Alumni Feature April 2013

Alumni Interview: Susanna Freymark

 

Susanna Freymark, author of Losing February – and the wonderfully candid subject of this month’s alumni interview – chose a different Hemingway quote as her favourite, but I’ll warrant she knows a thing or two about this one:

In order to write about life first you must live it.

 

Ain’t that the truth?

Or is it...? In the case of this debut novel, what’s true and what’s false, what’s real and what’s virtual, what sex looks like online and offline and what’s anonymous and known makes for a confronting tale of sexual misadventure. Interviewing Susanna was fascinating; I discovered within myself some latent assumptions about chat rooms and certainly about the world of Internet sex that demand to be interrogated. I realised, reading some of Susanna’s more bracing disclosures, that a little Victorian prude lurks somewhere in my psyche, shocked and furiously blushing and feeling more than a little parched by the stinging knowledge that other people are getting so much action. As I write this, people all over the world are enjoying – or in some cases enduring – sex both simulated and actual. There is no drive more basic and yet it’s still a site of acute discomfort – the ‘discourse on intercourse’ continues to be as sensitive as a scrotum and herewith I present Susanna Freymark, sexual warrior woman, no doubt a much better lover than I’ll ever be.

Susanna Freymark DJ: Susanna, welcome to the Alumni Interview Suite. This book is a hybrid between fiction and your own experience. Tell us about that process of recasting truth into invention.

SF: I started writing Losing February to understand how I could fall in love so hard and so unexpectedly. I wanted to know why I fell down so hard too as I had never seen myself as a person who would turn to sex to escape sorrow. So writing the book was initially cathartic and without a reader in mind. Writing helped me process what had happened to me.

About 40,000 words into the story, halfway really, I was struggling to stick to the truth. The story was starting to fell like a, ‘...and then. . . and then...’ story — as memoirs can.

DJ: How did you arrive at the conclusion that this was better as a novel rather than a memoir – had you been given external feedback or did you arrive at the solution by yourself?

SF: I was finishing my final subject at UTS and Pan Macmillan were interested but it was my agent, Selwa Anthony, who said to me:

Do you have more books in you?
Do you want a career as a novelist?
Do you prefer to write nonfiction or fiction?

 

Yes, yes and fiction, were my answers.

script She wisely gave me the permission to follow my natural bent (despite being a journalist) to write fiction. That decision gave me freedom to play with the story, to explore characters and to create the arc of a story that I hope makes the book a page-turner. I could condense time and through the fictional narrative found a much stronger voice.

DJ: What structural scaffolding assisted in creating a functional narrative arc once you committed to telling a fictionalised version of your story?

SF: On a huge piece of paper, I mapped out characters and their impact on each other. I mapped out a timeline, too. I sought to make the characters suffer even more, if that's possible. I focused on what could be the resolution of the story. That's where I used the sex machine after Bernie's disastrous sexual forays.

Life —real life — is messier than fiction. I was also able to distance my own feelings of loss and longing and transpose them onto Bernie so she owned the story. It became her story and I became the writer of her story.

DJ: How long after your experience did you commence writing? How and where was the bulk of the manuscript written and over what sort of timeframe?

SF: The best and worst year of my life was 2006. I wrote a short story in that year called 'Losing February'. It wasn't a story that ever saw the light of day but the title was used later on for the manuscript. I started writing a year later. The writing process intensified once I enrolled in a Masters of Creative Writing at UTS. And fortunately, the publishers liked the title, so it stayed.

DJ: Let’s talk first about some of the non-fiction elements. It’s already been noted by reviewers and interviewers that this is a very dark story that takes the reader into some fairly grim spaces...what compelled you to plunge into this world of chat-room hook-ups in the first place?

SF: I was trying to bury my broken heart. I felt rejected by the man who I believed was my soul-mate (rejected for the right reasons as he was married) and I had previously been in a sexless marriage for many years, so seeking to be desired led me to the Internet. It was easy and accessible. But it was the wrong place to go when I was feeling so vulnerable. In hindsight, seeking counseling or telling my friends would have been a smarter option instead of seeking bad men for bad sex in order to punish myself. But I can't change the past.

DJ: Actually, let’s go back a step. I’ve never been in a chat-room and I assume I’m not alone. I’ve commented on blogs and participated in social media (albeit sporadically), but I wouldn’t know the first thing about chat-room culture. Am I right in thinking there are chat-rooms whose sole purpose is bringing together people looking for anonymous sex/sex with strangers? How does that even work?!

SF: There is everything on the Internet. Yes, there are chat-rooms specifically to have sex, through talking dirty via an onscreen chat box or by webcams where people masturbate and ‘get their rocks off' watching each other – and of course through those chat-rooms people can meet up in real life. There are many sites and I'd rather not promote them. You simply sign into one of these chat-rooms, create a profile by answering explicit sexual questions like, ‘Do you use sex toys?’; ‘Do you like group sex?’; ‘Do you want to be whipped?’ and so on –but you get the idea.

