An Interview with Caroline Sutton

Sutton photoIn December of 2017, Montemayor Press published Caroline Sutton’s Don’t Mind Me, I Just Died:  On Time, Tennis, and Unforgiving Mothers. The essays in this subtle and wide-ranging collection depict the lasting impact of mothers on daughters, the shifting relationships between parents and children over time, the ironies of marital life, and quandaries in the face of decline and death. Sutton brings startling perspectives to the everyday—from painting a room or getting on the wrong subway, to hitting a dazzling backhand or witnessing a lunar eclipse.

The author finds meaning in unlikely places. In “The Fly in the Refrigerator,” an errant fly leads the author to question intentionality and will, which are so often foiled by the unexpected in life’s trajectory. With wit and humor, “Tennis: Fort-da!” spirals from the geometry of well-played points to patterns of human interaction and perception. Sutton finds hints of her father’s identity in “Water on Fire” through letters he wrote to her mother from an aircraft carrier that was torpedoed in the South Pacific during World War II. Other stories depict loss—the scattering of her mother’s ashes on an ocean beach—and ways that absence induces us to look again at both present and past. Sutton’s insights expose the ephemeral nature of the things we gather and the homes we build while conceding our need to reconstruct the past and be cognizant of its fickle ambiguity.

A few months ago, The Pinch Literary Journal (University of Memphis) interviewed Caroline Sutton regarding Don’t Mind Me, I Just Died.  The Pinch has now granted Montemayor Press permission to republish the interview on this blog.  We thank the editors for their generosity.

To read The Pinch itself, go to

What was your process for compiling your essay collection? How did you choose which order to put the essays in? 

I wrote the essays that appear in Don’t Mind Me, I Just Died over a period of about fifteen years.  During that time I wrote a number of pieces related to travels in Vietnam, China, and elsewhere, which I originally intended to include in my first collection.  My earliest vision of the book projected a here and there dichotomy—narratives about family and relationships, followed by narratives about places far afield. At the suggestion of my editor, Ed Myers, we decided to focus the collection on the former for a more cohesive whole. I kept “To Arrest the Phases of the Moon” because although about wildlife in South Africa, it touches on themes of motherhood, which are central to the book.

Clearly it would have been logical to clump all the pieces about my mother’s decline and death together and to sequence them chronologically. But that organization didn’t reflect the quality either of my experience or my attempts to recall it. I decided to frame the book with my mother, starting with her death and the history of her family coming to this country when she was three, interspersing my struggles with her over the years, and ending with my final connection to her—her dog that I inherited and came to love. In between, stories weave back and forth in time, as memory does, deal with a range of subject matter, and fall into four sections loosely organized around themes of marriage, imagination, time, and loss. My hope is that when reading the essays, a reader feels a sort of organic rhythm and patterning similar to ways we experience things and perhaps years later take another look at them. (“Recovering Time” concretizes this idea pretty explicitly through the portrayal of parallel experiences over generations.)  What I didn’t foresee as I wrote the individual stories is the possibility for a collection to be more than the sum of its parts, (just as an album can be more than a group of songs) and that can occur through inner reflectivity of themes and motifs, which is ultimately expansive.

Do you have any new writing projects in the works?

Yes, I’ve completed a full-length memoir about growing up on Philadelphia’s WASPy Main Line and my not entirely successful attempts to escape it. I hope to publish the book this year or next.  I’m currently working on a new collection of nature-based essays. I’m having fun researching such incredible creatures as horseshoe crabs and flying squirrels, but each essay takes a journey to the human, be it analogous behaviors, implications of our treatment of or interaction with the natural world, effects on our perception, and so on.

What is your typical writing process? Do you write every day, or more sporadically?

Once I’ve started a piece, the computer is a magnet. I can’t stay away.  But since there is lag time between ideas, you could say I write sporadically.  I also teach high school, and grading papers makes me use an analytical side of my brain, which usually isn’t conducive to starting a new narrative, but shouldn’t be an excuse. Over the past two summers when I wrote the memoir, I wrote every day, starting first thing in the morning–my preferred time when coffee is kicking in, energy highest, mind not yet cluttered.

As for process, it varies. At times I start with an idea that almost propels itself.  If I start with an image or situation I may not be sure what the theme is, or even if I’ll find one. Those stories can be frustrating, enlightening, or both, depending on how the journey goes and if I find a thread.  Each time I sit down to write, I read from the beginning to get back into my own voice; I’m what you might call an aural writer in that I hear the rhythm of sentences as they go down.

