So You Wrote a Book? Selah Saterstrom

If you’ve read Selah Saterstrom’s fiction you know it’s rapturous and visionary, hallucinations seen, cauterized and juxtaposed. In her latest book of non-fiction, Ideal Suggestions: Essays in Divinatory Poetics, Selah takes us behind the curtain on a epistemological journey of her process: writing as an act of divination that casts the writer into relationship and revelation with their work. Using meditations, pictures, vintage texts and even 80’s pop culture, Saterstrom does what she does best: collages her experience into an artifact that is fiercely individual and yet strangely universal.


Nancy Stohlman: Describe this book in six words

Selah Saterstrom: Works underlit by divinatory practices, partial.

NS: There are many different “pieces” in here, from meditations to screenplays, and each feels complete and self-contained. Did the collage of these many parts happen organically or did you model this structure on other books?

SS: I wrote the collection over a long period and it holds many valentine-genuflections to other books. I did not intentionally model my book’s structure on other books, though the valentine imprint is real and en-layered. Would I have structured a book this way prior to reading the work of Joan Fiset? Or, what about the Pentateuch? My book is in love with those books! Such a flirt. I’d say I modeled this book’s structure on a life spent being in love with reading.

NS: Sometimes your work feels as if you are speaking in tongues, and I will often let it wash over me rather than allow my cognitive brain try to make literal sense out of everything. Does the work come out of you that way or is there an intense refinement process?

SS: The work just comes out this way and there is an intense refinement process. Both. These two experiences are unfixed – they change places with one another, interrupt one another, wake within one another, and also vanish into one another.

In writing I often feel like I’m trying to sync form and content or that I’m trying to achieve a calibration. It’s like listening for a click-click sound. But of course there is no sound (spooky). But there is (a switch in the nervous system that knows).

I have to add…I can’t think of speaking in tongues without thinking of C.D. Wright’s Translations of the Gospel Back into Tongues, a book (and working concept) profoundly important to me.

NS: I love your inclusion of “Notes” at the end of each section—they’re more than just pragmatic, they are actually a way that you let us into your process. Talk about your choice to include these? 

SS: I always thought of the “Notes” as love notes to the people, places, texts, and conditions essential to the writing. Foremost, they were places to proclaim love.

I recently led a graduate class called The Critical Imagination. My colleague Rachel Feder visited and spoke about “expanding the citation” – ways that as writers we might invite, include, and acknowledge collaborative energies vital to our processes.

Her ideas moved me and gave me a framework to think about generosity and reciprocity as sacred technologies that belongs in books. And I’d add, in classrooms, faculty meeting rooms, and in every space. In death spaces. In throw away spaces. And I want to think of spaces and books as zones (that can be) wired for this generosity/reciprocity so that we might increase the possibility for discernment and revelation to have places at our tables.

My other intention with these love notes was to share and show the process which made the work, as much as I was able, and because the processes were no less important than their creations. I wanted the act of writing to saturate all of the efficiently situated justified paragraphs.

Trying to show the process is also an invitation to write. To follow steps or (even better) to make new ones, but to write into the mystery of the overwhelmingly weird fact that we are alive inside immense passions and sufferings.

NS: In one section you talk about a failed attempt to do eco-poetics at Chernobyl, which led you to study photographs instead. Can you talk about your original intention vs the final piece here?

SS: This particular research effort was meant to be part of a chapter in a long-suffering hermeneutics book project, which is about reading devastated landscapes. My Chernobyl research effort fail has stalled out a long chapter in this book. If I’m driving county back roads and pass by an old, abandoned pick-up, rusting out in some pasture, weeds growing up through the hood, I think: there’s my book chapter. There she is.

As I note in Ideal Suggestions (the actual book where the failed text landed), during the time period I was trying to go to Prypyat, when applying for research clearance in Chernobyl, at the top of the application it was stamped: Your Application To Be Excluded. This referred to the “Exclusion Zone,” which required special permits, but was of course also amazing for all the reasons. After going through this involved and expensive process twice, both times, I couldn’t actually get into the Exclusion Zone at the last minute because of a fluke. Huge, blousy, tacky flukes! So the work ended up happening on the boundary line of the Exclusion Zone and I worked from that place, which is also part of what the essay became about.

Shifting the focus a bit, I want to encourage all of your readers to check out Svetlana Alexievich’s stunning, Voices of Chernobyl.  It invokes a polyphonic chorus in one of the most powerful ways I’ve experienced yet. Also, Mariko Nagai’s Irradiated Cities – a really stunning achievement. I hope everyone will read these two books. They have an inexhaustible urgency cleverly staged in the past-tense though they are about right now.

NS: As your student at Naropa over 10 years ago, I remember a prompt to write of a “ruined landscape.” How do ruined landscapes figure in your work?

