In 2016, I was captivated when Sophfronia Scott read an excerpt from her essay, “Why I Didn’t Go to the Firehouse,” at the River Pretty Writers Retreat in Tecumseh, Missouri. The essay is a meditation about why Scott, when confronted with the news that a deadly shooting had just occurred at her third-grade son’s school, Sandy Hook Elementary (December 14, 2012), chose to stay put until more was known. As you may imagine, Scott’s prose confronts life, death, faith, and everything in between.
When I learned Scott was returning to lead writing workshops at River Pretty this October, I jumped at the chance to interview her for The Common Reader. During our Oct. 6 chat, we discussed her recently published collection of essays, Love’s Long Line, how to navigate writing about family in creative nonfiction, and why transforming grief and anger into art may be one of the ultimate acts of grace.
The Common Reader: How do you find a place of forgiveness while also honoring the good in family and the subjects you are dealing with in your essay collection, Love’s Long Line? This is especially important because writers of nonfiction, especially newer writers to nonfiction, can often hang out in trauma, grief, and anger, and you make a very conscious choice in this collection of essays not to do that.
Scott: A lot of that stemmed from the essay, “Upbringing,” which I first wrote in college. It was a seminal moment in my life. My classmate’s question about my dad, “Why did he act like that?” really forced me to look at him clearly and honestly and try to understand the different aspects I saw of him that were conflicting to me. On the one hand, the way he treated us, I wanted to be very angry about that, believing “this man is mean [and physically abusive],” yet, on the other hand, he did hugely loving things and I just thought that was especially critical. I had to be honest with myself to really look at this behavior, and to see that this person did love me. It is a clear-eyed view to truly try to understand and go beyond my own hurt. I had to put the hurt over here and stand here and try to understand this person. In that moment, because I was able to do that once, it set me free. It’s changed my life.
TCR: I get a sense that when you are writing you do not want to give up on people or the need to think about what they hungered for or needed in life.
Scott: When I was shaping [my novel] Unforgivable Love and talking about it with a neighbor who lives down the street, she said, ‘Well, I read your first book, and Sophfronia, it seems to me, you are all about redemption. You don’t throw people away.’ And I said, ‘Oh, okay.’ That’s what I do, it shows up in my writing, and it all makes sense. So, yeah, it’s like, we’re connected, and just as with the essay about the letter from my father, I feel love stays, love stays, and I love, even people [who] have gone off. I honor that within myself and search for ways to do that.
TCR: After reading, “Why I Didn’t Go to the Firehouse,” I kept thinking about your son Tain’s remembrance of his friend Ben [Wheeler], and that there is this presence of people who are there, but not physically, bodily there. How do we honor these lives, commemorate them, give them legacy and voice, while still being keenly aware that our own voice is shaping how we see them?
Scott: That is something that is only now becoming more concrete for me as I discussed in my lecture yesterday because the loss of Katy Kellgren [a dear friend who died in January 2018 and “the Meryl Streep of audiobooks”] leaves me still reeling (and still understanding that). So, just last month, on what would have been Ben’s 12th birthday, my son and I were talking about it. I said, “Well, you know Ben’s mom just posted that come next year he will be gone from us longer than he was here.” And Tain said, “Well, actually he has been here more now than ever before. He is everywhere, he is here with us in this restaurant, he is with his mother,” and I was like, okay. Of course, he’s right; he’s right. We started having that conversation about how people we’ve lost are really all around us because I do feel my father around me, too.
TCR: There was a recent panel at the Association of Writers & Writing Programs (AWP) about parents who write about their children. As you navigate what you share about your son’s life, how do you decide what you feel comfortable to share?
Scott: The question you’re talking about is privacy, and that issue is coming up now. I even said to him, “Tain, you’re getting too old for me to write about these things. You’re going to need to write about this yourself because people need to hear this.” And I just feel as a teenager he needs his own space. Yeah, that window is closing and it’s getting to be that time now. I am writing an essay for Yankee Magazine, about where we are now with Sandy Hook, and I’m thinking right now this is probably the last essay I will write about him.
TCR: Was that an easy realization to know this is the closing point?
Scott: I feel it was an inevitable realization. I think that question also speaks to whose story is it? I don’t want [Tain] to get lazy. I don’t want him to think, “Oh, Mom, will write about it, and I don’t have to.”
TCR: In the context of #MeToo and #WhyIDidntReport, we [as a culture] are talking more and more about women tapping into their collective anger. In many of your essays, you write about not choosing anger. Is that a choice that has been made more consciously as a result of faith or do you think something you came to realize within your family of origin?
Scott: I am well aware of what physical anger feels like. It does not feel good. It’s like fire, and I could see it in my dad, and it puts you in a place where you can barely sit down. You can barely walk straight, think straight, when you’re consumed with anger. It is not productive, so I can’t go there, especially if it’s not necessary. In terms of politics, when you get that angry you are giving someone power over you. Donald Trump does not get to get this part of me. He is working his own energy there, and it is bad energy. I can only feel sorry for him. Does that mean I like anything of what he’s doing? No, but anger to me is just not productive.
TCR: But it is like that “tiger stalking the room” metaphor that you use when you write about your father’s anger. I know this essay collection is not instructional, but just by reading this book I think a lot of readers might consider how we are all held hostage by anger.
Scott: I’m coming to this place of understanding that I’m not about the how-to. I will tell you what I did, I will model it, but I find it much more helpful to show you how I think about something because if I can show you a way of thinking, you will figure out the “how-to” yourself. And you will find your own way and what is best for you. That is one of the best things I have to offer.
TCR: Throughout this collection, I noticed you have a passion for theater, and I know you worked as a stage manager when you were in college. You mention August Wilson, Samuel Beckett, Sam Shepard, Lillian Hellman, and several others.
Scott: I had no idea all that was in there… [laughter]
TCR: Yes, I just started tallying. Do you feel theater influences your writing and how you think about scene and detail?
Scott: I’m still coming back to it; it’s almost like I have forgotten how much theater is in me. I had forgotten with my son being interested in theater, too. I don’t know if you knew about this, but we are working on a stage version of Unforgivable Love. [Scott’s novel, which reimagines Dangerous Liaisons in 1947 Harlem] We did a stage reading in New Jersey just last month and we had over a 100 people and it was absolutely fabulous and fun… It’s a funny feeling seeing your characters walking around and talking. It’s going to be a musical, so I’ve written the new script for that. I feel theater has just a vital closeness, and I’ve been affected by theater in a very deep way. It’s exciting to me.
TCR: Both as readers and writers, is there anything we can pay attention to or learn from the ecstatic experience of live performance?
Scott: By going to theater, you develop empathy. You’re not just reading about a villain on the page or seeing him on the screen. The villain is right there in front of you … It has that immediacy.