Former editor-in-chief Lauren Bender interviews fiction author Florence Sunnen about how she creates the characters in her stories, her literary influences, her experiences as an MFA student and more.
What inspired you to write this story?
This particular story is relatively old—I wrote it nine years ago, when I was 21, so it’s hard to speak with any real authority as to what made me write it, but I’d say it was probably due to having left home for university and the feeling that comes with leaving things behind.
When I was nineteen, I left Luxembourg (which, at the time, felt so homogeneous and narrow) for Germany, where I studied for four years before moving to the UK, and even though things were less dramatic at the time, a return home always felt alienating, making me very aware of my mannerisms and ideas, as though people back home could see right through them and pinpoint the ways in which my entire way of being was wrong.
Rereading it now, there seems to be in the tone of the story something of this double-ended resentment for one’s own experience and the experience of others: whether you leave home or stay, you will compare the downsides of your decision to the seeming upsides of another’s; if you left, someone else will have left in a more definitive way, or with a better purpose, and another may have stayed behind and retained a sense of belonging that now eludes you. Or, if you stayed, you may find yourself envying the lives of those who let go of the safety of their hometown and weren’t afraid to lose themselves elsewhere.
For me, what happens in “Laura” isn’t so much this as it is a prelude to this kind of feeling: the phase in which the bonds between people are stretched and loosened, sometimes severed, as a consequence of decision-making and planning for the future.
Could you describe your writing process? Do you have a specific routine, time, or place where you write? How do you know when a piece is finished?
I’m not a very routined person, although I wouldn’t say I thrive in chaos either; rather, I am prone to losing sight of what I’m doing fairly easily, making me prone to messes and chaos, spatially as well as when it comes to planning my day. I do well in flexible structures, though I find it hard to stick to self-imposed schedules, which is something I’m working on. For instance, at the moment I am trialling set writing hours twice a day, which seems to be a nice way for me to go about it: it makes it easier to eventually get into the writing mindset around set times rather than just feeling like I need to cram it in whenever I have a moment to spare.
My freelance work takes up most of my late afternoons and evenings, which means I can set aside time for writing in the morning. Despite this setup, however, I still find it easiest to write outside of home. I quickly associate spaces with actions or moods, and since my office at home has become the space in which I teach and relax, there isn’t much psychological room in there for writing at the moment, so leaving the house and sitting in a café or in a library really helps.
“Laura” keeps the reader somewhat in the dark about what is going on behind the scenes of Laura’s family life, but because of the depth of the characters, we feel like we fundamentally understand at least the emotional intensity of her experience. How do you get to know your characters?
I have to admit that when it comes to characters I’m somewhat the same as with real people: it takes me a long time to get to know them. After the first draft of a story I’ll usually need three more drafts until I’ve got a sense of the person I’m writing. I don’t particularly think in terms of character-building, however, and I think despite some fun exercises like creating a character sheet (outlining superficial characteristics and things like ‘what do they want’, ‘what do they need’) or placing my character into a day-to-day situation and ‘observing’ how they go about things, I’ve come to terms with the fact that the only thing that allows my characters to emerge in a way that feels organic is time, and rewriting.
A lot of the people I write seem to me enmeshed in the environment they inhabit, in a kind of urgent way: both the people and the story environment are faintly drawn, verging on insubstantial, and they cling to each other for fear of vanishing. I don’t think I’ve ever been accused of writing larger-than-life characters, or someone who might be given a song in a Disney film.
Reading back over things I’ve written, and things I’m in the process of writing, most of the people in my stories have a kind of ‘tissue caught on a twig’ quality, and I suspect that any emotional intensity present in the stories is amplified by the characters’ underlying lack of an anchor in human existence. They are always in the process of fading, and even a relatively small emotional problem magnifies into a crisis.
I’ve noticed, too, that in many of my stories there seems to be a hinted-at darkness or sadness in the background of the main events, which is often left unexplained after the story ends. Some readers may find this to be a frustrating trope, but I guess this is the part of storytelling that feels most true to life for me. Despite years in therapy and dabbling in other forms of self-exploration, I’ve not come to a definite explanation of what it is that seems to be the cause of many of my adult anxieties and disruptions without it feeling overly simplified or too easy a construct—and I suspect this is the case for many other people. So it makes sense to me that the so-called ‘crux’ of a character or universe’s dysfunction would not be conscious or explicit in a narrative either.
How did you make decisions about the balance of ambiguity and clarity in “Laura”? In general, how do you decide how much to give away in a story and why?
I would consider myself an over-sharer, though perhaps it’s more that I have become very comfortable sharing specific elements of my life and am quiet to a fault about other parts, often because I find it hard to express them through a rational frame with any kind of accuracy. I’ve never been very good at anecdotal sharing, for instance, or telling a story in a lively way with catchy or pithy character illustrations. This may be the influence of philosophy, although I suspect this tendency precedes any philosophical training and was simply exacerbated by it, but I gravitate towards talking about things much more so than plunging a listener into the scene of a thing. I’ve been accused of not illustrating well, and I would agree that this is a mode I have to make an effort to return to. I know this hasn’t answered the question very well, but I’m still finding it hard to explain my process properly, as much of it is down to fairly unconscious choices.
