Flyleaf Books will host author Susan Harlan to discuss her book, “Luggage,” on Wednesday at 7 p.m. The book is part of the Object Lessons series, a collection of books that explore the hidden lives of ordinary things. Harlan is an associate professor of English at Wake Forest University. Staff writer Jackson Byrne talked to Harlan about her writing process for "Luggage."
The Daily Tar Heel: Could you tell me a little bit about your book “Luggage” and what it’s about?
Susan Harlan: I am an English professor. I’ve been at Wake Forest for eight years, and my scholarship centers on material culture in Renaissance England, so I write a lot about masculinity and militarism, and the material world of war in the 16th and 17th centuries in England — and my academic focus on armor. But I found over the last couple of years that, while I really like writing about objects and I really enjoy writing about objects academically, I kind of wanted to take a different approach at this point and write a different kind of book.
I travel a lot, and I drive around the South a lot with my dog, and I do a lot of road trips — and I find that over the years, I got to thinking about luggage and about the things we bring with us, and we leave home and why. By that I mean both the actual containers and also the things we choose to put in the containers — because I feel like when we use the word “luggage,” we’re kind of referring to both of those things.
I’m a collector, and I actually have a collection of vintage luggage. It's one of the many collections I’ve amassed over the years. So, the interest was also kind of personal, and I wanted the book to move back and forth between literary representations of luggage, movies, personal experience, and just be a little bit like a packed suitcase. Honestly, that’s the way I’m kind of thinking about it.
DTH: I know you mentioned your own luggage collection and your own experiences traveling. Would you say that your personal world is something you draw from a lot in your writing?
SH: I definitely did want the book to be personal, and the Object Lesson series has a personal bent. As a series, the books all have some things in common I think, but the editors also give you enough space to take your own approach. And so the place of the personal varies a little bit from book to book, but I knew that I wanted that to be part of it, and that part of the appeal of the subject for me was definitely personal, and not just intellectual. The personal and professional are often more tied up in each other than a lot of English professors will even admit.
DTH: Did combining the personal and intellectual present any challenges?
SH: I have to say that I really enjoyed this. It didn’t really feel like a challenge to me. It felt really natural. There are definitely challenges in writing in different ways and switching back and forth between different modes, but for me, writing the book with kind of a personal voice wasn’t a challenge. That was exactly what felt right. And I think that even writing about books in the book, it’s a personal close reading, not a more distant academic kind of close reading — and that I think is also pretty typical of a lot of the essays I’ve written where I wanted to work with something.
DTH: Do you have any advice for aspiring young writers reading the book?
SH: I can only say what really works for me, and I think there’s a lot of variety in terms of what works for writers. But for me, I would say working really consistently is incredibly important. I stay in a mode, dedicating time every day to writing — or if you can’t every day, as close to every day as possible — even if that’s just getting a couple of things down. I think that kind of consistency is really important.
In terms of thinking about subject matter, I tend to write about things I either really love or hate. The “Luggage” book falls squarely in the category of things I really love. I write a lot of satire. I write feminist satire and I write academic satire, and that work tends to be more about things that make me really mad. I think that writing is kind of working with anger, and working with frustration and that sort of thing. I think for writers, something that’s really hard to figure out is what they want to write about, and so for me it tends to follow along the lines of things that are really important for me, things I really love or things that make me really angry and really frustrated.
I would say "don’t fear rejection" would be the last bit of advice. I’m so used to rejection. As an academic, you just become absolutely accustomed to it. But rejection is a part of writing, and the more you’re getting rejected, that means you’re putting yourself out there, so it’s actually kind of good if you’re getting rejections. And when you get them, just turn around and send it out somewhere else, or sit down with a friend whose opinion you trust and value and see if there are edits that can be made — but definitely don’t be discouraged by that, because it’s a very competitive world. And I think that a lot of writers who do well are very tenacious, and aren’t easily discouraged, so I think it’s important to be okay with getting rejected.
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