The Bookshelf: Essayist Kirsti Sandy on Work, Finding Ones Place

Nov 12, 2018

In Kirsti Sandy's new collection of essays, She Lived, and Other Girls Died, there are stories of family and work....of Sandy's search for her own place, and of the people she met along the way. She spoke with NHPR's Peter Biello about the book, which won Bauhan Publishing's 2017 Monadnock Essay Collection Prize, in her office at Keene State College. 

Kirsti Sandy's Top Five Reading Recommendations

1.   An American Tragedy by Theodore Dreiser. "This book, based on the 1906 murder of Grace Brown in the Adirondacks, continues to resonate. Gatsby was published in the same year, and while both books feature social hierarchies, men who strive for wealth and privilege, and the women who fall victim to this striving, Dreiser’s book for me is the more complex and haunting. We can both understand and detest Clyde Griffiths and we are complicit in what created him. In this book, the past is always something to escape, to bury, but it always catches up with you." 

2.   Infrastructures by Elizabeth Hatmaker. "The poet finished this collection just as she was dying of ALS at age 44, a condition she does not address directly in the book except through metaphors of radio transmissions, film scores, and the Illinois highway system. Hatmaker is profane, funny, and brilliant, but the book has surprising heart and compassion—there is no ironic enjoyment, but pure pleasure, and desire, in her love of true crime, erotic Chicago-suburban couples hotels, 1970s made-for-TV-movies, and 1940s Hollywood."

3.   The Fire Next Time by James Baldwin. "In this book, which contains two longer essays, Baldwin poses the question: 'Do I really want to be integrated into a burning house?' Fast forward to 2018, and it’s still burning, and this book speaks to our present-day political climate in ways that will surprise you. Baldwin is furious, scathing, honest, and eloquent in his arguments, every line is beautiful, and when you finish it you will want to tell everyone you know to read it.  Trust me on this."

4.   The Boys of my Youth by Joanne Beard. "This is the book that made me realize that you could write a nonfiction essay that reads just like a short story. I love every essay in this book; Beard can be hilariously funny, as when she tells the story of her mother accidentally tossing out her favorite doll, or quietly raging, as when she chronicles her divorce, or processing trauma, in the longest essay in the book, about surviving a workplace shooting. But for me this book is the perfect pairing of voice and form."

5.   Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert. "I first read this book when I was sixteen, and I wrote a paper on it in high school, when a boy in my class questioned why or how I could at all empathize with Emma Bovary, who was delusional, after all, plus an adulterer with poor taste in books on top of it (he doesn’t remember this conversation, so perhaps I exaggerate.) Yet reading it again as an adult I am struck with how much Emma’s reading shapes her desires and, ultimately, the choices she makes that we know are doomed to disappoint her. Isn’t everything so much bigger and better in books? This is a story for every bibliophile’s reading list, even though it doesn’t end well. Emma Bovary, c’est moi."

Let's start by talking a little bit about work, because there's so much work here in this book—essays that feature you working a young person in college, at a Dairy Queen, as a pancake house waitress, at the mall. Now you’re a Dean and a teacher here at Keene State College. How does your experience working those kinds of jobs years ago influence the way you think about work now?

When I was writing the book, and then when I was rereading it again, one of the common themes was: Why did I keep doing this job even though I didn't love it, even though no one was watching me? Even though we could have gotten away with so much, there's this work ethic that runs through the book. You know you have this job you have to do and you have to do it. And that resonates a lot.

I'm in administration right now so it's not a natural fit for me. I see myself as a teacher. I really miss teaching. In fact I try to find any opportunity I can to sneak in and teach people if I can. And this job has a lot of paperwork and a lot of dealing with complaints and things like that. But I it was instilled in me from a really early age you know you have this job to do and you do it. So I've had a job since I was as you can see in the book because I started babysitting at 11 or 12 so I don't think there was a time I didn't have a job between then and now.

Where does that work ethic come from? Does it come from the place you grew up in? Does it come from Lowell, Massachusetts or does it come specifically from your family or is that maybe a combination of the two?

I think it's both. I really do. Both of my grandmothers worked hard all their lives. One of my grandmothers had a seventh grade education. The other think a fifth grade education. So they really didn't have a choice but they worked pretty much up until they died. My parents were always really strict about that. They were like, “You know you're not going to hang out here and not contribute. That's not going to happen. You're not can be a freeloader.” And I saw my parents both of them work really, really hard to get where they are. My father was basically a homeless teenager and now he has a Ph.D. So to see that trajectory and what education allowed him to be able to do with his life and his just will to do it, it sort of makes not being industrious not an option. I don't have an excuse. He would have my mom would have. But they didn't use that and they really they just decided they wanted to make something of themselves so I think their example helped. And I saw that example all around me in Lowell. It’s a hard-working city.

I want to ask about David Foster Wallace since you mentioned him and the publicity that Bauhan publishing sent me for this book. He was a teacher of yours. He died by suicide about a decade ago. What do you feel like you learned from him about writing essays?

I learned so much from him. I know that he's a controversial figure right now and I've read what Mary Karr has written and I understand and I do see these two contradictory things. I see how this could have happened.

Listeners may not be familiar, so to summarize, he had a really bad record of treating women very well. Attribute that to what you will—whether it's just his personality or mental illness. But there you have it. That's why he's a controversial figure.

I did see in some of the classes that I had with him how he would sometimes be a little bit meaner to some of the women who are men. And there's all of that. But as a teacher of nonfiction and fiction (I had him for some fiction classes) he was incredibly attentive to my work and to everybody's work. I mean he would get on these things with language. So paying attention to every line, every sentence, every turn of phrase—that you could be really casual in your language but still be completely grammatical, that you could write a page-long sentence and have it work beautifully. I learned how to do that, how to craft that from him.

Secondly, he always would say “good and bad questions.” So he'd be reading something and he might say, “Yeah, as I'm reading this, I'm thinking this about the narrator and this is a bad question for me to ask. This means you haven't dealt with this. A good question is, wow, you made me think about this and this and this.”

But he would sometimes insert himself into the narrative. There was just one story I wrote about a breakup that he loved. It was actually based on a very real breakup that I had with my now husband but David said to me: “This narrator, she's real doormat.” And he went on and on about his own situation. I'm not saying he would use these as therapy but it was a way for him to kind of work through some stuff he was dealing with and so he would sit there engage and talk with you about what was going on in a way that I just don't think is very typical, especially of writers who have really made it and are still teaching. He was so invested. It's amazing to me.