The story also highlights the quintessential high school friendship—a relationship that exists simultaneously as close and distant. Where did the inspiration for this push-and-pull friendship come from? Was it modeled off people you have known? Past the end of the story, do you imagine the two breaking through the wall between them or growing more distant?
I’d say none of my characters are ever consciously based on someone I know or have known in real life, however that’s just another way of saying that they are almost always composites of many different people. As you’ve said, friendships in that age bracket tend to fluctuate between closeness and keeping people at a distance, and I think when I wrote the story I was looking back at that last year of school before moving abroad from a very different perspective than I have now.
Granted, even looking at what I’m writing currently, a sense of my characters seeking closeness without quite knowing how or where to find it, or what that even looks like, is still very much present in my more recent stories. But I think in this high school phase of life, things are still a lot less settled. Both the narrator/protagonist and Laura strike me as very loosely defined people, very vague, but I think that’s common at that age. Their relationship is airy because they are airy, and their sense of self hasn’t become as settled as it eventually does in one’s twenties.
I’ve known people, in school and outside of school, with biographical elements that line up with both the protagonist’s and Laura’s—one of my best friends in high school was called Laura, and we did one class presentation together once, though I think that’s where the similarities between her and my character end. A lot comes from my own life as well—I played the violin from a young age and was in an orchestra pretty much until my last year of high school.
I gave up a lot of my activities and hobbies in that last year, come to think of it. Like the airiness of the characters I mentioned before, I think once you realise you’re about to leave life as you’ve known it, move to a different country for the first time, live on your own, and become what you then still think of as ‘a real adult’, that’s when you start shedding, or attempting to shed, parts of your old self: you prepare to travel as light as possible.
What topics or themes do you find you’re most interested in exploring through your work?
It has taken me a while to garner my themes from existing work. An overarching concern of mine seems to be the inability to communicate properly with others, which is a frustrating thing to be aware of in yourself as a writer. My biggest fear seems to be one of mis-performing my own humanness. A lot of my characters seem at odds with what they observe around them, yet instead of deriving a sense of superiority or uniqueness from this, they undermine their own way of being constantly and seek to approximate the actions of others as a means to fit in better.
There also seems to be a lot of concern over bodies, with the same premise of wrongness, but also of fluidity. Bodies are ignored, but also serve as modes of expressing existential distress, and engagement with the own body is often an attempt at replacing or simplify direct communication with others. Over the years I’ve developed a deep interest and tenderness for the ways in which people express their concerns and fears, especially the non-linguistic ways in which we seek to fit in and reach out. While bodies were more absent from earlier things I wrote (mainly because I felt most insecure about my ability to accurately transcribe the body into language), it’s come up more and more as a main catalyst for emotional expression in stories I wrote since starting my Creative Writing MA. The pretentiously self-analysing part of me wants to see this as a sign that this MA was a turning point for me psychologically, a move back down from the lofty cerebral imperative of philosophy, a return to a permission to be playful, silly, emotional, and irrational.
Could you tell us a little about your experience getting an MFA and whether you found it valuable?
I’m afraid my MFA experience is unlikely to align with what the degree means in the US, mainly because I did it at a UK university. To my knowledge, MFAs are not well established in the UK academic system, and my university started the programme as a kind of experiment while I was in my MA year, so I figured I’d try it, for no other reason than to prolong the joy of having found a degree that felt so permissive and exciting, compared to the more straightforward experience I’d previously had of academia.
The year I started my MFA, only one other student was on the programme with me, and this is how things stayed for the two years of my research. I say research, because that’s effectively what the programme offered: a pared-down, solitary opportunity to research and compile a personal writing project in an untaught, unworkshopped environment. My supervisor for this project was the most wonderful, caring and tolerant person I’d been put into the care of in my academic career, but the circumstances were such that he went on leave during my second year of the project, and I only got to see him three or four times during my writing process—however, every time he helped me with what was then (and still is now, to a degree) the hardest part of writing for me: bringing structure into a growing, formless mass. I proposed a frame narrative to hold together a set of stories I wanted to incorporate into my final project, and he was supportive and offered gentle nudges into more challenging ways of seeing what else could be done, while never making me feel like this wasn’t first and foremost my project.
But ultimately, my MFA experience was deeply lonely, and if it hadn’t been for the small circle of friends I’d made during my MA, I would’ve probably spent those two years of research buried inside my room or moping about in the library: the issue with my degree was also an administrative one, in the sense that, although it was clearly a research-based degree, it wasn’t officially registered as such, meaning I had no access to the postgraduate spaces and resources made available to research students, such as PhDs. I wasn’t a part of the PhD community, nor did I have my own MFA community because the programme was so intensely undersubscribed.
