the title from a note that was tucked into the diary). Scanlan joined Sarah Rose Etter, author of The Book of X, at The Bindery to discuss the unique process of bringing this book to life.

Sarah Rose Etter: Congratulations on the book. It looks so gorgeous, it’s a nice object to hold.

I want to start at the beginning because I know you found the original diary at an estate sale, and I wondered what initially drew you to that object. I always picture estate sales as cramped spaces where all sorts of crazy things are happening, where there are tons of objects. So I was curious about that moment you first got to touch this, open it, and have it.

Kathryn Scanlan: I believe I found it first when I was living with my parents, in their home. They’re antique dealers and we would go out every day to auctions. When I wrote the introductory note to this book that might have been how it happened—that I went to an auction and got it, but it also might have been that my dad brought it home in a box of things that were going to be thrown out. I tried to talk to my parents and none of us could remember exactly. It wasn’t a thing where I saw it and it was that thing, it wasn’t magnetic to me as it later became. I had it for a while before I really started to want to do something with it.

Etter: It’s interesting that your father’s an antique dealer.

Scanlan: Both of my parents are.

Etter: That lines up. So you’ve always been surrounded by these historic objects that carry weight?

Scanlan: Not my whole life. They actually didn’t start working as antiques dealers until I was eighteen. But I’d been interested in that kind of stuff for years before then.

Etter: So how long did you have it before you started to read it and obsess over it? Fifteen years?

Scanlan: It was 2004 when I got it. I think I had it for a year. I have a lot of things in my desk drawers. I used to make a lot of visual art, so I’d have these objects around. I would take them out and surround myself with them and try to figure out what to do with them. It started to be one of those things that I would take out and look at, but I wasn’t really sure what I wanted to do with it.

I started to think about working with it as a text project around 2008. I originally made a text from it that was much different, that had kind of the opposite sensibility of this book. It was a run-on document where I put all the sentences together in a block of text. I sent it to Diane Williams at NOON and she wanted to publish it. That was my way of testing whether anyone else would be interested in this besides just me. So that was an early encouragement. But after it came out in NOON, I still felt like I wanted to do something else with it. So I started thinking about making it into a book. I knew from the beginning I wanted the book to be spare and do the opposite of what I originally did.

Etter: In the process of taking something that was so fleshed out and turning it into something so stripped down—I’m curious what the editing process looked like for you and how different these lines are from the original lines. There is a poetics to this that feels like Anne Carson. It makes me think about great art books, especially in its presentation. There’s more of a weight to it. Tell me a little bit about editing down, what was it like to go from maximum to minimum?

Scanlan: The original diary is almost 400 pages long. Very dense. She filled every space, including the space for addresses. What is in the book is a very, very small fraction of what is in the diary. I started out with this document that I typed up from reading it and then slowly started to whittle those down. Once I started making the individual pages, I started to mess with the text more—cutting up certain sentences, combining others, trying to emphasize what I felt like was already happening in her voice in the diary, to push that choppy, abbreviated, very particular use of language I was interested in.

Etter: The other question I had was about arc because I feel like with each of these pieces, there’s a nice arc. They each end with an impact and the book also follows this trajectory. How much of this followed what was initially in her diary and how much was a rearrangement of things that had occurred?

Scanlan: It was a definite rearrangement. The things that ended up being in here are from all of the different years, not in any chronological order. The death that happens in this book happened in 1970 in the diary, and that happened to be the most legible year. The last year was pretty unreadable. I felt that that was the main event, this death in the family, and it really affected me when I was reading it and later when I was writing it.

Etter: It’s very striking that the handwriting is clearer in that grief stricken period.

Scanlan: I don’t think the writing was clearer, the later years were the ones that had water damage. I can still read some of it.

Etter: I was going to say something so poetic about grief making things more legible. Totally shot my foot. Now this is a question I have coming from a journalism background: what does it mean for fiction to take a real life and remix it, scramble it, and fine tune it into something that becomes non-real? What is it like to play with that?

If you are only showing part of something, it’s fiction.

