Q and A with Peggy Shinner, Author of You Feel So Mortal
Tell us a little about You Feel So Mortal.
The book is a collection of essays about the body: my own body, female and Jewish; my parents, the bodies I came from; and the collective body, with all the cultural, historical, and political implications it brings to bear. “Family Feet,” for example, takes a look at feet through the often-skewed lens of history, and discovers that my flat-footed specimens are, according to some, decidedly and disturbingly Jewish. “Post-Mortem,” considers my father's autopsy and asks what it means to cut the body open. "Berenice's Hair" is a time-trip through myth and history, looking at women's hair from ancient Rome to present-day India, with stops in Laos, France, Cuba and my own past along the way. Various thematic notes sound throughout. The body as proxy for the soul. The body as trangressive and transgressed. What does it mean to live in this body? And what does it mean to leave it behind?
You wrote a number of essays about your family members, especially your parents. What were the challenges and pleasures of this experience? The biggest challenge in writing about my parents was grappling with who they were. I think as children we often think we own our parents--that our experience of them encompasses their lives. But of course they're not exclusively ours. So in "Leopold and Shinner," for instance, which is an investigation of my mother's relationship with "thrill kill" murderer Nathan Leopold who, along with his lover, Richard Loeb, bludgeoned a fourteen-year boy to death in 1924, I encountered a woman who wrote a letter in support of his parole. This was my mother, a woman I thought I knew.
And yet everything I knew about her would have never indicated that she'd write such a letter. She wasn't civic-minded. She wasn't politically involved, although, when she was pregnant with me she watched the HUAC hearings on TV. In 1957, when she wrote this letter, who was she? Why did she do it? She was long dead as I asked these questions and they form a kind of dialogue between us, but they are also a dialogue with the forces that shaped her. Did she support him because he was Jewish? Did his Jewishness make him, if not less guilty, more redeemable? Did she ignore his homosexuality much the way he did in the later years of his life? The questions are a search for evidence but there is no evidence, only speculation.
The pleasure in writing about my parents is that they were often my companions.
Chicago has a big presence in YFSM and you've lived here for much of your life. Are there other books about Chicago or by Chicago writers that have had a big influence on YFSM?
I don't think of myself as a place-based writer, Chicago is just part of the background noise. Always there. This past summer I read Sasha Hemon's The Book of My Lives, which is, in part, the story of his two cities, and he says that he made Chicago his own by walking it. Block by block, that's how it entered his being. I made Chicago my own through public transportation, through trips downtown by myself when I was ten years old, at a time when parents would think nothing of letting their kid get on the EL and go shopping at Marshall Field's. I'd look out the window of the train and see worlds go by, and those passing shots became part of an internal landscape.
You did quite a bit of research for many of these essays; how do you balance writing with the research? Does the research sometimes take over? Or do you always look forward to getting the writing done?
I think of research as a fishing expedition, although I've never gone fishing! Throw in the net and see what you bring up. I'm always looking for the odd or curious tidbit, something that shimmers, if only for me. I may have certain questions--what did Milton Berle have to say about his nose job, for instance (he was so happy with it he gave nose jobs as presents to friends who subsequently dubbed him Santa Schnozo) or in what context was the debutante slouch seen as a symbol of rebellion?--and then follow the trail from there. The essays are research based but not research-driven. If a certain line of inquiry is a dead end , I'll drop it, although often reluctantly. And at some point I know it's time to get down to business--the expedition has become an avoidance--and start writing.
What's next? (i.e. are you working on a new book and will you tell us about it?) I'll throw out a few subjects occupying my mind right now--bikinis, the Heel String Gang, nose slitting--and leave it at that.
Martial arts has had a profound influence on your life. Has it also influenced your writing and what you choose to write about?
In a sense, my martial arts practice provided a frame for these essays. I wrote most of the book while I was studying and teaching karate, and when you’re punching and kicking on a daily basis you have a heightened awareness of your body. There’s a certain kind of body check-in that you do, conscious and unconscious. That awareness undoubtedly filtered into the book. There’s also something about the methodology of the martial arts that translates to writing. Karate is a highly repetitious practice. You do the same techniques over and over again. A hundred backfists in a single class. There’s discipline and there’s drudgery. My love of the martial arts derived from the dialectic of those two attributes. And I think the same thing is true of writing. It requires a studied discipline, out of which comes both dreariness and delight. Put the comma in, take the comma out, as Flaubert so famously said. This is how you develop a “writer’s callus.”
Can you talk about the title of your book, You Feel So Mortal?
Well, what is the body but a mass of skin and bone and muscle and sinew and systems. The whole enterprise is tough, amazing, fragile, and transitory. There are so many things, over the course of a lifetime, we do to the body--decorate, alter, arouse, feed, exert, nurse, curse, cut, sew, and abuse it. It’s how we meet and apprehend the world. And then the whole adventure’s over, and we leave it behind. The phrase itself, “you feel so mortal,” came from a line I’ve since discarded in one of essays. The title is what remains.