Female friendships up close: Susanna Sonnenberg on her new memoir

Known for being “scrupulously unsentimental,” writer Susanna Sonnenberg has turned her sharp eye toward female friendships in the candid memoir “She Matters: A Life in Friendships.” The book, which comes to shelves Jan. 8, describes the missteps, delights, betrayals, and lasting psychological effects of friendships between women.

Sonnenberg is no stranger to astutely examining her most intimate relationships: “She Matters” follows “Her Last Death,” the acclaimed memoir that delved deep into Sonnenberg’s relationship with her charismatic and destructive mother. 

We had the pleasure of chatting with Sonnenberg about the process and challenges of writing an intimate memoir — as well as the emotional significance of the intense bonds between women. 

This is the second memoir you have written -- what drives your impulse toward memoir?

Memoir requires a rugged honesty of the self, which I feel is the only thing I have completely within my power — the truth of the self. Memoir appeals to me because it forces us to think about “truth” — each person has a different one — and about how the use of the self is a creative act.

How did your two experiences writing memoirs vary and in what ways were they similar? Did you find that one was more challenging to write?

"Her Last Death," my first book, was very difficult because in order to render the story of me and my mother with emotional accuracy I had to immerse myself in ancient pain. But it poured out. "She Matters," while not as treacherous in terrain, was trickier because it concerned a greater number of relationships, which demanded a different sort of balancing act for the book as a whole. I don’t think writing one book teaches you how to write others, though; each book is its own mad universe.

What is it about female relationships that intrigues you more than your relationships with the men in your life?

Women just get into it faster, more deliciously and with more clarity — or, rather, with the promise of clarity. Of course that’s a generalization, and I have dear, dear male friends, but my relationships with women have always been just more tightly entwined, more fluid and, I guess, more necessary. I wanted, too, to examine friendship as an emotional intensity that outlasts romantic love or sexual adoration. There’s no neat arc to the story of a friendship, as there is in the traditional story of two people falling in love. Nor is there an easy way to define the eroticism women share either, which, I think, exists, whether or not there’s a sexual connection.

“She Matters” gives a boldly honest account of intimate friendships. Did you feel uncomfortable revealing details about your friends?

Yes, I did. Confidences are crucial to friendship, so I knew when I started this book that that would be a significant challenge: How would I write about friendship, its passion and connection and conflicts, without betraying the very things that had defined and intensified our bonds in the first place? I disguised some identities and biographical details, and sometimes I just say to the reader, “I can’t tell you.”

The book includes both enduring friendships and those that lasted only a few months. Do you believe that these short-term friendships can be as important as longer ones?

I write about long, enduring friendships in this book, and I write about brief bright hot friendships at crucial times in my life. I wanted to write about the way certain people just stay inside us, never forgotten, even if it’s been decades, even if we only shared a brief moment. If you still remember, then something altering and devastating and crucial was in that moment. A person may have no sense at all she influenced you, or how she influenced you; she may have no memory of you, yet you remember her because something she did or said changed you, changed your path. In one chapter I write about an old friend who found me on Facebook. I was excited, as I’d never forgotten her although we only knew each other for the summer we were 11. The strange anti-climax of our present-day reunion got me thinking about the way a friendship can matter forever even when the friend no longer plays any role at all. I had held onto her for a reason.

Did you reconnect with friends to hear about their perspective with the friendships you describe? Or rather is the one-sidedness part of the joy of writing a memoir?

I don’t know if I would describe it as joy exactly, but one-sided, to use your word, is the way I write. I can only attest to this one version — my own — and so I can write it with some confidence. In one chapter, I write about a great friend who suddenly dumped me, much to my shock and confusion. No two people, I realized then, are ever experiencing a mutual relationship in the same way, with the same needs, the same agendas. I write about a friendship with a college roommate who taught me my first early lessons in being a socially responsible person and woman. Years later I discover that the importance for me of that friendship was very different from the role it played in her development.

Did they know you would be writing a memoir in which they were featured? How did they feel about it?

I don’t talk much about my work when I’m writing. I have to be protective, let it evolve. Once you become conscious of others, you can’t write properly. You write out of a sense of duty. When the book was in its last draft, I did tell the current friends who were in the book. They were curious, maybe a little apprehensive. I hope they feel the great love in these portraits as well as the honest -- and mutual -- ambivalences, the difficulties, the complexities. 

Throughout the process of writing the book, did you turn to female friendships in literature for inspiration?

I set out to write a memoir of friendships rather than a treatise on friendship. I certainly thought a lot about friendship while writing “She Matters,” but I wanted to avoid “studying” it. I’m more interested in its sensations, its impression. After I’d finished the book, I read Elena Ferrante’s “My Brilliant Friend,” which is the most acute and tantalizing and invigorating portrait of a friendship between two girls that I can think of. Ferrante gets at the darker elements of girls’ friendship -- competitiveness, sexual jealousy, and symbiosis as well as the harrowing intimacy, the potential for betrayal, and the long unfurling history of shared experience. I admire Ferrante because she’s utterly unafraid. Otherwise, in the literature or film I can think of, women’s friendships tend to be idealized and sanitized or deceptive and two-faced, one false end of the spectrum or the other. I chose to write about many friendships, rather than one, because I wanted to investigate the huge scope in our relationships with our friends. I myself am not just one friend, not the same friend, to each person. Each friendship speaks to a different part of me and has its own language.

Copyright © 2016, Los Angeles Times
52°