On the jaunt that duncan b. barlow and I recently made through the Midwest, we had the good fortune of reading with Miriam Suzanne in Denver. Her experimental novel Riding SideSaddle* is told on a series of cards which can be read in any order. At the reading, Suzanne handed out cards to the audience and instructed us to read a card if we felt it fit. The result was something I hadn’t experienced before: a sense of dozens of people creating a unique narrative in an unexpected collaboration. After getting back home, I reached out to Suzanne with some questions about her book and how this distinctive approach to presenting it came to be.
Did you know from the outset that Riding SideSaddle* would be in the format that it’s in? What appealed to you the most about adding the element of randomness to it?
I’ve had the structure in mind for a long time. I’ve always written in fragments that I can rearrange as I go, so I was curious if I could publish that way as well. It fits my experience of the world, and memory in particular. Not random exactly, but not a clear narrative of linear cause-and-effect either. Associative.
I may have also been inspired by Kurt Vonnegut’s Tralfamadorians, who live outside time, and read stories all-at-once. I wanted to know if that was possible to recreate in some small way.
Later, I became interested in writing about Hermaphroditus, and bodies, and queer relationships. I liked the feeling of friends reminiscing – following different threads and associative paths, with contradictions and gaps in their story.
I’m more interested in uncertainty than randomness, if that distinction makes sense. While the telling changes, the story remains the same. That was important to me. I don’t want it to feel random, I want it to feel open. Putting an order to it would imply that I know the “right” way to understand these events.
The narrative is interspersed with quotes from a text that act as a kind of counterpoint to it. Where did that additional layer to the project come from?
I like to include multiple voices in my work, often stolen or borrowed from other work, and sometimes other people. I get bored with a story that only has one perspective on the world, or a story I could have imagined on my own.
In this case there is a primary narrator, a set of clippings from the original myths by Ovid and Vitruvius, and a number of quippy quotes from Margaret Clap’s fictional book. Since I was working from the myth initially, that layer came naturally.
Clap’s interjections developed more slowly, in reaction to the narrator’s earnest, maudlin reflections. There’s always a good dick joke to lighten the mood, as she says. At first they weren’t attached to any particular character, but Margaret Clap was a bit underdeveloped. Two birds with one stone!
As someone who’s also spent some time in the tech world, I’m also curious–has the work you’ve done with programming languages had any impact on the prose that you write?
In terms of tone or language-use, I think my prose style has more impact on my code than the other way around. Programming is 80% maintenance – reading and editing code that already exists – so it’s important to write something readable to other humans, not just a compiler. It’s fun to find expressive and elegant ways to resolve a problem in code – like writing poetry with a limited syntax and strict rules.
When it comes to process and structure, though, software development has had a clear impact on my writing. Modern programming is heavily based around objects and functions – small, self-contained fragments of code that can be combined in different ways to form a whole. Open source tools allow you to re-mix fragments for different results, collaborating with strangers while retaining control over your own final product.
All of that leads me to a process that incorporates fragments of remix and collage, releasing different “versions” of a single piece. In this novel, a number of cards come from other people, adapted slightly (with permission) from their own, unrelated projects. The box was labeled as a 1.0 release, with the idea that it could continue to take on other forms – which it did.
My band used the novel as a source of lyrics and inspiration for our first album, The Holes They Leave, which is now included with the original text for an online version of the novel, along with animated versions of the artwork. We also collaborated with a local theater company to write a play, adding new material as we went – cards between the cards. I consider all these versions and additions to be part of the “official” story.
I was really struck by the communal aspect of having everyone in the audience read from Riding SideSaddle* – it’s like nothing I’ve seen before at a literary event. Where did the idea to do this come from?
I didn’t come up with that idea. My first few readings were more what you’d expect: just me with a small stack of cards. I hated it. Everything felt disconnected. Shuffling became an arbitrary stage gimmick, and it was hard to find the through-lines of the story. It felt contrived, and far from the group-of-friends-reminiscing tone that I wanted in the novel.
When Buntport Theater started developing their stage adaptation, they read the novel out-loud as a group – drawing cards and finding the story-lines together. They recommended it to me. I was skeptical that it would work with strangers, but now I can’t imagine anything else. I think it helps people focus, and find the connections between cards. The story is no longer random, but truly collaborative and associative – full of different voices trying to piece it all together.
Before this novel, I would usually bring the band along to readings. I hate the academic poetry adage that words “speak for themselves” – as though presentation is separate from the art. What are line breaks and punctuation, if not an attempt to describe the music of a piece? Music helps make the poetry visceral in a way that I like. Maybe that’s just cheating. I like cheating.
Do you ever get feedback from audiences after taking part in the reading?
I haven’t asked for formal feedback, but the responses so far have been pretty positive. People seem grateful for something different at a reading. Maybe the gimmick just grabs their attention, but people seem to connect with the story at a deeper level when they have to work together to tell it.
I’m also careful to keep participation optional and low-pressure. That was my biggest concern, as someone who hates being coerced into audience participation.
You’re also a member of the band Teacup Gorilla; how do you approach music versus taking part in literary events?
Teacup Gorilla has picked up and adapted much of my process, and my tendency to remix and reuse material – building our songs as a collage of associated fragments. We start with various bits of material, and then find a structure to hold it, rather than building out from a single point like a lyric or guitar riff.
We’ll steal words from one song to start another, or replace all the lyrics a year after the song is written. We’ve stolen phrases from Gil Scott-Heron and CA Conrad and Amiri Baraka; our friends Aaron and Jacob Liechty; or our own prose and poetry.
Poetry readings were our main venue for the first year or two as a band. It took some work to adjust our material for bars, where the crowd is a bit less captive, and less open to being punched in the gut with difficult lyrics. We had some lousy shows before we learned that lesson. Less words, more kick drum.