DJ: A lot has been written and debated about the predatory nature of some of the individuals prowling chat-rooms – how often (if ever) did you feel that your safety was at risk? How did you mitigate against placing yourself in real danger?

SF: Trouble was, I didn't mitigate against danger because my self-esteem was so low. I didn't care about the risks of meeting strangers. Ill-advised behaviour, but I was thoughtless at the time. I'm just lucky that none of the men I came across hurt me, even though at the time I wished they would. I'm not proud of what I did but it was borne out of heartache.

DJ: To what extent do you think you created a persona for these encounters? I’m wondering if there was an element of play-acting involved that allowed you to remain detached from what was happening, or if in fact the raw and sometimes seedy fact of it was part of the point.

SF: Who I was varied so much. In the beginning, I was flattered by a man's attention and would do what they asked. At times I felt like a slut and played that role without any feeling at all. Other times I berated myself and felt a deep shame. Sometimes, I felt a bizarre power in the men's sexual desire. The whole time, I knew that what I was doing was wrong. I just didn't care at that time.

DJ: What about the men? I saw your interview with Caroline Baum in which you said you deliberately sought out guys with boastful names and exaggerated descriptions of sexual prowess – to what extent does that world rely on the promise of profound unreality?

SF: 'makemecum' or 'fuckyouhard' pretty much dictates the man you will meet. The men with mean, brutal names were as their profile stated. But there were [those] who wanted connection and something more than a one-night stand. There were men who exaggerated their looks, age and jobs and were terribly sad when I met them and found them to be quite different. The Internet thrives on the promise of profound reality, particularly the sex industry in all its forms. To be fair, when we meet someone in real life we exaggerate the best of ourselves and try to hide our weaknesses until they know us better. But online, this is amplified. Sexual deviance is the norm because there is a safety in showing a part of yourself to a stranger, especially from behind a keyboard. So there is a truth, lots of lies and an online reality that in most cases will lead to disappointment.

DJ: Australia is still quite a sexually conservative country; it takes guts to put your name on the cover while admitting flat out that you didn’t make it all up... what’s been the reaction of your colleagues and loved ones to the book, to the knowledge that it’s based on your own experience?

SF: I did consider a pseudonym, but as a journalist knew that it would create more interest than if I was truthful. Remember when Nikki Gemmell released The Bride Stripped Bare as Anonymous, every journalist in the land sought out the 'real' author. Times have changed since then and I like to think readers can decide for themselves whether they want to read an explicit story like Losing February or not. I've had emails from women who have confessed their own online secrets and longing, for loving the right man at the wrong time, so if my book generates conversation, that is a good thing.

signing As for friends and family, they have been affected by the story and many have been shocked and upset that I kept it all a secret. Some of them thought they should have known and been there for me. But that is the problem with shame and secrets: if no one knows, they can't help. The people close to me are glad I'm okay now.

Exposing myself has bought me closer to people too. The exposure, though, has been scary... but I have to stand by what I did and I am the person I am today because of what happened. Before Losing February was published my husband said to me, "It matters who you are now." And he meant it. I stole that line (with his permission) and used it in the book.

DJ: What were some of the greatest challenges you had to overcome in transforming your experience into a novel?

SF: The biggest challenge was overcoming my fears. I didn't want to cleanse the story or tone it down just because someone might react to the brutal sex scenes or the explicit language. I certainly didn't want to use the phrase 'down there' to describe a vagina. To overcome this, I pretended no one would EVER read my story. When the publishing journey began and the reality of actual readers hit me, I was scared, tentative and thrilled all at once. Overall though, it has been a positive experience.

DJ: Do you think it gets easier for women to write about sex once they’re of a certain age? Once you’ve given birth, raised your kids and shrugged off all the bodily anxiety that bullies most women through at least some parts of their lives, do you think we just get a bit braver?

SF: I can't speak for all women but I am certainly more open about my body, sex and its pleasures. I feel much more confident now, because I know my body and mind better now. Giving birth is empowering, learning the different ways your body can orgasm is empowering and loving another person is hugely empowering. It involves trust, surrender and a certain acceptance of yourself. I am proud of my capacity to love because it makes me feel so human. I am much braver now.

DJ: Double standards. They’re still rife and I think there’s still deep suspicion and fear toward the sexual appetite of women. I’ve been guilty of a weird kind of sexism myself in thinking about your book: my mental default imagines subjugation – and that’s troubling. Can a woman with a voracious sexual appetite explore it freely, without incurring opprobrium and provoking unease? Can consensual men and women meet in the circumstances your book describes and emerge as equals?