At the very least, this has proven to me that I can stick with a project even in the face of solitude, and that, if I give myself the space to figure things out, I will come up with my own solutions to problems, if a little slower than if I’d asked someone else for help. I gained a different perspective on myself as a writer, and what I am interested in about the writing process. As a person, I am easily swayed by the projects other people are immersed in, especially if I see a trend in them that seems at odds with what I’m working on. So in a way, not having a community to compare myself to in the MFA was a blessing, in that I could focus on doing my own thing without feeling compelled to emulate what others were doing. In those respects, the MFA was truly valuable for me, despite its somewhat unorthodox setup.
What are your thoughts on the perennial question of what can and can’t be taught about writing?
So far, I’ve only been on the receiving end of writing-teaching, though I’ve got some experience teaching languages. Insofar as writing is a skill and a set of techniques and methods, it can be taught as well as most other things, though I guess the student already possessing an affinity for language and intellectual exploration, as well as a willingness to listen to themselves saying the same thing in different ways over and over, are all things that will help make the process easier.
For me personally, what the MA/MFA in writing taught me were mostly related to the way I work: I didn’t have a method before I started the MA, and I was convinced that the only way to write was to only do it when I felt a kind of spark or idea, and to stop the moment it became difficult. I also found it incredibly difficult/embarrassing to read over what I’d written, and I would brood over every sentence for ages, likely at the cost of rhythm and flow, in order to put everything I could into it. I did this not just because I wanted to do well, but mostly so that I wouldn’t have to go back over the writing later. I had a real fear of seeing my own thoughts written down, a fear of my critical mind setting in over something I had made.
The writing MA taught me (embarrassingly, for the first time in 25 years) that it was ok to make mistakes, to write drivel, to just fling stuff onto the paper and see what works and, most importantly, what doesn’t. Brainstorming was familiar to me from academic writing, of course, but I’d always thought real, great writing was unedited, borne in full scintillating form from the mind of a brilliant person—for some people, it probably is, but this isn’t the case for me. From someone effectively artistically constipated by her own fear of mediocrity I’ve turned, since the MA and MFA, into a compulsive journaler, flinging verbal excrement around to see what can be of use when it lands.
All this to say: a degree in creative writing is unlikely to teach you from scratch if you’ve never written a word, but it is a way to learn from others, to take your writing into a socio-academic context where you are exposed to, and expected to emulate, for the sake of learning, different methods and approaches to writing. It teaches you, if nothing else, to view this generally solitary activity that is writing as both less existentially urgent and more serious than you may have previously thought.
What authors/artists/philosophers most inspires you? Who do you go back to again and again?
Writers I love and return to often for their comforting and nourishing work are, among others, Maggie Nelson, Joy Williams, Katherine Mansfield, and Aimee Bender. Generally speaking, as much as I find solace and joy in the products of other writers’ craft, I don’t usually find solutions to problems with my own writing in their work.
I am stimulated to work mostly by people whose primary form of expression is something other than writing, i.e. fine artists or musicians. Some of my favourite artists are Remedios Varo, Max Ernst, Mark Rothko, Leonora Carrington, and Paul Klee, and I could listen to John Cage and Morton Feldman talk about their relationship to music for hours.
What are you working on now?
I’ve spent the last six months wrapping up drafts of stories I’ve been working on for a while, to get them ready for submission. I am now finally at a stage where most of the stories I started four years ago are in their third draft states and have somewhat come together for me in terms of themes and tone, meaning I have more headspace to devote to new stories, or story ideas that have not been drafted or structured in any way.
However, this is much harder than editing something structurally pre-existing: structuring something based on disparate ideas or aspirations is a circumstance where I expend a lot of energy on self-doubt. I find the amount of intangible material hard to tackle and wrestling something abstract into a series of scenes is a lot harder for me than freely constructing something new from scratch. But it’s an important thing to learn.
Since we’ve grown out of a writers’ workshop, we like to ask: could you share a best—or worst—workshop experience?
My workshop experiences during the MA, and also during extra-curricular, student-led workshops, have on the whole been very mild and rather pleasant. As someone who had very little experience sharing my writing with others, I had to get over the initial sense that criticism meant targeted me as a person, rather than what I had produced. After that, workshops became a relatively liberating and supportive environment for me.
Something that might count as an awkward experience is something that came up a few times in a workshop context, namely the question of why, as a non-native speaker, I choose to write in English rather than in one of the languages I grew up speaking. At the time, I was afraid I wasn’t living up to the expectations that come with writing in such a widespread yet culturally loaded language, and I was afraid the question itself said something about my failure to do justice to the language. English it isn’t my native language, nor is it part of the languages chosen by many of Luxembourg’s writers (the country officially being trilingual, people mostly write in German or French, with a recent resurgence of Luxembourgish as the language of choice for younger writers, especially when it comes to blogging and journalism). So I found the question awkward at first, because it made me feel like an intruder into the language. It’s a level of paranoia I’m happy to say I’ve since shed, and the conversations that came of it ended up being really valuable, because they allowed me to start thinking more deeply about what it means to write from a multilingual background, to choose a language that isn’t yours and express yourself freely in it.