Queering the Archive

My Autobiography of Carson McCullers BY Jenn Shapland. Portland, OR: Tin House. 266 pages. $22.
Carson McCullers. Photo: Carl Van Vechten, 1959. Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, Carl Van Vechten Collection.

In 2012, Jenn Shapland was an intern at the University of Texas’s Harry Ransom Center. While working there, she discovered the archives of Carson McCullers, the inspiration for Shapland’s new book. She had never read any of McCullers’s work, but the titles, Shapland writes in the first pages of My Autobiography of Carson McCullers, “always struck a chord with me. The Heart is a Lonely Hunter. Like, same.” One day, as Shapland was answering queries from researchers and scholars, she came across a request for correspondence between McCullers and Annemarie Clarac-Schwarzenbach, a Swiss writer and photographer who had been McCullers’s lover. “I found the letters at the tail end of the major, slow-burning catastrophe of my twenties,” she writes. “Like most twenty-five-year-olds, I couldn't figure out what came next. What came next was Carson.” The correspondence ignited in Shapland a deep desire to understand McCullers, and she quickly found many parallels between her own life and McCullers’s—both were queer, chronically ill writers.

As an archivist, Shapland naturally began with objects and documents, but her research soon took her to some of the actual places McCullers inhabited, like her childhood home and the Yaddo artists residency to which she was so devoted. She found love letters between McCullers and other women such as Clarac-Schwarzenbach, as well as her therapist Dr. Mary Mercer, among many other markers of queerness. The book incorporates these elements of McCullers archives and transforms them. The result is something like narrative, though it is by no means linear. My Autobiography of Carson McCullers retains the voyeuristic thrill of perusing an archive: Shapland sorts through hidden clues and identities in both McCullers’s life and her own.

Bookforum spoke with Shapland about archives, obsession, and queer lives.

Your book is both a memoir about your own life and a biography of McCullers. You don’t separate your story from hers—the narrative threads become increasingly entwined. How did you choose this structure?

I knew immediately My Autobiography of Carson McCullers wasn’t going to be a linear narrative, because no matter what I tried, the story kept wrapping back around and folding in on itself. The book has eighty chapters, but it’s fewer than three hundred pages long. These short chapters gave me a way to record that movement without trying to strap it into a clear trajectory. When I first started writing, the sentences came to me in these sections, often in direct response to an archival object I encountered. I was inspired to write this way by Lydia Davis, who always lets her titles do really important work, and who lets even small insights stand on their own on the page as a story. There are other writers who work this way, but she’s the one that I feel kinship with.

How did your background as an archivist affect the book?

There is something archival about this book, and in my writing practice in general. I want to record not just the thought, but also where I’m having it and what the details are of the day that gave rise to the thought, all that context, or what an archivist would call metadata. Of course any archivist would say these chapters are nothing like actual archival entries, but I think there’s a relationship: both come from a drive to record as much as possible, to avoid losing any information that might be useful later on. I work as an archivist for an artist in New Mexico, and this continues to be my daily task: How can we capture all of what this photo or artwork or letter tells us in the logical space of language?

Closets are an interesting facet of My Autobiography. The metaphorical queer closet is itself a site of archival material, as are literal closets. How did these archival discoveries impact your understanding of McCullers?

I love clothes, and I make clothes (and had my own ill-conceived clothing line, Agnes, for a spell). I also worked with clothing and personal effects as an intern at the Harry Ransom Center. Clothes are so personal, so mundane, so close to the body and the home, all of which is why these items drew me in to Carson’s story. Clothes also say so much about how a person presents herself. A really important part of queer history, and queer life-making, is looking at photographs, outfits, and finding personal icons.

I tried not to lean too hard on the metaphor of the closet in the book, but I like what you say about how the closet is its own archive, and this book is kind of rifling through it. Rather than limiting, I found the objects and documents in various archives to be freeing, to really open up the story and change the fixed narrative that was out there. All of the little cards that came with flowers Carson sent to Mary, that Mary saved. The objects kind of sing with meaning, and it felt like my job to translate that meaning into writing so that others who couldn’t engage with them directly could access those stories.

Speaking of the flowers and letters McCullers sent to Mary Mercer, you write about “evidence” of love in the book, that love “lives in the mundane. . . . But of course, it leaves traces.” In what ways is My Autobiography a love story?