What advice do you have for other writers now that you have a book out?

My advice to other writers: persist.  Keep writing and divorce yourself from the publishing process.  To gain credibility for possible book publication, I sent my essays out to a huge range of journals.  The process was laborious (especially before one could do this digitally), response time was aggravating, selection process a mystery, close calls frustrating.  You need to numb yourself to rejection, as if you were marketing someone else’s work. Eventually, I established a working relationship with a few editors at these journals, but it took time, and first I had to navigate the anonymous labyrinth of Submittable and the like. I teach creative nonfiction to high school seniors, but I discourage them from starting this process since it can be defeating, especially to young writers.

Thanks for the interview, Caroline, and congratulations on the new book!


Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Follow-up with Marilyn Levy

For several days after I posted my recent interview with Marilyn Levy, I followed the news reports about Donald Trump’s campaign for president and about the protests that continue to flare up at his rallies. Almost every one of these rallies has included violence toward protestors. If anything, the incidence and the degree of violence appear to be increasing.  This developing situation prompted me to contact Marilyn Levy, author of Chicago: August 28, 1968, and to ask her additional questions about issues of politics and protest.  What follows is our discussion.  —Ed Myers

EM: Given the clashes in Chicago last week, do you see the political situation in the U.S. as “deja vu all over again” compared to August 1968?

Photo credit:

Photo credit:

ML: That’s the first thing that came to mind watching the news about the unconscionable skirmish in Chicago. It sickened me, of course, but I also found it encouraging that many of the news programs made the connection between Chicago in the present day and Chicago in 1968. Though I’m a news junkie, I may have missed newscasters suggesting any connection between Mayor Daley and Donald Trump, but a parallel exists there, as well. Mayor Daley incited the outrageous behavior of the police department when he shouted, “Shoot to kill the looters,” among many other exhortations for violence. He tossed the demonstrators in the same category as criminals, saying that Chicago was his city. Donald Trump said pretty much the same thing, even huffing and puffing at one point at a previous rally—and I use the term “rally” purposefully—that he’d like to beat up and even kill people who interrupt his speeches.

EM: Trump’s demagogic comments repeatedly fan the flames of tensions between his followers and demonstrators in their midst. His recent statements—such as “I’d like to punch him in the face,” “Knock the crap out of him,” and “Maybe he should’ve been roughed up”—are not only morally repugnant, they’re tantamount to inciting his followers to violence. So, all of this is outrageous, irresponsible behavior.

ML: Yes, exactly. And most people—except his followers—agree that in Chicago, Trump incited his followers to riot.

Photo credit:

Photo credit:

EM: One issue that I consider different between 1968 and 2016 is that Trump isn’t in office (yet). He’s a rabble-rouser, but he’s not Mayor Daley. Rahm Emanuel isn’t Daley, either. The Chicago police seemed to be trying to keep the two sets of demonstrators separate and under control, not just beat the hell out of them. Is this any cause for optimism?

ML: At this point, given the racial tensions over Rahm Emanuel’s “possible” collusion with the police department in holding back evidence for indicting a police officer until after his re-election, the police in Chicago at this time in history had no choice but to try to calm things down. They’re under intense scrutiny now. But it’s interesting that we haven’t seen Emanuel or heard one word from him about the recent melee [at the Trump rally], as far as I know. And while it’s true that Trump isn’t in office yet, he has tremendous power. I think he’s a combination of Mussolini and Berlusconi. He has enough crazy charisma to affect people in the same way Daley and other dictators did. His having been a TV celebrity, his being soooo rich, also gives him the kind of power that an elected official might have.

Photo credit:

Photo credit:

On Elizabeth Warren’s Facebook page today, she wrote: “There’s a history of demagogues calling those they disagree with ‘terrorists’ and using that as justification for intimidation. Donald Trump is a bigger, uglier threat every day that goes by—and it’s time for decent people everywhere . . . to say No More Donald. There’s no virtue in silence.”

As I mention in my book, this is pretty much what Senator Abraham Ribicoff said in 1968 when he veered from his speech during the convention: that Daley was using Fascist tactics.

But to answer your question: “Is this cause for optimism?” Maybe a little. There’s more cause for thinking that although it was an expedient response [by the Chicago police last week], at least the victims were, to a great degree, protected.

EM: There’s still the issue of personal racism, demagoguery, and violence vs. institutional racism, demagoguery, and violence. Trump is clearly a racist, xenophobic demagogue who is essentially inciting violence, but at least he’s not in office. If he gets elected, however, his personal racism, xenophobia, and demagoguery become institutional. I regard this as the scariest part of the recent events.

