Jenn Shapland on ‘My Autobiography of Carson McCullers’ and Uncovering Queer Identities

Jenn Shapland knew she had stumbled upon something remarkable when she discovered letters between writer Carson McCullers and photographer and journalist Annemarie Schwarzenbach. The two women had been friends — that was no secret — and yet the letters suggested an intimacy that went beyond anything platonic.

Shapland, who at the time was working as an intern in the archives of the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas, Austin, knew that McCullers was, in a way, a representative of the “other” in society. Misfits and outcasts often feature prominently in her novels, short stories, poems, and more. Perhaps this “otherness” came from McCullers’s struggle with chronic, debilitating illness; she suffered from her first stroke at the age of 24, was partially paralyzed by 30, and died from a stroke in 1967 at the age of 50.

But perhaps it was McCullers’s sexuality — stifled, kept secret — that had helped imbue her work with the perspective of someone on the outside, someone grappling with the life she has and the life she wishes for. Shapland, who was then coming to terms with her own sexual identity, sensed there was more to uncover. 

“Biographers usually seek to fill in gaps, to add narrative to strict chronology, to render a person’s life so that it reads like a nineteenth-century novel,” Shapland writes in My Autobiography of Carson McCullers. “But Carson’s life is not an unwritten story. Rather, it is a story that has been written over, revised, and adjusted to suit various people’s needs. The more I read and researched, the more I began to question the versions of her life that exist and continue to circulate.”

And the more Shapland discovered about McCullers, the more she also discovered about herself.

You mention early on in your book that though you’d always been drawn to McCullers’s work, you hadn’t actually read any of it when you came across her letters. This was a refreshingly honest confession. What were some of those first moments like for you when you began to realize you had stumbled upon something really compelling?

The letters from Annemarie Schwarzenbach to Carson McCullers that I came upon in the Ransom Center’s manuscript collection were so frank and passionate. But what really drew me in was the way they toggled between the women’s relationship and their work. It was clear that both women were writers engaged in lifelong creative practice, and their relationship offered support and validation of that work in a world that may not have valued it as they did. I had my own similar relationships with women and with writing, but I had never seen those conversations represented outside my own experience. Parts of my life that had for a long time felt like fantasy suddenly felt both real and somehow historical.

What did you read first, while you were careful to avoid folding down the corners in the first editions you found at the Ransom Center, and did you immediately get a sense that you would write a book about this whole experience?

I have this distinct memory of standing on a ladder in my kitchen, which I was painting mint green, the summer after I found the letters, listening to Karen Russell read “The Jockey,” a McCullers story, on the New Yorker Fiction Podcast. I was frozen, paint probably dripping on the floor, unable to do anything but listen to every word. Each of her books and stories was a revelation for me at the time, and I was drawn to the emotional landscapes she created as much as I was captivated by the unlikely people and scenarios she depicted. Reading Reflections in a Golden Eye for the first time was absolutely shocking. Garden shears! My god. Few things I’ve read surprise me like her work. I didn’t immediately get a sense that I would write a book (I was supposed to be working on my entirely unrelated dissertation); I immediately needed to read everything she’d written and everything that had been written about her.

Your book is organized into brief chapters, and within those chapters are short, stand-alone paragraphs that toggle between your life, the life of Carson McCullers, and moments when you are making sense of the information you discover. Why did you decide to structure your content this way? Did the concept of the book change much while you were working on it?

The early stages of writing took the form of short responses to the items that I was cataloging at the Ransom Center, Carson’s nightgowns and other personal effects. I had so many questions for these objects, so much more about her that they revealed and so many mysteries they suggested. I had a few of these, five or six, early on, but no idea what they were: individual pieces? The beginning of an essay? It was much later that I realized these pieces were the spine of the book, and I had to figure out how to get from one to the next to tell the story I was trying to tell. In these first fragments, I was in the frame as the person observing and questioning the objects, but I resisted including my own life in detail for a long time. Eventually I saw that the only way around the frustrating omniscience of biography and the major absences and gaps in Carson’s story was to make my perspective and my voice adamant throughout, so the reader could always see and question the writer who was doing the arranging and interpreting.

Soon after diving into your research, you cut your hair short and you began to really embrace your own identity as a lesbian, using that term for the first time. In what ways has McCullers continued to influence your identity on a personal level?

McCullers was so frank and unabashed and willing to be who she was at a time when others really resented her for it. So I think she’s made me less willing to hide, more open and defiant. Less concerned with being liked or thought of as good, and more comfortable being myself.

You now teach at the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe. Has Carson McCullers influenced you as a teacher?

