Sarah Rose Etter is the author of The Book of X, her debut novel, which is available from Two Dollar Radio. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in The Cut, Electric Literature, Guernica, VICE, New York Tyrant, The Collagist, and more. She is the co-founder of the TireFire Reading Series, and a contributing editor at The Fanzine. She has been awarded residences at Disquiet International program in Portugal and the Gullkistan Writing Residency in Iceland.
In her recently released novel, The Book of X, author Sarah Rose Etter weaves the tale of Cassie, a woman who is born with her torso twisted into a knot, a trait inherited from her foremothers. Oscillating between Cassie’s visions of a surreal life and scenes from her stark reality, Etter’s poetic prose carves out a portrait of what it is like to walk through the world as a young woman. From excavating her family’s meat quarry to battling childhood crushes and the weariness of being a working adult, Etter walks her readers through some of the most pivotal, and painful, moments in Cassie’s life.
Michelle Ajodah: The phrase “stomach twisting into knots” comes to mind easily while reading The Book of X. Similar to the discomfort that saying conveys, you show us a lot of the ways the world makes Cassie feel unsettled or uncomfortable, especially as a young woman. Was that part of the inspiration for this element of the story? How did that image of her body twisted into a knot at the story’s center first come to you?
Sarah Rose Etter: It was really the first line that came to me—I was born a knot like my mother and her mother before her. Once I had that line, it became a challenge of creating a world where a woman like that would exist. Since she was knotted, it gave me all sorts of liberties to create a world similar to ours but uncanny enough to blur the line. I wanted the book to read like a hallucination.
The real inspiration was probably, subconsciously, a sculpture by Louise Bourgeois of a woman twisted up. Looking back on it, I believe that had a real impact on me and probably led to this book.
MA: You play a lot with form in this novel, alternating between short and evocative paragraphs of prose, bulleted lists of facts, and Cassie’s visions. Do those forms come naturally to you or did they follow this particular story?
SRE: I was working with very short sections when I first started drafting—I wrote each scene on a single page in Scrivener, and then used that program to organize everything so it flowed. Since we’re in a world where attention spans are shorter than ever, I was definitely trying to create a novel that was compulsively readable—as a writer, you want to give no one a reason to put down the book and text a friend or watch TV. You have to really capture their attention and refuse to let go. I thought of this novel as an episodic, textured book that was as knotted as the main character. I also was really using these styles to hold up the entire narrative—it was a way to space out Cassie’s trauma so the reader didn’t become overwhelmed by how absolutely devastating her life is. The hope was that by giving her trauma some breathing room for the reader, they might find it somehow beautiful and touching.
MA: I was particularly struck by the visions, which achieved the feat of being a full immersion into Cassie’s inner world and imagination. These surreal visions show, among other things, Cassie crafting an idealized version of her life or twisting some of her experiences to understand them better. How did you decide to tell part of the story like this? What was it like bending the rules of this world to create those visions?
SRE: For a character like this, you really have to offer her some kind of escape, right? Otherwise, her life is so tragic that it is unbearable for the reader and for the character. I remember reading The Art of Cruelty by Maggie Nelson, which is an exploration of cruelty in art and takes a look at exactly how cruel art can be before the viewer just shuts down and it becomes spectacle. I think that was important here—without the visions and the facts, her life is so sad that it might read almost as farce or force the reader to shut it out. To me, the visions begin as an escape for her but as her world collapses, they soon turn on her, as well.
MA: What was the research process to compile the lists of facts for this novel like?
SRE: I’m a huge science nerd—I’m pretty much always watching Planet Earth or Blue Planet at any given moment. I had also been doing a lot of research about trauma’s impact on the body after a spinal surgery I had. I read a book called The Body Keeps The Score, which really takes an in-depth look at how trauma impacts the way the brain functions and how it changes the body and the brain forever. For Cassie, someone who is grasping to make sense of the world, the facts serve as a form of grounding—and underscore how much she desperately wants to understand her own suffering.
Writing the facts was a lot easier than it would have been without the Internet, obviously. I spent a lot of time checking and re-checking and revising the facts to keep them on point. In a way, it was one of the most fun parts of writing the book—I had source material, and I could make the facts poetic and find ways to weave them into the narrative in a way that I hope was impactful. I tried to build in a small arc for each list of facts, too.
MA: There are a lot of connections between body and land made throughout the book, especially with the images of the meat quarry. Was that correlation always an important part of the story for you as you were writing?
SRE: Writing this book was really an organic, sort of subconscious experience for me. While I was thinking about Cassie’s knot, I was also thinking about what sort of world she would exist in—and the meat quarry just happened. I wanted her brother and her father to have jobs that felt timeless and not tied to any type of technology. I also thought the first section of the book needed to be the most bizarre in some ways—I liked the idea that her life began in a fantastic way, and then she’d just have to go out into the regular world. I thought the sharp contrast between her childhood and how she operated in an office would work well. The meat, to me, was more a representation of a type of capitalism—it worked to distinguish the country from the city, in a way, and to show how those two worlds are at odds.
MA: You wrote the first draft of this novel at the Gullkistan Residency in Iceland. What effect did that experience have on the novel and your writing process?
SRE: I’m a working writer. I’ve always had a full-time job. When I got the residency, most people were like: Why would you need to take off time to write? Why go to Iceland of all places? But I went there and applied my day job work ethic to writing. I wrote and I wrote and I wrote and I barely spoke to anyone and I spent time in nature and then I wrote some more. People always tell you to write on nights and weekends. But I’d argue this book would not exist without those thirty days of straight attention. I got to exist in this world for that long, and this is what I came back with. I can’t wait to go write another one now.