Photo credit:

Photo credit:

ML: That’s absolutely right. If he were elected, his personal racism and other attributes would become institutional. And then what? As soon as a group of people becomes “the other,” we have a divided country—even more divided than we have now—and we all lose in the end.

EM: Here’s a separate but overlapping issue: to what degree can a work of fiction prompt social / political change? Kurt Vonnegut wrote that Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin was the only work of fiction that had ever changed anything. I don’t regard his claim as accurate, but Vonnegut’s point is worth thinking about. Can a novel about the upheaval in August of 1968 change what’s happening in 2016? Or can it change at least how we see what’s happening in 2016? I don’t want to put a huge weight on your shoulders! Your book is wonderful — and maybe sufficiently wonderful — for offering such a complex portrait of the chaos of August 28, 1968. Maybe it doesn’t need to be more than that.

Photo credit:

Photo credit:

ML: Of course, I wish my novel could effect political change—if only to demonstrate that being vigilant about politics and the political process is an ongoing process. Mayor Daley was scary to those of us who saw him as the dictator he was. He was also funny and charming in a down-home kind of way. He appealed to the same undereducated people who are now following Trump. I don’t think, for the most part, they’re bad people. I think they get carried away by group-think spurred on by the pointless and empty rhetoric of a demagogue. One guy who had punched a black demonstrator in the stomach, felling him, spoke right to the camera and said he’d had a great time at the rally and maybe he’d kill someone next time. Did Trump repudiate that? No. So I hold Trump totally responsible.

I also think Vonnegut was wrong. Jack Kerouac prompted political changes, as did Ginsberg, though he wrote poetry, not fiction. They opened the doors and invited the middle to reimagine their lives. The Occupy movement is, I think, a direct result of that shift in consciousness. [Ken Kesey’s] One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest made a lasting impression on me, and I believed the book changed the perceptions of institutionalized people with mental problems. Unfortunately, dumping people out of institutions and into communities unprepared to deal with the impact hasn’t exactly worked out that well, either.

EM: Another issue is the personal context for a work of art. When I read (and have since re-read) your novel, I’ve found myself catapulted back to the anguish and dread I felt in 1968, when I was eighteen years old and convinced (rightly) that I could be drafted at any moment and set off to Vietnam. Reading the book, I also found myself reliving the fear I felt back then that the United States was collapsing into repression and civil chaos. For these reasons, your novel has been incredibly evocative to me. I’m sure it is for other Boomers as well. But to my twenty-eight-year-old daughter and to my twenty-four-year-old son — both of whom are Progressives and activists in their own different ways — your novel will be powerful mostly as historical fiction. Maybe this is sufficient: books can allow time travel to events in history that each of us will otherwise never experience, and this experience can lead to insights and, at least in the long run, to greater wisdom.

What do you think?

Photo credit:

Photo credit:

ML: An interesting observation, one I think is true. Those of us who were engaged, in one way or another, back in 1968 respond quite differently from the millennials. It is history for them—and for some, perhaps it seems like ancient history. But we’re still reading about World War II, for example, and still trying to determine how a sophisticated country like Germany, where Jews were totally integrated into society at all levels—including intermarrying—could possibly have produced a Hitler. But they did. Even though I didn’t live through that war as a European, and though I was too young to understand what was going on, and though I maybe even resist reading books about it now, I do read. And I am moved, not only by the circumstances, but by the human stories. (I just finished David Benioff’s City of Thieves, which takes place in Russia during the German occupation. I laughed and cried. Because in the end, it was also about an adolescent boy’s awakening, the meaning of friendship, and a redefinition of courage. So I’m hoping that people in their twenties reading my book will not only be riveted by the history but also by the personal stories. Because we are all still moved by stories that reflect our personal struggles, as well as our political struggles.

EM: Have you received any feedback about your novel from readers younger than our own generation? If so, have they commented at all on how they see the events of the late Sixties?

Photo credit:

Photo credit:

ML: Now that you mention it, most of the comments from younger readers have been about specific stories. Each has mentioned a specific story that moved him or her. One reader called to comment immediately after he finished the book and found he couldn’t speak because he was so moved by the last story.

I know young people who have been to Vietnam but have no idea that we fought a war there. They don’t usually study that war in high school, and unless recent history interests them, they rarely study it in college.

EM: Are there any other issues you would like to raise and comment on?

ML: I think we’ve covered it. Thanks for getting me to think. I never would have considered your last two questions if you hadn’t asked them.