I’ve taught as an adjunct at IAIA, a fantastic school, for several years, though I’m not currently teaching (book tour travel made that impossible). I don’t know that Carson ever taught, and, oddly, I’ve never taught her work! I usually teach a creative nonfiction workshop, and something like poetry or world fiction or plays. The reading and thinking I did while writing the book come into my approach to teaching nonfiction. I talk a lot about radical subjectivity and life writing.

McCullers is often described as a representative of misfits, someone who wrote a lot about social outcasts. Joyce Carol Oates has called McCullers the “poet of freakiness.” What do you think about these kinds of characterizations? Do you think her work resonates with a lot of people today who might see themselves as “other”?

I wish I’d recalled that JCO line; it would have made a great chapter title. McCullers’s fiction is all about people who feel themselves to be outside a community or situation. Their outsiderness is always a combination of things: it might be queerness, but also class consciousness, as in Frankie in Member of the Wedding; it might be queerness and disability, like John Singer in The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter; it might be old age, illness, and a rapidly changing world, like J. T. Malone in Clock without Hands. The outsiderness is never just one thing and can’t be reduced even to the terms I’ve just used. But because of that, it takes on this universal sense that I think a lot of readers of all stripes relate to. Being an outsider is a fundamental human experience.

You began to regularly visit the archives at Columbus State University after transcripts were discovered there in 2014 of therapy sessions between McCullers and Dr. Mary Mercer. You describe how your interactions with the archivist always felt tense, and you wonder whether this tension possibly came from “…just my queer researcher’s paranoia talking.” Can you speak more to this feeling and your experience as a researcher handling what some might think of as scandalous or controversial material? Had you encountered this kind of tension in academia before?

Since I had recently interned at a major archive, I was aware of all the rules and idiosyncrasies and protocol that can make archives intimidating. I also knew that as a person working in an archive, there’s a sense of protectiveness that you start to feel about the objects in your care. So, I think it’s possible I projected a lot onto the situation, now that I was on the other side of the desk. But it also seemed odd to me that these transcripts hadn’t really been written about, and that they’d been held back from the public. Of course, the archivist wasn’t going to let me in on any state secrets; I was a stranger. This same tension played itself out at the Ransom Center over and over. Sometimes patrons wanted to pick my brain about collections, but more often I was running around chasing rumors I’d heard about theft or censorship. My first big essay was about this; it’s called “Finders, Keepers.” 

“Historians demand proof from queer love stories that they never require of straight stories,” you write, adding later, “Women are straight unless they give themselves away.” And yet, as you note, even when such proof, whatever that may be, is uncovered, it can be censored or outright destroyed. Or perhaps just glossed over. You bring up Eleanor Roosevelt and her romantic relationship with reporter Lorena Hickok. How important is it, do you think, to dig into history and bring queer history into light? What responsibility does the archivist or researcher have to widely share information that challenges what’s understood or accepted about a particular subject?

It felt imperative to me throughout the writing and publishing process for the book to share this history, but it wasn’t until the book came out and I toured the country that I really understood the value of that work. People came up to me in Athens, Georgia, in Asheville, North Carolina, in Chicago, in every city and told me that this was a story they’d been waiting for, whether they were lifelong Carson McCullers readers or had never heard of her before this book. Just as I had felt seen and made real by those letters, other people were able to feel seen and made real by this version of Carson’s queer life.

During your second year as an intern at the Ransom Center, you were assigned to work on organizing the clothing and other personal items of several authors, including Carson McCullers. You write: “Years into this tunnel of research, I’ve solved the mystery of [her] collection of nightgowns and coats: she was a sick person. She wore, predominantly, nightgowns, and often put a beautiful coat over them in photos.” This is such a moving realization. Is there anything else from McCullers’s clothing collection that really stood out to you?

The woman loved a vest! 

If you had to choose an outfit or a particular article of clothing that best represents you now, what would it be?

A scrunchie. 

You discover over the course of your research that you can relate to McCullers in many ways, including sharing the experience of having a chronic illness. Is there anything else, perhaps something very small that didn’t make its way into the book, that you found that connected you to her?

Lots of small echoes surfaced when I was deep into the research for the book: the time McCullers left her overall shorts at Yaddo, which sounds like something I would wear and do; the way her mother tried to make her look feminine and dainty, and the way she defied this when choosing her own clothes; her sense of humor and self-deprecation; her friendships that shaped her life; her utter blindness to her own longings, her naivete about queerness. All of these things felt eerily close to home. But of course, I am only one of many readers who feels this affinity with McCullers. 

NONFICTION
My Autobiography of Carson McCullers
By Jenn Shapland
Tin House Books
Published February 4, 2020