SF: Every reader will bring their sexual history and judgements to Losing February. And that's okay. I do believe there is sexism towards women regarding their sexual appetite and the sexual adventures they might like to explore – and often from other women. Who deigns what we can and cannot do with our own bodies? I do think men and women can meet in a sexual playground of their own making and if it is consensual and what both parties want I see no problem there. We are grown-ups and sex is allowed to be an escape. We are allowed to be someone else when we fuck. And we can have fast sex, role-play, be submissive, dominant, try new things and we can make love for hours if we choose to. Equality for me is when both people want to satisfy...themselves [and] the person they are with. And skin on skin with the right person, well, it's pretty brilliant, isn't it?

DJ: Your protagonist Bernie is hard at work on a novel as her tale of misadventure begins – were you working on another project yourself when all this kicked off? And if so, how likely is that MS to eventually become novel # 2? If not, could you share some thoughts on your next book?

SF: Yes, Bernie's book is my book. I was working on my first novel, ‘Drowning on the Way Home’ when Jack's poem interrupted and led me to a whole other story when I put an advertisement in the paper to find him. So unlike Bernie, who is now tripping off on her own fictional life somewhere, I am back working on ‘Drowning.’ This story is set in central Australia and taps into every mother's nightmare of parental child abduction. I'm halfway through and have come to the manuscript a very different person to the one who began ‘Drowning on the Way Home’ when my children were younger and I was doing the school run.

DJ: We know Bernie shares many similarities with you; what are some of the key and pronounced differences between character and creator?

SF: There are, as you have said, many similarities, but the differences between creator and character include: Bernie doesn't enjoy her whisky as much as I do; she volunteers at a bird sanctuary; she’s so much harder on herself and what [she] does; in some scenes she has more guts than me. But we both loved Jack.

DJ: The non-starter love affair with Jack, an old university crush who’s now married with children, is the catalyst for Bernie’s descent into her internet-led liaisons... let’s talk about the narrative power of a sexless affair – was it as frustrating to write as it was to live?

SF: I was so tempted to bring Bernie and Jack together for a stupendous love scene – and yes, as in real life, it required great restraint. But real life was much harder. When you love someone you want to give of yourself. So writing about Bernie's affair was easier. Some reviewers of the book haven't liked Jack and see him as manipulative. I bristled when I read that, so I am still way too attached, but am learning to let go of the past.

DJ: What happened when you finished the manuscript? Did you ever sit there looking at it wondering, ‘Now what?’ What was your path to publication?

SF: I never had time for 'now what?’ When I was about 40,000 words in, I sent a few sample chapters to Varuna for one of [its] publishing weeks, where a publisher selects manuscripts to work on. I was in the selected ten but never made the final cut. I was told Losing February had made the Varuna selectors blush; I wasn't sure if that was a good thing or not. After that, I worked on it even harder. There is nothing like not making it to make you work harder. On a whim, I sent the first chapter to Pan Macmillan's Manuscript Monday where they promise to give you a reply within 3 weeks. A few days later, they asked for another chapter, then another and then for all I had. So my raw, rough draft was sent to Pan after years of being told [to] only ever show a publisher you best work. They read it and called me in. Because the title was Losing February there was a rush to edit and proofread and finish the book by February. I wrote every morning at 5.30am before going to my day job as a newspaper journalist. I was exhausted but loved the deadline and I believe I did some of my best writing during that time.

DJ: Reading your responses to Booktopia’s ‘Ten Terrifying Questions’, in which you talk about loving the privacy and intimacy of books, I think there are such interesting, layered contradictions in the case of Losing February – to what extent do you think the whole journey you’ve undertaken explores the shifting, inherently unreliable distance between public and private?

SF: Nowadays, there's seems to be very little distance between public and private. But it was my choice. No one made me write the story. No one made me publish it. So I need to own it. Mixing a memoir with fiction allowed me to protect people. My journey as an author could have taken a different route and I never planned it to be like this. It is just how it happened.

Losing February cover DJ: Let’s talk about the cover – who isn’t intrigued by a good cover (or wine label, for that matter)? Authors generally have little or no input into the cover design – one of those wild things about publishing that never stops surprising me – how was your cover decided? Covers help influence purchasing decisions; I’m intrigued by the cover of Losing February – the water looks so inviting, the scene evoking the promise of summer love, but Bernie is a mother in her 40s – surely this lithesome babe can only be in her very early 20s?!

SF: The young woman on the front represents Bernie when she was 18 when she met Jack for the first time. It has a nostalgic, innocent feel to it.

The cover is ALL the work of the publishers. I was so caught up in writing the story I hadn't contemplated a front cover image. Pan Macmillan asked if I liked it and I did. It was innocent yet seductive, evocative and featured the ocean. I liked it instantly.