Posted in Authors | Leave a comment

An Interview with Marilyn Levy

Levy photoLate last year Montemayor Press released a remarkable novel, Chicago: August 28, 1968, by Marilyn Levy.  This book is on one level a kind of historical fiction, as it portrays events now almost fifty years past; at the same time, it portrays events that seem (and are) alarmingly contemporary.  The demonstrations of summer 1968 protested social injustices that have yet to be rectified.  Police misconduct in Ferguson, Missouri; Baltimore, Maryland; Chicago; and many other cities and towns reveal how little progress this country has made since the Sixties.  In this and in other ways, Chicago: August 28, 1968 is both a remarkable portrait of a past era and a disturbing sign that the past remains all too present.

Ed Myers, MP’s publisher, interviewed Marilyn Levy by e-mail to explore how and why she wrote her novel.

Ed Myers: Can you describe the genesis of your writing Chicago: August 28, 1968?

welcome demsMarilyn Levy:
 I began thinking about this significant chapter of our history several years ago, when the Occupy Movement had sprung up and captured the attention of old lefties like me. It was the first time in many years that people from various backgrounds—people who, on the surface had little in common except their anger at the establishment—came together to protest the government, the banks, and the inequality in a country where one percent of the population have the money and consequently the power to decide how our country is run.

EM: Your novel includes multiple points-of-view, which I believe is one of its many strengths.  What prompted you to write from these multiple points-of-view rather than from just one?

flagpole shot
 I began with the first chapter in the book told from Becky’s point-of-view, but I soon realized that she couldn’t possibly understand or convey the various perspectives of people from different backgrounds. I could have utilized the third person throughout, but I wanted to make the stories immediate. I felt that there were times when a third-person narrator would put a distance between the reader and the character. The chapter titled “Harvey Bender,” for instance, is told from the perspective of a detached narrator, which seems appropriate for that character. But I wanted readers to feel what Sabina or Helen, for example, were feeling as they felt it.

EM: Chicago: August 28, 1968 has the feel of lived experience—especially in the scenes from Becky’s point-of-view.  Were you present at the demonstrations in late August of 1968?  If so, can you reflect on your experiences:  what you saw, what you felt, and how these experiences affected you at that time and over the years since then?

Natl Guard + protester

ML: I have never forgotten the late sixties. Though I’ve been happier at times, I’ve never felt more totally alive or more committed to confronting the inequities in our country. I was a young faculty member at Roosevelt University in Chicago, a left-leaning city school that catered to a commuter population. Like Staughton Lynd, who appears in the book, most of us were against the war in Vietnam. I had two very young children at the time, and my husband and I went to various anti-war and civil rights rallies with them in tow, but on August 28, 1968, I was in Grant Park with a friend. Because I had to get back home for the kids, we left just before all hell broke out, but my husband’s secretary wasn’t as lucky. A Japanese photographer I’d met the summer before happened to be staying at our house at the time, and he called from a phone booth downtown, absolutely terrified. We were all afraid, incensed, but most of all we were unable to believe that the police would, without provocation, begin clubbing everyone in sight.

cops in Chicago

EM: Can you reflect on how you conjured the characters and events that differ significantly from who you were at that time and what you experienced personally?

demonstratorsML: Although Becky isn’t me, even some of my friends confuse the two of us. One friend was surprised when I happened to mention one day that my mother had gone to college. She had assumed that I had grown up in a lower-middle-class, uneducated family, as Becky had. My husband and I did, however, live where Becky lives when we were first married, and I have to admit she does resemble me physically—though Suzanne Kaplan more closely resembles what I looked like and who I was at the time. I had the experience she has with a black male student, and it still haunts me. I failed him. Literally. He could have gone to Vietnam. He could have died. Did I do the right thing? I think that because of that experience, I now try to think more carefully about how my words and actions will affect other people. That said, the cop [Mike] was wholly conjured up in my imagination. I needed a counterpoint to the demonstrators, but I didn’t know any police at the time, so I thought about how a sensitive cop might experience the demonstration, and I let him control his own story. Most of the characters, however, are an amalgam of various people I’ve known over the years. And many of them contain bits and pieces of my own experiences that have had an impact on me. Even the male characters. Brad, for example, tells a story about riding his bike to the “wrong” side of town to visit a school friend and the fear and humiliation that engendered. I had a similar experience, and it’s remained with me all these years.