It tells my own love story, falling in love with my partner, Chelsea, which coincided with the research and writing of the book (we met in the archive where I found Carson’s love letters from Annemarie). It’s also about my own “love story” with Carson. I think my love for Carson as a writer and a person betrays itself in my obsession with getting her story right. I’m trying to understand her and make others understand her as I see her; it’s a kind of love that is possessive. When I read something that feels inaccurate, that possessiveness comes out. And then there is the grand love story that I uncovered in Columbus, in the Mary Mercer papers, though I don’t want to spoil anything. But I think that’s the real love story of the book, and it’s juicy.

The book also has a bit of a ghost-story element to it. There’s a haunted-house vibe when you’re staying in McCullers’s former home. Then there’s the ghost of her queer identity, which was erased by many of the people who told her story after she died. You even characterize yourself as a ghost in her house, deliberately remaining hidden to outsiders. This ties in with how McCullers’s husband, Reeves, referred to her female crushes as “imaginary friends,” effectively making them unreal. What is ghostly about the hidden or missing narratives of queer lives?

Researching someone else’s life so intensely—living in her childhood home, cataloging her clothing and objects, reading her letters and therapy transcripts, following her to the very-haunted Yaddo—got me thinking about what it means to feel possessed, or haunted, and what it means to haunt or possess others. Carson’s life was haunted by old loves and fears that all turned up in the transcripts of her therapy sessions with Mary in 1958. She’s in her forties, but she’s still talking about one particular night with Annemarie in her early twenties that haunts her, the violence of her abusive husband, and her mother’s death. Her drinking haunts her, too, and in letters to Mary she’s always promising to cut back. I suppose I see these as parts of her life that she struggled to reconcile, and a lot of it reads like a coming-out process. She’s slowly finding the language to integrate all of her experiences into an identity. What Reeves called “imaginary friends” were the deep loves of her life, and it seems that only in her later years, after Reeves was gone, could she start to claim them as significant and real.

Something people love to ask me is if I saw or encountered Carson’s ghost while writing the book or living in her house. Um, no? I think what they’re really asking is, “Did you have permission from Carson’s spirit to write this? Do you have some kind of direct access to her truth?” And, honestly, if her ghost is around she’s probably drunk at a party talking trash in the corner about Truman Capote, and I’m busy taking a bath and writing little notes to myself and taking naps. We didn’t cross paths.

You write about chronic illness and queerness as ways of being lonely in a world that erases or devalues both. How does chronic illness and queerness show up in the body, and how are they physically connected?

I was coming to terms with both my chronic illness (POTS, which can cause extreme physical fatigue and frequent migraines) and with coming out as a lesbian during the period I was writing this book. I realized that there was no way for me to live as a “healthy normal,” that certain things about me made me emphatically different from how I thought I ought to be. As I learned how to be “out,” to claim a queer identity in public and in writing, I began to notice how my illness was something I still tried to hide. Writing about it gave me a way to take something that is deeply personal and subjective—the physical experience of my own body—and make it into language, which also made it more real. Others could recognize and respond to it. There are deep connections between queerness and sickness. Both are often hidden or private; the word sick can mean physically ill, mentally ill, or somehow perverted. Both sexuality and illness arise from the physical body and can’t be immediately known by others. They’re feelings that are often hidden from ourselves.

Right, and that’s one reason queer lives often don’t fit neatly into conventional biographical narratives. How did you think about genre as you were piecing together McCullers’s story?

I struggle with biography as a genre, because I’m deeply interested in life writing, but allergic to anything that starts with “So-and-so was born in 1946.” Who is this third person claiming omniscience about someone else’s life? Why must we begin with birth, which no one remembers, or with ancestors, and move chronologically? The written record about Carson tries to sandwich her into a conventional, straight biography, wherein a person is born, comes of age, marries, and dies. That’s just not how her life went, or that’s not a way to capture the really exciting stuff, like her relationships with women that happened while she was married, her getting divorced and remarrying and abandoning the same guy, living with the queer cadre at February House, meeting Mary Mercer in her forties and falling in love, coming of age late in life. Queer narratives are all over the place, and queer people frequently take a long time to figure shit out. They live many lives in the space of one life, often with different identities, genders, pronouns, bodies, and styles. Queer narratives demand new forms, and I would love to see more queer writing that fucks with all different genres and literary conventions.

Sarah Neilson is a freelance writer and book critic whose work appears in Electric Literature, LARB, LitHub, Buzzfeed, Rewire.News, the Seattle Times, and Bookforum among other outlets. She can be found on Twitter @sarahmariewrote, Instagram @readrunsea, and on her website,