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Susan Stinson is a writer who has her way with words. Her eloquent new novel Spider in a Tree is set in eighteenth century New England. The novel is a fictional exploration of the life and times of Jonathan Edwards, one of America’s most brilliant theologians. The novel was recently named by Publishers Weekly as one of the Big Indie Books of Fall 2013.
Stinson is the author of three other novels and a collection of poetry and lyric essays. She was awarded Lambda Literary Foundation’s Outstanding Mid-Career Novelist Prize. She is a writing coach and editor and the Writer in Residence at Forbes Library in Northampton MA.
Stinson is also my beloved friend and writing companion. I am a huge fan of her work.
Love the insects in the book. Will you talk a bit about them?
Jonathan Edwards’s most famous sermon is called “Sinners in the Hand of an Angry God,” and the central image in that sermon is a spider dangling over the fires of hell. I wrote a lot outside, and every time I encountered an insect I had to observe it and write down what I saw, which was pleasurable and made me realize insects would be very present in the eighteenth century: emissaries between times, and beings in their own right with their own agendas. Edwards would think they were working out his view of God’s plan, but to me those insects were a counter-narrative.
Kudos on your success. How do you maintain your passion for writing and maintain your energy to keep putting yourself and your work out there?
Success is such a relative term. Companionship with other writers is huge, having some place to go with the work. Reading inspires me. I love my press, Small Beer. I don’t think I’d still be writing if the lesbian presses, Spinsters and Firebrand, hadn’t published my previous novels. Belly Songs: In Praise of Fat Women, of course, was published by the small press, Orogeny, that you and I and Janet Aalfs started.
How did you find Small Beer?
Since there is no explicit LGBT content in the novel, Spider in a Tree was not a good match for my previous presses. I had an agent for a while. We tried mainstream presses, faced a lot of rejection. I always loved the work that Small Beer publishes, so I submitted, and was thrilled when they said yes.
Leah, a great character in the book, is a slave. How did you approach writing about someone outside of your own experience and time?
Of course, all of the characters in the book are outside of my time. As a white woman writing across lines of racial identity, I know that I have built-in biases that I’ve acquired from the culture. I think we all do, and that’s one of the legacies of slavery. I didn’t know when I started writing the book that Jonathan Edwards was a slave owner. Once I knew that, it became clear that I needed to enter as deeply as I could into the minds and lives of the characters who were slaves in the household. Anything else would be a terrible omission based on fear. Several characters in the book are slaves. Jonathan Edwards owned slaves, a historical fact that Edwards enthusiasts sometimes ignore. So, I did my best.
As a queer, a fan, and a lover of good books, I really want to encourage the LGBT community to read Spider in a Tree. Jonathan Edwards was a strange man in many ways, influential, yet not always accepted in his own society. I need to form a question, don’t I? How did a nice queer like you come to write about a Calvinist Preacher?
How did I come to write about [Edwards]? How do I get up in the morning? Know what I mean?
Yes, you get to write about whatever you want to write about.
(Laughing) But, that answer is too easy because all my other books centered on fat lesbians. Part of it was that I was following a thread about the body and was interested in Calvinism and attitudes toward the body. But, that’s not very visible in the book.
At one time I was trying to write parallels between lesbian culture in Northampton in the 1980s and 90s, conflicts in our community, and conflicts that came out in the eighteenth century because they looked so similar to me in terms of human reality. Such different ideologies coming down to such similar human conflicts and reactions fascinated me. Once I got immersed in the eighteenth century, that layer seemed like too much.
The body and spiritually seem very visible to me in all your work. How do these themes play out in Spider in a Tree?
I don’t know that I’ve ever been as explicit about spirit as I’ve had to be with Spider in a Tree. Calvinism is so central to Edward’s world view. Society was organized around that world view. I had to be respectful about what their beliefs were and how they worked those beliefs on a daily basis. In my previous work, spirituality wasn’t as explicit. Going into language and bodies has always taken me and my characters to transcendental moments where individuals feel bigger than themselves. In our society, there seem to be a lot of different ways to experience that transcendence, to read and write it. Unlike Calvinism, where transcendence is possible but the tenets are spelled out. Calvinism permeates the landscape here.
Place is central in this novel. How did you go about getting the details and feel of a small eighteenth century New England town?
Well, I live in Northampton and have lived in New England for twenty-six years. The physical landscape as well as the literary landscape is interesting here. Emily Dickinson, and lots of great, famous and not-so-famous writers have come from this area. I grew up in Colorado, also beautiful, but this kind of landscape with these trees and these seasons was new to me at one time. When I was young, I read books set in this landscape. It’s such a rich place to write about. Writing about a historical character who had lived here marked another layer, a turn in my relationship to living here. My previous works had been primarily set in the West.
I don’t own a car. I ride a trike. In the 1700s, the townspeople would be walking or riding in carriages. Part of the reason I can travel with relative ease on the trike is because the town of Northampton was laid out for a walking population. I travel many of the routes they traveled at much the same speed.
I live across from a cemetery where there is a monument to Jonathan Edwards. Some of his family is buried there. I was writing in that cemetery and got fascinated with some of the people who were buried there, and who made their way into the book. And, back to the body, some of the gravestones read “Here lies the body of…” which really emphasizes the dichotomy, the separation of body and spirit in that time and place.
Your lesbian sensibilities are beautifully reflected in this book. Is there anything you’d like to say to your fans and the mostly LGBTQ audience who read Lambda Literary?
If I can articulate it. I am an out lesbian writing about Jonathan Edwards, who many consider the most important Christian theologian this country has ever produced, an icon for many, including many who don’t accept queer people—to go into that territory was scary. I was raised a Christian. I’m grateful I was able to find support and a press willing to publish this book with an out lesbian author. Writing about this subject is a gift from all the years of queer liberation, a gift of my involvement with grassroots feminism and queer activism. It is because of this history that I had the nerve to approach the subject of this book. I’m still afraid, but it feels like a gift from all the books I’ve read by queers over the years and from lesbian feminists who encouraged other women to take on subjects that had seemed forbidden, especially getting explicit about bodies and sexuality. I’m surprised to find myself given permission to look deeply into Calvinist theology and bring my own insights and interpretations. I would hope that the LGBT community would feel the force of that journey and make spaces for more of these kinds of explorations. Whatever we want to read or write about, we don’t have to leave our queerness behind. We don’t have to read any of ourselves behind. We can explore what we’re drawn to in literature and stay in our communities.