Suzanne Rivecca, "Someone Steps In"


It’s December 9. Suzanne Rivecca, author of Death Is Not an Option, looks you in the eye when she shakes your hand.

How would you describe your story?

SUZANNE RIVECCA: It’s a collective portrait of female eating disorder sufferers, told in the first-person plural.

When did you write it, and how did the writing process compare to your other work?

SR: I wrote this story in late 2017. I didn’t want to write it, and I hated writing it. This is atypical; usually the writing process holds some kind of joy and playfulness for me even if I’m writing about difficult or personal subjects. But not this time. This is a topic I’ve always stringently avoided in my writing. I thought it had been done to death, and I hated the conventional wisdom regarding eating disorders that posited this universal homogenous trajectory for everyone who dealt with them. I didn’t want to add to that, and I didn’t even want to try to subvert it via a traditional first-person narrative. To do that, I felt, would be to play in to the common interpretation of eating-disordered people: the infantilizing allegations of self-obsession, narcissism, fixation on superficialities and appearance. One day, a friend and I were talking about this; she’d struggled with eating disorders in her past and had recently had a baby, and all her body-image issues were coming to the surface in the aftermath. We were talking about what triggers a resurgence of these issues in ostensibly “stable” sensible people, and how shameful it feels: how we know better than to succumb to this, how much we hate this part of ourselves, the part that is so stubbornly resistant to every single hard-won principle and belief we hold dear. She talked about how so many of her smartest, most powerful woman friends still struggle with this, and how they hate that they do. We talked about it for a long time, and she said to me, “Will you please write about this someday?” I said no way. I think my exact words were “I’m not stepping into that shitshow.” But then, as is always the way when I vow not to write about something, I did.

What kind of research went into this story?

SR: I was trying to create a chorus-like effect that eschewed the groupspeak/unison element of a chorus, but that didn’t devolve into a tower of Babel either. Something more like a harmonizing of disparate parts that somehow, jaggedly, cohere. To do that, I had to rely on everything I’d internalized not only about my own experiences with this issue, but also everything I’d ever been told by other people about theirs. It took on an excavation quality. Referring to external texts helped me from spiraling into a narrative cul-de-sac in my own head. After that aforementioned conversation with my friend, I stumbled across Katy Waldman’s incisive essay “There Once was a Girl,” which tackled what she calls “false narratives of anorexia.” It was galvanizing to me: I saw how she did it, and she did it so well that I knew I couldn’t tackle the subject in the same way. I had to go for an effect that embraced multiplicity as a means of conveying individual experiential singularity. Hence the first-person plural voice. While writing the story, I also referred to Julie Otsuka’s novel The Buddha in the Attic, which is told in the first-person plural, present tense. I needed a kind of guide on how to sustain the momentum of a narrative that’s told in this way. She did it in a way that never made the narrative device feel tiresome or gimmicky. She managed to convey worlds—individual and societal—via that mechanism.

What, to you, makes the short story a special form? What can it do that other kinds of writing can't?

SR: It can crystallize and distill certain truths and insights that amplify the emotional payoff, in a way that feels almost painfully revelatory. Because it’s tighter and less diffuse, it does that gut-punch thing much more powerfully than a longer work can. 

Where should people go to learn more about you and your work?

SR: I don’t have a website, but I have a book, Death Is Not an Option, that came out with Norton in 2010 and can be ordered here.

And I’m on Twitter.

What's the best gift you've ever been given?

SR: An antique typewriter.

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Michael Hingston