Scanlan: A little bit weird. From the beginning, I felt like it was a weird thing I was doing. I don’t necessarily think it’s any particular genre, I think it has elements of all genres. I think it can be called fiction and I would call it that because of the way it’s been selected. If you are only showing part of something, it’s fiction. If you’re omitting lots of things, or if you’re focusing on only something particular, it’s fiction in my mind.

Etter: I think most journalists would probably agree with that definition—maybe not our president. What you said was interesting—feeling weird about doing this project, like going through someone’s underwear drawer. How would you continue to go back to it? Did she become sort of a friend to you?

Scanlan: Yes, she was a friend in the way that I was reading about her life. I mean, I didn’t know her, I didn’t know anything about her life except what was in that book. Like I say in the introduction, I’m cognizant of the fact that she’s a person who lived and died, but I created her, to some extent, in my head. It sort of felt like I was having a conversation with her at times. But for the most part, I was just interested in this document, loving her use of language. I kept coming back to the fact that I found her diary so moving and effecting. I felt like I needed to do this because I wanted to share it.

Etter: And you have an essay out in The Paris Review about meeting her family. I would love to hear about what that was like and how it started, the whole story.

Scanlan: I haven’t met them face-to-face. I had tried to look the diarist up in the past, but I couldn’t find anything online. I had thought maybe an obituary or something, but I never found anything. But I tried again last year before the book came out, and this time, I found something on this website called, and some of her family members are interested in genealogy, so they had made this site where they posted a photo of her grave, and they’re linked to the graves of all of her family members, many who are mentioned in her diary. She’s talking about them, but she’s not telling us—not telling me, not telling anyone who’s reading—who these people are and how they’re related to her. I ended up messaging one of the people who made that page. I sent her some books and a scan of the original diary. And now they’re all reading it, but from a very different perspective, trying to figure out who died when, mostly for genealogy purposes.

Etter: That’s really incredible. Does it feel different now?

Scanlan: Yes, it does. The diarist is much more real than she was. In the essay, I say I don’t know I would’ve made this book without the essential mystery of her, not knowing anything about her. But I’m glad that I found them.

Etter: It’s interesting to think it’s taken on more life with less information. And now it’s even bigger than it was. It keeps respawning for you, going through cycles. First it’s big, then little, and now it’s expanding into a family.

What were you reading or inspired by while you were working on this? Poetry?

Scanlan: When I was first starting to think about making this into a book, I had read A Little White Shadow by Mary Ruefle. I think that world of erasure poetry definitely informs this book.

Etter: I can see that. Have you been a fan of Mary Ruefle for a while?

Scanlan: Yes.

Etter: Now, as you see the book go out into the world and take on a new life, does that change your relationship to it, too?

Scanlan: It feels really strange. It feels like it’s separate from me. It’s been private for years and years and then other people take it over and they evaluate it and spit it out into other people’s hands. It’s a whole new life. That’s a strange feeling, too, but inevitable, I guess.

It’s been private for years and years and then other people take it over and they evaluate it and spit it out into other people’s hands. It’s a whole new life.

Etter: You have a short story collection coming out next year. I was curious how different it felt to work on those stories. Were you working on them at the same time or did you use two totally separate brains?

Scanlan: I was working on them at the same time. They helped each other, I think. I would come back to this diary whenever I was stalled or frustrated with the story I was working on. This was something I could just do—move sentences around, cut sentences up, just look at words as objects to manipulate. I would take that back to fiction and do the same thing. This helped me learn to do what I wanted to do with fiction and short stories.

Kathryn Scanlan lives in Los Angeles. Her stories have appeared in NOON, Fence, American Short Fiction, Tin House, Caketrain, and The Iowa Review, among other publications.

Sarah Rose Etter is the author of a short fiction collection, Tongue Party (Caketrain Press), and a novel, The Book of X (Forthcoming from Two Dollar Radio). Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in The Cut, Electric Literature, VICE, Guernica, Philadelphia Weekly, and more. She is the recipient of writing residencies at the Disquiet International Program in Portugal, and the Gullkistan Creative Program in Iceland. In 2018, she was the keynote speaker at the Society for the Study of American Women Writers, where she presented on surrealism in fiction as a mode of feminism.