SS: Your question has me thinking of the word ruin, in all its historical iterations, how it etymologically looms in notions of collapse, which means, at root, “fall together.” Ruination as a community event. Put another way: I feel like every landscape can be a Charnel Ground site – a place we might encounter ourselves or something greater, a place where we are going to either endure in our individual and collective pain or find healing and liberation.

NS: The “brother and sister” dialogue you attribute in your notes both to a lost child and a lost twin. You allow yourself to be extremely vulnerable in revealing this (we usually get to “hide” behind the fiction label when it gets this personal), and you could have chosen to not reveal this. Talk about your choice to reveal?

SS: I keep thinking about this idea that you shared, that it is an option to hide behind the fiction label when things get personal.

I think, in general, fiction (I’d say all of writing) has never been about obscuring things for me, but about revealing things to me – even revealing me to me. So, I feel buck-ass naked in writing pretty much all the time.

I find that rather than creating distance (and therefore room and accordingly, room to hide), writing has had the effect of collapsing distances, and therefore creating intimacy. Intimacy, even if it be terrible, delightful, or whatever.

I also embrace revision and am obsessive regarding syntax. Writing is still/always a form of making. That said, for its many gifts, relief (in the form of not being seen), has not been one bestowed on this writer.

I think I don’t want to hide in writing because I don’t want to hide anywhere.

I know the suffering (and exhaustion) I’ve experienced by trying to hide myself (how I really am) through casting an image of myself I hope others will agree upon or approve of or buy into. At this point, I don’t want fancier ego strategies around constructions and projections of self, I just want to keep shifting so I can do my best work and so that I can be a really good partner, friend, teacher, mother, neighbor, community member, and so on.

NS: Your “Screenplay” section includes major references to movies such as The Blue Lagoon and Revenge of the Nerds, among others. These are quintessential 80’s movies and not particularly “literary.” How does the vulgar (in the true sense of the word) meet the holy in your work?

SS: When I was in fifth grade, my dad had HBO (a super big deal) and I have many memories of being alone at his townhouse during long weekends when he’d be at his girlfriend’s and I’d watch the hell out of HBO. It is when I first watched Revenge of the Nerds, which seemed to show constantly on HBO’s  “After Dark” selection, and which I was excited to view because it supposedly featured boobs. Though when I actually watched it, it kind of scared me. I often thought about Betty. How she was deceived in the Fun House etc. It felt more like a flat, low-budget horror movie where the monsters were unfocused, sweaty white guys with crumbs stuck to their pasty faces while their bodies were pumped up with insane juvenile lust the color Peach Ne-hi. It was like a super dumb cautionary tale for boobs! Jesus! And I do mean Jesus. Because during that time in my life the other story that kept me up at night was the story of Jesus and his awful fucking death.

I don’t believe in a rigid sacred/profane division, much less that it might be one governed by the binary, and I don’t think holiness has anything to do with purity.

What can I say? I’m like a lot of women I know: I have a vagina that has a trans-generational memory of being 100% screwed over lifetime after lifetime as a result of “purity.”

Purity (and its violent after effects) is messy and complicated; a paradox considering at root it means, and all at once: “clean, clear, unmixed, unadorned, chaste, fresh, new, sifted, and undefiled.” This doesn’t have anything to do with holiness for me. I feel that holiness can be dirty, swampy, mixed, over-dressed and under-dressed, lounging in its own desire, wearing day-old make-up if it wants, and is stock full of agency, resonance, presence.

NS: What advice would you give to a writer creating their first book?

SS: I think of Anne Waldman’s charge to make a vow to writing…the importance of  articulating your energetic contract to writing, the medium of language, and I hope that contract is also rooted in curiosity and a consistent willingness to see your own bullshit and surrender what you think you know about (even!) your own book. And stay with it. Tenacity is important in a world that too often forgets to give folks permission to be visionary.

NS: Anything else you want to add?

SS: Yes: thank you, Nancy! I love you and I love your work and am grateful for the ways you cast community spaces and make so much magic happen here (and elsewhere, too!).

In closing, I’d mention a couple of books because I am a believer in the book-list-share! Three visionary works I recently read/am reading and recommend completely because they are so damn good: Patty Yumi Cottrell’s Sorry To Disrupt the Peace, Alicia Mountain’s High Ground Coward, What I knew by Eleni Sikelianos, and Myriam Gurba’s Mean.

Links to the book or other promo links


Selah Saterstrom is the author of the novels Slab, The Meat and Spirit Plan, The Pink Institution, and the collection of essays, Ideal Suggestions, which was selected for the Essay Book Prize. She teaches and lectures throughout the United States and abroad and is the Director of Creative Writing at the University of Denver.