Authors / Interviews / Nonfiction

Q&A with Susannah B. Mintz

Bloom: Tell us a little about the process of deciding to write this memoir. How much distance did you have from these experiences when you started writing?  How did the writing begin, and did the structure or genre shift or change in the process of the writing?

Susannah B. Mintz: The earliest seeds of this memoir were emails I wrote to friends and family about dates while I was in that process. These tended to be comical and pretty irreverent (they would have suited the title “Match Dot Comedy”). But the story I really wanted to tell—bigger than online dating—is about a sequence of events that converged on Thanksgiving in 2007. I had been badly disappointed by a man I thought was “perfect” for me, a man who somewhat resembled my father. My father, whom I hadn’t spoken to in about a year, was badly hurt in a horse accident. I had just written a letter of apology to Michael when I found out about my father. In a matter of days, I was back in touch with Michael and with my father, and there is something of each of those re-connections in my understanding of the other. Michael made me realize how much I wanted to learn the value kindness, generosity, and joy, and the instant I heard about my father’s injuries I shed years of anger and hurt about him. That was the love story I wanted to write: how I stopped being my father’s angry daughter and leaned into happiness.

I tried to capture all that in a book-length memoir, but somehow couldn’t. I’m comfortable in essay form, but structure and movement across 200 pages eluded me. I pitched the book-length version of Match Dot Comedy to agents with nibbles but no luck. I knew deep-down the manuscript was uneven, and wondered what would happen if I tried to edit it down from a disjointed book to a more streamlined and focused essay, stripping away what was extraneous to the core story as I understood it. At some point I decided to take out the thread about my dad. The result was the 60-page-long essay I eventually sent to Kindle.

Bloom: This is your first long-form memoir, and it’s quite revealing and personal, of both yourself and the men you dated: were you at all concerned about the men you mention in the book reading what you wrote or responding to it? How did that (if at all) influence the way you told the story? How did the fact that you were a grown-up—in your mid-40s—when you wrote the book influence these concerns, if at all? When you teach nonfiction writing, what advice to you give your students about Telling All in relation to real people in their lives?

SBM: I don’t actually think of MDC as particularly disclosing; other shorter pieces I’ve written say more about my family or struggles with food or depression than appear here. MDC doesn’t even have as much sex in it as I’ve exposed elsewhere! The key difference for me in the writing was how to represent the men I was involved with, and I took this seriously. In my scholarly work with autobiography and disability studies, I’ve thought a lot about the ethics of life writing and the question of what responsibility we have (or don’t have) to protect the privacy and stories of others. We can’t write ourselves without writing the people who make us who we are—but how much of them do we reveal?

It was vital to me that MDC not seem to be making fun of anyone. Whatever my complaints were about the men I dated, I didn’t want humor to come at their expense. I’m meant to emerge as the culprit of my own unhappiness. I took practical steps, of course—changing names and identifying details, not quoting directly from actual emails—but mostly I tried to write each relationship knowing that my perspective is only my own.

One challenge for students writing memoir is that they typically have very little distance from the events they’re recounting. I tell them that we don’t always have enough perspective on recent experiences to be able to turn them into art. But we can only write where we are, after all, and I’ve been impressed by how much wisdom and insight young nonfictionists have about themselves and their lives. I explain that they have a choice to make about how much or how little to say about anyone else. They can Reveal All, unabashedly (I tell them a story about a friend who was dating a man who was utterly excoriated by his ex in a recent memoir), or they can let anyone they mention vet the manuscript before going public (à la Annie Dillard or Tobias Wolff). In a school workshop, of course, they can trust the confidentiality of the class, but I think it’s up to them to figure out the kind of memoirist they want to be.

Bloom: The online dating memoir is a relatively new genre; but are there any authors you consider influences for this work?  Do you think of the book as fitting into a current “genre,” or perhaps relating to a previous one?  How does its length—60 pages—figure in to genre?

SBM: I wouldn’t describe MDC as an “online dating memoir” for the same reason that I’m kind of sorry I put “comedy” in the title: it’s slightly misleading. I think of the work as a memoir of self-reckoning and the kinds of comeuppances we sometimes have to endure in order to recast our expectations about intimacy and love. I’ve probably learned more about nonfiction from writers of illness/pain/disability memoir—Mark Doty, Nancy Mairs, Sharon Cameron—and of short-form memoir (Jo Ann Beard, Ryan Van Meter, Eula Biss, Judy Ruiz) than any memoir of dating and romance—though Elizabeth Gilbert certainly was on my mind, and Cheryl Strayed’s essays about the entanglements of desire and grief have been instructive.

When I ended up with a 60-page “essay,” I assumed it was unpublishable. That’s why Kindle Single initially seemed so attractive: because Amazon markets the products sold there as written “at a length best-suited to the ideas they present.” I like the idea of form following content, though it does complicate the naming of genre.

Bloom: What were the greatest challenges in writing this story?