EM: Recent events in Ferguson, Missouri; Baltimore, Maryland; Chicago; and a disturbing number of other American places make it clear that little has changed in some respects since late August of 1968.  Police in many cities still behave toward Americans—especially black Americans—like an occupying army.  The police attacks against Occupy Wall Street activities some years ago were similarly oppressive.  Why has so little changed?  What can Americans do to counter the trend of police oppression?

Photo credit:  CNN

Photo credit: CNN

ML: Unfortunately, despite the fact that we elected a black president, the country seems to be moving backwards when it comes to civil rights. In the Seventies, when the Evanston, Illinois, school district voluntarily desegregated, the all-black school became a lab school. The best teachers from the district transferred to Martin Luther King Junior Lab School, and white students had to apply. Our children were bused into the all-black neighborhood, and the school became an instant success because of the incredible faculty and principal. Our children met and made friends with kids from every economic background, race, and religion. Though we had chosen to live in an area where the local school was 40% black, many of the other white students had never been exposed to blacks—except for household help. Recently, however, I read a long article in the Evanston Review written by a young woman who had gone to Lab. She said that the good will between whites and blacks that she had experienced no longer seemed credible, and things had reverted to the way they had been before the Seventies. I feel that the current economic disparity has contributed to the rise in tension between the races and certainly between the left and the one percent. The police, though ironically not from the “elite” one percent, seem to have taken their frustrations out on the wrong people during the height of the Occupy movement.

At the root of so much of the hatred and fear we’re experiencing now is the poor education that all but the middle- and upper-middle-classes receive. Our schools often leave much to be desired, and it is this lack of education that allows a candidate like Donald Trump to create the following he has. Because he caters to people’s fears, and because people often do not have the ability to deconstruct what he’s saying—and more importantly what he’s not saying—they hear “Muslim” and equate it with terrorist. They hear “Mexican” and equate it with drugs. They hear “black” and they equate it with crime. Police will stop oppressing those who stand up for freedom, those who are “the other,” when we stand together. I think this might happen if we pay teachers what other professionals earn so that the profession attracts top people to educate our children, who can then learn how to reason clearly. For me, education is the key to oppression.

EM: Robert Bennedetti commented that when he read your book, he wasn’t convinced initially by how you connect the Chicago police force’s actions to Nazi behavior against the Jews before and during World War II; but later he felt supportive of the connection you made.  Do you feel there’s a risk in comparing the violence of the Chicago police to the Nazi’s truly genocidal actions?  Or do you feel that’s a necessary comparison, given the “slippery slope” that institutional violence can create?

street clash

ML: Comparing the Chicago police force’s action to Nazi behavior was risky. I certainly didn’t mean to imply that the police used tactics that the Nazis ultimately used in the concentration camps. But I think it’s important to recognize that mass hysteria often leads to unintended consequences. And a charismatic dictator can convince a fearful population that the police are there to protect them from “the other” regardless of whom those others may be. I’ve seen films of Hitler speaking in Vienna just after his troops marched into the city, and it’s terrifying. The people in this just-occupied town are cheering wildly, convinced that he’s there to save them. By repeating Abraham Ribicoff’s comparison of the police brutality in Chicago to Nazis, I hoped to shock the reader as I was shocked at the time and once again when I read it during my research. Feelings were so intense on all sides that Ribicoff and Mayor Daley both spoke without self-censoring. Later, when Helen mistakes the police for Nazis, it simply seemed appropriate. She’s rummaging through her past, not really in the present, so seeing the police beating the demonstrators would remind her of what she had witnessed.

convention buttonAs an aside: I’m wondering if it’s in the DNA of us Jews to fear police brutality so intensely because historically, we have felt the brunt of that brutality, just as blacks feel it today. Even though most American Jews have not experienced being beaten and maligned to that extent, the fear is there. It’s interesting that Ribicoff was a Jew, and, of course, Helen (from my imagination) was Jewish.

 ◊    ◊    ◊

About the Author: Marilyn Levy was born in Youngstown, Ohio, and has lived most of her life in the Chicago area and in Los Angeles. Trained initially as a teacher, Levy has also worked as a writer in the film industry; she has written and published eighteen books; and she maintains a private counseling practice in Santa Monica, California.  Her novels have been recognized for excellence by the American Library Association Best Book List, the New York Public Library Best Book List, the Society of School Librarians International Best Book Award, and the Jewish Publication Society.  Levy’s work as a film writer has included Bride of the Wind (2001, directed by Bruce Beresford), a biographical portrait of Alma Mahler, her artistic life, and her relationship as wife/muse of the great composer Gustav Mahler.

Posted in Authors | Leave a comment