DJ: Despite demanding tension and drama, readers still become frustrated by a protagonist who doesn’t learn or change in a timely fashion – making the same bad decision over and over again can quickly alienate and/or bore – how did you manage Bernie’s sexual blow-out so that the reader stays with her and continues to empathise with her plight?

SF: Edit, edit, edit. I was aware that readers would be shaking their heads or wanting to tell Bernie to get over it. But love is complicated, grief is complicated and if I had simplified Bernie's downfall I don't think that would have been believable. It was a fine line to tread. One reviewer described Losing February like watching a car crash: you can't look away even though you want to.

DJ: Bernie’s ending is a happy one – how closely does the novel’s conclusion mirror the end of that difficult time in your own life?

SF: The end is very close to my own journey. I met a man who loved me at my worst and he helped me believe in myself again. We married four months ago. It is the first time in my life I have someone who is in my corner, so to speak. He is loving and kind, strong and certain. He supports me in so many ways and I couldn't have done all this without him.

DJ: That’s such a lovely outcome, congratulations. We like him! Now, tell us about your links to Varuna and how the Writers’ House has helped your development.

Byron Bay Library SF: I came to Varuna on a Litlink Fellowship as I was living near Byron Bay. I worked on my first manuscript, ‘Drowning on the Way Home.’ It was an absolute thrill to be at the Writers’ House where Robert Drewe, Frank Moorhouse and others had stayed. I willed some of their insight to rub off onto me. A week at Varuna, with feedback from Peter Bishop and my Litlink peers, made me feel like a 'real' writer.

 

DJ: How and where do you work? What's your favourite writing snack?

SF: I can write anywhere. On the bus, in a cafe, anywhere... I have no problem with 'white noise' around me. In fact, I think it helps me blot out the world and go into my writing space. At home, I usually crank up the music while I write. Also, getting away from the desk forces me to write longhand; I think it changes my writing. Mornings are my best time. My mind is busy and restless and more so by the end of the day, so I like to write first thing. For me, I'm also sending a message to myself by putting writing first in the day’s activities. I'm telling myself it is important and if I want to flop in front of the television at the end of the day, I do so guilt-free.

whisky My favourite writing snack is coffee in the morning and whisky in the evening, when I reread my morning's work.

DJ: You’re a working mum – how have you managed to overcome the lovely tyranny of the pram/bike/gym bag in the hall?

SF: My youngest is 15 and my other two children have grown up and left home so there is no tyranny anymore. The hardest thing when the children were young was being so tired. But I learnt to write anywhere, anytime. For ten minutes or half an hour waiting at the dentist. I never made the kids an excuse not to write. If it meant getting up before them so be it. If it meant staying up half an hour later, I just did it. Writing is one of the few artistic pursuits that require so little to do it. I'd read a few lines of a beautiful poem to take me to a writing world and then I would scribble away.

Ernest Hemingway Like A House On Fire cover DJ: In addition to the authors you name on Booktopia, which writers inspire and influence you?

SF: My favourite authors include Helen Garner, Barbara Kingsolver, Margaret Atwood, David Malouf, Raymond Carver, Zadie Smith, Michael Ondaatje, Cate Kennedy . . . I could go on and on. There are a lot of inspiring writers out there.

DJ: What’s the best piece of writing advice you know?

SF: A quote from Hemingway:

The good parts of a book may be only something a writer is lucky enough to overhear or it may be the wreck of his whole damn life—and one is as good as the other.

Ernest Hemingway

 

graduate This quote reminds me to stay alert to the grand events in life as equally as the small, everyday occasions. I listen and watch for stories every day. You never know what small thing will spark an idea or character.

UTS anthology DJ: You’ve completed a Master of Arts in Creative Writing at UTS. Tell us about that.

I love learning so going to uni to learn about writing was a treat. Where else would I have the opportunity to work with the likes of Debra Adelaide, Jean Bedford, Rosie Scott, Adam Aitken and others? And all those lengthy discussions with my peers about writing...

I hope to do my doctorate one day. Uni gave me an even greater focus on my writing. And there is nothing like assignment deadlines to get a short story finished. Uni makes you want to be a better writer. Something I strive for every day.

 



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3 Comments

  • What a wonderful interview. A fascinating topic, excellent questions, and honest, candid answers. Thank you both so much, this book is definitely hitting my to be read pile.

    Catherine Lee Thursday, 11 April 2013 17:12 Comment Link
  • Oh good, what every author wants to hear Catheine, their book on the to-read pile. Thanks for your comment.

    Susanna Freymark Friday, 12 April 2013 09:13 Comment Link
  • And what every interviewer longs to hear, too. Thanks, Catherine - please come by again!

    Diana Jenkins Saturday, 13 April 2013 20:32 Comment Link

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