Suzanne Roberts is a travel writer, memoirist, and poet from South Lake Tahoe whose award-winning work includes Almost Somewhere: Twenty-Eight Days on the John Muir Trail and Bad Tourist: Misadventures in Love and Travel. Her most recent book, animal bodies: On Death, Desire, and Other Difficulties, is a collection of essays that span from abortion to difficult friendships to the deaths of her parents. 

Enjoy our conversation about how the environment influences Roberts’ work, why she decided to tell the story of her own abortion, and writing for an audience.

Suzanne Roberts

Claire Carlson (The Sierra Nevada Ally): animal bodies is split into three sections: death, desire, and other difficulties. Can you describe how this organization influenced your storytelling? Did the decision to split up the book this way come before or after you decided what to write and which essays to include in this collection?

Suzanne Roberts: Actually, it’s the other way around: the storytelling influenced the organization. I had arranged the essays nearly exactly the way they appear in the book and then had a look at what was there, and the three sections made sense. And I wish I was the kind of writer who decided what to write for each book; instead, I tell the stories as they come to the surface and then see what I have. There are a few essays in Animal Bodies that were originally meant for Bad Tourist, but they either didn’t fit in that collection (it’s a book about travel, among other things) or they just weren’t ready in time (Bad Tourist came out in 2020).

CC: Abortion is a big topic in animal bodies, addressed in essays in all three sections of the book. What was important to you about sharing the story of your abortion, especially at the beginning of the book? 

SR: I wish that abortion was like any other aspect of women’s healthcare, something that doesn’t concern anyone else. Unfortunately, abortion has become a public issue, instead of a private one. I do not believe an embryo or a fetus is a person, so having an abortion is not unethical. Forcing women to carry out pregnancies and give birth is the ethical problem here—banning abortion denies women fundamental human rights but also implies that having an abortion is shameful. Staying quiet leads to even more shame, and that’s not the world I want to live in. I realized that if I broke my own silence with my own story, I might give permission to others to do the same. “The Same Story” (the essay at the beginning of Animal Bodies) is in the “Death” section because it deals with the death of my father and my own grief. It needs to come early in the book because other essays about grief build on it. Also, that essay explores why we women sometimes turn against each other out of insecurity, setting up other threads in the book about female identity and female friendships.

CC: While not always the main focus of each essay, location and the environment around you seem to play a pivotal role in each story. In what way does the environment influence your writing? 

SR: The novelist Elizabeth Bowen says, “Nothing can happen nowhere,” meaning our stories are always tied to place. As a travel writer, I’m probably even more attuned to my surroundings, whether I’m at home or away. I’m just really interested in the details of place wherever I am. If I see a butterfly or a bird or a turtle, I have to look it up, find out more. I had someone ask about the metaphor of the birds in the essay “Becoming Bird,” and I told her, the birds aren’t a metaphor; the birds are birds.

Place is so important to me that I spent several years living separately from my husband because I didn’t want to leave the Sierra. Sense of place is foregrounded in my earlier memoirs (Almost Somewhere is about hiking California’s John Muir Trail and Bad Tourist is about international and outdoor travel) whereas in Animal Bodies, I wanted to balance the internal landscapes with the outer world.

CC: You talk about Trump, Brett Kavanaugh’s Supreme Court nomination, climate change, wildfires, and the coronavirus pandemic directly and indirectly in several essays, all while maintaining a strong personal narrative throughout. How do you balance talking about what’s happening in the world around you and what’s happening within? How do these two worlds relate to each other? 

SR: I never thought of myself as a political writer; I thought I was writing personal narratives, but all of my stories are, in fact, political because everything is political. What it means to grow up as a girl and a woman in a patriarchal society is political. Writing about nature and the environment is more political than ever, because of what’s going on around us—the changing climate, drought, wildfires, the pandemic—and that affects all of our lives in very personal ways. Wanting to save our planet for future generations should unite us and not divide us; that should be something we are all working together on, but unfortunately, it isn’t. When people tell you that they aren’t political or don’t want to talk about politics, what they’re really saying is that they want to maintain the status quo, which is not only a deeply political act but a deceptive one.

CC: This book covers a lot of relationships, but the one you always return to is with your mother. In the book’s last section, you say that you try not to write with the audience in mind, but when your mother was alive, you couldn’t help but think about her reading your work once it was published because she was, in your own words, the “president of [your] fan club.” Did knowing this ever change your writing, and have you noticed a change in your writing after her death?

SR: It’s true! My mother always makes her way into my stories, even when I’m not expecting it. And it’s also true that during the drafting phase of anything, I imagine no one will read it, but as I revise something, I often think of my mother reading it. And that hasn’t changed since she died; she is still my audience because even if she isn’t here physically reading my books anymore, I can always hear her voice in my head and know exactly what she would say. In many ways, “Words Etched into Skin” is a conversation with her voice in my head. I hear people saying they can’t write this or that until their parents die, but I pushed the boundary of what my mother would accept when she was alive, and I don’t think I’m pushing past that boundary now that she’s gone.

CC: Lastly, what have you been reading lately?

SR: I’m currently reading Al Heathcock’s new book 40, a speculative, post-apocalyptic novel, and I just finished Kathryn Miles’ Trailed: One Woman’s Quest to Solve the Shenandoah Murders, a work of true crime about the unsolved Shenandoah murders. While neither of these books are in my usual genre go-tos, I loved them both and highly recommend them. I’ve also just reread bell hooks’ Teaching Community: A Pedagogy of Hope with my MFA students. It’s a smart and necessary book that all teachers and future teachers should read.

animal bodies can be purchased online directly from the University of Nebraska Press – Lincoln or from Sundance Books and Music.

Claire Carlson writes about conservation and the environment for Sierra Nevada Ally and for various other publications. She has a bachelor’s degree from the University of Nevada, Reno in International Affairs and a master’s from the University of Montana in Environmental Studies, where she focused on environmental writing. Support her work for the Sierra Nevada Ally.

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