Saturday, May 1, 2021

Q&A with Susan Olding



Photo by Helene Cyr


Susan Olding is the author of the new book Big Reader: Essays. Her other books include Pathologies: A Life in Essays. She lives in Victoria, British Columbia.


Q: What inspired you to write Big Reader, and over how long a period did you write the essays collected in the book?


A: First, thanks for inviting me to join you here. Looking at the previous interviews and the variation in the kinds of work that appeals to you or interests you, I think you are a big reader, yourself! Kindred spirits.


I wrote Big Reader over a period of about a decade. It was a decade of loss and grief for me. Both parents sickened and died. I and other family members struggled with serious depression.


I even seemed to be losing the time to read, or the ability to read with ease (due to problems with my vision), and I felt a lot of grief about that—grief I had trouble understanding until I began to write about it.


It occurred to me then that I was not alone; that with the rise of the internet, many of us struggle to bring deep attention to books.


I wondered about the costs of that. I mean the emotional costs—especially to those of us who grew up thinking of ourselves as readers. If you lose a pastime, a hobby, that is sad—but to lose what has been a pillar of your identity is another layer of grief.


I’m making the book sound steeped in sadness, but I hope it’s funny in places and joyful and filled with hope, too.  The good news for me, personally, is that by writing the book, I seem to have written my way out of my “not-reading” phase.

Q: How was the book’s title chosen, and what does it signify for you?


A: Big Reader was the name of the device my brother and I purchased for my mother to help with her low vision. But, of course, it also signifies the narrator—and connects her (me) with readers of the book itself. Because I’m assuming my audience also loves to read.


Q: The writer Brenda Miller said of the book, “Big Reader is a perfect collection of essays, especially for those of us who rediscovered a love of reading during challenging times.” What do you think of that assessment, and what role do you see reading playing during the pandemic?


A: That was such a generous thing for Brenda to say. And I hope she is right.


I can’t speak for others, of course, but during the pandemic, the things that kept me sane were the world of nature—time in the garden, time walking in the woods— and the world of imagination, which of course includes reading and writing. I think that’s probably true for many people.


I think of these as anchoring passions. During lockdowns, many of us needed desperately to get away from our screens for some portion of each day. So, we reconnected with these old loves and recognized their importance to us. What that will mean when the pandemic ends, I can’t predict.


Q: What do you hope readers take away from the book?


A: I hope readers will be moved to think about the books that have shaped their own lives, and to ask themselves why those books, and what about them.


I hope they will think about the way we are always reading, always applying our interpretive lenses – not just to books but to other works of art and to events in the world and people.


I hope they’ll be moved to run out and read or re-read some of the books I talk about (or others that have been especially important to them).


I hope they’ll feel grateful for the incredible gift that reading is, especially in times like ours, where it has never seemed more important to reach across barriers of time/class/gender/race and pay attention to what others are telling us about their experience.


Q: What are you working on now?


A: Three things.


In the short term, an essay about the Women’s March of 2017 and walking with dead mother.


Next, I’m completing a book of short stories called Lonely Planet.


Finally, as part of my research for a Ph.D., I’m studying a rift between Canadian poets Dorothy Livesay and Al Purdy, extrapolating from the failure of their friendship to examine the hegemonic effects of misogyny and racism on the developing canon during a critical period in our cultural history.


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: In addition to everything else that it is, Big Reader is a love letter to the personal essay. Lovers of the essay form should enjoy this book.  


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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