SBM: Finding the right structure was really hard, and other problems followed—tone, for example. When I was trying to write a certain kind of story (a funny book, say), my tone got wrenched and false. When I thought of myself as writing an essay, though, even if a long one, everything felt more natural, truer to the voice I recognize.

Bloom: What were some of the advantages and disadvantages of publishing it exclusively as a Kindle single?

SBM: The digital format has incredible benefits. From submission to acceptance to editing to publication at Kindle took just six months; I sold more copies of the story in one month than all my academic books combined in ten years (and MDC could be forever available online); and I’ve therefore also made more in royalties in half a year than I ever will with scholarly writing or publishing in literary journals. The exposure is simply huge compared to print.

Which is probably what I’ve also felt as the downside of digital. MDC is no more revelatory of my life and personality than anything else I’ve written, but it’s been read by many more people than subscribe to literary journals (and perhaps also a different kind of audience). The anonymous review feature of sites like Amazon or Goodreads invites people to be snarky, and though I did anticipate that not everyone would like the book and that some would feel emboldened to say so, I was not prepared for what it would feel like to read sometimes quite vicious opinions.

Bloom: Tell us about the title: you wrote here at Bloom that Match Dot Comedy is “a comedy of errors that explores the challenge of getting out of my own way in matters of the heart.” Amazon marketed and categorized the book as a comedy; but it’s also quite serious and at times sad, and some readers expressed in reviews that they felt misled and that it wasn’t what they expected.  What do you think is the disconnect here? Do you think perhaps there is a literary definition of “comedy” that is different from the commercial or mainstream definition?

SBM: This is a vexed issue. “Match Dot Comedy” popped into my head when I was recounting some bad date (or two or three) to a friend over email, where I find it easier to be “comic” in a conventional sense. It’s such an obviously right title, but probably not for the book I wrote, which I never intended to be a comedy, generically speaking (I’ve never been a “funny” writer). When I tried to sell the longer version, I changed the name to “Hopeful Lane,” which is both my actual street address and deeply ironic, given my temperament. But that seemed wrong in a different direction, too cheesy or sentimental. I really wanted to hold onto “Match Dot Comedy.” I suppose I thought it would have more market appeal, and I suppose I’ve been defending it in one way or another all along.

I was frustrated with Amazon for placing MDC in the “Humor” category at the Kindle store, though my editor there (who apparently finds parts of the story hilarious; he may be the only one) did try to reassure me that having front position was significant enough from a sales perspective to compensate for any annoyance readers would feel when they realized the thing was actually not so funny. The problem isn’t placement, ultimately; it’s expectation. If there’s any real disconnect at work, perhaps it’s less between title and content than between what some readers want from a book they think is about online dating and the story I wrote, which—to my mind—isn’t really “about” dating at all. I was in a hair salon years before I started this project where a woman was cracking up the entire shop with tales of truly hysterical bad dates (I remember something about obscene texts and a stolen pickup truck). I think that’s the kind of romance many anticipate, and they’re surprised by what they get: brooding introspection!

Bloom: You also wrote that this memoir is a “manifesto for the possibility of love.”  Do you tell all your frustrated single friends who are dating online to “keep at it”?

SBM: I don’t, because I don’t think the process should feel like work. What I liked about was how much fun it can be, but when it stops being fun, that’s the time to quit. I never wanted dating to be something I had to be consistent or determined about. What I do tell frustrated friends is simply to allow for possibility. The core story of MDC is how wrong I was about the must-haves and the deal-breakers. I stayed in relationships far too long because I was trying to ignore my own displeasure in the name of open-mindedness, but I also would never have married Michael if I’d held too fast to my “criteria.” I don’t think of the process as keeping at it so much as letting it be.

Bloom: In Monday’s feature, Alison Gazarek wrote about online dating as a process that is narrative by nature, and also about the significance of writing one’s online profile. How is online dating different for writers than it is for nonwriters?

SBM: Interesting question. I guess this comes down to the profile one writes and then any email exchange one has with potential dates. Naturally I tended to rule out people whose profiles were ungrammatical or verbally uninteresting, and I also “fell” for quite a few good email writers, often before I’d spoken to them by phone. If you care about language in a certain way, good email can be very intoxicating. That was actually one of the things I had to work my way out of, caring so much about how a person sounded on the page that I ignored red flags in person.

Bloom: You made an interesting comparison between Match Dot Comedy and Eat Pray Love: “One of my friends calls it ‘Eat, Fray, Love, self-exploration without the mysticism and Neopolitan pizza.” Elizabeth Gilbert wrote a sequel about the marriage that features as the happy ending to her book; is there anything you want to share about how things have evolved in your true-love story?  Is there a sequel or another memoir you’re thinking about?

SBM: Well, I did marry the man in the kilt—five years this July. Michael and I have joked that the sequel to MDC belongs to him—his version of events.

Bloom: Is there a question we haven’t asked that you want to answer?  If so, please feel free to both ask it and answer it.

SBM: None that I can think of. Thanks for this!


Click here to read Alison Gazarek’s feature piece on Match Dot Comedy.
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