Kathryn Scanlan: “A writer’s choice of subject matter is always politically significant” (Kick the Latch / Cavaler seule)

Kathryn Scanlan, Cavaler seule © éditions La Croisée

Kathryn Scanlan’s book is the story of a life, of the singularity of a life – the story of a world, of a desire that circulates in this world. It is also a unique book in terms of its writing and stylistic choices. Interview with the author.

You wrote your book from conversations you had over three years with Sonia. Instead of “inventing” a character, you worked from material brought in by someone else. But, however, you did not simply publish this material, you worked on it to create from it, with it, a writing. This way of writing may recall, for example, the work of Charles Reznikoff, although your writing and the purposes of it are different from those that we can found in books like Testimony or Holocaust. In general, this way of working from existing material is more common in contemporary poetry, even if contemporary narrative can also work in this way: we can think, for example, of William Burroughs, Kathy Acker, etc. In your case, how did you work on this initial material, what did the writing work consist of? What are, for you, the stakes of this way of writing?

The writing work consisted, first, of listening. Transcribing the conversations was a second chance to listen and to consider the material at hand. From that massive and unwieldy text, I cut and pasted small sections into new documents and began to edit, shape, rearrange, rewrite, or write into and around the original transcription. I work often with found material—I studied art and painting and approach writing with this sensibility—so in some ways the tactic feels natural to me. I wanted to preserve as much of Sonia’s original speech as possible, and to be faithful to her narrative. But I also wanted to construct a specific and stylized narrative—to take fiction’s liberties.

The stakes are high, of course, because Sonia is a real person. It was important to me that she approved of the book. But I think the stakes of writing are always high, or should be. Reznikoff is a writer I think about a lot, including his definition of an ‘objectivist’ poet: “[one] who does not write directly about his feelings but about what he sees and hears; who is restricted almost to the testimony of a witness in a court of law; and who expresses his feelings indirectly by the selection of his subject matter and, if he writes in verse, by its music.

The common thread in Sonia’s life is horses. She builds her life and she builds herself from her relationship with horses. In your book, this relationship is never the pretext for a form of anthropocentrism or anthropomorphism. Horse can be used as an object to earn money, it can be abused to earn money in horse racing. But Sonia’s relationship with horses does not correspond to this: she observes them, takes care of them, develops emotional relationships with them, etc. She lives a life with horses rather than a life that uses horses. One has the impression that she considers horses as a form of life with which to live, to cohabit, to establish relations, but not as an object to be possessed and used. What interests you in this kind of relationship to the horse? Can we see in this relationship the way you think about the relationship with animals in general, and perhaps with nature in general?

Yes, exactly. One of the reasons I wanted to write the book is that Sonia’s relationship with animals—how she thinks about them, talks about them, relates to them—is similar to mine. I’m interested in people who subvert the human tendency to center ourselves, to anthropomorphize and infantilize non-human animals, to view them and nature in general exclusively in terms of how they might serve us. And in Sonia’s story, I was also interested in the dissonance between her respectful care and the sort of brutal calculations of less scrupulous trainers and owners.

I have the intuition that Sonia’s relationship to horses can be understood as a symbol of your relationship to writing. Sonia does not appropriate the horses, she constructs herself, creates herself with them, she establishes relationships with them, that is to say with a form of life which is exterior to her and which, in a sense, remains exterior. Isn’t that what you also do when you receive Sonia’s story and create a piece of writing with this story? If you agree with this intuition, what would be the stakes of this way of proceeding to write?

I appreciate this observation. While this method of working poses the risk of invasive appropriation, I think of it as a way to listen and connect and in some ways to disappear. In my notes for Kick the Latch [Cavaler seule] I copied a passage from Natasha Lehrer’s and Cécile Menon’s English translation of Nathalie Léger’s Suite for Barbara Loden: “I felt like I was managing a huge building site, from which I was going to excavate a miniature model of modernity, reduced to its simplest, most complex form: a woman telling her own story through that of another woman.” I’m not “telling my own story” through Sonia’s in Kick the Latch—though we have some things in common—but I do think I might be constructing a self via my construction of another self.

In your book, the relationship with horses is also important since it is what develops the world in which Sonia lives, in which she becomes herself. It is this world that you develop in this book. This world is not only the world of horse racing, it also corresponds to certain social and economic relations, to relations based on gender, etc. What are, for you, the challenges of evoking this world where there is poverty, violence, but also solidarity, a whole world of perceptions, sensations, etc.? Would you say that the evocation of this world also has a political significance?

To me, what you describe—“a world where there is poverty, violence, but also solidarity, a whole world of perceptions, sensations”—is just the world, which is always challenging to evoke in a way that feels vibrant and alive. In this case I had a lot of help from Sonia’s wonderful stories about her life and the people she’s known. I think a writer’s choice of subject matter—her style and formal decisions, too—is always politically significant. I’m interested in stories about work, dailiness, survival, physical life—especially when they’re filled with humor and idiosyncratic detail.

I don’t know if, about Sonia, we can use the notion of “character”, but I’m going to use this word… The character of Sonia has no a priori identity but this identity is created from her relationship with others and in particular with horses, her identity is created, constructed, from her experience of the world in which she lives. One could then think that your book corresponds to a sociological point of view on the question of identity, a point of view which would be based on the idea of social determinism. However, even if this dimension can indeed exist in the book, it seems to me that you insist above all on what Sonia has that is singular, on what her life has that is singular – and I notice, for the other characters in the story, the same way to pay attention to the singular. How, in writing the book, did you work on the link between Sonia’s character and her social environment? What was important to you in this link? In other words: what do you think characterizes Sonia’s singularity? As a writer, what interests you in this singularity?

The only way I’m able to write anything is to focus on very specific, singular details about a person or place or situation—“No ideas but in things” [William Carlos Williams]. It gives me traction. With this book, I had the great gift of Sonia’s detailed storytelling to work with. She’s a strong, independent individual, yet she’s also shaped by and reliant on her community—her “racetrack family.” Writing the book was a process of picking out all of the details from the transcript that pinched me—like Roland Barthes’s punctum—and arranging them, enhancing them, stripping away the noise around them for a better view. I think a few striking details about a person might bring some version of them to life more vividly than pages and pages of vaguer, less memorable description.

Kathryn Scanlan, Cavaler seule [Kick the Latch], traduit de l’américain par Laetitia Devaux, éditions La Croisée, 208 pages, août 2023, 18 €.